Go folk yourself

It's time to embrace British musical heritage

There are a collection of images that seem to be indelibly linked to the phrase "traditional British folk music”": drizzly village greens populated by small groups of old men morris dancing while their families cower under umbrellas and look a bit embarrassed, blokes with unfortunate facial hair irritating the patrons of pubs with badly-tuned guitars, strange willowy women with over-the-top “ethereal” voices.

There is more than a grain of truth in this perception, but it also lacks an awareness of how much fun the British folk scene can be. I don’'t mean Mumford & Sons or Noah and the Whale - as entertaining as they are they shouldn'’t overshadow the thriving world of traditional British folk music. I have less musical ability than most (clapping in time at gigs is a tremendous challenge) but it doesn'’t make the blindest bit of difference. If you have a sense of fun and the ability to sink a few pints of ale, you can’'t go far wrong.
 
We sit on a vast vault of cultural history in this country and it seems a massive shame not to make the most of it – the timeworn tales of mischief and tragedy are still pleasingly entertaining to this day. Bellowhead, my favourite band, is a good example of how resiliently enjoyable our musical roots can be.
 
In an average gig they'’ll perform old songs about being robbed by sneaky prostitutes, losing your entire family to whiskey and the heartbreaking experience of seeing your girlfriend transported to Australia (life events I'’m sure we’'ve all confronted). The songs are a living embodiment of our history and there’'s something very evocative about listening to the experiences of our ancestors. It’'s historically interesting, but more importantly it’s incredibly fun. Whether it’'s in the Albert Hall or a crowded pub, there is a rich layer of culture just waiting to be experienced.
 
I acknowledge that it is futile for me to ramble on about my favourite genre to people who have different tastes - a variety of interests is obviously a very good thing and I don’'t want to force mine on anyone. The people I have a problem with are the ones who like to proclaim loudly and often that “Britain isn'’t British anymore!” Depending on who you speak to, the root of the problem can either be Muslims, the European Union or the left (sometimes all three, if they’'re feeling particularly annoyed). There is one consistent feature with this group, though - a complete lack of participation.
 
They will moan about a perceived loss of Britishness, but they are the last people you will find actually getting involved. There'’s no hope for a wider cultural acceptance of our musical roots if these people can’t be convinced to enjoy some British culture, rather than just moaning about the lack of it. I admit that the prospect of having my local folk night invaded by a cohort of tedious bores isn'’t an exciting one, but I’'m willing to put up with it for a bit. A diet of good ale and decent company should soon sort them out. Give them a few hours and I’'m sure they’'d be singing along with the same enthusiasm as everybody else.
 
I am aware that this call for greater links to our cultural past is something that the BNP would probably endorse, a fact that I find aggravating. Those on the far right are the antithesis of everything the British folk scene represents. Their dreary half-baked mewing for cultural homogeneity has no place in the hearts of folk fans. When the BNP tried to use the Show of Hands song “Roots”, there was an impressive backlash within the community, resulting in the creation of the “Folk Against Fascism” movement. You might think that traditional folk would shun the new and innovative, but it'’s really not the case. Just look at the wonderful Imagined Village project - their sound is composed of sitars and dhol drums as well as fiddles. This is where folk's true value lies, in its unique blend of tradition and innovation. Folk provides us with a strong link to our cultural history and more importantly, a source of merriment and joy. 

 

There's more to British folk than Mumford and Sons (Getty Images)
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear