Book review: Cræft by Alexander Langlands
I’ve always been a fan of archaeology, well, I loved watching Time Team. So, when Alexander Langlands, archaeologist, TV historian (of Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm and Wartime Farm fame) and Patron of the Heritage Crafts Association published “Cræft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making”, I dashed straight for my local bookshop.
In Cræft, Langlands looks at British historical craft practices (many of them with a land use or agricultural bent), and he argues that “crafts, through their need for raw materials, created patterns in the landscape", for Langland’s craft is inextricably linked with the local environment and it works best when it makes use of the immediate landscape; thatchers use local straw, reeds or bracken, wallers and hedge-layers make use of the materials to hand. The result is that the constructed British landscape we are so familiar with is not just shaped by craftsmanship, but crafts have been shaped by the resources and needs at hand.
I had never really put my interest in history alongside my interest in craft, this book made me realise that these two things are in fact, two sides of the same coin – material culture. ‘Material culture’ is a term for the physical aspect of culture we can observe in the objects and architecture that surround people. It includes usage, consumption, creation and trade of objects, and the behaviours, norms and rituals these objects create or take part in. Material culture studies is an interdisciplinary field telling of relationships between people and their things. Anything from buildings and architectural elements to books, jewellery, or toothbrushes can be considered material culture. The term is commonly used in archaeological and anthropological studies, so it’s a familiar term for Langlands; archaeologists work back from the fragments of objects previous cultures have left behind to better understand the needs and desires of the society that produced them.
Langlands is no neo-Luddite, proposing that we should all live off-grid. Nor is he proffering a historic, romantic, nostalgic view where everybody goes full-Poldark (though he does have a scything moment). Rather he proffers a different possibility where, instead of defaulting to consumerism to meet our daily needs, there is an option to use the materials we have to hand, to find the right tool for the job in our cupboards and sheds, to mend or to make from scratch ourselves. In doing so we might be fitter, happier and more in touch with the local world that surrounds us. Langlands suggests that we could have a deeper, richer, more profound relationship with objects and our locality if we learnt to appreciate and value material culture.
While I may find it a leap too far to think that the fields in my village will return to being ploughed and furrowed by shire horses once again, I have been surprised that the plastic bag tax hasn’t resulted in a boom in shopping baskets (there’s one for the hipster), and that the environmental argument for having well-made craft objects in our lives rather than cheap plastic versions, or local production winning over goods manufactured half way across the world still seems to be a case not being made forcefully by the contemporary crafts sector. This book has made me all the more curious about the objects we live with, and what they can tell us about our past and about ourselves today.