How not to do research

I hope not all authors are like this, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s a tendency at least I share:

On Saturday it was the Cambridge day of dance.  The Riot had been invited but we couldn’t field enough members to make a side, so I went in support of my husband’s side, the Coton morris men.  At the first dance spot a lady fell into conversation with me – which is normal enough, cos that’s partly what it’s all about (connecting people, getting them to talk and laugh together).  She explained that she was a classically trained dancer who was “respectfully and non-judgmentally” writing a book about dance.  So far so good – I’m all in favour of people writing books, as you know.

Then she said “which village are you from?  Tell me about your tradition.”  I was a bit non-plussed by the village thing, because it’s been almost a century since all the members of most morris sides all came from the same village, and I didn’t initially twig that that was what she was assuming.  I said, “well, these are the Coton morris men and they dance in the Cotswold style.”

At which she looked at me as though she’d stopped believing a word I said, and (in a kind of ‘stop messing me about’ voice) she said “Coton isn’t in the Cotswolds.”

 

That was when I realised that she must have done what I would have done – read one or two books about the subject and thought I was an expert.  In her case, she had presumably read up on Cecil Sharp, assumed nothing had changed in the intervening hundred years, assumed she had pinned down the framework within which the right questions could be asked and was non-plussed herself by the fact that my answers didn’t fit.  If I had worked this out at the time, I would have been more ready to forgive her, but at the time I was only aware that she was reacting to me as if she thought I was lying to her, and I was annoyed.

While I was resisting her suspicious look and trying to explain that you no longer have to live in the Cotswolds to dance the Cotswold dances, John from Coton passed by with the hat, saying “spare some beer money?” 

My interviewer, who wanted me to provide her with free gratis research, out of the kindness of my heart, then rolled her eyes at me in horror and scorn and said, self-righteously “They can buy their own beer!”

And that was pretty much the last straw for me.  I thought – If you were really willing to learn about this stuff, I would tell you that passing the hat around for beer money is (almost) the whole damn point of morris dancing.  I would tell you that, traditionally, what you just did would result in the side coming round to your house and ploughing up your garden in retaliation.  Giving a few coins for beer money is about saying thank you for the entertainment, and entering into a sort of good-fellowship with the side.  So what you just did amounts to openly spurning us.  Morris dancing is no longer about dances carefully hoarded in a single village and passed on from father to son – but, even when it was, I’m willing to bet that it started and ended in the pub, because it’s about community, and one of the pillars of community is shared drinking.  But I won’t even try to tell you these things now, because I think you imagine it’s some kind of sacred pagan remnant of Merry Olde Englande, and – if I said that the beer money is the most sacramental thing about it – I don’t think you’d believe me anyway. 

I talked to a different lady for ten minutes about molly dancing and what I knew about the tradition, where it came from and what it was about.  But that was because she appeared to be genuinely interested in what I was saying.  She treated me like an equal and not like a specimen.  I’m usually happy to tell anyone anything I know about morris, which admittedly is very little (but I know which people to direct an enquirer to if they want to know more.)  But in the face of this author’s disbelief and lack of generosity, I ended up not telling her anything at all.

What I learn from this experience (I hope) is that if I am ever in the position of interviewing someone to get material for a book, I will

(a) not assume I already know better than them.  I will go in with the mind-set that I know nothing, when compared to the person who is actually involved in the activity.  Rather than cross questioning them like a hostile witness I will try to simply be interested and listen to what they have to say.  (If they actually are making stuff up, I can find that out later by asking the same questions to other people.)

(b) if I am offered some small, simple way of reciprocating their goodwill/reimbursing them for their time and information, I will not react with contempt at the thought.  It may turn out to have been my one chance to prove exactly how “respectful” I really am.

On the positive balance of the day, one of the sides who turned up to dance were the Foggy Bottom Morris Men, who had come all the way from Washington DC.  They were lovely people, and a great side – very good dancers indeed, with beautiful singing voices, but not so very perfect that you’d have to hate them (it’s folk dance, you don’t want it to be too flawless ;)  They danced Cotswold style with a Border attitude, which made for an excellent combination, and I would now definitely class them as one of my favourite sides.  I hope we managed to make them feel welcome, and I hope they come back again when they can.

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