Hello, I’m David Jennings and this is a version of a talk I gave at the Ramsgate Festival in July 2018.
This is a consultation for a project that has yet to be launched, working under the name of the School of East Kent Studies.
I’m going to present some ideas for what the School might cover – what it’s potential might be. I’m going to argue that it’s worth doing something with those ideas and I’ll present some thoughts about themes and focus. Then I’ll invite you to tweak them, re-direct them or shoot them down, as you wish.
Please remember that you can pause and rewind the presentation at any point. Subtitles and a transcript are also available.
What’s the idea of the School of East Kent Studies? It’s about imaginative reworking of the history, landscape, folklore and culture – in both the anthropological sense and the creative artistic sense – of this region of England and Europe. I hope it can re-enchant our landscape and townscapes, and also build connections between the different communities in the region.
This map, produced in 1801, was the very first Ordnance Survey map to be published. Why did they pick Kent?
The answer is the key to what’s unique about this area and to the potential for the School of East Kent Studies.
Because back then Ordnance Survey really was about ordnance, or artillery – the Board of Ordnance was then what the Ministry of Defence is now. Their concern was about invasion from France.
East Kent’s location at the bridge between the rest of the British Isles and the rest of Europe is key to its importance, its history and the myths that chart its origins.
First Ordnance Survey map
They started this first map at a scale of 6 inches to the mile, but found that this was so painstakingly slow – it required them to mark the boundaries of each individual field – that they switched to 3 inches to the mile in order to complete it.
Note a couple of the placenames here – Ozengell and Poorhole – we’ll be coming back to these in different contexts later on.
Neil Philip and myths as maps of meaning
Location is also important in meaning, what we make of our surroundings and the people we share them with. Thus this quote from the renowned writer on mythology, Neil Philip, “If myths are maps of meaning, they are as particular and localised as a real map. It is because myths are attached to a particular place, a particular people, even a particular individual, that they gain their undoubted universal force. If you reduce the myths of different cultures to a “monomyth”, you empty them of meaning.”
Cycles of failure
So East Kent’s location as a bridge has meant that a lot of people – friendly or otherwise – have crossed through the region, and it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.
In the words of Ramsgate Matters, “Cycles of extreme failure persisted from when this was the most accessible peninsular for any invader and was devastated regularly from 600 to 1100”.
Burial 1 – Cattle skulls
So migration, failure – and death. East Kent only has a few standing stones, but it has a heavy concentration of burial sites. There is more evidence, particularly on the Isle of Thanet, of activity relating to people dying than to people living. There’s very little evidence of sustained occupation. So it’s like a site of seasonal celebration and ritual, a prehistoric Glastonbury festival. Possibly Thanet was where people took their dead to quarantine their diseased bodies and protect themselves from any wandering spirits. Quite what went on there we don’t know, but Gerald Moody in his book The Isle of Thanet observes, of the barrows on Chalk Hill, that “Cattle skulls found in the lower deposits… have been interpreted as deliberately placed for some symbolic purpose”.
What kind of symbolic purpose? Usually it’s assumed to be recognition or genuflection to worldly or otherworldly powers. Not everyone was afforded the privilege of a barrow burial: building these barrows was hard work, and space was limited. But the “symbolic purpose” remains an enigma almost a blank canvas, and that leaves scope to project all sorts of things on it. What we’ll see, time and again, is that historians and myth makers of every period take a lot of licence in creating their own origin stories to enlist the weight of history for their contemporary purposes.
Burial 2 – Kit’s Coty and the White Horse Stone
Here’s just one legend related to the long barrows.
In around fifth century CE, King Vortigern is said to have given Ceint to the Jutes, Hengist and Horsa, in return for the hand in marriage of Rowena, Hengist’s daughter.
Two of his sons Vortimer and Catigern took exception to this. They assembled an army of assorted Romano-Britons and sought to push the Jutes back east out of Kent to “where they came from”. By hook or by crook they progressed one Thames tributary at a time until they got as far as the Medway. Battle was joined at what is now called Aylesford, just this side of the Medway in East Kent.
Horsa and Catigern perished.
Vortimer buried his brother in the nearby longbarrow that is now known as Kit’s Coty.
Horsa’s white horse standard came clattering down onto the Kentish Stone. A folk tale of a ghostly flaming horse and rider is said to recall the burning of the bodies after the battle. From this we have the White Horse stone on Blue Bell Hill outside Aylesford.
After the battle, which the Romano-Britons won, the Jutes were pushed back further east to take refuge in the marshes of Thanet, and ultimately on to the continent.
So far so good for asserting the purity of this mongrel Romano British race. But the femme fatale put an end to that, because…
Rowena poisoned her stepson Vortimer, so that her husband Vortigern could take over the show again. He let Hengist and his Jute, Angle and Saxon mates back in. It’s as though John Major regained leadership of the Tory party once more, reversed Brexit and reasserted Maastricht all over again. Rowena, Edwina, Theresa.
But there’s an odd anachronism in the legend, at least as far as the stones are concerned. It’s alleged that Kit’s Coty took its name from a corruption of Catigern. But the barrow is from the early neolithic period, which means it was created and probably filled several thousand years before the battle, which is dated at 455 CE. Already a thousand years ago, as part of the first histories from which these legends originate, people were rewriting or adjusting history to suit contemporary purposes.
Fast forward to the recent past. Some 20 or so years ago, the route of the HS1 train track was diverted after lobbying to prevent it from coming too close to the White Horse Stone. In 2004 a mobile telecoms provider wanted to set up a radio tower near the stone. They were again blocked following lobbying by the same group. Who were these guardians of local myth?
They’re described on Wikipedia as a heathen, or pagan, religious group, the Odinic Rite, and Wikipedia further tells us that the term “Odinism” was first used in the 19th Century most notably by the Scottish historian and philosopher, Thomas Carlyle in his book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. Would Odinists takes sides between Romano-British and Jutes, or not, do you think? More about them later.
Medieval Icelandic Sagas
A few months ago I did a online course on Icelandic Sagas, one of the earliest surviving bodies of narrative fiction, dealing with the period shortly after Iceland was first settled, and around the conversion to Christianity in 1000 CE. It was presented by the Centre for Icelandic Studies and took a series of slices through the works, focusing on the relationship between text and landscape, gender roles, religion and spirituality, and magic. I put that together with what I knew about the School of Scottish Studies, which houses archives of folk songs collected from travelling people in Scotland, and is based at the University of Edinburgh. It was then that I started to wonder if something similar might be possible for East Kent.
But we have no sagas. My search for folk songs in the catalogue of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library didn’t unearth anything beyond The Sailor of Dover – sung by Shirley Collins and others – and Dover Gaol, a smuggling song. I haven’t been able to find any stories of shapeshifting with animals, like the Selkie stories of seal-people in Scotland. There’s no East Kent equivalent of the Mabinogion, the 12th Century prose stories written in Middle Welsh. So what material do we have to work with? Is it enough?
Well there’s a dark side that I think might hold some promise. Jane Austen commented on this obliquely in a tweet. Well actually it was a letter, but the syntax reminds me of a certain notorious tweeter, whose style appears to have something in common with Austen’s.
Since first giving this talk, I’ve been told that the evidence of Jane Austen’s dislike for Ramsgate may be overstated, but nevertheless there’s plenty of other evidence of shady goings-on in the marginal, out of the way territories of East Kent, and this may be a profitable seam to mine.
Down and Out in Deal
You may know this book, All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook, a writer who died a few years ago and sometimes seems only slightly more balanced and wholesome than his subjects. It’s a bit of a cult: you can find literary podcasts where Guardian writers rhapsodise about it. Seabrook’s subjects include the painter Richard Dadd who fatally stabbed his own father up by the Medway…
… a washed up Charles Hawtrey – the Carry On films actor – in Deal, shown here the morning after fire enveloped his house, leaving him without his toupee while the much younger lover whom he’d picked up in a bar the night before made himself scarce. Also in Deal there’s the story of a former rent boy, Gordon Meadows, who’s a mine of information about clandestine gay sex involving slightly second division public figures, such as Robin Maugham, the nephew of Somerset Maugham, and author of The Servant – played by Dirk Bogarde in the film version. And Freddie Mills, the boxer turned nightclub and restaurant owner, who died from a bullet in the head in mysterious circumstances.
Seabrook explores the Broadstairs stomping ground of a number of figures in British fascism in the thirties and forties, including William Joyce, also known during the war as Lord Haw Haw, the propagandist for the Nazis. This villa is Naldera in the North Foreland area of Broadstairs, home of Lord Curzon, whose second wife and all three daughters by his first marriage had affairs with Oswald Mosley – and one of them married him. Imagine the looks that were exchanged over breakfast in this household. “You dirty fascist!” Again the Broadstairs-fascism axis is one we’ll return to.
Now I want to talk about Ozengell or Ozzenjel – I can’t find anyone who is sure of the correct pronunciation – since this is a site, on the Haine Road just west of Ramsgate, that brings together ancient history and the 20th century demi-monde. It’s believed to be the site of an Anglo Saxon cemetery, with discoveries resulting from excavations between 1846 and 1982. So this is recent by neolithic standards, probably between 5th and 7th centuries of the common era. As well as graves, you can see on the left some of what has been found: spearheads, sword fragments of bronze and ivory, parts of a shield, and the rim of a drinking vessel.
More recently and just a few yards away is Ozengell Grange, once home to Jackie ‘Mr TV’ Pallo.
Jackie was a wrestler, but when TV started covering wrestling, he adapted his persona, becoming the charismatic villain in the ring, who spent much of each bout in verbal combat with the crowd. He’s kind of a lightweight Ramsgate version of Freddie Mills. Leaving aside the homeroticism in this image, which may be obvious to everyone apart from its subjects, is there something faintly classical in these poses?
Since Pallo’s death from cancer in 2006, the Grange has gone the way of much Thanet property. A few years before his death, ownership of the Grange passed to his son, Jackie Pallo Junior, an actor possibly best known for his role as the con Jacko in the film version of Porridge. Pictures of the site graced the Isle of Thanet Gazette.
Fans of JG Ballard will be delighted by the presence of an empty swimming pool, a trope that recurred in so many of his stories.
Ozengell Grange, June 2018
The Grange failed to sell, even at auction, and then in March this year – another familiar tale in Thanet property – it caught fire. In the course of my research to bring you this talk, I visited the site in June. There was still a smell of burning in the air, and through a gap in the undergrowth I saw something smouldering in the yard area. I thought I heard voices, and at that point I remembered I was alone, on foot, and no one knew where I was, so I made my retreat.
Time to break the silence?
With similar concerns in mind, I’m not going to say a great deal about crime and gangs in East Kent and what chattel, living or dead, they might have brought with them Down from London. Nevertheless it may a story worth researching and telling. If you google around this area, there are details of a 2011 play by local historian Norman Thomas about criminal gangs. This was to be followed by a film. “Time to break the silence about Thanet’s gangsters,” reads the press release. And then the trail goes strangely quiet. No film seems to have been distributed or shown.
Photos of hovercraft port and west cliff
I wonder if there’s a silver lining to the cycles of failure, the chronic inability to box our way out of the paper bag of our own making. The picture on the left is of the old Ramsgate Hovercraft pad at Pegwell. On the right is a building just off the Westcliff Promenade in Ramsgate. I look at these pictures of nature reclaiming the infrastructure built to support our lives and our transport, and I think, “This is the future!” – following the famous William Gibson quote that the future is already here, but just not evenly distributed yet. In a time when infrastructure planning is in crisis across the country, when governance has completely stymied itself on a national and international scale, we are pioneers in Thanet and East Kent. We have relevant experience to share, and we’ve already given some thought to how you deal with these circumstances.
Title page/Focus & themes
So that’s the potential, and that’s why I think a School of East Kent Studies might be relevant, interesting and useful.
But what can it actually do? What are the models that could be followed.
One is folklore research. We could find traditions that are peculiar to Kent, such as Hoodening and the Hoodeners Horse, a tradition in the run-up to Christmas, and a variant on wassailing. We could go to the library of Cecil Sharp House in London to find out more about local song traditions. We could interpret the symbols used in the tales and the songs, how they may have been woven into the traditional lifestyles from which they emerged.
The Golden Bough
This image you may recognise from the Wastelands show at the Turner Contemporary in Margate earlier this year. It’s Turner’s Golden Bough and it depicts Aeneas at the entrance to the Underworld. The Golden Bough is this mythical piece of foliage that grants access, or not, as the fates would have it, to the underworld.
Sir James Frazer, at the turn of the 20th century, used it as the title for his cornerstone work of magic and comparative religion across the cultures of the world.
Now the connection I’m about to make is horribly clunky,
but we have our own underworld in East Kent – we have the patterns of life that come from living and working under ground, or by the sea, or at sea. The belief systems, the superstitions and the rituals that emerge from those could be another thing that the School of East Kent Studies might explore.
The Golden Bough scene is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. When he wrote the Aeneid, Virgil was undertaking an act of conscious and interventionist myth-making. Working during the rule of Rome’s first emperor Augustus, Virgil sensed the need to provide the Romans with a suitably worthy backstory for their empire – something that made it seem like ordained fate rather than a series of contingent accidents; and, critically, something that wasn’t just a bastard offshoot of Greek culture and civilisation. Hence his selection of Aeneas, a relatively minor figure in Homer’s account of the Trojan war, because Aeneas was a Trojan, and it suited Virgil’s purpose for the Romans to be descended from the sworn enemies of the Greeks. So later Romans would ‘adopt’ Trojan forebears as a sign of their noble ancestry. In the same way that some Americans, say, might claim Scottish or German parentage.
What to make of this loose play that hybridises history and myth? Do we try and root it out and expose it as fake? Or do we jump right in and have a go ourselves?
Forced Entertainment: Nights in this City
I spent the first part of my adult life in Sheffield. During that time I got to know the work of an experimental theatre company, Forced Entertainment, who set up there in 1984. Two years ago, the Norwegian Government awarded them the prestigious International Ibsen Award. In 1995 they did a performance in Sheffield where the audience took their seats in a coach tour at dusk, and the performers acted as tour guides around the town. Richard here would admit that he’d had a drink, and would get confused about whether the scenes outside the coach window were Berlin, or Dresden or Coventry, in between arguing with Ray the driver. Here’s a short excerpt from the point where the coach stopped in a car park, the audience disembarked, and gradually became aware of two figures approaching in the gathering gloom.
Ladies and gentlemen up on the skyline there you’ll see the Big Fainting Buildings, so called because they sink down an inch or two into the hillside every year. And over there, there’s a pub which used to be called the Last Chance Pub, when men and women awaiting a verdict in their trials at the court nearby would enjoy a last drink and hope for a good result. And just to the left you might be able to make out the Upside Down Club which used to be called Barry Noble’s Roxy, so called because the normal rules don’t apply there… just there you can see the Hotel Amnesia, where few people stay more than once, because they can’t err remember where it is…
Ladies and gentlemen. You could get lost here, you could lose yourself for a month if you took a wrong turn… indeed the truth is this, when a man is riding through the city by night in winter and something happens to make him loiter or lose touch with his companions, by turning back to the pub to get some fags from the machine or for some other reason, then he hears spirits talking in such a way as they seem to be his companions. Indeed they often seem to hail him by name. Often these voices make him stray from the path so that never finds it again. And in this way many travellers have been lost and have perished.
Night in this City – Bus depot
The tour ended in a disused bus depot. On the ground were written all the street names in the Sheffield A-Z in ten 75 metre columns.
Street names also feature in the work of another provocateur who was active in Thanet a few years ago, and who I think has created a quite interesting counter-narrative that draws on the island’s history of migration, conflict and racism.
2015 South Thanet election count video
The Prophet Zebadiah is probably best known for his part in the 2015 general election where he stood as a candidate against Nigel Farage. (Please be warned that this short clip contains some bad language)
[The prophet’s address after the election count in South Thanet, May 2015]
“In the name of Ooog the Beneficent, the merciful, all praise is due to Ooog. For he is lord of all the worlds. I want to thank you all for electing me for MP tonight, and my reign will begin from today. F*** Broadstairs. Ooog Akbar!”
The Afro-Thanetian Zaliphate
The Prophet Zebadiah invited the electorate to acknowledge their African origins, proclaiming a new Afro-thanetian Zaliphate. He borrowed the form of Isis propaganda, but turned it round to oppose racism, and disown the history of racism in Europe, the UK, and, in particular, Broadstairs. Renounce your white skin was part of the message. Once elected, the prophet would take back control for Thanet by flooding the Wantsum channel, declaring independence from the UK, legalising heroin and abolishing Broadstairs.
He agrees with Farage that we shouldn’t be shackled to the corpse of Europe, but goes on to say that we should develop closer links with Africa instead.
Zebadiah Album covers
The Prophet Zebadiah also has a parallel career as a recording artist. I’m not going to play any of his stuff. It’s available on Bandcamp: be my guest if you wish, but you need quite a strong nerve and sometimes a strong stomach too, for what seems in places to be calculated to offend. Let me just show you some of his album and EP covers.
One of Zebadiah’s accusations against Broadstairs is that it remains an enclave of whiteness pushing back against multiculturalism. And he has found that Broadstairs is indeed home to a street called Whiteness Green.
Zion clearly references Judaism – but also Rastafarianism, still the most rich and wonderfully syncretic transposition of a religious topography from one region to another.
Poorhole Lane is nearby the Westwood Cross out of town shopping centre, surely a modern Babylon, and The Length is in St Nicholas at Wade, at the gateway to Thanet.
But isn’t this tilting at windmills? Apart from a little controversy about blacking up at Folk Week, does Broadstairs really have so much to answer for?
Odinic Rite reprise
Remember the Odinic Rite, the religious group who protected the heritage of our White Horse Stone? Though Odinism, as I said earlier, first appears as a term in the early 19th century, this organisation was founded as recently as 1973, and
one of the two founders had been involved with the British Union of Fascists as a teenager. They have a page on their website about different kinds of swastikas.
And their application form directs you to a page about their definition of ‘folkish’ (which you need to subscribe to in order to join). The material on ancestral memory may appeal to many of us who have a bit of an eco-hippie inside, but that on striving after racial integrity – well, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.
Pointing these associations out is not to say definitively that the Odinic Rite is a racist or fascist organisation. They disavow any political dimension to what they do. It’s fair to say that the swastika has a history that stretches far back beyond the 20th century to when it was a symbol of peace and spirituality. Many of us have dallied with ideas as teenagers that we wouldn’t want to be judged by as adults. If anyone takes part in racist or fascist behaviour, we should expose and oppose these behaviours as strongly as we can. The point is that these symbols and these goals are still in play, if only in the margins of public discourse. This landscape isn’t just a matter of cosy and comfortable reconstructions
If the School of East Kent Studies were to get involved in creative re-interpretations of history and myth, we might have to grasp this nettle.
What else could the School contribute? I think of the old TV series, The Wire, and how, over five series, it viewed the issues of Baltimore through different lenses: the illegal drug trade, the port and the unions, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media. Might there be some similar analytic framework that could be applied, say, via a series of special issues of a journal?
Those issues might include, say, folk songs & oral traditions, underground & underworld, maritime lore, landscape, food & medicine
So, your feedback.
IOTAS talks programme
Am I reinventing the wheel here? Is there some branch of Thanet Hidden Histories, or the Kent Archaeological Society that has already got this covered? I’m aware, for example, that the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society has a fantastic lecture programme, which regrettably I’ve been unable to get to so far.
What am I missing? What do you know of other folklore, songs or stories?
My idea, as a launch focus would be to invite submission of essays or short stories to a School of East Kent Studies journal, which would collect together pieces on some of the themes touched today, and hopefully demonstrate what the School is about by example. To keep costs down, this would probably be self-published in newspaper format.
If anyone has suggestions for people who would make good contributors for such a journal, or if anyone would be willing to serve on the editorial board, I’m all ears.
How and where might we distribute it?
Beyond the written word and still images, we might look at video and audio, which, at least initially, could be hosted on the website.
The Way of St Augustine
In terms of events, could we organise group walks to travel The Way of St Augustine, between Canterbury and Ramsgate, and other walks on the Explore Kent website.
Ramsgate, you may know, is host to a series of costumed history walks. Down the coast in Dymchurch every two years,
They celebrate the entirely fictional character of Dr Syn, created in a series of novels by Russell Thorndike.
Dr Syn has a double identity, like Batman and Superman: clergyman by day, swashbuckling smuggler and avenger of all HMRC’s injustices by night.
The next Day of Syn is over the coming August Bank Holiday. Might the School organise visits to such events, or ultimately explore creating its own?
So, to wrap up, let me remind you that the purpose of the School of East Kent Studies is to develop the imaginative reworking of the history, landscape, folklore and culture of the region
to re-enchant our landscape and townscapes, and re-connect established and incoming populations.
Please send your thoughts on any of these subjects.
This is how to get in touch, either with ideas or to request email updates on progress.
Thank you for watching and listening!