Spotlight on Common Ground and England in Particular
(This is the third in a series of articles in which we highlight organisations or individuals who are making a contribution to the preservation and renewal of our diverse heritage).
England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive Sue Clifford and Angela King (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)
England in Particular, twenty years in the making, is the product of expertise gleamed over the authors' decades of involvement with the charity Common Ground, an organisation which seeks to protect and raise awareness of the individual character of each place in England, as expressed in local architecture, folklore and customs, and scenery, a concept that they have christened 'local distinctiveness'. This philosophy informs every page of this monumental work.
The book provides an ABC of topics to do with expressions of local distinctiveness. Some of these will be familiar to most people, but there are also some fascinatingly arcane entries, particularly for obscure village rituals such as the colourful and demanding Haxey Hood Game, involving, among others, a character called the Lord of the Hood (who "wears a scarlet coat and top hat full of flowers and feathers, and carries a staff made from thirteen willow wands bound thirteen times"), as well as the Grovely Rights Day, in which the villagers of Great Wishford near Salisbury ritually reclaim their ancient right to collect wood from the nearby forest. The book uncovers such linguistic delights such as "crinkle-crankle walls," an alternative name for the serpentine walls that sometimes enclose kitchen gardens on large estates, and "quomps," a term local to the Hampshire-Dorset boundary which describes "places built on swamps, because when you walk on them they make a hollow sound."
There is something here to surprise and delight everyone. Did you know, for example, that there is a venerable historical precedent for women's Morris-dancing (or rather was, until Victorian disapproval ended it), or that skates were brought to England in the seventeenth century by Dutch immigrant workers? I was particularly startled to discover that the horns still used in the Abbots Bromley horn dance have been dated to 1000 AD! The alphabetical approach gives the reader the liberating feeling of obtaining a hawk's eye perspective on English local culture, but those who want to find information associated with their own corners of England will also find an index of all references to individual places.
The authors display an astounding breadth of cultural knowledge, such as in their concise but detailed one-page overview of the highlights of England's musical heritage, which manages to take in classical, folk, rock and reggae. Painstaking research is evident in every one of the pithy, stylishly written and delicately humorous short essays that make up the volume, and in the mind-boggling bibliography, which, arranged neatly according to topic, continues for pages upon pages of very small type. The volume is also an aesthetic delight, lavishly illustrated throughout with gorgeous black-and-white illustrations, including many atmospheric woodcuts; an entire page illustrates all the different types of English terriers. Printed on superb, non-glossy cream paper (sourced from sustainable forests), and beautifully bound, the book is a pleasure to hold.
One of the most admirable and heart-warming things about the book is its broad view of what constitutes local culture. It takes in not only "indigenous" features such as World War II pillboxes (the tiny defence huts built during the forties to be used in case of invasion), but also Diwali and melas, Gypsies—whose culture it treats with refreshing understanding— and the architectural features of the English synagogue. It deliberately focuses on urban as well as rural distinctiveness, inviting town-dwellers to reappraise their environment in order to appreciate the creativity in details such as the "fascinating array of iron grate and manhole cover designs." The ethos of sharing, both of spaces and of culture, illuminates the entire book.
The authors are clearly great believers in culture's organic qualities, viewing it as something that has its roots in the past but is capable of assimilating new influences, and developing in response to them. This fusion of respect for the past and a forward-thinking approach is one of the things that make Common Ground so unusual and so bracingly sane. The core of this philosophy is their celebration of the human instinct to make our environs individual, as shown, for example, by the persistence of old accents and the emergence of new ones to challenge the hegemony of RP ("Regional and local accents anchor us to one or more places that have affected our lives. Try "who put the bus on the grass up the hill' and remember where you came from, my lovely").
Poetic, erudite, and full of quiet pride balanced by eminent good sense, this book's ranking at number four in the Sunday Times' 2006 Books of the Year list comes as no surprise at all. This tremendously satisfying and diverse swirl of the combination of features that makes England unique is a triumphant rejection of cultural homogenisation and globalisation. England in Particular is destined to become a classic. --Isabel Taylor
Interview with Sue Clifford and Angela King
I was intrigued to find out more about Common Ground, so I set up an interview with the authors last year. They had a lot of fascinating things to say....
How did you come up with the idea for the Common Ground organisation?
Angela was Friends of the Earth's first wild-life campaigner, starting in 1971, and Sue was on their Board of Directors throughout the 1970s; that is how we met.... At the start of the 1980s, we felt that the environmental movement had become over-dominated by specialists and seemed to be in the doldrums. We wanted to build a concern beyond the rare, the endangered, and the spectacular, and give people a voice in decision-making about their surroundings....to help articulate a care for commonplace nature, ordinary history, everyday traditions and stories -things that give places their meaning. We wanted to change our relations with nature and the things around us, to build quality into everyday places, and care into everyday lives. We wanted to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of quantification --cost rather than value, economics versus ecology— that dominates corporate and agency decision-making. Knowing that part of our task would be to help people to express passions about small things and to be demonstrative, we decided at the start that we would work with people from all aspects of the arts, capable of showing their emotions.... It was and is our contention that unless everybody wants to care for nature and places all around us, the fire-brigade action of experts seeking to protect little fragments and reserves is doomed to failure.
After the two of us had started talking about this different way of exciting interest in the environment, we drew Roger Deakin in, and together we set up Common Ground as a limited company in 1982. We gained charitable status in 1983. Roger remained on the Board of Directors/Trustees from the beginning until his death this year. From time to time he rolled his sleeves up, as in 1989 when he helped to literally put together our big one-off newspaper, all about trees, called PULP! He always had good ideas, wise words and great contacts, and was always there when we needed him. We shall always miss him.
You clearly have a very strong sense of the reciprocal relationship between place and people. How did you develop this?
We are children of the 1960s. We are women....we are not interested in dominating the earth or each other. We want people and nature to learn to live well together, and we see that we have a long way to go to achieve a real and ramifying democracy. It seems obvious to us we are likely to do better the more imagination and humanity we can draw together. There is much to gain from understanding where you are in nature and where you stand in continuing history.
What do you view as Common Ground's most important successes so far? Are there any particular accomplishments of which you are especially proud?
Our first book Holding Your Ground: An Action Guide to Local Conservation, published by Temple Smith in 1985, set the pace in the UK for advocating the importance of linking local knowledge and action. The Parish Maps project encourages people to socially chart what they value in their self-defined neighbourhood as a starting point for local action.
Work on trees led us to champion orchards as great examples of how we can work well with nature, and how culture can have so much breadth and depth in relation to nature. Out of this came Community Orchards and Apple Day - October 21st - a day for celebrating the great range of varieties and their connection with places and people. All the other fruit are implicated too, but the apple carries such a wealth of symbolism that it stands for them all. [Apple Day] is now celebrated in hundreds of places by thousands of people.
Local Distinctiveness ramifies through all of our work and it seems to have helped people to understand and claim their surroundings. We did an influential poster in 1992, An ABC of Local Distinctiveness. [Its] exhortations are at the start of England in Particular, cast as Common Ground Rules for Local Distinctiveness. Many people still refer to this.
Then there are posters; poetry books; art exhibitions; music for a river; The Water Market; and websites [www.commonground.org.uk, www.england-in-particular.info, and www.corrugated-iron-club.info]. And, of course, there is England in Particular.
How did you develop the idea of local distinctiveness? Were there any particular figures, thinkers or movements who influenced this idea?
We first put the words 'local' and 'distinctiveness' together in 1984, after writing Holding Your Ground, and have been exploring them ever since.... We were dissatisfied with 'sense of place' and 'genius loci,' and wanted to tempt people with comparison and differentiation, [putting] the onus on defining from the inside outwards.
We name many of our elders and betters in the acknowledgements to the book, and the list could go on and on. Both of us have broad interests and experience; we are generalists and campaigners with a deep interest in nature, topography, people, ordinary history, species, habitats, planning, and landscape, and so we stand on many shoulders.
You have been working on England in Particular for twenty years. Can you describe the process involved?
We have developed our eye over the years, and have visited, talked, watched, photographed, gathered newspaper and journal articles and local publications, and used libraries and the World Wide Web. Through our projects [and] exhibitions, and latterly through our websites, we gathered contacts and examples from across England, and from many other countries. Someone has called us magpies…. The process has been one of accumulation, clarifying and refining our ideas, and recognising what people value when given time to reflect.
Why did you organise England in Particular according to topic, rather than place?
The book offers a way of looking at our surroundings. It could be about Vancouver or Vilnius, St Martin's Lane, or Sherburn in Elmet.....Complacency is fed by many things: we take the commonplace for granted, [and publications] tend to be presented predictably (ordered by history, geography, etc). Using the alphabet to organize the essays enabled chance to juxtapose things in surprising ways, and liberated us into arguing different things where appropriate, to jolt perceptions.
The book contains a map showing the old county system. Why do you believe the old system is important, and should we return to it?
Most of the English counties are over a thousand years old. They carry meaning, and many people find them easier to identify with than administrative units, such as districts and regional bodies, which come and go over a few decades. We do believe that the counties should have a working future.
You speak of the need for "professional expertise and indigenous knowledge to inform each other" in the preservation of local distinctiveness. How could this be achieved, and have you already witnessed examples of this happening successfully?
People who have lived in a place for a long time and taken an interest in it have a store of particular 'placed' knowledge, [while] professionals have expertise based on books and knowledge accumulated elsewhere. The two together will surely make better decisions than each separately. And yes, we have seen Parish Mappers show wildlife experts that there are endangered species in 'their' mining subsidence ponds, that there are stories [and] legends that may point to hidden actual histories. Apple Day has exposed 'extinct' apple varieties still persisting in people's gardens. We know that inshore fishermen have much dynamic knowledge of the sea-bed of greater interest than high tech imaging can show....in places where very long established indigenous people still have a relationship with the land, there is much to learn from them.
You celebrate the variety of towns, while protesting against the urbanisation of the countryside. What is the thinking behind this?
We love city and country, market town and village. We loathe the homogenisation wrought by unthinking developments that seep out and scatter with no sense of [the] place they are diluting, what wild life they are displacing, what sensitivities they are abusing. So much unthinking or greedy change in country and in city reduces the detail and distinctiveness that has developed over time, [so] people lose heart and drift away from caring. With the sophistication of the twenty-first century....it should not be beyond our wit to aim higher [and] achieve sustainable and pleasing places.
You've been involved with visual arts and music projects. Could you describe one or two of them? What were their purposes and themes, and how did they express the Common Ground ethos?
Our 'New Milestones' work prompted communities to explore their love of their place, its stories and the natural world, and created a brief for a sculptor to help them express it. It was a pioneering attempt to get people to negotiate with knowledge, ideas and expression and in the process liberated sculpture into the wild, and artists into the community.
'Confluence' helped people make music for a river. Over three years (1998-2001) we rolled down a small catchment acquainting people with their own creativity, where their water comes from and why it is important. Nearly 250 new pieces of music were written and performed by our composer in residence and by people themselves. These included river carols, a fish cabaret, music for bridges, and 'Otter,' a celebration of this creature's return, which was poignant for Angela since she (with three others) was behind the pioneering work for FOE in initiating otter havens and stopping otter hunting.
'Tree Dressing Day' (during the first weekend in December) challenges people to cross cultures in celebration of trees. Botanic gardens, local authorities, schools, and street groups hang things, read poetry, and shine lights to draw attention to the trees we take for granted.
You deplore the impoverishing effect that much recent change has had on local distinctiveness. Do you see any current trends that are working to counteract this?
England is experiencing a great upsurge in interest in the local, and the food world is leading the way. On a local scale, our idea of Community Orchards is spreading: local varieties, as well as favourites, are conserved or planted by and for local people and wild life; they maintain a cultural focus and beautiful surroundings, and are becoming a catalyst for other activities.
You ask the radical question, "If industry is bad enough to be hidden, should it exist at all?", and you believe that local production of local specialities (i.e., making Wensleydale cheese in Wensleydale) brings dignity and pride to a place. Is there any way the modern economy could be restructured so as to bring back this artisanal ethic?
Common Ground is driven by an imperative grounded in ecology. We believe that grounding and creativity are needed now as people begin to appreciate the great changes we have to make in our life patterns because of climate shifts; we believe we have to invent new economies based in the local as much as is feasible. Schumacher had much to say about this in Small is Beautiful, and here the New Economics Foundation and others are forging [similar] ideas. Our role is to champion identity and authenticity, to build confidence in asserting....the richness of the local, the importance of quality, knowing where things have come from and who made them. To return to apples, the market is a real mess, but positive things are coming from those who have focused upon selling direct and locally, crop sharing, and bringing new activities to the orchards (camping, free-range orchard eggs, pick-your-own). That said, the innovators in terms of sustainable production and consumption are way ahead of most of the field.
Does Common Ground have ties to similar organisations in other parts of the world? What is its relationship to the environmental movement?
Our closest colleagues have been from the increasingly rich range of environmental groups and agencies, and as time went by, also from the heritage and arts worlds. We have found no one quite like Common Ground, but our projects have traveled to North America, Australia, Japan, West Africa, and Eastern Europe. Parish Maps, for example, are being made from Italy to San Francisco Bay.
How can we ensure that local distinctiveness (such as local dialects) is preserved against the influence of the global monoculture?
We have to keep talking. We need to help each other assert and enjoy our differences and the detail of local distinctiveness. Dialects are a good case in point -- it is clear that dialects shift and change, but so many persist across England (though they may be drifting). BBC English is no longer a single clipped accent, and words from many cultures continue to be accepted into everyday speech in some areas and through the youngest generations. Local distinctiveness must be about change, not stasis: reinforcing the identity of small places gives people confidence to pick and choose what is on the global menu whilst not losing their way.
You are very unusual in that you are a heritage organisation that also embraces England's newer cultures. Is there a way to educate about local cultures without producing atavism that could cause tension between them and immigrant cultures?
England has been continuously written-upon by all kinds of internal and external influences. The mixing in terms of cultures, languages, foods, and architecture has speeded up, perhaps, and is more widespread, but all around are examples of enrichment from outside. Throughout the book, we have tried to demonstrate the continuing layering of languages, the mix of foods, and the coincidence of sacred places, to demonstrate that our openness is what we are. We are well aware that communities are as full of tension as cohesion, but at our best our atavism has always included tolerance. It is the only thing that works. Many thanks to Sue Clifford and Angela King for their time. The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor.