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The Seeds Of My Frustration

The desire to establish a Museum of British Folklore was born of many things. Foremost among them was a growing feeling of frustration. Frustration can be a great motivator as we all know. Confronted and turned around, it can lead to positive changes in one's life. The seeds of my frustration lay in several areas.

Being self-employed forces you to be resourceful. Without the safety net of an employer, you have to be far more responsible for yourself. While my commercial design work has thankfully given me a degree of financial stability, I've found myself anxious to return to making my own art work and projects. There's a wonderful moment in Tim Burton's film, 'Ed Wood'. The protagonist of the film, dispirited with a failing project, goes to a bar and there spies Orson Wells sat at a table on his own. Ed plucks up the courage to speak to the great man who gives him this advice. 'Visions are worth fighting for, why spend your life making someone else's dreams?' I wrote this down and pinned it to my notice board.

I kept thinking of what it was that I always returned to when thinking of my own work. Myths, Magic, Fairy Stories and Folklore. In particular, British Folklore. It had always been a dream of mine that one day, possibly when I retired, I would try to establish a Museum. A museum that explored and celebrated the indigenous folk culture of the British Isles. It would be a fusion of many strands of my work, from set design, art direction, interior design and the conceptualising of ideas, to my personal passions and interests in the British landscape and it's seasonal rites and customs. It would be a place to impart a sense of wonder and history of the many living traditions that exist across the British Isles, some of which I have been fortunate to witness or take part in.

A long time hero of mine is the misguided guardian of Kent and it's traditions, Thomas Colpeper, who stars in the Powell, Pressburger film, 'A Canterbury Tale' made in 1944. I could wax long and lyrical about the film and urge anyone with an interest in British Magical Realism to watch it. As with so many of their films it deals with the mystical power of landscape. It can also be seen to be about a nation and a set of values and a culture. However, it manages to transcend the obvious propaganda of the times and becomes something so much greater. There is a deep sense of continuity running throughout the film, the links between the past and the present just beneath the surface. In one of the many moments of wonder, Colpeper attempts to give a lecture to a group of soldiers and the films 3 main characters. He is silhouetted against a disk of light thrown by an old magic lantern projector. In almost mystical terms he describes that there is more than one way to get close to one's ancestors.

"Follow the Old Road and as you walk, think of them (Pilgrims) and of the Old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did, they sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the Blue Bells in the Spring and the Wild Thyme and the Broom and Heather. You're only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest and watch the clouds sailing, as I often do, you're so close to those other people......."


The character of Colpeper has been compared to Puck, himself a character from one of Powell's favourite books, 'Puck of Pook's Hill'. Despite the trappings of Christianity, the film's strange atmosphere seems at times closer to Paganism than Anglicanism, with Colpeper a creature of the earth, who at times seems to magically appear and disappear. Anyway, I'm rambling now, like Colpeper, I've felt the frustration of not being able to impart something I feel is missing from my life and I'm sure many others.

Why should it be that as a nation we don't really seem to value or celebrate our native culture? So many other countries in Europe have regional museums of Folklore. Folklore informs the culture that produces it and we produce a lot of it. There are approximately 730 recorded annual events, rites and customs taking place in the UK every year. A living cultural heritage, folklore links the past and present. Never static, it changes and adapts to new circumstances while often maintaining it's traditional qualities. It serves both to identify and to symbolize the group that originated them.

Perhaps due to the fact that many Folk happenings are learned informally through performance, by example or in oral tradition among families, friends and neighbours rather than through formal education, they have been somewhat over-looked by the wider academic circles. When reported on the news they are so often trivialised or reported in a 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' way.

The desire to establish a Folklore Museum is partly born of the wish to readdress the balance, to show that our Folklore traditions are just as alive and relevant to people today as they were a few hundred years ago. Times change and the meanings may not be the same, but the music and the customs go on with new relevance.