My fondest memory of my teenage years was the afternoon we were chased by hobby horses. It was a Saturday afternoon and me and my four friends were hanging around in our local town centre, as teenagers are wont to do, and the hobby horses – I remember one with a horn, more like a hobby cow than a horse, that moaned as you neared it, and another head to toe in tatters – saw us as fair game. ‘If one of those things comes near me…’ one of us said, and that was it. The hobby horses took flight and we barrelled into a nearby toyshop to hide. We cowered behind a stack of boxed Sylvanian Families. They were still waiting for us when we crept out, leading to another chase and this time, a chippy for safety. The staff were not amused and told us to leave.
As I grew older, I realised that this memory was perhaps not the most common of memories. And Banbury, my Oxfordshire hometown, not the most normal of places. When I reached university in Manchester, no one else in my halls had spent their formative years in a folk club listening to unaccompanied singers murdering ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ or wet April days drinking on the green as the village’s Morris men leapt about the tarmac. I understood that I had been given a glimpse of the England, the Britain, that not everyone has the opportunity to experience.
I became fascinated by calendar customs and living traditions, and the music and lore at their heart. As I was researching my first book, Wayward Daughter, the official biography of folk music legend, Eliza Carthy, I was lucky enough to experience the Goathland Plough Stots’ day in North Yorkshire, and my experience of the Saddleworth Rushcart was one of the reasons why I fell in love with the area and moved there with my husband in 2015. Meeting collector, documentarian and archivist, Doc Rowe, also had a big impact. I was fortunate to visit his collection in Whitby as I worked on the marketing and communications for Lore and the Living Archive an exhibition of original artworks produced in response to Doc’s enormous collection of material relating to all kinds of customs. There, I found evidence and ephemera of the customs I hadn’t yet visited – and seeing garlanded figures on horseback and men wearing ancient antlers, touching the burrs that dig in to the skin of the Burry Man, hearing recordings of the tunes that accompany the customs year in, year out only deepened my fascination.
I wondered how I could incorporate calendar customs into my fiction. In my first novel, my ‘practice’ YA novel (read: seen by no-one but my computer hard drive) I had my New Age traveller characters hold a summer solstice ritual. In my second practice novel, a time-travelling historical MG novel (and you wonder why it wasn’t picked up?), my protagonist is processed through the streets as May Queen – treacherous in the harsh light of the puritanical regime. And in my current novel, currently being red-penned by my agent (thank the lord!), my protagonists bravely participate in the Whit Walks beneath their dissenting Methodist banner.
Customs, I found, were not only fascinating to write; they helped me as a writer. Calendar customs enabled me to bring a fictional environment alive (what is this place that does this thing?); explored a character’s personality (why does this person participate, and how?); signal to the reader what time of year it is, what type of society this is… and, of course, it adds a little wyrd to proceedings, making possible the impossible, the world turned upside down. A boon to the writer of fiction.
And, at the Centre for Contemporary Legend, I have been granted a PhD studentship to develop this further. I will be working on a practice-led project to write a novel with a custom at its heart. No, more than that: with a custom as its spine, its backbone. I will be visiting British calendar customs to see how they can be (successfully) rendered in fiction, interviewing the real-life custodians of these customs and other members of the community that might be, let’s say, a little less enthusiastic about the strange occurrence that happens each year on their doorstep, and critiquing the customs that appear in other writers’ fiction.
This is a dream opportunity for me: the chance to devote myself fully to a writing project which have been previously side-lined to evenings and weekends, but also to join a fantastic academic community with mouthwatering ambitions of which I cannot wait to play a small part. I have so much to learn, and I can’t wait to get stuck in.
And if you come across a calendar custom in a novel, a short story or a poem, please let me know! Tweet me @sophparkes. I look forward to hearing from you!