Does everywhere have stories?

The following blog post is an extension of a poster presentation given at the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Programme Arts and Humanities Conference 2015 held on the 12th and 13th October at Keele University.

Please click this link to view: poster for NWCDTP 2015. And follow the hyperlinks in the text below for more information – and other bits and bobs – about Rochdale and its literary geographies.

Does Everywhere Have Stories? Researching the literary geographies of Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

Sifting for Stories: introduction and research rationale

“If this is your land then where are your stories?” (Garner, 2012)

Rochdale is a metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester – it is a bricolage of a place with small villages, urban/rural environments, natural and manufactured water courses, post-industrial ruins and revamped post-industrial artefacts, and it was the site where the Rochdale pioneers’ 1844 principles of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity still influence the contemporary Cooperative movement. The borough also has a rich treasure trove of stories and literature – poetry, plays, fiction, and non-fiction – and through flicking through the pages of these books, one can begin to build a picture of the real and imagined geographies of Rochdale. This research in itself is novel, however, there is a further gap in the scholarly literature that concentrates on fusing critical and creative responses to place and a detailed exploration of the potential for creating new poetry and prose that responds to one place. While Rochdale, like other places around the United Kingdom, does not have any “heavy-weight” literary names attached to it, there are myriad literary texts, urban legend and folklore that story place.

What are “Literary Geographies”?
Between the years of 1903 and 1904, British literary publication The Pall Mall Magazine produced a series of articles entitled ‘Literary Geography’ by writer William Sharp (who also wrote under the name of Fiona Macleod). These articles allowed the “literary tourist” to wander ‘through literary lands’ (Sharp, 1904) exploring writing responding to place by authors such as Emily Brontë and William Thackeray, and topographical, geo-specific literature focussing on the English Lakes, Thames River, and Lake Geneva.

Over one hundred years later, lively debate continues on what “literary geography”, and its plural “literary geographies”, means. I suggest that this field encompasses, intersects, and entwines geography, cartography, and literary studies, and offers dynamic and interdisciplinary approaches to reading fiction, poetry, drama, non-fiction and scholarly texts (also see: Thacker 2005 – 2006; Hones, 2008; Saunders, 2009; Alexander & Cooper, 2013; and Alexander, 2015). This flexible framework offers the opportunity to make connections between literary criticism and creative approaches to writing. In the case of Rochdale, through looking at literary texts which have geographically-oriented foci or aesthetics (Madge, 2014), one can analyse the themes and tropes of the literature, build snapshots of the borough over time and space, and locate inspiration for new writing.

Methodology: storying place
The literature review of the texts used parameters set by the 1974 administrative boundaries of the borough of Rochdale. Although there is much to debate about the setting of boundaries and borders, this arbitrariness was required as it was beyond the scope of the survey to discuss literary texts of locations that were part of the Rochdale Parish prior to this time. However, there is still a breadth of loco-specific texts and these were subjected to close reading in order to determine common themes and tropes. The research methodologies undertaken included desk-based research on theories of place, a literature review surveying the literary texts of Rochdale, collecting hand-drawn and digital maps of Rochdale, and devising practical fieldwork to facilitate the creation of new literature responding to place.

Findings: themes and tropes of Rochdale
Through a close reading of stories, poetry, folk tales, plays, and non-fiction dating from 1610 to 2015 an interrogation was made into how some of the themes and tropes within the texts demonstrated different ways of “telling” stories of Rochdale. These texts included: literature of everyday lived experience; dialect writing leading on to look at the experience of being “outside” place, uncanny narratives of gothic and folkloric Rochdale and some examples are detailed below.

Everyday Lived Experience
The tales of everyday life are a popular theme in the literary texts of Rochdale and include Elizabeth Gaskell’s harrowing short story ‘Lizzie Leigh’, the violent lived experience of the tragi-comic skinhead “thugs” in Trevor Hoyle’s 1975 novel The Rule of Night and depictions of the racism in John Siddique’s sequence poem ‘The Knife’ from his 2011 collection Full Blood.

There is much Lancastrian and Rochdalian dialect writing including works by John “Tim Bobbin” Collier, Edwin Waugh, and Oliver Ormerod. These are aesthetic and linguistic representations of the dichotomies of being inside or outside place (Cresswell, 1996). These “songs of the people” (Hollingworth, 1977) were written for a specific audience, however, there are questions of inclusivity where the unusual spelling, and references, may close off a reader not privy to the experiences of the writer.

Social Justice
Poets Samuel Bamford and William Baron (also a dialect writer) wrote of the harsh conditions of mill work and wrote in favour of reform. Bamford’s ‘Ode to a Plotting Parson’ written after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 is as incendiary a piece of writing as Percy Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. A chunk of the literature reviewed also concentrated on class and racial divisions.

The Uncanny – folkloric Rochdale
There are many uncanny tales associated with Rochdale including originally orally transmitted tales such as the Baum rabbit, the boggart of Clegg Hall, Fatima the ghost of Stubley Hall, Mother Red Cap, and the fairies of Healey Dell. Folk tales are a shared medium – from sitting around the fireside to the contemporary gossip of unidentified flying objects – these are tales that belong to everyone (Hansen, 1997; Warner, 2006; Tilley, 2011) and stimulate the imagination, offering ways to collectively respond to place.

Critical-creative responses – new writing, new maps
The critical-creative aspect of the literature survey feeds into the creation of new writing which is a way of actively “doing” literary geographical work (Saunders, 2010; Madge 2014). The poem ‘Hollingworth Lake’, although still a work in progress, was written responding to two stimuli: both reading a text on the lake, and viewing the lake from a car window.

Excerpt from Hollingworth Lake

It will not drain the sun, nor spill over from the moon.
It’s not made from your heart nor from your darkened lungs…”

The story continues: conclusion and further research
It is important to highlight that both the literary survey and narratives that represent and interpret Rochdale are, in turn, interpretations by the researcher and not an exhaustive review of all the literature of Rochdale ever written. However, this supports the notion of place as progressive (Massey, 2005) and mutable. It is important to challenge some of the “heritage” narratives in order to include other interpretations of place – such as the isolating effect that dialect literature may have upon a reader. These literary texts are one way of making meaning about place or of bringing place into being. Further research and outputs will be where the texts reviewed are used to create different cartographies of place to create literary maps of the borough to develop other understandings of how Rochdale – like many other places – has stories past, present, and the future.

Alexander, N. & Cooper, D. (Eds.)(2013) Poetry and Geography. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Alexander, N., Cooper, D., Hones, S., Kneale, J., & Ridanpää, J. (2015) ‘Editorial’, Literary Geographies. 1(1) pp. 1-2
Cresswell, T. (1996) In Place / Out of Place: geography, ideology, and transgression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Garner, A. (2012) By Seven Firs and Goldenstone: An Account of the Legend of Alderley. Society for Storytelling Keynote Speech. 31st March 2012. The University of Chester.
Hansen, W. (1997) ‘Mythology and Folktale Typology: Chronicle of a Failed Scholarly Revolution’, Journal of Folklore Research. 34(3) pp. 275-280.
Hollingworth, B. (Ed.)(1977) Songs of the People. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Hones, S. (2008) ‘Text as It Happens: Literary Geography’, Geography Compass. 2(5) pp. 1301 – 1317.
Madge, C. (2014) ‘On the creative (re)turn to geography: poetry, politics and passion’, Area. 46(2) pp. 138-185.
Massey, D. (2005) for space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Sharp, W. (1904) Literary Geography. London: Pall Mall Publications.
Saunders, A. (2010) ‘Literary geography: Reforging the connections’, Progress in Human Geography. 34 (4) pp.436-452.
Thacker, A. (2005 – 2006) ‘The Idea of a Critical Literary Geography’, New Formations. 57(1) pp.56-73.
Tilley, C. (2006) ‘Introduction: Identity, Place, Landscape and Heritage’, Journal of Material Culture. 11(1-2) 7-32.
Warner, M. (2006) Phantasmagoria: spirit visions, metaphors, and media into the twenty-first century. Oxford: OUP.
Westwood, J. & Simpson, J. (2006) The Lore of the Land.  A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. London: Penguin.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s