Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Intoxication at Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have been running their Intoxication season, all about psychoactive plants, and last weekend I was invited to speak on the cultural history of the magic mushroom.

Aside from the weird and wonderful plants in its collection, there's something Sergeant Pepperish about Kew, so it was a doubly appropriate place for such an event.

The aim was to draw people's attention away from drugs, per se, back to the plants from which they're derived, and to make the point that people around the world have conceived these plants and their effects differently.

For example, plants that are seen as sacred by some indigenous cultures are regarded by ours as so dangerous that they can only be displayed in cages.

Others, meanwhile, remain quite legal...

...but all came with a warning...

My talks consisted of a condensed version of Shroom and I'm pleased to say they went down well. Other speakers included Bryn Dentinger talking about the mycology and taxonomy of Psilocybe species; Monique Simmonds on Kew's advisory role to the Police on plants and drugs; and the indefatigable David Luke on mushrooms and psychic abilities. It was all held together by curator, Mike Jay. Huge thanks to everyone involved for creating such an excellent and vibrant weekend.

Demand was such that on Sunday we were moved to a bigger venue. Two hundred seats proved insufficient and I'm told at least another hundred people were turned away. Here's part of the, ahem, 'kew', which stretched around the building.

What's clear is that despite the pariah status of the magic mushroom, and psychedelics more generally, interest in the subject grows unabated.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Depicting the past

I'm full of admiration for those illustrators who bring the past to life. When watching Time Team – a guilty pleasure, I freely admit – I was always dazzled by Victor Ambrus' uncanny ability to peer at some sketchy archaeological remains, then paint them as they might have been. His people were believable because he made them seem like us. Different lifestyle, different clothes, but just like us.

Not all artists are so diligent and I've noticed that when it comes to the ancient British past, many fall back on the weary stereotype of the uggish caveman. Whether it be the Stone Age or the Iron, our forebears are all too often shown as dirty, dishevelled, long-haired, bearded, wrapped carelessly in skins, crouched low or imprecating madly to the sky, and clearly suffering from an unhealthy obsession with sharp pointy sticks.

Last week's BBC documentary, Operation Stonehenge, was a case in point. While otherwise excellent, its tiresome reconstructions trucked out the same stereotypes.

These jokers would've been dead in a week.

Such depictions make the past distant, other, and have the effect of elevating us at its expense. We look on condescendingly, safe in the knowledge that the slow march of cultural evolution has made us different. We are civilised. They were not.

The discovery on Dartmoor, in 2011, of the beautifully preserved remains of a Bronze Age kist burial ought to scotch such stereotypes once and for all. The prize find consisted of two spindle wood discs. They turned out to be ear plugs. Whoever had been buried there had stretched earlobes, a fact that makes me think our ancestors were far more like the indigenous hunter-gathers of today than the convenient oafs of stereotype. 

For take a look at extant tribal cultures and you'll find that they are, by necessity, resourceful, keen-witted, fit, ripped and equipped with the skills and wherewithal to survive.

They are also proud and vain, adorning themselves in pelts, feathers, piercings, paint and tattoos. They are, in other words, and no matter how alien their moralities, lifeways and worldviews, just like us, a fact I wish the history-makers would remember.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Pagan Britain

It must have been the summer of 1995 when I had my mind blown in a field in Oxfordshire. I was at the very first OBOD camp and went to a talk by the historian Ronald Hutton. In the space of forty minutes, and with his trademark élan and erudition, Ronald demolished every foundational belief of my naive paganism. I was left reeling with cognitive dissonance, and yet, come the end, I didn't want him to stop. On my return home, I immediately bought and devoured his Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, a summary of the archaeological and historical evidence for what was then known about pre-Christian religions in Britain.

It's possibly a universal human tendency to bend the past to our contemporary desires. We start with a theory, then cherry-pick the evidence to fit with how we want the world to be. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, all manner of evidence was assembled to support the Victorian idea that paganism was an ancient fertility religion, one with licentious and often heinous rites, and one that somehow persisted in secret against all odds and despite concerted efforts by Christianity to eradicate it. This was what had made the idea of paganism so thrilling to me, though like most other pagans I thought the heinous rites bit a dreadful slur and chose to ignore that part of the story.

Hutton's approach was so refreshing because he turned this approach on its head, assessing all the available evidence to find the most plausible interpretations, or being big enough to admit we don't know in the many cases where the evidence was too equivocal. Under this kind of scrutiny the lurid Victorian view of paganism I'd inherited crumbled. The pre-Christian religions of Britain turn out to be far more rich, complex and nuanced than this simplistic story allows.

Published over twenty years ago, The Pagan Religions, was well due a rewrite and that's exactly what Hutton has done with his Pagan Britain. I can't recommend it highly enough.

In this magisterial and interdisciplinary work, covering everything from the Ice Age to the Vikings, Hutton makes many of the same points as before but brings the evidence up-to-date. The chapter on 'The Legacy of British Paganism' justifies the cover price alone and is required reading for anyone interested in the subject. It's all written in a far more accessible style than its academic-oriented predecessor, an acknowledgement of the fact that in the intervening period he's garnered a keen, non-academic audience. To them his message is clear: within the generous limits imposed by the evidence you're free to imagine the past how you like.

Interestingly, the two volumes have bookended my academic career. Back in the 90s, meeting Ronald heralded my return to academia. He encouraged me to embark on my second PhD and indeed ended up being my external examiner. I think his influence on my own work should be obvious and I remain extremely grateful to him.

Now, with our relocation to Dartmoor, I have left academia (never say never, though I can't imagine returning) and I found on reading Pagan Britain that I am less interested than I was in defining the boundaries of what we know about the past, much more interested in dreaming up what lies in the gaps.

As I havered about doing a second PhD, Ronald's advice was this: if you don't like it, you can always go back to the fields. I did like it, but the fields got me anyway.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Traveller's Tales

Talking of field recordings, I'm grateful to my friend Jamie for sending this archive recording of my playing at the Newbury Bypass anti-road campaign in 1996.


I can't remember who the other musicians were, though I'm pretty certain Olly (also singing and playing mandolin) was one.

The song is 'Traveller's Tale' by the Space Goats, written by their hammered dulcimer player, Krismael. I'd misheard the lyrics so they should be 'I am a young traveller' rather than 'I am the gallant traveller'. Read into that what you will.

As should probably be obvious, I'd not long been singing or playing the mandolin but I made up for a lack of technique with sheer rumbustious enthusiasm. In any case, this was music made with a specific political purpose – both to provoke the authorities and to entertain the protesters in the trees –and not to be listened to at home. It was therefore quite a surprise to be brought face to face with my younger self, and on first listen I felt a mixture of fond nostalgia and squirming discomfort.

But, as I've said before, there's something powerful about field recordings and their ability to capture moments in time. And now that I've listened a few times, and got over my initial embarrassment, the contrast between the optimistic lyrics of the song and the cold snarl of the chainsaws strikes me as especially poignant.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

In the field

Work, parenthood and the peregrinations of summer have left little time for blogging, but I have been listening to a lot of music. My beachcombings through the detritus of the internet have turned up some real treasures.

Folkcatalogue's blog is dedicated to the now defunct British Argo record label. During the fifties, sixties and seventies it not only released some of the major folk and early music artists of the time – Shirley Collins, Peter Bellamy, David Munrow – it also put out some real oddities: obscure folk acts like the Druids and their album 'Burnt Offering' (sadly, not as freaky as it sounds), recordings of Shakespeare, recordings of trains, and field recordings of world music made by the intrepid but poorly known Deben Bhattacharya. It's been a delight to discover his work, especially his recordings of folk music from Bulgaria, India and Iran. That he was able to travel as freely as he did at the height of the Cold War seems remarkable now. There's a biography I'd love to read.

There's more Deben Bhattacharya and more vintage field recordings at the World's Jukebox blog.

And finally, if obscure musical releases from the East float your boat, then check out Oriental Traditional Music from LPs & Cassettes. Where else can you hear classical masters of the Uzbekistan maqam system?

In this age of digital recording, where all natural 'imperfections' of pitch, timing and musicianship can be autotuned, quantised and comped away, there's something extremely refreshing about the realness of vintage and field recordings. As you listen to long dead musicians, recorded by long dead ethnomusicologists, you can't help but be reminded of the ephemeral nature of music; that so much of its power comes from its fleeting existence in the moment.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Changes

In 1976, when I was 8 years old, BBC Children's TV broadcast one of the most terrifying sci-fi programmes ever made – The Changes. It gave me nightmares for weeks. Along with other classics such as The Children of the Stones, and various Public Service Broadcasts, graphically warning, amongst other things, of the dangers of flying kites near pylons, The Changes inspired a generation of Acid Folk bands, not to mention the ubiquitous Scarfolk. Apocalyptic, dystopian, the memory of it haunts me still.

In The Changes, a mysterious force causes people to run amok, smashing all technology. The heroine, Nicky, gets left behind when her parents flee, and she has to somehow find the cause of the changes. I watched through my fingers.

However, I'm delighted to learn that the BFI are finally putting to rest the conspiracy theories, that the programme was simply too frightening to be shown again, and are releasing The Changes on DVD.

For after nearly forty years, I might just find closure.