Professor Michael Green, Northumbria University

 

Through a ‘ficto-critical’ combination of experimental fictional techniques, archival research, and investigations into relevant areas of cultural theory, this project explores ways in which we can challenge the tendency to control and domesticate implicit in attempts to understand past and place.

This broad research question is grounded in a case study focused on the haunting of a public house in a small Northumberland village, and the witch trial associated with the ghost. The project frames the haunting and the history informing it within a self-reflective account of the process of recreating historical events and contemporary constructions of place.

It does this by positioning the researcher as a character in the work. A recent migrant from South Africa, he tries to write himself into the ‘Englishness’ of his new location by investigating the ghost story. The ghost is that of Anne Armstrong, a servant who in 1673 accused various residents of Riding Mill and surrounding Northumberland villages of holding witches’ meetings in what is now the Wellington Inn. This story is regularly reproduced in ever-shifting versions appearing in everything from tour guides to advertisements for residential properties in the area. Armstrong’s charges were apparently dismissed at the Morpeth Assizes – after which she hanged herself or was hanged by those she accused – but her depositions are now considered among the most remarkable texts in the history of English witchcraft. For all their compelling detail, however, Armstrong’s accounts fall short of full historical contextualisation. No records of a trial following on from her depositions have been found, which leaves us unsure as to whether her accusations ever came to trial, or whether the trial records have been lost.

 

Armstrong’s story is thus a combination of specific detail and tantalising openness, both in terms of its truth status and historical contextualisation. This project does not contest conventional modes of historical research, but develops complementary modes of understanding in which an analysis of the archival material is played off against current retellings. It is not an exercise in corrective intervention, but an exploration of the complex ways in which a specific place constructs its past. The ghost becomes a centre of absence which holds at bay any authoritative control over the story.

 

The public house is resonant with peculiar aspects of ‘Englishness’, as is the widespread alleged haunting of pubs and inns. The haunting of the Wellington, and the appropriations of the story behind it, thus feed into a contemporary sense of place, ranging from the national to the local. Placed in various conjunctions with the deposition records, this apparently slight ghost story resists the researcher’s attempts to know the past, the place in which he has come to live, and his own sense of identity.

 

The unsettling awareness of the ways in which identities and places are implicated within networks at once contingent and the product of relations of power is reinforced by the constant reminders of ‘home’ the researcher discovers in a landscape haunted by memorials of Empire. He commits himself to recreating the history behind one statue in particular, that of a British officer killed in the ‘Anglo-Boer War’. His efforts are overwhelmed by the ways in which his understanding of history is challenged by the ghost story attached to what has become his ‘local’, the Wellington Inn. The usual authority accorded to the researcher discovering and giving meaning to his material is tested against his taking shape in relation to that material which is in itself dynamic and fluid in its expression of place, the past, and the present. In crucial ways it is the researcher who is the real ‘apparition’ in the text.

 

Professor Michael Green

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