‘Stirbitch:’ Cultural Memory and the Vanished Polis
By Michael Hrebeniak
‘Know your own small patch,’ writes Iain Sinclair in London Orbital (2002) ‘and the rest of the world becomes readable.’ But readability is only possible when localised, empirical knowledge of a landscape is underscored by a shared cultural memory or, as Henri Corbin suggests, is rendered ‘imaginal’ by a set of established mythopoeic resources.
One such terrain that remains unread in such terms is Stourbridge Common, situated at the Eastern boundary of Cambridge on pasture between Newmarket Road and the River Granta. For more than 700 years this marginal space hosted a fair – known originally as Steresbregge, from a cattle crossing over Coldham’s Brook, and latterly Sturbridge or Stirbitch –that was awarded a Royal Charter in 1199.
Orginally founded to support the inhabitants of the local Leper Hospital, the Fair rapidly outgrew its host to become a pressure event of Northern European significance and an epicentre for many forms of cultural and biological transaction. The bulk of the internal trade of Britain flowed to this site; currents of people and information accompanied the goods. Stirbitch was an entrepôt to Europe via the Wash, the mid-Anglian pivot of the four quarters, and a radiating node of the medieval and early-modern mental map. ‘Stourbridge Fair, is not only the greatest in the whole nation, but in the world,’ declared Daniel Defoe in A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724), recognising, even at its nascent ebb, ‘a well-fortified city [with] the least disorder and confusion . . . that can be seen anywhere with so great a concourse of people.’
In addition to mirroring the town’s binary tensions with Corporation and University proclaiming separate opening ceremonies, the Fair’s historical development suggests an analogue of the movement from an economy of subsistence to that of surplus and, by the nineteenth century, the formalised business of pleasure. The stress on trade is subsumed by that of spectacle in Henry Gunning’s 1854 account, which records freak shows parading dwarves, giants, faeries, animal menageries, fortune-telling pigs, dogs solving arithmetical problems, waxworks (including a life-sized nude woman), rope dancers, puppet shows, tumbling and slack-wire performances and astronomical clocks, all of which were subject to fines and attempts at prohibition by the University .
Today the site yields neither presence nor knowledge of this temporary polis, other than in the Norman husk of the Leper Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. Patchily documented in local newspapers beyond reports of prosecutions for mis-selling or inexplicable violence, and all but unrepresented visually the Fair comprises an acute instance of culture without archive. The space yields no apophenia; no cumulative signs of sediment or ruin that might allow the mind to locate itself against a referential field; and no historiographic privilege of word or artefact for interpreting urban subjectivity.
The signifying potential of this liminal zone is therefore frustrated with little to grip beyond survivals of the Fair’s ephemeral avenues in the names of local streets (Garlic, Oyster and Mercers Row). The decline of the Fair also marked the permanent end of community experience afforded by the ‘grotesque body’ of carnival which, to Mikhail Bakhtin, signals a zone of declassification: a theatre for shifted shapes, confounded categories and counterfeited roles, where gaps in identity proliferate away from sanctioned urban rhythms of labour and leisure.
Stirbitch could therefore not be further from the staged ‘heritage’ sets of cities that encode memory within a space as a means of legitimising the identities imposed upon individuals and groups. Poised between orders both official and countercultural, we are left with superimpositions within material space of layers of nothing: of an absence of presence, or presence of absence.
The site thus presents itself as a mnemonic to reflect more widely upon the relationship between habitat, performance and cultural memory, which is the task of a film and complementary book-in-progress. As both media make clear, totalising description is impossible—and undesirable. To remember is to perform and to make. A palimpsest must follow: a succession of contingent and fragmentary glimpses; a freed association of reflective and interpretative field notes. Combined orders of text and visuals marking the unseen gamble instead on a positive invocation of the limits of representation, where any claim to historical authenticity is disavowed. We are left instead with a performance record that is foreign to the category of completion; where the continuities and ruptures inscribed within a restless landscape create a world that its inhabitants know and are shaped by; and in the textures of which they dwell.