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 387, dated Christmas 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“I suffered from night terrors,” explains Richard Littler, “and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse…”
We’re discussing the inspirations behind the new Scarfolk Annual. Since 2013, Littler has been the self-appointed “Mayor of Scarfolk“, the grim, North-Western town that has provided the setting for a cavalcade of spoof information posters, book covers and magazine advertisements; one of which (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was even mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly as part of a 100-year celebration of bona fide Goverment posters (see FT 377:8). This new publication sees him turning his genius for pastiching the clunky, washed-out design and authoritarian tones of 1970s information culture into a magnificently dark homage to the hardbacked World Distributors annuals of his childhood.
“Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2,” he continues. “Which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory. A factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me…”
This 1970s predilection for providing primary school-age children with laughably inappropriate reading material is sent up with unerring accuracy in the Scarfolk Annual. The gung-ho Commando-style comic strip ‘Waugh in War’ sees unhinged army officer Ben “War” Waugh determined to execute his own soldiers; elsewhere there are illustrated guides to identifying “Council Surveillance Agents”, and advice on “How to Survive a Nuclear Thing”, reassuringly explaining that “national security terminology typically employed to describe the stages of a nuclear threat will be replaced by pleasant, friendly words. If you hear ‘Flopsy Bunny’ you should expect catastrophic, irreversible annihilation.”
“The 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while,” laments Richard. “If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised.”
And on a lighter note, the scariest member of the troupe of Play School toys, as parodied in the grisly ‘Scar School’?
“Hamble,” he replies, instantly. “She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be a baby, but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch, or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.”
The Scarfolk Annual (“Does NOT contain the original toxic inks”) is out now, published by William Collins.
It’s been a bumper few weeks for fans of Littler’s unique brand of dystopian satire, as October also saw the release of the pilot episode of his animated series Dick & Stewart. A disturbing twelve minutes of lovingly-crafted paranoia, it uses to great effect the gentle pace and limited colour palettes of such teatime favourites as Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge to lampoon the rise of 21st century surveillance culture. Narrated – in gentle homage to 1970s voiceover king Ray Brooks – by The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barrett, it follows the adventures of innocent schoolboy Dick and the sentient eyeball Stewart; all that remains of Dick’s former best friend after a mysterious playground accident. Together, they are ensnared by a sinister “man” who encourages them to play “a special game of I-Spy… all you have to do is watch and listen to everything your Mummy and Daddy do and say, and write it all down for me.”
“I loved the cartoons you mention,” says Richard. “I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss etc. The slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. 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…”
A woozy, analogue synth soundtrack is provided by Chris Sharp, in his guise as Concretism, further consolidating the atmosphere of 1970s unsettlement, although – again – Littler is adamant that his creations are very much concerned with contemporary, 21st century issues, particularly those of control and surveillance. “We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy,” he says. “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. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast.”
And indeed, as the cartoon Dick is confined to bed, a camera emerges from his mouth, microphones from his ears, and a transmission aerial sprouts from the top of his head. The pilot episode can be found on the newly-founded Dick & Stewart Youtube channel.
Meanwhile, those seeking a more rural brand of wrongness will be delighted to hear of further developments on the Black Meadow. This bleak, secluded area of the North York Moors, in the shadow of the iconic RAF Fylingdales early warning station, has long since provided the inspiration for a multi-media exploration of dark folklore and Cold War disquiet, helmed by writer Chris Lambert and musician Kev Oyston. “For centuries the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings,” claims Chris. “The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high…”
A visit to the Black Meadow website at blackmeadowtales.blogspot.com will confirm that both Lambert and Oyston are masters at blurring the lines between genuine folk tales (both ancient and modern) and outright invention. Did folklore investigator Professor Roger Mullins, of York University, really vanish on the moor in 1972, and become the subject of a lost Radio 4 documentary? Make your own judgements: Lambert coyly describes himself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. His new book, The Black Meadow Archive, will be available in early January, and is a beautiful collection of surreal and grisly folk talks; where ‘the Blackberry Ghost’ meets ‘the Ticking Policeman’. And a new collection of similarly-titled music by Oyston – recording as The Soulless Party – will be released at the same time.
Oyston has also been busy compiling an LP of original music inspired by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s Scarred For Life book. The book, published in 2017, is an exhaustive compendium of the 1970s TV programmes that traumatised their respective childhoods, and the album invites veterans of the haunted movement to contribute music inspired by their own memories of the era; either alternate themes for existing programmes, or invented title music for fictional shows. The results are tremendous fun: The Heartwood Institute‘s ‘Women Against The Wire’ sounds like the opening to some hard-hitting BBC2 investigation into the Greenham Common peace camps; The Home Current‘s ‘Summer In Marstrand’ is pure half-term Scandinavian animation (think Moomins, but intent on evil); and Keith Seatman‘s ‘Words from the Wireless’ recreates the terror once instilled in him by the (literally) dream-like 1972 series Escape Into Night.
The album concludes on a poignant note: ‘Be Like A Child’ by Carl Matthews is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose life was cut tragically short by cancer; and all proceeds from the album are going to Cancer Research UK. It’s available now, on the Castles In Space label.
Elsewhere, it’s always a delight to welcome new material from Jon Brooks; often to be found recording for Ghost Box Records in his guise as The Advisory Circle, but new album Emotional Freedom Techniques is freshly available to download on his own Cafe Kaput label. A beautifully soothing and meditative collection of ambient electronica, it both evokes and creates a perfect sense of stillness and stasis. It’s available from cafekaput.bandcamp.com. I can also recommend Hattie Cooke‘s albumThe Sleepers, an evocative synth-heavy concept album detailing the consequences of a mysterious, worldwide sleeping sickness; and the self-titled debut album by The Central Office of Information, a beautifully-packed collection of entrancing melodic radiophonica and ambient disquiet, all produced by Kent-based artist Alex Cargill.
And what better way to round off the year than with a brace of releases from… well, A Year In The Country? Stephen Prince’s ongoing quest to explore the shimmering connections between folk music, electronica and a sense of lost pastoralism has borne fruit in the shape of a new book, Straying from the Pathways, a typically comprehensive collection of essays on some of the movement’s more esoteric influences, from Detectorists to Edge of Darkness. And a charming new album, The Quietened Journey, invites contributors including The Heartwood Institute and Howlround to create music inspired by memories of abandoned railway lines, stations and roads. Anyone looking for a dose of bucolic calm amidst the frenzy of the festive season would be well advised to use it as the soundtrack for an icy ramble amongst their favourite overgrown sidings.
For our parents, the TV and film Western was frequently an uncomplicated affair: chisel-jawed, straightforward hero figures – say John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott – rode purposefully into ramshackle frontier towns, tastefully dispatched any resident black-shirted baddies, scooped Maureen O’Hara into their arms, and rode wistfully back into the sunset.
For us children of the 1970s however, life became – inevitably – more complex. The “revisionist Western” films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, shown as late-night illicit TV treats throughout the decade, brought bloody reality and a slew of morally ambiguous lead characters to the genre. Later films, notably Clint Eastwood’s existential brace of High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, even introduced tantalising glimpses of the supernatural.
These latter developments have undoubtedly influenced Rupert Lally’s atmospheric new album, The Prospect, available now from Spun Out Of Control. A soundtrack to his own short story, it uses ambient synths and subtle, analogue instrumentation to depict the surreal aftermath of a bungled stagecoach robbery in the snowy, 19th century Canadian Rockies. Gang leader Jack Delaney, seriously wounded, finds himself in the remote mining town of Prospect, where a grieving widow mistakenly greets him as her miraculously returned husband… before her fellow villagers are revealed, rather alarmingly, to be no strangers to the practice of blood sacrifice.
There is, of course, a twist…
I asked Rupert about the influences behind both the story and music, and about his background as a musician. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of The Prospect. Had you written the story first, and decided it lent itself to a soundtrack, or did the story and music always go hand-in-hand?
Rupert: It was a story first. I’d had the basic story for a while… I’m a great hoarder of story ideas and quite often I’ll keep coming back to the good ones, trying to find a way of using them. The most extreme example of this is the novel I’m writing at the moment, based on an idea I came up with as a twelve or thirteen-year-old. Of course, over time, the story evolves. You forget some of the details of the original idea and add new ones. The story I’m telling in the novel has the basic idea and structure that I came up with all those years ago, but the details and the characters aren’t the sort of thing that the twelve-year-old me would have created.
The Prospect is a little bit like that. I came up with the first part, the robbery going wrong in a town on the edge of nowhere, as a teenager. But that was it. Later on, perhaps inspired by The Return Of Martin Guerre, I came up with the idea of Jack Delaney being mistaken for the dead man, and then – when I was thinking about the album – I decided to add the more disturbing elements of cannibalism and sacrifice. Up until then it had still essentially been a Western.
Knowing that Gavin from Spun Out Of Control was aiming for a December release, I thought pushing it in a slightly more gothic direction would be good. I wrote a first draft, which I then ended up altering slightly as the music progressed. The ending in particular got changed a couple of times… there was one version where Jack becomes a Wendingo-like creature and returns to destroy the town, though it was left ambiguous as to whether that was real, or simply in Jack’s head. Another version had the marshals arriving in Prospect looking for signs of Jack and spotting some of his belongings, only to be surrounded by the murderous townsfolk. In the end, I settled on the ending I used, because it seemed to make the most sense from both a narrative and scoring perspective.
Does that period of history, and the whole idea of frontier prospecting, hold a fascination for you?
It does. It’s one of those time periods that captivate me personally, in much the same way as the Bronze Age, or the Victorian London of Sherlock Homes and Jack The Ripper. Of course, I‘m fully aware that my image of life back then is a complete romantic fantasy that probably bears no relation to how hard and harsh the reality was.
More generally speaking, the vastness of North America is something that has fascinated me ever since I was a child, and one can only imagine how endless the land must have seemed to those travelling across it in those days, looking for a new life. It clearly appeals to certain isolationist tendencies in me, even though I know I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes back then. I’m far too much of a soft city boy…
Did you do any research into the history of Canadian prospecting and mining towns?
Not really. In fact, I’m deliberately vague about the story’s setting for good reason… because I didn’t want to have to do too much research! I did double check the banks and money transfers that are mentioned in the story, though, as I didn’t want to write anything that was completely wrong for the period.
Were there any particular films or books that you had in mind when you were making the album?
Movies were definitely an inspiration. The opening line, “The Canadian Rockies, Winter, 1882” is a direct homage to the opening title card from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Which was clearly an influence on the music, too.
In terms of Westerns, I‘d recently re-watched both Dead Man and McCabe and Mrs Miller for my film blog so they certainly had an influence, particularly the snowy atmosphere at the end of McCabe. Other influences were the Clint Eastwood films, High Plains Drifterand Pale Rider, the latter having a very cold and snowy setting. Another film which I haven’t seen in years, but which definitely had an influence on both the story and the music, was Antonia Bird’s frontier cannibal horror, Ravenous.
You live in Switzerland these days… did the country’s mountainous landscape have any influence on the genesis of The Prospect?
Funnily enough, yes. About fifteen years ago, when I first thought about incorporating the idea of Jack being mistaken for someone else. My wife and I were the Best Man and Maid of Honour at a friend’s wedding, in a little village quite high up in the hills. There was just the church and a few houses, surrounded by a rocky valley and a river. That was probably the initial template for the town of Prospect, though obviously it’s changed a little in the story. More generally, it’s just that sense of being incredibly small in relation to nature… that idea of being dwarfed in terms of scale. It’s something that stays with you. Also we have fairly regular snowfalls out here, so I certainly have a bit of personal experience of trudging through thick snow. And what real cold feels like…
And how did you try to use the music to reflect and encapsulate the story’s location and events? How did you go about that… were any particular sounds that particularly lent themselves to telling the story of Jack Delaney?
Well, it was clear from the beginning, as this was something deliberately created for Spun Out Of Control, that it would have a lot of electronic elements. I pitched it to Gavin as the imaginary score to a film that’s a cross between High Plains Drifter and The Wicker Man, as if scored by John Carpenter and The Haxan Cloak. I’d recently heard the score that Bobby Krlic – aka The Haxan Cloak – did for Midsommar, and thought that blend of electronics and weird acoustic sources might be right for this.
Equally, I thought combining that with the more overt electronics and insistent rhythms that Carpenter is famous for would be interesting. I started creating sounds that felt cold, or haunting to me. There’s one Boards Of Canada-style synth sound that’s prominent throughout the whole album. It features on the first track, Edge Of The Union, which was one of the first sounds I created for this, with my Roland ProMars plug-in. It’s got delay and an LFO modulating the pitch, so it’s constantly going slightly out-of-tune, as if it’s being carried on the wind, or the cold is affecting it.
I created a lot of sounds using Straylight, a granular synthesis plugin from Native Instruments, as well. Building patches built out of wind noises or voices… things that suggested cold or wind to me, yet could still be played like a musical instrument. There are also violins playing harmonics, or at the very top of their range, which has a very brittle, cold sound to my ears. Finally there’s that bass thump sound, pure Carpenter, which came from my Roland D-50. To me that was the sound of Jack… that thing inside him pushing him onwards, keeping him “on edge”.
Where did the character of Jack come from? Go on… who would play him in a film?
Perhaps it’s a failing of mine as a writer, but I never think of characters first. It’s always the story that comes first and then the characters are there to populate it. I’m constantly worried, when I write, that they might simply come cross as plot devices. But in my head, Jack looks a bit like Charlie Hunnam, or perhaps a young Robert Redford. Blond hair, scraggy beard. Like those soldiers you see in photos from the Civil War: boys who have had to become men before their time, but with the charisma that some people have that naturally makes them a leader.
Of course, the brothers are named Jack and Bobby after the Kennedys… but it was equally a case of wanting names that sounded right for the period. In the first draft, I had names and backstories for each of the Delaney gang, but I jettisoned them when I realized that it wasn’t necessary for the reader to know them – they’re dead and gone before the story really starts. Unsurprisingly, as the robbery is the oldest part of the story, that’s the part that’s the most clear to me, visually. I could almost storyboard it, frame by frame.
Your previous album consisted of music inspired by Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune. Can you sum up what the book has meant to you over the years? Are you a fan of the David Lynch film version, too?
You know what? That book was one of several I started as a teenager but never finished, and that I’ve recently made an effort to re-read and complete. The Lynch film I have great affection for. For the digital release of Dune, I wrote some sleevenotes, mentioning that my first encounter with the film was the toy figures of Paul Atreides and Feyd Rautha. Even now, when I read the book, I see the faces of those actors as the characters and – despite how much it’s hated by some fans of novel – the film is really quite faithful to most of the book.
Yes, definitely! They’re all authors that have meant a lot to me at one time or another. Ballard was a huge influence on me as a writer too, when I wrote my own sci-fi novella in 2018 – Solid State Memories – and created a soundtrack for it. Ballard and Philip K. Dick are clear influences on the story and its “twenty minutes into the future” setting. There are also characters named Ballard, Herbert, Matheson and Burgess.
William Golding too was hugely influential to me. Along with Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess, he was one of those gateway authors that transitioned me from reading genre fiction and movie novelisations to more “literary” work. Also, Greene and Golding both had those wonderful pen and watercolour drawings by Paul Hogarth on their covers in the 1980s. I’m consciously paying homage to those in the cover art for all the soundtracks to books on my Bandcamp page.
So when you read books, do you actually start imagining soundtracks to them?
Not unless I’m planning to score them. But I’m someone who imagines the entire visual world when I read a book; I could tell you what the characters look like, what they’re wearing, and the colour of the wallpaper. So for me, when I score a book, it’s like scoring a film or a TV programme in my head. The images make me think of the music that would work alongside them. Perhaps because of my background as a composer and sound designer for theatre and TV, I find it much easier to create music around a concept or a story. There’s no question of what the music needs to do next, or where it needs to go emotionally… the story tells you all that. As a composer you just need to respond to it.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background as a musician, and your theatre and TV work?
I started playing in bands as a teenager. I was – and still am – a pretty good drummer… and a so-so guitarist, turned half-decent bass player. I also got interested in sound engineering around the same time, and I worked a little in a few studios. Bizarrely, it took me until my last year at University, doing a technical theatre module as part of my degree, to see that there was a way of combining that music and sound engineering with my interest in theatre and film. I did a Masters Degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama and began a career as a composer and sound designer. I worked on numerous theatre shows in London, as well as the theme music for shows like ITV At the Movies. More recently, my music‘s been used in the filmThe Great White Silence, and in the iOS gameRebuild 3.
What made you decide to start composing and releasing your music as a solo artist?
My first release back in 2004, The Noisy Image, was to promote a production company that I’d started with my wife and a friend, and my first proper solo release under my own name was because I wanted an outlet for the more experimental stuff that I was interested in doing, stuff that had no place in my commercial work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much call for me to sound like Squarepusher or Four Tet with the clients I was working for.
What started as an extracurricular outlet eventually became my main focus, especially once my kids were born. Sometimes having my own project was what kept me going, creatively.
The Prospect also has one of my favourite album covers of 2019! Can you describe your feelings when you first saw it?
I loved it! I adore Eric Adrian Lee’s work and I won’t lie – his beautiful work was one of the reasons why I wanted to release stuff on Spun Out Of Control. The visual side of music is incredibly important to me. I do all the design for my Bandcamp releases, and I’ve done all the illustrations on my Bibliotapes releases. It’s the thing that links all the labels that I love, from ECM and Rune Grammofon, to Warp and Ghost Box, or Clay Pipe, Polytechnic Youth and Spun Out Of Control. They all have a really strong visual style. I was really curious to see what Eric would come up with for the story, because it’s a little different from the 1980s horror or Giallo vibe that some of their releases have had. But he’s such a genius that he came through in spades, and I think it gets across the vibe of the story perfectly.
Thanks to Rupert for his time, and The Prospect – including a limited-edition cassette run – is available here. And you can read the full storyline, too…
In August 2019, I spent an hilarious and fascinating afternoon with Christopher Maynard, writer of the classic 1977 book Mysteries of the Unknown: Ghosts, reissued by Usborne Publishing in October this year. It became a feature entitled “Where Ghosts Gather” in issue 385 of the Fortean Times, dated November 2019. The full article is now here…
WHERE GHOSTS GATHER
In 1977, Usborne published World of the Unknown: Ghosts, the children’s book that inspired a generation of junior Forteans. Four decades on, following a concerted fan campaign, the book is back in print… and the perpetually haunted Bob Fischer tracked down its pleasantly surprised writer, Christopher Maynard.
The man responsible for some of my more potent childhood nightmares is sitting opposite me at a picnic table in Old Spitalfields Market, basking in the syrupy East London sunshine of a late summers afternoon and – quite frankly – he’s at it again.
“There was an animal called the Behinder,” says Chris Maynard, in the mellifluous Montreal accent that has lost none of its delicious resonance since he left his native Canada for post-swinging London in the early 1970s. “You can tell when you’re being followed by a Behinder, because the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, and stand up. And the way to check that you’re being followed by a Behinder… when that happens, whip around really fast. If there’s nothing there, but you’ve still got that feeling, you know you’re being followed…”
Good grief, Chris. What do they look like?
“You can feel them, sense them, almost taste the fear they engender, but see them? Never! I’ve heard tell that you would drop dead if you ever saw one face to face. Though I take that with a pinch of salt…”
Forty years on, the architect of my 1970s night terrors is proving to be brilliant, engaging, and very funny company.
In 1977, Chris poured this fascination with the ghost stories of his Canadian childhood – told in hushed tones around the crackling fires of woodland summer camps – into a book that became a ubiquitous, and thrilling, mainstay of every British school library for years to follow. Ghosts was one of the earliest successes of the nascent Usborne Publishing house, one third of a trio of books issued under the umbrella title The World of the Unknown… the others being, inevitably, Monsters and UFOs. Its 32 pages are packed with tales of ancient hauntings, outlandish folklore and indispensable practical advice for primary school-age children with a healthy curiosity about what lies beyond the veil. Lovingly and vividly illustrated, it strikes a perfect balance between comic-book dynamism and factual reportage, all seemingly custom-designed to fire the imaginations of a generation of youngsters whose formative years had already been delightfully tainted by an upsurge of interest in all things supernatural. This, remember, was the decade of Rentaghost; of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films; of Horror Top Trumps and Shiver and Shake comics.
“Peter Usborne, the owner of the company, would be sitting in the bath,” laughs Chris, “and he would think ‘Let’s do something on dinosaurs. Fossils and dinosaurs… and then we’ll do something on the Ice Age and we’ll bundle it up.’ And somewhere along the way, the idea of folklore came up… which is why Ghosts was bundled with Monsters, which was bundled with UFOs. He would have just come in and tossed it onto the pile, and the editorial teams would have picked it up and said ‘Yeah, we’ll take that one.’ And that was it, that was the brief.”
So was it something that Chris actually pitched to write?
“I really can’t remember! Most likely what happened was that somebody would have come in and said, ‘Chris, these are the books we’re thinking of doing over the next year, which ones do you fancy running with?’ And I’d say ‘Yeah, I’ll do the Ghosts one… that’ll be a lot more fun.’ It just struck me as something that I could have a shot at. It struck a funny bone.”
“UFOs,” he confides, bashfully, “are not my cup of tea…”
I was around seven years old when I first discovered the book, nestling in a shadowy corner of Levendale Primary School’s modest library, somewhere between Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, a well-thumbed haul of Target’s Doctor Who novelisations, and a dusty, shamefully-neglected collection of the Children’s Brittanica. I can still remember the head-freezing pall of terror that enveloped me upon my first glimpse of a randomly-opened page; the collection of “Mystery Photographs” that swam back and forth through my nightmares for months to follow. There was the glowing, spectral figure of a woman in a flowing, formal gown, descending the stairs of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, captured on camera in 1936. There was the grinning driver of a 1950s Hillman Minx, entirely oblivious to the spirit of his recently-deceased mother-in-law, sitting expectantly on the back seat behind him. And – most chilling of all – there was the translucent figure of a spectral monk beside an elaborate altar, “taken in the early 1960s by the vicar of a church in England.” The hollow eyes of this latter apparition, two ragged holes cut into a white death shroud, seemed to bore into the very fibres of my being. I was convinced that my inadvertent eye contact with this terrifying spirit had, effectively, alerted the agents of the paranormal to my existence, and that a parade of malevolent ghosts, spectres and poltergeists, headed up by the towering, black-robed monk himself, would be gliding silently up the stairs to claim me in my sleep that very evening. As Chris’ text solemnly declares: “All three of these pictures are considered by experts to be genuine.”
If the experts were convinced, then so was I.
And yet this proto-panic attack inexplicably failed to deter me from investigating the rest of the book, and being somehow both terrified and intrigued by the stories within. I discovered “Tom Colley’s Ghost”, the spirit of the 19th century mob-leader, whose restless spirit was shackled to the rotting remains of his gibbeted body. In Tring. I winced at the fate of the phantoms of the Battle of Shiloh, grimly and ceaselessly re-enacting this brutal 1862 conflict of the American Civil War. I read wide-eyed about the Arabian “Afrit” ghost, whose rising could only be prevented by the driving of a fresh nail into the bloodstain of its associated murder victim; and of “Black Shuck”, the demon dog that haunted “lonely country roads, graveyards and old gallows sites”, distinguished by its “single cyclops-eye, as large as a saucer, in the centre of its forehead.”
And, obviously, I vowed never to set foot in “The Village With A Dozen Ghosts”: namely Pluckley, whose assorted spooks are vividly described beneath photographs of their respective haunts, all laid out on a detailed road map of this sleepy Kent idyll. Keen to hook up with the “White Lady of Dering”? Head for the burnt-out husk of Surrenden Dering manor, where she still glides silently through what remains of the library. From there, it’s a short walk to the Church of Saint Nicholas, where the 12th century “Red Lady” – “buried in a sumptuous gown with a red rose in her hands” – stalks the graveyard. Cross over Dicky Buss’s Lane to find “the hanging body of the schoolmaster”, a victim of suicide in the aftermath of World War I, whose phantom corpse, suspended from a laurel tree, “is said to be visible to this day, swinging in the breeze.” And then, on your way back to the railway station, pay your regards to “the ghost of the screaming man”, a brickworks employee “smothered to death when a wall of clay fell on him”, whose spirit still “screams in the same way as he did when he died.”
The book is an extraordinary feat of research, and I was intrigued to note that folklorist Eric Maple had been credited as “Special Consultant”. Maple, born in 1916 in Essex, was the son of a spiritualist medium and a voracious collector of folk and occult tales; his magnificently-titled works The Dark World of Witches, The Realm of Ghosts and The Domain of Devils forming a quintessentially 1960s triumvirate of books, published – entirely appropriately – by Pan.
“When I started doing research in libraries,” remembers Chris, “I realised that Eric Maple had a long pedigree. We tracked him down, and got in touch with him, and he’d been researching and writing folklore books for years. We wanted him as an advisor, as much to help me wade through this mountain of stuff that was out there. I was working through public libraries at the time, and he would have steered me towards newspaper libraries as well.”
The still-extant Society For Psychical Research is credited too, along with its one-time rival, the sadly defunct National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Chris has fond memories of making contact with a community of paranormal enthusiasts and societies that were arguably enjoying their heyday, in a 1970s Britain whose fascination with the otherworldly frequently crossed over into the mainstream media.
“They were these wonderful, eccentric little corners that we only discovered as we were working,” he smiles. “And they all had cuttings libraries – they’d been amassing folklore for years. And they would have regular symposia for people around the country… for all I know, people around the world. I never figured out the depth of all this. So they would be a real source of stuff that might not be in the broader public domain. That was really helpful, and Eric was particularly good at steering us to those kinds of places, and winkling out little bits and pieces.”
The double-page spread on Pluckley, however, was the result of an expedition made by Chris and Usborne art director David Jefferies, a day of bona fide ghost-hunting that makes him especially proud. “I like the fact that we did Pluckley,” he beams. “We went and did the research in the field. It was great, really delicious. [We had] the demented idea that we had to overlay it onto a map, so that was the one occasion when we actually took ourselves out and spent a day wandering around… and to my way of thinking at the time, it was a particularly successful page. This was important…” (We have a copy of the book on the table, open at the Pluckley double spread, and Chris is pointing proudly at one particular illustration.) “The compass! We wanted you to be able to orientate yourself, and made it a map where you could actually locate these various objects…”
But did any unsuspecting members of the Pluckley public not wonder why two strange men were wandering around their village all afternoon, taking photographs?
“I suspect,” laughs Chris, “if they had seen us, they would have thought we were estate agents! Or someone from the council. Why else would you be taking pictures of houses, and measuring up?”
Reading Ghosts as an adult, it’s clear that my seven-year-old self overreacted somewhat; certainly with regard to a curious period of 1980, when I became convinced that the White Lady of Dering had forsaken Pluckley for the wardrobe in our spare room. Although the stories and illustrations presented within are as chilling as I remember, the book frequently adopts a laudable stance of objective distance, and is filled with reminders for young readers to form their own judgements. “Ghosts are supposed to be the appearances of the spirits of the dead in a form visible to the living,” reads Chris’ introduction. “Whether they really do exist is still a complete mystery, but perhaps this book will help you to make up your mind.”
Elsewhere, there are accounts of “ghost stories” subsequently explained away as the results of flooded sewers and amplified alarm clocks, and – my favourite – the 200 metre-tall “Spectres of the Brocken” on the summit of a German mountain, which transpired to be the shadows of climbers, cast onto banks of cloud by a gently setting sun. The unambiguously-titled section “Sense or Nonsense”? even includes a bar chart displaying the results of an 1890 survey of 17,000 people; a mere 1,684 of whom claimed to have had a supernatural experience. Was all of this, I bravely ask, something of a Fortean approach?
“We adopted that,” nods Chris. “We stood back… we were the scientists. We were the researchers. And we just brought to the table the things that needed to be told and explained. We would have done exactly the same if we’d done a book about aeroplanes: we would have talked not as a manufacturer, not as a passenger, but purely in a factual way with that deadpan style… in fact, deadpan is precisely what it was! And my own feeling now, reflecting on what yourself and what other people have been saying, talking about your memories… I’ve come to realise the extent to which that approach made it possible for youngsters to engage with the material. Not because it was a rip-roaring story – they got their rip-roaring stories from somewhere else! – but because this was just factual, and their own imaginations could then pick that up and run with it and go… what if that’s real? Did I actually see that? What did my sister tell me that time? And that’s where, suddenly, the fascination comes in.”
Given this approach, is Chris slightly disconcerted that the book proved so terrifying to at least one unsuspecting seven-year-old?
“‘Thrilling’ works better for me than ‘terrifying’!” he laughs. “I would probably have been mildly shocked if someone said ‘You know… you’re going to scare the Bejesus out of kids.’ I wanted the kids to take something away, and feel that they owned a bit of knowledge, and had an insight into something about the world, an insight that may return fuller and more complete. They could sit down at the dinner table with their parents and expound… display what they had learned, talk about it, ask questions, ask their grandparents, run with it… that kind of thing. Start a conversation that would build upon this little pool, this little island of knowing that they had extracted.”
Since its publication, Ghosts has become a totemic symbol of the “haunted” childhood. The day after our meeting, I tweeted a photo of Chris holding up a rare, pristine copy of the original edition (a book I had to borrow from Usborne’s offices on the way to meet him; they’ve become an incredibly scarce collector’s item), and awaited the reaction. By the end of the day, 411 likes and 75 retweets later, I had been overwhelmed by a cavalcade of Proustian nostalgia from fellow children of the 1970s. “To the mid-forties set, he’s like our fourth dad – the other three being your actual dad (or stepfather or guardian), your favourite male teacher, and of course, Geoffrey from Rainbow,” tweeted writer and podcaster Paul Childs. “Chris Maynard is responsible for the person I am now!” added author and paranormal investigator Robert Johns, whereas fellow supernatural enthusiast Justin Cowell was merely full of gratitude. “I sincerely hope you thanked Chris for scaring generations of children,” he tweeted. “Some of whom were inspired enough to never stop being fascinated by this intriguing, delicious subject!”
Meanwhile, the most astute observation came from the shadowy mastermind behind the Things That Go Bump Youtube channel: “I bet Mr Maynard has no idea how many people consider him a hero and an inspiration…”
“No idea,” confirms Chris. “I’m over the moon. I mean, we all dreamed that what we were doing was important. We told ourselves that. We’d sit in the pub after work, and we’d say ‘you know… we’re knocking these books out, and yeah… we’re making life better. We’re giving kids tons of things to read.’ But we never could measure it. There were no ‘likes’, there was no internet, there was no social media, no real awareness.”
Ghosts was only one of “about 80” non-fiction books that Chris wrote in a twenty-year period from the mid 1970s onwards, and was published at a time that he now considers to be a halcyon era for the industry (“It was like producing music at the time of the Beatles and the Stones…” he tells me, “To be there, at that time… the golden age…”). And his level-headed but engaging approach to this most otherworldly of subjects clearly inspired a generation of budding Forteans, whose fascination with the likes of “Gef, the Talking Mongoose” (whose clawed paws I was convinced would one day poke through the cracks in my own bedroom ceiling, as the book’s alarming illustration suggested) has come to shape our adult pastimes and professions.
The 2019 reissue campaign began, curiously, in Finland, where – back in the 1970s – the book had been licensed to publishers Tammi, and published under the title Noidan Käsikirja. A Facebook group formed by Finnish fans gained almost 3,000 members, and led to an August 2018 reprint that sold out within a week; with the country’s latest sales figures now surpassing 18,000. Meanwhile, back in Britain, film director Ashley Thorpe and his Nucleus Films team contacted Usborne to request an interview with Chris; citing the book as a major influence on their forthcoming animated feature Borley Rectory, due for release this October. They found themselves in touch with Usborne marketing director Anna Howorth, herself a fan of the book, who was inspired enough to set up an online petition, hoping to convince the publishers that a UK reissue was a viable proposition. 1,000 signatories later, and with a promise in the bag from League of Gentlemen,Inside No. 9, and – indeed – Borley Rectory star Reece Shearsmith to write a new foreword, the deal was sealed.
“Again, amazement and thrill!” grins Chris, when I ask for his reaction, and he gushes with enthusiasm as I press him on the subject of the film. Although the infamously spook-plagued rectory itself is never mentioned by name in the book (there were, apparently, potential legal issues at the time), it clearly provided the inspiration for the “Haunted House” double page spread, detailing the trademark signs of a textbook ghost infestation (“an old skull screams whenever it is moved from the house”; “a bloodstain on the floor cannot be removed”), and Chris has been a willing participant in the film’s bonus features, with director Ashley Thorpe making a distinct impression on him. “A lovely guy from Exeter…” muses Chris, “who had in his school library a copy of the book that he took out regularly, and it lasted and stayed with him. He crowdfunded the various stages of the film, and part of the story that he told was his joy at taking a book that inspired him, and finally realising it in this wonderful animated film. And what he hadn’t expected was people then to say ‘Oh, I remember that book!'”
“We’ve broken down the walls of resistance to blowing off the dust from books that are twenty years out of date, and reissuing them like this. We’ve never had a revolt from below…”
Chris retired from full-time writing in the late 1990s, but is still clearly fizzing with energy and inspiration. In the two hours that we spend together, surrounded by the effervescent hubbub of the market stalls, he brims with ideas, anecdotes, thoughts and opinions: they tumble out of him, joyously, in a ceaselessly entertaining flood. “Two hundred years from now, people will be doing books like this about the ghosts of Old Spitalfields Market, and you and I will be sitting here,” he grins. “We are the hauntings of the future…”
As we part, and I begin the slow amble back to Liverpool Street station to return the original Ghosts book to Usborne’s bustling Farringdon offices, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I whip around fast, but there is – of course – nothing there.
But thanks to Chris, I’ve still got the feeling.
The reissued edition of The World of the Unknown: Ghosts is available now from Usborne Publishing…
Christmas morning! Without exception, the most exciting morning of the year. A head-spinning rush of excitable sleeplessness (In 1981, I stayed awake constantly from Christmas Eve morning until the early hours of Boxing Day – with a table football from Romer Parrish’s toyshop in the offing, sleep was impossible), giddy anticipation at the delights to come, and a wild, morning sugar rush on the only day of the year when it becomes socially acceptable to eat a Toblerone before 9am.
When I raced downstairs at six or (if my parents were lucky) seven o’clock, I would be greeted with a pile of brightly-wrapped presents stacked carefully below the branches of our silver Woolworths tree, its fragile plastic twigs groaning wearily beneath the weight of the entire Teesside tinsel reserve. After a few delaying tactic formalities (pot of tea, coal fire lit, curtains open to reveal drizzly twilight, local radio switched on because TV programmes didn’t start for another hour and a half), I would be allowed to “sort out” the presents into piles; individual stacks of oddly-shaped gifts for my Mum, my Dad, my Gran, my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose… and then a dizzily exciting mound of goodies for me, inevitably the largest of the lot. I was lucky, and I was spoiled, and with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, I can’t thank my parents enough for that. God knows, they must have worked themselves into the ground for our Christmases.
During this giddy sifting, it was – of course – essential to attempt to guess the nature of each present before the wrapping came off. And the easiest to identify by far were the annuals. A4, hardbacked, reassuringly solid… there’s something about the very distinct weight of them that still transports me back to childhood Christmases, whenever I lift one from the self in 2019. There would be Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee annuals, of course, but – as I grew older – also Doctor Who and Blue Peter, publications that combined the “Cor!” rush of fun comic strips with worthy, educational features and stories, and often rather disconcerting illustrations. They never could get Tom Baker quite right.
These publications have all provided the inspiration for the new Scarfolk annual, a devastatingly dark and unerringly accurate pastiche of the genre. Writer and artist Richard Littler, the genial self-proclaimed mayor of this fictional, dystopian, 1970s North-Western town, joined me to share some memories of his favourite childhood annuals, and to discuss the influences on his own rather wonderful book…
Bob: Congratulations on the Scarfolk annual… has it been a long time in the planning? When did you start thinking about this, and compiling material?
Richard: Thank you! I had the idea shortly after the release of the last book, but it took a while to collate the ideas for content because I was working on other projects. I was also still regularly creating Scarfolk blog posts, but an annual requires different content, so I decided to take a break from the blog in order to focus on this new Scarfolk direction. Throw a move to another country – and a few other issues – into the mix and suddenly a couple of years have zipped by.
It’s a brilliant homage to the annuals of our youth, always seemingly published by the mysterious World Distributors. Can you recall particular 1970s annuals that left a distinct impression on you as a kid? Any particular features, stories or comic strips you’d like to share?
When I was very small, I was fond of Playhour and Disney annuals. I suffered from night terrors, and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse. When I was a little older, my favourites were the 1968 TV Tornado annual, which contained strips of The Saint, Tarzan, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and others. Print technology changed a lot in the early 1970s, so it felt ancient with its rough paper and gaudy colours when I bought it from a school jumble sale, circa 1977. Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2, which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory, in a factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me.
I remember finding a certain ‘wrongness’ to 1970s annuals, too… the Doctor Who annuals, for examples, often had illustrations that bore little resemblance to the actors in the series, and there would be educational articles too, unconnected to the show. Was that feeling something you remember, and kept in mind when working on the Scarfolk annual?
Yes, I recall that well. Buffering the true, series-based content, there were many pages in annuals only vaguely connected by theme, especially factual or puzzle content. The 1976 Doctor Who Annual, for example, contains a feature about the signs of the zodiac, and the 1978 annual has an educational piece about the Apollo mission crew emblems. They were quite lazy, really: anything to do with time or space went in. “Doctor Who is about time, and they called him grandfather, so let’s do a chapter about workmen who clean grandfather clocks”. I parodied the loose space theme in the Scarfolk Annual, as well as other nebulous fact pages… such as the page about the origin of “things”.
The strip artists also frequently used existing source material in their work. In the 1976 Doctor Who annual strip called “Neuronic Nightmare”, the character Skizos is actually a sight rejigging of Vincent Price from the film Madhouse (1974). In the story “The Mission”, the character called Tamrik is a reworked image of Charlton Heston. In honour of that kind of thing, there’s an illustration in the Scarfolk Annual that I based on an image from the 1922 Scandinavian horror film Häxan.
The annual itself is bitingly political in places – which I know has always been a part of Scarfolk, but have recent political events made Scarfolk seem closer to 21st century reality than it’s ever been? “Foreigner Identification Badges” actually seem terrifyingly plausible, as do government statements dissuading people from protesting…
I think it might be the other way around to some extent: the 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while. If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised. That said, Scarfolk isn’t a fixed artefact like a novel. Because it’s a blog, there is some leeway and it can more easily “interact” with the latest political and cultural developments as they occur.
Has that come as a sad surprise to you over the last few years? You launched Scarfolk in 2013, which now seems like a relatively stable era in hindsight… did you have any inkling back then, that Scarfolk would become so relevant to modern life?
I didn’t at all expect that it would become so relevant to modern life. Looking back, it was an almost an innocent time. Back in comparatively utopian 2013, Scarfolk’s dystopian aspects were quaintly surreal. Since 2016 particularly, real-world developments have become absurd and tribal, Trump being a perfect personification of this. A real step back. Every time I see or hear Trump I can almost feel the human race regressing.
I loved the comic strip “Waugh in the War”, with the insane, titular “hero” determined to kill everyone… including his own soldiers. I actually remember being a little unsure as a very small kid was to whether World War 2 was still being fought in the 1970s, because it still just seemed to be everywhere. Were we still fighting it in our heads, do you think?
The 1970s were only 30 years from the war, very much within living memory of two, maybe even three generations, so it was bound to feature prominently in culture as we tried, as a society, to define what it all meant. Children’s books were full of simple tales of war-time heroism and “beating the Jerries”… as featured in comics such as Commando, Warlord and Battle, not to mention the innumerable films. Sadly, I think a lot of people still hold onto this idea of the war, which almost defines “Britishness” for them. We even hear it in mainstream political discourse. It’s facile.
Ilaughed a lot at the feature about “IFOs” as well – “Identified Flying Objects” – which gives supernatural significance to ducks and aeroplanes. And the “Seance Poodle”, too! Do you remember the 1970s as an era when the paranormal became an unlikely element of mainstream society? Not just in the media, with reports of ghosts on Nationwide and the like, but also everyday life… universities were still conducting “psychic research”, and I suspect belief in things like the Loch Ness Monster would have been pretty widespread. It was a pretty credulous era.
The supernatural was very much presented as scientific, rather than pseudoscientific, in the 1970s. As you say, university departments had psychic laboratories and parapsychology departments. It was all taken very seriously; it wasn’t joked about, and TV presenters didn’t make light of it at all. In fact, the same broadcasters also presented the news and other factual programmes. Books about UFOs, ghosts, Nessie, spontaneous human combustion and ESP were always in the non-fiction section rather than being in the “religion, spirituality, and new age” type category, which is where I tend to see them now.
Also, I don’t know what it was like anywhere else in Britain, but in the north where I’m from, people still went to spiritualist churches and visited mediums. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. Despite the modernist and brutalist architecture springing up around them, and the dreams of utopian, technological futures, interest in the supernatural was very much present – in fact, it accelerated. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a reaction to the concrete, glass and steel (and increasingly godless) progress that alienated some people.
Is that credulity part of what makes the era so ripe for satire? An era when people believed information provided by the mainstream media, and the government, in a way that they maybe don’t in 2019…
A few years ago, I would have said yes, the 1970s was a ripe era for satire – and it was – but seeing what has occurred in the past handful of years, I would say that gullibility is still a huge concern. Many people have been deftly manipulated into believing untrue, flagrant absurdities. Arguably, it’s worse now: At least in the past, people had the excuse of “innocent” ignorance, in that there was less access to information and knowledge. Nowadays, information is at everyone’s fingertips and, arguably, it doesn’t take too long to discern whether or not a piece of information is factual, manipulated or fabricated. More than ever we can see confirmation bias at work and this is frequently exploited by controlling agencies such as governments, corporations and media sources (and often so-called ‘alternative’ media sources).
On a lighter note, with “Scar School” in mind… which of the Play School toys did you find the most unsettling, and why?
It has to be Hamble. She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be baby but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She’s to be avoided at all costs.
I also love your ear for little phrases that remind me of feeling scared at school. Reading the annual was the first time in 35 years that I’d come across the phrase “Middle C of the piano”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I felt like I was supposed to know, and that scared me. Any other phrases like that that haunt you?
There are so many, and I try wherever possible to include words and phrases that aren’t in use as much as they once were. Even something simple like “Hallo” or “hullo”, instead of “hello”, which I remember from reading Enid Blyton books as a kid. The phrase that unsettled me the most – “for more information…” – I adapted into Scarfolk’s slogan: “For More Information Please Re-read”. I panicked whenever I read official documents, whether at school or elsewhere. And if you reached that kind of phrase at the end of forms, and still didn’t understand, you were in trouble. Too frightened to ask for fear of looking stupid, or risk a clip round the earhole from a proudly abusive teacher, you’d just smile and pretend that you got it.
This is complete nosey parkery on my part, but a recurring theme in Scarfolk is the breakdown of trust (or the attempt to drive a wedge) between children and their parents. The annual even has a feature called “Are You Parents Hurting You?”! Dare I ask… what’s your relationship with your own parents like, are you exorcising anything here?
Ha! My relationship with my parents is fine. Honestly (honestly!). Writing from the point-of-view of Scarfolk Council is really only like an actor playing an unsavoury character. “Method” blogging, if you will.
One central concept of the annual is about indoctrinating children – or anyone, I suppose – so I studied the brainwashing and coercive techniques of cults. One method is to break down the trust between a prospective cult member/victim and their closest family members and friends with the ultimate goal of pressuring the victim into cutting all ties so that they are under the full control of the cult. Once a cult has broken down the victim’s connection to the outside world, it starts eroding their concept of themselves as individuals. So, you know, I thought that would be a good idea for the basis of a children’s book. As you do.
Any future plans for Scarfolk that you could share with us? Could the annual become an, erm, annual occurrence?
It could only be an “annual annual” if I involved other artists and contributors, because of publisher and printer deadlines. The turnaround would be too tight for me on my own. Involving others was originally the plan for this book, but when I realised how much it might cost to commission so many contributors, I took on the onerous task of doing everything myself. I’m so cheap. I ended up having to teach myself to draw in the varied style of the old annuals. Thankfully, and very fortunately for me, the art in some of them is quite crude, but I still I had to improve myself enormously just to reach the dizzying heights of crudity!
Thanks so much to Richard for his time, and typically thoughtful and fascinating conversation. The Scarfolk Annual is available here…
And thanks, from me, to everyone who has been part of this blog throughout 2019! It’s been a joy to put together, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has contributed and commented, or simply read and enjoyed these articles. Particular thanks go to David Sutton and all at the Fortean Times. Lots more to come in 2020, in the meantime… wishing you all a merry – and hopefully not too haunted – Christmas.
The 1970s felt like a very “ill” decade. Those of us who were children at the time were well aware of the impact of commonplace maladies, and we all share fond memories of gazing woozily at BBC Schools programmes while attempting to shake off the unpleasant effects of mumps, measles or chickenpox. Or, indeed, incorporating unspecified abdabs into our childhood games… it was an era when simple playground pursuits like “Tag” were rebranded as “Bugs”, or even “Fleas”, the sole object being to contaminate as many of our closest friends as possible with the lethal, imaginary infection of our choosing.
Then, of course, we could wallow in the welter of TV and film favourites that took a myriad of plagues and maladies as their starting point. There was Survivors, of course, but even Hollywood blockbusters had their moments: 1978’s Coma, directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a spate of unexplained brain-deaths in a Boston Hospital; and the lesser-known Patrick – from the same year – sees a troubled Susan Penhaligon despatched to care for a comatose young man who nevertheless seems to exhibit worrying telekinetic powers.
Good grief, there was even Only When I Laugh, an illness-based sitcom, with James Bolam, Peter Bowles and Christopher Strauli seemingly stranded indefinitely in a grim hospital ward with three non-specific, long-term lurgies.
All of these memories sprang to mind when I first listened to Hattie Cooke‘s excellent new album, The Sleepers. Released by the cassette-friendly Spun Out Of Control, it forms the soundtrack to an strikingly original narrative, an approach that has become the label’s intriguing trademark. The story is that of a worldwide sleeping sickness that baffles the scientific community, and the young woman – Maude – whose son becomes affected. When he is kidnapped by a violent sect who are determined to sacrifice the snoozing victims to achieve misguided absolution, she decides, in desperation, to infiltrate the cult’s membership. But unexpectedly finds herself falling for a fellow member…
It’s an album of beautiful, cinematic electronica, and I asked Hattie about its inspirations and evolution.
Bob:Your previous work has been as a more traditional singer-songwriter, although you’ve incorporated a few synths here and there. Had it always been in your mind to make a full-length instrumental album?
Hattie: I’ve always loved soundtracks, and classical music especially. When I was about 12 or 13 I started asking for soundtracks as Christmas and birthday presents. I was really into Amelie, and the Yann Tiersen soundtrack in particular, and I pretty much played it on repeat. I think it was around that time that I starting thinking “One day I want to compose music for films…” So I guess you could say I’ve always had the inclination to do it. But realistically I had no idea what that meant in principle or how it would sound, just that I wanted to be like all of the composers I admired. That feeling has never gone away, especially as I’ve gotten more into film as I’ve grown older.
The ideas behind The Sleepers are quite specific, and it has a set narrative… did you always intend it to be a musical work, or did it ever cross your mind to write it as a novel, a short story, or even a film?
The Sleepers actually started out as something else entirely. Technically it started out as a dance record about four years ago, but I scrapped it. And then last year I came back to the files and realised that there was some good stuff that I could develop into something new. At the same time, my friend Nick [as Nicholas Langley and Dark Half] was about to release a concept album called Rebel Convoy, on Spun Out Of Control, and he inspired me to try something cinematic myself. The music kept reminding me of a post-apocalypse, dystopian movie, and so I started to imagine a film in my mind, and began to re-write the music as a soundtrack.
Initially I was thinking along the ‘nuclear apocalypse’ line but, somewhere along the way, the music began to take on a life of its own. When the album was half-written, it had a much more dream-like quality. So I spent a few days coming up with a new plot. I came up with some pretty terrible ones but eventually I landed on the idea of the The Sleepers, which was partly inspired by the Oliver Sacks book, Awakenings. It was on my bedside table at the time.
I had wanted to release a short story along with the music, but ran out of time. In my wildest dreams somebody would turn it into a film and let me write the screenplay.
The idea of a worldwide sleeping sickness is so delightfully reminiscent of those blockbuster 1970s “disaster” books and films, and I guess the obvious comparison is something like Coma. Did you have that kind of thing in mind when you started thinking about The Sleepers? Is there a secret Michael Crichton fan in us all?
Gosh, I could talk for hours about 1970s films; Marathon Man, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, Two-Lane Blacktop, All the Presidents Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Deliverance, Papillon… the list goes on and on. But when I was making the album I kept thinking about 1970s science fiction, and dystopian films like Logan’s Run, Westworld (Hello, Michael Crichton) and THX 1138.
The scene in THX 1138 where Robert Duvall is climbing up that ladder trying to escape to the outside world, as those terrifying robot men call after him, kept playing around and around in my head. That’s why I titled one of the tracks ‘Ladders’, as a private nod to that film.
How did you approach the album – did you have the whole story planned out, and then compose music for each plot point accordingly?
Sort of, but not quite. I definitely didn’t approach it as logically, or as constrained as that. It was a bit all over the place to begin with, but once the album was half done and I knew what the plot was going to be, I began to refine the whole thing. It became clear that I had a specific sound that I was trying to capture. I was going for a dream-like calmness that also had a sense of tension about it, like something ominous or dangerous was about to happen. I have no idea if I pulled it off!
Certainly, at points I’d think, “I have too many dreamy tracks, I need to write one that’s more upbeat, with more tension and energy” and so I would sit down and write until something good came out. But mostly I just tried to put myself into the various emotional states of the characters. I’d picture something happening to them in the film, and then write the musical version of their thoughts and feelings. It’s an abstract process that’s hard for me to get my own head around.
Can you talk us through any characters that you had in mind for The Sleepers? Tell us about Maude! And the cult member she falls for…
Maude! She’s so determined to get vengeance for the death of her son. She’s heartbroken. But the pain drives her. She becomes obsessed by the need to “do something”. She thinks that if she can join the cult, and rise up the ranks, that she might be able to take it down from the inside, so to speak. And then she meets this guy at one of the cult meetings, I never gave him a name, but we can call him Bob after you…
And so Bob is part of the cult too, but unlike the other members, there’s something familiar about him, something in him that she recognises but that she can’t put her finger on. And there’s this tension between them, sexual or emotional maybe, it’s hard to say. But Maude is beating herself up, because she’s really only wanting to focus on her plan. And more to the point, she doesn’t understand why she’s falling for this sociopath who seemingly thinks it’s acceptable to steal children from their beds and sacrifice them.
Eventually they discover that they’re both fake members. and Bob has his own vendetta against the cult. So they connect over their mutual hate and desire for revenge. It’s all very odd and backwards, romantically speaking, but then again I was going through a break-up when I wrote the album, so that might have something to do with it!
As a maker of electronic music, who are your inspirations and influences? I think I picked out hints of John Carpenter and even Mark Snow’s music for The X-Files, but I’m happy to be told that I’m wrong!
It’s funny, so many people – after they hear the music – say to me that I must like John Carpenter. Truth be told, I had no idea who he was at the time. Turns out I’ve seen a ton of his films, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to sing you one of his themes. I’ve always been into classical musical, especially minimalism and chamber music. I spent most of 2017 and 2018 listening to Arvo Part, Henryk Górecki, Erik Satie, Philip Glass, John Tavener… that sort of thing. I think that feeds into what I do.
Obviously I don’t have an entire orchestra to hand, and actually I can’t even read music. I just have an old iPad with GarageBand on it, so I take my influences and impose the dodgy built-in synth sounds on them, and it comes out sounding like John Carpenter or New Order or whatever. It’s a total accident. The music I make is really just a product of my own various limitations. I’d probably be writing for a 72 piece orchestra, or a string quartet, if I could.
How did you link up with Spun Out Of Control? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
I wrote the album specifically with them in mind. After Nick showed me a preview of Rebel Convoy, I was really keen to release a concept album too. The artwork, the sound, the concept… it was all so exciting to me. And Spun Out of Control are a very cool label. So I spent a few months working on a demo version of the album and then I contacted Gavin [Stoker, label boss] via Twitter… pretty much just asking him to take a listen and let me know if he might be interested in releasing something with me.
I suppose it’s quite a lot of work to put in without any guarantees, but I think it helped knowing that Spun Out Of Control were supportive of my first album… plus Nick at Third Kind Records said he’d release it if nobody else wanted to, ha! But Gavin has been great, very helpful and very encouraging. This was my first attempt at a concept album/soundtrack so it was a great feeling to have him on board with it. He’s a man who knows his stuff! It’s also very exciting to be the first female artist on the label.
They’re on a sensational run of form with their covers… what was your first reaction when you saw the sleeve for The Sleepers?
The artwork, by Eric Adrian Lee, is always mind-blowing. It’s genuinely half the reason that I wanted to work with Spun Out Of Control, because he does the majority of the covers for them. It’s funny though, because I gave him very different suggestions for the artwork when we initially spoke, and then he got behind on another project… so it took a few months. The anticipation was ramping up. And then when I saw what he’d come up with, it was a bit of a shock. Not a bad shock, just not at all what I was expecting. He said he found the album very relaxing and wanted to convey that.
I thought that was very funny. I guess it’s impossible to know what other people are going to think of when they hear your music. The artwork looks fantastic though, very striking and iconic, the sort of thing that belongs on a full-size film poster. I’m a little concerned that the artwork is better than the music!
The revival of the cassette is an interesting phenomenon, too. Do they hold a lot of sentimental value for you?
The fact that I’ve released two albums on cassette is sort of an accident, to be honest… it turns out that the labels who like my music are the sort of people who also like to release stuff on cassettes. I’m OK with that, although I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t desperate to release something on vinyl. I don’t even own a cassette player… I did when I was a little kid, but I only used it because it had an FM/AM radio, and I liked tuning into AM and listening to strange French music.
It took me two and a half years to listen to my first album on its physical format. I was drunk on whiskey and wine, and when we tried to play the B-side the tape went all weird and warped. We wound it back using a pencil but it happened again so we stopped trying. I still haven’t listened to The Sleepers cassette yet. I have one by my beside and I’ve very proud of it, but I’ve always found it surreal and a little uncomfortable listening back to my own music.
Has it whetted your appetite for more scores, and instrumental albums? What will the next album be?
I’ve had another solo album in the pipeline for two years, but I haven’t had the guts to record it properly. It’s wrapped up in a lot of emotions and I guess I’ve been putting off “going there”. But certainly I’d like to write more scores, and I’d love to score for a real-life film, not just one that I’ve made up in my head!
Partly I was hoping somebody would hear The Sleepers and ask me to score a film for them. But since it came out I’ve been asked by Alex White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes to collaborate with him on a new album. He’s a wonderful songwriter, so hopefully that will happen at some point in the not too distant future. It would be nice to work with somebody else. I’m kind of a hermit when it comes to my work, but I think maybe it’s time to come out of my shell a little bit.
Thanks for Hattie for a fascinating chat, and The Sleepers is available here…
All hail Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence… the square-eyed Liverpudlian duo who, staggered that nobody had yet written a book about the welter of disturbing TV shows, films and – ahem – ice lollies that traumatised our collective 1970s childhoods, set out to fill the gap. The resulting doorstep-sized tome, Scarred For Life, has become a sales sensation, and a follow-up volume, detailing the Cold War-infused minutiae of their 1980s adolescence, is due in 2020.
And the book has now inspired a compilation album of original music, all influenced by those lingering memories of childhood disquiet. It includes new tracks by the likes of Vic Mars, The Home Current, Pulselovers, The Heartwood Institute and Polypores, and has been compiled by musician Kev Oyston, who – in his guise as The Soulless Party – also contributes the title track. It’s the start of a busy period for Kev, whose multi-media Black Meadow collaboration with writer Chris Lambert, detailing the dark folk stories of the North York Moors, also sparks back into life in early 2020.
But the Scarred For Life album, released this week by Castles In Space, comes first, with all proceeds heading to Cancer Research UK. It’s a beautiful collection of evocative music, and I asked Kev about the inspiration behind it…
Bob: Where did the idea for the Scarred For Life album come from? I assume you bought the book, and enjoyed it?
Kev: Yeah, I bought the book. It appealed massively to me straight away. Although I was born in 1975, a lot of the early to mid 1970s Public Information Films, schools programmes and children’s programmes were still being re-shown throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, so a lot of the content of the book rang a big bell with me. I’ve always been fascinated with the dark, weird and ambiguous output of 1970s TV.
Which TV programmes or films from the era really scared you?
My earliest memories are basically from Doctor Who and those Public Information films. Being rather mesmerised by Tom Baker, who himself was pretty scary. I actually remember the reveal of Scaroth at the end of the first episode of City of Death – that absolutely terrified me. I was four! The other Doctor Who cliffhanger that traumatised me was the end of the first episode of Logopolis, where the Master shrunk Aunt Vanessa and the policeman, and left them like lifeless dolls in the car.
The Public information Films that got to me were the ones with the drivers’ faces being smashed through the car windscreen in very weird slow motion. There was also one with a mother and her little boy, where he runs out into the road and she drops her eggs as he gets run over. I used the think the eggs were the contents of the boy’s head!
And the infamous Apaches, which warned of the dangers of playing on a farm, absolutely gave me nightmares… especially the shot of the boy sinking and drowning in the slurry pit. It was just so lifelike! But that was the idea wasn’t it? To scare you away from doing daft and silly things on roads, or swanning around near farming equipment.
Did other things get to you as well? I found it hilarious that the book’s writers, Stephen and Dave, were scared by “Dracula” ice lollies and “Horror Bags” crisps…
I can remember this quite vividly, and it still gives me chills now… my parents used to threaten me with the rag and bone man, saying he was going to take me away if I didn’t behave. Honestly, that worked a treat because every time I heard him at the bottom of our street shouting, “RAGBONE!!” I’d be off like a shot! In fact I’d hide under my bed!
I think it was his voice, the way he shouted. It was quite snarly and bellowing. I really do still shudder thinking about it.
When, and how, did it strike you to make an accompanying album?
I hit it off with Stephen a long time ago, over our love of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we talked on and off for a while about different things. It wasn’t until we actually met, at their first Scarred For Life show in Eaglescliffe about a year ago, that we talked quite excitedly about the idea of doing a compilation album. I found the subject of the book to be really evocative, and thought it would carry the weight of a concept album quite well.
At first we toyed with the idea of doing covers of old 1970s and 80s TV themes, fitting in with the Scarred For Life ethos. But after much pondering and research, I discovered that it would end up being a huge copyright headache, so we parked the idea for a bit.
It wasn’t until I heard that the lads were working on a sequel to the original Scarred for Life book, this time covering the 1980s, that my interest in doing something was piqued again. So I spoke with Stephen and asked what he thought about a compilation album of music “inspired” by the TV and film output of the Scarred for Life era. He loved the idea, so I went away and rallied some artists.
Did you draw up a hit list of you wanted to approach? Are a lot of these artists people that you’ve known for a long time?
It all seems a bit of a blur now, but I think it was quite organic. The first person I approached, more for advice, was Colin Morrison from the Castles in Space label. I already had something on the boil with him, and thought it would be good to run this idea past him too. Before we knew it, he’d signed up to the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, and wanted to promote and push it all! I was absolutely bowled over.
A lot of the artists I approached, I’d known forever… Vic Mars, Monroeville Music Center, Pete Hackett – aka Cult of Wedge – Keith Seatman and Swimming Lesson. They all jumped at the chance to be on the album. I’d always admired the other acts too… The Twelve Hour Foundation, the achingly lovely Jonathan Sharp from The Heartwood Institute, Listening Centre, Rob from Handspan… in fact I admire everyone we have on there!
It was nice, because I proposed the idea to each of these artists, and immediately there was a mutual understanding of the premise, and the important cause that the album was for. Not only that, each individual who took part was just massively likeable, and easy to get along with. I had everyone in a Scarred for Life private group and we all just clicked. Honestly, it was really lovely. Most of the artists were already aware of Stephen and Dave’s wonderful book and were really keen to take part.
What was the remit you gave them all as a starting point for their tracks?
Because the Scarred For Life books are about to hit the 1980s, I gave them the remit of creating music that reminded them of that kind of “off kilter”, not quite right, TV shows or movies that they’d watched as kids in the 1970s and 80s. But not just the TV shows… other things besides.
Can you give us a little rundown the tracks themelves, and the inspirations behind them?
Well, I thought I’d let the artists speak for themselves! I managed to coax this out of them all the other day… here’s what some of them have to say on each of their pieces:
Jez Butler: Our track is named after the TV transmitter near my old home town in Linconshire. Rather than being based on a specific theme tune, it’s a more generic radiophonic-inspired thing, with the focus on the sudden start – in the style of a scary 70s kids’ drama intro – and the the cliff-hanger at the end. If that makes sense!
Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless was inspired by the 1972 series Escape Into Night, and the book that inspired it, Marianne Dreams. “Not the light!”
Swimming Lesson: Superhighways
Darryl Wakelin: Mine was inspired by the excitement and dread – in equal measure – of what computing in the future would be like. A mix of Tomorrow’s World, and the machines that would destroy us, control us or be used for war. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Demon Seed, UFO, Space 1999, etc…
Martin Jensen: Summer in Marstrand is inspired by growing up with the Moomins on Danish TV. I was part fascinated, and part scared senseless, every time an episode aired. Some of my childhood summer holidays were spent on the Swedish island of Marstrand, and apart from it being where I saw my very fist White-Tailed Eagle, I also remember thinking the Moomins could easily have come from there.
Rob Colling: Mine came mainly from the fact that I’d been listening to Clannad’s Legend, the soundtrack album from Robin of Sherwood, quite a lot in the weeks running up to this project. That’s why so many of the modular synth noises sound a bit like Celtic harps. It actually ended up in more of a Look And Read kind of place, somewhere between Dark Towers and The Boy From Space, hence the track title, but my initial idea was much more about forests and mist and standing stones. And terrifying early digital video effects.
Pete Hackett: Originally I’d written an actual song, words and all, but I couldn’t sing it due to the stupid key, and time was running out, and everyone else’s tracks were instrumental… so I recorded a theme tune! It’s pretty much on a theme of The Tomorrow People, but has time travel / indigo / psychic children ideas going on. Hence the kid at the start seeing dead people…
Mat Handley: Nice View From Up Here is my take on the theme tune for a sitcom starring Joe and Petunia from the Public Information Film series made between 1968 and 1973. I imagined a particularly un-PC studio comedy in the style of George and Mildred, but with a theme more inspired by the brilliant Ronnie Corbett vehicle, Sorry!
Craig Storm: I sat down trying to make an homage to Knightmare, and instead ended up with what seems like the end credit music to an educational programme’s Halloween episode, if it had spliced in eight-bit voice actor samples from a third-rate medieval adventure game. It’s no Knightmare, but it’s a show I’d like to watch.
Alex Cargill: Puzzled is loosely based on the 1970s and 1980s BBC kids TV show Jigsaw, which featured the infamous character of Noseybonk. Genuinely disturbing for a young child. I tried to imitate the generally upbeat feel of the original, along with the childish sound effects. The laughter snippet is actually a sample of my late Grandad – it seemed to fit nicely and I thought it’d be nice to have him immortalised on a CD. It’s what he would’ve wanted. However, as is often the case, I couldn’t help myself from adding a little bit of acid squelch to the proceedings.
Johnny Vertigan: I think I was gleefully ripping off the slightly sinister library themes that would sometimes find their way onto Pages from CEEFAX. Or the kind of thing that would be used for either a forgotten, warped 1970s BBC drama, or perhaps a schools’ programme about maths. Same difference back then, I suppose.
David Mason: My offering is inspired by the multiple layers of uncanny-ness and the fractured parallel realities reflected in Sapphire and Steel. The title is borrowed from the final episode of the series, where (Spoiler Alert!) Sapphire and Steel find themselves trapped in a cafe, in the void, for eternity.
Benjamin Green: Programmes for Sick Days takes inspiration from “Programmes for Schools”, generally the only television available to watch for children who were too poorly to go to school that day. Quite dry programmes that perhaps seemed dead boring in a classroom would become extraordinarily fascinating and eerie in the cosy setting of the living room. My track tries to evoke the images and sounds of a morning of school programming, through the woozy haze of feeling unwell. Dosed up on children’s medicine, and safely bundled up within blankets and quilts to make a bed on the settee.
To temper the cosiness, I will add that while experiencing a proper bout of influenza for the first time as a child, I had a morbid thought during an episode of Zig Zag that I might end my days on the sofa, and these would be the last visuals and sounds I’d ever experience. And I’ve since often wondered if, for some poor souls, that may have been the case….
Stephen J Buckley: My track, as with most of my music, wasn’t really planned or thought out as such. It’s not really up to me what I write on any given day. I simply made myself available, open to suggestion, and coaxed it from the strange ether from which music comes. Basically, I was led down a Scarred for Life ether vortex, and the track just came out!
And Kev, your own theme music, the opening track to the album?
Yes, it was the main Scarred for Life theme that I tasked myself with, and I just wanted to encompass sounds and layers that echoed the likes of Denton and Cooke, and Peter Howell… with a cheeky nod to John Carpenter, too.
What’s your own background as a musician? Can you give us a little potted history, please?
I was massively into music from a very young age. I used to spend a lot of time round at my cousins’ house, and they were quite big into electronica, post-punk and ska. I was basically a sponge, and I loved everything they listened to. They had a loft conversion with lots of old synths in it, and wrote their own material as well as doing cover versions for a college band they were in. Again, I was hooked. By the age of 12 I had my first synthesizer, a Korg Poly 800. I also had a four-track tape recorder to lay down any ideas I had. I got a few more synths in my twenties, and chucked out a few demos of instrumental tracks to various people. One of whom told me that I’d be good for TV adverts or soundtrack work… however, being very young, idealistic and quite naive, I was quite put out by this! I went off to form a synth-pop band with my cousin, Rob.
I wrote all the tracks and did some of the vocals and we set out round London gigging on the – then – underground electronic music circuit for a few years. We had a nice little following, and released an album… which maybe ten people might have in their collection.
As the years progressed, I started getting into Ghost Box Records. Their output totally blew my mind and took me back to my childhood in very strange ways… to the classroom, or to a cornfield or a forest on a warm, hazy day. I just loved what I was hearing. That inspired me to go down a similar instrumental route, trying to come up with something that reminded people of the past. New music that sounded like vintage music. I think I achieved that with theBlack Meadow project.
I was going to ask about the Black Meadow project. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
While I was trying to find that sound of the past, I wrote a track which I just randomly called Beyond the Moor. It ended up on the Tales from the Black Meadow album, but at the time I wrote it, I had no idea what it could be for… why did I call it Beyond the Moor? But the more tracks I wrote with a similar vibe, the more it organically fell into place. The concept came to me.
As a child, we used to drive regularly over the North York Moors to Pickering, to see relatives. We’d always pass the three huge, golf ball-like radomes that belonged to RAF Fylingdales, and – being a kid with his head in the clouds – I always imagined strange alien craft being housed there. Or something akin to Quatermass, that kind of thing. My imagination ran wild. I recalled all that as I wrote the music for the first Black Meadow album and it just gave me the impetus to keep going. I had an idea of a story, or of strange folklore, attached to this place called The Black Meadow, which was slap bang right next to RAF Fylingdales. It was to be a place of mysterious fog, creatures and a Brigadoon-type village that appeared only under certain atmospheric conditions. The village is full of weird monsters and people, and is just downright creepy.
My old partner in crime Chris Lambert took an interest in this project and my ideas, and basically wanted to put them all into proper folklore-style stories, and have them published along with the album. I got carried away with the idea, and pushed for something else to go alongside the music and the book, and that was… why don’t we “dig up” an old BBC Radio 4 documentary from 1978, all about the Black Meadow, and add it to the album? So we did.
The original Tales from the Black Meadow CD – with the music and the documentary – was released in 2013, along with the book. The book still sells well today, and sometimes I re-release the album and it always seems to do OK.
And there’s some new material coming in January 2020?
It’s taken a long time, but we’ve just completed the second Black Meadow project, The Black Meadow Archive: Vol 1. Again, it’s an album of music, this time on vinyl, again on the lovely Castles in Space label. And there’s also a new, jam-packed book too. We’re quite excited to release it to the world. We just hope everyone likes it!
In the meantime, Scarred For Life is out this week, and all proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK… is it a cause that’s dear to your heart?
Absolutely. Sadly, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer in May and it’s been a very tough few months. Happily things are looking positive, as the treatment has done the job, and we’re hoping everything will be clear come the New Year.
Its funny how you can appreciate, yet still take for granted, some of the work these charities do. It’s not really until something affects you close to home that you start to really appreciate their work. Cancer Research UK are a hugely proactive concern… they’re a positive power for good in the search for a cure to cancer, and they provide fantastic support to those who may be suffering. They were the first charity I thought of when we were putting this album together, and it’s been brilliant to see people buying the album also getting behind the charity too.
Thanks to Kev for his time, and thoughtful replies… and to everyone else on the album for contributing, too. The Scarred For Life album is available here…
…and it concludes on a poignant note; the closing track, Be Like A Child by Carl Matthews, is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose own life was cut tragically short by cancer. It’s a fitting conclusion to a wonderful collection of music.
I asked Jonathan Sharp, of The Heartwood Institute, about his memories of Carl. He replied…
“Carl is one of the great lost voices of UK synth. He started releasing cassettes from 1980 via the Mirage label – all very DIY – and continued up to 1991. You can find a big list of his output on Discogs. He was incredibly well-respected, but largely unknown. I got to know Carl around 2001 when he started making music again, and we became good friends. I encouraged him into making library, music at which he became very successful. More recently, there’d been a real interest in his old music, and he’d had Call For World Saviours released on CD and vinyl, and had appeared on several high-profile compilations too. He’d also started releasing new music via bandcamp. Sadly he died a few months ago, just as the Scarred For Life compilation was coming together. As soon as I knew it was raising money for Cancer Research UK, it seemed natural to have a track of his on the album. His family agreed, and it’s so lovely to have that track on there.”
I was extremely saddened in October this year to hear that David Cain had died. A stalwart of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, he worked on music and sounds for high-profile BBC radio dramas – including famous adaptations of The Hobbit and The War of the Worlds – as well as creating a plethora of gloriously inventive radio stings, stabs and jingles. When the BBC rolled out its exciting network of local radio stations, from 1967 onwards, each was provided with a radiophonic theme intended to reflect the area’s identity, culture and landscape. David’s music for BBC Sheffield was arguably the pick of the crop; its rolling metallic rhythms effortlessly evoking the heritage and history of the city’s steel industry.
But it’s almost certainly for The Seasons that he will be remembered most fondly. This extraordinary 1969 marrying of David’s harsh electronic music with the unsettling poetry of one-time Benjamin Britten libretto-writer Ronald Duncan, all narrated by BBC Schools Radio regular Derek Bowskill, makes for an overpoweringly evocative reminder of a very particular era of British schooling. A period when educational influences collided; when post-war austerity – all boiled cabbage and morning hymns – met a new breed of Guardian-reading, corduroy-sporting teacher, and cold, parquet floors and breezeblock school halls began to echo with the sound of post-hippy singalongs and, indeed, the experimental avant-garde of albums like this.
With 21st century hindsight, The Seasons seems staggeringly inappropriate for the primary school-age children for whom it was intended. It boasts seventeen short tracks; twelve of them dedicated to the months of the year, plus one for each season, and then a concluding instrumental piece entitled The Year. It is darkly macabre, and oddly sensual. Strength is drawn “from the earth’s thighs”, and May “teases with all the orchards of her eyes, and leans with apple, tempts with peach”. There are gaunt elms shuddering “within the groin of grief”, and those of us who had previously associated October with merely the advent of the conker season and the occasional dodgem were startled to be presented with somewhat darker imagery: “Like severed hands, the wet leaves lie flat on the deserted avenue”.
All of this was intended to inspire children as young as five to express themselves via the medium of interpretative dance, almost certainly in a freezing dinner hall, with the whiff of oncoming spam fritters wafting aimlessly amidst the musty smell of unwashed C&A vests. When Trunk Records reissued The Seasons in 2012, I contacted Jonny Trunk to ask if David might be available to be interviewed on my BBC Tees show. I was naturally delighted when David agreed to do this, and we had a fascinating chat over the phone from his new home in central Poland. He was charming, funny, and eccentric… a genuinely warm and welcoming man who was clearly incredibly proud of his groundbreaking work with the Radiophonic Workshop.
This is how the conversation went…
So David, you’re living in Poland these days! Whereabouts?
I’m near Łódź and nobody ever knows where it is… or can actually pronounce it properly! Or can even get there actually, because communication is desperate. But it’s right in the middle. It’s sort of what Manchester would have been like if they hadn’t sorted it out… Is it good to have The Seasons back out there, and to be “official” again?
Well, I don’t know about “official”… I’m not sure it was official in the first place, really! The programme was official, of course; it was a schools programme, and I was given some lovely poetry. Brilliant poetry, I thought. Beautiful. Not easy, and not the first thing you’d choose for eleven-year-olds, but I was asked to do the music for it. And that was my job, so I did it.
And now it’s quite amazing that I’ve suddenly come into contact with… one or two slightly strange people, and I mean that in a very positive way, actually! When people start saying “Your cult music”, I say… “Pardon?”
“People are asking for this…”
And then I saw that somebody was asking £260 for it on eBay!
Yes, the original vinyl became a very collectable album…
Well, mine’s not collectable. The first two tracks, January and February, disappear under a rash of scratches. But now I’m OK, because I’ve got a beautiful CD, and the beautiful white vinyl that Jonny Trunk has done. It’s absolutely fabulous.
How did you get involved with making these recordings, back in 1969? Obviously you were working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop… did the commission just come in, and get passed onto you?
Yeah. With the Workshop… you sort of sat and waited for people to come and ask you to do things. And I hadn’t been there very long, actually. I’d done some stuff – some radio drama – and some BBC Schools, which was a big department in those days, they did a lot of stuff. And there was one producer, David Little, who I did a few things with.
David came and said “Listen… I’ve got these poems about the seasons, there are twelve for the months, and four for the seasons, and I’d like you to do some music.” For a drama workshop… it wasn’t Music, Movement and Mime, that was something else.
And I said fine. OK. And we talked about it, and what he wanted… and he wanted something to get kids to move about and do things, to respond to the poetry and also to the sound. So that was it, really.
I’d worked with David before. I had great respect for him, I thought he was a super producer. One or two other people didn’t like him very much, because he knew what he wanted. Ha! Which meant that if you thought that you knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t what he wanted, you were in trouble. Ha ha!
But no, super… that was it. I was asked to do it, and I did it. There you go. And maybe a year or so later they said “Well, we’d like to produce a record because quite a lot of schools have asked to have a copy.” Because in those days you couldn’t copy stuff… well, you could I suppose, but you did it on all sorts of funny little tape machines with reels of tape. I don’t think there were even cassettes in those days, were there?
Not the mini cassettes, no… I started school in 1977, and it we still had the big, reel-to-reel tape machines.
Well there you go, goodness me! So in 1969 people just had to turn on the radio, and wait for it to happen.
So the poetry was written by Ronald Duncan, and voiced up by Derek Bowskill. Were the recordings of the actual poetry just given to you as a fait accompli?
Yeah. I got the poetry, and then was asked to do it. If you haven’t got an enormous amount of time, it’s probably the best way to do it, I would think. Because the poetry stands by itself. And the idea was that what I did would not only stand by itself too, but – together with the poetry – would maybe offer some kind of stimulus to the kids.
Did you have any contact with Ronald or Derek?
Ronnie Duncan, no – never. Derek Bowskill, yes. I knew Derek… not that well, but I knew him because I was more widely involved with drama in schools, and educational drama, and Derek was also very heavily involved with this. He was then down in Devon, but he was linked up with people that I knew in London. I met him, and we talked about it… but he’d done it, you know. He didn’t do it with me there, doing any kind of production. I just got the tapes.
The music has a very earthy, rustic, almost Pagan feel to it. Was that something you were aiming for?
[Laughs] I dunno! Remember, this was the 1960s… everyone was being Pagan then!
There was a lot of it about, then?
We were all wandering around in wonderful Afghan coats. I had one of those! It was brilliant. Pagan? I dunno… maybe sort of earthy. Different. Slightly disturbing. That was definitely there. I think David Little wanted that, because if you’ve got kids wandering around in shorts in very cold gymnasiums in schools, then you need to get them stirred up a bit, otherwise they’ll sit down and do nothing!
I’m glad you brought that up, as I’m intrigued to ask… a lot of books and music and TV for kids in the late 1960s and 1970s have a kind of creepy quality. There’s a darkness that I find incredibly evocative now. I’ve often wondered if that was something you were aware of at the time, making this stuff?
I was. I was aware of that, because there were one or two writers… the obvious one being Roald Dahl. You can’t call Roald Dahl a laugh-a-minute man! I mean he was, but in a slightly creepy way. There was Doctor Seuss, and then there was a Polish guy whose name I can’t remember now… doesn’t matter, not important, we mustn’t go into all that! And then there was The Wicker Man… I’ve jumped to films all of a sudden now.
It’s all part of the same feel, though…
It was, and maybe these kinds of things go together with the sort of music that was very upfront and… “WAFFF!” You know, if you’ve got The Rolling Stones and The Beatles going on at the same time, maybe also there was this feeling that kids can cope with a little bit more than Enid Blyton. Remember Enid Blyton?
They were a bit creepy actually, but in a slightly different way. But yeah! It was meant to provide something that was not “Oh yeah, we know music like this, we can dance about…”
Did you ever take into account the age of your audience, and what might be appropriate for them? Or did you just make the music that you thought worked?
I did the second one. I didn’t actually think, “I must write this to appeal to…” No, I didn’t. Absolutely not. I have enough trust in them, especially now that I’ve been involved in education… I can trust kids like that. If it works, it’s gonna work. You don’t write down to them, you write up to them.
How was the music for The Seasons created? Were you using exciting things like wave generators?
Exciting things? Hahahahah!
They are to me! But OK, maybe not to someone who had to work with them every day…
Ha! I know what you mean! Exciting… what was exciting…? We had a lot of ex-MOD stuff like oscillators, things like that. They were just basic things, they’d got “WOOWEEEWOO” That was all it was, you got different frequencies.
And then we had all these things that we pinged and panged, and banged and binged, to provide sound sources. And those gave you notes, which you then played… it was a fairly primitive system, really. We didn’t have any multi-track machines, we didn’t have any synthesizers, so it was all basically… you made a note, stuck it on a piece of tape, and then you sped it up and slowed it down.
We did have a machine that changed the speed, and that was it, really. You filtered it, played it backwards, forwards, upside down, whatever… and then you did the mathematics, which was OK for me, because that’s actually my first subject. It was 15 inches per second, so a lot of things had “Crotchet=120” because that made the maths easier! If you had “Crotchet=77” you were in real trouble…
And therefore you knew that that note was going to have one and a half inches of tape.
So you’re literally sitting with bits of tape, cutting them up to specific measurements, and piecing them back together?
Yeah! Stupid really, isn’t it?
No, it’s fabulous!
How did you first come to join the Radiophonic Workshop in the first place, were you recruited?
No, they didn’t recruit. That was MI6. There wasn’t a press gang, then?
Oh no! I worked as a studio manager, a sound engineer at first… in 196… oh, God… 1963 it was. Bloody hell, it’s nearly 50 years ago. Right, OK! And I very quickly got into radio drama, which was really where I wanted to work. Doing sound and all those things, and working in the studios with actors. And from radio drama, it was possible to apply for a sort of three-month attachment to the Workshop, to see how it was. And I’d been in touch with bits of it, because I’d done some plays where there was Workshop material.
So I went there for three months… maybe longer in the end. This was about 1965, 1966, and it was great. I really, really loved it, because there was time to do what you wanted to do, and to talk to producers and directors and create sounds that they couldn’t create… for dramas and plays that you couldn’t direct. So you had mutual respect for each other. I loved it, and I went back to radio drama as a studio manager, and then a job came up… so I applied, and I got it.
It just seems like the most extraordinarily creative place to be working. Cards on the table here, I’m a Doctor Who fan, so for me hearing things like the work that Delia Derbyshire did in those very early days… and Dick Mills, and Brian Hodgson… they seemed to be just left to make the music that they made without any kind of outside interference. Was the culture really as nice as the picture I have in my mind?
The word is trust. It doesn’t exist much any more, does it?
I don’t think it does unfortunately, no.
I think Mr Birt has a lot to answer for that one. Basically, we were employed to do what we had to do, and there was a trust that we were going to do it. And if we hadn’t done it, they would have thrown us out, it was very simple! But they didn’t check what we were doing by being there all the time, looking over our shoulders. And obviously if the producers kept coming, and wanting more and more and more, then it seems to me that we were doing what we should be doing.
And that’s what happened. It was only later that it turned the other way around, and well, you know… the problem was that razors, sticky tape and so on are a bit extreme in terms of primitive systems. But I think what happened later was – of course – that the synthesizers came, the keyboards came, the multi-track machines came, and suddenly it was a completely different situation.
And my theory is very simple. When we were there in the 1960s, the creative impulses and ideas were far ahead of the theoretical technical possibilities. But what happened later was that it turned the other way around, and the technology started to drive the system. You only had to press a button and you’ve got… “dumdumdoodledoodledumdum”. You’ve got it! If you don’t like it, you can change it a bit. But what it means is, before you do anything, you don’t have to think very much about what you’re going to do. Whereas with what we were doing… if you didn’t plan very carefully before you started, you were in real trouble!
That’s my deep theory, that there was a moment when the technology went past the creativity.
Are you still making music at the moment?
Nothing at all?
Well no, that’s not true, actually. What I’ve done for the last few years is one kind of music-making, at mathematical conferences. Ha ha! Which means that I write some bits of music, do an arrangement of some kind, and then I write parts out for all the people who say they’re going to bring an instrument. And then for an hour and a half I send them off with bits of music, and then they all come together and play it. So it’s not really a great composition job, but it’s good because some people say… “I’m going to bring a wind-up torch.” You know what that is? They’re brilliant, there’s no batteries, you turn the handle very fast…
Like a clockwork torch?
Yeah! The point is, this is the Radiophonic Workshop… because if you turn the handle slowly, it goes “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”, if you turn it fast it goes “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”, and if you turn it really fast it goes “ZZZWWWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”! This is the Radiophonic Workshop, isn’t it?
This is fabulous! You have to compose a symphony for wind-up torch!
The woman who brought it was chuffed to bits, because I wrote her a part! So that’s what I’m doing… but it’s not composing, I did that! If you are a down-the-line, 100%, super-duper composer, then you can keep going until the end of time. But you know… I did that. I composed, I composed for kids later, I kept writing stuff for the BBC, and then I thought “Well, I’m into maths now.”
So I got really heavily, heavily into mathematics as a teacher. And I still am, so I’m now lecturing at a teacher training college in Poland, to young students. It’s a joy. I’ve got ten hours tomorrow, and it’s going to be really good! So I’m doing that, and I’m digging the garden, walking the dog, and I go occasionally here, there and everywhere, travelling about. Sinking into the twilight of my days, really.
It sounds like a lovely life…
It is, actually. The weather’s a bit dodgy, but other than that…!
You do it, and then you’ve done it. I think it’s actually quite important, once you reach a point, to say yeah… you stop. The dangerous thing is to try and hang onto it. I didn’t do that. But I’ve still got these reels and reels of tapes sitting here, some of which I’ve transferred, and Jonny Trunk has played one or two.
But I’m delighted to sit here and hold this vinyl disc [of The Seasons], Mark 2, and think that it’s very nice to know that somewhere there’s a small group of people who enjoy listening to it.
I’ve played the whole album on the radio now, night by night, and had some lovely comments from listeners.
I think that’s amazing, I really do. I’m really chuffed to bits. There’s only one thing I can say… most of my music, because it was written as instrumental music for radio drama, and I’ve got about 60 hours of it, I suppose – you can’t play it because it was done for one programme. And if you want to play it again, you’re going to have to pay lots of money.
This is the BBC here, you know what it’s like…
In that sense it hasn’t changed!
Honestly David, thanks so much for doing this.
It’s been a real pleasure. In my life, you sit down and you think – “I can ‘blah blah blah’ for ten minutes about what I’ve done, and that’s really very nice, and somebody might be interested.”
So thank you very much for asking me.
Heartfelt condolences to all who knew David; we swapped the odd e-mail back and forth for a little while after our conversation, and he was always incredibly friendly and flattered that I was so interested in his work. And The Seasons will stay with me forever as a wonderfully inventive and stirring encapsulation of everything that was strange and beautiful about the 1970s childhood experience.
And it’s still available to download from Trunk Records, here…