Tag Archives: england’s dreaming

England’s Dreaming #8.5 – Epic Pig on the Wall Fail

Okay, I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot for many reasons, but the latest one was writing about local folklore and forgeting the story from my own home town, which was stupid of me.

See, I’m from the town of Gornal, about 2.5 miles from Dudley. Technically it’s three mini-towns (Lower Gornal, Upper Gornal, Gornal Wood), but no-one knows where the boundaries are, so don’t worry about it. Anyway, Gornal effectively has one major piece of local folklore, a story that locally defined the area for decades. This is the story of the Pig on the Wall.

The legend goes that, in 1875, a parade was held to celebrate Captain Matthew Webb becoming the first man to swim the English Channel. Because Gornal families were said to treat their pets as part of the family, one such family put their pig on the wall to watch the parade go by, and somewhere along the line this got enshrined in Gornal folklore, to the extent that a local pub became known as, you’ve guessed it, the Pig on the Wall (it’s been demolished now, because the world needed another McDonalds).

That’s the story.

However, I learned something terrible tonight.

See, my friend referred me to this story after reading my last post, informing me that, actually…

The Pig on the Wall thing happened in her old town.

Anyone from Gornal might want to look away now, as I feel as though I’m committing an act of treachery, and if I’m found strung up along the Himley Road tomorrow, then at least you’ll know I died for this blog.

See, Captain Webb was from Dawley in Shropshire, and it was that town that held the parade, that town that did the pig thing. A picture taken of the pig became a commemorative postcard, and it was that postcard that got attached to Gornal somehow. It’s all a myth.

I’d say there’s an important point to be made about historic vs folkloric fact, and the malability of local legends, but, frankly, I’m too shocked to make it.

(Although one of the articles I link to suggests that the story only got connected to Gornal around 1970… But I remember my nan telling me the story when I was a kid, so that means the whole thing must have got embedded into Gornal folklore within 15-20 years… Unless I’m reading something wrong.)

But hey, there is a connection for this blog. For Matthew Webb, whose parade caused all this trouble in the first place, tried, and terminally failed, to swim the river beneath Niagara Falls… Which I’ve also visited and blogged about.

Still gutted about the pig though.

England’s Dreaming #8 – The Black Country is Weird

(Before we go any further, just a note for people who live outside of my area – The Black Country is a sub-region of the West Midlands, so called because of the black soot that settled over everything as the result of its industrial heritage – the story goes that Queen Victoria ordered the blinds of her train carriage closed as she passed through the region, although that might just be cobblers – and is nothing to do with its ethnic make-up, as is sometimes assumed. The area consists of Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Walsall. It is not a part of Birmingham. It has never been a part of Birmingham. It will NEVER be a part of Birmingham.)

The Black Country is strange.

You might not agree with that; after all, we’re just a normal grouping of towns, full of shops and pubs and churches and houses and schools and canals with shopping trolleys in them. We have pockets of high deprivation next to areas of relative affluence. We have a zoo. We have a castle. That’s fair enough. So far, so normal. But scratch the surface and we have our fair share of oddness.

For a start, there’s the story of Bella in the Wych-Elm. Not Bella AND the Wych-Elm, Bella IN the Wych-Elm. See, in 1943, a group of lads hanging around in Hagley Woods came across the body of a woman in the hollow of a wych-hazel. The body, badly decomposed, was recovered by police who discovered it was missing a hand. They never figured out who she was – World War 2 was considered more important – but the story soon became a local meme; "WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH-ELM?" graffiti started cropping up, mostly in the same writing. Did the author know the name of the victim? Was it a taunt? Was the murder connected with the War? Or black magic? We’ll never find out, but check out this picture of the Wychbury Obelisk – tell me that’s not freaky…

Less creepy is the fact that the anchor for the Titanic was made in Netherton. Apparently, local sarcasm says that it was the only bit of the ship that worked.

Sadly the Black Country can’t lay claim to one of the most outright insane areas of the West Midlands, Cannock Chase. This is ground zero for High Strangeness in the region, giving rise to stories of werewolves, bigfoots/bigfeet, mysterious big cats, mysteriously appearing koi carp, ghosts, UFOs and goodness knows what else. It’s fodder for an episode or six of Doctor Who.

All this is before we get onto Dudley’s ghost stories, or the Stourbridge cat grafitti / cat disappearances, or the Himley Hall connection with the Gunpowder Plot, or the Crooked House, or… Heck, I swear I once saw a llama in a garden in Brierley Hill. There’s probably enough material for something like the Hometown Tales podcast.

So, a challenge – if you’re from the Black Country, tell me any odd stories you know about our region. If you’re not from the Black Country, tell me why your area is a bit crazy. Because some of that stuff is going to become the stories that are freaking out our kids in the future…

England’s Dreaming #7 – Steampunk Sherlock vs Jack the Ripper and Spring Heeled Jack. On Mars.

So over the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing a lot of posts about British folklore, and most of them have been to do with the ancient stuff – King Arthur, fairies, tales lost in the fog of myth and mystery. And then something reminded me that there’s a whole other vein of story to be tapped.

That something was the BBC’s latest retelling of the Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s fantastic. Well written, great cast, deservedly got the ratings. What’s particularly good about it is how successfully it updated the trappings of the characters, who are best known as being shrouded in smog and surrounded by horse-drawn carriages. It helps that some of the original characterisation has contemporary parallels – the modern Doctor Watson just got back from serving in Afghanistan – so did the original.

Because unlike, say, King Arthur, the ‘folklore’ and culture that developed in the Victorian era comes from a world that’s both alien and similar to our own. It’s not really folklore – when we think of the ‘legendary’ aspects of the Victorian era, they tend to be based on published novels (Sherlock Holmes, the science fiction of HG Wells, Dracula) or historic events (Jack the Ripper, the Industrial Revolution). Somehow though they’ve all coalesced into one, an imaginary London that never existed but still has a folkloric vibe of its own. You can’t help thinking that, somehow, Sherlock Holmes should have been involved in the Jack the Ripper investigation.

It’s also modern folklore – the Victorian era is when the modern world began; the Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first expo, and the Industrial Revolution was effectively the driving force behind the world we have today. These technological advances have spawned a mystique all of their own – steampunk is based around the idea that contemporary technology hit its tipping point in the 1800s, with steam-powered cars and brass computers. Suddenly figures like Charles Babbage become not only notable inventors, but modern heroes; this is particularly starting to happen with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter and the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ – the fact that the first computer ‘programmer’ was a woman makes her a strikingly modern figure and a feminist icon.

This isn’t all that surprising – it seems like an age away to us, and it was, but Sherlock Holmes was interested in the latest crime-fighting techniques (finger printing, forensics), and Jack the Ripper is known as the first modern serial killer – in Alan Moore’s frankly terrifying graphic novel From Hell (don’t bother with the movie), he puts forward the suggestion that the Ripper murders in 1888 gave birth to the 20th century – given how blood-soaked that century ended up, and how the Edwardian era seems to be the calm before the inevitable storm of World War I, it’s hard not to see his point.

(Maybe that’s why the era is so alien and so similar at the same time – it was wiped out by an apocalyptic event that remade the world…)

Even the out-and-out weirdness had that contemporary feel – Spring Heeled Jack was a Victorian bogeyman, a scary figure that belched fire and could leap from the ground to rooftops. In another time he’d be a demon or an elf or something – in the 1830’s he’s wearing a helmet and a manufactured cloak and metallic claws. He may be from the Otherland, but they’ve obviously gone a bit steampunk.

(I swear I once read there was a Spring Heeled Jack sighting very close to where I live. I wish I could track down the reference…)

And then we have Dracula, stalking the streets of London and Whitby, fear of the outsider and issues with sex personified. And the Martians of HG Wells, ambivalance towards imperialism stomping through Woking bringing with them the end of an age. Again, contemporary fears, again figures you feel as though exist in the same world. Alan Moore got good mileage out of this in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it’s just part of the wider stereotypical Victorian era. It’s probably not folklore in the strictest sense, but maybe, in another hundred years it will be, the creation myth for the 20th/21st centuries.

So basically… Watch Sherlock!

England’s Dreaming #6 – Some Questions and Answers

Question:  So, why did you call the last few posts "England’s Dreaming" when in fact a significant chunk of British folklore originated in Scotland, Wales and Ireland?

Answer:  I didn’t think the Celtic nations would mind.

Q:  Are you insane?

A:  If you’d actually read the posts you’d know the answer to that already.

Q:  Seriously, why did you choose that title?

A:  Because I’ve always liked the phrase and I’d like to celebrate a fine purveyor of dairy products.

Q:  So, is there anything you think you missed over the England’s Dreaming posts?

A:  Robin Hood.

Q:  And the anti-globalisation agenda?

A:  Ooo, good one!

Q:  And you missed the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" in the Excalibur post, didn’t you?

A:  Yeah, and that could have lead into a discussion of story-telling traditions.

Q:  Do you know anything about story-telling traditions?

A:  Do comics count?

Q:  I’m asking the questions here.

A:  Fair point.

Q:  Are you going to do any more of these posts?

A:  Probably, just need to clear some head space so I can look at Robin Hood, local legends and some obscure stuff that I sort of half know about.

Q:  Like?

A:  Like how Gog and Magog went from being apocalyptic biblical figures to being giants who hang out in Britain. Also black dogs.

Q:  So have you enjoyed writing this stuff?

A:  Yeah. That’s what I like about blogging, the free-wheeling stream-of-consciousness stuff. You don’t get to do that when you’re writing TPS reports.

Q:  So was there anything else you missed?

A:  Um. No.

Q:  Are you sure?

A:  Yes!

Q:  Didn’t Sudge point out that you also missed a reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when you were talking about the Holy Grail?

A:  There’s a reason for that. I forgot how to spell Jehovah in Hebrew.

Q:  With an I.

A:  Thank you.

England’s Dreaming #5 – The Holy Grail

So we’re still wandering through the byways of myths and legends, and today my dyed-in-the-wool Methodism is going to come out. Because we’re heading into some distinctly Christian – specifically Catholic – folklore, and I’m sorry but I’m a child of the Reformation. And that’s why, when we head into Dan Brown territory, a nerve ending in the corner of my eye starts to twitch, and as we find ourselves on a Grail quest, boy is it twitching!

Because the Holy Grail isn’t in the Bible, or at least not in any direct way – Jesus coins the wine/blood symbolism at the Last Supper but there’s no great description of a Grail, they just use a cup to drink from. Boring and conventional I know, but there you go. No, the Holy Grail is basically a medieval plot device.

See, somewhere between 1181 and 1190, a French poet called Chretian de Troyes wrote Perceval: The Story of the Grail. During the poem, Perceval manages to impress King Arthur, fall in love, meets the Fisher King and has a vision of the Grail. Here it’s an object of power, capable of healing the Fisher King if only Perceval asks the right questions – which he fails to do. It’s nothing to do with the Bloodline of Christ, it’s just the cup that the King’s communion is carried in, important because that’s the only food and drink he’s receiving.

The Grail became holy around a decade later, when Robort de Boron fills in the gaps of its history – Joseph of Arimathea uses the cup from the Last Supper to collect some of Christ’s blood after the crucifixion, eventually making his way to Britain (which links in with an early tradition that had Joseph and a bunch of other minor characters from the Gospels making their way across Europe, as well as being the source of the idea that Jesus once visited England as a boy – cue Jerusalem). None of this really has anything to do with the Bible – effectively it’s New Testament fanfic. Somewhere along the line the Grail became the object of a quest carried out by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and it became enshrined in literature as a sacred macguffin.

However, things get squinky.

Because in French, ‘Holy Grail’ is ‘San Greal’… But ‘Sang Real’ is ‘Royal Blood’. And that’s where we enter conspiracy theory territory, because when you’re talking about Christianity, ‘Royal Blood’ can only really refer to that of Jesus. And in some interpretations, the Grail is seen as a metaphor for a secret – that Christ survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdelene, and had a daughter, the Royal Bloodline. This theory came to public attention in the eighties, but Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code brought it to a mass audience. After all, if you assume this secret is a threat to powerful people, then you’ve got yourself the ingredients of an airport thriller novel with very short chapters.

Thing is, it claims more historical accuracy than it probably should have.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll just rant about one particular thing – the whole Mary Magdelene thing is fanfic. In the Bible, she’s someone Jesus healed and who became one of his followers; she was also the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection. However, in 591, Pope Gregory made a speech that assumed a bunch of women in the New Testament were, in fact, the same person, leading to the assumption that Mary Magdelene was a former prostitute (they eventually corrected the mistake in 1969). In contrast to this, the Gospel of Philip implies that she may have been in a relationship with Jesus – leading to the male disciples complaining of favouritism. This is one of the earliest sources for the whole Bloodline of Christ thing, but the problem is that the Gospel of Philip is way later than the four canonical gospels (basically, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the standard gospels, being the earliest – or based on the earliest – documents. The apocryphal gospels are a lot later and are often out-of-character – back to the fanfic analogy).

That said, I think I can see why the sacred bloodline thing is attractive to some people, and it’s not about Jesus (because, theologically speaking, the whole Jesus story falls apart without the crucifixion/resurrection – any claims for Him being a good moral teacher are blown out the water by that, as His understanding of what he was here to do is based within that context – without that, the bloodline thing stops being ‘holy’ and just becomes about some bloke who had some kids), although it would deal a death-blow to the foundations of Christianity and quite a few people would be down with that. But no, I think part of the reason the Bloodline thing caught on is the importance it gives to Mary Magdelene.

See, historically speaking women have had a raw deal from organised religion. In this particular context, it hasn’t exactly been helped by the way in which Catholicism developed the back-stories of the two ‘main’ Marys – Jesus mother became a sinless eternal virgin, Mary Magdelene became a prostitute, the maiden and the hooker, two almost stereotypical (and somewhat sexist) views of women (neither of which have much biblical evidence – for instance, after the Virgin Birth there’s no suggestion that Jesus’s brothers and sisters were anything other the normal result of a relationship between Mary and Joseph).

So when the bloodline story puts Mary Magdelene front and centre, it’s almost as if it’s addressing an injustice – and maybe the Grail’s symbolic nature here represents the quest for a religion that doesn’t prop up patriarchal systems. And maybe in some ways it succeeds in that – The Da Vinci Code debunking is the reason I learned about Mary not being a prostitute, for instance.

But while I agree that the Church has some issues it needs to face (although I’m Methodist, we have no problem with women ministers, priesthood of all believers and all that), I’m not big on using the Grail to bring pull the rug from under Christianity. Because despite what has been done to the message down the years, the story of Christ is still powerful and moving and world-changing and transformative… And the conspiracy theories aren’t. There’s a reason that, in the earliest story, the Grail is symbolic of a power that can heal a near mortal wound.

In the end, the Grail is a plot device, a quest, a journey; maybe even the journey we’re all on. And if nothing else, it should tell us to ask the right questions while we’re on that journey. Because that’s when the purpose of the journey becomes clear.