Discovering Britain

by Arthur B

Scarfolk is both a microcosm of Britain in the 1970s and a mirror of what it is today.
Discovering Scarfolk is Richard Littler's hardcopy version of his Scarfolk Council blog. The blog itself is mostly an exercise in nostalgic photoshop, producing various artifacts from the vaults concerning the fictional Northwest England town of Scarfolk that act mostly as spooky jokes about either the mores of 1970s Britain or present-day Britain - or, at its most successful, highlighting how the latter isn't as distant from the former as it likes to pretend it is.

The lazy move when producing a book of this stuff would be to simply reprint the best images with the sort of minimal commentary they had with their original appearance on the blog. Instead, Littler exploits the extended mythology he's created surrounding Scarfolk over the course of the blog's lifespan and produced a full-blown novella winding its way through the book, which the various images serve as supporting images for.

The basic joke behind Scarfolk is how terrifying childhood in Britain was a few decades ago - and how terrifying life in Britain still is if you look at it a certain way - and so appropriately the novella sits right on the dividing line between satire and horror. It revolves around grieving father Daniel Bush, who whilst in the process of moving with his sons to a new life ends up losing track of the kids in the vicinity of Scarfolk, a town which he soon finds himself incarcerated in. Eventually snapping out of the brainwashing-induced facsimile of childhood the authorities have imprisoned him in, Daniel must face up to the real possibility that his sons have become enmeshed in the future plans of a sinister cult who regard office supplies as sacred and who worship the paperclip-emitting horned beast Mr Johnson as a God.

Despite doing a good job of tying his various random jokes from the blog into a cohesive mythos, Littler's book still lives and dies by his skills in producing authentic-seeming artifacts from a 1970s that never was but is strikingly reminiscent of the one that actually happened, and has relevance to today at that. Whilst everyone will have their favourites - I personally find this Erich von Daniken spoof to be absolutely spot-on - there's a consistently high quality to the images Littler produces, with none that I can point to as being actively unconvincing or inaccurate.

Part of Littler's success lies in his knack for drawing out and capturing the spirit of a very contradictory decade. There's all sorts of features of the 1970s we like to remember and celebrate today, and all sorts of things we'd equally prefer to forget, and Littler is great at reminding us that all those things were happening at the same time next to each other. For instance, the 1970s were one of the most musically diverse decades British pop culture has ever enjoyed, with folk, glam, prog rock, disco, funk, soul, punk and early goth all getting their time in the spotlight and a range of more esoteric genres bubbling away under the surface at that; at the same time, for a substantial audience the musical highlight of their week was The Black and White Minstrel Show, a show so manifestly regressive that British culture as a whole tends to pretend it never happened. Littler combines the music we remember from the 1970s and the minstrelry we've all agreed to forget and presents us with the abomination which is Space Minstrel, which is what happens when a prog rock band ("Beige") starts whistlin' Dixie.

It's this acknowledgement of ways in which the 1970s were completely awful and wretched which stops the Scarfolk project from becoming a full-blown nostalgia trip; at the same time, it saves itself from being an act of modern-day triumphalism over the past by underscoring how the xenophobic, authoritarian streak that runs through Scarfolk (and often reared its head in the 1970s) has never actually left British society. Shit-stirring about immigration, mass surveillance, scaremongering surrounding terrorism that discourages any consideration of the reasons young British citizens would rather bleed out in a foxhole in Syria than spend another second in the country they were born in (or, for that matter, why so many Syians would risk drowning themselves and their entire family in a Mediterranean rather than spend one second in the same region as their homeland), creeping authoritarianism combined with the sort of bumbling official incompetence which ensures that the heat always falls hardest on those who least deserve it - pretending we aren't as crude and vicious today as we were in our parents' time is the national sport; Discovering Scarfolk is a butt-naked streaker out to stop play and make us restless in our seats.
Themes: Books, Horror

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Comments (go to latest) at 12:05 on 2015-10-06
Never heard of that blog, but it seems like the sort of thing that would be right up my alley. Checking it out now.

I was completely unaware that something like that Minstrel thing existed in Britain as late as the 70s, having assumed that was more of an earlier American thing. I can't really act superior about it though, since if it was in TV in Britain then you can be sure people in Ireland were watching it as well.
Arthur B at 12:58 on 2015-10-06
The Black and White Minstrel Show was basically a British take on the American minstrel show tradition, right down to the musical repertoire, so it was basically us riding on the coat-tails of an American thing.

Minipops, however, was all our own idea.

It's also worth noting that we have our own mildly shameful blackface traditions in the form of morris dancing and mummer's plays and that's still going today, though some groups are now doing stuff like changing the colour of their facepaint or painting half the face black and half the face bright blue or something to make sure what they're doing is obviously visually distinct from blackface.
Shim at 16:13 on 2015-10-06
It's also worth noting that as far as I'm aware, there is considerable debate over whether those have anything to do with blackface per se or are a case of parallel evolution.

This doesn't mean they shouldn't be questioned, or even phased out. Even if it were somehow proven to come from completely different roots, we may feel its unfortunate associations are enough of a problem that we don't want it any more. It does complicate the issue and raise questions about how we should deal with this kind of thing, intersection of different cultural phenomenon and so on. Haven't seen a good discussion yet.

There's similar discussion in Holland over Black Peter, although what I've read of that was pretty unconvincing to me. There is a related question of whether a US-centric view of racial issues is becoming dominant via the Internet, which is its own kind of problematic (partly because cultural imperialism, partly because probably really unhelpful given massive differences in demographics and history between even English-speaking countries). Another thing I'd like to see a proper discussion of.
Arthur B at 16:31 on 2015-10-06
The mummers who tour the pubs around where my parents live on Boxing Day each year do blackface and their play involves King George fighting a Turk, so it's in a weird place where there's clearly some racially-motivated jingoism going on but everyone's made up the same (though I note from their website that they've also incorporated characters in whiteface, or indeed without full-face facepaint at all).

Incidentally, their take on the subject is as follows:

In my experience this question is always raised by white people. We have never had a problem with black people. They can easily see we are not trying to parody them. In any case, why should they be insulted because we make ourselves look like them? Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Surely by changing the tradition and not blacking up we would be saying that there is something shameful about having a black face. I imagine that there are african tribes who whiten their faces - would they change centuries of tradition so as not to offend Europeans? I suspect not. Would Europeans be offended anyway? I think not.

There is the kernel of a good point in there, in that there's a bunch of features of blackface which are meant to make you look like a white Southerner's caricature of a black person which the Herga Mummers don't do. (If you check the photos you'll also note that they don't paint their ears or necks, just the front of the face, which I suppose you could see as a penny in the scales of "it's meant to resemble a mask, not a black person" or something like that.)

That said, they totally ruin it with all the defensiveness. (Plus, you know, the whole Turk thing.) Conversely, these dudes do a particolour pattern which fits the rest of the traditional morris/mummer aesthetic just fine, makes the facepaint look more like a patterned mask and less like an attempt to spoof someone's actual skin, and just plain looks better. (Credit for finding the particoloured morris dancers to Joe and Sarah at Wicked Problems.)
Arthur B at 18:17 on 2016-01-09
Well well, this looks interesting...
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