Sunday, 5 February 2017

'The records of memory': the first research trip to Whitby, by Anna FC Smith

On Thursday 12 January, we travelled through the snow to begin the initial research trip to Whitby. I was nervous but also excited: as with all my research interests, this is my ideal project, and I was heading to meet the ultimate man of living folk custom, Doc Rowe, or 'the myth and legend' (an impromptu epithet given to him by a member of the Goathland Plough Stots).

We arrived late to a wind whipped Whitby and met the project team, most for the first time. Stephanie, the project curator; Natalie Reid and Bryony Bainbridge, my fellow artists; and Sophie, marketing. Stephanie has brought together a wonderful team, who through their work, pastimes and backgrounds, are all engaged with folk dance, ritual and custom. We discussed ideas for the project, rapper dancing and much more – I was in my element and it was a real privilege to meet them all.

On Friday morning, we went to a local pub on the harbour for breakfast and to meet with Doc for the first time, before visiting the Pannett Art Gallery and then the archive. Doc is brimming with fascinating stories and tales of customs, which flow out of him continually. Though I had brought my recorder with me, I didn’t use it in our initial chats at the pub – a mistake I hopefully won’t make again. I realised that Doc's interaction with and experience of the customs is very much a part of the archive and that every conversation reveals aspects of what he has seen. It also became clear that Doc himself and his knowledge has become a part of the many events that he attends; he is documenter, repository and spring from which new traditions have come.  

Held in a business centre unit, the archive is an unassuming treasure trove. The life and movement is trapped: hidden inside tapes and behind labels, inside the books and boxes under boxes under boxes. Doc took us through parts of his collection, each piece triggering further tales. It was incredible but also overwhelming for me. Having worked on custom for a long time, I felt like I was suddenly in the epicentre of all of my interests and at a loss with where to start or what part of the archive to focus upon. We spent hours happily rooting and listening to Doc, longer than we all realised. When we left, it was dark and the sea had flooded into the harbour, meaning we had to find an alternative route back to where we were staying.

On Saturday, we had the honour of accompanying Doc on one of his documenting trips at the annual Goathland Plough Stots' day of dance. The day was sunny and crisp and we followed the teams around the village as they danced for inhabitants and were ‘paid’ in donations of money and drink. We were treated to hot cider, many varieties of whisky and a Polish plum wine that transformed my breath, a powerful defroster. I even knocked on a lady’s door and took a donation – a small action but it was exciting for me to be a minute part of the custom. The day ended at Beck Hole in a homely and warm traditional pub, where the younger Plough Stots danced a lethal rapper dance in the cramped room and I was thrilled to have a chance to talk with their chairman and official Fool.

On Sunday, we all met together again at a lovely café and spent the day discussing the project and our interests with Doc. Each of the artists is taking a different approach in working with the archives, but each of us has recognised the significance of Doc and the archive as a phenomenon in itself and are using this as our starting point.

I keep coming back to the ideas around these being living and changing customs and the question asked by Jeanette A Bastian in her article ‘The records of memory, the archives of identity: celebrations, texts and archival sensibilities’: “How can the traces and signifiers of culture and tradition fit within the archival structure?"

Full of the buzz from this illuminating and enjoyable weekend, I am mulling over my thoughts and looking forward to meeting with Doc and the rest of the group again.

All photos courtesy of Michael Orrell.