CHATEAU-BIBLIO Episode No. 2: Lally Macbeth, Artist, Curator and Writer

Welcome to CHATEAU-BIBLIO: Chateau Orlando’s series of book-focused interviews hosted by our Co-Founder and Creative Director Luke Edward Hall.

It’s common knowledge that you can tell a lot about someone from their bookshelves. Plus, you know what John Waters said about people who don’t have any in their homes... With this series Luke plans to interview some of his favourite people with the hope of learning more about their reading habits, best-loved characters and desert island books. For Luke, the books he loves he holds close like talismans because they are full of inspiration, power and magic. Expect a new episode every few months...

Our second guest is Lally Macbeth, the Cornwall-based artist, writer and curator. Lally divides her time between being sensible and silly. Her work wanders the line between the real and the imaginary, taking in history, folklore, performance, ritual and artifice along the way. She is interested in the links between high and low cultural artefacts and how these lines are often blurred in archives.

Learn about Lally’s favourite writers and books (as well as her very own forthcoming first book), along with her love for vanished worlds, church kneelers and strange folk objects below.

Can you tell us about your current projects, Lally?

My biggest project at the moment is I’m at work on my first ever book. It comes out of my project The Folk Archive and is the culmination of many years of research. It’s a bit of a dream project really writing about all the things and places I really love; I’m looking forward to sharing more about it soon. Other than that, I’m always at work on events for Stone Club and hunting for strange folk objects that I can give a home to in the archive.

 What's your all-time favourite book?

This is a toughy. I have many, many favourites but if I had to choose just one it might be The Unsophisticated Arts by Barbara Jones. I return to it time and time again – her illustrations are just totally joyous, and she has a way of writing about folk (or popular art) which I just think is magnificent. She was so open to what a folk object could be which I love and it’s very accessible and really makes you view the world in a new way. I first discovered it on the shelves of Central Saint Martins’ library when I was at university and had it on loan for nearly three years on and off before I finally caved in and bought my own copy. I still return to it frequently when I need an injection of inspiration.
Your favourite writer?

He’s fairly new to me but I’ve been reading a lot of George Ewart Evans lately, and have been absolutely loving him. His books are a wonderful mixture of forgotten customs, old ways and snippets of folklore, and because he wrote them using oral histories that he recorded they have an authenticity that I find to be unmatched. They truly are pockets into entirely vanished worlds, and I think he should be much better remembered than he is as a writer and researcher.

You’re based in Cornwall. Could you tell us about some of your favourite spots?

I have so many but one of my top favourites is the Admiral Benbow on Chapel Street in Penzance. The most perfect pub interior stuffed to the brim with figureheads and horse brasses, and lovely primary coloured enamel paint dripping off every surface, and a copper bar! I could go on and on! I also love St Protus and St Hyacinth Church in Blisland, it is over the top kitsch bliss – gilded cherubs, fleur-de-lis and green men in the porch… it’s wild! And totally unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Cornwall. Finally, Carn Brea Castle, a folly sat atop the rocky outcrop of Carn Brea outside Redruth. It’s now a restaurant but I mainly go there for the incredible windswept views over Kernow and the strange sense of otherness that wafts around it. Its great in all seasons but a really cold winter’s day is my favourite to experience it, something about the bitter chill is deeply refreshing and I always come away feeling revived.
A recently released book you would recommend to a friend?

I’m a huge fan of Little Toller Books, and they recently re-published a book called The Allotment by Colin Ward and David Crouch that originally came out in 1988. I picked up a copy on a trip to London a few months ago on a bit of a whim (needing a book for the train!) and I’ve recommended it to more people than I can count since then. It’s such a fascinating insight into the incredible world of allotments and their history, and all the activities around them from pigeon-fancying to vegetable competitions. For me it really opened my eyes to how important a patch of land can be… it’s not just somewhere to grow things, it’s also a community and a place to share skills and information, and a place for hope. Allotments, as I learnt from its pages, are more than ever in decline and yet they are, in an age of food scarcity and dwindling communities, potentially more important than ever.

 Tell us about the books on your bedside table.

My bedside pile is rather towering and very varied. I currently have on it a 19th century book about lost shops signs that I bought in a junk shop, Ghostlands by Edward Parnell, Pebbles by Clarence Ellis, Morgawr: The Monster of Falmouth Bay by A. Mawnan-Peller, Birds of the Scilly Isles by Hilda. M. Quick, The Scilly Isles by C. C. Vyvyan and Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto. I spent some time in the Scilly Isles in late Summer and it completely captured my heart so I’ve been reading lots about its history, folklore, flora and fauna, Banana Yoshimoto is an old favourite but I’ve never read this particular novel, and Pebbles is an incredible exploration of rocks, pebbles and stones written in the 1950s and recently re-published by Faber – it’s a particularly pleasingly beautiful book too with a lovely wrap-around cover.

The world of English folklore is a complicated, multi-layered one. If somebody wanted to begin immersing themselves in costumes, customs and lore, where should they begin?

By finding their local custom and visiting, be it a May Pole dance or a day of Morris or a pie flinging contest, most towns and villages have a seasonal custom. The website Calendar Customs is a brilliant resource for timings and exact locations. A brilliant book to get started with is Margaret Baker’s Folklore and Customs of Rural England which is out of print but available very cheaply from places like Abebooks, likewise A Dictionary of Folk Customs by Christina Hole is another great leaping off point! I also love the zine Hellebore, it has brilliant articles on all manner of strange and wonderful folk related things, and Hwaet zine summarily offers up fantastic articles on lore. I also think just scouring second-hand bookshops, most of them have a folklore or mythology section, and seeing what you find. I love how one moment I won’t have known anything about say hoodening customs in Kent and then five minutes in a bookshop and I’ll have three pamphlets on them! They can take you to unexpected and wonderful places.

 Which books have you been reading this winter?

I’ve been getting stuck into a book about Rush-Bearing I recently got at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library book sale. Also Enchanted by Katherine May looks gorgeous and full of hope for the colder part of the year. I always like to have some poetry on the go too, and this year I’m turning to The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine. She’s a favourite of mine, her poetry is totally enchanting, full of life and death, and just perfect for winter.

Can you tell us about your journal, The Folk Review?

Absolutely! I started it as a way of collecting together subjects I was thinking about, celebrating writers I love and just doing a bit of a deep dive into a particular theme. I’ve always loved paper or physical objects and whilst I love The Folk Archive existing online I also really wanted it to have a physical presence, and have something people could hold and flick through for inspiration. It’s very much a labour of love and it’s very cheering that people have enjoyed it so much. I’m working on the second issue at the moment and it should make its way into the world early next year.
Your go-to comfort read?

It has to be, without a shadow of a doubt, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I can’t count how many times I’ve read it such is the power it holds over me. I first read it aged twelve, and I return to it whenever I need an injection of magic and a reminder of romanticism.
I know we both share a love of church kneelers. What is it about them!?

Oh they’re just glorious aren’t they! I think for me it’s that they contain all these amazing snippets and hints of the folklore of a place. From people’s cats to garland days to Morris dances. It’s all there in these teeny canvases. For me they represent community and collaboration – basically all the good stuff! They’ve also been massively undervalued for a long time and my hope is that by showing people the power of them we might preserve them a bit better and stop them from getting thrown in skips or munched by moths.
Do you read a mix of fiction and non-fiction, or do you prefer one over the other? If you were to write a novel, what would it be about?

I do actually read both but I definitely mostly read non-fiction at the moment, mainly for practical reasons in that I’m knee deep in research so I’m usually hunting for useful bits of information. I have actually written a lot of short stories and prose in the past, and I did at one point hanker after writing a novel about a hoarder who lived in a big old crumbing house. Somewhere I have some chapters of it… perhaps one day it’ll see the light of day.