The afternoon of 3oth June I had the pleasure of seeing The Askew Sisters at St John’s Church as apart of the Chichester Festivities. They were two lively young women who played spirited dance music and sang moving ballads and the like. Delightful – and if you get the chance, do go see them.
But one thing stood out – they sprang from English tradition – and I love it, whether in music or stories.
Now the minute I mention an English tradition, there will be hackles going up. It seems almost impossible to mention without anxiety. Will people think I am a racist? Will I be bracketed along with the tweeness of Evergreen Magazine, Ye Olde Teashoppes and endless reruns of Miss Marple? Will I be seen as an obscure collector of folklore obsessively slotting stories into the Aarne–Thompson classification system?
I hope not.
But what I am speaking up for is best expressed by this:
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look and the way we talk.
Without our stories and our songs
How will we know where we’ve come from?
Show of Hands 'Roots' - a deeply-felt and much loved song.
We need our traditions – how can you riff on Jack and The Beanstalk if you don’t know the story in the first place? Ms J K Rowling would lose at least half the inhabitants of the Potterverse without our English traditions.
But there’s every need to avoid overzealous exactitude.
The thing I admired about the Askew Sisters was their reinvigoration of the music. Hazel played the melodeon with the heel of her hand at one point to give an otherworldly sound – not textbook, I suspect – but very effective. I loved The Warsaw Village Band’s punky polkas* ( also ChiFest and brilliant live) and what about the Imagined Village’s fantastic ‘Cold Haily Windy Night’ with Sheema Mukherjee on sitar and Johnny Khalsi on drums? The point is that folk music evolves, new elements come in and add life. Having a tradition doesn’t mean it has to be a form of taxidermy.
So where’s the relevance to writing?
Well, it can hardly be shared experience nowadays – not many pirate adventures like Henry Martin now – unless you’re Somali. But shared emotion – that’s where we meet. We may not have a lover on the deck of a sailing ship as in ‘The Turtledove’ or ‘If I were a Blackbird’ – but we know what it is to miss someone.
Writers convey the feelings of characters in situations they have never experienced and readers imagine them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a ballad or a book – and the English tradition has plenty of passion in it yet.
[*Yes, I know they’re Polish – but the point about reinventing your tradition is still true.]