PHOTO © CHRIS BEETLES LTD, LONDON/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

English magic: how folklore haunts the British landscape

The Land of the Green Man by Carolyne Larrington shows how supernatural stories can help us understand reality.

One harvest time during the chaotic reign of King Stephen, a farmworker in Woolpit, Suffolk, found a pair of children hiding in a pit. They were frightened. They couldn’t speak English and their skin was bright green. At first they wouldn’t eat anything but raw beans. The boy died. But the girl grew up, got married and learned English. She said they had come from a place called St Martin’s Land, where the sun never shone. They had heard a beautiful sound and followed it into a cave. When they came out of the cave they were in Suffolk. She knew now that the sound was the ringing of church bells. In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton suggested that the children “fell from the Heavens”, so in The Man in the Moone (1638) – the first science-fiction book written in English – Francis Godwin made the rejected children of the moon-dwellers green. The pulp sci-fi idea of Little Green Men from outer space starts in a Suffolk autumn in the Middle Ages.

Caroline Larrington’s joyous celebration of English folklore delights in the way these stories bounce around the culture, never quite going away. She traces the history of changelings from the smoke of the fireside to Irvine Welsh’s Acid House. I was particularly pleased to see Lowestoft’s finest, the Darkness, get a mention for their take on the terrifying Black Dog of Blythburgh. There’s a direct line from the Scottish brownie to Harry Potter’s Dobby.

Some fictional characters – Dracula, say, or Peter Pan – are so vivid that they detach themselves from their origin and become part of our common heritage. But a folk tale is something different. It demands that we believe it has some truth in it. We go to see the claw marks of the Black Dog on the church at Blythburgh. We listen for the church bells of the drowned village. We want there to be a monster in the loch. We yearn to know that there really was a king called Arthur, even if he wasn’t all gussied up in armour and sitting at a round table.

Alan Garner – who deservedly gets a section of the book to himself – famously retold the legend of Arthur sleeping beneath the escarpment of Alderley Edge in Cheshire in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Garner has since then performed a kind of verbal archaeology on the story, which he originally got from his grandfather. He has scraped away the Arthurian additions and worked his way back to an ancient fertility ritual. He found a moment of ancient magic that continues to reverberate faintly in the place names, pub signs and information centres of suburban Greater Manchester. In an age of constant movement, there is something appealing about these place-specific stories. Larrington’s book really does describe a journey through the landscape (it has been adapted for radio, and would make a terrific TV series).

Sometimes the reality is emotional rather than historical. Larrington gives a wonderful account of changeling stories and speculates that these tales of disruptive impostor infants – who are flung into fires or streams or down wells in the hope that the fairies will return the stolen human child – give us a heartbreaking insight into ideas about disability or emotional disturbance.

This summer I walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall. At every landmark, you could watch people go through a series of actions as rigid as ritual. Park up. Climb up. Look into the distance, try to imagine what it was like before the A69. Go to the tea room. Conjecturing about Roman ruins is almost as old as the ruins themselves. Anglo-Saxon poetry is full of awestruck speculation about who could have built these great structures. The chief joy of Larrington’s book is that it takes those centuries of wondering as seriously as the original wonder.

Her account is both scholarly and sprightly but it has a poignant undertow. She is “an army brat” who comes from “nowhere”, and yet nearly all of these stories are tightly tied to a particular place. They are stories that explain place names and geographical oddities. They connect our brief human lives to a geological timescale. The local people are their custodians.

These become special places, but Larrington is alert to the idea of what makes them special – the misunderstandings, the superstitions, the rituals that grow up. If you walk up Alderley Edge you will find traces of many signs of ancient activity: old copper workings, knapped flints. But you will also find a miniature stone circle. Sometimes you’ll find people standing in the middle of it, feeling its ancient power, hoping for some kind of druidical connection. All this even though the local information leaflet informs you that the stones were plonked here by Alan Garner’s grandfather, a stonemason who thought it a decorative way to get rid of some stock after he over-ordered.

The titular Green Man falls into this category. There are lavish coffee-table books outlining the history of this ancient vegetation god – half man, half shrub – who gives us a glimpse of what our native religion was like, before the coming of Christianity, when we all lived in the greenwood and were supposedly at one with nature. Except, of course, he is no such thing. The Green Man dates back to 1939, when he appeared in a learned article by Lady Raglan of Llandenny, in Monmouthshire, who concocted him by conflating certain folk traditions with the foliate heads found in medieval churches. I usually find people who fall for this kind of “spiritual but not religious” stuff intensely annoying, but Larrington shows more tolerance as she observes the way we invented this newly ancient idea and used it to help us realign our relationship with the environment and our past.

According to the old story, the man who sleeps under Alderley Edge is an ancient chieftain – a remnant of our beginnings – who will return at the end of time. Not far away is the beautiful inverted dome of the Lovell Telescope, pointing out into the universe, searching for echoes of the Big Bang and evidence of the forthcoming Big Crunch. Living in an infinite universe, we search for beginnings and ends. The Land of the Green Man is a celebration of the long-living tales of a short-lived folk. 

The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles  is out now from I B Tauris (£20)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
Show Hide image

The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder