Caught by the River

Woodnotes: Transcribing the Birds, Highland Cattle, Daily Folklore and the Lore of the Land

Laura Cannell | 31st May 2018

In her latest column, Laura Cannell transcribes birdsong, shares some personal superstitions, and pays tribute to a legendary folklorist and  friend

Some impressively horned highland cattle have moved in down the lane – well, three creatures to be precise. They live in a luscious field on the way to the local farm shop where we buy the seeds to keep up with the huge demand for our very popular bird cafe. The starlings and partridges have a system going, which is starting to make me believe that this is not a viable business plan. The robins don’t share, but rather shiftily gather their treats. We’ve just had a visit from a jackdaw and the bluetits and sparrows come in huge numbers, with an occasional Green Woodpecker or Great Spotted Woodpecker.

I spent some of April devising a piece of music to play in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for  Soundcamp on International Dawn Chorus Day. While I was sitting with my back door open wondering what to play in response to the Tower Hamlets birds, a cacophony of sound was breaking out in the garden, so that was my answer – doing what composers have done for centuries, I decided to use to prehistoric birdsong that was happening right outside the door. I recorded lots of extracts, and then just listened to the living sounds. I transcribed them and created some extracts to improvise around on double recorders. The piece I wrote was in line with the folklore idea of birds carrying messages to lovers but in reverse. They taught me the tunes, I took them to London by train and then played them to the birds there. It felt like some of them responded, and it was a magical experience, with me exploring the space and the birdsong along with the audience who were walked through the managed – but still wild and plumaged – cemetery park. I performed first, and then the crowd were led on to amazing bird sound and personality interpretations from Emma Bennett, followed by the wild bird vocalisations of Hannah Tuulikki – whose voice resonated around an opening amongst the towering trees.

May has brought an important anniversary. It has been ten years since the folklorist Jennifer Westwood left this earth. An incredible researcher and writer about the folklore of Great Britain and far beyond. And someone to whom I owe a great gratitude for inspiration and work ethic, not only as a writer, but also as someone who found pleasure in all of the nature that surrounded her. Though never in a twee way, she took no nonsense from bird, nor beast, nor human. She was a member of the hedgehog preservation society, and would often set up hedgehog hospital or re-hab centre for those in need (in her bathroom). Her writing room was up some winding stairs with a rope handle, in the attic of a cottage in the village she grew up in, where her mother was the headmistress of the tiny local school.

Jen had hundreds of wild ducks and geese who gathered in her garden at the edge of the marshes; her writing routine had to be worked around the great feasts she provided for the birds and other animals.

I think about Jennifer often, about her books and about how she was so feisty and didn’t suffer fools. About how thorough she was with research. She was not researching the whims and fake news stories of the past. The stories always had a real social context, real places, real people; if you go far enough back there is a reason that things have names. Whether the folklore is meant for warning or wishing, whether tales with morals or visualising the future, she never dismissed a story without thorough background checks.

I remember going to play the fiddle in Foxley Wood near Dereham in Norfolk, one of my first live radio appearances on BBC Radio Norfolk, early in the morning to celebrate May Day. I couldn’t understand how she knew so much. Jen had a story, reference or piece of information about so many things. We helped wassail her fruit trees, and she and her husband Brian would regularly be at my parents’ antique shop getting ‘vortexed’ (with several bottles of wine), nicknamed the vortex because a whole day can pass without you noticing – a rolling audience of friends and antique dealers popping in and telling stories of travels near and far, folklore, stories of real life Lovejoys, until there came a point where Jen needed to return to her attic to write or feed the birds or the hedgehogs.

My mum just came across the letter that she read out at Jen’s memorial. She said that it was written by the dogs and ducks, (Jen and Brian would collect friends’ dogs and my parents’ dogs and take them for walks on the beach, local marshes or common ground, and we already know about the herds of ducks and gaggles of geese). Here is an extract from the letter written by the Dog and Duck Friends of Jennifer Westwood:

I have to inform you all of terrible news, our beloved benefactor Jen has passed over to the great garden in the sky. All know of her great beneficence from first hand experience, and also from fireside tales of events that have now become folklore amongst our kind. She will be greatly missed for the full stomachs and lavish outings (dogs not ducks), and also for the respect and love that she gave to all living creatures, we must prepare ourselves for a period of austerity, the days of regular corn supplies and special treats are at an end. As we look forward to an uncertain future, we must never forget the good times that Jen brought to us all… (the rest is unreadable because of paw and duck foot prints).

It may seem a bit far-fetched that the animals got together and agreed what to write (!?), but I am fairly convinced that Jen would have chosen animals over people if a choice had to be made, so it was part of a greater tribute that needed to be acknowledged.

As well as a family friend, I was one of Jen’s research assistants for The Lore of the Land (published by Penguin). I was sent as a reference checker to the vaults of the University of East Anglia and Norwich library, double-checking issue numbers for ‘The Gentlemen’s Magazine’, which ran from 1731-1922. Chasing up and triple-checking articles about the real cause of fairy rings and reports of headless horsemen. I think about all those gentlemen who would take the time to have the slowest conversations in the world, sending their letters to be published so that like-minded gentlemen could read and respond. Women, of course, aren’t interested in any of this, and it always seems like a case of rich people looking at the quaint stories of poor people or country folk who don’t know any better and will follow any custom in their learning without questioning it.

Which brings me on to the everyday folklore that I personally adhere to and cannot stop doing and don’t question. I thought it was all perfectly normal and that everyone did these things, until I was having a conversation with the brilliant writer and researcher Jennifer Lucy Allan (of Foghorn fame), and she looked at me as if I were mad – which I immediately reflected straight back at her upon finding out that she doesn’t say white rabbit three times on the first of every month, or that she seems okay with putting new shoes on the table. So I thought I may need to gather together which regular superstitions I do daily, weekly or monthly. Numbers 1 to 6 are my key customs. I hope it isn’t just me…

Laura’s Everyday Folklore – that must be adhered to at all times – 2018

1. Boiled eggs and witches’ boats
When you have eaten your boiled egg you must ensure that the shell is completely broken and can in no way be used as a boat. Crush every surface that looks like it could have the potential for being used as a sailing vessel. If you do not do this then witches will use your eggshell as a boat to sail/fly around, and that would be bad because…

2. Never put new shoes on the table
This is one of the most seriously unlucky things you could do. I don’t even know why you would do it. Don’t ever do it, it’s very unlucky (I’m not sure why, but at this stage I am not willing to risk it).

3. ALWAYS throw salt over your left shoulder
When seasoning your cooking or your food, always make sure that you have a morsel of salt left between your fingers and throw it over you left shoulder – never ever get to the end of the seasoning without some left. Even if you have to put salt in on multiple occasions i.e. two pinches of salt, throw some over the left shoulder every time. Or else…

4. Hello Mr Magpie…
It’s after One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a Girl, Four for a Boy… always best to greet a magpie formally, with “Hello Mr Magpie, How are you today? Hello Mrs Magpie…” If you are driving along and only see one magpie, no-one can relax until the second has been seen. They don’t need to be together, but it needs to be the same day to make it complete and make it lucky.

5. White Rabbit, White Rabbit, White Rabbit
You MUST say this on the first day of every month before you have uttered a word to anyone else. It is compulsory. Nothing bad will happen if you speak to someone else, but it is advisable to make it your first priority. This is just good insurance for the good luck in the month ahead.

6. Turning silver on a new moon
For luck. If you don’t have any silver coins in your pocket, borrow one – or if you can’t, ring someone and get them to do it for you. That should ensure you are covered. Also I think you need to be looking directly at the new moon while you do this.

7. Hag stones
To protect the house – stones with holes. One of the oldest ones in the book. Hag stones stop witches from coming into the house. Unfortunately it stops all witches, good and bad (because obviously they are the only kinds).

8. Ladders – an obvious one
This must be purely health and safety of the olden times! I have taken my chances with ladders in the past, but I’ve only ever felt worried about something falling on my head, not of supernatural consequences.

9. Breaking a mirror
This is a serious yet uncommon one which could result in 7 years’ bad luck. So just don’t do it. No one can afford this kind of streak hanging over them.

A recommended Jennifer Westwood reading list:

The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson

The Penguin Book of Ghosts: Haunted England by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson

The Fabled Coast: Legends & traditions from around the shores of Britain & Ireland by Sophia Kingshill & Jennifer Westwood

The Lore of Scotland: A guide to Scottish legends by Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill

Albion: Guide to Legendary Britain by Jennifer Westwood

Sacred Journeys: An Illustrated Guide to Pilgrimages Around the World by Jennifer Westwood