There was a time when Halloween was almost better than Christmas. That was when I lived in a place that had the potential to be haunted. Halloween, I feel, has a spirit that creeps up and metamorphoses with your home. The house that I grew up in is a semi-detached one, perched on top of a drive with Rennie Mackintosh-esque roses cryptically shining from the front bay windows. There’s a skylight window which has always been shrouded in mystery: we’ve never been able to identify what room it belongs to (we reckoned we’d have to knock a hole through the bathroom wall to get into this secret space, anyhow). The outer walls are rough pink sandstone, kind of old-fashioned, romantic, but we have a modern kitchen extension built by former owners.
With its big rooms, (defunt) fireplaces and (rather decrepit) chandelier, it was the perfect venue for spooky parties. We’d drape heaps of fake cobwebs along the banister, from the lampshades, the settee, the windows. In the cobweb there’d be the plastic figures of ersatz rats and spiders, waiting to catch unwittingly in someone’s hair. Half an hour before our guests arrived, we’d turn down all the electric lights and I’d be in charge of candles. We made holders out of peeled tin cans, pierced with holes to make patterns for the light. The lanterns were strewn all around the house and outside in the patio area, where people gathered around a fire we kept crackling in a rusty old tire rim.
I filled the hall with incense and creepy dubstep music playing quietly from an iPod dock hidden in the study, so that you could only hear it thudding quietly if you ventured upstairs to use the bathroom.
There was all sorts of strange food: white buttered toast cut into triangles and sprinkled with crushed salt & vinegar crisps to resemble witches’ hats, Yorkshire puddings filled with beans (cauldrons), suspicious-looking pots of pasta meant to resemble some gorish substance, and lovely pumpkin soup that my Mum’s friend brought in a giant pan. There would also be heaps of various sweets and chocolates piled on every surface, so that it wasn’t long before everyone was hyped up on sugar. Guests would drift in and out the different rooms, sometimes lingering surreptitiously at the bottom of the drive for cigarettes. We were all quite young then, less than fourteen. I suppose we talked and drank and maybe danced at some ill-defined point later on (there was a year when I remember we all had really sore necks the day after, so we must’ve been headbanging…probably to Enter Shikari…). All the teenagers would gather in the bigger room, which had the bay windows and the old computer. One year we even had a strobe. Friends would sift through my chaotic iTunes library, and wince as their favourite tunes were ruined by our rasping speakers.
Mum and I would make fruit punch beforehand, pouring in blood-red cherry lemonade and slices of orange. The real alcohol, however, was stowed away in sleeping bags under my bed. My friends would hide up there to drink before appearing back downstairs where all the adults congregated around the fire and food. One party ended somewhat disastrously. The ‘drink to the line’ approach to vodka-consumption has never really boded well for anyone. Said friend passed out in my bed for several hours and woke up only to vomit straight into my bin. Bless her for good aiming. One of my mum’s friend’s kids happened to be wandering about and saw her in my bed, asking everyone fearfully, ‘is she dead?!’ I was sitting, secretly sipping cider and having a perfectly civilised chat to my mum when her then-boyfriend dragged another friend downstairs — she had her thumb caught in a bottle of wine. There wasn’t much explaining to do there.
In addition to these house parties, there’d be the school discos, with all the necessary alcohol action plan they required. We’d dress up (fairy, witch, Twiggy were my various outfits) and meet at each others’ houses beforehand — usually mine as I lived closest to the townhall where the discos were. So maybe someone would bring a Smirnoff Ice or some WKD, but I never had much stomach for that kind of thing. Too sweet. I’d play that old teenage trick of sneaking the household spirits and refilling the bottle with water to hide the damage (I always justify my cheeky thefts to myself through the logic that my Mum never really drinks and if she was really bothered she’d pull me up about the wishy-washy gold of her depleted Southern Comfort more times than she actually did – sorry Mum! 😉 ). The problem is, when I think about how I used to drink it makes me sick! I used to mix together the vilest things: Malibu Coconut Rum, orange juice (with bits in), Coca Cola, Jameson’s Whisky — all in the same (plastic water) bottle. We’d take turns to shot the disgusting potion and then we’d stumble, giggling, down to the town hall, playing tinny music on our phones (Bloc Party, Drive-By Argument, Paramore). Ugh.
The disco itself was always an anticlimax, an embarrassing mix of teachers critiquing the DJ’s music taste (I distinctly remember a P.E. teacher calling up some sixth year for playing the Prodigy’s ‘Smack my Bitch Up’), couples awkwardly winchin and alcohol being sneakily passed around in the toilets. I’d usually leave a little bit early, glowing with sweat and smudged eyeliner, giving myself time to wash all that hairspray and glitter out of my hair before school the next day.
Well, they were good times, sort of. Back then, Halloween still had a kind of magic to it: you could go for walks in the dark around the town and you’d still see ghosts in that carrier bag caught in the spindly branches of a tree. I guess now I have too much freedom, and a walk doesn’t have that same sense of wide-eyed luxury. At uni, Halloween seems to be an excuse for a tacky outfit and a pub crawl. It’s always around deadlines, anyway. After uni, maybe I’ll get back into the spooky house parties and punch-drinking again; but for now, it’ll be pumpkin carving and a night in, reading in some cold dark annexe of the library.
A long time ago, far out in the constellations of mythology, Rapunzel let down her hair. And what lovely hair it was, a waterfall of gold, spilling from the window of her tower. Answering the call of her keeper or lover, she unravelled her braids to form a rope. Rapunzel’s hair, then, provided the connecting threshold, the thread that stitched together her turreted psyche and the world outside. It was also her downfall, allowing her to have illicitly a lover. Her keeper, Dame Gothel, became jealous and cut her hair, and left her to live a withered existence out in the desert. The tale takes us from the lush beauty of a ‘splendid garden’ to the arid desert, where eventually Rapunzel and her lover reunite and find happiness. It’s a peculiar tale of desire, entrapment, revenge, femininity; a tale which sets the scene for wider cultural mythologising of long hair. It’s a mythology that we’re still fascinated with, as the popularity of the Disney adaptation of Rapunzal’s tale, Tangled (2010), attests.
History and myth are glutted with references to the power of lengthy tresses. Take Samson, the Israelite leader who lost the source of his strength when his lover Delilah betrayed him and cut off his long hair. Or the Sif, the wife of Thor, whose wheat-coloured locks were cut off and stolen in her sleep by the malevolent god Loki. After Sif’s husband entered a threatening rage about the hair theft, Loki ordered dwarves to weave Sif a new mane of hair out of threads of gold, more long and beautiful than before. There’s also, of course, Medusa; the monstrous Greek guardian whose hair famously consisted of venomous snakes, and whose eyes turned their onlookers to stone. In his essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), Freud suggests that her snaky mane is linked to the castration complex, the (male) fear of having one’s genitals effectively guillotined. Freud’s typically eyebrow-raising essay links Medusa’s head to the female genitals, and the supposed threat of castration a boy experiences if he catches sight of these genitals. Well, apparently, Medusa’s snakes also alleviate the terror of castration, since they provide supplementary figures for the penis, thus filling in the implied absence of castration. And of course, Freud throws in a cheeky sexual pun, as Medusa’s head makes her ‘spectator stiff with terror’, and thus not only turns him to stone but also arouses him: ‘[f]or becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact’. Yes, quite.
Well, it’s undeniable that literature has tended to represent a woman’s long hair with desire, sexuality and beauty. Take this passage from Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
Medusa was astonishingly fair;
She was desired and contended for–
So many jealous suitors hoped to win her.
Her form was graced by many splendors, yet
There was no other beauty she possessed
That could surpass the splendor of her hair–
Yet while her hair made her an object of desire, a thing to be ‘contended for’, the ‘splendor’ of her snake hair also symbolises her multiplicity. As the snakes are full of a life of their own, Medusa cannot be pinned down, her personality is multiple, endless. Her hair is its own being, extending in legend and through history. It is slippery, but also a symbol of her power. Indeed, Hélène Cixous reclaimed Freud’s psychoanalytic pinning of Medusa to advance her feminist call-to-arms for women to rethink their sexuality in relation to language. In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975) Cixous critiques the way Freud’s castration complex reinforces the mythologising of Woman as hysterical, as the Unknowable, ’dark continent’. As weak, passive, mysterious. Through writing (extending the lines of multiplicity that we find in Medusa’s hair), women may reclaim themselves, reach out and produce their desires and being through writing. Just as Cixous herself reclaims the mythical figure of Medusa from Freud’s cigar-stained fingers: ‘she’s not deadly’, Cixous argues, ‘she’s beautiful and she’s laughing’.
There is something joyful and exuberant about long hair. Think of the connotations: a young girl skipping through a field of wheat, streaming behind her a cherry red ribbon. An Austen heroine waiting to be the belle of the ball, or the flame of The Little Mermaid’s rippling tresses. It is a distinctly youthful trait, too; a symbol of childish innocence. In Victorian society, only children tended to let their hair down in public; if a girl wished to be seen as a woman or ‘lady’, she must pin up her locks, dress them in ornaments and braids. Letting one’s hair loose as a woman was seen as a sign of wantonness. Thus, the artistic portrayal of woman with their tresses flowing free represented a kind of back-to-nature aesthetic, a fetishising of the body, the long locks relishing a kind of originary femininity and sensuality. Perhaps also a wildness, a breaking forth from repressive societal values – the kind of constructed femininity that kept women as the domestic ‘angels of the house’. Think of the young Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), her hair streaming behind her as she gallantly trails the ‘savage’ Heathcliff over the hillsides, or the iconography of the ‘fallen woman’ as depicted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Women who did not look in the mirror and reflect back the pale perfection of the chaste Victorian angel, but positively glowed with their own matter – their glorious hair – their sensuality. There is something in that: the glorious feeling of standing on a cliff edge, letting the wind whip your hair across your face and fill it with billowing energy. Just don’t try it when you’re trying to eat ice cream.
Today, like everything else long hair has been sucked into the commercial imperative. Perhaps that is why long hair has been associated with anti-capitalist and consumerist movements: the lengthy tresses of 1960s hippies, Marx with his wild white beard and mane, the fluffy mop of Che Guevara. Long hair (especially the unkempt dreads of the hippies) was never really a friend of the drone-like demands of the job market. A short sharp haircut symbolises ‘cool’, edginess, the new freedoms enabled by consumption (think of the bobbed Flappers of the 1920s). Advertising impels us to buy products, perfect your femininity, express yourself through a new style; a new cut, spray, or shampoo. ‘The latest hair trends’, the V05 website proclaims, ‘help you express yourself’. Every day is a decision about how one will adorn oneself, about one’s performance; hair becomes a web of possible signifiers, waiting to be decoded by an image-consuming public, or at least by that stranger across the street. Femininity is a performance, but the secrets of self lie in the hair. There is Kim Kardashian, that postmodern queen of the feminine, a patchwork of skin and plastic flesh, of shiny dye and hair extensions. Websites will spend considerable time and space unpicking the details of Kim’s hairstyles, as she shifts chameleon-like from blonde to black to ombre. It seems that still we read a women through the strands of her hair, as if they were lines of text.
In Greek mythology, the long-haired Sirens were alluring femme fatales who seduced sailors with their bewitching singing, leading them to perish and shipwreck on their islands. The beauty of these long-haired beings is thus inherently linked to danger, a threat to the freedom and power of masculinity. We might make a connection to the emasculating anxiety of becoming trapped in feminised domestic space. We might also make a connection to the contemporary use of the word siren in relation to (often long-haired) actresses: she’s a real screen siren, we say. Again, these sirens are beguiling, but often perilous in luring their spectators into the isolated islands of their cinematic fantasies.
Yet in addition to these chains of mythology, hair at its most basic component is protein: an element of our body which symbolises nurturance and life. Like our hair, we are always changing, growing. If we look after our bodies with sleep, good food and exercise, it shows in the glow of our hair. A quick flick through a photo album will reveal a history of hairstyles, which reflect not only on the (dodgy or not) cultural trends of the period, but also on ourselves. Who we are and were.
My own hair history is a fairly interesting one. I’ve always loved long hair, ever since (perhaps even before) I watched a rented VHS copy of Splash (1984) and decided I wanted to be a mermaid. Refusing my mother’s futile attempts to brush my hair, I went to school with a witchy mane which was only sometimes contained in double, Heidi-like braids. There’s a picture of me at my seventh birthday party, with it all crimped as I grin at the camera, wearing 90s-style Baby-Spice white leggings. It would’ve looked almost cute, if I didn’t have a full-fringe which took over half of my skull. Safe to say I’m not such a fan of primary school photos…
At least I earned the comparisons I (still) get to Hermione from Harry Potter (and not just through the geekery department). Kids at school would ask me if I ever bothered to straighten my hair (or at least brush it, one girl sighed) – this was back when everyone had to wear their hair poker-straight and smooth as if it had been recently ironed, Bridget Jones style. All that static flattened out; everyone a clone. You could almost smell the whiff of burnt heat spray as the other girls glided past. I wanted GHD straighteners for so long, that by the time I got them (a joint present for me and my brother, who was then going through his wee 12-year-old emo phase), I quite liked my hair a bit wavy or curly. I still have and use that same pair of trusty straighteners, incidentally.
Hair was always a contentious issue in my schooldays. The P.E. teacher would warn us every week that if we didn’t have it tied up in class, we’d be forced to wear rubber bands to pull it back. I’d always imagine the excruciating sensation of pulling a rubber band out a ponytail (along with half of my hair), every nerve searing with dread. By the time I was thirteen my hair was pretty long and for Halloween I bought some of that wonderful Stargazer semi-permanent dye and made a half-successful job of my hair. I think I got that sort of ethereal/faerie/cyborg look, as I dyed the top half pink and the bottom half blue, and my bad dyeing skills meant I actually got quite a cool ombre effect as the shades blended into each other. I wasn’t so good at clearing up the spattered mess of the bathroom, which resembled a mediocre Jackson Pollock painting by the time I was finished.
Oh, and with said blue dye I also did my brother’s hair once. My friend and I bought him some cheap permanent blonde stuff from Semi-Chem, thinking that because his hair was so naturally dark it would need a bleached out base. I didn’t think the blonde would do much at all, maybe only lighten the brown a bit. Somehow, however, it worked a treat and he had the most, um, skunk-like streaks of yellow in his hair. Diligently, we applied the blue dye, forbidding him to look in the mirror until it was finished. With everything all rinsed out, I suppose he looked more like Sonic the Hedgehog than the Billie Joe Armstrong look he was probably going for. It also didn’t help much that I also let my friend cut his hair in the Debenham’s family toilets (while I sipped warm wine mixed with whisky from a plastic sports bottle – classay!), leaving chunks of it over the floor like it was the detritus of some old, innocent self. After a few week’s of swimming lessons, the chlorine made the blue bleed out into a measly green, and he’ll probably never forgive me for that.
The best hair I ever had was platinum blonde. I loved it so much. I guess it was my failed scene-kid phase, when I wanted hair that was long and spiky and backcombed like a rat’s nest, a white canvas to set off my black liner and neon eyeshadow. The bleach process took over three hours for the hairdresser to do, and probably cost all my birthday money and a month or so’s worth of EMA, but it was worth it. I was born a bonnie wee blonde, but cursed with the family trait of having this fade. Having bright blonde hair makes you literally dazzle. Anita Loos was the first to say that ‘gentleman prefer blondes’, and it’s become an adage that blondes have more fun. I don’t know about all that, but you do feel like you’ve become some diamond in a sea of dull, radiating a new light. It fades though. The roots cut in like black leeches and the strands dry out like straw. You get bored. I let the blonde grow out and kept the tips as a kind of proto-ombre (I swear I got there before Alexa Chung et al), which remained as a kind of limp homage to my teen years pretty much until about a year ago, when I went the whole way with the brunette thing.
And now I just wished I was ginger, or at least half ginger. That’s my plan now: gradually get more ginger. There’s something special about ginger hair; the way people try to hide it with lovely euphemisms – strawberry blonde – the way it’s linked to a fresh freckled face, or strange stereotypes (ginger people don’t have souls, I’ve been told). Its Celtic connotations. I want the amber and russet tones of Pre-Raphaelite tresses, that look gorgeous in autumn. It’s a sort of long term life plan, but probably achievable, although it’s one of the hardest colours to get right. You could end up with some cat-vomit orange, or a lustreless red, if you’re not precise with your dye. Yeah, I’ll do it gradually. It took me a while to get my hair as long and strong as it is now, so in spite of that saying ‘it’s hair: it’ll grow back’, I’m not risking my mane anytime soon.
Sure, I love the idea of hair makeovers. Get several inches lopped off and highlights put in and maybe an undercut. It looks cool on loads of people. But I’m definitely one of those strange souls who finds their hair a total comfort blanket, a scarf in the winter, something to chew on idly when I’m staring at a computer screen. I like being able to hide my face in awkward situations, or conceal the fact that I’ve made no effort with my makeup. It becomes a kind of signature, and people remember you by your hair. It would be hard to lose that, like shedding a self.
However, I’m not denying that long hair, rich with sensuous mythology though it is, isn’t a proper pain in the arse. The brushing, painful detangling, the half-hour plus hair-washing, the problem of it getting stuck in the door when you’re trying to clean the microwave. How to wear it for work; nobody wants a spaghetti strand of hair in their £18 steak. You do come up with a good routine though and it becomes manageable. I promise, it’s worth it.
Desire, jealousy, strength – all things long hair represents in myth. Sure, everyone has bad hair days, but maybe a bad hair day with long hair is more a ‘I just came out of the ocean’ look rather than ‘I just woke up’. Long live the mermaids.
Long hair-care tips:
Wash as little as possible. I wash about once a week with a teaspoon of shampoo and a heap of conditioner.
Good diet! Eat all your greens: kale, spinach, celery, avocado and broccoli are best.
Coconut oil: heat some up and slather your hair in it and leave overnight for a nourishing hot oil treatment.
Buy a tangle-teezer and make your life 50 x easier.
Try to sleep with it in a braid.
Wash it in the coldest water you can stand, and only start to blow dry it when it’s about 80% dry, so it’s getting less heat damage.
Soft scrunchies are better than harsh bands!
Give yourself or get someone else to give you regular almond oil scalp massages. A splash of peppermint oil mixed in also stimulates growth.
Regular trims will not make it grow longer (myth myth myth!) but obviously keep your ends in good shape.
Try using colour-depositing shampoos and conditioners as a less damaging colour upkeep as opposed to layering up permanent dye. Henna can also be good, although it doesn’t ever wash out, so be careful and do a strand test.
I have a confession to make: I am a twenty-one year old university student who listens to The Archers. You know The Archers, right? That stuffy old show on Radio 4 about farming that your gran sometimes puts on when she does the gardening? Well, I promise you that there’s more to the show than that irritating theme tune which is as intrinsic to Radio 4 as John Humphreys, Women’s Hour or Desert Island Discs. I’d like to explain why I like The Archers, and contest that it isn’t stuffy, boring or dated, but rather an intriguing slice of rural escapism that is worth listening to for the mere thirteen minutes it takes out of your day. Sure, I started listening initially as a silly form of procrastination, but I was quickly hooked and now listening to the show is shamelessly part of my everyday routine.
Its tagline has changed from the somewhat patronising ‘an everyday story of country folk’, to ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’. These days, ‘folk’ has slightly derogatory connotations, evoking ideas of ‘simple’ people living in a rose-tinted vision of twee village life. ‘Folks’ has a somewhat working-class, ruffian ‘Otherness’ to it, lending the term to a usage of inclusion or exclusion. There is also the more American semantics of the term, which has become embroiled in much political rhetoric, whereby ‘folks’ names a group of people spoken of negatively, or at least in terms of Otherness; as Liesl Schillinger (2014) relates:
Back in August, the [American] President had regretted the excesses of the CIA toward yet another group in the aftermath of 9/11, when he said, “We tortured some folks”; while, several years before, he had denounced domestic fearmongers who demonized his healthcare plan, because “some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past.” The “folks” President Obama speaks of often have a negative or alien aura, a quality of “them,” not “us.” They are terrorists or armed militants, hard-hearted ideologues or benighted unfortunates. This is new.
The folks of The Archers are generally not terrorists or rightwing opponents to Obamacare, but characters deserving of empathy and intrigue in their own right. They are no longer parodies or exaggerated exemplars of ‘country life’. What’s more, the show has its own political and sociological structure: a class system that ranges from fieldwork to managing hotels, age differences, cultural conflicts, economic interests and so on. There are the middle-class characters (the farm-owners, those that have inherited property and business – the Archers themselves), the nouveau riche, the business owners, the farmers, the tycoons that want to build a bypass through the beautiful fields, the cooks, the posh-mums, the drinkers – the, ahem, Scottish character Jazzer (a category of his own) – who would give any edgy ‘contemporary drama’ a run for his money. I mean, just look at his character profile on The Archers’ BBC website:
In wilder times he’s been known to steal cars, grow cannabis and abuse ketamine, but in recent years he’s shaped up, helping out with Tom Archer’s pigs and Mike Tucker’s milk round.
In fact he’s turned the latter into something of an adventure, befriending one or two of his clients rather too readily. Commitment is not in his dictionary, as many Borsetshire women have discovered.
▪Likes – Music, women, illegal substances
▪Dislikes – Authority, healthy food, spiders
▪Highs – A passionate one-night-only with Fallon Rogers, whom he quietly adores
▪Lows – Nearly killing himself with ketamine
Nearly killing himself with ketamine. Well, that’s not a bland old story about sheep escaping or knitting competitions. In fact, the show enacts a careful balance between the weighty yet more banal issues of farming life (the rise in milk prices, methods of pig farming, village fetes and so on) and the meaty drama – extra-marital affairs, interracial relationships, suicide, sex, illness, crime (including arson, drug-dealing and diamond smuggling), business problems, familial conflicts, the joy of enterprise, childbirth, death. The problem of naming children: that amusing storyline where Lynda is sceptical of posh-lady Leonie’s decision to name her child ‘Mowgli’.
Of course, Jazzer is a pretty much reformed character now, enjoying his sessions at the local pub but working hard for other farmers, but there are plenty of other dramas running through the show. For instance, the other week, we got the show’s take on intergenerational conflicts within feminism. When Helen Archer decides she wants to quit her job running Borsetshire Blue Cheese and become a full-time mum, her mother Pat scolds her for casting aside the opportunities that her generation of feminists created. Why would you want to go back to the 1950s, going bored out of your mind? she asks her daughter. Helen insists it is a choice she – not her fiancé Rob – made, but there is something sinister about this whole situation. Lunch ready on the table for him coming home, shelves sparkling after careful dusting and some flamboyant dinner on the table in the evening. Rob’s crooning voice praising it all, urging her with that underlying patronisation to ‘take a break’ from her hard work. Little Henry, the son, lapping it all up. It’s a thought experiment for contemporary debates within feminism, a storyline that explores a real (albeit predominantly middle class) dilemma between finding childcare and returning to work or being a full-time mum. It will be interesting to see where it goes: will Helen continue enjoying this domestic bliss, or will she go mad with boredom, fall back into identity crisis and her eating-disorder and fall out with Rob with all the wrath of Simone de Beauvoir? Time will tell.
The sexual politics of Ambridge also includes the storyline of Elizabeth and Roy’s affair. Roy had been working for her at Lower Loxley, helping her make the ‘Loxfest’ music festival a success, and generally assisting with the business. But when he fell desperately in love with her, and they slept together twice at two music festivals, things got a bit entangled. I mean, he’s married to Hayley and they have two kids. Soon, Elizabeth’s son Freddie started to catch on, and there was all this Eastenders business about him finding a heart-shaped locket Roy had meant to give to Elizabeth and so on. Freddie went all emo, insulting his mother and locking himself in his room, blasting Smells Like Teen Spirit (I love the show’s representation of teenage angst, I really do). So what happened? Elizabeth sacked Roy because she wanted it to end, and Roy was forced to tell Hayley, his wife. The whole affair has become a dominant, listener-baiting storyline, which provides an insightful representation of the effects of marriage breakup on children. There is something quite visceral about Phoebe (Roy and Hayley’s daughter) and her reaction to finding out from Freddie; she starts to completely ignore or else be really mean to her dad, she runs away to stay at her gran’s, she has general overemotional outbursts. You end up feeling sorry for everyone. Even in its short broadcast time, The Archers gets it right, showing all sides and all motivations. No one is a blanket ‘evil’ character, except perhaps Justin Elliott, CEO of Venture Capitalists Damara, who is entangled in the apocalyptic bypass plans. Indeed, many of the characters in the #SaveAmbridge campaign have a personal vendetta against the man. The show itself, however, reveals all sides of the debate, and it’s an education in town planning, enterprise, social geography as well as ‘everyday country life’.
Of course, The Archers in recent years has been subject to certain controversies, not least for its ‘sexed up’ story-lines, which cost them a few thousand viewers back in 2012. Yet I feel the show balances the odd melodrama with sufficient everyday detail. It’s important to represent storylines about for example, Pat and Tony selling their cattle herd, and young Freddie finding his farmer feet, but the odd marital breakdown, court appearance or sexual awakening doesn’t go amiss in twenty-first century drama. There was even (for a while), a la Hollyoaks, ‘Ambridge Extra’, a spinoff on Radio 4 Extra, which focused on the lives of younger Ambridge characters. Well, there were more affairs and a business trip to Russia where Matt Crawford got tangled with the Mafia and ended up sleeping rough. A far cry from the pleasant bleats of sheep. While adding a bit of intrigue, Ambridge Extra only ran for five series before it was axed. Perhaps it was all just a bit too racy for ‘the common listener’. Or maybe it was just that not enough traditional listeners knew how to access it online (since BBC 4 Extra is a digital channel, unlike Radio 4).
There is, furthermore, something a bit postmodern about The Archers. For one thing, it creates an intriguing blur between fact and fiction, often edited last minute to include contemporary real life events as they unfold. For example, the show portrayed reactions to 9/11, the badger cull, the foot and mouth crisis, the London bombings. It corresponds roughly to the progression of real time, so that Christmas comes in Ambridge when Christmas comes in, well, the World Itself. This is one of the biggest appeals for me: the way seasonal changes and events play out in a fictional alterreality, so that I can hear about lambing and cropping and horse riding and so on even while I’m in the city. A lot of my school friends were farmers, so there’s also a bit of nostalgia there too. Perhaps for other listeners, it’s a certain curiosity about what life is like in the farming world, and as we have seen, The Archers does not paint an idyllic utopia of organic food and harmonious living. Like some Biblical fable, there are the floods, fires and diseases too.
Moreover, the show even pulls in real celebrities for cameo appearances. The summer season in Ambridge was perhaps best encapsulated by the climactic Loxfest (which was wracked with drama when the headline act were pulled out following sexual assault charges to the lead singer). Heroically, The Pet Shop Boys (the actual Pet Shop Boys!) appeared to fill in the missing headline slot, chatting away to David Sedaris and Lynda Snell backstage in a hilarious celeb moment. Then there was the culmination of all things twee and middle-class in Ambridge, when Kirsty Allsopp appeared to open the annual village fete. With Olympic fever hanging over the town, Sir Bradley Wiggins helped out at the Sport Relief Rough and Tumble Challenge (incidentally, in true Archers style, Bradley had to witness Ian punching Rob at said event). The celeb appearances add to the strange reality of the show, existing as it does in a kind of Austen-esque ‘made-up but real’ village and province. Radio drama, as a form, also involves the listener a lot more in producing meaning than say, television soap operas do. For one, you have to imagine the events playing out in your head, and so there is always that extra level of interpretation involved. The snappy but daily appearance of the show also facilitates ongoing Twitter conversations, where users’ comments often provide vital feedback for the show’s producers, who care about what people want out of the drama. Listeners get involved even more directly by playing out the show’s storylines; there is, for example, a Twitter account for the campaign to save Ambridge from commercial development (see @SAVEAmbridge).
And I’m glad that The Archers gets more podcast downloads than the likes of Radio 1’s Scott Mills (cough, crap chart music, cough). It shows that sometimes, what people want is a quick-fix of juicy drama but also the escapism and emotional provocation it provides. The Archers is like an on-going collection of flash fictions, weaving together a rhizomatic assemblage of over 60 characters whose presence infects one another’s storylines and transforms our vision of the village through complex and engaging storylines. In our digital age, the short slice of drama that the show offers is perfect listening, and you can download the episodes as podcasts or wait for the 75-minute omnibus edition on Sundays. I think we are getting a bit of a rural revival lately, with the likes of Jack Thorne’s crime drama Glue fuelling this interest in the dramatic landscapes of the countryside. Glue, a somewhat slow-burning series, offers at least beautiful camera work and acclaimed representation of the Romani community, as well as everyday elements of farm-life – the early mornings, the milkings. Yes, there are elements of D. H. Lawrence style romanticising (the racy hay-bail sex scene, for instance) but there is also gritty reality, the criminal undertones of the local community. Where I’m from, the ‘Young Farmer’s Association’ was associated predominantly with Saturday night escapades of binge-drinking, Ceilidh dancing and alfresco lovemaking (albeit also bridge-playing and flower-arranging contests), so maybe all this racy rural drama isn’t entirely inaccurate. Either way, I hope I’ve persuaded you to give The Archers a go. It’s less than 15 minutes, after all.
Fridays can be good days. I think I should appreciate more how pure a Friday can be, when the weather’s as warm as this. It makes you feel free, when you can wander through the wonderland of leaves without a jacket, feeling the breezy air on your bare arms. So after my seminar I decided to go on a walk along the River Kelvin, and take lots of pictures because everything seemed so bright and fire-coloured and beautiful…
The whole way I listened to my favourite Nick Drake album, Five Leaves Left; with its haunting vocals and the drawn-out pull of minor strings, it provides a lovely soundtrack to the autumnal landscape…
Kelvin Way in the afternoon
Over the old bridge with the copper leaves and the stark white of a high rise
(because it’s Glasgow)
white hand, violet light
Friends of the River Kelvin (next to the outdoor gym)
The dawn cracks open the sky like a chestnut, and gold light pours on the concrete and grass like showers of molten topaz. Somehow it’s October and I’m wondering how I got here. Where the summer has disappeared, along with the warm air and the billowing roses, with August and its hydrangeas; it seems time has elasticated itself, and snapped at the strangest of places. Everything may break free now. The world slows down, as trees shake themselves clean of another year. Leaves cascade on the ground, and as I walk I hear the susurrations of their skeletons, rustling like the sound of rain at night.
Autumn is a quiet season. We retreat inwards. Gone are the sparkles of summer voices, the throb of fashionable neon and jet planes soaring to boozy utopias. The Pimms is perhaps swapped for something richer, sweeter, warming. A good cider, red wine, some inventive cocktail combining Kahlua and caramel-flavoured tequila. You think of those people hanging out of balconies, their bare skin glowing in the cold air, the slivery iridescence of cigarette smoke curling from their nostrils. There are the box-sets, the television dinners. Going out is such an effort; it is the not knowing, the tentativeness of the weather. Things would be easier if the sky kept to its promises.
I wanted to go blackberry-picking this year. I found a place along the Kelvin where they sprawl out of the bramble-bushes, poking like fat sapphires through wire mesh fences. I need to find some leafy suburb for conkers. When I was little, we spent the October holidays at my Nan’s in Milton Keynes. There was a copse of horse-chestnut trees and every year we brought back a black bin-bag full of conkers, and I’d shine them up with vinegar and nail varnish before taking them into school. There’s something incredibly satisfying about the way they feel in your palm, solid and smooth, nourishing somehow. I didn’t quite make it in time for the blackberries, but I did the walk again all the same, sweeping my feet through the trails of leaves. Autumn had left its burnished light, a shimmer on the river. I love the feelings of these late afternoons, where darkness is like a comforting hug, handed through chasms of stars and amber.
Once, we had a school project, to gather up all the fallen leaves we could find and press them into a picture behind glass. A lesson in natural materials, perhaps, in arranging colour. We were flattening the landscape, making art; in the veiny intricacies of each leaf lies a million hidden histories. We’ll never know, and they’ll fade and die eventually.
Autumn is always a time of nostalgia. It is that paradoxical time where death reveals itself through visceral beauty. The life forces of summer unfurl and wither and fall away, and yet there is a beautiful melancholy in the sad palette of reds and golds and browns, the snuffling of squirrels amongst tufts of bracken. Everything is scattered: the husks and roots and fragments. You find them in the strangest of places, tucked not only in forests but flowing out of drains, wedged in concrete and windowpanes. People spend their Sundays loafing with films and Scrabble and roast dinners. Or maybe they don’t anymore; but maybe they did once.
By September, we’re back at school, back at uni. Fresh starts amidst the fall. Sharpened pencils, the smell of polished leather. The heating goes on for chilly mornings. Socks warmed up on radiators. That was before I had a flat of my own, and became too stingy. The wind, like some malicious spirit of winter, slips through my single-glazed windows, blasts the rose from my cheeks. I make do with the illusory effect of candles, the quick fix of hot water bottles. You can warm anything with the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon, a flash of cayenne pepper. Stodgy soups and slabs of bread. I watch the pumpkins fill up in the shops, imagining a sea of faces, waiting to be painted on. Or carved out. Stacks of apples to be bobbed, pubs to be terrorised by the horrid costumes adorned by students. Halloween is not quite what it was when I was younger. I miss the parties with the clouds of cobwebs and incense haunting the rooms of my house, fake spiders draped from the chandelier; the echoing sound of dub-step, and the taste of vodka and food colouring. Edible brains and blood-coloured fizzy laces. The sugar-rush; the hungover fall and slumber. Soon there’ll be fireworks, splintering pigments across the sky. As ever, I’ll watch them from the high-up floors of the library. Remember being in first year, where I sat on a Saturday night, my eyes blinking at a computer screen as I read Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’, for a seminar. The rockets flared and pinks, yellows and blues blossomed in flowers of light as I imagined his vision of desperate apocalypse.
That same semester of uni I sat in a cold lecture theatre, teeth chattering as I pressed my face into a perfumed scarf, the animated man standing on the podium in a tweed jacket reciting snatches of Shelley:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes […]
And I, feeling so small and new and ignorant in the world, was sucked in by the spirit of the wild West Wind, not knowing how it would take hold of me and make me fall in love with this city that I have now grown so used to. Fallen into, as one sinks into a favourite old sofa. The ‘hectic red’ is blood-like, beautiful, sinister. Isn’t it lovely, to imagine every leaf a little ghost, cast away from its tree into a journey of exploration and retreat? Wearing the plum-coloured lipstick, the thick mascara and black coat; could not I be one of the ‘pestilence-stricken multitudes’? For autumn is infectious; her colours allure like the striped warnings of insects, the ‘Smoking Kills’ labels on cigarettes…we cannot help but buy her palettes, absorb her force through woollen fabrics…
Slowly, it would be nice to become more ginger, adding redness to my hair through soft washes of auburn. I would like to have hair the colour of leaves, as they enter that strangely vibrant stage of fading. From fire to fawn. Can you not imagine the smell of the roses as they wilt for winter, so luscious in the fat of their fragrance? There are roses, still, weathering the rainfall and cold. There are white ones on University Avenue, dripping with raindrops; their petals lie about them like the shredded remains of love notes.
By the time autumn has ended and entered the shrine-like stasis of winter, I will have forgotten my sorrows, finished my dissertation. This is all hope and relief; but isn’t that what autumn is: the sparkle of Christmas festivities on the horizon, the embracing of frugality and calm after a toxic summer? Apple pie, with ice cream and Amaretto, instead of beer and salad? An ethereal, rustic beauty that inspires fountains of poetry? For what better thing to do on a crisp autumn evening, than to sit at the window with a cup of tea, leafing the pages of a book and feeling purer – not just a hipster, defined by the vague fashions of everything around you – but a lost soul re-enacting the perfect scene of reading, as it plays out through the ages. For global warming might prolong the first fall of snow, but for now autumn will always be coming, and there is nothing quite like language to capture the tinctures of foliage, the crunch of acorns underfoot – the endless song of autumn’s calling. Right now it is raining – a luxurious, slow rain that pours through the one o’clock darkness – but next time the weather is good, I will go to Victoria Park and watch the swans, white against the scarlet leaves, the silver glass of the pond.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.