As well as this regular 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 385, dated November 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“In The Girl I Left Behind Me, the narrator tells her story from the grave,” says Alison Cotton, discussing Muriel Spark‘s 1957 short story, the inspiration for her new album of the same title. “The story is about a girl who works in a London office, her first job after a long illness. As she leaves work one evening, she is struck by a strong conviction that she has left something important at the office, but can’t work out what it can be…”
The opening side of this beautiful 10″ vinyl release was originally commissioned and recorded for Gideon Coe‘s BBC 6 Music Show in 2018, to accompany a Christmas reading of the story itself, by actress Bronwen Price. A single, thirteen-minute suite of melancholy viola captures perfectly the downbeat, rain-soaked ambience of austerity-era London, underpinned by a fluttering murmur of dread that escalates as the narrative speeds towards its chilling conclusion. “As I was playing, I imagined myself as the main character of the story,” continues Alison. “I composed an eerie melody, following the structure of the story, and building up the suspense with my wordless singing…”
The flipside is inspired by a later Spark tale, 1966’s The House of the Famous Poet, and Alison’s ethereal vocals feature even more prominently here, amidst a wash of drone-like omnichord, and an elegant, spiralling viola recital recorded – impressively – in a single, improvised take. Set in wartime London, the story is the surreal tale of an “abstract funeral” sold to the narrator by a mysterious soldier that she meets on a delayed night-train journey from Edinburgh: “An aspect which fascinated me,” admits Alison, going on to enthuse further about her recent discovery of some of Spark’s lesser-known stories. “I’d only read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which I remember I enjoyed when I was younger,” she says. “But I bought her collection of Ghost Stories. I thought they were all so well-written and chilling… and I loved how they were mostly written from the ghost’s perspective.”
The Girl I Left Behind Me is released by Clay Pipe music on (of course) Halloween, the second of two releases in quick succession from this beautifully consistent label; the other being Vic Mars‘ Inner Roads and Outer Paths, an album influenced by the writing and photography of Herefordshire ley-line pioneer Alfred Watkins, and by Vic’s own childhood explorations of the same county’s various abandoned houses and factories. Gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths evoke an emotional connection to the British countryside… think Ralph Vaughan Williams with a Korg Monopoly. Both albums are available, on vinyl and as downloads, from claypipemusic.co.uk.
Also taking inspiration from a classic spooky text is Neil Scrivin, whose album This House Is Haunted, released under his new nom-de-plume of The Night Monitor, provides an eerie radiophonic soundtrack to Guy Lyon Playfair‘s famous late 1970s account of his investigations into the notorious “Enfield Poltergeist“. The album is strong on verisimilitude: there are knockings, white noise and tantalisingly indecipherable hints of electronic voice phenomena, amidst slabs of atmospheric music concrète that Doctor Who fans will find deliciously reminiscent of Roger Limb‘s percussive, synth-drive compositions for the show. A limited edition cassette release on the Bibliotapes label will be followed by a digital download… head to bibliotapes.co.uk, soundcloud.com/thenightmonitor, or follow @TheNightMonitor on Twitter.
Meanwhile, irrepressible composer and “sound archaeologist” Drew Mulholland has used his 20-year-old field recordings, recorded onto old-school magnetic tape at locations used in the filming of The Wicker Man, as the basis for The Wicker Tapes, a delightfully left-field sound collage. “There was still about five foot of each leg, both set into a concrete base with ‘WM 73’ carved into it”, recalls Drew of his 2002 visit to Burrowhead, in Dumfries and Galloway. A very limited release in August saw each cassette coming with a sliver of wood from the remains of this legendary prop, which also played a major role in the sound manipulations that shaped the album. “I built a Heath Robinson device that allowed the tape essentially to be destroyed by an actual piece of the Wicker Man,” he continues. “After that I set the wood alight, and – when cooled – crushed it to ash and coated the near-destroyed tape with it.”
The results are an album of dark, disquieting ambience, peppered with fleeting, folky motifs that evoke disturbing images of the film’s own climactic and merciless procession. Although the original cassette immediately sold out, the album is available for digital download from drewmulholland.bandcamp.com/track/the-wicker-tapes.
The next printed Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 587 of the Fortean Times – the Christmas edition, no less. In the meantime, Issue 586 is on the shelves now, and looks like this…
There are joyless souls out there who will attempt to convince you that the traditional British Halloween celebration is a modern affection, imported from the United States at some indeterminate moment in the mid-1980s, somewhere between the red-carpet premieres of E.T. and The Goonies; a festival previously as alien to British children as Thanksgiving or Independence Day. “It didn’t exist when we were kids!” they chant in unison, rolling their eyes at the shelves of pumpkins and rubber spiders that cast a delightfully gothic pallor across our favourite supermarket aisles.
They’re wrong. In 1978, my friend Lisa Wheeldon and I dressed as vampires – complete with fangs from the Saltburn joke shop, and dripping blood courtesy of my Mum’s Max Factor – and knocked on random doors in the streets around my Grandmother’s bungalow in Acklam, a new-estate suburb of our native Middlesbrough. “The sky is blue, the grass is green,” we chanted in unison, “can you spare a penny for Halloween?” I have no idea who taught us the rhyme; it seemed to have been passed down as a race memory, and the inclusion in a later line of the humble “ha’penny” certainly suggested distinctly pre-decimalised roots.
Nobody reacted with bafflement or bemusement… they laughed, and pressed ten or even fifty-pence-pieces into our tiny hands. They knew the deal. In the North-East at least, this was a long-standing tradition. In 2016, I brought up the subject live on my BBC Tees radio show, and was rewarded with listeners’ memories of proto-Trick or Treating stretching back to the early 1950s. Some of the surface details have evolved; and certainly smooth, Peanuts-style pumpkins have now all but replaced the gnarled, warty faces of traditional British turnips, but the principle remains the same.
For me, at least, it was an evening of magic and danger combined; the whiff of coal fires and the sparkle of first frosts, alongside the thrill of monetary gain (those Star Wars figures in Romer Parrish’s toyshop weren’t going to buy themselves) and a genuine fear that the stories of supernatural Halloween malevolence that had permeated our classroom activities all week might actually be real. In a school assembly the previous year, Mrs Parker had spoken carelessly of “the dead rising from their graves”, a prospect that disturbed me enough for me to express my concerns to my Mum later that night, over teatime arctic roll. “If the dead were rising from their graves, your Grandad would be walking around in the garden, and he’s not,” she (not entirely) comforted me. As the evening wore on, I repeatedly cast furtive, nervous glances through the gaps in our front room curtains, seeking constant reassurances that a legion of deceased grandparents weren’t striding purposefully across my Dad’s herbacious borders, trailing a flock of assorted witches, vampires and spectral beasties in their wake.
So Halloween has always been a special time for many of us, and it’s a delight to see the ever-reliable Clay Pipe Records – and new recruit Alison Cotton – honouring the tradition. Alison’s mini-album The Girl I Left Behind Me – timed perfectly for this year’s Halloween celebrations – is an immaculate 10″ vinyl edition of two musical suites inspired by short ghost stories written – in 1957 and 1966 respectively – by Muriel Spark. The first of these, the title track, was originally recorded for BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe, and his annual “Ghost Story For Christmas” slot. The other, The House of the Famous Poet, based on a 1966 tale, is new to this release. Both pieces boast a genuine haunting beauty; mournful, spiralling viola recitals weave around spectral choirs of multi-tracked choral singing and washes of unsettling electronica to create the perfect soundtracks to two tales of austere, post-war eeriness. I asked Alison about the process of writing and recording the album…
Bob: Talk us through the two Muriel Spark stories that have inspired these recordings… first of all, The Girl I Left Behind Me?
Alison: In The Girl I Left Behind Me, the narrator tells her story from the grave. The story is about a girl who works in a London office, her first job after a long illness. As she leaves work one evening, she is struck by a strong conviction that she has left something important at the office, but can’t work out what it can be. There’s a twist in the tale as the story draws to a dramatic and unexpected conclusion…
And The House of the Famous Poet?
The House of the Famous Poet is set in 1944, in wartime London. On a delayed train journey, the narrator meets a soldier and a girl named Elise, a maid. She invites the narrator to stay at the house where she works, as the owners are away. The house turns out to be the home of a famous poet who the narrator greatly admires. The following morning the story takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality, when the soldier from the train turns up at the house with an enormous box that he says contains an “abstract funeral”, which he proceeds to sell to the narrator. Later that day, both Elise and the famous poet are killed when a bomb hits the poet’s house…
Have you always been an admirer of Muriel Spark’s work?
I’d only read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which I remember I’d enjoyed when I was younger. I’d like to re-read that, and more of her work. Gideon Coe’s producer, Henry Lopez-Real, sent me the story of The Girl I Left Behind Me when I was asked to soundtrack it for the show, and I bought her collection of Ghost Stories after recording that soundtrack. I thought they were all so well written and chilling, and I loved how they were mostly written from the ghosts’ perspectives, really focusing on those characters.
How did you end up recording these for Gideon’s 6 Music show? Did they approach you?
Yes, Gideon’s producer Henry approached me. My band, The Left Outsides, had played several sessions for shows that Henry had produced, and Gideon regularly plays us, and had played tracks from my solo album on the show, so they were both very familiar with my work. I was sent the story to read, and asked to record a fifteen-minute piece inspired by it which was then used on the show at Christmas. Alongside the story, narrated by Bronwen Price.
The idea of “A Ghost Story for Christmas” is a great BBC tradition… was it one that had some resonance with you? Had you seen some of the M.R. James TV adaptations?
It certainly was, and it was such an honour to be asked to record this. I think those M.R. James TV adaptations were a bit too early for me… or at least I’d have been too young. But I’ve seen them all in recent years and I think they’re amazing. In fact, I was in Norfolk not so long ago, and I recognised a church in a village we visited as being the one from A Warning to the Curious… it’s in Happisburgh. It even felt quite eerie on the day I was there, with only an elderly man wandering around in front of the church. And no-one else in sight. The hotel we stayed in nearby could have easily originally been the inn from the film too, going by the internal structure of the building… but I looked it up and it wasn’t!
I also really enjoyed a Nunkie Theatre reading of that story, a few years ago.
How did you go about adapting these stories into musical form? Were there any particular sounds or instruments that you felt particularly captured their feel?
I read both stories quite a few times to try to gain a better understanding of them, and I guess also to feel closer to the characters involved. I’m accustomed to singing from a character’s perspective, as that’s what I’m doing with most of the lyrics I write for The Left Outsides, in the same way that I do when I sing traditional folk songs. So, with The Girl I Left Behind Me, I tried to do this instrumentally, and I imagined myself as the main character of the story as I was playing. I composed an eerie melody for this piece, following the structure of the story and building up the suspense with my wordless singing as the story draws to its conclusion.
I chose The House Of The Famous Poet to soundtrack because an aspect of it fascinated me, and I wanted to focus on it with the feel of my piece: the strange and surreal concept of an “abstract funeral.” This “abstract funeral” is sold to the narrator by the soldier she meets on the train. The viola has a naturally mournful tone and I endeavoured to capture the mood of how I’d imagine an “abstract funeral” march would sound, with my layered vocals enhancing the melancholy, and the crescendo of cymbals adding to the solemnity of the drama.
So you tried to follow the structures of the stories with the music, and reflect events in the narrative accordingly?
With The Girl I Left Behind Me, I did try to follow the structure of the story, particularly with the overdubs I added. I felt the story had a steady pace and it suited a structured viola melody, which I composed in advance. The overdubs mainly followed the storyline, with a very dramatic ending.
Was your musical approach quite improvisational? I’m told the wonderful viola on The House of the Famous Poet was done in one take!
Yes, it was completely improvised, and recorded in the first take. I played a drone in A minor and improvised over the top of this. When I’d finished the take, fifteen minutes later, I just didn’t think another take would have that same intense feel. It was also clear from that viola line that this piece needed to be minimal. It didn’t call for many overdubs, I just added some wordless vocals and the cymbals. I felt the starkness of the piece made it more eerie…
How did the collaboration with Clay Pipe come about? Do you go back a long way with Frances?
We were introduced a few years ago by a mutual friend, and got on really well, as we had similar interests. Frances heard The Girl I Left Behind Me on the radio and really liked it, so asked if she could release it, along with another soundtrack from me. And it made sense to choose another Muriel Spark ghost story for the B-side. I really love the label and Frances’ artwork is incredible – it’s an honour for me to have a release on Clay Pipe.
You played at the Delaware Road event in Wiltshire in August, and I really enjoyed your set! How was it for you? Any other experiences or performances that really stood out for you?
I thoroughly enjoyed the Delaware Road event. Such an exciting event in such a unique and eerie location, with lovely people in attendance and great music. It was clear how much work had gone into it and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I was really happy to be asked to play and I loved playing in that Nissen Hut! It was only the fourth solo gig I’ve done and I was happy with how my set went. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Bob! I saw so many good performances but also missed a few people I wanted to see. I think my favourites were Penny Rimbaud, Natalie Sharp, Sarah Angliss and ARC Soundtracks.
Any idea what your next musical project might be? Another solo work, or something with The Left Outsides? Or your other band, the Trimdon Grange Explosion?
I always have so much going on it’s difficult to keep track sometimes. I have a few solo shows coming up. I’ve also started recording the next solo album. We’re about three-quarters of the way through the next The Left Outsides album and I’ll be recording my parts for the next Trimdon Grange Explosion album soon, too.
Thanks to Alison for her time and thoughts… The Girl I Left Behind Me is available from Clay Pipe music, here:
I can remember exactly where I was sitting when the Spectre of Newby Church first froze the blood in my unsuspecting eight-year-old veins. I was in my tiny, North-Eastern home town of Yarm, in the corner of Levendale Primary School library: a makeshift enclave of plastic shelving units between ‘Middle Band’ and ‘Upper Band’; an educational liminal space packed with Target paperbacks, encyclopaedias that fell suspiciously open at the ‘human reproduction’ pages, and an unseemly collection of Willard Price novellas.
“Look,” said Christopher Herbert, his customary aroma of guinea pigs and acute flatulence filling the room with a wafting, beige haze. “It’s a ghost”.
I peered at the book that lay open on his bony knees, and every vital fluid in my body instantly evaporated. My limbs felt cold and lifeless, my senses numbed in a split-second of sheer terror. It was a ghost. Unmistakeably. A towering spectral monk, thin and hollow-eyed, staring straight back at me from a bank of steps beside an austere church altar.
I barely slept for almost a week. The Spectre of Newby Church had looked directly into my soul. He knew me. Had seen me. My card was marked, and he would come for me during the night; floating up the stairs, passing effortlessly through my Star Wars-stickered door, and laying a bony hand upon my trembling forehead to claim me as the latest denizen of his dark and tortured netherworld.
Had I know at the time that Newby Church was barely thirty miles from Yarm, I might still have been awake at Christmas (Which, admittedly, I was anyway… 1980 was the year of the Palitoy Millennium Falcon).
And the book? It was, of course, Usborne’s legendary Ghosts book; alongside Monsters and UFOs, one third of a magnificent triumvirate of worryingly factual paranormal-themed volumes issued by this nascent childrens’ publisher under the umbrella title The World of the Unknown. This pivotal totem of the original “haunted” childhood was published in 1977, its 32 pages packed with stories of infamous visitations: from Black Shuck and Gef the Talking Mongoose to the specture of a decidedly deceased mother-in-law, lurking on the back seat of her unsuspecting son-in-law’s 1950s Hillman Minx. There were, of course, thorough debunkings as well… but naturally I paid less attention to those.
When I discovered – via Usborne’s Anna Howorth, and bookseller Tamsin Rosewell – that the Ghosts book was being given a 2019 reissue following a concerted fan campaign, I immediately pitched an accompanying feature to the Fortean Times. The resulting article, in which I met up with the book’s delightful (if somewhat bemused) writer Christopher Maynard, is the cover feature of the current issue, No 385, dated November 2019. It’s available now, and looks like this…
…. and on Saturday 19th October, I was delighted to be invited to a launch party held by Usborne and Haunted magazine, in the splendid location of Bosworth Hall Hotel, a rambling (and, of course, notoriously haunted) country pile nestling amidst the winding, shadowy lanes of Warwickshire. A treacly haze of autumnal sunshine was slowly descending as I arrived, and – as I rounded the corner – I was delighted to discover a blue plaque marking the birthplace of one of my favourite folk guitarists, Davey Graham. Awaiting me on the wide, winding staircase down to the hotel bar were Usborne’s Anna Howorth, the (still bemused but utterly charming) Chris Maynard, and writer Edward Parnell, whose new book Ghostland – an evocative travelogue of landscapes that inspired some of Britain’s most prominent writers of supernatural fiction – has an extract serialised in the same issue of the Fortean Times, a chapter exploring the Cardiganshire locales of William Hope Hodgson.
“I’m on the page after you,” smiled Edward, enigmatically.
Chris helpfully opened the copy that remained proudly tucked under his arm for the rest of the evening.
The party was a delight; an eclectic mix of the Haunted team – with editor Paul Stevenson an effervescent presence all night – eager ghost-hunters, writers, film-makers and dedicated enthusiasts of all matters spooky. I found myself sitting with SFX magazine stalwart turned novelist Nick Setchfield for most of the evening, as we discussed (of course) the nature of the 1970s haunted childhood, the oddly beautiful photographs of mushroom-coated graves that he’d taken in the hotel grounds, the lost 1984 single ‘London Story‘, and his new supernaturally-tinged Cold War novel The Spider Dance.
Also present was film-maker Ashley Thorpe and his Nucleus Films team, whose new feature Borley Rectory documents the somewhat chequered history of this notorious Essex vicarage, famously described as “the most haunted house in England” by 1930s psychic researcher Harry Price. We were treated to an after-dinner screening of this fascinating piece of film-making, preceded by a few words from its director – who explained the influence of the Usborne Ghosts book on his lifelong interest in the supernatural – and a specially-filmed introduction from star Reece Shearsmith. The film is boldly shot as a hugely evocative homage to the 1930s German Expressionist style, and tells the story of the rectory’s disturbing history concisely and entertainingly; Shearsmith plays diligent Daily Mirror reporter V.C. Wall, and I was delighted to spot Richard Strange, frontman with 1970s proto-punks Doctors of Madness, turning up as the house’s original Victorian rector, Henry Dawson Bull.
Afterwards, Edward hosted an entertaining Q&A with Ashley, Anna and Chris Maynard himself; still bemused that one of the eighty books he wrote during a twenty-year career penning childrens’ non-fiction had exerted such an influence, and gleefully signing copies of the reiussed version (with an effusive new Reece Shearsmith foreword) all evening. And then we decamped, en masse, to a darkened, upstairs function suite, where a random word generator on a laptop brought traditional table-rapping firmly into the 21st century, with requests for communications from beyond the veil being met with responses that included ‘PSYCHIC’, ‘CONTACT’, and – intriguingly – ‘KEITH’. A lively discussion about the nature of supernatural investigation could probably have thrived without my rambling thoughts on the hypnagogic hallucinations that occasionally blight my bedtimes (I usually see giant spiders, but on one occasion a World War 2 airman stood patiently at my bedside before fading into nothingness) but then I’d had a few bottles of the complimentary Peroni by this point, and had thrown caution to the wind.
There was still a bottle in my jacket pocket when this photo of Chris Maynard and me was taken at 1.35am…
Thanks to Haunted magazine and Usborne Publishing for a hugely entertaining evening. The reissued World of the Unknown: Ghosts is available now, from – as ever – “all good booksellers”. And congratulations to Edward Parnell, who – the following day – revealed on Twitter that his other favourite supernatural childhood tome – 1975’s Haunted Britain by Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe – has a chilling entry on Bosworth Hall, urging visitors to be mindful of an “indelible red stain, which unlike most stains is said to remain damp.”
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, let’s blame Keith.
I’m aware that my childhood memories are fading. Once razor-sharp recollections of sun-drenched (and, indeed, rain-soaked) escapades – the grubby friends, the mud-spattered tanktops, the lolly sticks on bicycle spokes – have become thin and hazy; drifting together into a cloud of indistinct vagueness… so that day, that day when that thing happened? Was that 1978 or 1979? Or was I even older than that? I can’t remember any more. The relentless march of middle-age erodes detail, yet magnifies longing… not just for the specific places and people of our youth, but for our distinct memories of them. Memories that we know we once had, but have now left… oh, over there somewhere. I think. Didn’t we? I don’t know, when did you last see them?
Doncaster musician Mat Handley – recording as Pulselovers – has poured these feelings into his second album,Cotswold Stone. It’s a beautiful musical evocation of his early 1970s school summer holidays; of times spent visiting his maternal grandparents (and the obligatory hordes of cousins that seemed to form a vital part of every 1970s childhood) in the picturesque Oxfordshire town of Burford… and, indeed of the deliciously fuzzy and elusive qualities that his memories of the period have now assumed. An album where woozy electronica meets the sounds of the school music room; flutes, xylophones and recorders. I asked Mat about his family background, the idyllic summers that inspired the album, and the musical adventures and inspirations that have informed his output over the last four decades…
Bob: Congratulations on Cotswold Stone… it’s a lovely album. Can you tell us a bit about Burford? Where is it, and what kind of place was it?
Mat: Burford is a small town in Oxfordshire. commonly referred to as the “Gateway to the Cotswolds”. According to legend, it’s the place where the King of the Mercians, Æthelbald, was beaten in battle by the Saxon King Cuthred in the year 752. Burford church was also used as a temporary prison in 1649, when 340 Levellers were incarcerated before being either pardoned or executed. The church still bears evidence of this incident, there’s ancient graffiti carved into the very font where I was baptised. For me though, Burford is the place where my maternal grandparents lived, where my mum and her sister grew up and married, and where my siblings and my cousins spent a lot of time during the 1970s, particularly during those long hot summer holidays.
It was a place with big family connections for you, then?
My grandparents made their marital home in Burford, although they both originated from other parts of the country; Grandad was born in Grimsby and Grandma in Leicestershire, though both families eventually ended up in or around Daventry in Northamptonshire, which is where they met. I’ve no idea what made them choose Burford as a place to bring up their children, but they must have moved there in the mid-1940s. I only know this thanks to my sister’s tireless family research on one of those family tree websites! I’m fascinated as to what you can discover when you start digging into these records, but it really raises a lot more questions than answers. There are many occasions where I’ve just logged on in the early evening to see what my sister has unearthed, only to look at the clock to find it’s 3am and I have to be up for work at six!
The album feels very upbeat and “summery”… was it particularly the feel of those childhood summers that you were keen to evoke?
Absolutely. I guess the timeframe for this album is the early 1970s. I lived in Daventry then with Mum, Dad, my brother Simon, my sister Naomi and Sam the dog, but school holidays were mainly spent in Burford. Memories are hazy, but… long walks down country roads, feeding the ducks at Bourton-on-the-Water, helping Grandma in the kitchen – or Grandad in the garden – and having death-defying fun on the “Witches Hat” down in “The Rec”. Those memories are like sun-scorched Polaroids that linger in my head. It’s these inconsequential but happy snapshots that I tried to evoke when I was making the album. Certain smells can transport you back to a certain time or place… and that’s what I attempted to do with sound.
I’ve seen you mention “Auntie C’s ramshackle Bradwell Grove cottage”, too. Can you tell us a bit more about this? Who was she, and was the cottage a particularly special place for you?
This memory is pretty hazy. Mum’s sister Auntie Carol, Uncle Tony and my cousins Estelle and Claire lived in a small cottage within the grounds of the Cotswold Wildlife Park… my Uncle worked there in the kitchens. The only tangible memory of the place that I have is the crumbling pig-sty in the back garden, which was a fantastic place to play… although there were no pigs! I say the memory is hazy… it may actually be entirely false or misremembered. I could actually speak to Auntie Carol or my cousins to confirm one way or another, but to be honest I’d rather keep what I have. The truth could potentially spoil something which is comforting.
In fact, the same could be said for much of the inspiration behind the album. When I told my sister recently about it, she told me that she doesn’t remember spending that much time in Burford at all. Now… during the timeframe I’m referring to, she would only have been between four and five years old, so of course she won’t remember as much as me, but even so I guess it’s possible that some of these snapshots have been filed away in my head incorrectly.
It’s this potential loss of recollection that made me want to make this album in the first place. My Mum now suffers from dementia, and no longer has a memory at all. Much of the music I make is steeped in nostalgia, real or imagined, and I’ve tried to understand why that is, but with no success. I know the catch-all description of music with the hauntology tag is that it yearns for lost futures, but the music I make hasn’t been designed that way, that’s just how it materialises. When I’m playing in other projects like Floodlights, or particularly with the band Vert:X, I come at the material from a completely different angle. I think Pulselovers is just too personal for me, and I can’t escape the melancholy!
So there’s a nice ‘”fuzziness” about your memories of the era? I’m the same. Lots of my early childhood memories aren’t specific events, more just a “feel”… a kind of vague, cosy melancholy. But a nice melancholy, if that makes sense!
I couldn’t describe it any better myself. There’s nothing specific about my memories… and I wouldn’t want there to be. They’re simply images that can be viewed, like an internal photo album.
I’ve seen you say that your memories of names on road signs played a big part in the album… Cleeve Hill, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold. They’re all wonderfully evocative names. When you hear them, what images do they evoke?
They just remind me of the excitement and anticipation I felt on car journeys during that period. I don’t think I’ve even visited some of these places, but seeing the names in black on white as you pass them, on the winding B-roads of the Cotswolds, triggers mini fireworks of memory in my head. This isn’t exclusive to Burford and the Cotswolds, though. I find the same thing happens when I drive close to places where I used to live, or have some other connection. In fact, last year I happened to drive close to my childhood home of Daventry, and as the names of Towcester, Braunston, Staverton and Everdon flashed by me on the A45 – names I’d not even realised were stored up there in my head somewhere – similar pangs of nostalgic giddiness flooded through me, like it used to as a child.
This might just be me, but I thought the album had a curiously Transatlantic feel in places! There are saxophones, and synth-funk rhythms that evoked memories of some of the glossy US TV shows that we watched at the time. Was that a deliberate move? Did you have any memories of TV or film music in mind when you were making the album?
Nothing deliberate there at all from me… though subconsciously, there may be some influence. I think you’re referring to the track In the Grove, and that combination of funky guitar and tooting saxes came entirely from my pals John Alexander and Harriet Lisa, who played them. There’s a host of talented people who have contributed to this record. John appears all over the album, mainly playing guitar. His project is called Floodlights and you should have a listen to it. His stuff is much more sophisticated than mine and really deserves to be heard.
Harriet only plays on that one track on the album, though she also plays clarinet on the accompanying single On the Green. Then there’s Mark Taylor on bass, Sarah Parton on flute, recorder and clarinet, my son Raven on acoustic guitar and Graham Sutherland who plays the beautiful lead on the album’s closer On the Wold. Colin Bradley of Dual/Spleen also played guitar on the single and my pal Wayne Ulmer of Panamint Manse totally reworked the album track In the Marsh, for the B-side of the single. I’m humbled to have had all these talented and – apart from Wayne – local musicians helping me realise this project.
Did you leave Daventry – and indeed Burford – at quite a young age? I think you’ve been in Doncaster since the 1980s. Was it a big wrench to leave? Leaving town and moving school during that period was a big thing… it was much less easy to keep in touch with school friends after you’d gone.
My grandparents left Burford in – I think – the mid 1980s. After my great grandmother passed away in 1987, they inherited and moved into her bungalow in Woodford Halse, near Daventry. As you can probably tell, nostalgia, melancholy and family history informs much of what I do with Pulselovers, and with the tiny tape label – Woodford Halse – that I run. My Dad was born and bred in Doncaster and we moved up here as a family in around 1978. The move was a terrible wrench for me, as I think it is for most kids who leave friends behind for a new life. It also meant that visits to my grandparents became much less frequent, too.
I actually visited Burford for the first time since the mid-1980s quite recently… on the trip back north after attending the wonderful Delaware Road event on Salisbury Plain. My partner and I spent an afternoon wandering up and down the High Street – which doesn’t seem to have changed in the slightest – and sitting in silent contemplation in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, where I was baptised in 1966. Although in Lou’s case, it could well have been simply boredom!
Had you already started to experiment with making music in the 1980s? I’ve seen you talk about sitting “in the cupboard under the stairs with my Jen SX1000 and Roland SH101”! When did you get them? And why did you sit in the cupboard?
Haha! The cupboard under the stairs was no Harry Potter-esque exile… we were a family of five, living in a small three-bedroomed council house. In 1982 or 1983, soon after staring my first job in a cable factory, I bought a couple of synths and a drum machine to try and emulate synth-pop heroes like the Human League, John Foxx and Fad Gadget. I failed miserably, but had a lot of fun making a racket. The cupboard was the only space available for these toys and I had to share the space with the ironing board, the vacuum cleaner and all the other household crap that doesn’t have a real home!
Does any of the music you made during that period survive in any form?
There are a couple of Bandcamp compilations (Virgin Territory and Bedroom Cassette Masters 1980-1989) where I submitted a single track for each, but I really wouldn’t recommend them! Both of those submissions were recorded in the cupboard under the stairs, directly into the boombox’s built-in mic. Then there’s Soundtrack V from the first album… that was written in that same dusty cupboard, but re-recorded with better equipment and a little more experience, thirty-odd years later.
Doncaster is not a million miles away from Sheffield, which was a hugely exciting place to be for electronic music in the 1980s! Did that make a big impact on you?
A massive impact! The Human League – Mark 1, of course – and Cabaret Voltaire were, and continue to be, a big influence. The long version of Toyota City (the B-side of Only After Dark), The Dignity of Labour, Music for Stowaways and The Voice of America are pieces of music that I never get bored of hearing.
Sheffield has a great musical heritage, and even now there’s a lot of great music to discover. Bishop’s House is a tiny Tudor building that I regularly visit to see intimate folk or experimental gigs by the likes of Sharron Kraus, Pefkin or Bell Lungs. On the electronic side, there’s Saif Mode, Isis Moray and loads more… record label-wise, I’m an avid collector of Sonido Polifonico and Do It Thissen. There’s so much to be inspired and entertained by.
Tell us about the history of recording as Pulselovers… when did you start?
As I mentioned before, I bought a couple of synths, a drum machine and a delay pedal in around 1983, and made a lot of unproductive noise for a couple of years. They were joined later by a Tascam 244 four-track. Then the familiar story of real life happened… with relationships, weddings, kids, divorces and bankruptcy taking priority over any artistic endeavours. There was always a desire to create, but often not the time or the opportunity. Then, in about 2015, I started to present a radio show on the local community station Sine FM, initially with the idea of playing the music of my youth… post-punk, industrial, synth-pop and the like. Through doing this show I started discovering new music that I’d never been aware of… labels like Ghost Box, Polytechnic Youth, Cardinal Fuzz, Folklore Tapes, Reverb Worship, Rocket Recordings and Castles in Space were all putting out music by new artists which reignited both my love of vinyl, and my desire to make music of my own again.
A copy of Propellerheads’ Reasonsoftware, a laptop and a midi controller keyboard were purchased, and I soon started working out how to use this stuff… initially by recording some dodgy cover versions (you can find them online too, but I’m not telling you where to look!) and then on the original material that eventually became the first Pulselovers album. The name Pulselovers comes from a piece of music by The Future – Ian Craig Marsh, Martin Ware and Adi Newton in their pre-Human League days – which appears on the fab collection The Golden Hour of the Future. Originally it was Pulse Lovers, I just joined the words together.
Has the music you make changed since then? You’ve mentioned elswhere acquiring a load of analogue synths in 2016… was this a deliberate move to create something a little more “vintage” sounding?
I still use the computer to make most of my music, but more just as a multi-track recorder now. The addition of standalone instruments has allowed me to write in a more improvisational manner. Also, I’ve found that restricting myself to three or four synth parts works better than the unlimited nature of working with everything that the laptop offers… when you’ve been working on a track for a week, adding layer upon layer, sometimes you listen back and find that you’ve lost what you were trying to come up with in the first place, or that the original five-minute demo with its simple baseline, crappy drum machine and naive melody sounds so much better.
I think the music I make has developed and matured a lot since that first album. I’ve contributed several tracks to Steve Prince’s A Year In The Country themed compilations over the past three years, and I’ve found the specific themes and guidance you receive as a contributor has changed the way that I approach writing and recording. No longer do I follow the bassline, melody, beat formula of my earlier stuff. I’ll now write a piece around a tape loop or a field recording made at a specific location… whatever it takes to find the feeling I want the piece to invoke. Two of the tracks on the album – Badby 80 and The Green Leaves of Shildam Hall – originally appeared in different forms on two of these compilations.
I meant to ask about Badby 80… where does the title come from?
On an excursion from my adopted hometown of Doncaster to Daventry in 1983, I took photographs of old school pals, my primary and secondary schools, and the various haunts where – as a child in the mid-1970s – I played football, rode my bike and collected newts, frogs and other pond life. One such location was a subway which went under the main road. I had to travel through it to get from my council house to the then-swanky and modern comprehensive school. On the wall was a piece of graffiti which intrigued me enough to want to capture it for posterity. In black spray paint, with letters a foot high was the inscription, “Badby 80 – 8 arrest, 8 innocents”.
Badby is a tiny village around five miles from Daventry, located within the boundaries of the nearby Fawsley Estate. It was a magical place where my parents and siblings would spend many a Sunday afternoon exploring the woods… they were famous for the deep carpet of bluebells that covered the entire forest floor every Spring. I could never comprehend how this little hamlet, with its idyllic and mysterious woodland, accessible only via a broken down stone archway, could be the setting for anything where eight innocent people could be arrested. I tried to find out the details behind this incident from friends and family, but without any success. Who were the eight? What was their crime? Nobody knew…. or if they did, they weren’t talking.
The photo lay in my box of memories untouched and ignored for decades, only springing back into my consciousness when working on a track for the Year In The Country collection, The Restless Field. The result is my interpretation of an incident that I know virtually nothing about, but it’s one that still intrigues me nearly forty years later.
A little word about Castles in Space, a label I love… how did you end up releasing Cotswold Stone with them, and how have they been to work with?
It came completely out of the blue! I’d linked up with the label boss, Colin Morrison, on social media because of the radio show and because I’m a fan of the label. I think Colin was one of the few people who actually bought the first album when it came out, and I’d always assumed this was more down to Nick Taylor having done the artwork… I got to know Nick outside of music through our mutual membership of a small and now defunct cinema club here in Doncaster. I found Colin a friendly chap who had impeccable taste in music…. those early singles are fab, but when Akiha Den Den and the Concretism albums came out.. just wow!
Anyway, around a year or so ago, without warning, he just messaged me and asked if I was working on anything interesting. I told him I was working on a follow-up to the first album and my jaw dropped through the floor when he asked whether I’d be interested in working with him to release it. It’s clear that Colin is really passionate about what he puts out, and luckily that includes how the finished work is presented. He’s not happy to just wrap the record in a pretty picture and put it out there; a lot of thought goes into the relationship between the music and the visuals. The inserts, extra totemic additions, the colour of the vinyl…. right down to the way the record is mailed out. It’s all done with a sense of care, and attention to the inspiration of the music.
I don’t know whether you’ve seen it, but the video he commissioned for the album track Autumn Arrives Again was something I had not expected… but it absolutely adds to the overall vision. I was always a big fan of 4AD and the close relationship the label had with Vaughan Oliver, and one of the reasons that I love Castles in Space is their idea that the creative process doesn’t stop once the music has been recorded. Having Nick on board for the artwork was a no-brainer of course, and I think he’s excelled himself with this project. The look, the feel and the colours he used are better than I could have hoped for. Obviously, without this connection to Castles in Space, I may not have come across the wonderful Twelve Hour Foundation either, and Jez Butler’s mastering of the album is perfection.
And a really obvious question… Cotswold Stone itself. The title… why that? Is there a particularly evocative kind of stone that’s unique to the Cotswolds?
Essentially, it’s the golden-coloured limestone that you see in the miles and miles of dry stone walls that cover the South West… and in many of the historic buildings too, like Burford Priory. There’s a quote from J.B. Priestly: “The truth is that it has no colour that can be described. Even when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them” That perfectly describes the attributes of the physical stone itself and maybe – hopefully – similar words could be used to describe the individual tracks on album.
Thanks so much to Mat for his time… and his family photos! Cotswold Stone is available here…
The crackly, rustic theme tunes; the muted colour palettes; the crude but charming animated styles, the gently-clipped narrations by honey-voiced character actors, their fruity tones steeped in sugary tea and the pallid smoke of untipped cigarettes. The short cartoons of our 1970s childhoods – from Mr Benn to The Magic Ball, from Bod to Mary, Mungo and Midge – had a very distinctive style, and a very special place in our hearts; broadcast ‘for our younger viewers’ in the five-minute run-up to Pebble Mill at One, or sandwiched between Blue Peter and the unsettling headlines of the 5.40pm news. One final, daily hurrah of childhood innocence before Kenneth Kendall or Richard Whitmore arrived, and our cosy front rooms were once again subsumed by news of international arms races and imminent industrial action.
Richard Littler – who, since 2013, has been the benevolent overlord of Scarfolk, the dysfunctional North-Western town trapped in a perennial, authoritarian late 1970s nightmare – has combined many of these evocative factors to create Dick and Stewart. While re-creating perfectly the gentle trappings of those teatime institutions, it’s actually a nightmarish, satirical look at 21st century surveillance culture, seen through the eyes of a very 1970s schoolboy – the trusting, innocent Dick – and the living eyeball that he carries everywhere; the last, living remnant of his friend Stewart, who – we learn – has died in a playground accident.
Narrated by Julian Barratt, of The Mighty Boosh and Flowers fame, it’s a disturbing but beautifully-made piece of animation, with the pilot episode – I Spy With My Little Eye – available to watch, in full, on Youtube…
I asked Richard about the process of making Dick and Stewart, and the inspirations behind it…
Bob: Congratulations on Dick and Stewart… it’s wonderful. Can you tell us a bit about the process of getting it made, and how difficult that might have been?
Richard: Thanks a lot. I was flying blind a bit because, although I’ve worked in motion graphics before, I hadn’t done any kind of character or narrative-based animation. It took me a while to find my feet and develop my own process. I ended up creating Dick and Stewart with a mix of open source software and Adobe After Effects, which I don’t think is typically used for this kind of production. There weren’t any deadlines so I just took my time. On my own, it took months to complete.
As a graphic designer, had you always harboured ambitions to try your hand at animation?
In addition to Disney, Warner Bros and Tex Avery – which was my favourite – I was also brought up on Terry Gilliam’s Python animated inserts. It was seeing his rudimentary style that first made me think that animation may be possible even for someone like me. Gilliam didn’t need a studio of Disney animators, nor did he care about the kind of slick refinement you’d see in a film like Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty. He just did it all in his bedroom, even when he was making it for the BBC. Gonzo or punk animation. Low-budget, daytime kids’ animations were also similarly simplistic.
Yes, it’s clearly very much inspired by the 1970s animations that we all saw as children… the likes of Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge. Can you talk us through your memories of watching these, and other shows of the same ilk, and how they made you feel as a child? Which of them were your favourites?
I loved the cartoons you mention. I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss etc. Looking back at the cartoons before I started Dick and Stewart, I was surprised how technically crude – albeit charming – some of them are. You can frequently see pencil marks, rubbings out and felt-tip pen strokes. Rostrum cameras were also used extensively, so thirty seconds might go by and the audience would only see a zoom or pan of a static illustration.
This slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. I wasn’t as much a fan of noisier cartoons like Roobarb – as much as I love Richard Briers – or American cartoons like the Hanna Barbera stuff. I also preferred hypnotic narrators such as Ray Brooks and Oliver Postgate, the co-owner of Smallfilms.
The trance-like quality was compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me.
Interesting that you mention dreamlike qualities, as we’ve spoken before about your childhood inability to distinguish between reality and the horrible nightmares you suffered from… does that remain a motivating factor in your work?
I don’t think it’s a conscious factor, but I have always preferred art, music and books with dreamlike, or rather unexpected or out-of-place elements and qualities, though my interpretation of whether something is dreamlike or not is probably subjective, rather than the intention of the artist in question.
People often talk of the 1970s as being a decade of bright, clashing colours, but my memories are of everything being rather washed out and pale. And the colours of Dick and Stewart really capture that… was the colour palette something you thought about carefully?
You’re right, 1970s cartoons were quite washed out. Or all our TVs were on the blink! The colours were very important, so I spent some time extracting colour palettes from programmes such as Mary, Mungo & Midge, The Magic Ball, Mr Benn, Bod and Joe. The latter of which I’d never seen before, but I liked the thick, black, rough lines and distinctive period colours.
(Curiously, I’d never heard of Joe either, but it was broadcast on BBC1 throughout the early 1970s, with the second series – from which this episode comes – being narrated by Colin Jeavons…)
The themes of surveillance and authoritarianism are terrifying… is this a reflection of how you feel about the 1970s, with its powerful state, or more how you feel about the present day?
Although I loved the black-domed, in-store surveillance CCTV cameras in the 1970s, which resembled Dalek heads or the torture droid in Star Wars (I still want one!), the surveillance in Dick and Stewart is inspired by contemporary issues. Brits sometimes appear quite complacent about encroaching surveillance, more so than in other countries I’ve lived – Germany, for example. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s bulk interception of data was against human rights. It’s an issue we need to… well, keep an eye on to ensure that civil liberties are not impinged upon, or worse. I’ve also completed similarly-themed design work for organisations such as the Open Rights Group. For example, a while back, I created a series of surveillance images parodying Fougasse’s wartime propaganda posters.
The normalisation of control is the most disturbing element of Dick and Stewart for me – as epitomised in the song, with its “watching is normal and healthy” refrain! Is this a road we’re being nudged down, do you think? Our everyday activities in 2019 are easier than ever to track and record…
We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy. I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug of war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Many companies (and the Government itself) sustain some of their activities via loopholes and/or with the hope that any wrongdoing hasn’t been detected, partially because it has not yet been clearly defined. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast, and even that it’s desirable.
The idea of Stewart being the last remnant of a dead friend really struck a chord with me… my childhood seemed to be filled with rumours and urban myths of children that had died in terrible ways, and their stories were often presented as a lesson or a warning… ‘do you want to end up like that little boy?’ and all that. Was it the same for you? Any stories that have stuck in your mind?
Yes, the 1970s were full of well-meaning but horrific cautionary tales that involved the maiming or killing of children: Public Information Films about the dangers of pylons, railways, canals, farms, fireworks, electricity. When I was in infant school, rumours spread in the playground that a fellow pupil had suddenly vanished because he had been taken by a witch. At the same time, Public Information Films warned children not to go with strangers, so I took this as tacit confirmation that witches abducted kids from suburban playgrounds. The pupil hadn’t disappeared, by the way, his parents had moved house. Well, that’s what they say; I’m pretty sure it was witches. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but it’s possible that Stewart came about because of the ubiquitous childhood warning, “Be careful or you’ll have your eye out with that!”
Julian Barratt’s narration is perfect… how did you get him on board? Was he someone that you always had in mind for this, and if so – what was it about his voice that made him so suitable?
I always knew that I wanted a soft “Ray Brooks type” narration, though for quite a while I was contemplating a female narrator. When I heard Julian’s narration, however, I knew that he was the perfect choice. He and Andy Starke, the producer, had worked together before, which made it easier. I’m very grateful that he did. I don’t recall that we discussed Ray Brooks specifically; I don’t think we needed to because Ray Brooks is such an icon in this field.
And needless to say, I love Chris Sharp‘s music… and he’s an artist that lots of readers will know from his work as Concretism. Do you go back a lomg way with Chris?
Chris was one of the first people to like Scarfolk so we’ve known other since then. I was an instant fan of his music and our respective creative projects come from the same well of early experiences. It captures the period perfectly and I’m so delighted that he let me loose on his album design. The Dick and Stewart soundtrack will be released soon, so people should look out for that.
This episode of Dick & Stewart is labelled as a ‘pilot’… are there further episodes in the works? What are your plans for it?
Five further episodes are already written and cover a range of contemporary topics including propaganda, civil defense, ‘fake news’, gaslighting and various forms of governmental corruption. Additionally, much of the artwork for the next two episodes is complete, but of course these things cost money and time and, ideally, the series would find a home on a platform other than YouTube.
Thanks to Richard for his time, as ever… and for providing the screengrabs in this feature. While we await further Dick & Stewart, it’s worth mentioning that Richard’s new Scarfolk Annual is released on 17th October, and is available for pre-order here…
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 383, dated September 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“Being half asleep on the couch with German Measles, refusing to eat my Heinz Lentil Soup, with Crown Court on. Covered in calamine lotion. My mum had this old lady who came round to look after us, Mrs Wolf. She taught us how to make birdboxes in the cellar. Maybe Quentin’s obsession with birdboxes came from her?”
Listening to film-maker Sean Reynard‘s memories of his 1970s childhood is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness experience. It’s almost as woozily evocative as descending down the Youtube wormhole he has created; a channel devoted to Sean’s alter-ego “Quentin Smirhes”, a terrifyingly austere spoof 1970s television presenter with a predilection for elaborate birdboxes and antique crumhorns. I first became aware of Quentin in 2016, when I discovered Sean’s magnificent pastiche of the Picture Box titles, a “found footage” extension of the opening sequence to this disquieting 1970s daytime TV fixture. As the “picture box” itself gently rotates, the camera pans to reveal a hidden handle being cranked by the unsettlingly hirsute Quentin, sporting a disconcerting leer and a truly alarming pair of black underpants.
“It was all very reminiscent of Victorian austerity and secret rooms, and shadowy corners,” muses Sean, recalling the original Picture Box titles. “A sense of warm claustrophobia, slightly anesthetised, and then [presenter] Alan Rothwell, with his relentless, hooded eye contact. I’d always wanted to film a wider pan of those titles, and see the whole set-up…”
Since then, Sean has cultivated a cottage industry of gloriously strange viral films, all spoofing the dustiest corners of the 1970s regional TV archive; where puppet choirboys are taught the rudiments of medieval instrumentation, and where disembodied fingers poke from wooden Heath Robinson contraptions, accompanied by the wistful, wobbly strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1. Search for the ‘Quentin Smirhes’ channel on Youtube, or follow Sean on Twitter, where he’s @raghard.
Meanwhile, committed heliophobes may find respite from the unrelenting summer stickiness by immersing themselves in The Dark Is Rising, an imagined TV soundtrack to Susan Cooper’s classic childrens’ novel. This much-loved tale of ancient magic loosed upon a festive, snow-bound Buckinghamshire has cast its spell over Finland-based Teessider Rob Colling, aka Handspan. “I asked myself… what would the music sound like if the BBC had commissioned a mini-series when the book was published, in 1973?” he explains. “My answer was that they would have given it to Peter Howell or Roger Limb or Paddy Kingsland from the Radiophonic Workshop… and it would have absolutely scared the pants off everyone who heard it.”
The album is marvellously redolent of Kingsland’s work in particular, and the perfect musical realisation of a story steeped in traditional myth. “It brings together all kinds of English folklore, from Herne the Hunter to King Arthur,” muses Rob. “And it just caused melodies to start pouring into my brain. They felt like they were thousand-year-old folk melodies…” Combining swimmy, retro synths with “early” instrumentation (you have to admire the dedication of a man who can teach himself to play the Finnish kantele), the album is as crisply keen as the sweeping snowdrifts and slate-grey sky that lend the book such an air of forbidding, suffocating stillness. Following a limited – and quickly sold-out – release on cassette, The Dark Is Rising is now available as a digital download from handspanmusic.com.
Other musical gems that have caught my attention this month: the album Flora, by Polypores, is an ambient but melodic exploration of a tangled, fantastical woodland, released on the Castles In Space label with a cover that Roger Dean would be proud of; and Sizewell, composed by Robin Saville and Oliver Cherer, builds beautiful organic soundscapes from field recordings made in the natural environs surrounding Suffolk’s famous nuclear power stations. It’s available from the Modern Aviation label.
Those seeking oddness in more built-up areas, however, should investigate the latest publications from the Folk Horror Revival stable. Urban Wyrd, edited by FT contributor Andy Paciorek, comes in two volumes (Spirits of Time and Spirits of Place) and collects essays, reviews and interviews that celebrate – as Adam Scovell puts it in his introduction – “dark skulduggery and strangeness beyond the reasonable confines of what we consider part of city life.” Further contributors include such luminaries as Will Self and Iain Sinclair, with Paciorek himself providing his own share of quirkiness… his exploration of “wyrd Trumpton” tickled me, as did his ruminations on the haunted qualities of motorway service stations. Both books are available from folkhorrorrevival.com/tag/urban-wyrd, with all proceeds going to the Wildlife Trusts conservation charity.
The next Haunted Generation feature in the Fortean Times will be in Issue 385, on the shelves on 10th October.
Thanks to a meticulously-kept childhood diary, I can pinpoint exactly the moment when my friend Doug Simpson and I became convinced that dark forces were leading us to a hitherto undiscovered magical realm, in a secluded corner of our small, North-Eastern home town. It was Sunday 15th April 1984, we were eleven years old, and an aimless, post-beans-on-toast bicycle ride through the rural, cobbled streets of Yarm had led to the discovery of a winding, muddy track, meandering away from the pavement opposite the doctor’s surgery. It ambled beneath a canopy of rustling trees and into a small, deserted childrens’ playpark… complete with slide, roundabout and swings, as well as the ubiqituous DIY rope swing, tied to the branch of an overhanging tree, and known universally to all on Teesside as a “tarzie”.
By this stage, I’d lived in Yarm for seven years, and Doug had spent two lengthy spells in the town, but neither us had ever previously been aware of the existence of this mysterious, secluded idyll. With imaginations fuelled by the magical childrens’ novels and supernatural TV shows that provided us with a staple diet of early 1980s weirdness, we swayed gently on the swings, and jumped to the only rational conclusion available to us: that the track had never previously been there; that it had magically materialised from some no-place, and led us through a time portal into a liminal, Arthur Macken-esque parallel Yarm that clearly couldn’t exist amidst the ordinary, everyday mundanity of our familiar home town.
Similar childhood adventures through the undiscovered “edgelands” of his home town – and their accompanying, imaginative flights of fancy – provide the inspiration for Vic Mars‘ beautiful new album Inner Roads and Outer Paths, his third recording for the exquisitely-curated Clay Pipe Music label. Vic grew up in 1970s and 1980s Hereford, then spent many years teaching in Japan before moving back to the UK. The record – as the publicity notes evocatively state – “harks back to a period in Vic’s youth spent exploring the abandoned houses and factories on the fringes of his home town; the in-between places where nature either takes back, or loses its grip… it is a record of trails, roads and holloways, that lead you out along the river, through ruined arches and over railway lines, past crumbling stately homes and back into the centre of town.”
As such, it builds on the similarly nostalgic and bucolic themes that informed Vic’s 2015 album The Land and the Garden, also released on Clay Pipe…
Like its predecessor, Inner Roads and Outer Paths is a beautiful, elegant piece of work, with gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths reinforcing a strong, emotional connection to the Herefordshire countryside. I asked Vic a little more about his childhood experiences and explorations, and the specific locations that inspired the album…
Bob: The album is such a rich encapsulation of that spirit of childhood adventure. Can you paint a picture of where exactly you grew up?
Vic: Hereford is a city that sits right on the border of England and Wales. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, and easily accessible… just a five or ten minute cycle ride from where my parents live. The River Wye runs through the city too, and on a good day it’s quite picturesque. Growing up, there were always abandoned houses, ruined barns, bunkers, woods for camping and weird local legends.
Bulmers Cider comes from Hereford, and there was a cider festival, which was a big thing… not sure how often it took place though!
My memories of being a kid in the 1970s and 80s are of towns being a little more wild and ramshackle than they are now… I grew up in a rural town as well, and it was full of overgrown wasteland and abandoned buildings. And my and my friends all played in them, without anyone ever questioning it! Was it the same for you?
Definitely. CCTV was probably still quite expensive in those days, and the lack of security signs made exploring easy. Of course, the Public Information Films sometimes put us off the more dangerous pursuits… like climbing into electric substations for frisbees! I remember being more cautious of stray dogs, farmers, white dog poo and glue sniffers than anything else.
Any memories of specific buildings or areas that were particularly special for you?
The munitions factory was the big one for us. A huge hangar, blast walls, bunkers, all sorts of stuff. And overgrown paths, so it was easy to get a bit lost in there… it covered a big area. There’s also a church nearby, and we were told they took the hands off the clock to stop the Devil visiting at midnight. Weird stuff.
And when I moved to Japan, I started exploring abandoned theme parks. Kind of carrying on the hobby.
Was part of the fun of being a child discovering new areas of your home town? I remember, aged 11, finding a new trackway into a tiny park with a slide, and I’d never seen either before. And I’d lived in the same small town for seven years at that point! It felt like magical forces were at work…
Yes… usually out of town though, like an abandoned house, a lake or a rumour of something like an old factory. Although there was a short time when I had the fear of going into woods, due to The Bells of Astercote and the Black Death.
(NB… I’d forgotten all about The Bells of Astercote, but it was essentially a childrens’ version of the BBC’s traditional Ghost Story For Christmas, broadcast on BBC1 on 23rd December 1980. Based on a 1970 novel by Penelope Lively, it sees two modern children encountering what appears to be a 600-year-old plague victim in their local woods. Archive TV enthusiast Tim Worthington writes about it here, and the whole programme is on Youtube…)
I assume you no longer live in your childhood town – is there, therefore, an element of longing to the album? Both for your childhood, and – I assume – for places that no longer exist, as they’ve been built on or knocked down?
It’s not really a longing, more a fond memory. The Muppet Show and Doctor Who on a Saturday, and that low feeling when you heard the theme tune to Last Of the Summer Wine… when you knew you had school the next day. Although I left a quite a while ago, it was the real end of an era when my parents moved out of the house where I’d grown up. Quite a weird feeling.
Hereford looked like a great place years before I was born, but it seems the council allowed some beautiful architecture to be knocked down.
Can I ask specifically about some of the places namechecked in the song titles? There’s ‘Evacuees at Arrow House’, for a start…
Arrow House was a house my Dad lived in as a child, in a small town called Kington, outside of Hereford. Hergest Ridge is just up the road, Mike Oldfield fans! They took in evacuees during the War, and my Nan kept in touch with the evacuated children for a long time afterwards. Only recently, I saw some great photos of them enjoying “country life” in Kington, and some old letters too.
(NB For those keen to explore further, the BBC”s Peoples War archive has memories from Kington evacuees here…)
You’ve got to tell me about the “Bric-A-Brac Shop” as well, as referenced in the opening track! Was it real?
It’s not one shop in particular. My grandma was an antiques dealer, and she had a stall in a creaky old shop along with other sellers, where she claimed to have witnessed the ghost of a butcher walking past her. I think that’s partly the inspiration for the track.
There’s “The Last Days of the Great House”, too… was this inspired by any particular building?
There were two or three empty stately homes… not really in ruin, but they could well have gone that way. I was reading about England’s lost houses, and how many were knocked down due to cost, or used by the army, or destroyed, sold off or burnt down. A favorite, Witley Court, was destroyed by fire, sadly. It’s a massive place in Worcestershire, the neighbouring county.
I love “The Fair Arrives” as well… the arrival of the travelling funfair was – and still is – an annual event of huge importance in my home town. Any specific memories of your own childhood experiences at this particular fair?
The fair was – and still is – a big occasion in Hereford. It happens in the centre of the city, and the roads are closed off. I can vaguely remember one of the attractions… basically a man in a monster suit, in a cage. This must have been the mid-to-late 1970s. Then, along with the Mexican or Witch’s Hat, the bumper cars, and the ghost train, there was a freakshow tent that had various mutations in jars. This was right up until the 1990s! Legend has it that someone stole the two-headed cow, and put it on the bonnet of their car.
Musically, it’s a beautiful album – and there are hints of the school music room in there, recorders and glockenspiels! Was that a deliberate attempt to evoke the sounds of music lessons?
Thank you! Yes, I find that sort of sound appealing… slightly out of sync, and wobbly. Sadly, music lessons at my school were uninteresting and lacking in any available instruments. I wanted a drum kit, but they were too expensive. When I was teaching in a Japanese junior high school, I was amazed at the amount and variety of musical kit they had, which anyone could use, any time.
The album has an epic feel, too… passages reminded me of the great pastoral British composers, of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Were they in your mind at all when you were making this?
I would say always Vaughan Williams, but equally Gustav Holst. There is a statue of Elgar next to the cathedral in Hereford, and the Three Choirs Festival is not far away. I’ve read that Vaughan Williams and Holst went on walks around the area a bit, which kind of ties in… because when I see the Herefordshire countryside, I hear those two.
I wanted to ask about Alfred Watkins as well, who I know from his book The Old Straight Track, and his writings on ley-lines. And you mention him in the album’s publicity. Is he an important figure when it comes to documenting Herefordshire’s past? When – and how – did you become of his work?
Alfred Watkins is probably not as celebrated as he should be in Herefordshire. The Old Straight Track is a great book, and one that my Dad had for years. I came across that, and another book called The Folklore of Herefordshire by Mary Leather, at the same time. There’s some crazy stuff in the folklore book about local witchcraft and omens, and the author helped Vaughan Williams collect folk songs from the area.
Are you much of a ley-line believer yourself?
Ha! I want to believe.
This is your third release on Clay Pipe, and you and label owner Frances Castle seem to work really well together – her artwork compliments your music beautifully. Do you swap notes during the creative process?
Whatever Frances creates is always amazing, and it’s exciting when she sends over the artwork for the first time. Not sure how, but she seems to be able to capture the feel of the music every time. Not just the images, but the colour palette too. I know the artwork is in very safe hands, so I’ve more often asked about the music and what needs changing!
Inner Roads and Outer Paths is released on 4th October, but the limited vinyl edition is available for pre-order now, from…