Archive for October, 2013


The Goose and the Commons

October 28, 2013


The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

The Goose Girl Edith Somerville 1888

The Goose Girl Edith Somerville (1888)



An Apport in Merry Oak: Shades of the Cottingley Fairies?

October 27, 2013

About fifteen-or-so years ago I was working on a dissertation, called Away With the Fairies: Rock Art and Psychic Geography in West Yorkshire. It focused on Neolithic/Bronze Age rock carvings found on the Yorkshire Moors, and I placed them in the context of the process of enclosure in early modern Britain – when common land was turned over to private ownership – and the transgressive dimensions of local fairylore and witchcraft. I remarked on parallels with archaeological interpretations which proposed a similar process of enclosure between the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and I further argued that the enclosure of the commons in the early modern period accompanied ‘the enclosure of consciousness’, a characteristic of the scientific rationality which informs the discipline of archaeology, requiring the exclusion of a whole ‘secret commonwealth’ of experience not amenable to the ‘single vision’ of objective analysis.

As part of the fieldwork, I spent a week in Ilkley, joined by my esteemed colleague, Robert J Wallis, looking at the rock art on Ilkley Moor, as well as visiting places like Snowden Carr, Pendle Hill and Cottingley, the latter place famous for the photographs of fairies, taken by the cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright in 1917. A famous image, published in the issue of The Strand Magazine of December 1920, with a commentary by Arthur Conan Doyle, is reproduced here.


One day, we visited Cottingley Beck, the location of Frances and Elsie’s encounters with fairies and their photographing of them. As we approached, we met two young girls also heading for the Beck, as if following the footsteps of Frances and Elsie in 1917. They were armed with a toy plastic bucket and a child’s fishing net. When we asked if they were looking for fairies, the girls replied, matter-of-factly, “No, frogs.” I made sure I took a picture of the waterfall, but no fairies made themselves known.

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The same day, me and Robert searched up in Cottingley Woods for a stone carved with prehistoric ‘cup-and-ring’ motifs, named by local researcher, Paul Bennett, ‘The Faerie Stone’, although it had no direct connection with Frances and Elsie, as it was just over a mile away, amidst deciduous woodland on an escarpment overlooking the Aire valley. It had been our understanding that, hitherto, it had not been formally recorded, other than being photographed.

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We found the kidney-shaped boulder,  carved with the kind of motifs familiar from our encounters with carved stones in the more exposed contexts of places like Ilkley Moor and Snowden Carr, and unfurled the plastic sheet upon which we would trace the patterns formed by engraved lines and ground cupules – ‘the science bit’.

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Carved motifs on The Faerie Stone. Tracing by Simon Crook and Robert J Wallis, adapted for reproduction by Thomas A Dowson (1998).

There are some nice pictures of the Faerie/Fairy Stone here and a more detailed discussion of it, with additional illustrations, here.

‘The overcoming of private property means… the complete emancipation of all human senses and aptitudes’

Back in Southampton, it wouldn’t have been more than a few weeks later – if that – when I was writing up the material, at the time that my wife, collecting our two youngest boys from school, decided to take them for a little play at the swings and slides between the Merry Oak and Itchen estates, in the corner of a large playing field known as the Veracity Ground. In Away With the Fairies I write that ‘the case of the Cottingley Fairies’ encapsulates the conflict between two modes of ‘knowing’. Frances Wright maintained, to the end of her days, that “There were fairies at Cottingley”, but both she and Elsie acknowledged that the first picture was staged, with stiff paper cut-outs and hatpins. It was as if the cousins felt compelled to manufacture the proof of their ‘irrational’ visions of fairies, to conform to the standards of scientific objectivity, in order to convince people of the veracity of what they saw. As my wife approached the playground, she saw a magazine on a bench. Fearing it was a discarded pornographic magazine, she raced ahead to retrieve it before the boys saw it. She was astonished to find that it was a copy of The Strand Magazine from March 1921, ‘with new fairy photographs’ and an article by A. Conan Doyle, ‘The Evidence for Fairies’… We remain astonished, to this day.

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I’ve found a wonderful ebook version of Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies (1922), with many pictures. Here




The Goose Girl: an illustration by Arthur Rackham

October 23, 2013

The Goose Girl: an illustration by Arthur Rackham


Obscured by glass, a ‘Dancing Nautilus’

October 21, 2013

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The loneliness wrought by social cleansing in London, my city.

October 19, 2013
Be Civil

A view of Pimlico

I was struck by the rank hypocrisy of Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, pontificating on the loneliness of people in old age, while shifting responsibility for their plight on their wider families, here. Watching TV news reports and interviews with elderly Londoners, it soon became apparent that the wider network of people – ‘the community’ – which might have been counted on before as some kind of informal support, has been comprehensively obliterated, both by the development of the economy and government policy to facilitate this development. Time and again, old Londoners spoke of their children and grandchildren living hundreds of miles away – Devon, Northampton and beyond. I know from experience that this dispersal of millions of working class Londoners from their city has not been wholly voluntary, or a ‘free choice’. It is a process of social cleansing which is continuing apace, sterilising what was once alive.


The real domination of capital… it makes lonely strangers of us all.

I envy those who live in the same areas their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived, alongside friends and relatives, and the history that they share. They can’t have that sense of being uprooted and not quite belonging anywhere… I don’t regard Hampshire as ‘home’. Then again, within the global and thoroughly commodified condition of the real domination of capital, we are all of us estranged from a world which has become foreign to us through wage slavery and the circulation of commodities – what Karl Marx called alienation, that nagging sense of exile and loneliness. That aside, I still have elderly relatives living in Westminster and South London and know of the long family histories in what I continue to regard as my city – brewery draymen, cleaners, domestic servants, lightermen, hansom cab-drivers, coal-heavers, hooligans… While I realise that I have a rose-tinted view of ‘old London’ – a symptom of the general alienation – I remain fiercely proud of that history.

London belongs to me…

I visit London whenever I can, sometimes on an ‘ancestral heritage trail’ around Pimlico, Wandsworth, the Strand, Battersea, Lambeth… Morden, Carshalton. The pints I’ve quietly enjoyed in the White Swan on Vauxhall Bridge Road, Pimlico, knowing that it was comprehensively wrecked by my grandad’s uncles, described in the recollection of an elderly cousin as ‘crop-headed wild men’ who steamed over from Nine Elms to avenge my great-aunt’s godfather, who had been beaten up in there. A glass raised to ‘the boys’.

Another jaunt took me to Salamanca Street in Lambeth, where my great-great grandfather was resident at the time of his untimely death in 1885. He had, two days before, started a new job as a hansom cab-driver (he had been a sawyer). His horse bolted in Palace Street, Lambeth, dashed past St. George’s Cathedral and crashed near a cabstand at the Elephant and Castle. Mindful of this sad story, I positioned myself at the top end of Salamanca Street, facing across the Thames to Millbank. I took a photograph. As I clicked the shutter a black cab shot into view. I clicked again, but it had been a one-off.

black cab

I couldn’t help thinking there was a little bit of magic at work there…

Edit 13th September 2014

In the months since this post it has dawned on me how this area of Salamanca Street must have been the context for the first meeting of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather was 14 years old when his dad was killed in the hansom cab accident. The parents of his future wife lived at Gunnell’s Cottages, which were situated off Salamanca Street, at the back of the Doulton Pottery Factory. The Cottages and the top end of Salamanca Street were demolished to make way for the Albert Embankment, which I suppose would explain why my great-grandparents would ultimately make their life in Pimlico.

Pulford Street, where my grandad was born in 1914, survives as an entrance to the Tachbrook Estate in Pimlico. I remember taking part in a mass kickabout with a tennis ball here (about 1966ish); someone managed to kick it out of the courtyard into the Thames.

Pulford Street, where my grandad was born in 1914, survives as an entrance to the Tachbrook Estate in Pimlico. I remember taking part in a mass kickabout with a tennis ball here (about 1966ish); someone managed to kick it out of the courtyard into the Thames.



Eternitas, an Emblem from Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612)

October 19, 2013

Eternitas, an Emblem from Henry Peacham's Minerva Britanna (1612)

I was gratified to find a printout I did on 21/05/2002 of pages from The Minerva Britanna Project (, because the site no longer exists, and I’d been searching in vain for this particular image. (Even so, the whole book can be seen here, the relevant page reproduced below). I first encountered a version of this image (Emblem 141 in Peacham’s book) as an illustration in Michael Dames’ The Avebury Cycle, the follow-up to The Silbury Treasure.


Michael Dames describes it as a late form of the henge image, carrying a related meaning, seeing in the two orbs in the superhuman female’s hands an echo of the North and South Circles within Avebury henge: ‘The henge was the goddess of love, described formally’ (1977: 135). The motif of two balls within a hoop was ‘still carried on May Day by the Irish peasantry. Suspended within a hoop, the two balls represent the sun and moon, and are sometimes covered with gold and silver paper,’ wrote Lady Wilde (136).


Avebury, early September 2010

Michael Dames 1976 The Silbury Treasure London: Thames and Hudson

Michael Dames 1977 The Avebury Cycle London: Thames and Hudson

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A superhuman female, holding within the great circle of her body two smaller orbs, ‘do expresse Eternitie’ in Peacham’s Minerva Britanna, 1612, a late form of the henge image, and carrying a related meaning (Michael Dames, The Avebury Cycle, 1977, p.136).



Paul Klee and the World’s Earliest Domestic Wall Painting

October 18, 2013

11,000-year-old Wall Painting

The other night I found a newspaper cutting about the discovery of an 11,000-year-old wall painting in Djade al-Mughara, Syria in 2007. The report that the painting had been moved to the museum in Aleppo – a city now ravaged by civil war – led me to do an online search to try and find out what had happened to it. Here‘s an extract from a Reuter’s article on its discovery six years ago:

The 2 square-metre painting, in red, black and white, was found at the Neolithic settlement of Djade al-Mughara on the Euphrates, northeast of the city of Aleppo, team leader Eric Coqueugniot told Reuters. “It looks like a modernist painting. Some of those who saw it have likened it to work by (Paul) Klee. Through carbon dating we established it is from around 9,000 B.C.,” Coqueugniot said. Rectangles dominate the ancient painting, which formed part of an adobe circular wall of a large house with a wooden roof. The site has been excavated since the early 1990s.

This rectangular pattern resonates with Paul Klee’s painting, Alter Klang (Ancient Sound) of 1927


Aside from the checkerboard pattern which links these compositions across the millennia, there is one Klee painting which, in its red, black and white composition, is evocative of the painted wall of what looked like a communal house, constructed by people who lived from hunting and gathering wild plants; his Picture Album (1937).


In what seems now a poignant observation, the archaeologist, Coqueugniot says, “This site is one of several Neolithic villages in modern day Syria and southern Turkey. They seem to have communicated with each other and had peaceful exchanges.” Patterns of continuity – ‘for ancients link with presents as the human chain extends’ (FW 254.8-9) – are also noted by Mustafa Ali, a Syrian artist, as a similar geometric design to that in the Djade al-Mughara painting found its way into art throughout the Levant and Persia, and can even be seen in carpets and kilims (rugs): “We must not lose sight that the painting is archaeological, but in a way it’s also modern,” he said.

Hindsight raises questions as to the wall painting’s current state: 

The painting will be moved to Aleppo’s museum next year, Coqueugniot said.


The writer and aesthetician, Walter Benjamin, possessed a painting by Paul Klee which has become emblematic of Benjamin’s materialist historiography, as described in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Edit (20/10/13): I’ve just found out that a major exhibition of Klee’s art has just opened:

More on Klee: In the chaotic aftermath [of the First World War], he became part of the artists’ advisory board of Munich’s short-lived Revolutionary Republic, claiming that “the part of us which aims for eternal values would be better supported in a Communist community”… The artist Hugo Ball observed that, “in an age of the colossus, Klee falls in love with a green leaf, a star, a butterfly’s wing. I know of no man more in touch with his inspiration than Paul Klee.”… On Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, he produced 250 brutally scrawled pencil drawings permeated with a sense of anxiety about the future. Yet when asked to produce evidence of Aryan ancestry, he refused: “I would rather accept some hardship than play the tragicomic figure courting the favour of those in power.” – From here.