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Faking it

August 8, 2007

As far as the “local interest” part of my own cultural canon goes, the Cottingley fairies are one of my favourite examples of Bradfordian folklore. In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths took pictures of each other using a camera borrowed from Elsie’s father, who was an early photographer. The two young girls were joined in the photographs by the fairies that lived by the beck at the bottom of Frances’s garden in Cottingley, West Yorkshire. Two years later, Elsie’s mother mentioned the photographs at a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford; in 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was on the case. Later the same year, whilst both Doyle and the clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson were asserting the existence of the Cottingley fairies, three more photographs were taken.
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What I like about the Cottingley fairies story is that it belongs to a tradition of very provincial supernaturalism, and is one of many late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century encounters in which new technology meets old provincialism, giving birth not to rationalism, but to superstition and magic. The attempts by spiritualists to record ghost voices on early phonographs is an aural equivalent. Theosophists and spiritualists were, in a sense, necessarily always amateurs because they believed in processes beyond the rational. The amateurism of Elsie and Frances was ensured by the fact that they were children. The possibilities that open up when technology is used by a complete amateur, by the way, was always the point of Idle Tigers and the accidental music that goes by that name.

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The other lesson that young pop hopefuls would do well to learn from Elsie and Frances comes from their handling of questions regarding the authenticity of the photographs. (For the record, it wasn’t until the early eighties that the cousins admitted that the first four fairy photographs were faked; the final photograph, they maintained, is genuine.) Here’s Frances refusing to accept the logic forced on her by Austin Mitchell, a Yorkshire Television interviewer, in 1976:

Mitchell: A rational person doesn’t see fairies. If people say they see fairies, then one’s bound to be critical.
Frances: Yes.
Mitchell: Now, if you say you saw them, at the time the photograph was taken, that means that if there’s a confidence trick, then you’re both part of it.
Frances: Yes–that’s fair enough–yes.
Mitchell: So are you?
Frances: No.

To me, this is as emphatic a “yes-no” as Bob Dylan at his 1966 interviewee-best (“I happen to be a Swede myself”). Or, to put it another way, to ask whether the Cottingley fairies are real is a bit like asking whether David Bowie is real (and a suitable answer to that question, you know, would also be that the first four weren’t, but the fifth one might be). The deadpan tone of the cousins’ responses was much-noted; “I would rather we were thought of as solemn faced comediennes”, Frances once commented. Anyone whose whole life has been shaped by a little moment of childish inspiration might well think like that.

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Were I one or both of Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, I would have begun my recent book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music with a chapter on the Cottingley fairies. Instead, I’ve written some music about them.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Virginia permalink
    August 8, 2007 6:11 pm

    Would you like to capture some fairies or ghosts on film? I know where to find some and they’d be delighted to have a picture or two taken. Especially the ghosts.

  2. August 8, 2007 6:51 pm

    Lead me to the fairies, fairy queen!

  3. May 5, 2009 1:06 am

    you’ve gone and spelt it wrong-its F-a-e-r-i-e-s not F-a-i-r-i-e-s! and also F-a-e-r-y.

    p.s. Miss Virginia, i want to meet your faeries and ghosts! and so does my 9mm camera…

  4. June 18, 2009 8:29 pm

    Thanks for the information, I’m an avid phonograph fan and have been researching (and buying) them for over 10 years now!

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