Postcards from a PhD
It was my PGR induction on Monday which coincided with freshers week. It felt very peculiar to be a new starter again 19 years on from the first time I arrived on campus, particularly as the poster stalls outside the student union were still selling the Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting posters that they had been when I was 18. Despite a sudden overwhelming nervousness as I climbed the stairs of my new department, it was a great induction and I instantly felt reassured that I had made the right decision to transfer to Leeds, and very excited about the prospect of the next god-knows-how-many-years of work ahead. It was particularly reassuring to meet the other students, many of whom were a similar age to me and also juggling studying with paid work. Straight away, overlapping research interests began to emerge and it was exciting to be able to discuss ideas with people who were on the same page.
One thing that has slowly changed over the last year is that it has become easier to discuss my research area and I’ve definitely noticed the concept of hauntology filtering into general consciousness and mentioned more frequently in media and publications. An example of this is the inclusion of a chapter on hauntology in the 2016 publication The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality, ‘Stone Tapes: Ghostbox, Nostalgia and Postwar Britain’ by David Pattie. I decided to revisit the article this weekend to ease myself back into hauntology mode.
Pattie’s essay begins with an account of his response to unexpectedly encountering a sample taken from a long forgotten public information film whilst listening to ‘The Geography’ by Belbury Poly. It sets the scene for an examination of the emergence of hauntology that is not afraid to draw on personal experience and recollections in order to explore the arresting aspects of the genre. It’s an effective approach because it allows Pattie to address the paradox at the centre of hauntological music, that it is both familiar and alien. He notes, “The Britain in which I grew up becomes a stranger, ghostlier place, a virtual, reconfigured, haunted collage or palimpsest”.
The collage analogy threads itself through Pattie’s article, in the way he describes the assemblage of samples within the music released on Ghost Box, but also the label’s aesthetic. Most interestingly he applies the idea to Belbury, the fictional town whose name is borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, and where Ghost Box situates itself in a virtual sense. Returning to the idea of hauntology as both familiar and alien, Belbury can be argued to be a representation of both an everytown and a nowhere town, a place where Pattie suggests “the history and pre-history of Britain tangle together” in a mining of post-war British cultural memory.
Turning to Jan Assman’s definition of cultural memory as a cultivation that stabilises and conveys societies’ self-images, Pattie suggests “this narrative structure becomes in its turn a crucial part of the organisation of current events”. This conclusion is of interest to me because it echoes ideas at the centre of my research hypothesis on how cultural recycling can be used as a means of negotiating the present. Pattie’s article is also particularly insightful in the way it recognises the instability of the post war era from which hauntological music draws its inspiration, what he describes as “a cultural memory of a country profoundly uneasy with itself”. To this end he draws on examples of hauntological influence from 1970s media that reflect a climate of fear in relation to modernisation, but also examples that represent the rural past as a threat. This recognition of hauntology as an assemblage of cultural memory from a period where society uncomfortably negotiated suspicion of both the past and present is a particularly useful insight in a very considered essay.
I had another, very different, opportunity to reflect on the process of how cultural memory is assembled this weekend when I by chance visited a Lincolnshire ‘Museum of Rural Life’. Looking it up on the internet afterwards, I was surprised to see it described as acclaimed, and barely recognised the accompanying photographs which showed carefully curated tableaux of inter-war rural life. These pictures probably dated from the late 1980s, in the early days of the museum. In the intervening 25 years a strange process had taken place where, staffed by volunteers and populated by donated items, the museum had gradually been reassembled as a peculiar collage of cultural memory, not unlike that described by Pattie. It was if the museum’s contents had been drawn there by an enormous magnet for cultural debris, a half-hearted shrine to all the things society no longer had any use for but couldn’t bear to destroy completely.
Mannequins in forlorn wedding dresses stood in a room cluttered with old televisions and battered armchairs, a broken hairdrying hood was propped up on a dressmakers dummy next to a table of magazines, one which proclaimed Liberace’s intention to marry soon. On a table in another room old toys were loosely grouped together, along with a Festival of Britain teapot and a home-made model of a man in the stocks onto which someone had disturbingly affixed Thomas the Tank Engine’s face. It seemed a strange exercise in the democratisation of history in which anyone and everyone was free to contribute and also in which the usual museum rules had gone out the window. There were no signs advising you not to touch the exhibits and indeed many of the items could only be reached by digging though debris. It was a peculiar, though not un-enjoyable experience and one which prompted consideration of how accurately history can be conveyed by what has been left behind. I couldn’t help wondering if the two young girls who were also visiting would grow up thinking that in the ‘old days’ all kitchens contained at least 12 Spong tabletop mincers.