14 September 2017


Justice in Georgian England

For many years I’ve enjoyed singing a song called Fanny Blair which was collected in Somerset by Cecil Sharp in the early years of the 20th century. Bert Lloyd sang a powerful version of it and I recorded it on my 1999 CD ‘Mearcstapa’. It is a song which you cannot sing casually. I only do it if I feel the mood and the audience are right. The subject matter is difficult and some people disagree with it, some even find the song offensive—although I don’t think they would if they stopped to think more about it and the times it comes from. However, if you don’t feel upset by it at all then you aren’t listening carefully enough!

The song is set, probably, in the early 1800s although it isn’t time-specific. That means it coincides nicely with Winston Graham’s  Poldark books. When I started to think about the two together and they each cast a light upon the other.

Those of you in the UK will know that the recent Poldark TV series was hugely successful and will continue next year. I enjoyed it until I started reading the books. There is far more in the books than on the TV. That’s understandable when you consider there are twelve longish books written in two batches over a period of nearly 50 years. As well as telling a good story they are also remarkably well researched and are historically and socially accurate. They tell the story of the Poldark family—small scale gentry whose income is derived mainly from tin and copper mines in Cornwall. They are set about 20 years either side of 1800.

(The current (Aug 2017) issue of Facts & Fiction storytelling magazine, which I edit, has a nice piece about the music in the series by Mike O’Connor who was an adviser.)

Fanny Blair tells the story of Henry Higgins of Branfield who is suddenly pulled from his bed one Sunday morning and taken off to prison accused of raping an 11 year old girl (Fanny Blair) although he says:  ‘I never had dealings with her in my time/so now I’m condemned for another man’s crime.’

Higgins, whose occupation is not specified but is obviously a simple working man, has only his own word as his defence. A ‘Jackie McNeal of Newcastle’ could, apparently, prove his innocence but he has mysteriously disappeared! 

Higgins is brought to trial—a trial that is somehow orchestrated or influenced by Squire Vernon. At the trial Fanny Blair is stood upon ‘a green table’ to give her testimony—a thing which accentuates her youth and innocence,  and ‘The lies that she swore to I’m ashamed for to tell, But the judge he spoke up quick saying, ‘You’ve told it to us well.’ 
So, no witnesses, no evidence gathering, no cross examination or defence for Higgins, just Fanny’s story which is cut off quickly by the judge.

Higgins is, of course, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

The final verse of the song is the one with which people have the greatest difficulty and I can understand why:

On the day that young Higgins was condemned for to die/The people rose up with a murmuring cry, saying/“Well catch her, we’ll crop her, she’s a perjuring little whore/Young Higgins is innocent, of that we’re very sure.” 

We are all, sadly, aware of the outcries against child molesters and paedophiles which have happened in recent times so for the local populace to come out in defence of Higgins and call Fanny a ‘perjuring little whore’ is something we find shocking. At the end of WW2 shaving the heads of women who had collaborated with the Nazis in France was a shocking enough form of assault and degradation but to threaten that on an 11 year old girl is almost beyond belief.

Fanny is only the scapegoat though. The anger is really aimed at the ‘justice’ system and the individuals who sit and condemn their fellow men. It is a broken system which, although called ‘justice’, is definitely not that.

At which point we will return to Poldark:

The picture the Poldark books paint is of the huge disparity in wealth and lifestyle between the classes of Georgian England (a gap we are rapidly approaching again in 2017!) is almost unbelievable. Those in power live a life of comfort with every benefit of civilisation which was available at the time while the ‘ordinary people’ just about manage to keep themselves alive—and not always that.

Many of the houses of the well-to-do of that period survive today and are much sought after. With the addition of electricity and plumbing they make beautiful houses. I personally love their style and would live in one if I could afford it! The worker’s houses, however, were not much superior to animal sheds—just one or two rooms, a ladder to the upper floor if there was one, an earth floor and no glass in the windows!

Money and position also bring power, and society at that time was built on a rigid system of class and manners. The higher up the social scale you were the more you were at liberty to do almost anything and get away with it—as long as you didn’t upset someone who was your equal or better, of course, in which case you might be either ostracised or have to fight a duel.

Justice was dispensed almost on a whim by the local landowners who got themselves elected to Parliament or made JPs in order, very often, to protect their own interests and to line their own pockets even further.
This is illustrated by the difference in attitude of Ross Poldark and George Warleggan. The former is happy to live a quiet life and does not want to take on the responsibility although he eventually gives in to persuasion, the latter wheedles his way into becoming a JP.
So, if often happened that a lawbreaker, perhaps a poacher or petty thief—would find himself being judged and sentenced by the very person he had offended against. The Gentleman was literally, accuser, judge, jury and (almost) executioner! This was the situation in which Henry Higgins found himself. He was the victim of a ‘broken’ system. Fanny Blair was probably assaulted by someone but was it by Henry Higgins or was he a convenient scapegoat? If a member of the gentry was guilty of a crime against a little girl (Squire Vernon?) he was in a perfect position to offer her family a bribe, have an innocent, powerless man accused of the crime, and get his ‘mates’ on the bench to pass a guilty sentence about which no-one could do anything.
No wonder the populace rose ‘with a murmuring cry’!

A reviewer of the CD captured the situation perfectly:

PETE CASTLE: MEARCSTAPA : It's been a while since I listened to traditional folk and I'd forgotten how wickedly dry and unsentimental these songs can be. The revelation on this album is "FANNY BLAIR", a lean, angry piece of early 19th century tabloid journalism which deals with the case of a young man hanged for raping a child. The balladeer takes the side of the accused and threatens vigilante justice on the "perjuring little whore" who sent him to the gallows. It's fearsome and troubling and Castle ends it with a series of isolated chords that sound like question marks. Was Henry Higgins really innocent? How do his protestations weigh against the vivid image of the eleven year Fanny stood on a table to deliver her damning testimony to the court? It's a mighty piece of work, as timeless as the Oresteia and as up to date as this Sunday's News of the World.                         [Tony Grist]

16 August 2017


My meetings with South Asian communities

 I am writing this on Indian Independence Day. Yesterday was Pakistani Independence Day. The two countries were partitioned from British India 70 years ago, 1947, the year I was born. 

It was yet another example of a British colonial cock-up.  We had done the same with Ireland 26 years before and that hadn’t worked.  You can’t just chop one country into two. But we didn’t learn. We just chose a civil servant who had never been to India and got him to draw the lines on the map at very short notice, and then continued to change them right up to the day before the event, so millions of people didn’t know which country they were going to finish up in, resulting in about 1 million dead in racial/religious killings! 
 Throughout my childhood ‘India’ featured in my reading books and comics. But it was a glamorous, mythical India of elephants, palaces, men with turbans, women in harems… a random mix of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh images. Nothing real.

Pete aged about 7

I first met an Indian when I was about 8. I was brought up in Ashford, then a small market town in Kent, and we rarely saw anyone who wasn’t white-British. Then , when we went back to school after one holiday a rumour flew round our class—there’s a new girl coming, and she’s black! I remember quite vividly the fact that Rodney was in floods of tears, he was terrified! He had the empty seat beside him and this wasn’t only a girl, which would have been bad enough, but she was black!

It turned out that her name was Diana. I think her mum was Indian and her dad might have been an English doctor, so she wasn’t very black! I thought she was beautiful and wanted her to be my girlfriend—without much luck, although I did manage to steal a kiss one day when we were playing kiss-chase. 

Most of my adult life has been spent in much more cosmopolitan places—Nottingham, Luton, Derby… where there were large immigrant, particularly South-Asian, populations. Sue and I had a lot of contact with them and made some good friends.  (Belper, where we live now, was strange because it was mainly white when we arrived but it is gradually changing.)

We lived in Luton from 1975-87. We were there when I stopped being a teacher and went professional as a folk singer.  For a while over the transition I did some Adult Education—English as a Second Language. Over the years we had a huge number of people come through our groups—mainly Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, but including just about every other non-English speaking nationality you can think of as well. At first there were Chileans; whilst the Iran-Iraq war was going on we had a man from each country who became good friends; a young man from Yugoslavia predicted that once Tito died there would be a blood bath—wasn’t he right! 
Arotis Biswas
At that time I met—kept on meeting Aroti Biswas. She was a Bengali musician who ran the grandly named Asian Music School—it was actually just her but she taught harmonium, tabla, sitar, singing to both adults and children from right across the community, it didn’t matter whether they were Hindu, Sikh, Muslim , Christian or what. She, herself, was a Hindu and just a couple of years older than me.

We didn’t talk much about it but I gathered that she was born in Calcutta a couple of years before Partition. Calcutta became part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) so she and her family had to flee to India. Later she came to England to marry her husband, a railwayman.

Aroti’s children went to the same school as mine and we also met at various concerts at which we were both playing—particularly those organised by the Community Relations Council. I don’t know who suggested it but after a while we had the idea of collaborating.  Her attempts to get me singing in Bengali were not very successful  but I could play along on some of her songs. I initially thought I’d be able to find some suitable English traditional songs, the Raj equivalent of all those British songs which were taken to America or Australia and became naturalised there, but it soon became obvious that there weren’t any probably because of the type of Britisher who went to India. On the whole they weren’t going as settlers they were educated working or middle class going to do a job and then come home again. They were far more at home singing light classical songs at cocktail parties than folk songs in the bar. (Except for the  soldiers, and their songs were probably not repeatable!) 

So instead I turned to the old ballads and found some of those quite suitable with  themes that mirrored Hindu mythology and modal tunes ideal for the harmonium.

Unfortunately very soon after we started working together Aroti was diagnosed with cancer. We did a few live gigs and recorded a session for Chiltern Radio, where I ran the Folk Programme at the time, but weren’t able to give it the attention it warranted. We met about once a fortnight but as time and the illness progressed Aroti became weaker and unable to play so we’d just talk, or I’d play. Towards the end she said that it was only our sessions which enabled her to keep going.

Two tracks we recorded were put on my 1989 cassette album One Morning By Chance and they divided opinion. Some people thought they were groundbreaking and exciting, others that I was spoiling good English music! One of those, The Two Magicians is on my sampler CD Xtracted. I think it was the best thing we did. 

Here is a track  we did for Chiltern Radio so I was playing, singing, working the desk and everything else all at once! 

The TV and radio programmes about Partition which have been all over the airwaves for the past couple weeks have stressed how the different groups managed to live together quite harmoniously in India but as soon as the politicians started talking about breaking it up violence between the different groups escalated. India and Pakistan have diverged and become two very different countries.
When I lived in Luton all the different communities intermixed and were friendly. At the classes we ran it was not obvious who was Hindu, who Muslim. Most of the women wore saris or shalwar kameez and most had a head scarf but it was just a long strip of cloth draped over the head and very often allowed to slip off round the shoulders. Hijabs, burkas  etc were almost unknown. 
I’m sure a lot of the lack of friction was down to the very active Community Relations Council, some was down to individuals like Aroti, and perhaps our class even did a tiny bit.

PETE'S YOU TUBE CHANNEL  songs and stories.


21 July 2017


The Summer of Love, Swinging London, Flower Power, Love and Peace, Ban the Bomb, Women’s Lib… all  clichés of the 1960s.

The summer of 1967 has been commemorated in many places recently. There were a couple of documentaries about Hippies and Flower Power on TV; similarly documentaries and a film about the 50th anniversary of the Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band LP (the documentary was OK, the film was poor!) and, of course, articles in magazines and newspapers of every kind. I’ve never been a Beatles fan but I can see how ground breaking and important that album was. Strawberry Fields For Ever and A Day in the Life would be my two favourite Beatles tracks. (I know the first of those wasn't actually on the LP but it was recorded at the same time.)

The year 1967 has acquired a sort of mythic status and stands in for that whole era. It sums up ‘the sixties’ (which lasted well into the 70s!) and the beginning of a new freer world after the hardships of the ‘post war years’. 
It was a special year for me. ‘The summer of love’ was when Sue and I got married. And despite what people might have thought back then we still are!

I enjoyed watching the documentaries because they showed things which I vaguely remembered and put them into a context some of which I didn’t remember or hadn’t verbalised. We were only young (both 20 years old) and were too involved with each other to follow the events of the times very deeply.
One thing which becomes obvious from film of the time is that ‘The Swinging 60s’ was very much a thing which happened in London and California. Those of us who were elsewhere followed the trends but in a diluted way and months, if not years, later.
Sue and I were at college in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. (Bretton Hall College of Education, now the site of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.) We had started in 1965 and fell in love almost immediately. Bretton was a pretty go-ahead place but the mores of the 1950s were not that far away. When we started men and women were not allowed to visit the landings or hostels of the opposite sex at all! That meant that a lot of our entertaining had to be done on the public stairs or round the lake. Change was in the air though and soon—at Christmas I think it was—the rule was relaxed so that visiting was allowed between 10am and 10pm. This was a case of the rule being changed to fit what was already happening, it would have been impossible to uphold the existing rule. 

College accommodation was, on the whole, in the Mansion for the first year, in hostels for the second, and around the neighbourhood—mainly Wakefield or Barnsley, in rented flats for the third. Having been ‘going out’ for nearly two years Sue and I obviously wanted to share a flat. That would be no problem today but in 1967 it was unheard of! The only way of doing it was to be married.


So we were, in Mortlake Register Office near to Sue’s home in Whitton, and then we went straight off to our flat in Long Causeway, Wakefield. It was one of those flats which was passed on from one group of students to another and we inherited most of the furniture from the people before. It was a rather run down Victorian house and the cellar gathered about a foot of water every time it rained! I got a job as a porter at the hospital across the road, to tide us over until the grants came next term. (Jobs like swabbing out operating theatres and transporting bodies to the mortuary! I got told off for having my white coat underdone—only doctors were allowed to have their coats undone!)
Another cliché of the 1960s is ‘free love’. OK, the pill had been invented and with the relaxed ‘visiting hours’ in our rooms a lot of love making took place but it was still very difficult to get ‘the pill’. You couldn’t just walk into a chemist and buy it over the counter, you had to go to a Family Planning Clinic and get it prescribed. Even then it was intended only for married women. Even though we were getting married we had to fight to get Sue prescribed the pill before we were actually married. 
When we went back to college as a married couple the reaction was strange. We suddenly became ‘grown ups’ over night and people tended to treat us differently. Sue noticed that some boys avoided speaking to her or blushed. Tutors tended to treat us differently too and trusted us to babysit their children. We were more like equals. We remained friends with Mike Bennett, the painting tutor, for the rest of his life until he died last year.

We enjoyed the year we spent in Wakefield although it was much more like the 60s of David Storey’s novel ‘This Sporting Life’ than that of Carnaby Street and Woodstock. That was largely due to the fact that we were in ‘the North’ not Swinging London. It was a different world. In college we were aware of the latest fashions and trends although in a rather restrained way but in Wakefield we were living in a working class mining community which wasn’t interested in those sort of things.

Sue and I mixed with the locals, made friends with their kids, shopped at the market, and our Saturday treat was to take the washing to the launderette and then eat in the chippy—fish and chips, sliced white bread and butter, and a pot of tea in the white tiled café. It could just as easily have been 1957 as 1967!
Sue: Multiple exposures on a Brownie 127

At college we wore the clothes, danced the dances, followed the trends. Artistically we were pushing the barriers. Sue and I were both studying painting but I soon realised I wasn’t really a painter and we eagerly grabbed the opportunity to do shadow puppets. One end of year piece was Alice In Wonderland using a mixture of cut out puppets and human shadows with the nearest we could approximate to strobe lighting and psychedelic music. (I don’t know whether we’d seen Jonathon Miller’s TV version by then or not…) 

One thing I don’t remember at Bretton was drugs. There was a lot of talk about it and I read The Doors of Perception and other books but if drug taking—even just pot smoking went on—I didn’t notice it. (Years later when I was a professional on the folk scene I was still so innocent that after the gig at someone’s house a cigarette was being passed round and I just passed it on and said ‘I don’t smoke’ without realising what it was! I still haven’t taken any kind of illegal drug!)

I think we Bretton students mostly supported the ideas of racial integration, ban the bomb, out of Vietnam, Womens Lib and all the other causes of the time but didn’t do much about it apart from sing songs at the folk club! We weren’t influenced to copy the student riots in Paris in 1968 because we didn’t have a great deal to riot about and a demo on the Bretton campus would not have attracted much attention! 
The ideas of those times stayed with me however. I am still a hippy, a socialist, a believer in CND, an anti-racist and Women’s Libber amongst many other things. I still think a lot of very positive things came out of those days although some of them have gradually been eroded again and the young generation of today are having to fight to win back some of the things which we worked for then.

The wheel gets invented over and over again...

Somewhere I even have my Afghan coat still! The kids used it for dressing up and more recently, turned inside out, it’s been used as a costume when doing The Derby Ram play!