‘Don’t forget where you come from!’ my mother declared recently, when handing over a little framed picture. The image, an advert for ‘Mourning Materials’ produced by Egerton Burnett in 1910 looked like it could fit quite nicely in the bathroom next to Debenham and Freebody’s ‘Reliable Furs’, but apparently this was not the most salient point. Egerton and Burnett were based in Wellington, Somerset, my jolly hometown and the point of having it on the wall was to remind me off the fact – assumingly, on each occasion I visited the toilet.
Ours Was the Fen Country is the end product of two years of interviews conducted by Dan Canham with the inhabitants of the Fenlands in East Anglia. A collage of voices is created using both sound recordings and actors recreating parts of the interviews. Additional video material conjures up the flat expanse of the weather-beaten fens and the awareness of the peaty fens as precarious and, ultimately, disappearing recurs throughout the production.
Reality TV has taught us that we are ourselves the most interesting thing to listen to. Yet, in that medium there is usually a self-aware twist. We rarely listen to farmers being farmers – although Radio 4 in the afternoons sometimes does – we instead listen to celebrities being farmers. It was therefore sweet relief to listen to people being people, with little subtext, and only the belief that listening to one another is a good thing to do.
The evocation of the fens was exquisite, with wind seeping into the corners of speakers’ mouths. And yet, paradoxically, my prevailing feeling was less one of having experienced sincere uniqueness and more one of familiarity. Aside from the geographical specifics (‘flat…flat…flat’ say the voices, time and time again) the stories told were strikingly consistent with those told across the British Isles – and probably further afield too. An over-awareness of group identity, what it means to be from the fens or the levels or the lakes, was there, as was a desire to situate oneself within the passage of history. The act of designating yourself as the descendent of an historical figure – usually someone radical – is not just consistently present across Britain, but is, quite wonderfully, done with different groups laying claim to the same historical figure.
One fen inhabitant, for instance, saw himself as a Cromwell man. Oliver, it was said, was a man of resilience and welcome disruption. I found this mildly amusing, for haven’t I heard that the Civil War belongs exclusively to the West Country? We are the people who put on Glastonbury Festival because we are radical republicans who caused the King’s refusal to leave his train when it was halted at Taunton. All the cross roads on the hills mark the sites of gallows and that pub is where Judge Jefferies drank. Do we need now panic at the idea that the ghost of Cromwell actually lurks in the East and not the West?
Most likely not. Although this may not have been the director’s intention, what Ours Was the Fen Country beautiful demonstrates is that Cromwell is everyone’s and no-one’s. Around the country we all tell variations of the same story, express similar concerns for what increased industrialisation will mean for future generations and hold dear the beliefs that we are unique and that the area in which we were raised has irrefutably shaped our very souls. I need not worry about where I am from because wherever I travel in Britain I will meet people who are essentially people, with the same capacity for storytelling.
If there was something gem-like in the fen people then it was their ability to recognise nature as perpetually more powerful than humanity and to speak beautifully of the inevitable subservience of mankind to the natural world. Mother Nature, a woman only usurped by one speaker’s Nan, howls from above and drowns the land from below. The production closed with the repeating words of one man. ‘We have lost out respect for Nature.’
Don’t forget where you come from.