Folk song favourites: the Ellan Vannin Tragedy

My wife doesn’t much care for my taste in music. Only last week she berated my choice of lunchtime listening, asking why we couldn’t have “something normal, instead of that weird, wailing rubbish you like so much.” I protested, putting up a spirited defence of my preferred genre, only to be told that as well as its questionable musicality, folk has an image problem, being dominated by “screeching women in swirly, diaphanous dresses and bearded men in sandals.”

Huh, methinks the lady doth protest too much! Mrs P has accompanied me to – and enjoyed – various folk gigs in recent years, and at no point have we seen a sandal or anything even remotely diaphanous. Plenty of beards, though.

For me, one of the attractions of folk songs is their powerful narrative drive. Folk songs tell stories. Before the oral tradition was supplanted by near-universal literacy, song was one of the main ways in which ordinary people communicated with one another over space and time about their hopes, fears and beliefs, about the challenges of their daily lives, about major events that helped shape their existence, and about the endless cycle of the seasons. Although illiteracy is largely a thing of the past in the UK, contemporary folk music maintains the storytelling tradition.

File:RMS Ellan Vannin pictured entering Ramsey Harbour..JPG

IMAGE CREDIT: Via Wikimedia Commons – Unknown author / Public domain

I first came across the Ellan Vannin Tragedy in the late 1960s, sung on television by The Spinners – a popular Liverpool folk band of the day – and rediscovered it during our 2018 visit to the Isle of Man.

The song tells the story of the sinking of the S.S. Ellan Vannin in 1909. En route from Ramsey in the Isle of Man to Liverpool, the ship ran into a violent storm as it crossed the Irish Sea, and foundered in Liverpool Bay. All 15 passengers and 21 crew died. Also lost was a consignment of mail and 60 tonnes of cargo, which included approximately 60 sheep.

Writing over half a century later Hughie Jones, one of the Spinners, poignantly captured the details of the tragedy. In this YouTube video you can hear Hughie performing his song in front of a live audience. I suspect the soundtrack’s taken from an old vinyl recording – listen to the clicks and crackles! The video is illustrated by a series of fascinating archive photos assembled by Lexi Duggan, and includes the complete lyrics.

I find the audience’s gentle singing of each chorus particularly moving and love the way this gets louder as the song progresses, reflecting the participants’ growing confidence and engagement as the sad story unfolds. For me, The Ellan Vannin Tragedy is folk at its best, tunefully telling a story which deserves to be remembered, while evoking a strong emotional response in the listener. And not a sandal or a diaphanous dress in sight!

Postscript – Ellan Vannin means “Isle of Man” in the Manx language. The ship was built in Glasgow at a cost of £10,673. She entered service with the Steam Packet Fleet in June 1860, at which point she was known as the Mona’s Isle (Mona is the first known name for the Isle of Man, recorded in Latin by Julius Caesar in 54 BCE). She was substantially rebuilt in 1883, being converted from a paddle steamer to a propeller-driven ship, and to mark her reincarnation she was renamed the Ellan Vannin. Following the tragedy on 3 December 1909, no other ship in the Steam Packet Fleet has borne the name.

* * *

Links to other posts featuring a favourite folk song

Liebster Award (part 2)

Last week’s post featured my replies to eleven questions posed by New Zealander Liz Cowburn of the Exploring Colour blog, who had nominated me for a Liebster Award. This week I complete the Liebster process by revealing 11 things about me which readers may – or may not – find vaguely interesting or amusing, before moving on to ask 11 questions of my own and nominating a few bloggers to answer them.

11 things about me

1. I was born and raised in west London, under the Heathrow Airport flightpath. I left London at the age of 18 to go to Cambridge University, and never lived there again. I don’t miss it at all, but when I go back and mix with the locals my London accent returns within minutes!

2. In my childhood our garden backed on to a small river – well, more of a stream really – and my happiest days were spent on the riverbank, chasing butterflies, searching for slow-worms and wielding my fishing net in pursuit of sticklebacks. My love of nature and wildlife was born right there. More than any other place on Earth, that riverbank and what I found there made me what I am today.

Red Admiral – one of my favourite childhood butterflies

3. At the age of 11 I won a scholarship to one of London’s top schools, an hour’s journey by bus and tube train from my suburban home. It was a Direct Grant Grammar School. These don’t exist any more, but back in the day they were a noble attempt to promote social mobility and greater equality. Most parents had to pay to send their children to these A-list academic establishments, but a few places were reserved, free-of-charge, for children of the “deserving poor.” I was fortunate to win one of those free places, and the quality of education I received as a result was brilliant. It was life changing.

The experience of being a child from a family with a modest income surrounded by youngsters from much wealthier backgrounds helped shape my political outlook. At the time several contemporaries suggested that a career in politics beckoned, but luckily I grew up!

4. Early on I had ambitions to be a veterinary surgeon, but at secondary school it became clear that I wasn’t good enough at science to achieve this. However I also discovered an interest in, and talent for, the study of history. I carried that interest through to my university studies, where I also got into archaeology. History remains one of my passions.

5. During my mid and late teens I became a fervent supporter of Brentford F.C., a local soccer club playing in the (then) Fourth Division of the English Football League. My new best pal Pete introduced me to dubious pleasures of league soccer, and having quickly caught the bug I probably didn’t miss more than half a dozen home matches over a period of six or seven years. To be honest, as well as being the least fashionable team in London, Brentford were rubbish most of the time. Supporting them therefore taught me important life lessons, particularly with regard to managing my expectations and coping with disappointment!

white and blue soccer ball on ground inside goal

IMAGE CREDIT: Brandi Ibrao via Unsplash

6 On leaving university I spent 6 months in Bristol training to be an accountant. However the experience of spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing was profoundly depressing, so I gave it up and opted instead for a career in public service.

7. I have lived in the county of Derbyshire, in the East Midlands of England, for over 40 years. Derbyshire has several claims to fame, including the UK’s first National Park (the Peak District), the world’s first industrial cotton mills established along the Derwent Valley in the late 18th century, several notable stately homes including Chatsworth, Kedleston, Haddon and Sudbury Halls, and the production of world-class ceramics at the Royal Crown Derby factory.

Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, built between 1660 and 1680

8. In Prague a few years ago I found myself falsely accused of smuggling Albanians into the Czech Republic! We were wandering in some sort of wooded parkland on a hill overlooking the city centre and, it seems, innocently blundered into an area frequented by ne’er-do-wells. Suddenly two plain-clothed officers leapt out from behind a bush and confronted me, saying that since I was in this place I must be smuggling Albanians, or failing that drugs or foreign currency, into their Mother Country.

When I protested my innocence the goons said only “Is OK, is control, is control, is OK.” I did not find this reassuring. However, having subjected me to a thorough body search and found no illicit drugs, illegal currency or unwelcome Albanians secreted about my person they let me go with a cheery wave. Bizarre, but true.

9. Mrs P and I have visited all 50 states of the USA. The “project” took around 18 years, but could have been completed a lot sooner had we not returned time and again to the wonderful Yellowstone National Park.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

10. Over the last few years I have rediscovered my love of folk music, particularly English and Celtic traditional folk. The best folk music is earthy and authentic, echoing a simpler world with fewer frivolous distractions (you know what I mean, stuff like Facebook, the X-Factor and endless selfies,) and more connected with nature, the land and the seasons.

When I was studying history I came across The World We Have Lost, a book by Peter Laslett about English social history before the Industrial Revolution. For me, much of English folk music is a reminder of the lost world that Laslett writes about. This song, sung by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith about the rhythm of the seasons in an agrarian landscape, is a case in point:

I have no musical talent whatsoever, but wish more than ever that I could sing in tune or maybe knock out a few notes on a fiddle, guitar or mandolin, so that I could be more than just a passive consumer of the folk music genre.

11. My favourite bird is the humble oystercatcher. Although I’ve watched birds on 6 continents and seen many rare and beautiful species, the oystercatcher gets my vote because it’s a bit of a Jack-the-Lad: loud, feisty and unapologetically full of itself, always strutting around to show off its good looks and screaming abuse at anyone or anything encroaching on its turf. In human form these characteristics would be a nightmare, but in a bird they’re strangely endearing … to me, anyway.

Eurasian Oystercatcher, an avian Jack-the-Lad

11 Questions for my nominees

  1. Why do you write your blog?
  2. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
  3. What do you usually eat for breakfast? And what would be your dream breakfast, prepared free-of-charge by a top chef?
  4. Dogs or cats?
  5. Which four historical figures (2m, 2f) would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
  6. Where is your favourite place to visit?
  7. How important is Nature in your life, and how do you get close to it?
  8. If you were reincarnated, what animal or bird would you like to be?
  9. Do you have a favourite book, one that you return to time and again? Why is so special to you?
  10. Your house is burning down. All the other people and their pets have got out safely but you only have time to save one personal possession. What will you save?
  11. We all know about the terrible impact of Covid-19 on individuals and communities, but is there an upside? Has the crisis had any positive impact on you and your life?
Newfoundland, Dark Tickle, 2017 (7)

Dogs or cats?

My nominations for a Liebster Award

This has been difficult. Some of the blogs I would have nominated have declared themselves award-free, while others have recently been so-honoured (Liz, Ann, Mike, this means you!) So my list comprises a few blogs that have kept me entertained, diverted or informed during the Covid-19 lockdown. If you’re not listed here but fancy having a go, please do so with my best wishes.

If, however, you appear on the list but don’t want to take part that’s OK too. There’s no obligation whatsoever, and I won’t be offended. I’ve enjoyed the challenge and had fun doing it, but I know it won’t suit everyone. The choice is yours.

My nominations, in no particular order, are

  1. National Parks with T
  2. Living in Nature
  3. Still Normal
  4. Butterflies to Dragsters
  5. Back Yard Biology
  6. Anyone else who wants a go!

A reminder of the rules for nominees

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and give a link to the blog.
  2. Answer the 11 questions given to you
  3. Share 11 facts about yourself
  4. Nominate between 5-11 other bloggers
  5. Ask your nominees 11 questions
  6. Notify your nominees once you’ve uploaded your post

Variable Oystercatcher, a Jack-the-Lad seen in New Zealand, November 2019

Getting stuffed: the King of Rome and superfluous penguins

He spends his days, and nights too, with all the other dead things in the natural history gallery. In a desperate attempt to fashion a silk purse from a sow’s ear Derby Museum’s curators call it the “Notice Nature Feel Joy Gallery”, but there’s precious little joy for me in display cabinets full of sad, stuffed things. It’s a bizarre collection, an unholy mixture of long dead creatures that certainly lived here or hereabouts – foxes, badgers and the like – and others that most definitely did not.

Hands up anyone who knows why Derby Museum finds it desirable or expedient to display a pair of stuffed penguins.

But don’t mock and be sure to behave yourselves, after all we’re in the presence of royalty. Over there, in that unassuming showcase on the back wall, sits the King of Rome. And here’s the thing, he really does belong in the heart of the English East Midlands: the King of Rome lived out his days in Derby.

Before you think I’ve completely lost my marbles, or conclude that Derby folk make a habit of inflicting taxidermy upon exiled European monarchs, let me reassure you that the King of Rome is a racing pigeon. Deceased, obviously, otherwise the RSPCA would have something to say regarding his incarceration in a museum showcase.

And not just any racing pigeon. I mean, this guy’s a record breaker who found his most famous exploit celebrated in song.

*

Even setting aside matters of gastronomy, man and pigeon have been in a longstanding relationship. A record exists from around 1200BC of messenger pigeons being used in ancient Egypt to enable cities to communicate with one another about Nile River floodwaters. More than a millennium later they were passing messages through the Greek and Roman worlds, and pigeon racing is known to have taken place as long ago as the third century AD.

File:The-King-Of-Rome.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Derby Museum and Art Gallery [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D Picture by & © Andy Mabbett, CC by-sa 3.0

Modern European pigeon racing began in Belgium in the 1850s, from where it spread to Britain. The first formal pigeon race in the UK took place in 1881, and five years later King Leopold II of the Belgians presented racing pigeons to Queen Victoria as a gift. To this day the monarch retains a royal pigeon loft at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

In the early 20th century poor working men in some areas of the UK took up pigeon racing. For them the sport became a means of escape, personal exploration and self-expression at a time when working class lives were hard. Selectively breeding pigeons to increase their chances, then rearing and caring for them to ensure they were in top condition on race days, became an all-consuming passion for the sport’s devotees.

It’s now that our hero, and his owner – one Charlie Hudson – steps on to the stage. Charlie lived on Brook Street, in a poor area of Derby known as the West End. His interest in pigeon racing is said to have begun in 1904, and in 1913 he showed the world that he’d produced a champion.

In 1913 Charlie entered his best bird into a race from Rome to Derby, a colossal distance of 1,611km (1,001 miles). It won, and in so doing set a new long-distance record for an English racing pigeon, while over one thousand other birds competing in the race perished on the journey home.

The winning bird became famous in pigeon racing circles. When it died in 1946 after a long and celebrated life, Charlie presented the corpse to Derby Museum to be stuffed for posterity and the common good.

*

Charlie Hudson died in 1958. Three decades later the story of this simple working class hero and his indomitable bird caught the imagination of Derbyshire folk singer-songwriter Dave Sudbury. “The King of Rome” tells the story of the race, and, more importantly perhaps, shows how pigeon racing allowed Charlie to escape the confines of his birth and upbringing. Through the medium of Dave Sudbury’s song, Charlie says:

… “I can’t fly but my pigeons can.
And when I set them free,
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings.”

Excerpt from The King of Rome, © Dave Sudbury

The song, which has since become a classic in the folk world, was initially made famous by the brilliant June Tabor on her 1988 album Aqaba. You can hear her version on YouTube by clicking here. The complete lyrics are here.

Countless others have recorded the King of Rome. Dave Sudbury’s original version of the song is also available on YouTube: raw, authentic and very moving.

However my favourite of them all is sung by the incomparable Lucy Ward. Lucy’s a Derby girl, so it seems only appropriate that she should sing about another great character from that city. Click here to listen and watch her singing the song live and unaccompanied at Jurassic Folk, Seaton, East Devon, England in 2012.

*

In 2013 the 100th anniversary of the great race was celebrated in a 45 minutes-long radio drama, demonstrating that the story continues to capture imaginations. Dreams really can come true.

What a pity, therefore, that Derby Museum makes so little out of this heart-warming tale. True, it displays the stuffed King in a neat little showcase, while a small adjacent card describes the bird’s achievement and mentions the folk song in a few meagre sentences.

But the story, as Dave Sudbury so ably captures, is much bigger than that. It offers a way into the social history of Derby, in particular the inadequately told history of working class leisure pursuits in the 20th century. Surely these are the stories that English regional museums should be telling, rather than cluttering up their galleries with superfluous penguins?