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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharron: You get me going “Wooooooooo” instead!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some lovely analogue synths on there, Sharron…

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

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

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

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

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

Jonny Trunk, Wrappers Delight and John Townsend

Trunk Records! Everybody loves Trunk Records, surely? A label that offers such an overpoweringly direct link to the nostalgic ephemera of the British 1970s childhood; whether by collating the wistful folk music of vintage pre-school television on the sublime Fuzzy Felt Folk compilation; introducing a new generation to the unsettling radiophonic sounds of The Seasons (an album so redolent of its era’s school halls that the sleeve should really have come with a “scratch and sniff” whiff of parquet flooring), or reissuing the beautiful, melancholy soundtracks to Fingerbobs and Ivor The Engine.

And this obsession with the ‘between the cracks’ minutiae of the 1970s childhood experience barely scratches the surface of the Trunk oeuvre. Elsewhere, there are long-lost film soundtracks, vintage 1950s jazz and exotica, spoken word oddities, even an archly-voiced album of letters written by lonely (if imaginative) gentlemen to their favourite adult magazine and movie stars.

The latest Trunk project is a belter. A barnstormer. An project so bound up in this joyous love of the little, the lost and the forgotten that it’s deserves to become a keystone of the label’s already prodigious output. A new book, deliciously titled Wrappers Delight, showcases the highlights of a forty-year collection of British ephemera that filled an entire house (and accompanying caravan and summerhouse) in Stockport. We’re talking sweet wrappers here… and crisp packets, cigarette cards, cereal boxes, fizzy drinks cans; in fact, pretty much anything with a branded label that ever graced the shelves of Liptons or Presto or Fine Fare or – indeed – the little corner shop on the end of your street with an impressive selection of Mini Milks and Flash Gordon stickers.

The man behind the collection was John Townsend, and the man collating the book is Trunk Records’ irrepressible Jonny Trunk, who – in collaboration with Fuel Publishing – has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to get the project off the ground. Impressively, the target was met within 36 hours, but potential punters still have until 6th July to offer their backing, and claim any number of superb bonuses – including a Planet of the Apes bubblegum print, a striking Space Dust t-shirt, and a pink 7″ single of advertising jingles by British jazzman Kenny Graham. The link is here…

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jonnytrunk/wrappers-delight

I spoke to Jonny Trunk for my BBC Tees Evening Show. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: Can you start me telling me a little bit about John Townsend himself?


Jonny: He was born in Surrey, and he was an orphan. And at the orphanage where he lived, post-war, he realised that every day when the milk arrived, the cardboard bottle tops were all different. So he thought “Oh, I’ll start collecting those…”

By the 1950s he’d amassed a huge collection of what’s called “cartophilia”… cigarette and tobacco cards, that kind of thing, and he became a legend within those circles. He knew all about advertising printed on silk, and anything to do with soap… he was quite a manic collector. I’ve never really seen anyone like him, with that broad scope of interests. For the rest of his life he collected, and then – when he retired – he became an advisor to companies like Lever Brothers, because he knew so much about Port Sunlight! He just couldn’t stop collecting everything. Anything to do with brands… club flyers, phone cards, first day covers, playing cards… honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life.

We’re talking about the kind of collection that takes over the entire house here, aren’t we? And the garage, and the shed, and the caravan…

Yeah, when he passed away in 2015, his son took over the house, and pretty much lived in the kitchen and a little bit of the sitting room. The rest of it was just full. I came across it by complete accident, really… I was going to see his son about some advertising flexi-discs, because John collected those as well. Because they were brand-based… anything to do with a brand, he got involved with, and wanted to collect. So Robin, his son, told me all about John… and when I got to the house, there were just these extraordinary piles of… everything. In a box, there’d be another box full of three different collections of cards from Typhoo Tea, from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, and from Sunblest Bread. And then, in another bag, there’d be labels from sweet rock going back to the 1950s… but there’d be two and half thousand of them. It was extraordinary.

Your eyes must have lit up…

A little bit, but I was also quite apprehensive. There was quite a strange energy in the house, because of the amount of effort in bringing a collection like that together, and then filing some of it, and not filing other bits… you’d open a box, then have to sit down and say “I just don’t understand this.” There’d be a wrapper from a chocolate bar you’d never heard of, a box full of football pennants from 1960s bubble gum, weird things about the American Civil War that were given away as stickers from a comic… but they’d all be together. You almost had to try and process it, in a very strange way. But luckily his sons were very helpful, and said “anything you want to do… have a go.” So Wrapper’s Delight is the end result.

I imagine it was quite a bittersweet experiences for John’s sons? This was their father’s life’s work…

I think so in some respects, but they’d lived with it… they were the ones who had to eat all the sweets when they were little! There might have been some dental issues going on!

How had John’s family coped with it over the years? Had they ever tried to talk him out of collecting?

No, from what I gather, John Townsend was a very focused man. He had to be focused to collect what he collected, on a level that I’ve never seen before. I mean, it’s extraordinary. He was very single-minded, very determined, hugely intelligent… and they knew he was doing it, and that was it. They had their own lives.

What made him do it, do you think?

I don’t know. I’ve no idea. I mean you could go back psychologically and ask whether it was him being an orphan, and wanting to grab onto something that’s a bit more permanent… who knows. But he was brilliant at it.

We should be thankful that he did do it, because this stuff is ephemeral, and most people would look at a lolly wrapper or crisp packet, and decide to throw it away

Everyone did!

…which is why collections like this have such nostalgic resonance, I guess. The scarcity of this stuff…

Yeah, but he would also write to companies…. say if you wanted Womble stickers, and had to collect six packets of Womble chocolate to get them, he’d just phone up the company and say “Hi… can I just have the stickers, because I’m a collector”. And they’d say “Yeah, sure!”

Have you been through the whole collection now?

Yeah… I sort of knew what areas of interest I had, which was the stuff I grew up with, or that rang a bell in my head. So I went through all the tin cans, crisp packets, lolly wrappers, bubble gum packets, cards, all sorts of stuff like that. The confectionary… I mean, the sweet cigarette collection. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was mindblowing.

You put a lovely Generation Game-style video together, with this stuff going past on a conveyer belt, and so much of it just transported me. Was there a Star Wars lolly wrapper on there?

Yes!

I actually ate one of those when I first went to see Star Wars in 1978… my dad bought if for me during the interval, from a lady with a tray strapped around her neck… and I’ve never seen one since.

There’s quite a lot of that. And some of it’s not that obvious, it’s a little bit more obscure. So the book’s not full of Mars wrappers from 1972, it’s a bit weirder than that. There are things like Trebor Prehistoric Chews, do you remember those?

Did they have dinosaurs on, by any chance?

Yeah! And he’s not only got the wrappers, he’s got the cardboard box they were shipped in. We found, in the attic, two huge boxes full of flattened Weetabix boxes… which we didn’t realise were worth a huge amount of money, because they’ve got Doctor Who all over them. A cut-out TARDIS on the back of the box, that kind of thing.

So what form does Wrappers Delight actually take? Have you been doing a lot of scanning?

We’ve been photographing all the three-dimensional objects, like the Cresta can, and then anything that’s two-dimensional, like the flattened wrappers, have been professionally scanned. So we need the Kickstarter to produce a 240 page, full colour, magnificent beast of a book.

And you actually reached your Kickstarter target on… was it Day 1?

36 hours. I thought we were going to be pushed to do the whole thing, but I was overwhelmed by peoples’ enthusiasm and generosity. It’s been extraordinary.

It’s your first crowdfunded projecty, isn’t it? Were you nervous?

Yes, of course… you’re throwing yourself out there, and the way that this is crowdfunded, it’s all or nothing. You either get the funding and can do the book, or you don’t get the funding and you can’t do the book. It’s nerve-wracking, but strangely exciting. I think the Generation Game video helped a lot, and I think people saw the humour and the charm in it, and were seeing things that they’d never seen before. I’ve seen a lot of this stuff, and there were still things that I’d never seen before. It’s on such another level, it’s really interesting.

Great to see that Jarvis Cocker is writing the book’s introduction. I’m guessing this stuff struck a chord with him, too?

Yeah, we sent him over the video… we thought “He’s a pop star…” and you know, it’s all a bit pop, isn’t it? And he was up for it. And what’s interesting is that there was very much a sort of… well, I wouldn’t call it a North-South Divide, but there were certain brands that only really appeared in the North. What’s the one I was looking at today… GBs? That’s quite a weird one. A Scottish tinned mineral drink, a fizzy drink that only appeared up there. Bob’s, too… do you know Bob’s Lemonade? That’s quite an odd one.

I feel like I should, but I don’t…

Honestly, there are some really obscure ones that I’ve never seen before.

I’ve only discovered recently that quite a few brands were trailed in the North-East, before going fully national. Wispas, for example. And the one that I’ve really been trying to look into recently is Glee Bars, which I remember eating in the early 1980s. They were a bit rummy. In fact, I’ve seen rumours online that they were actually taken off the market due to their alcohol content.

They do sound highly questionable…

Yes, kids were getting fighting drunk on Glee Bars in the mean streets of Middlesbrough. The only people I can find that remember them are from Teesside, or at least the North-East. 

I’m pretty sure there are some strange regional crisps as well. They’ll all be finally revealed as and when the book’s finally published, in October or November.

Can people still contribute to the Kickstarter?

Yes, we’ve got another three weeks. It’s great… the reason John’s family have been very generous with the collection, and said I that I can do what I want, is that they get a good percentage of the book. So the more we get, the more they get. And the more fun everybody will have.

And on a thoughtful note, it’s a lovely celebration of John’s life, too. 

That’s whole point. And if this goes well, believe it or not there are probably two other books that could also appear. They’re not related to sweets or anything like that, they’re a bit stranger, but they’re still from his remarkable archive. It’s extraordinary what’s in there. Extraordinary. And it’s good fun, that’s the whole thing. It works on a pop level, on a strange nostalgic level, on a graphics level… it’s just brilliant.

Thanks for Jonny for the natter, and please have a rummage through the Kickstarter options on offer… there’s some great stuff available. And, on an entirely unrelated front, the next issue of the Fortean Times magazine (No 381, July 2019) has the latest printed Haunted Generation column, with thoughts on Jonathan Sharp’s album Divided Time; the new A Year In The Country compilation The Watchers; and Mark Brend’s creepy new novel Undercliff. It’s available on Thursday 20th June.

Divided Time, Jonathan Sharp and faded Polaroids

I think it’s the scarcity of my childhood photographs that gives them such potency. I’d estimate that, during the first eighteen years of my life, fewer than 100 photographs were taken of me… and the family camera was seen almost as a sacred object: brought out of its leather case for daytrips or family occasions, but otherwise kept hidden in a musty nook of the sideboard, nestling between unopened bottles of Campari and Warninks Advocaat, all gathering dust and – like me – counting down the interminable, slow-moving days until Christmas.

The process of developing photos was slow and laborious, too… there was the endless wait to “finish the film” before it was packed into an envelope and sent away – with an accompanying cheque – to Truprint or Turners: mysterious-sounding companies in secret laboratories that my fevered imagination transformed into the photographic equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Weeks would then pass before we could finally discover whether that picture of my Grandma feeding the giraffes at Flamingo Land had actually “come out”, or whether my clumsy thumbs had decapitated the entire family once again.

Photographs became forgotten objects, rarely shared… filed away in gaudy envelopes with their accompanying negatives in a secret pouch, or stuck carefully into musty, brown-card albums and relegated to bedroom cupboards. They physically faded, too… stark monochrome images became fuzzy grey shadows, and vibrant 1970s colours melded into the uniform orange and brown wash that has come to epitomise my memories of the decade. And yet this paucity, and this degradation, has lent our surviving childhood photos such extroardinary power. Fragments of frozen moments and long-lost loved ones, preserved in attics and chests of drawers, may be frequently unseen… but they are never unloved.

These feelings have inspired the new album from Jonathan Sharp, founder of The Heartwood Institute, and purveyor of “Hauntronica from the Heart of the English Lake District”. Previous Heartwood Institute releases – including the superb Secret Rites – have taken inspiration from the stories and landscape of his native Cumbria, but the new album Divided Time, released under Jonathan’s own name, does so in a way that feels more intensely personal, inspired directly by an album of evocative childhood photographs discovered amongst his mother’s belongings.

The album is a beautiful collection of elegaic piano-led pieces, each taking direct inspiration from individual photographs of Jonathan and his family taken in a period spanning 1970-1977; largely capturing the lakes, hills and seaside towns of his native county, but also peppered with intriguing detours to cosmopolitian Kensington and Battersea, and excursions to Hyde Park. There are woozy synths and plaintive glockenspiels that occasionally – for this listener, at least – conjure up memories of school music lessons. I asked Jonathan about the stories behind Divided Time, and his memories of the photographs that influenced the music…

Bob: How and where did you find the photos? Had they been hidden away for a long time?

Jonathan: I found them about twelve months ago. I knew my mother had lots of albums and I was really curious to go digging and see what was there. So they weren’t hidden… more like forgotten.

Do you have specific memories of any of them actually being taken?

It’s a long time ago, but some of them… yes, I clearly remember them being taken. With others, not so much – it’s more of a case of remembering the place, if not the time. Or they’ll bring back related memories.

“Carlisle to Euston Train, 1974”

I imagine they evoked particularly special memories of your parents…

Lots and lots of very happy memories. I had a very happy childhood.

They brought back memories of how different the world was back then… of trains having compartments. I clearly remember the flat in Drayson Mews, Kensington like it was yesterday, and it’s the same for the photos of the Steam Gathering in Kendal.

But sure, lots of memories of my parents too – my father died some time ago, and my mother isn’t in the best of health right now. The photo of Silloth, that’s me with my grandmother and her sister. So I’ve tried to include as much of my family as possible, that seemed really important to the whole project.

“Silloth, Promenade 1975”

There’s a lovely sense of place to some of these photos, particularly the pictures taken in Cumbria. Were visits to places like Bassenthwaite and Silloth a big part of your childhood? Can you talk us through some of the locations that inspired the album?

Sure… the opening track is inspired by a really early photo from 1970 of me looking at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a place that I’ve just kept going back to over the years. I actually have no memory of that photo, so I was surprised to find I’d been there as such a small child. Maybe that’s where my obsession with the place started.

Silloth… oh yes, the place to be as a kid. It’s an Edwardian seaside retreat that hasn’t aged well, but as a kid there was a penny arcade and donkey rides… imagine a scaled-down Morecambe or Blackpool and you’re there. Going to Silloth was a real treat. Bassenthwaite too, that was somewhere we went often, just to walk around… it’s the closest Lake. That particular photo brings back memories of an incredibly bitter winter when the lake actually froze over.

And there’s a whole batch of photos from London in 1974 and 1975, some of which I actually took myself. Those will be the wonky out of focus ones!

“Castlerigg 1970”

Where’s Cherry Woods? That’s a very evocative name.

It’s a wood close to where I grew up in Cumbria, but it’s not on any map under that name. I think that’s just what we called it… or how it had always been known to my parents’ generation. But obviously, in the world of Google Maps, it doesn’t exist under that name. Which says a lot about how digitalisation has reshaped our lives.

“Cherry Woods 1975”

For a kid growing up in Cumbria, you seemed to spend a lot of time in London in the mid-1970s. Did you have family there?

Well, I should explain… my father lived and worked in London, and my mother lived in Cumbria. So for most of our holidays we’d go to London. So yes, I spent quite a bit of time there in the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s. We’d go where he was working, so I also spent some time in New York in the late 1970s… but that’s for the next album!

For someone from a very rural background, London was just an incredible, eye-opening experience. I think I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to such a vibrant, multi-cultural experience at such a young age. There was certainly a sense of wonder… even at something as simple as a black cab or a steakhouse, these things just didn’t exist in Cumbria back then. It may sound mind-boggling, but… pizza! Pizza just was not something you could get in Cumbria, and I clearly remember thinking that I was being so exotic and grown-up, eating my first pizza in London.

It’s funny, but my other abiding memory of London is the security. This was prime IRA bombing time, and I clearly remember being searched when I was going into museums and theatres. That, and the sheer number of Hare Krishnas in robes! It’s funny what sticks in your mind.

“Hyde Park 1975”

A huge element of my childhood nostalgia is that so little of my childhood was “recorded”… I reckon there are fewer than 100 photos of me from the first 18 years of my life, and there’s no moving footage at all. Do you have similar feelings? Does this give nostalgia from the “pre-digital” era a real sense of yearning?

It’s absolutely the same for me. Maybe there are more than a hundred photos of me, as both my parents were into photography, but there are no moving images of me from that period. It’s the nature of the format as well… Polaroids, and photos that have degraded over time. I think that “fuzziness” contributes to the nostalgia factor too. Honestly, it’s like looking through a slightly oblique window into a different world. And really, it was a completely different world in so many ways.

How did you go about emulating the feel of the photos with the music on the album? Were there specific sounds, musical textures, even instruments that seemed to capture the feel of different photos? There seems to be a bit of glockenspiel on there, which reminded me of school music lessons!

Ha, school music lessons… you know, I think there was a certain element of that, at a subconscious level. I was certainly exposed to music at a very young age, I started piano lessons at about six or seven, and I also remember those “Music and Movement” sessions at junior school. I always liked the ones where the instruments came out… things like glocks and mini xylophone.

Probably 90% of these tracks started out as piano sketches, so there are a lot of different kinds of pianos deployed, from jazzy electric Rhodes and classical piano through to Hauschka influences… broken and prepared pianos. I find piano a very expressive instrument. And then the images themselves tended to suggest a tonal palette… be it synths, orchestral elements or more glitchy abstract sounds.

I’ve had a few people comment on how sad the overall feel is, which is a surprise to me as that’s not the vibe I was going for, I was aiming for more a kind of warm, fuzzy, slightly degraded vibe. A personal hauntology, if you like!

Divided Time is released on 21st June on limited edition vinyl, and via download, from the excellent, and prolific, Castles In Space label. It can already be pre-ordered here…

https://jonathansharp-cis.bandcamp.com/album/divided-time

Jonathan Sharp is @Doctorninesharp on Twitter, and you can follow The Heartwood Insitute @Heartwood9. Castles in Space is @CastlesInSpace. Thanks to Jonathan and to Colin Morrison from Castles in Space… and Divided Time will also be featured in the next Haunted Generation column to be included in the Fortean Times magazine, available on 20th June.

Picture Box, Sean Reynard and Quentin Smirhes

It’s 1978. Or 1979. Or 1980… it doesn’t really make any difference. What’s important here is that I’m ill, and off school, languishing in a somnambulent haze of measles or mumps (again, delete as applicable), lazily crinkling the orange cellophane on a glass bottle of Lucozade, and allowing the sparse pleasures of midweek daytime television to wash over me. There will, of course, be Crown Court and Programmes for Schools and Colleges. There may even be the illicit pleasures of Farmhouse Kitchen or Paint Along With Nancy. But nothing evokes the woozy nostalgia of childhood malady more potently than the austere, discordant opening titles of Picture Box

Produced by Granada TV from 1966 to 1990, and presented for almost the entire run by Alan Rothwell, a deceptively gentle actor with an under-appreciated granite edge (it’s an impressive CV that can include both a stint as genial sidekick to Humphrey Cushion in Hickory House, and a year as doomed heroin addict Nicholas Black in Brookside), the programme made an indelible impact on a generation of small children already rendered vulnerable by the lingering effects of spots, sniffles and calomine lotion. Inside the ‘Picture Box’ itself were tales from around the world, all imported by Granada on crackly 16mm film, all introduced by Rothwell, and all preceded by that iconic, unsettling title sequence… a combination of music (Manège, by French sound sculptors François and Bernard Baschet) and the unsettling footage of the rotating box itself, a sequence that Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp once described to me as “the central image we had in mind when we came up with the name and the mood of the label.”

In 2016, I was tipped off about a magnificent spoof version of the Picture Box titles, a “found footage” extension of the opening sequence in which the handle of the mysterious, revolving apparatus is revealed to be cranked by an outlandish figure from the darkest realms of deep archive TV… a sinister, moustachioed individual with a medieval fringe and a skin-tight, mustard-coloured sweater. And black underpants.

Tight, black underpants.

Oh good god, the underpants.

It all reeked of sinister 1970s academia, of smoke-filled common rooms in brutalist polytechnics; of whiskered (and whiskey-soaked) duffers diligently explaining the intricacies of “Water – An Amorphous Form”; presenting long-lost Open University modules on drizzle-soaked Tuesday afternoons, all BBC2 and almond slices.

It made me laugh like a drain, and I loved it.

It transpired to be the work of writer, film-maker and performer Sean Reynard, who – since then – has given his sinister handle-cranker a name (Quentin Smirhes) and cultivated a cottage industy of short, viral films, all spoofing the dustiest corners of the 1970s regional TV archive; where puppet choirboys are taught the rudiments of medieval instrumentation, where disembodied fingers poke from Heath Robinson birdboxes to the wistful, wobbly strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1; where the whispering, be-permed “Gentle Jeff” phones Facebook to softly request a “like” on “Samantha Wright’s photo of a baby eating a lemon.”

I’ve become entranced by it all, and was delighted when Sean agreed to a natter about this beautifully strange body of work. On, appropriately enough, a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. Although, disappointingly, I don’t think either of us were suffering from mumps or chickenpox. I did have a touch of hay fever, though.

Bob: Where did the character of Quentin come from? He’s such a perfect encapsulation of the figures that would pop on TV during our childhoods… did you have anyone in particular in mind when you created him?

Sean: Quentin came about after I’d read an article on Facebook about euphemisms for sexual intercourse… all from the 15th century! The phrases tickled me so much that I was compelled to say them out loud, and the voice that I used was the voice of Quentin… he must have been lurking in me all along. I had no particular person in mind,  I just knew that the flowery terminology required a clipped upper class accent. This was the time when the ‘Vine’ app started… remember that? You could record youself for six seconds, and loop it. So I immediately pranced about the house in my wig, spectacles and St Michaels paisley dressing gown delivering sentences like “Dance The Paphian Jig”, “Grope For Trout In A Peculiar River” and “Take A Turn Among The Cabbages.” The mustard jumper came later.

I feel that I’ve probably subconsciously channelled all three Goodies into one person, with a soupçon of Brian Sewell, perchance. Who knows?

Did you realise at that stage that Quentin had long-running potential?

I’d never planned in my life to have a “character”. But because he feels so easy to do, and he’s so part of me… he’s the dark, neurotic, twisted f***-ed up side of me! I don’t know how he came about, but he just lurks under the bed, like Bob from Twin Peaks… staring at me. And I realised that he was a character that I actually enjoyed doing.

The first time I ever saw Quentin was in your brilliant spoof titles to Picture Box. Those titles (and music) seem to be a disquieting memory of so many people… was it the same for you? Why do you think we found them so unsettling?

They have a haunting atmosphere. And it’s conjured by such a simple sequence, an antique French jewellery box revolving and glistening  in the dark, accompanied by the sound of the Cristal Baschet – obviously an instrument that no one had any idea about then, really… and they still don’t, to this day. It was all very reminiscent of Victorian austerity and secret rooms, and shadowy corners. A sense of warm claustrophobia,  slightly anesthetised, and then the formidable head of Alan Rothwell with his relentless, hooded eye contact. And his obligatory “Hellooooo”…

When did it strike you to incoporate Quentin into those title sequences?

I’d always wanted to film a wider pan of those titles, and see the whole set-up. My original plan was to have some kind of deformed dwarf turning a crank handle, but that didn’t happen… then I went to a props store and saw an old gramophone, and thought “Ah! I’m going to use that, and I’ll have Quentin as the person turning the crank!”

Before that, I’d been looking for motors that would re-create the precise RPM of the Picture Box titles, so I had all that set up, and then the gramophone had the wooden horn, and I had another piece of antique furniture… I just faked it really, to make it look like some sort of wind-up contraption. And then I taught my wife at the time… (Sean is laughing infectiously at this point) Aw… I was there in my underpants, directing Justina – who was on the couch – to get the right bloody distance away, so she should zoom in at the right time. And I was telling her off like Quentin – “No! Do it again!” – and the whole living room was blacked off with material… (laughs)

I wanted to make it as perfect as possible, to fool people into thinking they were just watching Picture Box, before the reveal where it becomes more distorted and haunting. People have asked: “Where did you get the box from?” Well, I researched it a lot…

Hang on, you actually found an exact replica of the box from the title sequence? I assumed that was a clever splice or edit, or some kind of other technical jiggery-pokey…

I own the Picture Box, it’s on the mantlepiece! It’s an antique, French, bevelled glass jewellery box. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one with a red cushion. The one that I got is a reproduction from Australia, and I ended up getting my sister to make a silk cushion for it. I’ll take a picture of it, and send it to you! I keep fake worms in it.

Quentin seems very fond of ‘early music’… crumhorns and the like. Was traditional folk music something that made an impact on your childhood? It seemed to be curiously commonplace on the childrens’ TV shows of the 1970s.

I suppose, subconsciously, it must have. I was also exposed to Shakespeare by my parents, as each year we’d visit Stratford-Upon-Avon, and I became obsessed with doing brass rubbings of kings and queens in gold, silver and especially copper crayons. And in my teens, my friend’s father used to build medieval instruments in his spare time and sit in his study listening to early music, and I wanted to be him.

I had a fascination with experimental music in my early twenties and started to build sound sculptures and adapt conventional instruments. I feel I’ve now brought the two worlds together. Hence my Crumtrombone, which expresses milk.

You seem to have a slight fascination with the Kings Singers, too. Where did that come from?

I tend to remember things that most people try to forget. Memories of The King’s Singers, The Cambridge Buskers, The Houghton Weavers and Skellern… I searched for the Kings Singers on Youtube and became obsessed with their Madrigal History Tour. They’re Quentin’s favourite. Their attire is most fetching.

[I have very vague memories of The Magical History Tour, broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday evenings, throughout May and June 1984. The Radio Times entry for the first episode, Sunday 13th May 1984, promises…

“The Ducal Palace, Mantua, is the starting-point for this expert series about the ‘pop’ music of the High Renaissance. With a selection of songs that range from the light, witty and erotic to the passionate and heartfelt, The King’s Singers outline the rise in popularity of madrigals and show how they became the rage of Europe. Emma Kirkby and the Consort of Musicke, directed by the series’ musical adviser, Anthony Rooley, perform additional examples. The programme also offers a panorama of the 16th century as a prelude to the ‘tour’ which begins next week in France.”]

Many of your films capture a feeling of stillness and slowness that really sums up my memories of 1970s TV. Do you have any specific memories of that feeling?

Yes, being half asleep on the couch with German Measles, refusing to eat my Heinz lentil soup, with Crown Court on. Covered in calamine lotion. I want to know why they don’t put programmes for ill kids on TV anymore. Or maybe they do? I don’t have an ill child.

I think I managed a two-week skive once… my mum had this old lady who came round to look after us, called Mrs Wolf. She was brill. She taught us how to make birdboxes in the cellar and finger bobs. Maybe Quentin’s obsession with birdboxes came from Mrs Wolf? I’ve never thought of that until now.

I’m increasingly convinced that many of our “haunted” memories of the 1970s stem from the fact that childhood illness was much more commonplace. Most of us contracted some combination of the “big three” in the 1970s and early 1980s… measles, mumps and chickenpox. And they required lengthy spells off school, woozily dozing in front of unsuitable Open University modules, or impenetrable schools programmes for much older childen.

When I made my 3-2-1 film, people told me it reminded them of this exact feeling. A dream-like state, dropping in and out of consciousness thinking you understand what’s happening, then slipping back into a trance-like fever dream. I’ve always wanted to capture that feeling, and this is how I’d like to continue with my work. Childhood memories tend to be a distorted interpretation that we try to cling onto as adults. I reflect quite heavily on these things in my work and hopefully other people will relate to them too… although it’s very personal. Poignant things like the colour and texture of your auntie’s purple carpet, and looking at the dust floating in the sunlight as the Granada start up music comes on… as you quaff Quosh from your gnawed yellow beaker. Sorry… I’m actually answering this as if I’m having a bloody fever dream!

Has that feeling of “slowness’ gone from TV now, do you think?

It’s difficult to compare stuff from the past to stuff from the present. We’ve all been moulded to speed up our attention spans, so even watching an episode of The Sweeney on Gold… it feels like it’s been on for three f***ing hours! Saying that, I thought 3-2-1 went on all night in the 1980s.

I still have a fondness for a slower pace. We don’t have time to breathe these days. I much prefer a story that is allowed to take the required time necessary, to gather nuances that we seem to skirt over these days. I think this is the reason things felt creepier or more psychologically damaging… today’s sped-up techniques are merely relying on the “shock” factor. It’s like smacking your kids, as opposed to politely instilling fear and low self-esteem in them. I have no idea what I’m on about now… sorry, what was the question?

What’s your own background as a film-maker and performer?

I started playing the bass in bands in St Helens, then continuing to make music at Art College in Sheffield. I got involved in the improvised music scene there and produced sound installations and sculptures. I moved to London in 1996 with some friends – including Tom Meeten – and realised I enjoyed making comedy videos with him slightly more than the seriousness of making experimental music. Saying that I found many improvised music performances extremely funny… even though they were deadly serious.

We would sometimes play around pretending we were Eastern European avant-garde sound artists in Brockwell Park, wiring up trees and passing rooks’ thoughts through an oscilloscope. I moved to Berlin in 1998 and continued making music, but was steered more towards making films. I would regularly visit London to continue making sketches with Tom and he would visit me whenever possible. Over time, I went my way, and he went his. I had numerous screenings and installations in Berlin and became more involved in the art scene rather than the comedy scene. I was in Berlin, don’t forget!

I moved to Sydney in 2007 and continued to make short films, but also started to get into creating images in Photoshop, as that was a quicker method of getting my ideas out. Moving back to London in 2009, I continued to make predominantly Photoshopped work – with the odd film exception – until the Vine app came about… and that tricked me back into making films again. Short, daft, spontaneous and experimental… just what I needed. After a while I realised a few repeat offenders keep appearing, particularly Quentin Smirhes. I’ve lost most of that material as Vine ceased to exist and, stupidly, I didn’t save them all.

Can you talk us through some of your other characters? What can you tell us about Gentle Jeff, for example?

Basically I dress up, or find a wig, and “Viola!” a new character happens. Jeff happened by accident… I suppose I was channelling the spirit of Bob Ross, with a suggestion of Jeff Lynne… and just a really, really, really, nice, cuddly, positive and content man. He’s the lighter side of me. I should visit him more often, as I fear Quentin will one day send me to the loony bin! And as for Erm Man…

Are Quentin and his friends beginning to take over your life a bit?

Yes, doing this can take over a little so I need to lock him in the cupboard for long stretches. But he likes it in there. Its quiet and warm, and he thrives on the occasional moth.

Any plans for future films or projects?

I have many new ideas and projects for the future, both for Quentin and for other stuff. And I need to complete a film that I shot over a year ago, called MidWiffery. Imagine The King Singers, cross-dressing, in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. On DMT. I intend to complete that in the next few months.

Thanks to Sean for a delightful chat… he’s @raghard on Twitter, and his Youtube channel is here…

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHw0B9zAL4Z08sVRRjfx5g

And, although this is largely unconnected to Sean (and, indeed Quentin), thoughts of 1970s illness, and time off school, prompted me to search for episodes of Paint Along With Nancy on Youtube, and I’m thrilled to report that a few minutes of La Kominsky’s finest HTV hour have turned up, here… so “just be happy to get something that looks human” as you poke another hole in the crinkly cellophane on your Lucozade bottle…