The past, bleeding into the present. It’s a staple premise of countless classic childrens’ tales, from the simplest of goofy ghost stories to the rich, folkloric intrusions of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Penelope Lively’s beautifully lyrical debut novel includes a fascinating twist: when subsumed by the echoes of its own traumatic history, the isolated Cotswold village of Charlton Underwood also finds itself overwhelmed by the unwelcome encroachment of 1970s modernity.
Hemmed into the centre of this cultural pincer movement are practically-minded Welsh schoolboy Peter Jenkins and his more whimsical sister, Mair. Freshly arrived in the village, where their father has been installed as the new headmaster, they swiftly find themselves straddling the social (and literal) boundaries between the archaic ways of the “old village” (“Looks as though it’s been asleep for a couple of hundred years” muses Mr Jenkins Snr, with typical parental naivety) and the patios and sprinklers of their own, freshly-built housing estate, pointedly located on the other side of a dividing main road.
One drowsy summers afternoon – and Lively’s descriptions of the weather and landscape are poetry in themselves – Peter and Mair learn of the village’s grim history when their dog, Tar, vanishes into the tangled, off-limits woodland that borders the remote World’s End Farm. Here, they discover the ruins of an abandoned medieval village, Astercote, whose 14th century inhabitants were wiped out completely by the Black Death, and whose remains – and a mystical chalice, whose presence in the woods purportedly ensures the disease will never return – are guarded by the seemingly sinister figure of Goacher.
Despite giving the initial impression of having stepped out of the 14th century himself (he eyes Mair suspiciously as a potential witch, and is seemingly unfamiliar with the sound of a passing aeroplane), this is cunning sleight-of-hand: Goacher is, in fact, the eldest son of the local Tranter farming family, an unspecified childhood illness having left him with considerable learning difficulties. Befriending the children, he confides that he lives in morbid fear of the Black Death’s resurgence, a fear that itself – with delicious irony – becomes highly infectious when both Goacher and the protective chalice mysteriously disappear.
What follows is a remarkable depiction of the effects of mass hysteria. As word ripples through “old” Charlton Underwood of the chalice’s absence, isolated incidences of commonplace illnesses – beginning with the Tranters’ daughter Betsy contracting mumps – are seen as the inevitable return of medieval plague. The rational reassurances of the everyday are swiftly and terrifyingly swept away: accusative white crosses are soon painted on the doors of any resident with so much as a mild sniffle. And, once the news reaches the haughty pages of a local newspaper, the village finds itself beseiged by a deluge of rubbernecking visitors – media and general public alike – all intent on mockery and ridicule.
At which point, irrational health hysteria darkens into outright paranoia. An impromptu roadblock is erected overnight to further isolate the old village, and the inevitable, by-the-book reaction of both the local council and police force only serves to reignite the community’s deep-seated resentment of “outside” authority. “Half them’s really frightened of what they think’s happening, and the other half’s forgotten what all the fuss is about and are just enjoying having a go at Them… everyone who isn’t Us”, observes youthful district nurse Evadne; a woman caught, like the children, in the uncomfortable liminality between tradition and modernity; she is the daughter of a village woman and a visiting US serviceman, increasingly struggling to counter the scared superstition of her home village with the rational medical science of her chosen profession.
Everything about Astercote is beautifully judged, beautifully weighted, beautifully depicted. It captures the very real tipping point when an almost pre-industrialised way of rural life still extant in the mid-20th century (although the Tranters have a tractor, they have no electricity) was finally wiped out by the 1960s housing boom, the explosion of social mobility, and the march of the mass media. But it also evokes the freewheeling spirit of a very 1970s childhood (the children, of course, take it upon themselves to recover the missing chalice, largely unemcumbered by parental concern) and it captures with poetic detail a soothing sense of pastoralism. “The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot and at knee-height, dappled moths, bees, butterflies, birds above and around…” Oh, my flinty heart has melted.
And although the ghosts of Astercote never literally materialise, the gentle hints of the otherworldly that breeze through the story are all the more haunting for their subtlety. Mair, when her conscious guard is down, experiences nebulous “memories” of the village’s medieval plight; she is subsumed by fleeting but overwhelming feelings of empathy with the doomed locals, and occasionally hears the sounds of marching cattle, and distant bells from the now-ruined church. These profound experiences deepen her sympathy for the fears of the 20th century villagers, and Evadne too claims to have picked up on these faint, psychic echoes of the village’s tragic past. But ultimately it’s the power of story that lends Astercote – both the village and the book itself – such potency. And good grief, what a story it is.
Mustiness Report: A reassuring 8/10. The pages of my copy boast a yellow pallor and a sulpherous tang impressive enough to grace the shelves of Astercote Central Library itself. It also has two library stamps from Wrenn School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, boldly marking it as due for return on 2nd February and 18th August 1983. I hope whoever borrowed it on either occasion enjoyed it as much as I did, 37 years later.
Over the course of three solo albums on the superlative Clay Pipe label, Jon Brooks has created music with a very distinct and affecting sense of place. The first, 2012’s Shapwick, took inspiration from the eerie calmness of a night-time detour through this sleepy Somerset village; while follow-up 52, from 2014, was a touching evocation of a childhood spent at his grandmother’s house (as Clay Pipe boss Frances Castle once said to me, with no little admiration: “He was trying to create the sound of lichen in his grandmother’s garden pond.”)
2017’s Autre Directions, meanwhile, was a beautifully sparse reflection on the almost-somnambulant pace of life in rural France. “As the village church clock tolls, it strikes home a simplicity,” explained Brooks himself, in the album’s press release. “A purity of existence that couldn’t really exist elsewhere.”
His new Clay Pipe album, How to Get to Spring, also captures a sense of purity: this time, the simple pleasures afforded by the fading of the winter months, and the empty skies and gentle warmth of the oncoming springtime. In early 2020, with so many of now us temporarily deprived of the physical space and restorative powers of the countryside, the album feels both poignant and reassuring; and its eight perfectly-weighted tracks chart, with Brooks’ characteristic poise and elegance, the journey from grey, snow-flecked hillsides to bone-thawing April sunshine.
In early March, I spoke to Jon about the album, and the forthcoming re-pressing of Shapwick, for my BBC Radio Tees show. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob:Congratulations on the album… is the springtime a particularly evocative time of year for you?
Jon: I think it’s always a time of hope, and new growth. So this album is about that: it’s offering a kind of quiet hope, really.
I always feel slightly unusual in that February is one of my favourite months, which sometimes raises eyebrows. January can be harsh, but in February you get buds appearing on the trees, and those lovely days of hard ground and clear skies.
I’ve always loved that time of year as well. From February to April is a really, really good time. And that’s where the album goes, really… it’s “how to get there”.
I was going to ask if there was a chronology to the album?
I think so – it was definitely written in that way. It goes through a hard winter into early spring, and then into mid-spring, yeah.
I get the impression that you spend a lot of time outdoors… has this album been inspired by your ramblings around your local hills and forests?
That certainly has an influence, yeah. I’m out every day, because I need that headspace, and I need time to come up with the ideas. When my brain switches off, out in the woodland, I tend to get ideas. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, so that’s when things happen.
Whereabouts do you go walking?
I’m in Derbyshire, so I walk around nature trails and meadows. There are loads of fairly lost places around here, where you just don’t see anyone.
On the verge of the Peak District, then…
Yes, basically. It’s lovely, actually – it’s very cool.
My version of your Peak District is the North York Moors… and I find, in walking there, that it’s not just the fact that you’re out and about in beautiful countryside, but that you don’t have anything else to concentrate on. All you have to think about is putting one foot in front of the other, and walking. Do you deliberately go and try to find that mental state in which to be creative?
Yes, definitely. Because although I’m quite a connected person with technology and so forth, I leave my phone at home when I go out. And I really just switch myself off, and open myself to what’s going on around me. And I think that puts you into a different mental state. I think that’s where I get a lot of inspiration from, and I think certain things can bubble to the surface. And you make mental notes, and come back and perhaps write something. Or you make some notes on a new concept. That’s how it works.
How do you go about translating those feelings into music, then? Given that you don’t take a phone with you, can you compose in your head as you’re walking, and then work on it when you get back?
I seem to be able to. And something I’ve also done a lot more of recently, especially with this album, is writing down key words. So I would have a certain word that I felt had come to the surface, and I’d write that down, and then write around that. I’d say – “How does that word feel? How does it sound in the mouth?” And then just go from there. From fairly abstract things really, to trying to describe a word in sound. I really love doing that.
That’s fascinating, there’s almost an element of synaesthesia to that.
Well, I do actually have that as well.
Yeah, I’ve had that since I was a kid. It’s quite distracting in a way, because I’m also a sound engineer and a mastering engineer. And I “see” sound. So, in order to use my ears, I have to try and switch that off… because I can actually see things like waveforms, and colours, and various things. It’s quite an odd one!
I had it in a very minor form as a teenager. The Velvet Underground’s third album, the one with ‘Candy Says’ on it, has a really distinctive guitar sound, which I assume is Lou Reed’s arpeggio. And, as a 17-year- old, I saw that guitar sound as little blue metallic tubes that I was travelling down. It happened with a couple of other albums too, but it was a very fleeting thing, and I’ve often I’ve wanted it back! So you see physical things like that: colours and shapes?
Yeah, I do. Actual colours and shapes, and with various sounds and frequencies they can take on different forms. I’ve always had it, it’s never gone away.
Did you just assume as a kid that everyone had it?
I think I probably did when I was really small. You don’t really think about it – you just think “this is normal”.
I guess it can be a blessing and a curse! Obviously you want to switch it off sometimes… but I guess the essence of creativity is sometimes finding those strange connections. If you’re a comedian, it’s the punchline that nobody sees coming; if you’re a musician, it’s finding a new sound, or the direction of a melody. Is there an element of needing your brain to work in different ways sometimes?
I think so, yeah. I wear a lot of different hats in the studio, and I go from mode to mode. So in certain modes, you need more of that, and less so in others. Thankfully, I’m kind of trying to train myself into… not being able to switch it off and on, but going more in the direction of trying to control it a bit. Because I’m a bit of a control freak! (Laughs)
Do you find your state of mind not only affected by the landscape, but also by the way in which the weather changes that landscape? I think I’m definitely a different person in the autumn to how I am in the spring.
Yeah, I often feel very different at different times of year. I’m very in tune with the weather, and it really affects me and the way that I write. And obviously it affects the way that I conduct myself outdoors: in winter, you’re wrapping up, and that has its own feeling. I’m very in tune with all that, which I’m very pleased about – because I love different seasons. It’s seeing the change from one season to another, and thinking – ah, I don’t need to be quite as wrapped up today!
My favourite times of year are the times when the weather is changing from one season to another. I love all seasons equally, but after a while they get slightly wearing: and I love the change from spring to summer just as much as I love the change from autumn into winter.
Yeah… I used to not really like summer. I used to think I was just a winter person, but honestly – I’m not. I really do enjoy it, and I enjoy those changes, like you say.
There are some intriguing Gaelic song titles on this album… there’s ‘Fonn’ – that’s a Gaelic word, isn’t it?
It is, it’s a word for melody.
I wanted to ask about a couple of others… there’s a track on there called ‘Siorraidh’ – what does that mean?
It’s a specific kind of melancholy. I liked the sound of the word. A lot of this album was conceived on the Isle of Skye. I was travelling around, seeing different words everywhere, and I was noting them down… I took a notebook around. And it was a word that I just really liked the sound of, and I thought – I’m going to write something around that.
Where did you see it, can you remember?
I can’t, actually. It might have been in a cafe, or on a sheet of paper somewhere. Because I’m often going round different places, and if I go into a cafe and they’ve got handouts or little leaflets, I’ll take those and put them in my notebook. You find inspiration in these things.
Do you keep the notebooks wih you at all times? Do you have one at the side of the bed in case you dream something interesting?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got several of them. Loads of notebooks. I’m a notebook fiend!
Definitely a physical notebook, and not a phone?
Definitely physical. I like the act of writing, and… I’ve got different pens… (laughs) I’m terrible like that. Absolutely terrible.
Do you doodle as well?
Yeah. Drawings, and little diagrams. There’s all kinds of stuff in there. No-one gets to see it either, it’s kind of secret.
I know a few people that do the same. I’ve got a friend called Scott Turnbull, he’s a lovely and rather eccentric actor and writer, and he thinks that if he doesn’t make a page of notes and drawings in his notebook every day, he’s let himself down creatively. And within that page there might be one idea that he can use. He’ll pick something out of it.
Yeah, you’ve got to do an awful lot of that really, to get one idea. But it feels worth it for that one thing that stands out, and you think, actually… I can do something with that.
I assumed that you’d been to the Isle of Skye actually, because I googled the album track ‘Neist Point’ and discovered that’s where it was! Do you want to describe Niest Point to us?
Yeah, there’s a lighthouse there, and there’s quite a long walk all the way around it. And to get to it, you’ve got a load of steps. It’s a long way, a good walk. I was there for most of the day, and I just thought the atmosphere around it was amazing. You look out to sea, and… that’s pretty much all you can see. Just water. You feel really small in that place.
I was just really taken by how I felt there, and also… on the inside sleeve, there are various Polaroids of trees, and all of those trees exist on Skye. It’s all about making these temporary connections with nature, and somehow giving them a life after you’ve left them alone and got back in the car and driven off. So there’s a lot of that going on… and one of those trees was at Neist Point.
Talking about your connection with nature – and with place and landscape – I was delighted to see that your album Shapwick, from 2012, is being reissued on vinyl. It’s genuinely one of my favourite albums, and it’s meant so much to me over the years. Can you tell us a bit about the story behind it… this was another journey you were making, wasn’t it?
It was… I was coming back from a holiday in Devon, and there was an incident on the motorway – I think it was a rugby club that had caught fire – and we were in backed-up traffic, standing still for hours. And we decided that, as soon as we could get off the motorway, we’d take a detour. This was at night time, and it was completely dark. And there was a little village called Shapwick… we were driving through it, and I was just completely taken with how the car headlights looked as we went though the village. And I noted it down – at the time I was using my phone to take notes – and I just made a quick note: “Shapwick… sounds like a good album title”. And I kind of imagined how the village would feel, and the various things that would happen in it.
So as soon as I got back, I pretty much started writing stuff around that, and it became an album. And now I feel very old, because it’s been reissued for the third time! I’m really glad that it’s coming out again, because people still ask about that record.
I find that it’s a record that makes a genuinely emotional connection with people. It has a very personal resonance for me, but there’s clearly something in it that really speaks to a lot of people. Do you ever know what these things are, or do you just put the music “out there”, and see where it goes?
I don’t think you ever can know, really. Because everyone’s got their own take on it. But what I ty to do, with every record I make, is put a lot of human emotion into it. And that can take various forms, but I always want to create something that someone is going to connect with. Rather than just being… well, you know, I’d hopefully never make a bland record that doesn’t appeal to anyone. They’re going to appeal to different people, but the ideas is to try and create something that someone, somewhere is going to really connect with. And if I can do that, I’m doing my job properly.
Did you actually stop in Shapwick, or did you just drive straight through it?
No! We literally drove through. I’ve never been there.
I do love the idea of the village now having this kind of second identity, and a second history. It’s like when towns and villages are used as locations for films and TV shows… you’ve created a kind of fictional Shapwick, which I really like.
Exactly, yeah. I think, years ago, I read something about Brian Eno being quite into taking places on maps, and imaging what those places were like. That always fascinated me, that idea. And as I started to explore the place, I was thinking: “What does this place feel like? And what could go on there? Who are the characters?”
And I go off into my own world, and people become characters, and incidents become fictional things that can turn into music.
Can I ask about something on the album that has tormented me since it came out?
Go on, then. If I can answer…
Who is the man talking about bats? I can virtually quote him word for word…
Ah! Yeah, he was fabulous! I went on a bat walk, a guided walk around a nature reserve one evening, and he was the bat expert. He had all the equipment to listen to bat calls… it was fabulous, I still remember that night. He was such a character, and I just happened to have my audio recorder on me – because I carry one of those everywhere – and I recorded him speaking and I thought: “You are absolutely brilliant, you’re going to feature on a record one day…”
Does he know he’s on it?
(Laughs) I don’t think he does…
It might be a lovely surprise for him one day! If ever I end up using the word “but” in the middle of a sentence, I usually do it twice… and that’s come directly from him.
(Laughs) Yeah, he was really, really good.
You’ve recorded under lots of different guises, and done lots of collaborations… I guess lots of people will know about your work with Ghost Box as The Advisory Circle. Does it feel like you have very distinct musical personas?
Yeah, definitely. I’m just interested in lots of different things, and I can never just stick to doing one thing. I would get so bored. I probably collaborate a lot less now, but I’ve done a fair amount of that in the past – I’ve done collaborations with Friendly Fires as The Pattern Forms, and we did an album together, that was good fun to do. But even on my own, I do different projects all the time, and from one day to the next I never know what I’m going to be doing.
Do you start composing with a particular persona in mind, or do you just make music generally? And if it sounds like an Advisory Circle track, then that’s what it becomes, and if it sounds like a Jon Brooks track, then it becomes that instead…
Sometimes, yeah. I try and let things take the lead, and then I’ll just go with it, rather than trying to control it too much. You kind of get a feel after a while, of – “is this going to be an Advisory Circle track, is this going to be a Clesse track” or whatever it is, and you can then develop it in that direction, and just go with it. But I love doing different things, I always do.
It stuck me that you work with two labels with a very striking visual identity. Clay Pipe has Frances Castle’s wonderful artwork, and Ghost Box has Julian House, whose work I love, too. Is that visual element important to you?
Incredibly. I’m very into visual graphic design. And I’m just incredibly lucky, working with Frances or Ju, that I always get a sleeve that I’m really happy with. Their work, I always think, is half the record. It’s not just about the music, it’s about everything else around it. And when I give something to Ghost Box, or to Frances, and when I see the artwork, it becomes a record. And it starts to sound like a record, because I’ve got the artwork. That’s the only way I can describe it.
It must be a lovely feeling when you first unpack the finished product…
Oh god, yeah. It’s always exciting. It was like that with the last Ghost Box thing I did, Ways Of Seeing … that was in a gold foil sleeve, and I was like… “Ah, right OK… this is really good, what he’s done.”
The number I’ve times I’ve tried to wipe my thumbprints off that sleeve, though…
(Laughs) Oh, I know. Just get one of those polythene covers on it…
I used to do that with my schoolbooks! So what have you got planned next?
Just experiments at the moment. Obviously I’ve been getting this album finished, but now I want to do wildly different things. I’ve been doing loads of experiments, and seeing where it all goes, and the exciting part is not knowing. You just don’t know where you’re going…
Thanks so much to Jon for his time and conversation. The above interview was conducted in mid-March, before the Coronavirus lockdown was implemented, so the the vinyl editions of both How to Get to Spring and Shapwick have been temporarily delayed. However, digital copies of the former are available to buy here:
More of a Wet Wednesday than a Freaky Friday, this familiar tale of a mother/daughter body-swap feels, appropriately, like an engaging, powerful story being forced to masquerade in the form of an ungainly knockabout comedy. Four (four!) feature-length screen adaptations to date, all produced by Disney, have given Mary Rodgers’ tale a genuine pan-generational appeal, but the book is very firmly rooted amid the middle-classes mores of Nixon-era New York, and is centered around a family whose reactions to a perspective-altering case of otherworldiness seem disappointingly glib.
Disappointing, because it’s a genuinely brilliant premise. 13-year-old Annabel Andrews wakes up to discover that she now inhabits her own mother’s body; and has therefore inherited a full gamut of family responsibilities: her busy executive father, her six-year-old brother Ben (or “Ape Face” as Annabel has nicknamed him), and – indeed – her own absent physical form, which she assumes to be now inhabited by her mother’s personality, although this supposition remains tantalisingly vague until the book’s final chapter.
Things predictably go awry: overwhelmed by the obligations of the adult world, Annabel – a typically scatty and wayward teenager – finds herself baffled by her mother’s vague diary appointments; out of her depth in a school meeting about her own underachievements; and – ultimately – not only concerned about the disappearance of her own physical form, but also that of her younger brother. Because Ben, we learn, has been inexplicably allowed to leave the house with a “beautiful chick” stranger who calls at the apartment, charming teenage babysitter Boris into letting the trusting infant wander the streets of New York in her company.
Boris, an adenoidal 14-year-old adored by Annabel – although, predictably, he himself is in love with the senior Mrs Andrews – does actually provide effective comic relief: I certainly laughed at the revelation, after an entire book’s worth of sleight-of-hand, that his name is actually Morris, but a cavalcade of sinus-troubling allergies render him unable to pronounce it correctly. It’s the 1970s New York equivalent of the “Decond Class Redurn Do Dottingham”. But elsewhere, it’s the humour that actually stymies the story. Which would be fine, if the book was intended as nothing more than light whimsy; but it clearly has pretentions to making a serious point about the responsibilities of adults towards children, and it occasionally veers into unexpectedly dark territory. At one stage, Annabel – in her mother’s body – fires the family housekeeper for using racist language; and in another scene fears that her own physical form may actually have abducted, raped and murdered.
This uneasy combination of the shocking and the lighthearted comes to a head in the book’s closing chapters, when Annabel eventually attempts to report both the disappearance of her own physical form and that of her younger brother to the police. What should be a moment of heart-pounding tension is depicted as high farce, and a serious of knockabout telephone misunderstandings (“I can’t figure out whether the dame is a fruitcake or for real!” chuckles Patrolman Plonchik to a colleague, as – no, really – a distressed woman attempts to report the abduction of her six-year-old son) fizzles away the tension into (very) sub-Mel Brooks wisecracking.
Unlike other readers whose reviews I’ve poked through, it doesn’t bother me that the exact method of the body-swap is left unexplained. In fact, I rather like weirdness that’s simply left there for us to deal with: that ambigious oddness is a staple of many of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes, and clearly Mary Rodgers was of the generation that took inspiration from some of Rod Serling’s finest TV work. But, unlike in the best Zones, the reaction of the characters in Freaky Friday never really convinces. Annabel responds fairly calmly to finding herself in her mother’s body, setting methodically about living Mrs Andrews’ life rather than responding in any believable way (my own response, I suspect, would be to scream obscenities at the mirror and pound the walls until my hands bled), and although she (and we) gain a few insights into the world her mother inhabits, it feels, frustratingly, like we barely scratch the surface.
But perhaps most disappointingly of all is Mrs Andrews’ response to spending the day in Annabel’s body, and any committed “Women’s Lib” advocates (to quote the book itself) might want to bite their lip and take a moment here. While it would have been fascinating to learn of the insight she gains from spending the day inside her teenage daughter’s body, she is absent from virtually the entire book, re-emerging only at the end to reveal that she has taken full advantage of the body-swap scenario to give her 13-year-old tomboy daughter a makeover, a new hairdo, a new wardrobe and a spot of dental work for good measure.
Boris – or Morris, if you will – is predictably delighted. But although there are some very funny and very thoughtful moments scattered throughout the book, I was a little less enamoured.
Mustiness Report: 1/10. My copy is as fragrant as a Spring morning, a 1987 hardback reprint that seems to be No 16 of a series called “Collins Cascades”. There’s no price tag and no bar code, so I’m wondering if this was a selection of childrens’ books reiussued specifically for British schools? The “Stokesley School” stamp on the first inner page of my copy suggests so.
(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 390, dated March 2020)
For almost 70 years, John Townsend amassed an extraordinary collection of 20th century ephemera that has now inspired a new book, Wrappers Delight. Bob Fischer carefully unwraps the story, then puts the packaging to one side for safe-keeping
“He was collecting on a different level,” says Jonny Trunk. “Relentless. Absolutely relentless. It’s so hardcore.”
This is quite something coming from Jonny, a irrepressible gatherer of vintage curiosities himself. His label, Trunk Records, has become the stuff of legend; breathing new life into musical obscurities of the mid-20th century. But his new book, Wrappers Delight, shines a spotlight on one of the most prolific collectors of British ephemera ever to have lived. The late John Townsend lived in the suburbs of Stockport, dedicating his entire life to a house-filling (and, indeed, shed, caravan and summerhouse-filling) collection of cards, stickers, wrappers, packaging, tins, junk mail… pretty much anything that ordinary households would routinely throw away.
The story of the book began with promotional flexi-discs. A friend of John Townsend’s son Robin borrowed a boxful from the house, and uploaded an audio mix of them onto Youtube; before alerting Jonny Trunk, who has a profound interest in such matters. “There was the Barbara Moore Singers doing a Tango advert; there was a Bryant & May ‘Message from the Chairman’, that sort of thing,” remembers Jonny. “Just my sort of advertising rubbish! I went up and offered Robin a good sum of money for the box, and I said ‘Let’s have a look around the house’. And from there… “
“It was an Aladdin’s Cave. Hanging in the hall was a Weetabix T-shirt, and I thought ‘What?! Why is there a Weetabix t-shirt there?’ It was the one where they turned the Weetabix into little skinheads, remember that? And on every shelf there was a thing, a tin can that was a promotional item that had been turned into a radio… wherever you looked there was something. He had loads of mugs, and I love mugs. And they were everywhere… mugs from Robertson’s Jam or the Swizzels factory.
“There were bags, and in the bags were boxes, and in the boxes were more bags, and in the bags was more stuff. I’m a collector, and I know how much time, energy and effort it’s taken to collect the roomful of records I’ve got. And he did it with postcards, cigarette cards, tobacco silks, first day covers… everything. What most people spend their life doing for one thing, he did across several. I got really excited by the possibilities.“
The book is a sumptuous affair, with 500 of John Townsend’s most vividly evocative items scanned and photographed in loving detail. From Pink Panther candy to Yellow Submarine sweet cigarettes, from Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs to Kung Fuey crisps, they provide a direct portal to an era when luridly-packaged treats would be eagerly snaffled by grubby-faced kids all over the country, queuing in pokey sweetshops and street corner newsagents alike.
Three days after speaking with Jonny Trunk, I travel to Stockport to visit the Townsend household itself, finding myself at the door of an impressive, five-bedroomed house in a leafy cul-de-sac: the very epitome of unassuming suburbia. I’m greeted by Robin, a whiskery blues musician now known universally as Robin Sunflower (“It was chosen for me by the people of Ashton-Under-Lyne”, he smiles, enigmatically). His wife Paula is also there, as are two incredibly excited dogs, one of whom is called Elvis.
Immediately, I get a sense of what Jonny has described as a “strange energy”; John Townsend’s collection, although depleted since his death in 2014, still dominates every available space. The house is a riot of ephemera, a museum of 20th century pop culture and packaging that is still piled halfway to the ceiling in some rooms. As we settle down by the fireside, Robin begins to tell me his father’s life story.
“He was born in Surrey in 1937,” he says. “His dad died quite young, and his mum got another man, so he ended up going into a children’s home. And he spotted that the milk that was delivered there every day had different patterns on the cardboard bottle tops. And he started collecting them. It was something that he could have, something that made him different to everybody else. And from there he went onto collecting cigarette cards, tea cards… and then anything.”
“He had an eye for design, and logos…” adds Paula. “They would have appealed to him…”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Logos fascinated him. So he went from cigarette cards, to bubble gum cards, and then the actual packaging. Everything that came into the house was planned. It wasn’t just a case of ‘We need some beans, we need some Cornflakes.’ He’d be in the shop, and he’d say ‘We’re going to get these beans, because they’re advertising this film…'”
John moved from Surrey to Stockport in the late 1950s, and into the current house in the early 1970s. He spent his entire working life as a rep for Bird’s Eye (“We were never short of frozen peas,” deadpans Paula), weaving his love of collecting into his regular family life, with wife Brenda and three young sons – Martin, Robin, and Christopher.
“Me and my older brother Martin were very much employed, at not fantastic rates!” laughs Robin. “My dad would regularly come back with boxes of bubble gum… 144 packets in each box. And in each packet there’d be one piece of bubble gum and four or five cards of whatever series it was; footballers or pop stars. We would flatten all the wrappers, then get all the cards and put them into order, onto boards. There’s No 7 from that series, and there’s No 22…”
What comes over strongly is that John’s hobby wasn’t merely collecting for collecting’s sake: he felt a overpowering duty to preserve the minutiae of 20th century life for future generations to enjoy, and had a visionary sense that eventually these throwaway items would amass great cultural importance, simply because most households were throwing them away.
“There was definitely a social history angle,” nods Robin.
Paula agrees. “Everything to do with disposable life fascinated him,” she says. “He was always going on about the throwaway society, and how it was wrong and he should keep everything. And how one day it was all going to be in this glorious museum. He never got round to that… he never gave himself time, because he was always just collecting more and more.”
“People would bring him things as well,” adds Robin. “He’d say ‘Please collect all your empty cereal boxes and bring them to me… all your junk mail, all your phone cards, all your bus and train tickets…'”
And some of John’s collection has accrued remarkable value.
“There were two boxes full of flattened cereal packets, mostly from the 1970s,” says Robin. “I looked through, and said ‘This one’s got Star Wars on it…’. So we put two Star Wars Shreddies boxes onto eBay with a starting bid of a fiver. Someone got in touch, and asked ‘Would you take £300 for the two?’ It was like… right, OK… let’s tread a bit more carefully now. We’ve also got Battlestar Galactica, Superman, The Black Hole…
“And the Doctor Who Weetabix boxes, we just couldn’t believe. One bloke bought three of the four, on the same day. He spent over £1,000 on three empty Weetabix boxes.”
So objects that were designed to be collectible are now worth less than the packaging that housed them, simply because people kept the former, but not the latter?
“Yeah,” nods Robin. “People might have kept the little plastic figures or the cards, but not the box. That’s the nature of ephemera.”
“Your dad knew that all along,” says Paula. “He understood that immediately.”
The presence of John’s wife Brenda seems to have tempered the scale of the collection, but the intensity of his hobby escalated following her death in 1989. “It was different when Mum was alive,” agrees Robin. “There were certain areas where his collection was, and certain areas where it wasn’t. But once there was only him, there was no need for any demarcation lines.”
This change in circumstances led John’s fascination with printed matter into some unexpected new territories, too: notably, a notorious Manchester nightclub whose name become synonymous with 1990s rave culture.
“Haçienda club flyers,” says Paula. “He loved those.”
Robin nods. “He used to go into Manchester with a rucksack, a shopping trolley and a couple of shoulder bags, and he would go round Affleck’s Palace and Eastern Bloc Records, picking up huge stacks of them. His bag would weigh a ton!”
This new direction prompted John to put his collecting on a more formal footing, with the foundation of an official society. “He was running a club called the M.I.C.E. club,” explains Robin. “All about club flyers, tourist information cards, free postcards… things that were given away as promotional items.”
At this point, he retrieves from the shelf a book that gives an indication of the level of attention that John’s collection began to attract. The Ultimate Guide To Unusual Leisure, by Stephen Jarvis, was published by Robson Books in 1997. It includes an entry on M.I.C.E, the “Modern Information Collectors Exchange”, founded by John to swap promotional flyers with similar enthusiasts dotted around the country.
“What would life be like if you saved every piece of junk mail?” the book speculates. “Probably like John Townsend’s life, who has boxfuls of the stuff all over the house. It’s even on the staircase. He says: ‘There’s a gap down the middle of the hall, where I walk…'”
Robin closes the book, proudly. “It’s also got entries on Zen Archery, the Friends of the Museum of Bad Art, The Flying Nun Fan Club, and barbed wire collecting.”
“I’m surprised your dad didn’t get into that,” smiles Paula.
So did the collection take over the house as spectacularly the book suggests?
“It was quite extreme at one point,” says Paula. “You could sort of shuffle around, but you had to do it really slowly. Sometimes you would actually have to climb over boxes. If you laid flat, you could sort of slide over them. And I don’t remember going upstairs for the first few years. I don’t think it was accessible upstairs.”
“Sometimes you’d hear a sort of rumble upstairs, as something collapsed…” remembers Robin, wistfully.
“But there was never any shame over it,” adds Paula. “He was always ‘Take me as you find me, this his how I want to live’. And everybody accepted that, because it was just… John.”
Both Robin and Paula recall John’s sense of humour and gregarious nature, describing a funny and sociable man who was entirely aware of his own idiosyncrasies. “He liked the thought of being the eccentric English gent,” nods Paula. “He loved being the centre of attention, and if he got the opportunity to be on the radio or the telly, then he loved that, too.”
And the dawn of the 21st century provided the opportunity for John to expand his collecting habits even further. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was an enthusiastic early adopter of eBay.
“He had his own van that the Post Office would send out specifically to come here,” recalls Paula. “Nowhere else. A massive box of condiments, free sachets of brown sauce, turned up one day. We said ‘Why have you bought this?’ He said ‘Because I’m collecting free giveaway condiments, obviously.’ He never used them, they just sat there for years in the box, then got totally moused…”
Robin laughs. “He ran a M.I.C.E club, and them some real mice joined…”
“The kitchen was really scary,” laughs Paula. “Remember that big tin of Mango Purée that exploded?”
Both agree that the collection reached its peak in 2007, by which stage the house was so dominated by bags and boxes that John moved into the garden summerhouse. And shortly before his death in 2014, he was still ordering eBay items from his nursing home: they would arrive unexpectedly at the house, much to Robin and Paula’s surprise.
The couple moved into the house when John died, and began the bittersweet task of gently dismantling the collection. As the family sift through what John once conservatively estimated to be 34,000 items (“Possibly 34,000 squared!”, jokes Robin), older brother Martin has been tasked with listing the more interesting items on eBay.
“It feels strange, it all going out of the house,” admits Paula. “Because the house and the collection have kind of become one. And it is Robin’s dad. Having had years of arguing with him, I now feel that I understand where he was coming from, and why he couldn’t let it go. I thought it would be easy just to get rid of it, but it’s really not. When stuff goes out of the house, it does tug on your heartstrings a bit, because we’re never going to see it again. But realistically, we can’t keep hold of it.”
Robin agrees. “It’s a shame that he spent a lot of time gathering these things together, and now they’ve been fragmented. Maybe out there now, there’s someone desperately trying to gather them together again…”
Wrappers Delight, of course, immortalises a corner of the collection, and cements John Townsend’s visionary status: Jonny Trunk’s 2019 crowdfunding campaign to finance the book reached its £20,000 goal in 36 hours, proving that the world has finally come round to John’s way of thinking. We now positively delight in the disposable ephemera of decades past. And Jonny Trunk himself is rightly proud of the finished product. “On every page I’ll see something I like,” he says. “There’s a lot of illustration which I think is really quite charming. Some of it’s brilliant, and some of it’s not very good at all… that slightly ‘outsider’ art of badly drawn pop stars, you know. But there’s something on every page I’d buy.”
Meanwhile, Robin and Paula are a delightful couple, and inexhaustibly welcoming. As we potter around the house, I get an overwhelming impression of their love for John, and their willingness to share and celebrate his story. Touchingly, on top of a drinks cabinet in the front room, are the modest pile of 1940s cardboard milk bottle tops that sparked the whole collection. They graciously offer them for me to inspect; the faded remnants of a traumatic, wartime childhood. I’m subsumed by a feeling of incredible sadness.
“He lost everything when he was a kid,” says Paula. “But these were something that he could take, that he could just have. It was like everything he’d lost, he put into his collecting. I think a lot of it was about him taking control of his life.”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Existing on his own terms.”
And as we pass the foot of the staircase, John’s story has one final, heart-rending twist. Posing for photographs beside a promotional cardboard cut-out of a beaming 1970s schoolboy sporting a Superman t-shirt and a chequered flat cap, Robin smiles. “If we stand here, my parents are in the picture, too”, he says. And he points out two charcoal-grey cardboard boxes, nestling almost unnoticed beneath a fluffy, sleeping toy cat.
John Townsend has become part of his own collection. It’s impossible not to conclude that it’s what he would have wanted.
Wrappers Delight, by Jonny Trunk, is available from FUEL Publishing, RRP £24.95. It’s here…
It’s almost possible to play Terry Nation Bingo with many of the scripts that the debonair Dalek supremo turned in for Doctor Who during his 1960s and 1970s heydey. There will be a remote planet with a frighteningly hostile environment (check); there will be a futuristic citadel that provides fragile respite from the dangers present on the planet’s surface (check); there will be an eccentric scientist working alone on a secret project (check); and a sizeable chunk of the story will essentially consist of an “obstacle course” journey across a hazardous landscape populated by deadly beasties, with the eventual goal of reaching – literally – the story’s ultimate place of resolution. It’s usually on the other side of an acid lake, or a deadly, petrified forest.
Check. All of these elements are present in Rebecca’s World: it only really needs the lingering threat of radiation poisoning for the complete Terry Nation Full House.
What separates it from the bulk of his TV work, however, is the book’s ultimate strength – a delightfully surreal and clearly Goons-inspired sense of humour. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise given Nation’s background as a comedy writer: his first–ever professional credit was for a sketch sold to Spike Milligan in 1955, and he subsequently worked on hundreds of radio scripts for likes of Eric Sykes, Harry Worth and Frankie Howerd, before joining the long list of illustrious collaborators to have been fired by Tony Hancock.
For better and for worse, Rebecca’s World clearly draws heavily on these experiences. The titular lead character is a sparky young girl, bored to tears during a school holiday in her sprawling country home. She has an unmistakably Edwardian quality – clearly reinforced by the book’s interior illustrations – although there’s also a single, slightly surprising reference to her once watching television. Perhaps a leftover from a previous draft? Either way, after unwisely dabbling with her father’s gigantic astral telescope, she finds herself transported across the universe to a decidedly unusual – and curiously unnamed – “Forbidden Planet”.
At this stage, Nation’s influences become clearly apparent: we’re essentially thrown into a Milligan-esque reworking of The Wizard of Oz. Rebecca discovers that the planet is in thrall to the dastardly Mister Glister, a debonair tyrant with the sartorial tastes of Liberace. Glister keeps the population subjugated by controlling – and charging for – access to shelters that will protect them from the murderous GHOSTS that are roaming the planet’s surface; and yes, the capitals are Nation’s, and are used throughout. Keen to become an unlikely hero on her new home world, Rebecca teams up with three lovable local misfits and embarks on a lengthy quest across the planet’s surface to liberate the cowering populace.
So there’s Grisby, a fur-coated hangdog (in fact, almost a fur-coated Hancock) with the most painful feet in the world; Kovak, a hopeless spy and hilariously transparent “master of disguise”; and Captain K, a feeble, bespectacled superhero whose power lies in his possession of a “GHOST stick” – the last remnant of the forest of GHOST trees that kept these malevolent spirits at bay for generations. Until, that is, Mister Glister chopped the trees down to build said “GHOST shelters”, charging the public a small fortune to enter these tiny refuges, their only way to remain safe during the dangerous GHOST raids that frequently sweep the planet.
Pursued by Mister Glister and his hapless henchmen, the mis-matched foursome travel across land to reach the mythical “last GHOST tree”; encountering a succession of genuinely great characters along the way: my favourites being the creepy “Scarepeople” – a legion of giant, dark-robed screaming figures that line the rim of a desert canyon; and the “Bad Habits”, a initially genial elderly couple who transpire to be the originators of all the irksome peccadilloes picked up by children the world over; training tiny, furry creatures to whisper “Bite Your Nails” into the ears of sleeping infants at the dead of night.
The landscape too is the stuff of fairytales, all towering needles and bottomless feather wells. It’s genuinely terrific stuff. But Nation’s background as a sketch writer, and the influence of Milligan in particular – a strength when it comes to the book’s humour – is perhaps his downfall, too. The story is essentially a sequence of fairly unrelated incidents and set pieces, and never quite connects as an genuine journey, with character and consequence. Maybe I’m asking too much of a book clearly aimed at a very young audience, although it’s not a criticism I could level at – just thinking out loud here – The Wizard of Oz. Regardless, it’s never less than good fun, and shows an interesting flipside to Nation’s typically traditional TV science fiction scrips.
Point Of Order: This is the first “Musty Book” of which I can claim previous experience. In 1982, my primary school teacher Mr Hirst read the opening chapters to me and my fellow ten-year-olds, shuffling impatiently on the parquet floor of Levendale Primary School. Iintended then to complete the rest of the book one day, so never let it be said that I don’t play a long game.
Update: Thanks to ‘Joe Dredd’ on the Roobarb’s TV forum for pointing out the Rebecca was, in fact, the name of Terry Nation’s daughter. And to Chris Orton, who added that she also lent her name to the character of Rebec in Nation’s 1983 Doctor Who story, Planet of the Daleks.
The paranormal was taken far more seriously in the 1970s. Mainstream news programmes like Nationwide would frequently include UFO sightings and poltergeist infestations alongside analysis of the latest economic forecasts and industrial action; and their 1976 report on the Hexham Heads – the buried stone carvings that unleashed both a werewolf and a rather curious half man/half sheep creature on this sleepy Northumberland town – has become the stuff of legend. In newsagents, the books of Erich Von Daniken nestled happily alongside the latest Jilly Coopers, and – by the turn of the 1980s – Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World was a fixture on primetime ITV. It was, as one dedicated Loch Ness Monster-hunter* once said to me, “a very credulous era.”
*Yes, I’ve met a few.
Into this mix was thrown the fascination with a paranormal phenomenon that perhaps came closest to arousing genuine scientific interest: that of Extra Sensory Perception. The idea of a “sixth sense”, an innate psychic ability ready to be unleashed in all of us, was a mainstay of 1970s weirdness: it was an era when Uri Geller became an enigmatic international celebrity, and when there was even talk of the CIA employing military-grade psychic readersto gain an advantage in a still-simmering Cold War.
This delicious combination of nebulous strangeness and academic respectability is evoked perfectly on Parapsychedelia, a new collaborative album by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse. The transatlantic duo (essentially Jonathan Sharp, from Cumbria, and Wayne P. Ulmer, from California… god knows, if they ever visit each other, they’re in for a hell of culture shock, climate-wise) have created a melodic, dreamy collection; where the authoritarian voices of beardy-weirdy 1970s researchers emerge chillingly from beautiful, eerie soundscapes, redolent of both the authentic vintage library music of the era, and the first giddy wave of Ghost Box-led Noughties hauntology.
The album is released on the Castles In Space label this week, and I asked Jonathan and Wayne about the background to it all:
Bob: The album is great fun! Between the pair of you, whose idea was it to make an album about ESP research?
Jonathan: Thanks! When we initially started planning this, Wayne suggested the ESP theme, and he passed me a mood board of images and text. It sort of grew out of that. It was a bit of a lucky chance, as I’d just been reading a book on remote viewing, so it all kind of clicked. A lot of Wayne’s initial images were so evocative, and dovetailed with what I’d just been reading.
Wayne: That’s right, I had been wandering the stacks in a local library a few years ago and came across a book on parapsychology. Flipping to the index, I was greeted with a list of peculiarly resonant words, and wrote them down for future use. Later, in communication with Jonathan, these resonances would prove to be a fertile aesthetic from which to draw inspiration.
What are your memories of the paranormal from being a kid? Did you watch Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and similar programmes?
Jonathan: Oh absolutely, I think I was at exactly the right age for that to be a big influence and spark my interest in the broader subject. There seemed to be quite a widespread interest at the time in UFOs, parapsychology and ESP… all that stuff. As well as those Usborne books, there was just so much available: everything from Chariots Of The Godsto The Highgate Vampire. And lots of it was targeted at children as well as adults.
Wayne, was there a US equivalent of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World? I know Leonard Nimoy presented a similar show… was there other stuff as well?
Wayne: Ah, you’re thinking In Search Of…, but that was a bit before my time. As a child in the late 1980s, it was Unsolved Mysteries after dinner, and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown books in the school library. There was definitely something in the air, and anything paranormal got my attention. Beyond the cultural reference points, I’ve always felt a natural predisposition to magical thinking, and wonder.
Did this stuff scare you both as children? The ‘Monsters of the Deep’ episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World gave me nightmares for months…
Jonathan: Honestly, it was a bit like watching a real life version of Doctor Who… there were things that were certainly scary! But I watched it religiously. The one that has stuck in my mind after all these years is the Tunguska episode.
Wayne: I’ve always been terrified of lots of things! Close Encounters was my favorite movie growing up and – though not scary in the traditional sense – it sure scared the living hell out of me. I’d watch our VHS copy over and over. So when my family moved to the Mojave Desert in 1986, I would camp out and search for UFOs in the night. Often paralyzed with fear, but it felt wonderful. That tipping point of otherness, just beyond perception.
Oh, I have to ask… did you ever see one?
Wayne: There was one lone instance. Spherical lights, maybe four or five on the horizon to the east, fading in and out of visibility in a sequence, from right to left. Pulsing like an inchworm across the night sky, slowly. As one light dimmed on the right, another would fade in on the left. It lasted only long enough to baffle me, and leave me transfixed.
Do you think it was an age when ESP and other paranormal fields of interest were taken more seriously – both by the mainstream media and by academia?
Jonathan: Oh totally, I mean this was the time of Uri Geller being a huge TV star. It did seem like certainly the mainstream media took it all more seriously, or certainly gave it screentime without attempting to debunk it with a knowing wink. Likewise, academia was a bit more open, too. I have some great T C Lethbridge books from the period, plus things like The Occult, by Colin Wilson. I think it really was the tail end of the “Age of Aquarius”.
Wayne: For sure, Jonathan. But I understand why that openness has gone away. With the advent of smartphones and related tech, there should be more documentations of unexplained phenomena, but instead we have fewer. The hard sciences are universally lauded – and rightfully so – but the ability to not-know can be equally important in a moment. I think we worked on Parapsychedelia from a space which embraced our classically shared touchstones of the unexplained, but I can’t help but feel it all points to something much closer.
Are you a believer in any of this stuff yourselves, then? Have you ever tried experimenting with Zenner Cards, for example?
Jonathan: I have a set of Zenner cards that came with a copy of The Unexplained magazine. I’ve never had much luck with them though! Let’s say I’ve an open and enquiring mind on this and a lot of similar esoteric subjects.
Wayne: Traditional parapsychology? Not particularly. But I believe the reality of our situation to be several magnitudes weirder than any of that!
The idea of a collaboration between a Cumbrian artist and a Californian artist is an intriguing one! How did it come about?
Jonathan: I’d been familiar with Wayne’s Panamint Manse releases, and we started chatting back and forth. I really liked his last album a lot and he said “Well… how about we do some kind of collaboration and see what happens?”
I don’t think either of us had any initial expectations of it turning into a full album, but he sent me some initial ideas to play with, and it quickly became apparent that we clicked musically and had something pretty cool. The whole thing took shape over a few months as ideas bounced back and forwards, and suddenly we had an album’s worth of stuff.
Wayne: Yeah, I had admired Jonathan’s work from afar before we began corresponding. After devouring all I could of the more popular stuff, I’d search Bandcamp for music tagged with “Hauntology” – I know it’s uncool, thanks – and The Heartwood Institute stood out for me. I remember hearing Calder Hallin 2016, around the same time I put my first music on the platform. I think Bandcamp can be a great tool for fostering communities and building connections. But it was Jonathan’s willingness to work with a bit of an outsider that allowed Parapsychedelia to develop.
Have you ever met each other in person, or even spoken in real time?
Jonathan: No, we’ve not met in person at this point, but yes – we’ve talked at length in actual, real time. And probably sent several thousand words of e-mails and messages!
Wayne, how have you found it working “remotely” in this way?
Wayne: We have similar setups so it wasn’t insurmountable, but I love being forced to commit and bounce down audio, because I can be so indecisive in my own work. Sending audio and MIDI, and text and pictures to friends are great frequencies for me.
What do you think each other brings to the collaboration? How do you complement each other’s work?
Jonathan: Well, I’ve been jokingly saying that Wayne brings the tunes and melodies, and I bring the noises. Which is probably a bit flippant, but I think we each have different strengths, and when they come together it makes for something that neither of us would do by ourselves.
Wayne: Haha, yes. It’s not all so black and white obviously, but there is a mixture of dark and light going on. I tend toward sentimentalism in my own work, and so it’s pleasant to explore murkier zones with Jonathan and just let go a bit. Not every song needs a chorus, Wayne!
Can I ask where some of the track titles come from? I’m intrigued by ‘Black Ant, White Magic’…
Jonathan: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’ and most of the other titles are Wayne’s – he’s great at mashing existing words to make new ones that sound like they ought to actually be a thing. I loved what he came up with, it’s kind of a woozy melange of psychedelia and parapsychology.
Wayne: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’… mostly, I just liked the sound of it. I wanted to retain some of the desert connections, and huge black ants are everywhere here in summer. ‘White Magic’ is just an attempt to be gentle, and not overly morose about the project. But I guess it’s been awarded some context after the fact… Jonathan is the black ant, and I bring the white magic.
Ooof, that’s lame.
And the rest? ‘Mesmercuria’? And ‘Amaranthracine’? Neither of these appear to be actual words… did you have fun inventing new words for this album?
Wayne: OK, nerding out here, but for the titles you mentioned I’d start with a word thematically related to our aesthetic, like “mesmerism”, and then bring up the default dictionary on OSX. You type three letters into the dictionary, it begins to auto-populate on the left, and you can scroll for something you like. Then you can just keep twisting away by repeating the process. So for the above example I used “mercurial”, but just dropped the “l” from the end, for added mystique. But perhaps “mesmeridian” could have worked, or “mesmercyanemiasma”? It’s like a directed cut-up or something. ‘Clairvoyeurism’ works in that way, as does Parapsychedelia. Overall, we tried to find a good mix of simple and graphic.
Can you tell us where some of the samples on the album came from? They’re very evocative.
Jonathan: I went down a massive Youtube rabbit hole of 1970s American science-fiction, and weird documentaries. A big resource was that Leonard Nimoy In Search Of…. programme. Which is very similar to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, so there was much to be had from that. Also, there are some bits pieces lifted fromPhase IV. I think if this whole project referenced one movie: stylistically, visually and content-wise, it would be Phase IV.
Wayne, are they any samples on the album that you’re particularly fond of, or find especially evocative?
Wayne: Definitely what Jonathan said about Phase IV… I love the dialogue at the end of ‘Amaranthracine’. ‘Onyx Oracle’ uses non-repeating. one second snippets from various VHS tapes. And the percussion sounds from Within The Woods on ‘Precognition’ were an absolute pain!
Will you both work together again, do you think?
Jonathan: Oh yes! We have plans for another joint album, and we’ll be digging further into the shadowy world of the Mobius Group.
Wayne: We will go much, much deeper during future investigations… it’s inevitable.
I meant to ask about the Mobius Group. The vinyl album comes with a couple of curious documents that allude to the existence of this mysterious organisation. What more can you tell us about them?
Jonathan: The Mobius Group… is standing by. Who they are, and what they do, is the subject for the next album. They are a shadowy group of people with extraordinary powers…
Thanks to Jonathan and Wayne for forging a psychic connection and transmitting the results remotely to the Haunted Generation… Parapsychedelia, by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse, can be ordered here:
What is “The Nature of the Beast”? Literally speaking, it’s the identity of the mysterious animal that is slaughtering livestock on the hills above Haverston, a remote moorland town in North-West England. But it equally applies to the simmering fury that threatens to overwhelm the book’s central characters – teenage narrator Bill Coward and his father Ned – as well as being a remarkably philosophical dismissal of the whole sorry situation by Bill’s beer-sodden grandfather, Chunder.
Surely written during (and inspired by) the troubled fury of the 1984 miners’ strike, the book is a damning condemnation of the economic policy of the era. Haverston’s main employer, Stone Cross Mill, is closing down, forcing the bulk of the town’s working population – including Ned – into redundancy, and robbing an already-depressed area of its main identity. Bill, effectively sharing a home with both his father and grandfather, sets out his stall early on: confiding, with best friend Mick, that his long-term plan to escape a seemingly hopeless future is to live in a cave on the moors, shooting rabbits and grouse with his air rifle and raiding allotments during the winter months.
Into this situation comes “The Beast”, whose arrival – surprisingly late in the tale – at least gives Bill a sense of short-term purpose. Brutally slaughtering the hens that Chunder has acquired in a vague plan to build a lucrative cockfighting empire (yes, the book is that bleak) and picking off the sheep of windswept moorland farms, it naturally excites the headline-writers of the town’s sensationalist Gazette newspaper (“HAVERSTON BEAST STRIKES AGAIN!”), and the paper’s offer of £500 for a clear photo incites Bill and Mick to steal a camera from their well-meaning teacher “Oggy” Oglethorpe’s car and head to the moors, seeking both glory and brief financial respite for their families.
The exact setting of the novel might be left a little vague (there are mentions of Lancashire, but also of Border TV and seagulls, so my educated guess is somewhere close to the Lancashire/Cumbrian coastline… if I had a map, the pin would be hovering above Barrow-in-Furness) but the sense of place and landscape, and indeed of a very distinct and depressed era of social history, is almost overpowering. This a town seemingly permanently shrouded in darkness, with a strong community huddled into pubs and houses virtually unchanged since the 1940s. Indeed, the occasional intrusions of modernity – the TV crews, for example, that cover the Mill’s closure – seem starkly incongruous.
And the moor itself, a black deathtrap of peaty marshland and bare-boned sheepfarms, smothers the town and effectively as effectively as the prevailing economic climate. Bill – a perceptive and intelligent teenager – is trapped in Haverston in every conceivable sense, and his righteous fury at this situation threatens to increasingly overpower him. I was even a little disappointed when a rational, believable explanation for the presence of “The Beast” is ultimately offered: it works so well as a metaphor for Bill (and Haverston’s) anger, a physical manifestation of their rage, its nocturnal raids on livestock and livelihoods effectively an act of self-harm.
But nevertheless, what a book. It effortlessly weaves the desolation of its setting and situation with the charming internal monologue of a typical smalltown teenage boy. The friendship between Bill and Mick – hiding in ramshackle dens, adding to the pointless graffiti (‘MOOR MODS RULE OK’) in bus shelters – is touchingly and believably portrayed, and given an extra depth by the revelation that Mick’s father is Stone Cross Mill’s put-upon Union Rep, blamed by the community for not making a firm enough stand for their jobs, and himself bitter about what he perceives to be his own workforce’s apathetic lack of militancy.
The ending is shocking and heart-rending in so many ways. Bill finds personal vindication in his quest to uncover the identity of the moorland killer, but his story is characteristically written-off in favour of the local media’s preferred narrative. Even in triumph, he has no voice. And you may even find some sympathy for The Beast: I did. Janni Howker wrote only three books and a handful of short stories, and – as far as I can see – there’s been nothing since 1997. But she rightly earned the Whitbread Literary Prize for Childrens’ Books for this, her debut novel, and you’ll rarely find a book that reflects the anger and hopelessness of the 1980s Northern industrial experience in such a devastating fashion.
Update: Read the comments below for a wonderful development… regular blog reader Mark Holden was the boy who posed for the cover of this book, back in 1985. His family was a friend of artist Stephen Lavis, who often based used images of people he knew for his cover illustrations!
In April 2020, Mark kindly agreed to restage the cover picture 35 years on, with photos taken by his nine-year-old daughter… needless to say, I’m delighted with the outcome.
Mustiness Report: A fragrant 3/10. My copy is a 1987 reprint, so there’s time yet for for it to achieve its full Mustiness Potential. The pages, though, are the colours of an old-school pub ceiling, which is pleasing: for sake of argument, let’s say it’s the Hare and Hounds, in nearby Kirkby Haverston.