Jeremy Deller’s English Magic (some of it)


These are really just notes – I was thinking about how we try to make sense of exhibitions, how much our own personal reference points guide what we take from them, how we challenge or absorb ideas, or rush to define, interpret or misinterpret, see what we want to see or not… it’s not an opinion of the exhibition, just an attempt to gauge how our own reference points filter information…

‘English Magic’ intrigues me as a title because it taps into my fascination with folklore and slightly arcane takes on history and landscape… I’m getting pictures of Shakespeare’s Prospero, maybe John Masefield’s Box of Delights and Herne the Hunter, paganism and druids. There’s something possibly Tudor, like Dr Doctor Dee, or Derek Jarman’s films touching on similar themes shared by Peter Ackroyd with their dreamy analysis of British art and literature and folklore.


Leaflets, guides/poster image for the exhibition – the pink image is a detail showing William Morris returning from the dead as a colossus to throw a luxury yacht into the waters. Morris is used as a political revolutionary in the exhibition, drawing on his beliefs that art and design should be accessible to all (though his products were bought by the wealthy)

The design of the promotional material is pastel pink and green… not sure what that says… it could be quite retro-nostalgic bake-off village fete competition styling, but there’s a huge hawk glaring out which I think will have set the context of my initial thoughts – wild England, which makes me think of Richard Jefferies (because of his Victorian after-the-flood apocalypse novel After London: Wild England). I’m quite precise here because it’s a whole cultural/historical area I’m really drawn to. I’m quite excited about what I’m going to find.

Film: Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah

The first room is darkness, a video playing – just about to start again – and various spot-lit taxidermy victims: owls and hawks. I love owls and hawks, but part of me is not reading this as I once would, because of the obnoxious turning of ‘wildness’ into a high-street shopping/interiors experience which seems ubiquitous now. (I say obnoxious, but that’s not true; there is some beautiful wild imagery and it’s wonderful to see deer and owls and foxes and nature influencing design… but then you read something like ‘If you love the wild outdoors trend, want antlers but not keen on hunting, you’ll love these plastic resin antlers!”, a paradoxical statement that has integrity and no integrity at the same time…).

The film opens with amazing footage of owls and hawks, tethered hunting birds in a pastoral landscape – it’s all high-definition detail, breathtaking in the way it captures feather and claw and expanse of wing in slow-downed movements, and that wizard-like power of watchfulness in the eyes… and a barn owl’s legs are indeed a thing to behold. Dust sparkles in the air and I wonder if it’s intentional that the eerie, almost medieval drone of the soundtrack is broken by the noise of families feeding and possibly whelping outside in the cafe. But nothing detracts from the innate power of the birds themselves.

Next up is footage of four-wheel drive range rovers being crushed in a scrapyard, an abandoned Victorian redbrick building (could be a school, a hospital, a factory?) in the background. I enjoy this because I don’t like these four-wheel tanks, don’t see the need for them if you’re not dealing with farming terrain or large equipment on a regular basis. To lazily generalise, they’re a symbol of an aspirational, ersatz country life associated with weekend homes whose value puts housing out of the reach of workers in rural communities.

This dissolves into the inflatable Stonehenge, which appears with the skyline of Canary Wharf’s financial centre in the background, and there’s May Day celebration as everyone cartwheels and does handstands. It’s pagan abandon/freedom. I can’t help, though not sure I want to, but think of Danny Boyle’s opening of the Olympic ceremony, which suggests a refashioning of an idea of ‘old England’, one that’s tied in with pop culture – BracewellI’m off on a tangent thinking about Michael Bracewell’s 1997 book England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie, with its fantastic image of Malcolm McDowell deep in a forest in a sparkling blazer, an image full of Lindsay’s Anderson’s political might from the film If…. Then I’m thinking about the book Electric Eden which explores similar ideas of an ‘old England’ in folk music from the 60s/70s.

The scene clears, Stonehenge deflates and the soundtrack winds down before breaking into footage of the Lord Mayor’s show. Various costumed dignitaries are beaming, seemingly benign, from the horse-drawn carriages. Two wicker giants, Gog and Magog, are paraded – so I’m thinking of The Wicker Man and 1970s ‘folk horror’ momentarily (but who will be sacrificed?) before getting lost in the knowing observation of details of the Lord Mayor’s show flowing thick and fast – there are parades from the military, financial institutions… it’s redolent of the gathering of parents at the school Speech Day in the closing scenes of If… before McDowell and his revolutionaries take over. In my head, I’m somewhere in the early 1970s. I was a baby at the time, so this is really a second-hand experience through film and TV and all sorts of media. I didn’t live it, but the ‘memory’ of this time is made real because I grew up in the landscape it created.

One image is particularly effective to me: a pair of bridled carriage horses are resisting their role, teeth and nostrils flaring, eyes rolling, as a costumed handler attempts to bring them under control, so any footage from any riot is echoing around too, but also the birds from the opening – both the hawk and horses are tethered, but who is ‘tamed’?

As the film closes (amid footage of the recording of the celebratory soundtrack by an English/Trinidadian steel band) it’s back to the hawks and owls, and you realise you’ve been sitting on a crushed range rover.

Lines and lines and lines, as Tubbs would say

Next up is a room which I’m not surprised to find given the time I’ve gone to in my head… here is David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour and the troubles in Northern Ireland (a series of photos line the walls, all taken in the time period of the tour). A vast image on the opposite wall traces lines across the country linking all the places Bowie played. It’s like a map of railway tracks (I think I remember a quote on the wall about Beeching and closing railway lines in the 60s, but can’t confirm that so may be wrong). It’s also like a map of ley lines. So I’m thinking of a map of latent pagan undercurrents, pop music as escape and, at the same time, restrictions on people’s options for travel (particularly those on the fringes).

This all ‘exits via the gift shop’ (pains me to quote Banksy, so why do it…) and here I get my first full view of the key image of the exhibition, unfortunately on a postcard. It’s a flying hen harrier with a range rover in its claws, and I buy two. For me the hawk represents an old, unfettered wild Albion, a latent ancient strength that will see out the excesses symbolised by the range rover. In other eyes it may be ‘We’re coming to get you’ – after all, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is not that far from the museum.

That’s the end of Part One, as the rest of it is upstairs labelled ‘Part Two’: the hen harrier with the range rover is huge on the far wall and explains the shooting of two such birds over the Sandringham Estate on a day Prince Harry was shooting. There were no prosecutions as the carcasses of the birds could not be found.


12 thoughts on “Jeremy Deller’s English Magic (some of it)

  1. I work near the exhibition and had been meaning to go in for a while, your reflections on it spurred me on to do so. As your post alludes to there are many evocative reference points. Like you, I have a fascination with the 70’s of my early childhood: the awe on the faces of the Bowie fans, the last stand defiance of the striking miners; all speak of a time that has now become history, the familiar slipping into the remote past. But this was no mere nostalgia trip for 40-somethings, plenty of food for thought on inequality, rapacious capitalism and militarism but also the ability of folk life to survive in the face of adversity. Lets hope the righteous, ancient English Magic wins out in the end.

    • I was wondering how much of the political power came from the exhibition without, for example, my linking up with Lyndsay Anderson’s films… – I mean, that was such a theme in the early 70s, taking apart British pomp and ceremony with tooth and claw. It would be interesting what 20-somethings make of it, I guess Jeremy Deller is coming from a similar grounding in the early 70s. Was reading someone the other day – might have been Will Self – saying along the lines that the internet means youth is now constantly repeating the reference points of an older generation. It’s like nothing is nostalgia anymore, it’s all classic because it’s all recorded and easily accessed as today’s news. I think English Magic had that real political spirit of that time: when TV in that era scheduled prime-time stuff that was really challenging and ground-breaking…

  2. The ‘wild outdoors trend’ says it all, doesn’t it: wild life as commodity.

    I have a friend who thinks similarly to you but channels it more through music. He loves Purcell, Vaughan Williams and the weirder composers of the English folk tradition. So he bought Peter Ackroyd’s book English Music. He was most upset. Just a bloody novel: not about Vaughan Williams at all, he harrumphed. You have to be so careful.

    • Quite an awkward novel too – I enjoyed it but it was one of those that lingered. Am still jealous of your library – hope the reality is just like the Romantic imagination (having just bitterly crammed a few highlights on the paltry bookcase that fits where I work…)

      • The library is a constant struggle. It is a joy but it is a burden too. Sometimes photographs of loved ones appear, shoved in front of the books. Once an entire shelf was eliminated so that the box that makes the television function had somewhere to go. Another problem is the Stella Gibbons novels which keep arriving. One minute I am browsing through Abebooks, then a red mist descends and a few days later there is a parcel on the doorstep. And that means that something else has to be relegated to the cupboard or the Oxfam box.

        But, tell me, want do you think? Stella Gibbons wrote a good number of works of pure genius. Many of them are out of print. She also wrote in my opinion at least three turkeys (Fort of the Bear, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, My American). How important is completeness? Should they have a place in the library too?

        Actually, Fort of the Bear already does. It is overwrought, long and turgid, but it does have a nice cover.

      • I could write a whole post about the completist/abebooks red-mist and the parcels on the doorstep… there is a demonic urge for completeness which I’ve decided you have to separate from what you actually need. I’ve learnt to control collecting-for-covers by saving the images while browsing, which satisfies the completist urge for a while. My last splurge was a couple of weeks back when I read a really good Josephine Poole and then tracked down a couple of her 60s novels with original covers, that hadn’t been around for ages… equally impressed by these, I started looking out some later stuff – a lot of horrible 80s covers so the design-lust was cooled and could be more selective. Luckily, I was also checked when the interesting-looking collection of short stories was one I already had under another name.

        Another test is if I glance or notice the book on the shelf and I get something back, an unrelated memory or atmosphere or inspiration. I got quite ruthless in acquiring all the editions of Byron’s Letters and Journals from the 70s. I have two missing but that doesn’t worry me – the other ten always look fantastic in a row with their Swash-ish type and they always evoke something interesting… obviously, I could rattle on with this topic until sparrows drop from trees in boredom.

        Agree about Stella Gibbons – have just googled Fort of the Bear and came across this too – – ‘The Untidy Gnome’. I think this can be safely crossed off the list…

        Interesting that ‘My American’ is a turkey though title had put me off… ‘Ticky’ was the first turkey I read so I approached with caution afterwards (though I might go back – comedy seemed a bit forced, though apparently it ‘has admirers’). I still haven’t read Cold Comfort Farm…

        I bought all my Gibbons in the reissues, which is also fraught, because the illustrated covers don’t always turn up as advertised and you get a series of plain red print-on-demand things (though I did manage to replace The Bachelor with the illustrated cover in a remainder bookshop the other weekend..)
        Anyway, here goes my Gibbons CV – ‘5’ being some unattainable perfection:

        Westwood 4+/5
        Nightingale Wood 4+/5
        The Bachelor 3.5/5
        Bassett 2.5+/5 (patchy)
        Here Be Dragons 3.5/5
        Starlight 4/5
        Ticky 1.5/5

        Haven’t got round to The Charmers or The Rich House yet (keeping like good wine or sloe gin) and keep meaning to get The Matchmaker. Also have the biography but need to read more novels in case it’s full of spoilers.
        On another note, thinking of getting round to the L P Hartley reprints and going to try Angela Thirkell, though fear latter will be pure froth.

  3. I don’t know Josephine Poole and I haven’t read Angela Thirkell for years.

    I’ve also never come across the Untidy Gnome, which was for children and possibly not fabulous. For what it’s worth here is a note I did to Reggie Oliver who wrote the biography, which you should certainly read. It’s excellent, it puts various things into context and I really wouldn’t worry about spoilers. I don’t think they’re that sort of book, do you? His stories are very worth reading too.

    You and I have some differences of view, in particular as regards Ticky, which was incidentally her own favourite. Since I made this list I’ve read Fort of the Bear (turgid and silly) By the Pearly Water (very good in bits but patchy) and Woods in Winter (a corker)

    Bassett. One of the three or four perfect ones. Only she could have artlessly jammed two entirely different stories together and made a satisfactory whole. I didn’t know when I read it about the semi-autobiographical elements but I sort of guessed.

    Miss Linsey & Pa. A great one. Entirely convincing accounts of working class London life. Lesbians treated as potentially funny and sometimes nasty but certainly real people, which was unusual for the time. Great weird bits woven in, as only she did. My copy is part of a series apparently called ‘The Longmans Stories of Laughter’, showing publishers as usual getting it wrong.

    Nightingale Wood. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, but I don’t put it in the first rank as most people do. She is great at creating heroes and heroines that are never perfect, or absolutely horrible, but I didn’t ultimately care about these ones.

    My American. Awful. One of two stinkers. Amy is good and convincing but the American stuff is dreadful. She didn’t imagine it properly, she failed to locate it convincingly (in America location is almost everything and we can’t guess where it is taking place), she couldn’t do gangsters and should have dissuaded herself from trying. (I don’t know why British army swells of the Nineteenth Century are different from American gangsters, but they are.)

    Rich House. Strange and wonderful. Totally believable, and original, characters. I wasn’t around in 1939 but the business of the War closing in on them rings absolutely true.

    Ticky. Fabulous. Gormanghast before the event, but better than Gormanghast because of its panache, its matter-of-factness and its humour. To me it seems without forebears or successors, but perhaps if I had read Ouida I would think differently.

    The Bachelor. Second perfect one. A fairy story growing out of wartime depression and small-mindedness. The happy ending was so outrageous that I had to go and sit down. And Little Frimdl and the Peace Reindeer has resonance even today, particularly for those of us who lived through the 60s and 70s.

    Westwood. One of the best. Challis a great monster. Brilliant portrayal of London waiting for the end of the War and absolutely exhausted. One of her convincingly less-than-fascinating heroines – which is a compliment.

    The Matchmaker. Championship rather than Premier League. I loved the way that she built the land girl up as a character and then got fed up with her ways and dumped her unceremoniously. Some people regard that sort of thing as a flaw: I entirely disagree. It is good not to know where you are.

    Conference at CCF. The other stinker. What was she thinking of, rerunning old jokes like that? And the targets are straw men. She didn’t get inside them: it’s just generalised malice. And with the benefit of hindsight we now know that, alongside all the dross, Picasso and Britten were not frauds; were indeed quite good.

    Swiss Summer. Rather good. It has a heroine who you think is going to be entirely sympathetic and inherit the house but who turns out to be feeble and treacherous. The lady in London acting at a distance is good and I enjoyed the constant struggling up and down the hill. The sturdy peasant who finally inherits is a bit Central Casting though.

    Shadow of a Sorcerer. I spent many childhood holidays in Pörtschach on the Wörthersee in Carinthia, which seems to be precisely where this is set. So I was predisposed to like it. It’s quite fun, but Scarron always seems a bit Hammer Horror, and I agree about the appalling irritatingness of Robin.

    Here be Dragons. I liked this mainly as a fascinating picture of a forgotten period of history, and of course of Highgate and environs. She misspells Humphrey Lyttelton as ‘Lyttleton’, a matter I understand to which the family attach a huge amount of importance.

    White Sand and Grey Sand. I put off reading this largely because of an innate reluctance to be amused by Belgians, but it’s lovely, the clean lines of the fairy story modified nicely by the unresolved elements and the redemption of the Beast which is partial at best.

    Weather at Tregulla. Not a great one, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. All the characters are real and the Bohemians are particularly and pleasantly loathsome.

    The Wolves Were in the Sledge. This is an extraordinary work, not least because completely out of the blue she wrote a Barbara Comyns novel. I loved it. It’s a perfect early-60s novel too. Actually it’s more like those 60s films where they drive around in Jaguars and Mary Quant mini-dresses. Great title as well.

    The Charmers. Good and acutely observed, but I could never really bring myself to care. I liked the mystical experience tucked away in her memory.

    Starlight. Third perfect novel, CCF making four. I think it’s my favourite of all. The way she combines observational comedy with demoniac possession, both handled equally matter-of-factly, is staggering, and the exorcism manfully performed by the two workaday priests of the Church of England is profoundly moving.

    Snow Woman. It’s a convincing first-person voice, and the self-deceiving qualities of the narrator are done well. The story is far-fetched, but it’s meant to be, because we are in the world of the Nineteenth Century family-with-hidden-secrets novel. The title says as much. It’s not like The Matchmaker where characters that get boring get the chop. It worked for me anyway.

    • How fantastic Jeremy Deller has been hijacked by Stella Gibbons – I believe it’s an ‘unusual juxtaposition’. Will be using list as compass for future Abebooks sessions, or its seedier partner, Ebay…

      This made me get The Rich House off the shelf and completely absorbed. I love the title ‘The Wolves Were in the Sledge’ so relieved the content lives up to it… though seems to be about £40 at the moment (great cover) so will have to wait to score in a godforsaken bookshop (usually in Wales).

      Enbury Heath is one that was going to be reprinted but never appeared – that was supposed to be autobiographical I think I remember. Re Bassett, I thoroughly enjoyed the first section so was quite peeved when she suddenly switched focus like a dog with a bigger bone, which muddied my overall impression…

      If I’m bankrupted as a result of this list I shall go on Panorama and complain.

      • Just reread Starlight, which I do think is a masterpiece. I’d put off rereading it in case it disappointed, but it didn’t.

        But look, Josephine Poole. Given your enthusiasm I got Moon Eyes and loved it. What else is fabulous? And why has she entirely disappeared? Is she still publishing, do you know?

  4. I like the idea of the wilds of England – it’s easy (as a Scot) to focus more on Celtic wildness and dismiss English culture as landscaped and neat – but there’s more to it than meets the eye!

    • It’s that old Tees-Exe divide – it’s wilder west! Looking forward to a holiday in west of Scotland this summer, so hoping for lots of deer and an otter, though will probably have to settle for the Ring of Bright Water statue…

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