In early June, the British found-footage documentary Arcadia was released. A film showing the folklorish customs of Britain with a soundtrack by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, it has been somewhat overshadowed by the controversy over an essay praising the film by Booker Prize nominated writer and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth.
In the essay (published 20 May 2018ce, just before the film’s release), Elysium Found, Kingsnorth waxed rhapsodic about the film’s portrayal of a sense of ‘Englishness’ that he feels has been elided in modern times. (The fact that he uses England and Britain interchangeably in the piece is very noticeable in this context.)
Among other points, often expressed in terms of the intrinsic magic of the land, he said;
I defy any Briton to watch Arcadia and not feel a surge of patriotism; the real kind, the old kind. Not an attachment to monarchy or church, institution or government, idea or ideal, but the old pull of the land you walk on. The ground beneath your feet.
Other parts imply strongly that this sense of a patriotic link to the land is specifically nativist: the opening paragraphs refer to waves of invaders to the Green And Pleasant Land, ranging from the French navy in 1346 to the alleged magical defence against Operation Sea Lion in 1940, noting that, even if myth, these tales of fighting the foreigner are essential to Englishness… while declining to mention the many successful invasions and waves of immigration which have shaped Britishness. One especially sneering line reads:
Patriotism has taken a beating in recent decades. The guardians of our civilisation tell us that attachment to place and tradition is reactionary, backward, dangerous. Like magic and mystery, attachment to land and history are things which belong to a dark and grim past, and should stay there. We are all progressives now.
This piece was, to put it mildly, not well received. Many commenters, primarily on Twitter, were scathing in their criticism. (An extensive, even-handed overview of the criticism by James Pierce Taylor of London Permaculture is worth reading.)
Kingsnorth withdrew the piece several days later. His response to the criticisms (which he also later deleted) claimed the words had, as quoted by Taylor:
‘been twisted — not accidentally, it is clear, by some at least — into a complete misrepresentation of what I wrote and why’ by ‘fanatics on social media accusing me of fascism’, ‘people out there with agendas… wielding them with glee’, people who have ‘outrageously, and upsettingly, represented [him as] a racist or a promoter of far-right narratives’, people running a ‘smear campaign’ with ‘clear agendas’.
This would be all very well and good, except that he has (as we say in the Thames Estuary diaspora) form for this sort of thing. From a Guardian interview a year earlier:
“In Real England, he went searching for what English identity means at a time when displaying the St George’s flag can be read simplistically as a sign of football-hooligan racism. “It’s terrible,” he says. “It’s very sad. There’s an Anglophobia stalking Britain. It’s not acceptable to be an English patriot in the way you can be a Scottish or a Welsh patriot. Those are small countries that were attached to a bigger country. They define themselves against that. So what does the bigger country, England, define itself against?
…What does it mean to be ‘us’ in England?” he asks. “It’s such a big question at the moment because the level of migration is so high. You need
to know who you are, and where you are, and have some control over that. If there isn’t an acceptable outlet for it, it goes to an unacceptable outlet.”
That outlet, to be clear, is the rise in far-right, isolationist and explicitly fascist behaviour in the UK; from the assassination of pro-immigration MP Jo Cox two years ago by a right-wing terrorist just before the Brexit referendum and the subsequent rise in publicly acceptable racism and xenophobia, to the increasingly explicit connections between the pro-Brexit Tories and the likes of American self-confessed racist Steve Bannon. Kingsnorth insists he does not support fascism – his political stance, though pro-Brexit, seems to be tied more into Deep Green views on modernity. Nonetheless, to trumpet (pun intended) this bucolic, nativist stance on Olde England and its folklore in opposition to a multicultural and progressive present is, at minimum, ill-timed and inflammatory.
But there are other ways to connect with the roots of British folklore beyond flirting with blood-and-soil xenophobia as the supposed soul of Englishness.
Among the outspoken commenters who criticised the original piece is David Southwell, best known for the Hookland project.
Hookland was born in a conversation between Southwell and JG Ballard, Ballard saying,
Write about place: nothing else is worth a damn.
Some years after, Southwell created Hookland – a immensely detailed fictional English county which is based on the existing folklore of the British Isles, but with a slightly increased level of ambient weirdness. Southwell’s own background as a former investigative journalist, his grandparents’ Romany (or, as preferred in the county, ‘Romanichal’) heritage and his experience in the practice of magic combined with the history of his particular part of Essex: an area which continued to love its cunning-folk so well that ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins was refused entry to many villages which he sought to purge. (Another local lad, Warren Ellis, has also shown a fascination with the Cunning in both his fiction and essays.) All this was filtered through the ambient strangeness of a 1970’s childhood: a time when great folk horror children’s TV such as Children Of The Stones aired alongside news reports of UFOs and Uri Geller. As Southwell puts it;
Nothing is made up – it’s just remembered differently.
Primarily explored in multiple daily posts on Twitter from @HooklandGuide for the last few years, the mythology has grown considerably. Many people became captivated by Hookland’s particular form of grounded weirdness, to the point of not only participating in expanding the mythology, but to feel a nostalgia, a Sehnsucht, for the place. Some of us now identify as Hooklanders.
Southwell from the beginning generously declared the county to be an open source universe which others could explore (with the proviso that they never try to copyright it, and that such works never contain homophobia, misogyny or racism). Hookland became the inspiration for a variety of works by other creators. Several stories have been set in the county (including at least one upcoming horror film); musical works have been aired ranging from the sweet pop of Lake Ruth and the harsh electronica of Salford Electronics’ The Hum to William Wright’s recent orchestral work Salt Mass. Hookland is becoming more solid, more ‘real’ with every addition.
A key metaphor in Hookland is that of the ‘ghost soil’ – the psychic memory inherent in the land under our feet, holding the souls of all who have lived and died here; where the magic of the land truly dwells. Southwell’s conception of the ghost soil is explicitly not a nativist one: as far as the Land is concerned, if you have sweated and bled into it, you are now part of it. (In this, Southwell echoes the mostly-forgotten TV series Mongrel Nation by the strongly pro-European Eddie Izzard, on how British culture has been positively shaped by its many waves of immigration.)
Folklore in general is undergoing a considerable rise in interest, partly due to the weekly Twitter ritual known as Folklore Thursday, where Southwell’s Hookland introduction quoted above appeared. Founded by Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham in 2015, the #FolkloreThursday hashtag has become for many a delightful weekly ritual where people post folklore tales and historical notes from around the world. As the hashtag and following developed, weekly themes started to appear – food, ghosts, travel and the like.
Although mostly a very pleasant place to compare notes and discuss such matters, there are occasional bursts of right-wing propaganda: mostly from American and English commenters, attempts are made to seize the narrative of folklore and make it suit a nationalist, even explicitly fascist agenda. This parallels a growth of explicitly far-right intrusions into science fiction fandom (the ‘sad/angry puppies’ Hugo awards problems of a couple of years ago) and a rise of often Nordic-inspired fascism in that most American reshaping of European folkways, Renaissance fairs. These people insist, against both history and basic common sense, that Culture (specifically an illusory White Christian European Culture) is monolithic, pure and entirely derived from its native inhabitants… the kind of people who think ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is a single racial identity rather than a term used to describe the result of two different levels of colonisation of Britain centuries apart. (The actual interconnectedness of ‘Britishness’ with the ‘foreign’ is well illustrated in this recent Twitter thread.)
In response to this, Southwell and other writers, including myself, have taken up another hashtag: #FolkloreAgainstFascism.
Many of us involved in the Hookland mythos have found a home there specifically because it balances the old folkways with more ‘recent’ (in terms of British history, the millennium since the Norman invasion of 1066) additions, all of which have changed the various peoples who call Albion home. Hookland’s artists and cunning-folk happily work alongside all those who have set up shop here, in a manner far removed from simple commercial or spiritual appropriation. This is, in part, an attempt to both reconcile and work with the post-Imperial remnants of British culture while not valorising Empire in any way. Hookland welcomes immigrants because we understand one of the most basic rules of nature – monocultures die, fast.
That folklore can often have fascist undertones is not a new observation – Michael Moorcock was scathing at the implicit fascism of the folkiness of AA Milne and JRR Tolkien in his splendidly-titled essay Epic Pooh in 1989 – but it is unfortunately a timely one. Many folklorists and creators (including Ben Aaronovitch; author of the popular London-set urban fantasy series featuring mixed-race policeman Peter Grant, where many of the gods and forces of the land are also non-white) have proudly displayed the hashtag as a stand against the modern resurgence of fascists, Quislings and ‘Good Germans’. Southwell is especially scathing about any attempt to suborn folklore and Hookland into a fascist narrative, saying;
Specific works which fall within #FolkloreAgainstFascism include several pieces by Gary Budden: Budden coined with Southwell the term ‘landscape punk’ as an alternative to the overly-academic tendencies of psychogeography, and was one of the speakers at the original Spirits Of Place conference which later gave birth to the collection of essays published by Daily Grail Press (both founded by the Grail’s John Reppion). Notable among these are Budden’s essay at The Quietus last year, Awake Awake Sweet England – a rejection of the twee and nationalistic strain in writing about the British landscape which Kingsnorth exemplifies, and his short story collection Hollow Shores.
One of my own contributions has been to work with the band The Indelicates on a cunning-craft ritual to both curse the Brexit project and try to banish a personification of the authoritarian darkness which sometimes wreaks havoc upon these lands – an entity which holds the soul of one of the country’s worst criminals, Jimmy Savile, within the body of that acceptable monster, Mister Punch – for the launch of their album Juniverbrecher.
That was last October. The spell is ongoing… and you can read and download the ritual here.
I cannot but help wonder what Kingsnorth’s opinions might be upon several upcoming pieces of art strongly rooted in the ghost soil and explicitly rejecting nativist and fascist narratives.
England’s Dark Dreaming, by Hooklander Paul Watson (no relation to the far-right activist), subtitled ‘A Series of Drawings on the subject of The Matter Of Britain and The World Turned Upside Down’ is an artistic reaction to the resurgence of the dark heart of Albion. Watson likens modern times with the upheaval during the English Civil Wars, with blogs and tweets as the pamphlets and broadsides of our times, and especially how much of this is rooted in claims of folkish ‘authenticity’. It includes an introduction by David Southwell.
The musician Elizabeth Bernholz, aka Gazelle Twin, has released two albums: the second, UNFLESH, was the basis for one of the most powerful stage performances I have ever seen; in it, she created a faceless, Cronenbergian alter-ego to personify her songs about alienation from the body. In her forthcoming third album Pastoral, her newest monster is an explicitly Brexit-representing creature, dressed in Saint George colours and riding the land on a hobby horse. Bernholz notes about the costume’s inspiration;
It’s creepy. There are so many St George’s flags everywhere at the moment… I never used to notice it. But since the Brexit thing you can see people glancing at each other: ‘Are you? Yeah? I am too…’ There’s been this build up of confidence. It’s starting to spread out, adding up to bigger numbers. It’s getting serious.
The costume has all of that feeling in mind but it also embodies the figure of the court jester. It’s a period of history I keep on being reminded of. The era of mediaeval torture.
From the tracks released thus far, I believe it will proudly stand with the great anti-fascist albums such as Test Dept’s Pax Britannica.
Mostly, I would love to see Kingsnorth’s face after watching John Harrigan’s forthcoming film Armageddon Gospels. Created in the aftermath of two deaths – his mother and David Bowie – and within the rise of British fascism post-Brexit, Harrigan’s film shows a handful of very British but essentially ’foreign’ gods (self-described in the words of Scottish singer Shirley Manson as ‘the queerest of the queer’) who are reborn to slay another personification of Albionic monstrosity, The Bone King. I was fortunate to see a preview of this astonishing work which, like Hookland, England’s Dark Dreaming and many other artworks within #FolkloreAgainstFascism, draws on archetypes such as The May Queen and the Grail myth, then combining them with actual magic rituals (the climax of the film is a rite performed at the Long Man of Wilmington). It shines with a deep love for Albion far beyond the narrow definitions of the isolationists, refuses to submit to their narrative and finds hope for a modern, ongoing reconciliation with the older lore of these lands.
The attempt by the far right to take for themselves every piece of Britishness (or, usually, only Englishness) as something white and pure, ignoring its origins in the many nationalities and cultures which have made their home in Albion, under a banner of forced nationalistic pride with all the depth and subtlety of a KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster, is both an untruth on a massive scale and utterly against the true spirit of the land. Our folklore is so much more than that: a record of the truths-as-myths which have shaped this land and been shaped by it. At its best, folklore reminds us of the potential we all carry as we walk the ghost soil: #FolkloreAgainstFascism exists to stand against those who would steal this legacy from our common roots, whether planted for generations or freshly grown.
England’s Dark Dreaming is out later this month.
Pastoral will be released on 21 September
Armageddon Gospels will be released later in 2018: a full review of the film at the Grail will follow.
Post scriptum: My brother-in-cunning and crippled Odinsman Craig Slee, aka Mr. VI, is also examining the rise of fascist folklore and its inherent wrongness in this piece at Cold Albion.