Undreamed shores

Undreamed shores cover

I much admired

  • Frances Larson, Undreamed shores: the hidden heroines of British anthropology (2021).

It’s just as engaging as Charles King’s book on the Boas circle in the USA, bringing to life the struggles of the unsung early generations of enterprising women intrepidly setting forth from Oxford in the early 20th century.

Writing from her own self-confessed armchair there, Larson opens by noting that by our time anthropology has no longer been limited to the study of distant shores:

One of my contemporaries decided to study local church bell-ringers; another explored the world of online video-gaming communities from the comfort of the college computer room; and I travelled into the past.

That given, she shows a remarkable empathy for the five female explorers who are the subject of her book.

Oxford was far ahead of Cambridge or the LSE in training female anthropologists. Yet before World War One, women at the university

were almost entirely invisible, frequently disdained, and usually inconsequential to the men they studied alongside. […]

Fieldwork offered these women a temporary relief from the strictures of English society, or at least it offered a new context—a new place, a new culture—in which to negotiate their own identity. […]

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They went from the periphery into the unknown, and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again. Instead, on their return, they fought for recognition in a university system ruled by men, and their professional aspirations strained their personal relationships.

Larson highlights the gender imbalance in funding; by contrast with the hoops through which the women seeking support had to jump, their male counterparts

were simply given a cheque and sent off on their travels in eager anticipation of the treasures they would undoubtedly find. They enjoyed a far freer rein and did not have to concern themselves with any references, résumés, or research plans.

And unlike the women, the men could confidently look forward to a permanent university position as reward for their explorations in the field. For all that, Larson gives due credit to the male patrons who encouraged their students—just as the movement for female suffrage was taking hold.

Katherine Routledge and the Kikuyu
Larson begins with Katherine Routledge (1866–1935) and her 1906 journey to British East Africa. It was already a bold step for her to escape the “dreary domesticity” of an affluent provincial life in Darlington by applying to read History at Oxford university in her mid-twenties.

Educating women was considered radical, subversive, even dangerous, by the many in middle-class England who thought that it risked undermining women’s true calling as wives and mothers. An education, it was argued, would render them either unwilling or unfit for their domestic duties. It might damage their feminine constitutions, which were too frail and too too irrational for the rigours of academic study. […]

To get around these prejudices, the first women’s colleges at Oxford were presented as harmless finishing schools.

After university Routledge spent a few unhappy years teaching at Darlington Training College before moving to London, where she became involved with the South African Colonisation Society. In 1905, after a trip to South Africa, she met William Scoresby, a “colonial drifter”, in London. In British East Africa, at the frontier outpost of Nyeri (a six-day trek from Nairobi), he had already begun to document the Kikuyu people—who “matched the anthropologist’s ideal of a ‘primitive culture’ perfectly”. After marrying in 1906 they resolved to make their home there. Though they were untrained, it was still unusual for anthropologists to spend a year in the field.

But by the time they returned to London in 1908, their relationship was suffering. Their book on the Kikuyu was published in 1910, with their individual contributions carefully noted. As she observed, “there is work which, if it is to be done properly, must be done by a woman”. And in a similar vein to her counterparts in the USA, she “revelled in the opportunity to disrupt British middle-class assumptions” about gender relationships.

This led to an invitation for Katherine to enrol for Oxford’s recently-established diploma in anthropology, headed by Robert Marett. She was among four women and nine men who took the course in 1911. Women were less likely than men to be concerned about their future earning potential, and anthropology was an “intrinsically egalitarian subject”.

Maria Czaplicka
Among the new students was Maria Czaplicka (1884–1921). From a poor background, with Warsaw dominated by Russian culture, in order to gain a Polish education she had attended the Flying University, an illegal underground organisation. By 1910, in her late twenties, she won a scholarship from the Mianowski Fund to come to England.

She first attended seminars at the LSE, where Bronislaw Malinowski was her fellow student. With no family outside Poland, Czaplicka soon took to Oxford life, despite the considerable effort that went into making women invisible there: after the more relaxed social life of London, she found the “sex apartheid” strange. Vera Brittain, who arrived at Somerville in 1914, wrote that Oxford was “deeply attached to its standards of scholarship and totally indifferent to ugliness and dowdiness” (and do read her Testament of youth).

As well as taking tutorials with Marett, the new intake attended lectures by Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and Arthur Thompson, professor of human anatomy.

Barbara Freire-Marreco and New Mexico
In 1911, for the first time, a woman gave a series of lectures for the anthropology students. Barbara Freire-Marreco (1879–1967) came from an affluent background in Woking; after studying Classics, she had taken the anthropology diploma in 1908. As she observed, there was a dangerous division of labour between “literary anthropologists” and amateur observers abroad: half the people had no first-hand experience and the other half had no training.

In 1910 Freire-Marreco had already spent eight months doing fieldwork in New Mexico, joining a camp run by the American School of Archaeology near the Rio Grande. At first she struggled

to find a suitably “savage” people to study: some were not savage enough, others were too savage, and none were particularly willing to talk.

As she learned the Tewa language, she made a base at the pueblo of Santa Clara. But

they were not about to open their hearts to an Englishwoman simply because she asked politely.

These settlements had long suffered from colonial intrusion, beset by the usurpation of their land, disease, the influx of settlers, the railroad, and assimilationist policies (see under Native American cultures).

Even as Native American culture was under assault, some settlers were engaging in a nostalgic search for the “old New Mexico”. The brief of team leader Edgar Hewett illustrated the irony:

His genuine academic interest and his desire to share information about pueblo culture also threatened to debase it. Pueblo people knew, from long and painful experience, that the only way to protect their beliefs was to keep them secret.

In leafy Woking, Freire-Marreco’s family had employed a cook, a parlourmaid, and a housemaid; in Santa Clara she now learned the pleasures of fending for herself. Still, she

did not expect her work to be so slow, or so circuitous, and she quickly experienced the fear that every anthropologists feels in the field: that she would have nothing to show for her time abroad. All the lofty theories that she had read at Oxford, about collective psychology and comparative religion and the history of political institutions, seemed reduced to nothing in this world of housework and preserving fruit. But she knew that doing things with people, and sharing their everyday lives, although slow as a research technique, was more reliable than simply asking people to describe themselves.

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Noting the role of the paid “informant”, Larson describes the ambivalent help that Freire-Marreco received from Santiago Narenjo, a prominent local activist. He kept hidden from her the rituals that had gone underground under long-term Christian missionising; but then her casual mention of a green parrot to one of the villagers opened up a seam of enquiry. Parrot feathers were essential to the religious dances of Santa Clara, but in short supply. Freire-Marreco now sent a flurry of letters to her contacts in the USA and England requesting parrot feathers.

Describing English life to her hosts, she found herself the object of anthropological enquiry:

She knew that the limited understanding her new friends had of fox hunting, from her inadequate explanations and their unfamiliar reference points, was hardly more reliable than her understanding of their complex cultural traditions.

Much as she enjoyed the whole experience, it gave her a suitable diffidence.

Maria Czaplicka in Siberia
Larson now turns to Maria Czaplicka’s extraordinary Siberian expedition in 1914–15. Having written unsuccessfully to the Smithsonian for a job there, she was engaged by Marett on a project to work on the ethnography of Siberia, with financial help from Emily Penrose at Somerville. First, Czaplicka could interpret the plentiful Russian research on the topic; having published a preparatory survey of this literature, she was ready to gain first-hand experience.

After the usual lengthy search for further funding, she now chose to live among the nomadic reindeer herders of north-central Siberia, working with the American Henry Hall, who had also studied at the LSE; on the first leg of the journey they were also accompanied by ornithologist Maud Haviland and illustrator Dora Curtis. Via Moscow, they took a five-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway (completed in 1904) to Krasnoyarsk, and then embarked on a three-week voyage by steamboat north on the Yenisei river.

Larson 67

Travelling by sledge between chum family tents in this desolate landscape, they faced daunting hardships. The indigenous Evenks found Czaplicka most perplexing:

She carried so much paper around with her and yet she seemed to know so little about the workings of the world: she could not even get the marrow out of a reindeer bone to eat. Why did she ask so many questions and why did she travel in such dreadful weather, when all sensible people stayed safe inside their chum?

Again, she found herself the object of the locals’ anthropological enquiries.

In letters that reached them after several months, they learned of the imminent outbreak of war. Czaplicka was particularly anxious for her family in Poland. As she described in her book My Siberian year (1916), along the way she also met political exiles from Russia and Poland, including both professionals and “gamblers, drunkards, thieves, and degenerates”. She joked about her own “voluntary exile”. But

Siberia had a strange levelling effect on its population: gentlemen, savants, and criminals all became “peasants”.

By June 1915 they were back in the “relative metropolis” of Krasnoyarsk, collecting artefacts in the surrounding region. In July they set off for England by way of Moscow.

Katherine Routledge on Easter Island
Meanwhile Katherine Routledge and William Scoresby had embarked on a voyage to Easter Island in 1913; arriving more than a year later, they stayed until 1915. Routledge’s time there was far from the liberation that Czaplicka had experienced. The claustrophobic year-long voyage put their marriage under further strain; and they soon found that Easter Island (annexed by Chile in 1888) was no tropical paradise.

Greeted by Percy Edmunds, the English manager of the only farm Mataveri, they soon learned of the island’s troubled past: shipwrecks, persecution, uprisings, and disease.

The history of the island’s extraordinary giant stone statues had already been the subject of speculation. Routledge and Scoresby undertook a survey of the architectural heritage—while following in the tradition of plundering it. Routledge worked closely with Juan Tepano, a foreman at Mataveri, exploring oral accounts of the island’s culture.

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But the population was still troubled, and discontent was brewing. As the female prophet Angata instigated raids on the farm, violence threatened to escalate. The explorers pinned their hopes on the arrival of the Chilean navy; but when they eventually reached the island, rather than punishing the locals they mollified them.

The crisis somehow averted, Katherine continued her survey over the following months—still wishing that the natives would be “better behaved” (cf. this comment on a young “living Buddha” in Qinghai). Leaving the island in August 1915, she reached Liverpool in February 1916.

Back in Oxford, Larson describes the city during the war. Somerville had now become a military hospital. With most able-bodied men having joined the military, women were running the city in unprecedented numbers, in shops, schools, banks, businesses, factories, agriculture, and relief work.

After her return from Siberia, Maria Czaplicka was given a full-time position as lecturer at the University Museum. She found time to provide for the War Trade Intelligence Department, and with Poland occupied by the Russians, she lectured in support of Polish nationalism. She took gladly to farm work.

Winifred Blackman and Egypt
Another woman who took the Oxford diploma was Winifred Blackman (1872–1950). Without formal education, and already in her forties, she studied while volunteering at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Her older brother was an Egyptologist, and she too gravitated towards the region.

Only in 1920, aged 48, did she take the opportunity to visit the country, but thereafter she spent at least six months living there every year for the next twenty years. Her interests soon evolved from archaeology to ethnography. As her Arabic improved, her informant Hideyb Abd el-Shafy began introducing her to the local customs of Upper Egypt, though in 1923 he was murdered by “young roughs” in a mysterious incident.

Larson 147

Egypt was volatile, with anti-British feeling running high, and blood-feuds common. But Winifred found herself in demand as a healer, and she felt more valued there than in England. Again, funding was a constant concern.

It was a far cry from sewing cushions for the church bazaar or attending lectures at the museum.

With All Due Respect, even now I find it hard to imagine an uneducated 48-year-old, female or male, embarking on a career as ethnographer of a remote society.

Larson now returns to Barbara Freire-Marreco, with her marriage at Woking in 1920—part of her gradual withdrawal from academic life. In 1912, declining an offer to do fieldwork on the Navajo, already a popular topic, she had preferred to deepen her studies of the Tewa, staying for four months with the Hano people on the plateau of the High Mesa in Arizona. Their culture varied in interesting ways from that of the people of Santa Clara whom she had studied in 1910. Again she found it hard to gain their trust, and again her relationship with her informant Leslie Agoyo prompted resentment. She paid a brief return visit to Santa Clara.

With the pull of her English family ties, she now declined an offer of a post at the American School of Archaeology for the third time. Her war work then put such thoughts aside. Another job offer from the USA came in 1919, but her marriage in 1920 spelled an end to her academic career.

The sad end of Maria Czaplicka
Maria Czaplicka had followed up her research on Siberia with a book on the Turks of Central Asia (1918). But after the war, funding was no longer available for her to keep her post at Oxford; she wrote unsuccessfully to Franz Boas at Columbia in search of work there. As she sought funding to make a return trip to Siberia, she made a three-month lecture tour of the States in 1919–20. Then, after a visit home to troubled Warsaw, she took up a post as lecturer at Bristol University. Though sad to leave Oxford, she seemed “cheerful and gay”. But in 1921, learning that her fieldwork application had been rejected, she committed suicide, still only 36 years old.

The following year her fellow-student Malinowski published his seminal (sicArgonauts of the Western Pacific.

There are poignant parallels in the lives of Czaplicka and Malinowski. Both Polish, they arrived in England in the same year to study anthropology at the LSE, and both went on to spend the war working in the field. While Czaplicka was strapping herself into a sledge in the Arctic in late 1914, Malinowski was pitching his tent on a tropical island in the Pacific. After the war, as her research gradually faded from memory, Malinowski not only became synonymous with Pacific anthropology, he put Pacific anthropology at the very heart of the discipline.

As Larson observes, Malinowski was not alone in his study of the Pacific; Gerald Wheeler, Diamond Jenness, Gunnar Landtmann, and Arthur Hocart had all done substantial work there. By this time a trend was emerging in anthropology for accounts of a single location; and ethnography was gaining ground over the mere collection of artefacts for museums.

Beatrice Blackwood and New Guinea
Beatrice Blackwood (1889–1975) had studied English at Somerville before the war, and became a student of Maria Czaplicka, whose Siberian field notes she helped organise. After the war she continued to work in Oxford, and in 1924 she spent a period doing fieldwork in the States.

In 1929, aged 40, en route for the Solomon Islands, she stopped off in Sydney to meet the lively young anthropologists who were then in town, including Margaret Mead (whom she found arrogant and patronising), Reo Fortune, and Raymond Firth—all watched over by the senior Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown.

Reaching Rabaul in New Guinea, Blackwood consulted the government anthropologist Ernest Chinnery, who guided her search for a suitably safe field-site.

First she visited the American anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker in Lesu, a village of neighbouring New Ireland. She then moved on to Chinnery’s choice of Buka in the Solomon Islands.

Blackwood felt huge pressure to succeed in Melanesia, and often doubted herself. “Did he ever darn his stockings?” she once asked in good-humoured exasperation while pondering Malinowski’s masterpiece. Needles and thread did not make it into academic monographs, and neither did feelings of depression and inadequacy, or government officials and missionaries, or the myriad ways in which anthropologists, and the people they studied, depended on the colonial infrastructure. There was no truly untouched community where an anthropologist could safely work, nor was there a completely coherent, self-contained story to be told that revealed the timeless essence of a society.

Of course, such insights would later become an essential aspect of anthropology—among much discussion, see e.g. Barz and Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field. And since the publication of Malinowski’s diary, his own methods have been much scrutinised.

Like Routledge on Easter Island, Blackwood soon saw through the idyllic appearance of the coral islet of Petats. The Methodist mission there seemed to have effectively destroyed local traditions. After two months there, resenting Chinnery’s choice, she moved on to the village of Kurtachi on Bouganville Island. There the Catholic mission teacher seemed “harmless”, and the locals were more forthcoming.

Chinnery was acting on deep-seated fears about women working alone in New Guinea, which were largely unfounded. The indigenous population was seen as innately inferior, and the menfolk were assumed to present a sexual threat to expatriate women. But Blackwood gave short shrift to such paranoia.

She began the long journey home in October 1930. Expressing another common sentiment of the fieldworker, she wrote to Arthur Thompson in Oxford,

You will ask my lots of questions I can’t answer and I shall wish I could go back again and find out.

After publishing her book Both sides of Buka passage in 1935, Blackwood returned to New Guinea the following year. Again overruling Chinnery’s counsel, she made a base among the Anga people in the mountainous jungle of the interior. They had indeed attacked several colonists in recent years, and inter-tribal warfare was common. The site she eventually settled on was something of a compromise. On reaching the village of Manki she was disappointed by the government and missionary presence: it seemed less “primitive” than she had hoped—yet another reminder that “it’s always too late”. Blackwood’s work

would always be limited by an insurmountable and eternally frustrating problem: forbidden from living in the uncontrolled areas, beyond the reach of the government administration, she was forced to work with people whose culture had been affected by contact with colonial settlers.

Of course, such acculturation was later to be a given, even a stimulus for research.

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Blackwood found it hard to gain access to the deeper levels of their cultural life. In October she wrote

Nothing especially interesting has happened during the three months that I have been here.

A kitten called Sally, a gift at the aerodrome on her way to Manki, made a useful go-between.

In December she moved to Andarora, which more closely resembled the “Stone Age culture” she was seeking. But her presence caused tensions.

Anga aggression was the only aspect of their culture that outsiders experienced. They became known as violent, without anyone properly understanding the way violence was valued in their communities or how it shaped individuals’ identities.

They never fought while she was there, perhaps out of fear of government reprisals.

Blackwood left New Guinea in August 1937, returning to New Britain to collect artefacts for Balfour in Oxford. Though her enquiring spirit was undimmed, her constant struggles to gain permission to stay in forbidden areas sapped her energy.

She reached home early in 1938. Apart from the large collection of artefacts that she had dutifully collected for the museum, she also brought back reels of 16mm cine film. Some of this silent footage is here:

and here’s Part One of a 2011 documentary by Alison Kahn:

By 1938 Blackwood was almost fifty years old. The artefacts of the Pitt Rivers Museum where she resumed her work were in ever greater need of cataloguing. Having worked there through the war, many of her seniors died over the following years; but she re-established contact with Barbara Freire-Marecco, who was still engaged with anthropological news despite her comfortable domestic life in Hampshire. Blackwood’s work was recognised; she still dreamed of returning to New Guinea. Even after retiring in 1959, having already worked at the museum for four decades, she continued to come in there until shortly before her death in 1975.

The fate of Katherine Routledge
After returning from Easter Island to considerable acclaim in 1916, Katherine Routledge and William Scoresby took some time writing up their notes for a book. With the origins of the island’s culture still enigmatic, they were keen to visit other islands in the region for further clues. In 1920 they set off again, reaching Mangareva in the Gambler Islands in 1921, where they stayed for fourteen months.

In 1924, back in London, Katherine bought a large mansion in Hyde Park Gardens with her inherited wealth. Always abrasive, she became ever more unpredictable and delusional. In 1927 she threw her husband out of the house and changed the locks. They now became locked in a squalid battle over the house, and over her mental health.

Katherine dismissed her servants, boarded up the ground-floor windows and locked herself inside. She gave lucid interviews to journalists, bemoaning the disadvantaged legal status of women. In January 1929 she was taken away to Ticehurst House Hospital in Sussex, a private mental institution for the wealthy. Though relatively comfortable, it was a prison for her. She died there of a cerebral thrombosis in 1935.

The last days of Winifred Blackman
Winifred Blackman had continued scraping funds together for her annual stays in Upper Egypt. But after her 1927 book she only published two short papers. Even when funding finally dried up she managed to keep living in Cairo until the outbreak of World War Two. In 1940–41, in her late sixties, she endured the Liverpool Blitz. With the family home destroyed, along with the collections of Egyptian artefacts that she and her brother had collected, they moved to north Wales. But in 1950, soon after losing her sister Elsie, Winifred, suffering from dementia, was taken to the Denbigh Asylum, where she died in December.

* * *

In the final chapter Larson reminds us of the culture shock these women experienced on returning to the placid life of England. While fieldwork was extremely challenging, for the men it was more of an intellectual investment in a secure future; for the women, it offered elusive hopes of liberation from the constraints of their lives in England. 

To become anthropologists, they had to resist powerful social forces that pressed domesticity on them at every turn; the parents who wished they would stay at home or marry; the friends who quietly disapproved of women earning their own living; the professionals who objected to female anthropologists because, as one senior colleague put it, “there are things a woman ought not to know”.

Freire-Marecco observed that her time in Santa Clara had given her “scope to live and be a real person”—part of which had to be abandoned on her return.

All this enterprise took its toll. Their mental health suffered. Czaplicka killed herself at the age of 36; Routledge and Blackman ended their lives in mental hospitals. Czaplicka, Blackman, and Blackwood never married; the price of Freire-Marreco’s genteel English life after marriage was to abandon her career.

And their pioneering work remained uncelebrated; as the multidisciplinary ethos of the early 20th century became outmoded, they were largely overlooked by the later generation of anthropologists. [1]

In her vivid narration of the stories of these admirable women, Frances Larson has a great gift for encapsulating many of the major issues in anthropology and gender.

 


[1] Among much discussion of various points about fieldwork highlighted here, Nigel Barley drôlely expresses the conflict between theory and field experience; the benefits of our own flounderings in the field for interpreting the reports of others; and he outlines “veranda anthropology” under the fine heading Honi soit qui Malinowski.

On a jocular note, among my roundup of posts on The English, home and abroad is Roni Ancona‘s wry take on intrepid female explorers.

The first snooker commentary

A sequel to Oh and that’s a bad miss, and various posts under Ronnie: a roundup

Snooker b&w

“What shall we do with all these balls?”

The 2021 Masters snooker tournament is now well under way, NOT reaching a crescendo on Sunday.

A most educative aspect of enjoying snooker on TV is the expert commentary by former players. But way back in the Mists of Time, pundits were considerably less well informed. And everyone was hampered by only being able to see the “game” in black-and-white—even live…

Here’s a transcript of the first ever broadcast:

I wonder what he’s going to do with that stick.
I think you’ll find the technical term is “baton”.
Gosh, he used it to hit one ball onto another one. Well that’s a bad start.
Oops, one of the balls has gone down a hole. Obviously another serious mistake.
Yes, unfortunate, that—looks like the ref’s going to punish him by making him take another go.

Hang on, they gave him a goal then, when that ball went down the hole (I think it might be red, but who can tell?). Rewarding failure, if you ask me—Typical!
Yes, but I notice they only score one goal for that. Someone should tell them not to bother.

[zzzzz]

Oh no, now another ball has gone down a hole!
It’s almost as if they’re doing it on purpose.
This time it looks like a black one—makes a change, I suppose. Screwing up once is understandable, but twice in a row, come on! These chaps are clearly amateurs.
Hey, the ref’s put it back on the table—cheating, surely. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? O tempora, o mores!

Have you noticed how they keep hitting the white ball first? Bit unimaginative if you ask me.
It’d be easier without the stick too—whatever it is they’re trying to do.
And they might have thought of the risks and just designed a table without holes in it. Basic design fault, what. I’ll give them a call, once someone gets round to inventing the telephone.
Or they could just play with bigger balls, so they don’t go down the holes.

I think he’s eyeing up a plant!!!
What on earth are you on about? Kindly leave botany out of this. People will think we don’t know what we’re doing.
Sorry, no idea what I meant by that. Mind you, now he’s got a nice angle on the blue to go into the pack, hitting the pink full ball.
You’re at it again.

Hang on—do you reckon the goal is to Attain Emptiness, after the fashion of Huineng and Walt Disney?

[…]
Pour me another gin.
I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.

Hmm, not many red balls left on the table. The ref should put them all back. At this rate they won’t have any more balls left to hit—the whole sorry travesty will just fizzle out. Let’s face it, this is never going to catch on. I’m going to take up accountancy.
Fancy a curry?

Ronnie

Ronnie graces the baize on Wednesday.

Cf. Script to an iconic head-butt. Seriously though folks, don’t miss Ronnie’s divine 147!!!

Discerning rules is pretty much what anthropologists and ethnomusicologists do. This vignette from Nigel Barley on his fieldwork among the Dowayo of Cameroon (cited here) is apposite:

They missed out the essential piece of information that made things comprehensible. No one told me that the village was where the Master of the Earth, the man who controlled the fertility of all plants, lived, and that consequently various parts of the ceremony would be different from elsewhere. This was fair enough; some things are too obvious to mention. If we were explaining to a Dowayo how to drive a car, we should tell him all sorts of things about gears and road signs before mentioning that one tried not to hit other cars.

Armchair ethnography: Chiswick

Chiswick old map

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world to hang out in poor dusty Chinese villages, I hear you ask, when my home “village” of Chiswick offers such rich potental for local history?! OK, it’s not noted for its Daoist ritual; its cosy church fêtes can’t quite compete with the bustle of Chinese temple fairs; and doubtless any séances held there were rather different from those of the Yanggao spirit mediums—but still. For my culture shock on coming home, see here; and for flamenco in Chiswick, here.

In that latter post I cite Nigel Barley‘s classic The innocent anthropologist, and talking of armchair ethnography, in a chapter bearing the fine title “Honi soit qui Malinowski” he has some wise words qualifying the demonising of missionaries:

It was something of a betrayal of anthropological principles even to be talking to missionaries: anthropologists have been obsessed with keeping themselves free of this taint since Malinowski, self-styled inventor of fieldwork, first issued his impassioned cry to the ethnographer to get off the mission veranda and go out into the villages. Still, I would be on my guard against the devil’s wiles and might save myself much time by talking to people who had actually lived in Dowayoland.

To my great surprise, I was received with much warmth. Far from being rampant cultural imperialists, I found the missionaries—except for one or two of the old school—to be extremely diffident about imposing their own views.

Evoking some fine work by missionaries in China such as Grootaers, he notes:

It was surprising how much work was being done on the local cultures and languages, translation work, pure linguistic research and attempts to adapt liturgy to local symbolic idiom; my own research would have been quite impossible without the mission’s support.

“Ethnomusicology at home” has an impressive tradition too: from Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians (on the exotic musical rituals of the tribes of Milton Keynes) to wise analyses of WAM by Nettl, Kingsbury, and Cottrell, as well as Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle.

* * *

I’ve already noted the leaning pillarbox of Chiswick. The Chiswick timeline project provides fine material on the area’s changing topography with artwork and maps (albeit not by Artisan the Sixth or Li Manshan), also now adorning the archway by Turnham Green station. Would that such material were available for Li Manshan’s village of Upper Liangyuan! This is just the kind of community project that can be achieved in a bourgeois enclave, even as desperate families are being incinerated a mere stone’s throw away in North Kensington.

This advertisement from 1882 (“Annual death rate under 6 per thousand”) is particularly drôle, evoking flawed campaigns like that for Chumleys vinegar:

healthy Chiswick

“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”.

Blake

Peter Blake, Chiswick Empire Theatre, 2017. I hardly need point out the Sgt Pepper link.

* * *

painting of pool

John Lavery (1856-1941), Chiswick Baths, 1929.

Even without getting onto Chiswick House, or Bedford Park and its fine architecture in the Dutch style, I’m intrigued to learn about the history of my regular swimming pool (see also here), the New Chiswick Pool—like the “old” and “new” musics of the Tang dynasty, and the stile nuovo of 17th-century Italian music, it was new when they chose the name. [1]

Chiswick Baths opened in Edensor road in 1910:

With their innovative architecture—including the double-decker changing cabins—and risqué mixed bathing sessions, this watery west London meeting place was a prototype for the classic art deco lidos, promoting freedom, frolicking and fun [a Chiswick variant on fado, football, and Fátima].

You can watch charming clips here, from 1924 and 1927 (“California hasn’t a monopoly of bathing belles or the latest in beach costumes”)—and many more on that site.

No matter what doom and gloom was going on elsewhere in the country [Phew–Ed.], the flighty, sprightly, bright young bathers of Chiswick’s “inland seaside” could be found embracing a sense of gay abandon.

Just as with Daoist ritual in Yanggao, it’s safe to say that Things ain’t what they used to be.

But by 1981, the council found the lido (as it had become known) too expensive to maintain, and it was closed, amidst considerable—if perhaps genteel—protest. Half of the site became home to the Moldovian Embassy (“Not a lot of people know that”), while by 1991 the New Chiswick Pool was opened on the other half.

So that’s the background of my regular swimming pool; it’s closed for repairs at the moment, so it’ll be even newer soon (with or without the gay abandon).

In case you haven’t spotted my fictional address at the foot of the home page, I rather like it:

Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle* within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity, Chiswick
京西微玄觀內碧雲罐庵

*Azure Cloud Bottle: Bombay Sapphire

 

[1] See Picken and Nickson, Music from the Tang court 7, ch.3; for stile nuovo, among much analysis, I’m dead keen on Susan McClary, Feminine endings, ch.2.

 

 

Return of the Prophet (Not)

SLY guada

Li Manshan (2nd right) chatting with fellow villagers in Upper Liangyuan, March 2018.

I’ve just had an amazing time in China, both in the countryside and in Beijing (more anon). Still, it’s good to get back—a feeling I described in my book (p.357):

Return of the Prophet (Not)
Back in this mild grey country, I begin writing up my notes over a stiff gin-and-tonic (à l’espagnol, easy on the tonic) as I listen to Bridget Christie [1] on BBC Radio 4, relishing cultural diversity again. My life has become schizophrenic; in London I meet up with a couple of friends maybe a dozen times a year, whereas in Yanggao, in the daily company of eight or more people morning to night, I am wrenched into constant socialising. This brings me alive and animates my reclusive life back home. Nigel Barley expresses the confusion of the homecoming fieldworker. [2] Returning from Cameroon, on an ill-fated stopover in Rome,

 Café menus offered so many possibilities that I felt unable to cope: the absence of choice in Dowayoland had led to a total inability to make decisions. In the field, I had dreamed endlessly of orgiastic eating; now I lived on ham sandwiches.

And when he finally manages to get back to Blighty,

It is positively insulting how well the world functions without one. While the traveller has been away questioning his most basic assumptions, life has continued sweetly unruffled. Friends continue to collect matching French saucepans. The acacia at the foot of the lawn continues to come along nicely.

The returning anthropologist does not expect a hero’s welcome, but the casualness of some friends seems excessive. An hour after my arrival, I was phoned by one friend who merely remarked tersely, “Look, I don’t know where you’ve been but you left a pullover at my place nearly two years ago. When are you coming to collect it?”

Having immersed myself totally in Chinese cultures these last few weeks, with only occasional recourse to the Guardian just to remind myself there’s a world out there, this morning on Radio 3 I bask in Germaine Tailleferre, Astor Piazzolla, and Biber…

[1] Whose use of the classic London underground warning, I gladly concede, may well be more effective in feminist comedy than mine in Daoist ritual studies.
[2] Barley, The innocent anthropologist, pp. 184, 187.

The brief of ethnography

Gaoluo 1989

Recently on Twitter, following a post on my work with the Gaoluo village ritual association, an urban Chinese worker sent me a succinct and intriguing reaction:

中国农村地方的风俗,我不喜欢!— I don’t like local Chinese rural customs!

Well, tough! 罗卜青菜各有所愛, chacun à son trou, “it’s a free country”… But actually it’s a valid point, highlighting an important issue.

Rural customs are what rural dwellers do; it’s hard to belittle the former without rejecting the latter. It’s not just a lack of tuanjie solidarity within the Labouring Masses, between the gong workers and the nong peasants; there has long been a more general alienation anyway among the urban educated. This feeling that Chinese tradition is “backward” dates back well before the 20th century, despite the efforts of Chinese folklorists since the 1920s to document the, um, heritage.

Today those older urbanites who endured banishment to impoverished villages under Maoism (like Kang Zhengguo, or the countless, and hapless, zhiqing educated youths from 1968) have good reason to feel ambivalent about rural culture (see also here).

Younger cityfolk may not have had to endure rural life like their elders. But steeped in pop music and video games, when they are dragged back to the poor countryside to attend the funeral of a grandparent, they too may find village customs irrevocably tainted by poverty and backwardness.

Moreover, apart from those duped by the media into regarding folk culture as a theme park, those younger cityfolk (not least those bravely seeking social justice) have been further alienated by rosy state cultural propaganda—quite understandably.

Of course, the arcane concerns of academia generally may not float their boat. Anyway, they’re unlikely to be excited by the links of some Daoist ritual to manuals from the Song dynasty.

But ethnographers don’t have to be misguided mouthpieces for official patriotism. It’s not about praising traditional culture—more about documenting it, complete with all the problems of rural life. Ethnography aims for the descriptive, not the prescriptive. I’ve already given some traumatic examples of participant observation in fieldwork—Germaine Tillion’s notes on her own incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Sudir Venkatesh’s work among Chicago street gangs.

So it’s always worth documenting society, and history, without romanticizing it as some ideal “living fossil” of an illusory golden age. Along with any grandeur that pundits may impute to ritual in rural China, there belong power struggles, violence, the plight of women and blind outcast shawm players, and all kinds of tribulations under imperial, Maoist, and modern regimes. And while studying folk culture, it’s proper to note the alienation of younger urban dwellers from it, as I do. Indeed, I’m not naturally thrilled by Morris dancing—but when you get to know a little about it, you can see how it fits into the changing social culture of rural England.

However rapidly the Chinese rural population has been diminishing since the 1980s, documenting rural life is just as important as studying urbanites, of all classes—including the workers’ struggle and their expressive culture. We don’t have to “like” ♥ (grr) the songs of either those workers or household Daoists, but they all need documenting.

Descriptive ethnography doesn’t necessarily imply standing aside entirely from judgment. Now, as it happens I do indeed admire many aspects of village ritual, but that’s not the point. More adventurous fieldworkers (like De Martino) may seek to spell out some respects in which ritual is life-enhancing, offering consolation and cohesion; or, conversely, ways in which it serves to entrench delusion and conflict, or fortify irrational power. Or—quite likely—they may entertain both hypotheses at once. And both need to be tested, not assumed.

So to that underwhelmed Chinese worker on Twitter, I might say: as the great Tsinghua-university-based anthropologist Guo Yuhua can tell you, far from obstructing the quest for social justice, ethnography can be a contribution to it. Apart from urban workers, if anyone has been downtrodden, it’s the peasantry.

However much the official version may seek to reify and sanitize culture, yet factory workers, household Daoists, village cadres, spirit mediums, army recruits, sectarian groups, vagrants, and entrepreneurs are all part of the social spectrum, whose lives deserve to be documented.

All this reminds me of another gem from Nigel Barley. Arriving at his field site in rural Cameroon, he grapples with police bureaucracy (The innocent anthropologist, p.38):

The commandant turned out to be a huge Southerner of about six foot five. He summoned me into his office and inspected my documents minutely.  What was my reason for being here? […] He was clearly very unhappy as I tried to explain the essential nature of the anthropological endeavour. “But what’s it for?” he asked. Choosing between giving an impromptu version of the “Introduction to Anthropology” lecture course and something less full, I replied somewhat lamely, “It’s my job.”

Speaking from the heart

Further notes on fieldwork
A tribute to Antoinet Schimmelpenninck (1962–2012)

 revised version of a talk I gave at the CHIME conference in Leiden, 2012

ant

Amdo-Tibetan area, south Gansu, 2001 (photo: Frank Kouwenhoven).

I never did any fieldwork with Antoinet, but I admired and envied her natural engagement with musicians and with people altogether.

I won’t portray her as some kind of Lei Feng, so this can also be a kind of homage to, and reflection on, fieldwork itself. And I will discuss her alone, whereas of course she and her partner Frank Kouwenhoven, dynamic leaders of CHIME in Leiden, made an indivisible team.

Almost anything can be fieldwork, such as talking to your mum, or your kids, or going clubbing—although we’re perhaps unlikely to undertake all three at the same time. But I refer here to spending time with Chinese musicians in the countryside, which requires a rather different set of skills from hanging out with rock musicians in Beijing, for instance.

Fieldwork by the Chinese on their local musical traditions, in a sense that we can recognize, goes back to at least the 1920s. But when we laowai began to join in in the 1980s, it was exciting to get some glimpses of local folk traditions. We can see that sense of discovering a “well-kept secret” right from Antoinet’s articles in early issues of CHIME[1]

All these years later, I suspect local traditions are still largely a well-kept secret, and that may not be an entirely bad thing. But fieldwork by the Chinese has also thrived since the 1980s; plenty of Chinese are doing great work. In those early days, Chinese fieldwork was rather mechanical: the main object was to collect material in the form of musical pieces, conceived of as rather fixed and somewhat detached from changing social context. Antoinet was at the forefront of broadening the subject; the title of her book, Chinese folk songs and folk singers, is significant. This inclusion of the performers in the frame has borne fruit in Chinese and foreign work.

as-book-cover

Among general skills, we might list

  • preparation (finding available material, maps, preparing questions, etc.)
  • linguistic competence (how I envied her ability to communicate, and latch onto regional dialect)
  • musicality (and “participant observation”; routine for us, rare among Chinese scholars)
  • back home: analysis/reflection; sinology and ethnomusicogical/anthropological theory

In addition to my citings of Bruce Jackson and Nigel Barley (Fieldwork, under Themes), further reflections include:

  • Helen Myers in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (New Grove Handbooks on Music)
  • Barz and Cooley, Shadows in the field
  • Lortat-Jacob, Sardinian Chronicles
  • Don Kulick and Margaret Willson (eds.), Taboo: sex, identity and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork.

As to what is ponderously known as “participant observation”, musicians tend to react well to other musicians—it shows a willingness to engage, and also helps us think up useful questions.

As to what we do after fieldwork: Antoinet was well grounded in ethnomusicological readings, but she was never controlled by theory, she used it critically to illuminate points, as one should. Scholarship is not always like that! Her book really is an amazing achievement. She not only broadened the subject, she made it more profound.

Rapport
A lot has been written about personal interaction in fieldwork. I like Bruce Jackson’s book very much. We all have different personalities; some of us may seem more outgoing than others. It’s an unfair accident of birth, upbringing, and all that. Musicians will be more forthcoming with people they feel comfortable with—like Antoinet. Of course fieldwork manuals talk about good guanxi, but it’s more. We respect people that we talk to, but we also aspire to some sort of equality; we hope to be neither obsequious nor superior. On the agenda here are sociability, informality, amateurism, humanity/fun/enthusiasm/empathy, and humour—all without naivety or romanticism!

We do naturally adapt our behaviour to different situations. I’m much more sociable in China than in England. Antoinet, it seems to me, never needed to adapt, she was just always naturally gregarious and sparkling.

Age is an interesting factor: I guess it’s good to be old or experienced enough to be taken seriously, but intelligence and sincerity are appreciated, and it’s also good to be young enough, at least at heart, not to seem too important! Antoinet was always self-effacing, companiable.

I do bear in mind Nigel Barley’s warning (The innocent anthropologist, p.56):

Much nonsense has been written, by people who should know better, about the anthropologist being “accepted”. It is sometimes suggested that an alien people will somehow come to view the visitor of distinct race and culture as in every way similar to the locals. This is, alas, unlikely. The best one can probably hope for is to be viewed as a harmless idiot who brings certain advantages to this village.

By the way, I’m not a harmless idiot, I often feel like a harmful idiot: I hope it’s a coincidence that everywhere I go, the local traditions go down the drain…

Our ways of repaying all this hospitality are variable, depending on our means and inclinations. One may send photos and videos, and organise tours; Chinese colleagues have gone so far as to install running water, or find urban jobs for relatives.

I note some some handy Maoist clichés linking fieldwork and Communist ideals:

  • chiku 吃苦 “eating bitterness”
  • santong 三同 “the three togethers” (eating, living, and labouring together. Hah!)
  • dundian 蹲点 (“squat”; more generously defined in my dictionary as “stay at a selected grass-roots unit to help improve its work and gain firsthand experience for guiding overall work”. How long is this dictionary?!)
  • gen qunzhong dacheng yipian 跟群众打成一片 “becoming at one with the masses”
  • bu na qunzhong yizhenyixian 不拿群众一针一线 “not taking a single needle or thread from the masses”

My point here is to get over the empty formalism of such slogans and see through to the sincere humanity that once inspired them.

These thoughts on empathy aren’t something we can do much about, but it’s interesting to reflect on the topic. Obviously enthusiasm isn’t enough; on its own it can be quite irritating!

I guess we all use teamwork to some extent, and Antoinet was good at finding, and supporting, good regional and local scholars to work with. I have always relied heavily on my Beijing colleagues to make notes, at least until circumstance and greater familiarity lend me the confidence to spend time with musicians on my own.

Group fieldwork is good up to a point. It depends partly on one’s means, but the group perhaps shouldn’t be too large. I like the informality and flexibility of working alone, but it is a bit much to take photos and videos and make notes and distribute fags all at once.

 Of course Antoinet was interested in all kinds of music-making, but she was among few laowai who did much work outside the main urban areas. Her two main fieldwork areas were very different: in south Jiangsu she found herself mainly doing a salvage project, but in Gansu she found a ritual scene that is very much alive.

As to time-frame, she and Frank mainly made repeated visits over time, and as I did for Plucking the Winds or my work with the Li family. Talking of Plucking the Winds, I’ve never had such a perceptive meticulous and patient editor as Antoinet.

Obviously, a brief interview with a stranger is likely to yield less interesting or reliable results than long-term acquaintance. But I do take on board the notion of stranger value. On one hand (Jackson, Fieldwork, pp.69–70, after Goldstein),

The collector who comes from afar and will disappear again will be able to collect materials and information which might not be divulged to one who has a long-term residence in the same area.

On the other hand, there’s the whole “You will never understand this music” thing (Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology, ch.11, brilliant as ever).

And then, who is an insider? What of urban Chinese? How might an urban-educated male Fujianese get along with female spirit mediums in rural Shanxi, and so on?! There are several complex subjects for discussion here.

Talking of etic questioning, here’s another vignette from the Li band’s 2012 tour of Italy (my book p.336):

Third Tiger is as curious as ever, always asking weird “etic” questions like “Why are Italian number-plates smaller at the front than at the back?” Bemused, I later ask several Italian friends, who have never noticed either. It strikes me that this is probably just the kind of abstruse question that we fieldworkers ask all the time, and I’m sure my enquiries in Yanggao sound just as fatuous. I must cite Nigel Barley (The innocent anthropologist, p.82)—and note the car link:

They missed out the essential piece of information that made things comprehensible. No one told me that the village was where the Master of the Earth, the man who controlled the fertility of all plants, lived, and that consequently various parts of the ceremony would be different from elsewhere. This was fair enough; some things are too obvious to mention. If we were explaining to a Dowayo how to drive a car, we should tell him all sorts of things about gears and road signs before mentioning that one tried not to hit other cars.

By the way, I was the victim of a flawed fieldwork interview some years ago. A Korean student, whom I knew fairly well, was doing an MA on ethnomusicology in London, and had to do an interview. She knew I was both a violinist and did fieldwork on Chinese music, so she came over to my place with a list of questions all prepared. Her English wasn’t great—like, even worse than my Chinese. OK, her project demanded quite a short interview.

She began with “Who is your favorite composer?” and I went, “Well, music is more about context, mood, not compositions, and anyway I don’t listen to so much WAM these days, and most music in the world we don’t really know of a “composer”… OK, if you insist, then Bach.” She went, “Thankyou. What was the best concert you ever done?” so I observed that we don’t do so many memorable concerts over a year, and that great music-making doesn’t only happen in concerts. “Being an orchestral musician can be frustrating, one’s teenage idealism tends to get beaten down, getting a plane, then five minutes in the hotel before a long rehearsal with a boring conductor, no time to eat properly… You could ask me, what was the most wonderful musical experience I have had—it wouldn’t necessarily be playing with an orchestra…” In response to this cri de coeur, she went on, “Thankyou. What is the difference between the Western violin and the Chinese violin?” Aargh. I mean, anyone would want to follow up on all that I had just said, right? But her rigid questionnaire was in control.

So is that what I have been doing in China all these years—misunderstanding, ignoring leads, and following up with my own stupid blinkered questions?!

One hopes to find questions that will get people talking at length (so avoid questions that invite simple Yes/No answers!); but there was I blabbering on, and all she wanted was short snappy answers!

I’m still very attached to the detailed notes of my Chinese colleagues. One can’t record everything on audio or video, and even if we could, it would leave unclear how many characters should be written. I used to use video mainly to film ritual—I only began to record informal situations later. Antoinet was great at bypassing formality.

They recorded all kinds of things as well as formal singing sessions, and sure they had the means to do that, as well as recruiting helpers and so on.

A questionnaire is essential, [2] but it must always be flexible, following their flow, always thinking of new questions, how to express them suitably, and listening. All of which Antoinet was brilliant at.

For me fieldwork is a constant discovery of how inaccurate and superficial my previous notes were. Antoinet and Frank’s enquiring spirit can be seen in these reflections that Frank later sent me:

We had no such thing as a “method”—in general we did tend to visit singers more than one time, preferably many times, in order to ask them the same questions repeatedly, and to let them sing the same songs more than once, with intervals of days, weeks, months or even years in-between. That was only possible with individual songs, of course, not with spontaneous dialogue songs, which we got acquainted with mainly in Gansu.

I think we learned most from what people told us spontaneously, about their own lives, in personal conversations, which were not strictly private conversations. People are nearly always in a space together with others. But group interviews (group chats, rather) were good, people felt at ease, they were not “attacked” by us, they were simply chatting…

Basically, in our fieldwork, we were always out to discover what we were not aware of yet. That is a hard task. And I think we kept discovering that we had not yet asked the right questions, had not investigated the right topics yet… Even now do I realize that I should go back… Maybe this is only the natural, classic, condition for fieldworkers: you return home with an idea of how things might be, you end up with an hypothesis, you suddenly stumble upon a new hypothesis which sheds new light on the situation, but then you have to go back again to test it, and the work starts all over again… A never-ending process, also because the questions you ask are nearly always bigger than the time and resources you have, and you need to address your problems piecemeal… We often wished we were five hundred people!


By the way, do watch their beautiful film Chinese shadows: the amazing world of shadow puppetry in rural northwest China (Pan, 2007).

In short, fieldwork may be an unending amount of work, but it’s endless inspiration too: and one works better when inspired. So I hope we can keep Antoinet’s spirit alive by emulating her humanity, enthusiasm, and critical intelligence.

For a recent volume on doing fieldwork in China, see here.

[1] Or for Daoist ritual, see e.g. Kenneth Dean, “Funerals in Fujian”, Cahiers dExtreme Asie (1988).
[2] For her sample questionnaire for southern Jiangsu, see Chinese folk songs and folk singers, pp.395–6. Cf. McAllester’s questionnaire for the Navajo.

Silly questions

Barley

One prominent badge of fieldworkers, distinguishing them from the natives, restless or not, is their asking stupid questions. Nigel Barley, as ever, has a good illustration (The innocent anthropologist, p.41):

“What happens to a man’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I tried querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club. They ignored me. Then one young man turned round and snapped, “How should I know? Am I God?”

Among many posts on fieldwork exchanges, note Bruce Jackson’s fine exposition, and Speaking from the heart.