The Dark Is Rising, Handspan and Rob Colling’s kantele

There is something incredibly evocative and magical about a childrens’ novel set during a harsh, snow-bound winter… The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has inspired many an inquisitive child to tap excitedly on the back of their parents’ wardrobe in search of Narnian pine trees and the distant glow of a flickering lamp-post, and The Box of Delights introduces the mysteries of medieval magic into a very traditional 1930s Christmas; a riot of snowy scrobblings and festive skulduggery.

Susan Cooper’s 1973 novel The Dark Is Rising continues this tradition, bringing sinister folkloric forces into the household of an ordinary 1970s family, snowed into their home in an idyllical Buckinghamshire village. As youngest child Will Stanton celebrates his 11th birthday on Midwinter’s Eve, with Christmas excitement mounting, he unexpectedly inherits his destiny as an “Old One”, a guardian of The Light, charged with a quest to vanquish the burgeoning powers of The Dark, whose presence threatens to bury the Thames Valley in both Arctic snow drifts and ancient malevolence.

The book is the second instalment of Cooper’s acclaimed, five-book Dark Is Rising saga, but seems to have acquired its own independent status and associated fanbase, perhaps specifically because of its association with childhood Christmases and the heart-bursting, magical minutae of a harsh winter… the crunch of morning wellies in deep, overnight snow; the slate-grey afternoon skies and finger-biting winds that foretell the storms to come. Certainly those qualities have driven musician Rob Cooper – originally from my native Teesside, but now living in Finland – to create an album of beautiful, vintage-sounding folktronica inspired by the moods of the book.

Simply called The Dark Is Rising, the album was released on cassette by The Dark Outside label in 2018, but is now available to download. I spoke to Rob, live from his remote Finland home, for my BBC Tees Evening Show. This is how the conversation went…

Bob: I’m going to start be asking you the most British question imaginable… what’s the weather like in Finland?

Rob: The weather is absolutely beautiful! There’s no wind, very few clouds, and it’s just about getting to the time of year when we get an hour or two of darkness again, after a couple of months of having no dark at all. So it’s a weird time to be releasing The Dark Is Rising when there’s no flipping dark around!

It’s a very snow-bound book, too… are you also going to tell me there’s no snow on the ground at this time of year?

Not in July, no. It’s generally about 20-30 degrees all the time, so I’m sitting here going… oh god, The Light Is Rising!

You should have waited six months and put the album out in December…

I did think about that, but as you probably know, it came out on cassette on Midwinter’s Eve 2018, six months ago, and that was the perfect match, as Midwinter’s Eve is the day when the story starts in the book. But I had to wait until we’d finished selling the cassette version before releasing the download. And I didn’t really want to wait a full year until Midwinter’s Eve rolled around again. So I thought I’d release it on Midsummer’s Eve!

The book is all about the dark and the light, and the conflict between the two. For some periods of history the dark is winning, and through other periods the light is winning, so I thought OK… this is the ying-and-yang. We can do the cassette album when it’s darkest, and the digital album when it’s lightest. And it matched the whole theme of the cassette as well, as the actual cassette shell was half black and half white. I don’t know, it’s easy to get carried away with these things…

The book itself came out in 1973, and I’d assumed that it was a big childhood favourite of yours, but that’s not the case, is it? Did you discover it later in life?

Yes, as I believe you did as well?

Yes, I was about forty when I first read it.


Well, it was one of those books that some of the kids around me read, and I seem to remember a teacher or two recommending it… and I saw it sometimes in the library and thought it looked interesting, but I just never got round to it. I don’t know why, as it seemed right up my street… but when I was that age there was a lot of good fiction around, and I was reading and reading, and I just never got to that one. It never reached the top of the list.

So time passed, and I’d forgotten about it, but we were here in Finland, and I was looking for books for my daughter. I guess at the time she would have been about eight or nine, so I was looking in the kids’ section of the library here in Joensuu In Finland… and it’s enormous. It’s nearly the size of the whole of Gateshead Library, where I used to go! And they have an English language section, so I was looking through that, and I picked up The Dark is Rising and thought… “Oooh, actually, that looks good.” And I read the first few pages, and it was… “Wooah, this is really good!” So we did it as a bedtime story, and every time I read any of it, there was always music happening in my mind. And I thought… I’d better do something with this.

Can we talk about the plot a little? It’s a book set in a small village in Buckinghamshire, and the main character is an 11-year-old boy called Will Stanton, who discovers that he’s an “Old One”, put on this earth to fight the powers of darkness. And this all takes place at Christmas amidst a very frozen, snowy landscape, created by the powers of darkness themselves…

Yes, although we don’t find that out to begin with! To ordinary people,  who aren’t mixed up in this conflict between light and dark that’s going on behind the scenes, it just seems like a really nasty winter. Which we had a couple of in the 1970s… I remember being sent home from school because of various strikes, and things being shut down. We had a hideous winter in 1976, when the whole country just ground to a halt. And to an ordinary person, that’s what it looks like… but, as we find out in the book, it’s actually down to the age-old forces of light and darkness, going since time immemorial! And it’s a wonderful story that ties in everything from ancient British customs, to Stonehenge and Merlin. Herne the Hunter is in there, too… it’s like a meta version of every English folk myth there’s ever been.

And all of this spoke to you?

It did. It isn’t orcs and elves and goblins, it doesn’t feel like it’s a million miles away. It feels like it’s rooted in the super old pathways and roads of England; it feels real and domestic. But also it’s contrasted with ordinary household life… an ordinary Christmas that an ordinary famly is having. And I remember all of that, as well. The wooden windowframes letting in a bit of a draft, and stamping your snow off your wellies by the back door.

And I think it’s the fact that those two things are juxtaposed so closely in the book – you’ll go from a situation where Will’s in a bright, beautiful kitchen with the log fire burning and the whole family making fun of each other, then he’ll walk out into the back yard and find that the rooks have all gone nuts, because an agent of the Dark is walking by – it’s just very real, somehow. It feels like a kind of magic and fantasy that’s not too far from the surface.

And how did you transpose those feelings into a musical context? I’ve seen you say you that you imagined a 1973 BBC adaptation, and the soundtrack that it might have had…

Yeah, exactly. It’s a little bit before my time, but I’m very into that period of music. I collect old electronic instruments, and I’m really into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I just remember so many series from when I was a kid, things like The Box of Delights, Day of the Triffids, Doctor Who… even Robin of Sherwood. They would come along and you’d sit down in a normal, bright living room, and have the pants scared off you. And it would partly be these cheap and nasty video effects that they would use, but partly this sense of weirdness… and because it was all on analogue film, there’d be a kind of knotty heart of it that you couldn’t quite see. There was a certain, dreamlike “What if…”? feeling.

But a big part of it was the music, as well. So I just imagined that the BBC had made a series of it – which they never actually did – and that they’d given it to the Radiophonic Workshop to do the music. So I thought – what would they have done at the time? And I looked around me and thought… well, I’ve got a lot of the instruments that they would have used, modular synthesizers that you plug in like a telephone exchange, and they seemed to create just the right atmosphere. I don’t ever remember consciously thinking “What sort of music would this be…?” I just thought these melodies sounded like they belonged on a modular synth, or a folk instrument paired with something on a big old synthesizer. That was the sound that felt right when I started putting it together.

You learned to play some new instruments specifically for this project, didn’t you? Including the Finnish kantele?

Yeah, there are three or four instruments on it that I learned to play. I play a few instruments anyway, so when you hear things like a bass guitar on there, that’s just me. But yeah, I thought some of the melodies that were coming into my head were folk melodies. Really old-sounding folk melodies, that had been floating around in the cosmos for 2000 years waiting for my head to come along! You can’t play all of those on the synthesizer, so I thought “OK… let’s play some folk instuments.” And I don’t play any folk instruments, so I had to sit down and learn a few of them.

So there’s some accordion on there, some cahon, a wind instrument called a xaphoon that’s halfway between a clarinet and a recorder, and there’s a Turkish instrument called a cura that I found in a backstreet shop in Istanbul, it’s a bit like a mandolin. But yeah, the kantele is Finnish. At its most basic, it’s just a thing with tuning pegs hammered into it, and cutting wire on it. it’s a very basic instument that’s lasted for thousands of years. And they have this whole tradition here in Finland of “Song Poety”… they recite poetry in a  semi-song form, with the kantele as your musical accompaniment. It’s very limited, there are no frets or anything… whatever the strings are tuned to, that’s the noise that comes out!

The obvious question to ask amidst of all this… is how did you end up living in Finland in the first place?

That’s a valid question, isn’t it? My wife got a job here… she works in publications, and got a job with the European Forest Institute, which is based out here in Joensuu. We were both freelancing, based at home, a bit fed up with it… and we thought “Let’s just find a job somewhere else”. So we had a bit of a race to see who could apply for the most jobs around Europe, and we made a deal and said whoever got one first… we’d go there! And this is the one that came up, in a place called Joensuu in Eastern Finland. We’d never heard of it, we had to get out a map when they offered her an interview and say “Where the hell is this…” and it turns out it’s the most beautiful place. There are so few people here, but thousands of lakes – it’s got the greatest density of lakes anywhere in Europe, and just a staggering amount of forest.

Do you live out in the woods, then?

Kind of! We’re only four or five kilometres out of town, but you can forget that there’s anything nearby for long periods of time. We have a back garden… and then forest. And you can go off and wander around the forest… any time I was short of imspriation for the album, I’d just go and take a stroll. And I’d immediately feel like I was in the book, in those very snowy forests from the novel.

It sounds idyllic...

It wasn’t hard to get inspired! And then in winter, it gets down to about -35 degrees, and we get a metre and a half of snow. So that side of things was quite easy to imagine, too! I was writing songs based around the winter, and all I had to do was go outside the front door and crunch around a bit in this waist-high snow, and think.. yeah, this what it would feel like to be snowed in by The Dark!

Thanks to Rob a fascinating chat, and for the photos of his local woodland – the two wonderful pictures above are Rob’s own. His album, The Dark Is Rising, is available now from…

https://handspan.bandcamp.com

And a little tip that the next printed version of The Haunted Generation column will be in the Fortean Times magazine, issue 383… on the shelves on Thursday 15th August.



The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 381

As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 381, dated July 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…

“I think that ‘fuzziness’ contributes to the nostalgia factor,” says musician Jonathan Sharp, founder and guiding light of The Heartwood Institute. “Honestly, it’s like looking through a slightly oblique window onto a different world. And really, it was a completely different world in so many ways…”

We’re talking about the faded quality of the 1970s family photographs recently discovered by Jonathan amongst his mother’s belongings. The photos are touching snapshots of a childhood spent primarily amongst the woods, hills and languid seaside towns of his native Cumbria, and have yielded the inspiration for the new Heartwood Institute album, Divided Time. It’s a wistful evocation of blissfully indolent days passed amongst occasionally mystical landmarks… “The opening track is inspired by a really early photo from 1970 of me looking at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a place I just keep going back to,” muses Jonathan. “I actually have no memory of that photo, so I was surprised to find I’d been there as such a small child. Maybe that’s where my obsession with the place started…

The album is a beautiful collection of elegiac piano and synth-led pieces, with hints of glockenspiel that occasionally conjure up daydreams of long-ago school music lessons. It harks back to an “analogue” childhood still shaped by family traditions: “Cherry Woods…” ponders Jonathan, referring to the album’s mid-point track, and its accompanying picture of his childhood self, framed in silhouette amidst twilit trees. “It’s a wood close to where I grew up. It’s not on any map under that name, that’s just what we called it… and how it had always been known to my parents’ generation. But obviously in the world of Google Maps, it doesn’t exist under that name. Which says a lot about how digitalisation has reshaped our lives…

Divided Time will be available on limited edition vinyl, and via download, from the Castles In Space label. The label’s other recent releases have included the Visage Pale album Holistic Love, a moving collection of gentle, electro-pop songs, performed in both French and English by Lausanne-based Lars-Martin Isler; and Civilian Leather by The Home Current, which evokes memories of Factory Records’ earliest dabblings with post-punk electronica. Visit castlesinspace.bandcamp.com.

Pondering Jonathan’s beloved Cherry Woods led me neatly onto enjoying a new collection of music from Stephen Prince’s ongoing project A Year In The Country, a multi-media exploration of “otherly pastoralism; the flipside of bucolic dreams.” The Watchers is a compendium of tracks by eleven different artists, all reflecting on the nature of our native trees as, effectively, time travellers. Britain boasts over 3,000 trees that date back at least 400 years, and over 100 that can claim to be have rooted in our soil for 1,000 years or thereabouts. All the while, quietly observing the passage of time… of (as Stephen puts it) “invasions by wooden ships, sword and arrow, the passing of the old ways and the times of witchcraft and magic, the coming of the industrial revolution and the dawning of the digital age.”

Individual trees provide very personal inspiration for some of the artists participating… Vic Mars takes Hertfordshire’s 900-year-old Eardisley Oak as the muse for his gentle, pastoral instrumental The Test of Time, and The Winter Dream of Novel’s Oak, by Howlround, is created from field recordings of an 800-year-old tree in Tilford, Surrey. It’s a warm, touching tribute to the receding wild woodlands of the British countryside, and – for maximum listening pleasure – perfect for an early summers’ evening constitutional through the copse or thicket of your choice. It’s available from ayearinthecountry.co.uk.

And any of the above recordings might provide the ideal soundtrack to reading a new novel by journalist and occasional Ghost Box Records collaborator Mark Brend. Undercliff tells the story of divorced writer Martyn Hope, who – in the summer of 1972 – finds himself alone in London, and drawn into the increasingly sinister cult of The Olive Grove, a religious community steeped in that distinctly 1970s combination of born-again Christianity and post-hippy New Ageism. When his girlfriend Amelia vanishes, he suspects answers are to be found at the cult’s ramshackle retreat Undercliff, a rambling country home on the very edge of Devon’s crumbling coastline. It’s a languid, leisurely tale, rich in character and period detail, and the darkness creeps in almost imperceptibly. I enjoyed it enormously, and – in my mind – have already cast Robert Powell and Anouska Hempel in the lead roles, with Pentangle providing the music for the Olive Grove’s in-house folk-rock group, The Flock. Mark is at minutebook.co.uk.

Issue 382 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 383, available from 15th August.

The Delaware Road, Alan Gubby and Ritual & Resistance

“Please remember as you leave tonight… secret forces gather in plain sight…”

It’s July 2017, and the above phrase is being repeated to me, in unison, by a column of green-faced, black-clad mummers, standing guard along the walls of a steep corridor that descends deep into a network of tunnels hidden beneath a deceptively innocuous bungalow, all concealed within the rustling leaves of a remote Essex thicket.

As I progress deeper underground, the sound of pulsating electronic music wafts from a connecting network of gloomy passageways, and I emerge into a complex warren of long-abandoned rooms; all filled with the alarming paraphenalia of Protect and Survive-era nuclear paranoia. There are banks of vintage radio equipment and communications devices, and offices filled with blank-screened 1980s computer systems. Emergency telephone hotlines provide direct contact to the government ministries that remain functional, water-rationing guidelines are pinned to notice boards, and further instructions for survival in the “fall-out room” are readily available. This is Kelvedon Hatch, the “secret nuclear bunker” (now amusingly signposted as such for several miles around) built in 1952 and intended to provide shelter for regional government in the event of the global thermonuclear war that – for several decades – seemed all too inevitable.

Decomissioned in 1992, the bunker now stands as a permanent memento of that chilling era of Cold War paranoia, and – on the July night in question – provided the extraodinary location for an evening of live electronica, theatrical performances and film screenings: the latest development in the ongoing Delaware Road multi-media project helmed by Buried Treasure Records supremo Alan Gubby. The narrative, unfolding through a series of graphic novels, musical releases and live performances, tells the ficationalised tale of two pioneering electronic musicians employed by (ahem) a large, authoritarian state broadcaster, and the dabblings with occult practices that have life-changing consequences for them both.

And the story is far from over. The latest chapter in the Delaware Road saga takes the form of Ritual & Resistance, a two-day event in August 2019, hosted in similarly austere surroundings: this time, the New Zealand Farm Camp, an active army training facility on Salisbury Plain. It promises to be an extraordinarily ambitious and immersive experience, with many Kelvedon Hatch veterans – including Concretism, The Twelve Hour Foundation, Howlround and Ian Helliwell – returning, all included as part of a much-expanded and incredibly impressive line-up. I asked Alan Gubby himself about this latest event…

Bob: Talk us through Ritual and Resistance – can you give us a little flavour of how the event will look, feel and sound?

Alan: Inside the base at New Zealand Farm Camp there are a range of buildings called Stone Tents. They were designed for combat training, skirmishes and night vision operations. Because of the totalitarian and military themes in The Delaware Road graphic novel, it’s the perfect location for our third live event. The buildings will be used to present various live performances, sound experiments, screenings, installations and talks by a wide range of artists who explore similar themes and ideas to those within the Delaware Road text.

How did you find the site? Was it somewhere you’d previously visited? Go on, describe the location a bit…

I found it thanks to a family member who mentioned that some of the Salisbury sites were becoming available for film shoots and other activities… this was early 2018. It then took a year of negotiations, meetings, overcoming technical issues and obtaining licenses.

The site is quite remote, hidden on the Salisbury Plain training area. It’s a stunning but dangerous landscape… the army uses live ammunition in the area, and although there are no exercises whilst we’re there, it’s very important to follow the warning signs and stay on the main roads! The camp is about sixty acres in size, enclosed by a circular, concrete wall with barbed wire and gun turrets. Once you’re inside, half the site is green and wooded for camping, whilst the other half contains the stone tents and other buildings – including a water tower, two barracks and two bunkers.

I went to your previous Delaware Road event, at Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex… and it was incredible. What are your fondest memories of the night?

The Kelvedon Hatch gig was amazing… a very special and intimate atmosphere, all thanks to the brilliant performers, and a lovely, receptive audience. I had lots of messages from people afterwards saying it was one of the best things they’d been to. It had its challenges, though… we weren’t allowed inside the bunker until quite late in the day, so it was a mad rush to get things ready before the audience arrived. Also, trying to communicate with the crew and artists across three subterranean levels was tricky with no phone signal!

The artists and crew coped brilliantly though. One of my favourite moments was seeing Teleplasmiste perform a cosmic folk ritual whilst leading the crowd down into the nuclear corridors.  

Is that era of Cold War history one that strikes a chord with you? Like me, did you lie awake at nights in the 1980s, worrying about nuclear armagaddon?

The Cold War had an impact on everyone in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t it? It’s not a central theme in The Delaware Road, but the anxiety and mistrust caused by overbearing authority certainly is. I grew up near Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital in Berkshire. Every Monday they would test the sirens that would alert the public if a patient escaped. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper was – and still is – one of many infamous and terrifying patients held there.

The sirens had a dual purpose as the four-minute warning for an impending nuclear attack. This was between 1978 and 1983. Everyone I grew up with was terrified by that siren going off each Monday morning. Oh, what a joyous and formative childhood memory!

The Kelvedon Hatch event was so immersive… your stewards were all in military uniforms, and there were green-faced mummers passing on secret codes as we walked past them. And then there were Dolly Dolly‘s terrifying speeches to the nation! Is it important to have that theatrical element to your events?

It’s important to get jolted out of your comfort zone, and to be wrong-footed from time to time. Dolly Dolly’s spoken word sections and the other theatrics are unnerving and disorientating, but they help the performers and audience to lose themselves in the event.

Can we expect simlarly immersive and interactive elements at Ritual & Resistance, then?

Yes, the Ritual & Resistance subheading nods towards sound being used to harness power, to mesmerize, worship or use as a weapon of defiance. Tim Hill is organizing a procession of “rough music” on the night, a medieval tradition where crowds gathered outside someone’s home to make a cacophony of discordant noise. This form of musical ridicule has dubious origins, but by the 19th century it was mostly targeted against men who had exceeded their authority. Can you think of anyone in the news recently fitting that description? Hmmm.

There are also spoken word performances, experiments with sound healing and magnetism, talks on local mythology, archaeology and wildlife, folk, jazz, post-punk & electronic live acts, DJ sets, art exhibitions, and a ceremony worshipping the local landscape.    

One of the more surreal moments about Kelvedon Hatch was finding myself standing next to former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis at several performances! Did you get to spend much time with him?

I kept bumping into Steve around the bunker, too. He was having a great time, losing himself in the performances, and he just understood what we were trying to do. He’s been a collector of experimental and electronic music since the 1970s. We stayed in touch, and when he heard about this year’s event he asked if he could play. I bit his hand off, obviously.

Can you talk us through the rest of the line-up? Who are you most looking forward to seeing?

I’m so pleased with this year’s lineup… it’s the most diverse so far, with acts and labels from around the country. Front & Follow from Manchester, Cattle from Leeds, Psyche Tropes from London, R.E.E.L. from Somerset, and more.

And having Penny Rimbaud perform is deeply significant. He was one of the organizers of the original Stonehenge free festivals of the 1970s and early 1980s, and a founding member of anarcho-punk agitators Crass. I love his spoken word performances, and I know we’re in for something special with a new piece he’s written called “How?”. It’s a sequel to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, and a diatribe against the commodification of pure art.

There are a number of inspirational female artists too, including Sarah Angliss, Andrea Parker, Natalie Sharp, Lia Mice, Janine A’Bear, CuKoO, Frances Castle, Geraldine Wolfe, and Alison Cotton. Plus most of the artists from previous shows are making a very welcome return. I’ve tried to schedule the sets this year so you can see as many of them as possible. 

Is there a “ghost village” nearby, too? Can you tell us a bit about it?

Imber village is about two kilometres from The Delaware Road site. It was evacuated by the British government in 1943 so American troops could use it for combat training, prior to the allied invasion of Europe. After the war it was deemed too dangerous for the original villagers to return. It’s been uninhabited ever since. It opens to the public a couple of times a year and, as luck would have it, it’s open on the same weekend as the Delaware Road event. It gets better – a vintage bus service with 25 double-deckers is offering daily tickets so you can travel across Salisbury Plain, between Warminster train station, Imber and The Delaware Road. If you can’t find me on the Sunday morning, that’s because I’ve nipped onto one of the buses to explore Imber’s 16th century church!

Thanks to Alan for his time, and to Pete Woodhead, who kindly gave permission to use his superb photos from Kelvedon Hatch. Tickets are still available for Ritual & Resitance, and can be purchased from:

www.thedelawareroad.com

Polypores, Flora and Sam Spade’s Gigantic Garden

The alluring power of the “wild wood” seemed a constant throughout the typical 1970s childhood, even for youngsters with the most urban of upbringings. The great writers of the era, the Alan Garners and Susan Coopers, used tangled, mystical woodland as the playground for the re-emergent elements of British folklore that dominated their books; a place where dark, ancient forces bled through into the present day. Doctor Who‘s jungles were alien and impenetrable, places where marooned scientific expeditions battled spiky, otherworldly beasties; and Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are updated the surreal wilderness of the nursery rhyme and brought it, tangible and touchable, into every terrified child’s bedroom.

For those of us lucky enough to have local woodland within walking distance of our homes, these tales settled like mist onto every innocuous copse, every “deadman’s creek” on the fringes of a new, suburban housing estate. Even when we stayed within sight of reassuring modernity – railway lines, twine-bound haystacks, Ford Cortinas in lay-bys of dubious repute – the surrounding trees played host to ghosts, goblins, and stranded Daleks alike. And, in the 1980s, a new wave of “swords and sorcery” fiction, spearheaded by Robin of Sherwood and the Fighting Fantasy books, claimed Britain’s woodlands as their own, and another generation of youngsters were entranced; venturing both literally and figuratively into the trees, searching for Herne the Hunter with a twenty-sided dice to hand.

All of these feelings bubble tantalisingly through the textures of Lancashire-based composer Stephen James Buckley’s new album, Flora. Stephen is so infused with the spirit of his local woodland that he even named his recording project – Polypores – after the genus of common fungi that grow around unsuspecting tree roots and trunks, and the album itself is a densely ambient evocation of a fantastical journey through a freakishly overgrown forest, where trees and flowers grow to outlandish, almost alien proportions. The music weaves organic, pulsating synth lines into field recordings of trickling water, rustling foliage and birdsong, and captures perfectly the still, almost claustrophobic power of the woods. I asked Stephen about the album’s origins, in the stiflingly hot summer of 2018…

Bob: That summer was incredible… almost surreally hot and claustrophobic. Did the feel of that hot weather seep into the ambience of the music? I sometimes think really hot days have a kind of hallucinogenic quality to them…

Stephen: Yes, I think the heat definitely did have some kind of impact. The way I write nowadays, it’s very much a subconscious thing, as opposed to something planned or carefully thought out… which was how I used to work for older Polypores releases. So there aren’t necessarily many specifics (“this track is about this kind of fungus growing on this kind of tree”), it’s more a general feeling I’m channeling.

And I say “channeling” because that’s very much what I was doing. I spent time in certain environments, in a certain state of mind, and then went home and the music just came. It was hot, and that can make you feel a bit weird. And I think a sort of trippy heat is apparent on this record. A phantasmagoric humidity. Although the forests I explored were English, they could just as easily be a jungle. If I had unlimited time and resources, then I’d definitely visit a jungle or two.

A lot the inspiration seems to have come from walking in your local woods… can you describe them a little?

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the woods I go to every week, because I’d prefer to keep them a secret. If people from Preston read this then they might start going there, then it’d no longer be quiet and peaceful, and I’d have to look further afield. But I can say that some of the places which inspired – and provided sounds for – Flora were The Fairy Glen near Wigan, Beacon Fell, Brockholes Nature Reserve, and the woods around Roeburndale.

I think the most important forest for me is Great Corby Woods, between Great Corby and Wetherall, in Cumbria. I lived in Great Corby as a child for a while, and my parents would regularly take me out into the woods. That’s when I developed my interest in fungi. My dad would tell me about all the different kinds of trees and plants, and my mum would explain why it was bad to drop litter.

There was a valley in the middle that the River Eden flowed though… which you can see, if you take the train from Carlisle to Newcastle. A little old man lived at the bottom of the valley. He carved things out of wood, and once made me a moneybox, which he hand-painted. The valley seemed huge and steep, and I was terrified of it. I’d have constant nightmares about falling down it. We were once attacked by a nest of wasps, which our dog decided to dig up. I think this forest, and the time I spent in it, informed a lot of who I am today, and I’m forever grateful to my parents for that experience.

Do you still try to vanish to the woods as as possible? Can you describe the appeal?

I try to get into some form of countryside every weekend. Preferably woods, but I can’t always be picky. Although I did it a lot as a child, I think it fell by the wayside in my teenage years and twenties, as I was too busy focusing on crap that didn’t matter. But as I got into my thirties I started yearning for it again. And when I started meditating – which I do every day, as it’s very good for the mind – I think it changed the way my brain worked. I started to appreciate things with a sense of wonder again. I revisited a lot of the things that interested me when I was young – space, nature, monsters etc – and found joy in them once again.

Can you create music in your head while you’re actually out walking?

I don’t compose in my head whilst walking. I tend to try and focus on what’s around me in the moment, taking it all in, rather than thinking about music. I’m absorbing it all for later. Although I’m also often talking to my girlfriend about frogs and birds and stuff.

As you suggested, you made a lot of field recordings for Flora, didn’t you? What kind of sounds were you looking for?

Yes, there were a lot of field recordings… these were often how the tracks started. I’d get some ambience that I’d recorded, put it into a loop pedal, mess around with it so it made some kind of odd rhythm, then work on top of that. Other times, I’d layer in recordings of birds, just subtly underneath a track, to give it a bit of texture.

I basically wanted to create an environment in which these tracks lived. But the field recordings were often heavily manipulated with various effects pedals to give them an otherworldly vibe. I’m well aware that adding field recordings to synthesizer music isn’t a particularly novel thing to do, but the important thing is that I really enjoyed it, and I thought it sounded great, so that’s all I’m really concerned with.

I was interested to read that you started to imagine a “giant” forest when you were making the album… which, for me, brought all kinds of childhood images to mind. Lots of nursery rhymes, but also Where The Wild Things Are, Doctor Who and its various alien jungles, the Old Forest from Lord of the Rings… even the Fighting Fantasy book, The Forest of Doom! Is that idea of the “wild wood” one that you find especially evocative?

Oh, I loved the Fighting Fantasy books! Deathtrap Dungeon was my favourite, but I do remember The Forest Of Doom. There was a bit with a scarecrow that really creeped me out. And yes, the huge forest is something that came subconsciously… like everything tends to with me. The feeling of being overwhelmed by nature, when everything is lush and growing, the smell of the plants and flowers – it’s just all-encompassing if you go in far enough. And that perhaps translated into these massive plants and trees.

Also, one of my favourite books as a child was called Sam Spade’s Gigantic Garden. It was about a spade called Sam Spade, who used some magic water that he got from HG Well – who was a well with a face – to water his garden. The plants all grew to enormous sizes. It was completely out of control. Something of that size can be both beautiful and alien… and eventually frightening. I think the album has all of those ingredients, somehow. Again, not my intention, but that’s what I channeled, so that’s what came out. I should have thanked Sam Spade in the credits, really.

The idea of unnaturally large flora intrigued me. On the off chance, I’ll ask… when I was a kid, especially when I was tired, I used to get quite confused over the size of things… the bedroom would feel massive, and I would feel tiny… or vice versa. I’ve since discovered this is called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, and it’s quite common! Did you ever experience it yourself?

I’ve never experienced that, and am sort of jealous that you have. I wonder if there’s any way it can be induced? I’ll look into it.

How did you go about converting the woodland themes of the album into actual music? Is there a synth sound that’s especially “forest-y”?

Again, I didn’t really think too much about it. I just do it intuitively. I think there are certain synth sounds, particularly triangle waves, which can sound a bit like a flute. And flute melodies can often sound pastoral. I’m not sure why… I guess we make that association from their use in the nature documentaries we saw as children. I do like creating babbling brook-type sounds, using fast random filter cut-off. And I have a lot of elements which are out of time with one another, rather than rigidly sequenced. I guess that sounds a bit more natural.

I didn’t do that intentionally, but thinking about it, that’s probably why it appealed to me, and why it therefore ended up on the record. I also quite like having high-pitched, twinkly sounds which just sit above the rest of the sounds, and come in and out… like birds singing. If I went back and analyzed everything, I’m sure there would be a lot more. But I’m very much navigating by feel rather than with an instruction manual.

The closing track, Sky Man, is quite joyous… is this about the experience of seeing the sky again, once you leave the dense woodland behind?

Sky Man was the last track I wrote for the album, I think. It really had a feeling of emerging from something, of rising out of something. A feeling of transcendence and relief. Once that was placed at the end of the album, the whole thing suddenly made sense as a kind of narrative. Almost like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The idea of going though something – something vast, beautiful, even scary at times – then emerging from the other side into the light. With the ability to fly! I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds, but that’s what makes sense to me, so I must embrace that.

I remember around that time I was reading The Vorrh Trilogy by Brian Catling. That’s very much based on an archetypal, mythical forest. I think that perhaps inspired how the album was finalized, in some way.

The album sleeve is utterly gorgeous, and reminiscent of so much 1970s fantasy artwork… including Roger Dean’s legendary prog-rock sleeves. Who did it? Did you have any input into it?

The album art is incredible. I’ve had it for months and was so excited to share it with everyone. It was done by Nick Taylor, who has done a few previous record covers for me. I think I gave him a loose brief involving magical forests, massive plants/fungus, natural history museums, and old sci-fi books. The look of the film Fantastic Planet was also a reference I gave him. He came back a few weeks later with this absolute gem. Nick is very good at interpreting my ideas. I’m pretty sure he used some kind of forbidden alchemy to ransmutate them into gold.

There’s more of his work on the inside sleeve too, which is another reason to buy a physical copy!

Speaking of which, Flora has been released on Colin Morrison’s wonderful Castles in Space label, who put out some gorgeous music… how did you link up with Colin?

I’m not entirely sure how Castles In Space found me. Most of the labels I’ve been released on seem to have a mutual appreciation of each other’s releases, and support each other, and that’s really nice to be a part of. They kind of feed into one another. My first release, via Joe McLaren’s Concréte Tapes, led to me being heard by other labels like Polytechnic Youth and A Year In The Country. These led to me being heard by Front & Follow. They are all listening to each other and supporting each other, so it just kind of grows from there. It’s like a little ecosystem which is great to be part of.

There are also the radio shows like Gated Canal Community, You The Night And The Music, and Soundtracking The Void, which are all linked in with that. I’m grateful to everyone who’s put out my stuff because it always leads to more people hearing me, and wanting to put out more stuff. And I’ll hopefully do more with all these labels in the future. They are all great to work with.

Colin from Castles In Space actually got me on at the Delaware Road event in Salisbury this August, which is going to be amazing. All kinds of music, art, spoken word – in a military bunker! I can’t wait for that, and I’m proud to be representing Castles In Space on their stage there.

The beautiful, vinyl edition of Flora, by Polypores, is still available from…

https://polypores.bandcamp.com/album/flora-4

And Stephen can be found on Twitter or on Facebook. Thanks to Stephen for such a thoughtful and interesting chat, and for sending over some of his own personal woodland photographs. And belated gratitude goes to Sam Spade and his Gigantic Garden.

The Art of Clay Pipe Music

It’s a hot, humid, bad-tempered Friday afternoon, and I’m drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, hopelessly lost in Leeds city centre. Quarry House car park is hemmed in by roadworks, there are queues of rush-hour traffic backed up on every sliproad, and a rumbling undercurrent of hay fever has turned my eyes into quagmires.

Thankfully, an oasis of calm is nearby. The Colours May Vary bookshop and event space is hosting an exhibition of artwork by Frances Castle, all created for releases on her beautiful, bespoke record label, Clay Pipe Music. For the last few years, Clay Pipe’s releases have frequently provided me with a respite from the hurly-burly of frenetic, 21st century life; a beautifully coherent body of work with its roots in a very firm sense of place, offering musical evocations of both gentle pastoralism and urban stillness alike. I discovered the label via Jon Brooks’ 2012 album Shapwick, a haunting musical account of an unexpected, nocturnal car journey through the Somerset countryside, and have been transfixed by Clay Pipe’s releases ever since: from Sharron Kraus’ Friends and Enemies, Lovers and Strangers – a folk interpretion of the Mabinogion myth cycle – to Gilroy Mere’s The Green Line, an ambient requiem for the bus services that once linked central London to the distant countryside; from the anonymous Tyneham House album, a wistful paen to the MOD-requisitioned Dorset village, frozen in time since 1943, to Retep Folo’s Galactic Sounds, a Farfisa-drenched evocation of its composer Peter Olof Fransson’s childhood, spent gazing longingly into the Swedish night skies and detuning his AM radio in the hope of receiving alien transmissions.

Every release arrives immaculately packaged in Frances’ own distinctive artwork, and it’s a genuinely touching sight to see them arranged together in this tasteful, white-walled exhibition space. As I arrive, Frances and her partner John are chatting genially with shop-owners Andy and Becky, dishing out chilled beers to allcomers, and faithful shop dog Stevie is wandering excitedly from visitor to visitor. It’s an idyllic scene, and Frances and I retire to a quiet corner for a chat about Clay Pipe’s history and ethos…

Bob: This is a lovely exhibition! How did the whole thing come about?

Frances: It came about because Andy, who runs the shop, was basically buying Clay Pipe records, and he asked me if I wanted to do it… they have quite a lot of exhibitions here. This was probably about a year ago, so we’ve planned ahead a bit.

Is it nice to see so much of your artwork in one place? It gives a lovely overview of the whole feel of the label, and the body of music you’ve released.

It is actually, because usually it’s all spread around… in drawers, and all the records are in boxes, and the prints are all in portfolios. And it’s such a really nice room, with tasteful furniture and white walls… it’s really good.

Can I ask a little about your background? Your grandfather Frank Sherwin was quite a renowned artist, wasn’t he?

Yeah… I wasn’t aware of it as a child, and I don’t think he was renowned then. But because he did a lot of work on railway posters, and because I think they’ve become more popular now than when he was alive, I’ve recently been trying to promote his work. I’ve set up an Instagram account. A lot of the stuff that he did for the railways is owned by the Railway Museum, and gets used on books and all types of things, but he never gets credited.

Was he alive when you were a kid?

Yeah, he died when I was a teenager. He did a lot of watercolours then, he was a very good watercolour artist, but I didn’t know anything about his commercial work. He was selling watercolours to printmakers, and they were selling them as prints, but by that time I think he’d semi-retired, really. I didn’t really know about his more commercial stuff, and his posters, until later on.

Has his style been an influence on you? I can certainly see a lineage…

When I look at my work, I can see his hand in it… which is really strange, and I don’t know whether it’s just because I grew up with him, looking at his work, or whether it’s some sort of genetic thing about the way we draw. I don’t know! But definitely… there is something.

So as a kid, did becoming an artist always feel like a calling for you?

I was encouraged, because of my grandfather. And apparently I was quite good at drawing when I was a kid. And I was absolutely useless at anything else… I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t do maths… I was useless at school, so I was pushed in that direction, yeah.

Are your parents arty at all?


My Mum is a good painter, yeah. But she’s never pursued it as a career.

So it was very much the art that came before the music? 

Pretty much actually, yeah. I always loved music, even when I was quite a small child, and I did have clarinet lessons… but I wasn’t very good! Although I could play the recorder quite well as a kid. But as soon as I found I could make music on a computer in the late 1990s, it was like… this is brilliant, I can sample and loop stuff. And that’s when I started making music myself. As a child I actually had two tape recorders, and I recorded my recorder, playing along with myself… I multi-tracked! I wish I still had that. So that interest was always there, but I don’t think the technology was.

You were telling me earlier, to my surprise, that you actually worked on graphics for computer games for a while…

Yeah, I’d started doing illustration, but it didn’t really work out. So I went back to college and studied computer graphics, 3D graphics. This would be the late 1990s. And I ended up getting a job doing 3D graphics for computer games… I worked for a company called Probe, in Edgware. I worked on the Die Hard game!

Did you make a computerised Bruce Willis?

I didn’t, actually… I was doing a bit of animation for the beginning of the game, a few fancy bits. I can’t remember what I did, actually! And then I got made redundant from that job, and worked for another company called Argonaut. And I worked on the first Harry Potter game for the Playstation!

Did you make a computerised Daniel Radcliffe?


I drew all the faces for the children! So if you zoom right into that game, those are my faces.

Did you have any interest in computer gaming yourself?

Not really. I didn’t really grow up playing them…  

So how did that lead back into the kind of illustration work that you do now?

Well, I got made redundant again. The industry had completely changed from when I started out, and by this stage the Playstation 3 was coming out. And artists were just doing tiny bits. When we worked on Harry Potter, not only did we work on the  characters, but each artist was given a level to do. So you had quite a lot of input. But as the games become more complex, you ended up doing the smaller bits, so you’d just do props, or bombs, or guns.

And as you say, did I love games? No, I didn’t really love games. And the amount of hours you were asked to work was crazy. So I thought… I’m not doing this any more. The company went under, and I had to think about what I wanted to do, and that’s when I went back to illustration. 

Clay Pipe’s music seems to have a very distinct aesthetic… can you put it into words?  

(Laughs) I always kind of wing it, I think… it’s just instinctively choosing the right music. And I don’t want it to be stagnant and keep doing the same things. But I guess… I love folk music, and I love electronic music, and Clay Pipe straddles those things, I think.

Do you try to give the artwork a consistent feel at all?  

Actually… I try hard not to, because I don’t want to repeat myself, I want to keep pushing a bit. So I’ve done more abstract stuff recently… I want to try new things.

One that that always intrigues me… as far as I know, you’ve always lived in London, and have a completely urban background. And yet your pastoral artwork, the scenes depicting the English countryside, or just so evocative. Are you a country person at heart? 

Well, my Mum and Dad live in the country now, they’ve retired. And I always visited my grandparents, who lived in the country when I was a kid. So it wasn’t like I didn’t ever go… but I love London, I just love it, and I’d find it very hard to leave, if I’m honest.

Is there a particular piece of Clay Pipe artwork that you’re especially proud of, or that you think complements the music especially well? 

There are bits that I don’t like…

Oh, which ones?


(Laughs) I’m not telling you! There are ones that I’m not so happy with, but I’m not so sure about the ones that I am really happy with, Put it that way. It’s really hard.

Come on, which album sleeves have you got on your wall at home?

(At this point, Frances looks over to her partner John for suggestions) Have we got any at home? I don’t think we have, have we? I’ve got a poster I did for a Sharron Kraus gig… that’s about it, isn’t it? (John points out a framed print of artwork from The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, an album by Frances’s musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree) Oh, we have got that one! Yes, The Hardy Tree… I forgot about that.

Is the creation of the album artwork a collaborative process with the musicians themselves?  

It really depends on the artist. The stuff that I’ve done with Jon Brooks, he’s been… not saying what he wants as such, but he’s had ideas. He’s even done a mood board for me, stuff like that. For Autres Directions, he gave me photographs that he’d taken on holiday in France, and there were a lot of road signs, and telephone signs… so that telephone (Frances points out an abstract telephone design on a nearby copy of the album) came from that. That was really helpful.

But a lot of the time… with David Rothon, he was very keen that the artwork for Nightscapes should be night-time, but it shouldn’t be spooky. And the first one that I did came out too spooky! And, actually… the finished cover works much better.

When I was a teenager, I used to get a feeling of odd reassurance, walking home through a dark, deserted town after a night out, and seeing the occasional bedroom light still on… it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only person still awake. The artwork for Nightscapes always reminds me of that feeling, it’s lovely.

I remember Jim Jupp from Ghost Box once telling me that – in a nice way – they rely on the artists they work with on to surrender a little to the Ghost Box ethos, and let Jim and Julian House be part of the creative process, too. I guess the same applies with Clay Pipe as well?

Yeah, I think so. You kind of have to become a part of my brand a little bit! And so far, everyone’s been fine about it.

We spoke a little while ago about your debut graphic novel Stagdale, which seems to have been a success for you…  

It has… and I’ve got to do some more now! The second book is something I have to get my head around for the next few months, really. That’s actually all going to be set in Nazi Germany, so it’s going to be completely different to the first book.  

Do you have the whole story mapped out?


Yes, it’s just doing it! And because it’s set in Nazi Germany, I need to do quite a lot of research, so that’s going to be time consuming as well. I have to get everything right.

Is the village of Stagdale based on anywhere in particular, or does it exist completely in your head?

It’s not based on anywhere in particular really, but it has bits of certain places! It’s a mish-mash of different places.

And what have you got lined up for future musical releases?  

The next record well be… well, it’s a toss-up between Alison Cotton’s record, which is hopefully coming out for Halloween. Alison is in the band The Left Outsides, and she plays viola. She’s had a couple of solo records out recently, but this is something she did for Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music last Christmas… they got an actress to read a ghost story by Muriel Spark, and Alison did the soundtrack to it. So we’ve taken the soundtrack, and put it on 10″ vinyl, and she’s done another track for the other side… another Muriel Spark ghost story. So we’re hoping to bring that out for Halloween.

And then Vic Mars has just done his second record for Clay Pipe, which we’re hoping to put out before Halloween, but we’ll just have to see how it goes with pressing times. The artwork for both of them is nearly finished… but not quite!

Is there a theme to Vic’s album?

The theme is kind of… where the country meets the town. Or the town meets the country!

Oooh, the Edgelands!

The Edgelands, yeah!

That’s not the album title that I’ve stumbled upon, is it?

No, he’s told me that he’ll have a title for me when I get back! So that’s another problem, we don’t have a title yet. But I’ll tell him Edgelands is a possibility!

The Art of Clay Pipe Music exhibition runs at the Colours May Vary shop in Leeds until 1st August, and a selection of otherwise unavailable Clay Pipe rarities are for sale through the shop’s website. Thanks to Frances, John, Andy, Becky and Stevie for their time and hospitality.

Undercliff, Mark Brend and the Olive Grove cult

In February 1971, Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, fragile and exhausted, left his hotel bedroom in Los Angeles, intending to browse a nearby bookshop before performing with his band at the Whisky A Go Go club that same evening. On the way, he met a man called Apollos, who apparently convinced him – on the spot – to join the freshly-formed religious group, The Children Of God. The gig was cancelled, it was days before Spencer was located, and – after steadfastly refusing to return – he remains affiliated to the organisation (now rebranded as “The Family International”) to this day.

It was an era when an interest in such “new” religious movements seemed to exist almost as a an adjunct to the prevailing pop culture ot the time: the Beatles were famous early adopters of the Transcendental Meditation movement, decamping to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rishikesh retreat in early 1968 alongside Donovan, Mia Farrow and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love; The Who’s Pete Townshend became a devout believer in the teachings of self-declared “Avatar” Meher Baba. Disillusioned creative types the world over sought solace, reassurance and inspiration amidst the spiritual free-for-all that flourished in the wake of the hippy revolution.

Mark Brend’s debut novel Undercliff offers a very English take on the phenomenon. Its tired, dispirited creative comes in the shape of listless, recently-divorced writer Martyn Hope, who – alone in London in 1972 – finds himself drawn into the world of the Olive Grove, a tiny cult with a weekly meet-up in a disused bingo hall in Nunhead. Initially finding comfort and company in the cloistered environment of the group’s meetings – and indeed romance with fellow worshipper Amelia – he finds himself feeling increasingly fraught and powerless when his new girlfriend disappears, and beings to suspect the motives of cult leaders Simon and Magnus – known to all as “The Two”, and with an alarming propensity for speaking in perfect unison.

I enjoyed the book enormously: I found it rich in both character and period detail (as a fun distraction, try imagining the 1970s band with the sound closest to the Olive Grove’s in-house folk-rock group, The Flock. My money goes on Pentangle, but I imagine them looking more like Pickettywitch) and with an encroaching sense of dark foreboding that bleeds almost imperceptibly into the story, before enveloping events completely. The bleak environs of early 1970 London provide an ideal background for the book’s early stages, before events lead us inexorably to the Olive Grove’s retreat on the Devon coastline, and the rambling country house that gives the book its title.

I spoke to Mark Brend about Undercliff‘s origins and inspirations:

Bob: Can I ask a little about the background to writing Undercliff? Was there a single spark of inspiration that made you want to start work on it?

Mark: There wasn’t a single spark, no. Looking back on my first notes I see that the location was there from the start, and I also had a good idea of the ending (which I won’t reveal here). The idea of evil being disguised as good so effectively that it is hard to tell the difference took root early on. There’s a quote from Matthew’s Gospel at the beginning pointing to that notion. Much of the plot and the detail of the characters developed as I wrote, though. 

(“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the ver elect”)

More than anything the inspiration was a desire to write a particular type of book. One with a strong sense of location, and an essentially good, if flawed, lead character who gets caught up in things that he struggles to control. Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male is an archetype, I suppose.

That sense of location, particularly the Devon coastline, plays a large part in the books’ events… what’s your connection to the area?

I grew up in Devon, and moved back 13 years ago after many years away, first in Manchester, then London. I actually live about 15 miles from the coastline where much of the book is set. It’s an area I’ve often visited throughout my life, and with which I’m very familiar.

Was it important to you that the book had that very specific, “real” location?

Yes, it was – though in my case the notion of “real” requires some qualification.  I think characters can come alive if the location is plausible and real. Or at least, a location that seems real. Real towns, pubs, beaches and so on do feature in Undercliff, but many are adapted to some extent to suit my purposes. The village of Kingcombe Vale, where the titular house is located, isn’t a real place. It started out as Salcombe Regis, which is a small village near Sidmouth, but I changed it so much as the book progressed that by the end it didn’t seem so much like Salcombe Regis anymore, so I thought it needed its own identity.

It’s interesting how unreliable memory is. There’s one scene in the book where Martyn, the lead character, looks down on Branscombe beach from his caravan. The beach is real and it does have a caravan and chalet park near it, which in my memory overlooked a particular part of the beach. I’ve been there dozens of times, but when I was there the other day I stood where I imagined Martyn’s caravan to be and realised he wouldn’t have been able to see the part of the beach I describe, but another part entirely. 

The book is set during 1972 and 1973… is that an era with which you feel a particular affinity? Why did that era lend itself so readily to the events and characters of Undercliff?

I wouldn’t say I feel a particular affinity with the era. I was about 10 then, so I remember it, but any sense I have of it as an era is derived retrospectively. It suited my story because in the late 60s the hippie movement challenged all sorts of orthodoxies – political, social and religious. If you hear standard-bearers from that time speaking about how things were – people like David Crosby – they really did think they were making a new world. By the early 1970s, reality had set in and the dream had turned sour, but a lot of the cultural trappings – communes and so on – remained. So it seemed like the right time. I imagine it as a post-Utopian dream era – though that’s my retrospective labelling of it. Whether it actually felt like that to live through I can’t say. At the time I was occupied with Airfix kits and Commando comics.

I also chose it because my lead character, Martyn, is just a little too old for the social revolution that started with rock’n’roll in the 1950s and then into the hippie/free love era of the 60s. He’s 36 in 1972, meaning he was 20 when Elvis had his first UK hit. He did national service. He was already in his thirties in the Summer of Love. So he is somebody just outside of that culture – close, but not quite fitting in. 

Ever had any experiences yourself with groups like the Olive Grove?

No personal experience. I did a little desk research.

What’s your background as a writer? I know you’ve written a lot about electronic music…

I’ve written several non-fiction books about music, and have worked – intermittently – as a music journalist for more than 20 years. Writing wise, my main interests are US singer songwriters from the 60s (Tim Hardin, David Ackles, Phil Ochs etc) and very early electronic music. By very early I mean pre-synth. I tend to drift off a bit by the 1970s. My most recent music book is Sound of Tomorrow, about early commercial electronic music (film soundtracks, TV adverts – that sort of thing). When it was published I did an associated Radio 4 documentary with Stewart Lee about early British electronic music. Undercliff is my first novel.

And what have you worked on as a musician?

I’ve been active since the 1980s, with various bands including the Palace of Light, Mabel Joy and Fariña, recording for lots of indie labels (in the old, real sense of the term) including Bam Caruso, Second Language, and Static Caravan. For a while I recorded as Ghostwriter, which was a loose association of collaborators helmed by me, making mainly instrumental music, with archive spoken word collages. Under that name I collaborated with Jim Jupp, of Ghost Box, on an EP called Dimensions, which was released on Chaffinch Records a few years back. I’ve collaborated with a few other people over the years, too – including Michael Weston King and Darren Hayman.

Fariña was originally active in the late 90s and early 00s, in which time we released two albums on Picked Egg. We reformed last year, and our first release is an EP of incidental music for Undercliff, which will be released by Hanky Panky, a Spanish label, later this year. The label has previously reissued my 80s and 90s bands, Palace of Light and Mabel Joy.

Whenever I read a novel, I can never resist casting it in my head… and I went for Robert Powell as Martyn, and Anouska Hempel as Amelia. Do you ever do this when you’re writing? Am I anywhere near your mental images of the lead characters, or am I way off the mark?

I can’t say I do cast people when writing, no, but several readers have proposed actors for various characters in the book. Miles Jupp as the vicar, George Parsons, is a favourite. Robert Powell? Yes, maybe, in the sense that I think of him as the definitive British actor of the 1970s. He might be a bit too dashing and handsome for Martyn, though – who I think of as a sort of humdrum everyman. Anouska Hempel? Yes, with a short haircut.

I found a blog post today where you wax lyrical about the influence of a writer called Phyllis Paul on your work… and I’m totally unfamiliar with her! Can you tell us a little about Phyllis’s work, and why it means so much to you?

Most people are totally unfamiliar with her. I am, too, almost. The little I know of her comes from the Wormwoodiana blog and the writing of the literary critic Glen Cavaliero. I’ve only actually read two of her 11 novels, and seen a copy of one other in a National Trust house in the Cotswolds. Her books are incredibly hard to track down. She was English, and published from the 1930s to the 1960s. She died in a road traffic accident in the early 1970s. All of her books were published by mainstream publishing houses, and some were published in the US too, so she must have had some kind of profile, but they couldn’t have sold well because you just don’t see them around now.

Cavaliero considers her to be similar to Charles Williams, the autodidact Christian mystic writer and Inkling, who was much admired by CS Lewis, TS Eliot and WH Auden. I like his novels, though find his other writing (poetry and theology mainly) pretty impenetrable. He and Paul wrote what you might class as literary supernatural thrillers – if an Amazon-style category is required (though to my mind Paul is more ‘literary’ than Williams). What I like about Paul’s books – or at least the two I’ve read – is an atmosphere of ambiguity: something is probably not right here, but exactly what is hard to say.

In a sense I think I like the idea of her as much as her books (because I’ve read so little of her work). It’s the perpetual fascination with the obscure genius working on alone – a story that always appeals, whether it’s a writer or a musician. The second Ghostwriter album, Morrow, which I made with Michael Paine, included several pieces inspired by her, which borrowed the titles of some of her novels. There’s also a piece on it called the Death of Phyllis Paul, which is an attempt to musically recreate this description of her death, by Cavaliero in The Supernatural and English Fiction (OUP, 1995):

“Phyllis Paul died on 30 Aug. 1973, in Hastings [England], as a result of being struck by a motor cycle while crossing the road. The account at the inquests suggests that she was not known locally as a writer, being only identified by the Cash name tag on her handkerchief. A neighbour commented that ‘Miss Paul kept herself to herself. When she walked she had a habit of looking quickly to one side and then the other, and then she would look down again.’ A witness to the accident was more graphic still, remarking that what he saw was ‘an old lady going across the road like a sheet of newspaper.’

Thanks to Mark Brend for his time… he’s @MinuteBook on Twitter, and his website is here.

Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper & Sharron Kraus, and A Midsummer Nights Happening

I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but soon there were tell-tale signs: a woman with a Trunk Records tote bag slung nonchalently over one shoulder, striding purposefully along Shoreditch High Street; a brace of bearded blokes buying Wispa bars from Sainsburys, both of whom I vaguely recognised from long-ago Doctor Who conventions; and – ultimately – the mysterious gates of the state51 Conspiracy factory on Rhoda Street, sporadically and tantalisingly swinging open to allow access to the enticing “Midsummer Nights’ Happening” beyond. It was 6.30pm, Friday 21st June, and the air lay heavy with the scent of sunscreen and free-flowing beer, combined with the first opening salvo of vintage electronica from the turntables concealed within. Once inside, I was greeted cheerily in the courtyard by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, resplendent in canvas cap, and he wasted no time in introducing me to the genial Martin Jenkins – Pye Corner Audio, to Ghost Box devotees – and his friend Darren, instructing us to help ourselves to the free bar.

Yes, that’s right, the free bar. Oh dear… this could get messy.

The hidden HQ of the delightfully clandestine state51 Conspiracy had been decorated with impeccable attention to period detail. In the “utopian glade” of Pan’s Garden, pot-bellied effigies peered knowingly from clusters of rustling foliage, the floor crackling with the crunch of unseasonal dead leaves. A rustic wooden signpost (with a font to warm the cockles of Patrick McGoohan’s incarcerated heart) directed me to the TV Chamber, where fleeting glimpses of Jack Hargreaves and Arthur C. Clarke flickered across the screens of ancient, wooden-bodied televisions. In the opposite direction, the extravagantly bearded Dan was pressing bespoke event t-shirts with what appeared to be an elaborate mangle.

In a space of a few fleeting, giddy minutes, I exchanged greetings with cheery figures who – previously – had only been known to me from e-mails, tweets, phone conversations… or even, simply, the credits on albums that I’d bought, played, loved, and treasured. Julian House, Frances Castle, Jonny Trunk, Robin The Fog and Vic Mars. João Branco Kyron from Beautify Junkyards. Colin from Castles in Space, Gavin from Spun Out of Control, Stewart from the brilliant Concrete Islands website. There was Haunted Generation reader Eamonn and his wife, who’d travelled all the way from Northern Ireland, and Rolf from Southport, who’d bought a copy of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ from me online a week earlier, and was keen to say hello. And the always ebullient Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records, who I’d last chatted to in 2017 at the concealed entrance to Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, after the climax of his most recent, most extraordinary Delaware Road event. He was delighted to discover that the Delia Derbyshire badge that he’d given me that evening had been pinned to the lapel of my jacket ever since.

It was a delirious, surreal, gathering of the haunted clans: a cavalcade of eclectic live performance, inventive DJ sets, and magnificently fevered conversation that continued long into Saturday morning. And it conicided conveniently with the release of the latest Ghost Box Records LP, Chanctonbury Rings, a collaboration between US writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus, and Jim Jupp himself, in his customary guise as synth-prog overlord Belbury Poly. The album combines Justin’s thoughtful, beguiling spoken accounts of mystical experiences on this ancient Sussex landmark with a swirling malestrom of musical textures: gently-strummed autoharp, wistful recorders, Sharron’s floating, graceful vocals, and Ghost Box’s trademark woozy, analogue synths.

As the first live act to the take to the stage at A Midsummer Nights’ Happening, they performed Chanctonbury Rings immaculately, in its entirety, to a hugely appreciative audience. Two days earlier, I’d spoken to them both on my BBC Tees Evening show about the albums’ inspiration, and the creative process involved. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: How did the collaboration between the two of you come about? I saw you performing separately at the Folk Horror Revival event in Wakefield in 2017. That wasn’t the genesis of this, was it?

Justin: No, we’d met before that, and I think we’d even discussed this…

Sharron: Yes, we were already plotting by that point. I don’t think we’d started work, but Justin had asked me if I was interested in doing some music for some of his texts.

Justin: Yeah, the project comes from one chapter of my book, The Old Weird Albion… and your listeners will tell from the way I talk that I’m not from Middlesbrough, but in fact from Pittsburgh – the Middlesbrough of America! But I’ve written a book about my encounters on the South Downs.

So were you contemplating doing some readings from the book, and thought that a bit of accompanying music would be handy?

Justin: Yeah, me reading for fifteen or twenty minutes is not a very exciting proposition. So Sharron threw herself onto that funeral pyre, and was willing to write some music.

Sharron: It was quite the opposite, because Justin sent the text over to me, and it immediately conjured up all sorts of images. So I sat down and spent an afternoon just creating lots of musical sketches, and I was loving the things I was coming up with in response to his work. So to me, it was exciting.

I did wonder how the collaboration had worked on a practical level, whether Justin had sent you readings of his work for you to compose the accompanying music, or whether you’d sent Justin music for him to fit his readings around… or a little of both?

Sharron: Yeah, a bit of both. He just sent me a Word document, and I created segments of music that I thought would fit with different bits of the text. And then, when we had the first couple of shows, I came down to Essex and we spent the day fitting the bits together. At that point we didn’t know if they were going to fit very well together… but they seemed to.

Justin: And obviously there’s a little bit of goat sacrifice, and such. We read the entrails and figure out the chord changes.

A bit of goat sacrifice is surely an important element of any creative process…

Sharron: Related to that, but on a more serious note… we did, last Mayday, before we performed the first gig that we’d ever done, go up to Chanctonbury and perform a very stripped-down, acoustic, ritualised version of it, with some other friends reading poetry, some Morris Dancers dancing… so that was really magical, and kind of cemented the project as something that was more than jut a one-off gig.

I was going to ask a little about Chanctonbury itself, a place I’ve never visited… can you tell us a little bit about the site itself, is it a Bronze Age settlement?

Justin: It’s genuinely every age. It’s certainly been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and it is a genuinely strange place. It’s just above the village where my grandparents lived, in Sussex, so I used to go there during my childhood. And I know some fairly serious occultist-type people, who’ve essentially been unable to spend the night on Chanctonbury. Because of the strange things that they hear, and indeed see. Levitation is quite a common occurrence up there… allegedly. I’ve barely seen that. Not with the living.

But it’s an interesting and strange place. Like I said it’s been inhabited throughout the ages, and it’s been a worship site… it was a Druidic site, and a Roman site, and Pagan site and a Saxon site… it’s been everything.

I read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, in which he attempts to spend the night there, and has a very strange and scary experience.

Justin: He’s quite terrified up there, and he’s done a lot of things. It’s a fairly well-known spot for that kind of action, and indeed for artistic response as well. It’s been written about for hundreds of years, so I like to think we’re part of a continuum.

Sharron, was it a place that you’d visited before starting work on this project?

Sharron: No it wasn’t, and the thing that was really interesting for me was that I was deliberately not Googling it, and not looking at photographs… I was trying to just work from Justin’s text, and to just respond to his version of the place and create this fictional musical world. And I was really interested to see, when I went there, whether it would feel like it was the same place, or if I was way off the mark. But it just… I drove through Sussex to meet Justin there, and as I was getting closer, along the Downs, I was getting this sense of familiarity, and when we actually went up Chanctonbury in the morning, it was wonderfully close to what I had imagined. That was really special for me.

Justin, there is a fascinating part of the narrative where you suggest you saw a vision of your late grandmother up on Chanctonbury Ring… was this based on a real experience?

Justin: Yeah… its quite funny to say in front of a bunch of people I’ve never met – your listeners – that I see my dead grandmother most times that I go up to Chanctonbury, and yet I genuinely don’t think I’m crazy or anything. But you know… there’s this experience that I think everyone has where you see these things, you encounter these things out of the corner of your eyes. You’re trying to look at them, and they’re not quite there, or not quite in focus, or not quite what you thought. And the fact that you can’t touch these things, can’t take a photograph of them or even maintain them within your field of view for more than a fraction of a second… I don’t think that makes them any less real. Memory is a haunting thing, and I think that’s what all this is about in many ways. Both haunting and belonging.

Was Chanctonbury a place that held a deep connection for your grandmother as well, then?

Justin: Yeah, she would have gone there every week for at least 25 or 30 years. And she took the rest of us whenever we were there.

I wanted to ask about Ghost Box Records, a label I’ve fallen in love with, and they deal with feelings that transport many of us back to our childhoods years in the 1970s, and evoke strange, disquieting memories of that era. But I don’t think they’ve really done anything like Chanctonbury Rings before, a spoken word album… how did the link to Ghost Box come about?

Justin: I met Jim Jupp when I first moved to this country – and I literally can’t remember how – but I met him and we became friends quite quickly. He worked on a project that I did called Ley Line, which was a piece I recorded with the folk singer Shirley Collins, and some artists from Pittsburgh, where I’m from. And that piece needed something extra, some production, and he worked on that.

And in a way this is like a big, grown-up, professional version of what we started with that. We’ve got a real musician actually composing music! Instead of me saying “I think it sould go “Woooooooooo”

Sharron: You get me going “Wooooooooo” instead!

Justin: I didn’t grow up in this country, so Sharron… was that haunted 1970s and 80s lifestyle that Ghost Box is about part of your childhood?

Sharron: Yeah, it really was. Once of the things I’m interested in is how there are so many haunted elements of life in this country. Something happened in the 1970s that was more extreme, I guess we would all say… and Ghost Box tap into that, and give us the nostalgia, but also something richer than just harking back. They’ve created a world that certain projects seem to fit into.

Ghost Box are like a parallel universe version of our 1970s childhoods, filling in the bits that we’ve forgotten, or that are missing…

Justin: It’s as though they’re fitting in the bits that you think you’ve forgotten, but actually… they never happened! One of the things that I would say we’ve very subtly done with this record, including with the artwork… we talked a lot with Jim and Julian House, the designer, about having the feel of these BBC Poetry For Schools albums from the 1960s and 70s, they’re really interested in those, and the Topic Records compilations that came out in the early 1970s. But my Spoken Word origins are in those Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen albums, or Ken Nordine albums… I think of them as very Mid Western American albums… a sort of Psychedelic Midwest. And they’ve done a really cool job of putting those things together, so the back cover really has this beatnik jazz poetry album feel to it, while also maintaining that psychedelic folk aspect.

I love Ken Nordine’s work. I once actually played Ken Nordine’s Colors album in its entirety on the radio, all 36 tracks over 36 consecutive shows. When I first heard Chanctonbury Rings, I thought there was a little whiff of Ken about it…

Justin: It’s all part of that surrealist Midrwestern thing… that William Burroughs and Ken Nordine upbringing of mine. That’s lovely, thankyou.

The other comparison that struck me was that of Ronald Duncan and David Cain’s notorious 1969 BBC album, The Seasons. Was that an album that you had in mind?

Sharron: For me, it wasn’t something that I’d heard when I was making the music. But it was a touchstone for Jim… he referenced that album when thinking about what we could do with the project, in terms of artwork and ideas. Had you heard it before?

Justin: I’d only barely heard it, and only through Jim. I knew it was essentially why Ghost Box thought it might be OK to put out a spoken word album. So it’s been a touchstone in terms of the production parts that Jim did… the Introduction for example, which is a Belbury Poly composition, that’s definitely of the David Cain school of music. So yeah, it was an important part of the music’s upbringing.

There are some lovely analogue synths on there, Sharron…

Sharron: Yes, my little Korg! It does all sorts…

Justin: We’re proud of the sounds, and it’s also a beautiful slab of vinyl packaging. So even if you don’t like what you’ve hard, buy one and just put it on your wall! 

Justin and Sharron’s performance at A Midsummer Night’s Happening was barely the beginning of an extraordinary evening. At 9.34pm, I texted my radio cohort Uncle Harry with the astute observation: “I’m drunk in Shoreditch, and I’m watching Jonny Trunk and Wisbey perform slow jazz versions of the themes from Bergerac and Match of the Day“. Which is pretty much what’s happening in the photograph above. Then, silhoutted before a bespoke, head-swimming film collage created by Julian House, The Soundcarriers performed an immersive set of semi-improvised psychedelia, with tantalising excerpts of their album Entropicalia – a long-standing Ghost Box favourite of mine – bleeding through. Jonny Trunk and Robin the Fog joined forces to play previously unheard recordings made by sound pioneer Basil Kirchin, with live piano accompaniment from Steve Beresford. Martin Jenkins pounded Pye Corner beats from within an all-pervading fug of dry ice and Julian and Frances and João all took to the decks, although I’m embarrassed to report that I missed Jim Jupps’ airing of The Rah Band’s 1977 classic synth-pop single The Crunch because I was outside in the balmy night air, possibly rambling a little too long (and a little too incoherently) to the admirably patient Edd Gibson from Friendly Fires about my love of his collaboration with the enigmatic Jon Brooks’ on the Pattern Forms album, Peel Away The Ivy.

As Friday became Saturday, and as indoors performance became outdoors mingling, the night air was filled with the promise of newly-forged alliances (“Let’s do something together! What’s your number?”) and enthused reminsicing. My last recollection is getting a little too noisily excited about the work of the 1960s Barrow Poets with Jim, and – as he pulled out his phone to find a Youtube clip – noticing it was 2.47am. Rolf and I left together and wandered into the night, looking for taxis in opposite directions. Shoreditch High Street was still awash with light and noise, but nowhere in any of the surrounding bars did I see flickering footage of Pan’s People or hear the lilting refrain of the theme from Bergerac. A unique and captivating happening indeed.

Thanks to the state51 Conspiracy, Ghost Box Records, Trunk Records and everyone involved for a truly special event… and to Justin and Sharron for the radio chat. ‘Happening’ photos of Pan, Justin and Sharron, Jonny Trunk and Wisbey, and Julian House are all by Lois Gray. The Haunted Generation blog would like to clarify that it does not, in reality, endorse goat sacrifice as part of the creative process.