Stagdale, echoes of war, and the Fortean Times

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.

Stagdale is available directly from Clay Pipe Music, and is also discussed in the first regular Haunted Generation column in the current Fortean Times (Issue 379, dated May 2019)… along with Buried Treasure‘s release of Three Antennas in a Quarry, a Drew Mulholland interpretation of a lost Delia Derbyshire score; the forthcoming Delaware Road: Resistance and Ritual event in Wiltshire; Ghost Box Records‘ latest project Chanctonbury Rings, and the Scarfolk Annual, due for publication in October.

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