Heritage and Blacking up

The recently circulated photo of David Cameron posing with some ‘blacked up’ Morris dancers in Banbury raises some interesting heritage issues. In essence, this is a question of whether a claim of being an authentic ‘heritage practice’ can justify an activity (of blacking up) that in almost any other circumstance might well be considered racist? Is it ever ‘OK’ to black up in the name of ‘heritage’? Should people who are offended by the sight of people blacking up, therefore feel less offended in the knowledge that ‘no offence was intended’?


Typical of the media comment on the debate was the article by Martin Kettle in The Guardian:

Essentially, the argument is that the practice of blacking up is not racist, on three counts. First, the practice of ‘blacking up’ is an old tradition. It has been around since at least the early 20th century, and can trace its roots back, perhaps, 200 years or more. The second argument that is deployed is that the practice is ‘rural’, and so (somehow by definition) cannot be intended as ‘racist’. Indeed, Kettle’s basic message in his article is that the UK is made up of many regions, and so a practice that is carried out in one region (e.g. blacking up in rural Oxfordshire), should not be ‘taken out of context’ and misunderstood by people from another region – that people in urban and metropolitan Britain who are offended by ‘rural folk’ blacking up should be put at ease. The third case, which is often a central strand of the argument that Martin Kettle, Will Straw and many more ‘liberal-progressive’ commentators deploy, is that the practice of such rural blacking-up is actually part of an otherwise hidden tradition of rural radicalism. Rather than being a sort of “we don’t intend to be racist” line of defence that the first two arguments contain, this third case is actually more of a provocation; that those (left-leaning and ‘politically-correct’) liberals who are usually offended by such behaviour, ought to be actually supporting such ‘authentic traditional and radical practices’.

Let’s have a look at each of these claims through a critical heritage frame of reference
In terms of legitimising certain practices simply through claiming ‘great age’, I feel that this claim is always on thin ice. While many ‘invented traditions’ are actually not very old at all, the support of any act simply due to its great age is never very convincing. On the one hand, bear baiting, witch burning and the trading of enslaved people each have very strong claims to be ‘very old practices’, but their claim to great age should not insulate them from critique. On the other hand, all ‘traditional practices’, however old, have a beginning at some point, together with a context of development, re-interpretation and change throughout their life histories. They should not be merely ‘copied’ as some sort of essential and stable practice, proverbially inscribed in stone. Indeed, I am slightly troubled by the very vagueness of the deep histories of blacking up. I read about rural workers using coal dust to hide their faces while protesting; or rubbing charcoal onto their faces to remain hidden while begging for alms – always in a very general sense. In Padstow (Cornwall), there is even a particularly durable story of blacking up as a form of celebrating the times when passing slave traders would land their human cargo on the quayside to given them some exercise. (This Padstow legend has been debunked several times both by writers who support the blacking up ‘tradition’ and those that are critical, and has also been ‘disowned’ by the organisers of the Padstow “Mummer’s/Darkie Day” events).

How the music, dancing, bells, and bright costumes runs alongside an ambition of ‘hiding from view’ is often glossed over – these things do not seem to be a very good way of ‘hiding’! I can certainly see some resonance to a ‘rough music’ tradition of early modern England (and I will return to this below), but rather than celebrating instances of specific grievances, the whole genre seems to be one of performing a vaguely symbolic act. This is not very satisfactory, particularly when this symbolic act rarely seems to lead to any deeper analysis, nor celebrate a particular story in any active/living manner.

Furthermore, in most cases that I have read about, the claims to ‘ancientness’ simply do not appear to be supported by deeper evidence – or at least there appears to be much evidence that, whatever antiquity might once have existed has long been smothered by more recent re-interpretations – mostly 20th century and mostly overtly racist. The group that David Cameron posed with uses the ‘Border Morris’ style, which, according to the Daily Telegraph, was known as ‘N-[word] Dancing’ in the early 20th century. In other words, whatever the authenticity of the claims to great age, the practice has certainly picked up some unsavoury baggage in the meantime, which should not be ignored.

How about the second line of defence – that people in Metropolitan areas should not be offended by such noble ‘rural’ traditions? This line of argument seems to be suggesting that ‘rural England’ must be insulated from racism – implicitly on the basis that there are ‘no black people in rural areas’. This is certainly a disturbingly common refrain, which seems to attract a surprising level of ‘taken-for granted’ acceptance. (See my recent paper in the International Journal of Heritage Studies: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13527258.2014.955812#.VEjbycmescs)

Such narratives seek to locate the practice of blacking up in a place that is insulated from criticism by virtue of being supported by ‘locals’ in a region that is predominantly white. By proclaiming this view, the narrative suggests that rural areas must remain ‘white’, and that non-white people are ‘out of place’ in such a region. In other words, there is a tacit acceptance that blacking up would not be appropriate in urban and metropolitan areas – where non-white people (are supposed to) live; but blacking up in (predominantly white) Rural Oxfordshire is just fine. Martin Kettle’s image of ‘diverse Britain’ ends up being a world of neatly segmented, stable and essentialised regions: the North is where ‘Rugby League’ takes place; ‘Cornish Identity’ is stable and singular, and rural Oxfordshire is where people can black up without further reflection – on the ‘bleak picture’ of day-to-day racism within rural England, as reported by Barnado’s for instance.

What about the third argument that is deployed – the one that is perhaps the most provocative for liberal and progressive people – that practices of blacking up actually celebrate authentic radicalism; one that challenges authority and seeks to undermine the Establishment. I have read the work of EP Thompson, and many others, and can see that this is certainly the strongest argument for blacking up: the only one that is a positive endorsement rather than an ‘excuse’. I feel, however, that the best answer to this line of argument comes from Martin Kettle himself: In defending the practice of blacking up, he makes a direct link to an authentic English radical tradition, suggesting that “if you make the assumption that those blacked-up 18th-century English peasants are first cousins to the 21st century Occupy movement’s masked protesters, you won’t be far wrong”. This is a great answer, the consequences of which seem to be entirely lost on Martin Kettle and the blacked-up ‘radicals’. What this implies is that if you want to find an authentic heritage performance practice that celebrates the tradition of a radical (rural or urban) tradition that has a genuine connection to at least the 18th century, then follow the example of the Occupy Movement (and don’t waste your time hanging around with blacked up Morris dancers).

If there is a symbolic link to radical and anti-establishment practice to be celebrated, then it is through the masks and (perhaps more importantly) actions of the Occupy (and other) protest movements. The key elements are all present: playful, loud, highly performative and ‘in your face’ carnivalesque practice, carried out by progressive and marginalised people who need to keep their faces hidden. The ‘Surveillance Society’ is not a 21st century invention – and neither is the playful mocking and evasion of such authoritarianism, nor the need to undermine the Establishment hegemony.


This would be a heritage-in-action; standing up for the oppressed and actively celebrating a radical past. The celebration of any radical tradition should be innovative, inclusive and sensitive to present-day cultural realities, not a vague, nostalgic and thoroughly problematic pastiche, in which the narrative is simply deployed as a means to justify an out-dated rural imaginary and obsolete view of the world. This is why David Cameron was quite happy to be photographed standing next to blacked-up Morris dancers (and probably would not be too keen to do a photo-call with Occupy protesters!). The Guy Fawkes mask of the Occupy Movement has been adapted and redeployed as a device that invokes a radical past, and celebrates an inclusivity amongst marginalised people. It is a device that works and is sensitive to contemporary culture; it is a device that has a direct and authentic historical connection to the radical past that many blacked up Morris dancers claim for their ambition. So, why not use it?

Classical Fashions Never Die

Last week was Vladimir Putin’s 62nd birthday. Rather than the occasion of the Russian President’s birthday, however, what was widely reported in the press, on television and other media in the UK was a particular present that he received: entitled The Twelve Labours of Putin, a special exhibition of 12 imaginative portraits had been commissioned by the President’s ‘friends’, each one depicting Vladimir Putin in the style of Hercules, undertaking an updated version of one of the famous ‘labours’.

vladimir-putin-hercules-painting Puin paintings2 Puin paintings-atlas

‘Crass’, ‘Fatuously Heroic’, ‘Dictator Camp’, and just plain ‘Kitsch’ have been among the typical terms that have been circulating in the press and other media to describe the art show last week. Taking a heritage perspective however, the deployment of a repertoire of Classical imagery, design and aesthetics has a good deal of pedigree. Indeed, Classical civilisations themselves were often at pains to secure legitimising credentials and heroic embrocation. Greek Herakles becomes a Roman Hercules, and is now a Russian Putin.

The Classical reservoir of symbolic ‘heritage capital’ has been a remarkably durable resource. Indeed, such ‘classical fashions’ have seemingly managed to remain in vogue despite some very unsavoury baggage. The very name – fascist – for instance, is derived from the ‘clubs’ that were used as a symbols of the Praetorian Guards in Ancient Rome, while both Mussolini and Hitler were in thrall to Greek and Roman styles. While many of the obvious Classical references embodied in the Modern Olympic Games Movement reflected later nineteenth century concerns, the iconic flame, lit on Mount Olympus and carried by a chain of torch bearers to be the centre piece of the Opening Ceremony is an entirely Nazi invented tradition, first carried out in Berlin in 1936. It has been an unquestioned theatrical mainstay of the Olympic Games ever since.


A walk around almost any European city will reveal a multitude of buildings and urban plans, inspired by Classical references. Such architectural forms are also dominant in many other cities around the world, especially those of ‘white settler’ nations – such as in Canberra (Australia), and in almost all US State capitals, led by the example of the Mall in Washington.


Many of these buildings and urban plans were designed and built by imperialists, industrialists, diplomats and politicians, schooled in the Classics, and only too ready to dress a contemporary hero in a toga.


David Hume, with traffic cone – after a wild toga party (Edinburgh)


George Washington, in Classical garb

Arguably, Vladimir Putin looks no less ridiculous than George Washington: both look set to head off to a Fresher’s Week toga party. Now: I must get back to my day job – of writing lectures, giving seminars and attending some academic colloquia – I am not on the University Senate, but I do often eat my lunch in the Exeter University ‘Forum’. Classical fashions never die, it seems!

Revisiting World Heritage in Canterbury – and taking notice of half-hidden signposts.

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Canterbury during the summer, paying a visit to St Augustine’s Abbey, which (along with Canterbury Cathedral and St Martin’s Church) is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/496

Although tacitly espousing ‘universal’ heritage values, as with many UNESCO sites, the heritage narrative of Canterbury’s heritage is mostly conveyed through reference to specific events – time-tagged to the arrival of St Augustine in AD597, and the murder of Thomas Becket in AD1170 – and with a story that is contained within distinctly ‘national’ boundaries, with the ‘oldest church in England’. As critics such as Rodney Harrison and Marco D’Eramo have noted in recent years, UNESCO ‘World Heritage’ status has become a valuable ‘brand’, suggestive of a process of commodification that stretches between economic, cultural and political value. St Augustine’s Abbey is now managed by English Heritage. The entrance fee (£5.20 for an adult) seemed quite steep, but I guess that (in common with the National Trust), the fairly high one-off fee provides a strong encouragement to join the organisation at a fairly reasonable price, and thereby get ‘free’ entrance to many hundreds of properties across the country. This is a prompt to join a specifically ‘national’ club, whose sense of comradeship can perhaps be enhanced by the thought that the people who have to pay full fees for each property are mostly international tourists and those who are, for one reason or another, not prepared to be full members of the nation/club.

As I entered the site, however, I noticed an old green sign, mounted on the wall, which seemed to convey a different heritage narrative: “This garden was presented to the city of Canterbury in 1977 by the Trustees St Augustine’s Precincts Recovery Fund…. The fund was raised by public subscription with the purpose of making more beautiful the surroundings to the abbey and providing a garden for the enjoyment of citizens and visitors to the city”. Almost covered with overgrown ivy – this promised a free and open public space for the enjoyment of all. Surely something that any notion of ‘universal heritage value’ ought to be signed up to support, one would think!?


I paid my £5.20 and entered the sunny green parkland to find a controlled and curated space; a directed walk, with specified stopping points, punctuated by interpretation boards. People generally kept to the official path. This is a heritage FOR the people, but not necessarily OF the people. It is public education in a national story – but not really what was promised on the partially-hidden green signpost outside.


Drawing on the work of Patrick Wright, this seems to be a UNESCO-branded heritage-landscape that is ‘already achieved’ – it has a supposedly timeless historical identity, which demands only appropriate reverence and protection in the present. Frozen – cleared – cleaned – packaged. Rather than a celebration of ‘Canterbury’, or of the multiplicity of entangled heritage within the city, this seems to be a site that is bounded off from the city. While I feel that some commentators of the UNESCO process have been fairly over-wrought and shrill in their criticism of the ‘brand’, perhaps we can take more heed of the green noticeboard, half-covered with ivy. Rather than something that is ‘already achieved’, we need more open spaces for heritage to be produced by a heterogeneous society that makes its own history as it moves forward: a for the enjoyment of citizens and visitors alike.

Gardening the Cultural Landscapes of European Heritage

Last week, I was invited to present a seminar paper in Amsterdam, at the ‘Sustainable Futures for Europe’s Heritage in Cultural Landscapes’ project, which goes by the splendid acronym of HERCULES. See: http://www.hercules-landscapes.eu

Bringing together geographers, ecologists, archaeologists, sociologists and anthropologists from a dozen or more countries, this project is concerned with ensuring the resilience of heritage within the cultural landscape of Europe. They are doing this task by assessing existing knowledge and management systems and developing tools for ongoing landscape observation and modelling, bringing together some sophisticated GIS applications with a variety of quantitative material (including remote sensing, land-use and census data), and qualitative material (including old postcards and oral histories). Furthermore, they also have an ambition to define some recommendations for landscape policy and practice, engaging with a range of stakeholders, policy makers and ordinary people.

It strikes me that this project has a difficult task – both in terms of practicalities, as well as dealing with some complex conceptual conundrums. Around the room were representatives from all over Europe, with at least a dozen nationalities and native languages. Trying to understand and follow how concepts like ‘heritage’, ‘patrimony’ and ‘stewardship’ get translated and travel around the room – and around Europe – requires a great deal of patience and nuance. For some people at this meeting, the threat of land abandonment was the paramount experience from their home environment, while for others, the worries were more concerned with urbanisation and agricultural intensification. Institutionally speaking, it always strikes me as a ‘continental paradox’ – common in many ‘European projects’ broadly defined – of squaring the desire to create a “unified vision” (singular) of a diversity of “pathways” (plural) towards their policy and practical ambition. After all, the celebration of diversity and multiplicity is always close to the surface of any workable sense of a singular European identity.

Indeed, categorising and even locating a ‘European Cultural Heritage Landscape’ would seem to be a proverbial can of worms, with the celebration of ‘local heritage and distinction’, seemingly rubbing up against a common reification of ‘national’ containers, and all set within a Europe-wide ambition that tries to articulate supposed ‘universal values’. Personally, I would neither dismiss, nor uncritically support, any heritage categorisation merely on the basis of its scalar rhetoric (of local, regional, national, or global/universal). Rather, we need to identify power structures and engage with all sorts of place-bound loyalties and heritage practices, so as to encourage a more open-ended and progressive understanding of the world.

Cultural heritage landscapes are always context-bound, and such contingency requires recognition of temporal depth; of movement; of complexity; of multiple narratives. In many ways, an authoritative narrative of European cultural heritage landscape was being constructed through this HERCULES meeting. But what was this narrative like? Who/what did it include and exclude?

Certainly, there was a recognition that the articulation of this task brought with it a great deal of responsibility – a recognition, for instance, that any typologies and categorisations would necessarily reflect the data available, which would inevitably be partial in its nature. This meant that while judgements would have to be made, we need to show a great deal of humility and avoid being ‘judgemental’.

A phrase that came up in discussion, which I liked, was that of ‘gardening opportunities’: that small-scale, humble and nuanced interventions can provide the most flexible and reflexive accounts of European cultural heritage landscapes; accounts that can cope with some of the seeming contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of European landscape of heritage. It struck me that in terms of landscape management, it is through such a ‘gardening’ activity that space might be found that values the European dream of tranquillity, alongside the very noisy cultural world that also characterises European heritage, and which also demands celebration. It is an approach that seeks to place people and everyday practices at the centre, together with an ambition towards empowerment and engagement over division and exclusion. Most importantly, this is a celebration of a heritage that seems to be co-constructed, with a sense of future-orientated potential, rather than one that is self-satisfied, and which has a backward-looking sense of complacency.