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 inaugural column, from issue 379, dated May 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
Are you craving the oddly warm reassurance of 1980s Cold War paranoia? Is it impossible for you to walk past an electrical substation without recalling crackly Public Information Films, and 16-year-old Jimmy’s stray frisbee wedged into a tower of humming transformers? Do you still feel mild disquiet at the sight of the faceless Edwardian children in the opening titles of Bagpuss? Chances are, you’re one of the ‘Haunted Generation’. The article that I wrote for the FT in 2017 (FT 354:30-37) resulted in an overwhelming reaction from readers keen to share their own recollections of growing up in the “creepy” era; that loose 1965-85 sprawl of inappropriate childrens’ television, radiophonic music, and the vague disquiet of an older, grottier Britain. So I’m delighted to have this opportunity to provide updates on the work of some of the artists, writers and musicians who contributed to that feature, and others whose creativity has been similarly fuelled by the potency of their childhood memories.
Frances Castle, whose evocative artwork adorns the covers of releases on her own Clay Pipe Music label, has just completed the first instalment of her debut graphic novel Stagdale. Set in 1975, it sees 12-year-old Kathy and her recently divorced mother beginning a new life in the titular village, where the discovery of a 1938 diary written by Max, a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, puts Kathy on the trail of long-lost Saxon treasure. “It’s a little bit inspired by programmes like Children of the Stones,” says Frances, doubtless striking a chord with many who recall this creepy 1977 HTV series, and Stagdale certainly boasts a similar ambience of muted, rustic disquiet. The novel can be ordered from claypipemusic.com, and is accompanied by a wistful EP from Frances’ musical alter ego, The Hardy Tree.
Fans of vintage electronica have cause to be excited too, as a new interpretation of a lost work by Delia Derbyshire sees the light of day, on the Buried Treasure label. Delia is rightly revered for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including her pioneering 1963 arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. By the 1990s, she had become somewhat reclusive, but still befriended musician Drew Mulholland (aka Mount Vernon Arts Lab, whose 2001 album The Séance At Hobs Lane is a Quatermass-inspired riot of gothic radiophonica) and presented him with a late 1960s score of original, unrecorded music, giving her blessing to a new interpretation. The result, Three Antennas In A Quarry, is a 12-track collection of dark, ambient soundscapes. The album is available to download from https://buriedtreasure.bandcamp.com/album/three-antennas-in-a-quarry
And those keen to combine their retro electronica with a journey into one of the stranger corners of the English countryside should head to Wiltshire on 17th August, where Buried Treasure overlord Alan Gubby is staging Delaware Road: Ritual and Resistance… ten hours of music, theatre and film inside a secret military base, close to Stonehenge. He has previous form in this department: in 2017, I attended a similar shindig, held deep underground at the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex. Here, artists including Concretism and the Twelve Hour Foundation provided live soundtracks to a surreal evening of Cold War disquiet and rather intense mummery. This year’s celebration is headlined by the founder of Crass (and, indeed, the 1972 Stonehenge Free Festival) Penny Rimbaud, and tickets are available from www.thedelawareroad.com.
It could be quite a summer for mass, organised hauntedness, as I’m also hearing whispers of an exciting event to accompany the next release from Ghost Box Records. The Chanctonbury Rings album, out in June, sees writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus and Ghost Box’s own Jim Jupp (aka Belbury Poly) teaming up to take musical inspiration from Justin’s excellent 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, a psychogeographical ramble through the South Downs. It’s a project that Jim tantalisingly promises will be “reminiscent of a 1960s or 1970s music and poetry for schools LP”, and the record will be launched at a Ghost Box event in Shoreditch. Details should be “available by the time you read this”, says Jim, wryly! www.ghostbox.co.uk is the place to keep checking.
(NB Since this article was published, the event has sold out… but look out for a full report on the blog at the end of June…)
To finish off, those intrigued by the recent news that one of artist Richard Littler’s spoof Scarfolk posters (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly alongside genuine Goverment posters from the last 100 years (FT 377:8), will be delighted to learn that a Scarfolk annual is on the way… and is available to pre-order now. Richard’s online evocation of a dystopian North-Western town, all pagan rituals and pylons, provides an immaculately distilled essence of 1970s childhood unsettlement, and encapsulates perfectly those vague, murky feelings of being warned about deadly contagions in your primary school hall.
Issue 380 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 381, available from 20th June.
“The most striking thing about the whole programme was the music. Until then, as far as I know, there hadn’t been any pure electronic music. In the early sixties there was still a fair amount of the old 1950s rock and roll around, but then this music came out… no instruments… purely electronic… and I’d never heard anything like it before…”
It was only a matter of time before my Uncle Trevor made an appearance in this blog. Trevor is a lovely bloke, and with the benefit of adult hindsight, I can see what a important influence his tastes exerted on my 1970s childhood. He liked electronic music. He liked Doctor Who. And the above quote is his abiding memory of watching the first episode of the show as a 10-year-old, in November 1963. Yes, he remembers William Hartnell emerging from the TARDIS in a murky Shoreditch scrapyard, but it was the whooshing, swooping, radiophonic theme music that truly captured his imagination. To the ten-year-old 1960s child, the experience of hearing music without any discernable instrument was… well, unearthly.
Although Doctor Who‘s theme had been written by Australian musician Ron Grainer, whose title music for Maigret, Steptoe and Son and That Was The Week ThatWas had already built him a solid reputation in the TV industry, it was arranged and realised by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire. Surrounded by piles of sliced analogue tape and test-tone oscillators, she painstakingly transformed Grainer’s notation into a resolutely avant-garde slice of musique concrète. Is it, alongside The Beatles’ Revolution #9, perhaps the most widely-heard piece of experimental music ever produced? Grainer himself was certainly taken aback. “Did I really write this?” he famously pondered, as Derbyshire played him the final mix. “Most of it,” she laconically replied. His subsequent noble attempts to secure her a co-writing credit were thwarted by grey-suited BBC beaurocrats, who preferred members of the Radiophonic Workshop to skulk in shadowy anonymity.
Nevertheless, Delia Derbyshire became a pivotal figure in the development of experimental, electronic music, firmly entrenched in that intoxicating middle-ground between art and technology, her life almost defined by the delicious power of contrasts: she was a working class Coventry girl who gained a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University; a tweed-skirted former primary school teacher who found herself at the very farthest edge of the 1960s counter-culture. She exhibited music at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, the 1966 ‘happening’ at which The Beatles’ other experimental opus, the since resolutely-unheard Carnival Of Light, was aired. And – alongside fellow Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson and US-born electronica enthusiast David Vorhaus – formed the band White Noise, whose 1969 album An Electric Storm is a captivating mix of psychedelia, occult-tinged folk-pop and eerie, disturbing soundscapes.
By the 1990s, Derbyshire had seemingly long-since stopped making music, however – towards the end of the decade – she befriended musicians Pete Kember and Drew Mulholland, collaborating with the former on a 2001 track entitled Sychrondipity Machine (Taken from an Unfinished Dream), and passing onto the latter the score for an unfinished piece of electronica, dating – as far as she remembered – from the late 1960s. I knew of Drew from his recordings as Mount Vernon Arts Lab, particularly his wonderfully atmospheric album The Séance at Hobs Lane, originally released in 2001, and then reiussed by Ghost Box Records in 2007. So I was intrigued to discover, earlier in 2019, that he had finally realised Delia Derbyshire’s “lost” score, transforming it into the album Three Antennas In A Quarry, now available from Buried Treasure records.
Drew’s interpretation is incredibly evocative of Deliba Derbyshire’s 1960s work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Doctor Who fans with a particular love of the William Hartnell era may find themselves drifting dreamily to a long-forgotten front room, or – indeed – to a gleaming corridor on a hostile alien planet. I might even buy a copy for my Uncle Trevor. I spoke to Drew Mulholland for my BBC Tees Evening Show, and this is how the conversation went…
Bob: I’m assuming that even before you got to know her personally, you admired Delia’s work a lot?
Drew: Yeah, even on my first records, on the run-out groove it said “Delia Derbyshire we salute you”! So she was always around. One of the things that I ‘fessed up to was that, when I was a 12-year-old, I did shoplift quite a bit… and one of the records I got was Out of This World by the Radiophonic Workshop. And I remember – because there were 100 tracks or something on it – writing down the ones that really stood out for me, and they were all by someone called “DD”. So I checked the index, and it was Delia, of course. And for me, as a 12-year-old, they were head and shoulders above everything else.
That is pretty esoteric music taste for a 12-year-old… like lots of us, did you come to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop through their work on Doctor Who?
Yeah, but also… I’m writing the story of how I got involved in music, and I had to – as Syd Barrett would have said – tread the backward path. So I was thinking about all of this, and it came from… not necessarily Doctor Who, but BBC Schools music. Those weird programme that we’d listen to, maybe on the World Service, that had all these sounds, rather than music. I think that sensibility was very quietly going on in the background, and I was soaking it up.
It’s odd, last week I watched Georgy Girl, the Lynn Redgrave film, and she’s a nursery school teacher, and in the opening five minutes she’s teaching kids to interpret what is clearly an experimental Radiophonic Workshop track! And you’re right, we did hear this stuff at school. Music, Movement and Mime…
That was one of them… I think that was a series of LPs. A lot of the stuff that Ghost Box have picked up on, that whole ethos, is very much based on that time. Now we’ve got so much distance from the 1970s, we can look back as adults and go “Actually, that was pretty weird…”. You know, the Public Information Films and all those hauntological tropes. It was a strange time.
It was a time when it wasn’t seen as particularly out of the ordinary to give really small kids some quite avant-garde things to listen to. It was seen as quite a healthy thing. I mean, the BBC produced this stuff for kids… the state broadcaster!
How times have changed!
So how did you get to know Delia? Did that happen in the 1990s?
Yeah, the late 1990s. It was Pete Kember from Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R… we were making a record together, and he phoned one day – very excited – and said “You’ll never guess who I’ve just been talking to…” and I said “Right, can you phone her back, and ask if it’s OK if this guy in Glasgow phones her?”
And I’ve told this story before, but I called her at seven o’clock, and she said “I’m really busy just now, can you call at twelve tomorrow?’ So right on twelve o’clock, I picked the receiver up and dialled the number… so her phone rang at about a minute past twelve. And she just picked the phone up and said “You’re late!'”
Ha! Rumour did have it that she was somewhat eccentric… and also quite reclusive by the 1990s. How did you find her as a person?
I’ll be diplomatic… it depended what time of day you spoke to her. If it was early on, she was sweetness and light and very helpful. She was great. Other times, not so.
I’ve seen you say that she was the only person you’ve ever encountered who could say “Oh Crumbs!” and not make it sound remotely contrived. Did she have that kind of sweet, old school quality to her?
Very much so. “Gosh and golly”, things like that! You didn’t even question it, it was just… that’s Delia. It was very natural, and hilarious of course.
So how did Three Antennas in a Quarry come into your posession? Was it something that you’d talked about working on together?
No, I think she was doing some recording with Pete Kember, it was around that time. We did a kind of mini-tour with E.A.R… Experimental Audio Research, one of Pete’s many groups. This would be summer or autumn 1998. And she’d phone up, and just say… without any pre-amble… “Do you use spices? I can get you some spices! My man works in a spice factory…”
And then she’d phone up and start talking about snuff… Oh, I’d seen that she was a very enthusiastic snuff user…
Yeah! She said to me once that she’d had a special mix made up at the Sheffield snuff mills.
We need to find that, someone could market it… branded Delia Derbyshire Snuff. I suspect the market for snuff is quite niche these days, but you know…
One of the things that really annoys me is that Pete gave me one of Delia’s snuff tins… and I’ve lost it. I’ve no idea what happened to it.
If your house is anything like mine, it’ll be down the back of a radiator or sofa. So in what form did Three Antennas in a Quarry come to you? From listening to the album, it doesn’t sound like it lends itself to traditional notation.
No, not at all… it was a graphic score, which can be anything – a drawing, a sketch, dots on a page, a graph… it was very much the classic “scribble on the back of an envelope”. It was a sheet of A4, and there was a lot of numerical notation, and references to reel-to-reel tape recorders and what speed they would go at. So it was quite intense tying to find a route into it, because apart from the tape recorders and speed there wasn’t any direction as to how the music should go, the tempo, that kind of thing… but I like that, because I’m a researcher!
Where did some of the titles come from? ‘Calder Woodward’, for example?
A mixture of Calderwood, where I lived briefly as a child, and… Edward Woodward. You’ve got to have fun when you’re making a record!
Any idea what Delia had intended to do with the score? She even seems to have been quite vague about when she’d written it… the late 1960s, but she wasn’t quite sure…
No, she wasn’t sure. I don’t even know if it was supposed to be for the Radiophonic Workshop, or if it was a theatre piece… because she did lot of stuff for television and theatre… or if it was even an idea that she pursued. It was just one of those things that was either abandoned, or drastically transformed into something else.
Did you speculate at one point that she might have intended it for Syd Barrett, or Pink Floyd?
I don’t know… obviously it can never be proven, but I know that she invited Pink Floyd to the Radiophonic Workshop. We got the calendars out, and it would have been October 1967. And Syd was still in the band then, so the idea of Syd and Delia in the same room together fires the imagination.
She seemed to have this connection with the biggest rock stars of the day, and they had a fascination with her as well… didn’t Paul McCartney and John Lennon visit her at one point?
Yeah, Paul McCartney had written Yesterday, so this was 1965. And he knew that he didn’t want the full band to play it: he didn’t want the normal bass, two guitars and drums. So he asked George Martin -“What do I do with this?” and he said ‘”There’s this woman at the Radiophonic Workshop, go and have a word with her…”
I’d literally just read about that in Barry Miles biography of Paul McCartney, and I called her straight away, and said “What’s all this about?” And she now famously said “Yes, he came to see me… with the other one… the one with the glasses”. I said “That’ll be John Lennon, then?” She said “Lennon, that’s it… golly!”
So she lived in a separate world to the pop music of the era, then?
I think so, yeah. I visited Girton College in Cambridge [where Delia studied in the late 1950s] to give a talk there, and I did some field recording, and stayed there for a couple of days… and really started to get a sense of separateness. From the world, basically.
Although she did seem to have a certain fascination with Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones…
Yeah, we spoke to her up here for a radio interview, and she said that when she heard the news that he’d died, she was doing he washing up, and she cried into it. She said he was really nice, and remembered his frilly cuffs! But the spooky coincidence is that they both died on the same day… July 3rd. Which was also the day that my Dad died… and Jim Morrison!
Don’t throw any more in, it’s getting spooky! She’s such an extraordinary figure, and an ahead-of-her-time figure… my Uncle Trevor, who is a big influence on me, saw the first episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 1963, when he was ten… and he said it wasn’t so much the programme itself that stuck in his mind, it was the music… he and his friends had never heard music before where you couldn’t discern any particular instrument. That must have been a mind-blowing thing for an early 1960s kid. Incredibly forward-thinking.
Oh, incredibly! It’s like a stun grenade going into a room… there were only two channels on TV at that point, and not only did you have the introductory music, but you also had those visuals as well. The video feedback… it was the first time that had been used. And this wasn’t some out-of-the-way arts programme, it was teatime on a Saturday. I was two then, so I don’t remember it, but we’ve all grown up with the Doctor Who theme, and more and more television channels, and CGI and all this… but at that time, it must have been a bit of a cultural shift. Suddenly… this is what’s possible. And perfectly timed, in the early 1960s.
Yes, psychedelia, just before actual psychedelia…
Well that’s why they called it psyche-Delia!
Twenty years in regional radio, and I’m still being beaten to solid-gold opportunities for brilliant puns. “Pyschedelia Derbyshire”! Good grief, I hang my head in shame. Thanks to Drew Mulholland, and to Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records. A limited vinyl edition of Three Antennas in a Quarry has now sold out, but the full album can be downloaded here…
HERE JOHN TURNER WAS CAST AWAY IN A HEAVY SNOW STORM IN THE NIGHT IN OR ABOUT THE YEAR 1755 THE PRINT OF A WOMAN’S SHOE WAS FOUND BY HIS SIDE IN THE SNOW WHERE HE LAY DEAD
The stone is not especially conspicuous, but it’s not inconspicous, either. It’s just there. We spotted it easily enough from the car window, as we trundled merrily towards the A537. The distilled essence of a 300-year-old mystery, surrounded by tufts of long grass at the side of a dry stone wall in Cheshire, barely ten minutes drive from the nearest 24-hour Tesco and a drive-through McDonalds.
The enigmatic inscription on the stone provided the inspiration for Alan Garner’s moving 2003 novel Thursbitch, a book in which this intertwining of the ancient and modern is a powerful driving force. John Turner is a jagger, a packman, trading salt and malt between Cheshire and Derbyshire, the only member of his tiny community to have experienced an existance outside of Thursbitch valley itself, where a paganistic, hallucinogenic bull-worshipping religion inextricably connects the local farmers to the dark, unforgiving landscape that surrounds them. That connection is threatened when one of Turner’s excursions brings Christianity – and, ultimately, the founding of the still-extant Jenkin Chapel – to the valley, and the echoes of these tumultuous events resound into the 21st century, becoming entangled with the lives of Ian and Sal, a modern-day couple (of sorts) whose regular walking trips around the stones and ruins of Thursbitch lead to the unwitting forging of a symbiotic link between their own touching plight and those of its 18th century inhabitants.
I visited Thursbitch on May Bank Holiday Monday, with my friends Nathan and Natalie. Unlike Ian and Sal, we didn’t appear to drift backwards in time… although the hailstones that engulfed us in the ruins of the valley’s most remote farmhouse certainly belonged to an entirely different season. Like John Turner, we tracked an inquisitive hare as it lollopped from stone to stone, and we stopped for a rest amongst the weather-worn headstones of Jenkin Chapel itself. “This place has had enough of us,” quipped Nathan, quoting Sal from the book, as we lost our bearings amidst a zig-zag of faded tracks.
In the evening, we went to the Old Medicine House. This timber-framed 16th century apothecary was, in the early 1970s, on the verge of demolition before Alan Garner and his wife Griselda transported it seventeen miles across the Cheshire countryside to be rebuilt alongside their existing family home. It now forms the hub of their charitable foundation, The Blackden Trust, an organisation that encourages visitors to uncover the secrets of the surrounding landscape through a delightful cavalcade of workshops, lectures, schools programmes and arts events. Those familiar with the locations of Alan’s books will find the setting oddly evocative… as we approached the house, the supine dish of Jodrell Bank observatory was peeping incongrously through the trees, and the occasional hum and rattle of express trains to Crewe never fail to remind me of the lovelorn Tom, the intense 1970s teenager whose tortured love for his more pragmatic girlfriend Jan forms an integral part of the haunting Red Shift. By the fireside of the Old Medicine House, Nathan, Natalie and I watched acclaimed folk musicians James Patterson and John Dipper perform a gentle, good-humoured set of exquisitely-played traditional songs; the latest of many Blackden Trust events that we’ve attended together. As Griselda joyously commented to us afterwards, their events have become a community in their own right, and it’s an extremely warm and welcoming community.
I could ramble endlessly about the influence that Alan Garner’s books have exerted upon the last 35 years of my life… and I suspect that I frequently have. When I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingman and The Moon of Gomrath at the end of my time at primary school, I transplanted their captivating, mystical storylines into the setting of my native North York Moors, the only comparable countryside that I’d experienced in my short lifetime. Those books gave me a connection with, and an appreciation of, my own locality and landscape that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. As the years roll by, I find increasing solace in losing myself amidst the rolling moors of my childhood, submerged by their stories, their folklore, their people, their ancient stones and valleys, their sheer power. Alan Garner gave me that, and I’ll always, always be grateful.
I’ve tried to tell him in person, but his presence renders me incapable (well, more incapable) of coherent speech.
In 2015, on my first visit to the Blackden Trust, I discovered that writer and editor Erica Wagner was compiling a compendium of appreciation of Alan’s work, entitled First Light, with contributors that included Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood. I interviewed Erica for the Fortean Times, and the following feature appeared in Issue 336, dated January 2016. It’s a love letter to First Light, which is an inspiring and hugely entertaining collection of tributes, reflections and memories, but also to Alan’s body of work, and the influence it has exerted upon us both…
THE WIZARD OF THE EDGE
Bob Fischer looks forward to a new anthology of appreciation for the work of Alan Garner, whose novels of folklore, myth and magic have enthralled generations of readers.
“At dawn one still October day in the long ago of the world, across the hill of Alderley, a farmer from Moberley was riding to Macclesfield fair.”
It’s a drizzly, autumnal afternoon, sometime in October or November 1983, and a softly-spoken primary school teacher, all drooping moustache and bifocals, grips a battered paperback and begins reading the above passage aloud to a whispering gaggle of ten-year-old children. Some are restless, most are entranced; at least one is entirely unaware of the profound impact the book is to have upon his life. And yet, as a sheet of rain dissipates against the library window, and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen plunges swiftly into a murky world of lost magic, dark forces and twisted folklore, I gradually begin to realise that I have found my Favourite Writer In The World.
It might be 32 years since the inspirational Mr Millward read Alan Garner’s debut novel to me and my snotty-nosed classmates, but – in the intervening three decades – my opinion has never faltered. Ever since that fateful afternoon, Garner’s books have been a constant in my life, not just shoved onto a shelf or piled upon a bedside table, but almost woven into the very fabric of my being; whether as a dreamy schoolboy excitedly searching for Svarts and Mara in the tangled woodland of my native North York Moors; or as a beardy fortysomething, keen to research the long-lost folk tales of the very same windswept landscapes.
Garner’s work is primal, hypnotic and essential. I can’t imagine life without it, any more than I can imagine life without oxygen, water or Chocolate Hobnobs. And I really like Chocolate Hobnobs. When I read books like Weirdstone and its soulful, feminine sequel, The Moon of Gomrath; when I revisit the suburban weirdness of Elidor and the simmering, sensual myth cycle of The Owl Service; they occupy my thoughts to the virtual exclusion of everything else around me. Mundane existence feels pale and grey; Garner’s books are thrillingly alive.
And then there are the later works: Strandloper, Thursbitch and Boneland; the latter of which, published in 2012, unexpectedly completed the Weirdstone trilogy five decades after the saga had begun. Infused with complex themes of loss, grief and fractured time, these books have proved as profoundly affecting to adult readers as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was to those of us whose childhoods it illuminated. Garner’s readers have, in every imaginable sense, grown up alongside him.
Alan turned eighty last year, and – to celebrate – a new anthology of appreciation for his work has been compiled by writer and journalist Erica Wagner. Entitled First Light, it collects together essays, poems and similarly creative tributes from the likes of Stephen Fry, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper and David Almond.
“Alan Garner is really a unique literary figure,” Erica tells me, on yet another drizzly, autumnal afternoon. “And one thing that’s worth saying is how many different kinds of people – writers, historians and scientists – have been drawn to his work over the years. So it wasn’t hard to come up with a list of people that we might approach to contribute. And somehow I was not surprised when, really, everyone that we thought to ask agreed to do it. And that’s a sign of how important Alan Garner has been; not just to them, but to a broader reading and literary culture.”
Curiously, unlike most of her contributors, Erica’s childhood was completely untouched by Garner’s work, and she offers up the entirely reasonable excuse of having been born and raised in Manhattan.
“I came to Britain as a late teenager, so I didn’t grow up with Alan’s books,” she says. “I discovered his work as an adult, and I can only imagine what their effect would have been on me if I’d read them when I was ten or eleven. The first book of his that I read was a reissue of The Stone Book Quartet, in the late 1990s. At the time, I was editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and – of course – every book that was ever published came across my desk at one time or another. Thinking that I was a terribly well-educated person, I found myself asking ‘Gosh, what is this book that’s being called a classic? I’ve never heard of this book, I’ve never heard of this author… what’s going on?’. So I started to read… and that was it. My life changed.
“Maybe the reason I came to Britain is that I wanted access to another world. I was interested in folklore and mythology, and I felt it was much closer to the surface in Britain. Much more available. So when I discovered Alan’s work, it just spoke to me as the thing that I’d been looking for.”
Originally published between 1976 and 1978, The Stone Book Quartet comprises four short novels – The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate – and is arguably the most overt manifestation of the roots of Garner’s work; grounded as it is in the landscape and architecture of his native Alderley Edge; and infused with a sense of his own family history.
“Alan comes from a very interesting and unusual place in modern culture,” says Erica. “He comes from a family of craftsmen. Always rooted in one place, living a kind of ancient life, up until the early 20th century. And then Alan went to Manchester Grammar School, he went to Oxford to study Classics… so he has two kinds of knowledge in his head: the ancient knowledge of where he and his family come from; but then he also has book knowledge. And I think there is, in his books, a kind of fissure; a bridge that always has to be crossed. And I think that’s expressive of that balance. There are always two worlds in Alan’s books. And how those two worlds interact with each other is different every time.”
Even as a ten-year-old in 1983, sitting at Mr Millward’s feet in Levendale Primary School library, I found that this sense of duality was the major contributory factor in drawing me inexorably into Garner’s world. In the early books, that “bridge” is the crossing point from the humdrum to the fantastical; it’s the unassuming rock that conceals the magical gates of Fundindelve; it’s the derelict church in a Manchester slum that provides the portal to the nightmarish realm of Elidor. But more than that; it’s the Weirdstone‘s anorak-sporting hikers, wandering idly through the Cheshire countryside; transpiring – as we discover – to be warlocks steeped in ancient, dark magic. It’s a unicorn loose in an alleyway by a railway line, a Welsh myth cycle manifested in a sabotaged motorbike, a vengeful Celtic spirit unleashed by the excavation of a pub car park. Like the ancient folklore from which he so often takes his inspiration, Garner’s fantasy is not “elsewhere”, in some fictional land… it’s here, and now, and living with us. Beneath every stone, within every hollow tree trunk, lurking in the corner of the attic, behind the water tank.
Within a year of my epiphany on that rainy autumnal weekday, I’d read the first five of Garner’s novels, up to and including Red Shift; a personal literary journey that straddled the terrifying transfer from the warm enclaves of my primary school to the stark, alien bleakness of secondary education. And, looking back, I see the complex passage from childhood to adolescence as another recurring theme in these older books; perhaps a further explanation for my all-encompassing obsession with them at the time. There are echoes of it in Susan’s painful longing for womanhood in The Moon of Gomrath; it’s a driving force behind Elidor‘s textbook “youngest child” Rowland, desperately craving to be taken seriously by his elder siblings; and it positively boils over in the fractious teenage tensions of The Owl Service.
“Yes,” agrees Erica, “the other two worlds are the worlds of childhood and adulthood. It’s frightening. And we don’t talk much about that; we talk about practical things; sexuality, doing your GCSEs, what happens when you go on a date. But my son is fifteen. And I remember being fifteen, dimly, and it’s really scary. And I think a lot of what Alan does is a metaphor for how scary that is.
“Stephen Fry says in First Light that, when he first read Alan Garner, he felt trusted by the books. And I think that’s a very interesting point… one thing that Alan Garner never does is talk down to his readers. His books, which deal in most cases with pretty dark, dangerous and scary stuff, know that these are things that young people think about, and are able to deal with. Need to deal with, indeed. You feel like you’re in a serious partnership with Alan Garner when you’re reading his books. You and the author are on a really important journey together. And I think that’s something that all of these pieces have in common; they’re all describing a partnership with an author.”
Those of us who have had our lives transformed by Garner’s work know that it’s a partnership that lasts a lifetime.
First Light was published in May 2017, and is widely available – and highly recommended. And for more information on the Blackden Trust and its events, visit…
And, as a curious postscript, I’m proud to report that the link between my native Teesside and North Yorkshire landscapes and the books of Alan Garner – forged in my head as a ten-year-old – has become oddly tangible in recent years, with the discovery that the Garner family dinner service that inspired the The Owl Service, with its mysterious, abstract pattern of flower petals and owl faces, was designed by the emiment Victorian aesthete Christopher Dresser, a large collection of whose work is held in the Dorman Museum in my birthplace, Middlesbrough. As part of the the 50th anniversary celebrations of the book’s publication, Alan and Griselda kindly donated a plate from the service to the Dorman… and your shambling correspondant was charged with the responsibility of transporting it across the Pennines. I’ve never driven so carefully in my life, and we kept a constant guard on the car during a toilet-stop at Birch Services on the M62.
If you’re passing through the North-East, please pop into the Dorman Museum and pay your respects, but I accept no responsibility for the compulsive construction of origami owls in the days to follow.
Meanwhile, Alan Garner’s latest book Where Shall We Run To? was published in 2018, and is a touching and evocative memoir of his formative years in 1930s and 1940s Cheshire, written primarily – and ingeniously – from the perspective of his childhood self, and dotted with revelations that shed revelatory autobiographical light on the events and iconography of his subsequent novels. The revelation of his personal involvement in the uncovery of Alderley Edge’s “Goldenstone” left me reeling, and oh… the tale of Bunty the budgie will rend the flintiest of hearts.
I’m six years old, it’s a breezy summers afternoon in 1979, and I’m walking through the long, scratchy grass of a slippery North Yorkshire riverbank when my dad, ever the amateur historian (well, he has a O Level) spies an outcrop of pale, rectangular concrete, jutting at an unlikely angle from a nearby hillside.
“See that little building? Do you know what that is?”
“Yes…” (I’m lying, of course, but no self-respecting six-year-old wants to demonstrate weakness in the face of his dad’s omniscience)
“Stop fibbing… it’s a pillbox. It’s where we waited during the war for the German soldiers to come…”
My dad, born in 1939, may have been somewhat embellishing his own experiences of wartime service (and the prospect of a land invasion of Yarm), but he was nevertheless right about this evocative relic of civil defence. The concrete wartime pillbox, scarred and overgrown, was a direct and tangible link to an era of history that, in 1970s Britain, still felt remarkably raw. So pervasive was the spectre of “the war” during my childhood that – as a very small boy – I remember being vaguely unsure as to whether it was still being fought. The comic racks in Mr Murray’s newsagents were filled with titles like Victor and Commando; still-youthful relatives would talk of wartime memories that felt disconcertingly fresh (my Mum, only 37 in 1979, recalls tanks rumbling through Middlesbrough town centre) and my enthusiastic schoolfriends honed their artistic talents incorporating divebombing Spitfires into felt-tip recreations of the battle scenes from Star Wars.
Our local landscape bore the scars of war, too… tangled woods concealed the remains of moss-covered gun emplacements; rolling moors were pockmarked with the craters of German bombs that hadn’t quite made it to their targets amidst the industrial heartland of Teesside; and those musty pillboxes were dotted around the fringes of my home town like vigilant, concrete sentinels.
The lingering impact of the Second World War on the childhood experience of the 1970s forms an integral part of Frances Castle’s beautiful new graphic novel Stagdale. Set during the stifling summer of 1975, it sees timid, 12-year-old Kathy and her recently-divorced mother making a fresh start in the titular village, a vaguely unsettling rural outpost stuck in a disqueting torpor. It’s a community that boasts a Norman church, an annual medieval hunting ritual, and an ancient, chalk stag carved into the looming hillside, dominating the nestling huddle of tumbledown cottages below. The book captures perfectly the insularity of the textbook “creepy village”, redolent of so much classic childrens’ television of the era… as well as the suffocating stillness and silence of a 1970s school holiday. “Stagdale folk don’t tend to travel far,” admits Kathy’s new friend Joe, as the duo tramp aimlessly through a sun-dappled churchyard bristling with familiar village surnames. It’s a languid, leisurely tale, liberally dotted with totems of the era: toy Wombles, racks of Texan bars, scary, violent summer thunderstorms and a tiny museum of corn dollies and Bellarmine witch-bottles… a location in which Kathy learns for the first time the wartime story that drives the book towards a tantalising twist: the discovery of a 1938 diary behind the skirting board of her new bedroom.
I spoke to Frances Castle about Stagdale, and her record label Clay Pipe, for my evening radio show on BBC Tees. This is the conversation…
Bob: Congratulations on Stagdale… it’s a beautiful piece of work, and clearly a labour of love. How long has it taken you?
Frances: I’ve probably been working on it for about seven years. It’s taken many different forms over that period, and it finally came together around the end of last year. It started initially as a couple of short, graphic stories that were seen by a childrens’ publisher, and they were interested in me coming up with an idea for a book. They came up with a story that involved a diary being found in an attic, and then I went away and came back with the basic story of Stagdale. Which they seemed to like… but they wanted the main character to be an American boy.
So that’s how it started, and I came up with a few spreads and some ideas, but nothing came of it really, and they kind of lost interest. And then I thought “Well, I’m going to carry on with this… but I’m going to change it in way that appeals to me.”
Was it a nice thing to have it come back into your control?
Completely. Suddenly the main character became a character that I could relate to, and had more experience of, and it became something that was more personal. I then became so busy with other illustration jobs that I couldn’t do anything with it for a long time… but if I ever had a little bit of spare time, I worked on it. And then I went through a period last year of not being very busy, so I just picked it up, and ended up getting as far as I’ve got… which is the first part of the story.
Yes, this is very much Part One of Stagdale… how many parts will there be?
Probably four or five, I think.
The main character in the book is a 12-year-old girl called Kathy… and you said that she was a character you could relate to. So was she based in any way on yourself, at that age?
Possibly… (laughs!) It could be! The original publishers wanted a boy, because girls will read stories about boys, but a lot of boys won’t read stories about girls. And they wanted him to be American so – if they sold the book to America – American readers could relate to it. So that wasn’t so easy to relate to for me, but bringing a girl into it… as soon as I made that decision, it made things a lot easier. And I felt a lot more at home with the story.
It’s got a similarly creepy atmosphere to so many classic childrens’ TV series of the 1970s… and we’ve chatted over e-mails about programmes like Children of the Stones. Was it that kind of feel that you had in mind when you were working on Stagdale?
Very, very much so. At that point, a lot of those 1970s shows had been re-released on DVD, so they were quite easy to watch again. And obviously I remember watching them on TV as a child, but watching them again as an adult… well, they couldn’t help but be an influence, really.
There’s something about the TV of that era that’s incredibly evocative, isn’t there? Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what…
I know, and I wanted to bring that into the story. The eeriness, the slight strangeness… I wanted that to be part of it.
There’s one frame in there that really transported me, and it’s a silly little thing… but there’s a scene in the village shop, with a depiction of the sweet racks, and there are Marathon and Texan bars for sale!
I know! There’s going to throw some younger people, isn’t it? They’re not going to understand…
So tell us a little bit about where the story goes… it’s about a girl called Kathy, who comes to live in the slightly creepy village of Stagdale, and discovers something intriguing…
Yes, Kathy finds an old tin with a diary in it, and the diary has been written by a boy who lived in the same house during the Second World War. Basically, he’s a Jewish boy who has come over from Germany just before the war, on the Kindertransport. So these two children have a similar experience of the village, in that they’re both outsiders. And then there’s a jewel that’s goes missing, and the German boy is accused of taking it… and it’s become almost part of the folklore of the village that it was stolen by him during the war. But that isn’t really what happened, and finding out what did happen is the main part of the story.
So there’s a connection between Kathy and the German boy, across forty years of history?
Yes. It’s one of those classic stories of an outsider going into a very rural, small-minded place, where the villagers are slightly odd and creepy. And they both have that similar experience, over different times.
I wanted to ask a little bit about Clay Pipe Music, too. This is your record label, and you’re releasing Stagdale through it… tell us a little bit about the label. When was it founded?
The label started at the end of 2011. I’d made music over the years, but I hadn’t done anything for a long time. But I made a record [The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, by Frances’ musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree] and thought “I wonder what I’ll do… I’ll maybe put it out myself”. I’d had music out on other labels way back, but that was pre-internet, and pre-MP3 downloads. So I thought I’d do it myself this time, and that’s how I started. I did a CD and, being an illustrator, thought I would use it as an excuse for some hand-made stuff…and so I hand-printed all the covers. I think it started off quite slow… and then Jarvis Cocker played it on his 6 Music show, and sales went through the roof!
That helped, and I thought “Oooh… I’d like to do something else”‘. So the next record I put out was by Michael Tanner, called Thalassing, and that also did well… and things slowly started building up. And around about the time of the first Jon Brooks album Shapwick – which initially came out on CD – I swapped over to doing vinyl. I’d reached a point with the CDs where I was hand-making them all, and I could do about 200 at a time, but they were selling out so quickly that I really needed to be able to make more. And vinyl seemed to be the best way for me to do that, and that was the right decision to make. Totally.
Clay Pipe is very much about music and art going hand in hand, and I guess there’s not a lot you can do with a small CD sleeve… but with a vinyl sleeve, my word. You’ve made some beautiful packages.
Exactly, it’s just the perfect size and format to design for, and people pay attention to it, too… they’ll sit and look at it, and listen to the music. It’s just a perfect vehicle for illustration and design.
One of the things I love about Clay Pipe is that the artwork can be as evocative as the music itself… do you work hand-in-hand with the musicians, and consult on any ideas that they might have for the packaging?
Yes, exactly. It’s very much a collaborative thing. Although it varies… some people are happy to let me get on with it, some people come with their own ideas, and some people don’t like my initial ideas! But it’s always worked out, every time.
And is there an ethos to Clay Pipe? Landscape and place seems very important to you…
Yes, pretty much… I don’t just put out collections of random songs, the album has to work as a whole, and there has to be some sort of theme to it, some sort of connection… and yes, landscape has played a big part in it, and place. I think I’m just naturally attracted to music that has that anyway, so that’s always been part of the label, and I think it’ll continue to be.