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)
JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge