The picture on the dust jacket might give the impression of a children’s adventure story. In fact, this is a remarkable work of ethnography on the vanished traditions of Irish mumming and the illustrations, by the author himself, add an extra dimension by conveying the drama of the ritual.
The main body of the book consists of: long interviews with four subjects who remember mumming, a chapter of analysis on the meaning of mumming and then a short afterword. The rich mix of analysis, personal reflection, illustrations, photos and interviews, which the book contains, give a better sense of the patchwork nature of folklore than a drier academic work could.
Who were the mummers? ‘A group of men who go from house to house getting money for a drink,’ says one of the more cynical interviewees. In fact, Irish mumming had a deeper purpose. The culture associated with it bound together a community and, argues the author, could have helped build bridges during the Troubles, if it had not died out.
In the past, it has been argued that mumming was a survival of a pre-Christian fertility ritual. But, for Glassie, the meaning of mumming lies in the use that the living performers made of it, part of a web of seasonal activities that brought the community together through reciprocal obligations and pleasures.
For the performers, the motive was partly the money – all silver and no brass – which spectators would give to performers. The donations would be used to organise a party, the Mummers’ Ball, which all members of the community could attend. But mumming had a further function that gave it the continuing support of the community: mummers were always unmarried young men. The performance already gave a way to flirt with the opposite sex – girls enjoyed guessing who could be under each hood; the money provided for the Mummers ball also enabled the young men to invite a girl they fancied to a party and for everyone else to take part in a social occasion that they had contributed to.
Glassie introduces an element of his own subjective experience to his reflections, grounding the work in the real and away from dry theorising and abstract formulas. In so doing, he argues, implicitly, for a humanist ethnography that includes the personal. What I particularly like about this book is Glassie’s belief that research is not just to score academic points, but can be a means of self-realisation. As he himself writes:
“Mumming was neither my project nor my goal. My project was the creation of an existentially grounded ethnography of people in trouble. ….I was interested in finding out how real people endure moments of violent change. The Irish border country seemed a good choice. My goal was involvement with others. The folklorist… comes to his comprehension of self through engaged and compassionate comparison with others “
You sense his fierce partisanship for his subjects in the way that he displays their photos prominently at the beginning of the book and in the fact that the royalties for the book were divided between them. There is also a moving afterword of letters written by his subjects after his return to the States which shows his continuing relationship with them after the work had finished.
So, what makes it remarkable as a work of ethnography is its qualitative focus on individuals rather than tables and statistics. It’s a subtle book, ostensibly about mumming, but also, implicitly, by its emphasis on community and the creation of fellow-feeling among people, an oblique commentary on the Northern Irish troubles too.
To buy this, or other books, on folklore from Now or Never Books, just follow the link below and then type ‘Folk’ into the keyword search.
I’m auctioning some political ephemera with an interesting historical association next Sunday. Here is the link.
There are two pamphlets in the auction, both published in the 1960s by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) was an organisation with a raft of well-known writers as supporters, including Allen Ginsberg,Truman Capote and James Baldwin, but the only reason that the name is now remembered is because of its association with Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of John F. Kennedy.
On May 26 1963, Oswald wrote to the headquarters of the campaign in New York, volunteering to establish an office in New Orleans. By November 24 1963, less than 6 months later, both Oswald and Kennedy would be dead.
This is a screen grab of Oswald handing out his ‘Hands off Cuba’ leaflets on June 16 at the Dumaine Street wharf near where the USS Wasp, an aircraft carrier was docked.
And here is the archive footage it’s taken from
This is the first of the pamphlets I am selling. As it was published in 1961, Oswald would certainly have read this one.
The second pamphlet is another typical example of what the Fair Play for Cuba Committee produced, but published after Oswald’s death.
What was Oswald’s interest in the campaign? In ‘Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery’, Norman Mailer asserts that Oswald’s interest in Cuba represented an attempt to establish his credentials with the Cuban government, presumably to gain Cuban eventual citizenship. Between 1959 and 1962 Oswald had lived in Russia. Now, with a Russian wife and still some belief in Socialism, he wavered between returning to Russia and starting a new life in Cuba.
But, as Edward Epstein, in his book ‘Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald” says:
“The problem for Oswald was getting there. Since it was illegal at the time for a United States citizen to travel to Cuba, he would have to obtain his visa at the Cuban Embassy outside the country, and to do that, he would need some credentials to prove that he was a supporter of the Cuban government. His game in New Orleans involved creating just such a record for himself. Once he got to Havana, he could, no doubt, find contacts and connections with the Castro government. He even, at one point, bragged to Marina that he would become a ‘minister’ in the government”. (Mailer p.552)
And Mailer himself asserts:
“His real purpose, after all, was not to create a functioning branch of the FPCC, but to build as quickly as possible a record that would impress Castro’s officials. So Oswald’s first need was to assemble a dossier of official FPCC letters, to which he could add such documents as handbills and, even more important, news clippings. He would have to select actions that would attract media attention”. (Mailer p.554)
Here is another link below to a long interview with Norman Mailer where he talks about his researches in the KGB archives and how the Russians were just as baffled by Oswald as Americans were to become.
What were Oswald’s motivations? For me, these pamphlets provide a clue. Could the assassination of JFK, only a few months later, have formed part of this same campaign by Oswald to attain some radical credibility in the eyes of those he admired on the Left? Whatever he mistakenly believed, the literature of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee is one of the few pieces of material evidence available that can provide a window into his thinking as he made the decisions that culminated, on November 22, in the death of JFK.
I have been cataloguing a few books about horses recently. The cover design for this one is really striking. I like the vignette of the fox head, but what style of lettering has been used? As the author wrote and illustrated the book, I’m guessing the design is his.
Cecil Aldin (1870-1935) had a successful career creating popular prints of animals, particularly dogs and horses, which are still collected. He also illustrated hundreds of books in his lifetime, like the immensely popular ‘A Dog Day’, which used his own favourite dog as a model. I’m sure many people, like me, must have grown up loving this book without knowing who the author was. Other well-known books illustrated by him were an edition of Black Beauty and The Jungle Book. Unlike his prints, which are very collectible, the books can be easily picked up second-hand
This one, written as well as illustrated by Cecil Aldin and dedicated to ‘The Young Entry’, aims to introduce fox hunting to a young audience, but the subtlety of the drawings can be enjoyed by someone of any age. As in the drawings reproduced below, a lot of the pencil sketches obtain their effects by adding a single colour afterwards, picking out the red of the fox or the hunting ‘pink’.
I like the disapproving detail of the rider who is having a smoke while out hunting. The caption says, ‘Don’t talk to a whipper-in who is watching a ride’.
Although Aldin was born in London, he had a passion for hunting from an early age, starting as a foot follower while still an art student. He obtained his first horse by bartering it for a painting.
During the First World War, he was Master of the South Berks Hounds. He was also the official Remount Officer for Berkshire. I’m not entirely sure what a Remount Officer was, but I assume they had the job of supplying horses for the army to replace the ones that had been killed. It can’t be a coincidence that two of his best known contemporaries as equestrian artists, Alfred Munnings – who achieved even greater fame than Aldin as a painter -and Lionel Edwards were working at the same depot.
Lionel Edwards (1878-1966), younger than Cecil Aldin by 8 years and with a much longer career, had a strikingly similar career, combining hunting all over the country with creating a series of books in limited editions that depicted members of the local hunts he visited. Rumour had it that he was paid handsomely not to show people falling off! Edwards’ hunting books are still really sought after, perhaps by descendants of the people depicted. Like Ratcatcher to Scarlet, Lionel Edwards was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode.
However, where Edwards’ focus was perhaps more on the the social side of hunting, what is striking in Aldin’s pictures is the sympathy he showed for animals of all kinds. You can see his deep knowledge of the natural world in the details of some of these pictures. The caption below this illustration says ‘Rooks will circle round a hunted fox’.
The Dictionary of British Equestrian Artists give the following assessment of his work:
“Aldin worked mainly in pastel and watercolour. His portrayal of dogs was probably the most sensitive of anyone this century….his horse portraits were beautiful and most sensitive. The best known of his hunting countries tend to give a slightly stilted impression of his horse painting, possibly because in these prints he endeavoured to make every horse and rider a recognisable portrait for obvious commercial reasons. However his large equestrian portraits in pastel, often as large as 5ft x 6ft, were superb”.
For a selection of the illustrated books on horses that I am selling, including several books by Lionel Edwards and this one by Cecil Aldin, click on the link below and then type ‘Equestrian’ into the keyword search.
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