New Weird Shepherds part 1: Folk Suburb

…being a quick introduction to three sites that have become important links on the Old Weird Albion reading list during my hiatus, each of which looks at folk music and folk tale in an interesting new light….

Cover of "What I Did This Summer" by Coventry painter George Shaw

Hey! Let’s take a trip to Folk Suburb! is an extremely odd creation: the reification of English folk songs as modern folk tales of suburban English life. Both on the blog and in the first issue of This Roaring Peace – a new .pdf-based zine of these materials created by the sister site Jack’s Tray – Folk Suburb imagines lyrics such as “Lovely Joan” set in today’s suburban netherworlds; a Martin Carthy reared on J.G. Ballard.

Perhaps most successful is This Roaring Peace, the .pdf zine. Done in the physical-cut-and-paste style of ’80s punk and new wave zines, TRP reactivates one of the most powerful visual and formal tools of suburban life. It could easily have been done in blog form – could’ve even maintained the same clipped look and drawn-and-scanned ethic. But as a pdf, TRP becomes as close as we can get to the first primal scream of suburban English life, when The Members, Newtown Neurotics, and Serious Drinking matched DIY attitude and politics with the reggae-flavored punk of London.

TRP also includes its own manifesto of the Folk Suburb, calling to its side strange bedfellows such as Subbuteo and Shirley & Dolly Collins; John Clare and mid-20th-century candy. But in the end, it all works. Just as many early-’80s post-punks rebelled against their damnably suburban existence by embracing all its trappings – to be followed, indeed, by many urbanites looking for the kitschy bricolage of twee glamor – Folk Suburb captures something glorious in its odd juxtapositions.

As its founder – we’ll just call him Matthew – says:

Going along with [the British suburban attitude] is a fear of the city and the country. The city is well covered, I think, so what I am interested in is this reaching in of the countryside, against which the suburb rests and on which it is built. This reaching in can be well dramatised by reusing folk tale and song, and I think that folk tale and song cease to become much if it is not used anew[.] I also love the way that the old country still appears in the suburb; in the faint line of an old lane traceable still in the curve of a street …

The suburb – if it can even be called that – with which I’m most familiar in England is the amazing case of Peacehaven, East Sussex: A town created for the newly middle-class families that survived the Great War intact, and built on top of a remarkably magical chunk of downland territory. And here, certainly, I can see exactly what Matthew is talking about.

Peacehaven borrows the American suburban trick of naming streets after that which has been paved over, and of similarly dubbing the town itself with an illusory moniker. (As a friend said, “There was never a haven here, and what shelter there is was never peaceful.”) It stands as something of a professional’s border guard against the drone and crones of the agrarian downs of Telscombe and Piddinghoe to the north and east, while watching out for encroachment by the “urban” yobs of Moulsecoomb and metrosexuals of Kemptown to the west.

The end result, of course, is a mishmash of architectural and life styles that so perfectly represents the confusion and forceable forgetting of modernity as to require a folk tale in order to understand its situation. One story that I’ve fixated on from Peacehaven is the haunting of an old building there – once a mad retirees suburban palace, then an actual madhouse, then a temporary home for women transitioning out of abusive situations. How, I wonder, can a building less than 100 years old be so thoroughly psychogoegraphically haunted in a country in which late-19th century buildings are sometimes still referred to as “new”?

But what else could be the response of living in a modern professional lifestyle, attempting to harness the energy of the moment for a new car and two holidays abroad each year, with something like St. Laurence’s Church (12th Century) and the Copper Family within your ken. Hauntings are the suburban answer to the lack of folk tale; they’re attempts to create the tales which the suburbanites need to understand their own misunderstanding of history.

And it’s this haunting which Folk Suburb has set out to create – a haunting that implies the iPhone and the text message in harmony with “the annual eruption of the hawthorn.”


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