Book review: Britain’s Living Folklore by Roy Palmer (David & Charles, 1991)
Did you know that in ancient times it was common for fairs to be held in churchyards and on funeral barrows? That when first introduced to Britain the humble potato was considered a powerful aphrodisiac? That on the island of Foula Christmas is celebrated on 6 January and New Year is a week later? And that it is unlucky to be the first buried in a new churchyard as the devil is reputed to take the first corpse?
The folklore of Britain is as rich and varied as its landscapes and reflects the strong regional identity of its people. This book is an exploration of the myths and customs which have coloured everyday life in Britain for centuries – and which continue to affect our culture into the 1990s and beyond.
Folklore is not, after all, a story with a set ending: it is limitless experience, a continual unfolding of cultural experiences and beliefs which form the basis of civilised existence. Such aspects of modern life as technological developments and the influence of other cultures have made their own impact, with ‘faxlore’ and the Notting Hill Carnival gaining as much social relevance today as the story-telling and pagan traditions of yesteryear.
From Widecombe Fair to motorcycle etiquette, from homeopathic cures to traditional nicknames, Britain’s Living Folklore is a fascinating tribute to the wealth of Britain’s folk heritage, past and present – to dip into or read from cover to cover.
Seeing as how I was imported from Scandinavialand, I could tell you stories about how Visingsö came to be, tell you why you should never give new clothes to a tomte and why you need to be aware of Näcken, Bäckahästen or a Skogsrå. What the British folklore is, on the other hand, I wouldn’t have a clue, but seeing as how I’m always curious to learn more about my adopted home, this book gave me a wonderful opportunity to find out what the Brits used to believe, and which traditions are ingrained in society.
Britain’s Living Folklore (my hardcopy has a different, much nicer, cover than the one above) is a good introduction to “ye olde ways”, from fairs to fairies, saints to beasts, and ghosts to druids. There are stories from all over the British Isles, and some of the beliefs coincide with some of those in Sweden, like how certain landmarks were made by giants throwing something, for instance.
Today, it feels as if we have a bit of resurgence of the olden days, and we’re sort of “heritage happy”. Farmers markets are here, there and everywhere, there are village fairs (although perhaps not as many as Midsomer Murders would have us believe) and local history is ever fascinating.
In our modern day society where all we do is rushing around and our highest ambition is to get the next Apple-produced gadget, a look back at the way things were is nice. Burying people at crossroads with a big stake through them, okay, perhaps less so, but things like herbalism has definitely made a comeback.
Then again, I do love a bit of nostalgia, and the dream is for a quiet country cottage somewhere – near nature and all its inherent magic. This book is a reminder of that sort of quaint folksy feeling, far away from busy roads where you’ll hear sirens going past several times a day.
On the back cover, it says the book is written by “an expert in the field” and yes, Britain’s Living Folklore feels very well-researched, even though some bits are obviously dated. “The next time this event will happen is in 1993”, we’re told a few times. Yeah, err, that’s nearly two decades ago now … Still, if you’re after a good and broad yet fairly detailed introduction to the ancient traditions of Great Britain, you can’t really go wrong with this.
4 out of 5 morris dancers.