Sunday, 17 August 2014

In Search Of Albion - Colin Irwin


An ex-Assistant Editor of the now defunct music weekly Melody Maker is commissioned to write a book about England so sets his controls for the heart of Albion and heads immediately for Padstow, in Cornwall, for the May Day celebrations. Well, you would, wouldn't you? He then heads up to Minehead for a supposed similar celebration then back down to Land's End. The title given to the book is In Search Of Albion and it's all an interesting and revealing start to Colin Irwin's quest to find the spirit of England.

In Padstow he encounters a massive celebration with obvious Wicker Man overtones though without the human sacrifice element. At least not until after dark when all the tourists have gone home. In Minehead he encounters a total lack of interest - in anything, really. And at Land's End he encounters trash culture in all its dumbed-down lowest glory in the form of a mini-fun park and a sign post where you pay £12 for the privilege of having your photo taken under it.

It's not clear what Colin Irwin was hoping to find in these places but in Padstow he certainly has some kind of epiphany because he bursts out crying at one point, overjoyed at the communal singing and the mass celebration of the Obby Oss. Whilst at Land's End he's left deflated and almost feels like giving up on his quest before he's even really begun. But therein was his problem. From the outset he needed to understand that his quest was going to be coloured by his own perception of what Albion might actually be because the truth of the matter is that Albion isn't embodied in any place as such but in a spirit. A tangible energy to be more exact brought about through the amalgamation of spirit, liberty and people. Because Albion is both within and without. It's of and in the past, the present and the future. It's beyond the forces of man-made law and control and it's certainly beyond the power game of money, which is why he wasn't going to find it under a Land's End sign post where people are charged £12 for a photo op. Albion is dormant and brooding like a heavy early-morning mist hanging over the countryside but also explosive and exuberant like a crowd of football fans celebrating a goal. It can sometimes be glimpsed at the last night of The Proms as well as down at the front of a punk rock gig. It can sometimes be glimpsed during an urban riot as well as at a lonely funeral service. Albion is like fish beneath the ice.

Colin Irwin's right in believing it can be represented in music but wrong to assume that it's got to be old English folk music as played on acoustic guitars and tambourines (or even on the shaking bells of morris dancers). No, it can also be represented by skinhead Oi! music as played by a band like Cock Sparrer, Anarchopunk rock as played by a band like Crass, space rock as played by Hawkwind, or even Techno or Jungle as played by any number of DJs.
It may be found in Padstow on May Day for sure, but it may also be found on the dirtiest, neglected council estate on a Saturday night down the pub. It won't be found on the playing fields of Eton or at the Henley Regatta or even within the confines of Buckingham Palace but it might be found on the casualty ward of a hospital, on a picket line of striking workers or even within the confines of Dartmoor Prison. Which, to his credit, is where Colin Irwin goes next to watch a Devon folk singer called Seth Lakeman play a concert for prisoners, and suddenly he's back on track. This is then followed by a search for the lonesome grave of Kitty Jay at Hand Tor, in Devon; followed by tales of Babbacombe Lee, otherwise known as the man they couldn't hang at Exeter prison of old. He then heads for Glastonbury (of course) before landing in Dorset for the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival and it's here that he again becomes unstuck.

The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is one of working class defiance and is a landmark of British social history that should really be on the National Curriculum, but of course it's not. The annual festival is in commemoration of the martyrs and a celebration of English radicalism, and though Colin Irwin is sympathetic and a fan of Billy Bragg (who's there in attendance) that's about as far as his radicalism goes. Which isn't very far at all. In fact, if Billy Bragg is the start and end of anyone's radicalism then they might as well give up there and then, which essentially is what Colin Irwin does when it comes to the political aspect of Albion.
He has a conversation with some guy in the Martyrs Inn pub who tells him New Labour is anti-working class and that the capitalist Left should be rejected just as much as the capitalist Right, but rather than engaging with such an idea he makes light of it and feels a headache coming on. And therein again was his problem. From the outset he again needed to understand that his search for Albion was going to be coloured by his own perception of what Albion might be in a political sense. Because the truth of the matter is that whilst the Right wish to choke Albion with wires, strangle it with fences and stick it with knives; and whilst the Left wish to tame it and manage it through legislative coercion; Albion is in fact anarchic and free. Like it or not, Albion in a political sense is Anarchist, as alluded to in one of the greatest modern-day urban folk songs ever: I'm talking about Anarchy In The UK by the Sex Pistols. And as Johnny Rotten himself has pointed out, this isn't Anarchy as a middle class head game but Anarchy as a working class birthright.

From Dorset, the author travels on to Chippenham for some morris dancing, then over to the Isle of Man to discuss independence. Then to Manchester for the Chinese New Year celebrations, Burnley to discuss racism with Boff from Chumbawamba, Lancashire to find out about witch hunting and the tale of Alice Nutter (no relation to Chumbawamba's Alice Nutter), Baccup to witness the Britannia Coconut Dancers, Durham for the Miners' Gala Day, Cambridgeshire for more morris dancing with Pig Dyke Molly, then to Lewes for Bonfire Night. And quite a few other places in-between.

At times In Search Of Albion reads like a tourists guide to England and it must be said that at times it also reads like the opening line from that other great modern-day urban folk song by the Sex Pistols, Holidays In The Sun: "A cheap holiday in other people's misery." Particularly when he's in Durham. The jacket cover is pretty rubbish as well.
The author, however, manages to keep the whole book jovial and jokey and it's actually an enjoyable and interesting romp that should act as a prompt to further investigations into not only the places he writes about but also the customs, the history, the celebrations and the music he so clearly loves. He concludes by quoting a guy called Paul Wilson from the Wren Trust, a charity helping to promote Devon culture: "The thing is, the more we know about our own culture, the more secure we feel about it. And the more secure we feel about who we and the country are, the more we will understand and tolerate the culture of others coming in, and we can get rid of racism and the rest of it."
England "is not so bad", says Colin Irwin, as a final summing up of his quest. And he's not wrong. Whether he believes his search for Albion has been a successful one, however, isn't really made clear and whether he really understands why England "is not so bad" is another question entirely.

John Serpico

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