Undercliff, Mark Brend and the Olive Grove cult

In February 1971, Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, fragile and exhausted, left his hotel bedroom in Los Angeles, intending to browse a nearby bookshop before performing with his band at the Whisky A Go Go club that same evening. On the way, he met a man called Apollos, who apparently convinced him – on the spot – to join the freshly-formed religious group, The Children Of God. The gig was cancelled, it was days before Spencer was located, and – after steadfastly refusing to return – he remains affiliated to the organisation (now rebranded as “The Family International”) to this day.

It was an era when an interest in such “new” religious movements seemed to exist almost as a an adjunct to the prevailing pop culture ot the time: the Beatles were famous early adopters of the Transcendental Meditation movement, decamping to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rishikesh retreat in early 1968 alongside Donovan, Mia Farrow and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love; The Who’s Pete Townshend became a devout believer in the teachings of self-declared “Avatar” Meher Baba. Disillusioned creative types the world over sought solace, reassurance and inspiration amidst the spiritual free-for-all that flourished in the wake of the hippy revolution.

Mark Brend’s debut novel Undercliff offers a very English take on the phenomenon. Its tired, dispirited creative comes in the shape of listless, recently-divorced writer Martyn Hope, who – alone in London in 1972 – finds himself drawn into the world of the Olive Grove, a tiny cult with a weekly meet-up in a disused bingo hall in Nunhead. Initially finding comfort and company in the cloistered environment of the group’s meetings – and indeed romance with fellow worshipper Amelia – he finds himself feeling increasingly fraught and powerless when his new girlfriend disappears, and beings to suspect the motives of cult leaders Simon and Magnus – known to all as “The Two”, and with an alarming propensity for speaking in perfect unison.

I enjoyed the book enormously: I found it rich in both character and period detail (as a fun distraction, try imagining the 1970s band with the sound closest to the Olive Grove’s in-house folk-rock group, The Flock. My money goes on Pentangle, but I imagine them looking more like Pickettywitch) and with an encroaching sense of dark foreboding that bleeds almost imperceptibly into the story, before enveloping events completely. The bleak environs of early 1970 London provide an ideal background for the book’s early stages, before events lead us inexorably to the Olive Grove’s retreat on the Devon coastline, and the rambling country house that gives the book its title.

I spoke to Mark Brend about Undercliff‘s origins and inspirations:

Bob: Can I ask a little about the background to writing Undercliff? Was there a single spark of inspiration that made you want to start work on it?

Mark: There wasn’t a single spark, no. Looking back on my first notes I see that the location was there from the start, and I also had a good idea of the ending (which I won’t reveal here). The idea of evil being disguised as good so effectively that it is hard to tell the difference took root early on. There’s a quote from Matthew’s Gospel at the beginning pointing to that notion. Much of the plot and the detail of the characters developed as I wrote, though. 

(“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the ver elect”)

More than anything the inspiration was a desire to write a particular type of book. One with a strong sense of location, and an essentially good, if flawed, lead character who gets caught up in things that he struggles to control. Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male is an archetype, I suppose.

That sense of location, particularly the Devon coastline, plays a large part in the books’ events… what’s your connection to the area?

I grew up in Devon, and moved back 13 years ago after many years away, first in Manchester, then London. I actually live about 15 miles from the coastline where much of the book is set. It’s an area I’ve often visited throughout my life, and with which I’m very familiar.

Was it important to you that the book had that very specific, “real” location?

Yes, it was – though in my case the notion of “real” requires some qualification.  I think characters can come alive if the location is plausible and real. Or at least, a location that seems real. Real towns, pubs, beaches and so on do feature in Undercliff, but many are adapted to some extent to suit my purposes. The village of Kingcombe Vale, where the titular house is located, isn’t a real place. It started out as Salcombe Regis, which is a small village near Sidmouth, but I changed it so much as the book progressed that by the end it didn’t seem so much like Salcombe Regis anymore, so I thought it needed its own identity.

It’s interesting how unreliable memory is. There’s one scene in the book where Martyn, the lead character, looks down on Branscombe beach from his caravan. The beach is real and it does have a caravan and chalet park near it, which in my memory overlooked a particular part of the beach. I’ve been there dozens of times, but when I was there the other day I stood where I imagined Martyn’s caravan to be and realised he wouldn’t have been able to see the part of the beach I describe, but another part entirely. 

The book is set during 1972 and 1973… is that an era with which you feel a particular affinity? Why did that era lend itself so readily to the events and characters of Undercliff?

I wouldn’t say I feel a particular affinity with the era. I was about 10 then, so I remember it, but any sense I have of it as an era is derived retrospectively. It suited my story because in the late 60s the hippie movement challenged all sorts of orthodoxies – political, social and religious. If you hear standard-bearers from that time speaking about how things were – people like David Crosby – they really did think they were making a new world. By the early 1970s, reality had set in and the dream had turned sour, but a lot of the cultural trappings – communes and so on – remained. So it seemed like the right time. I imagine it as a post-Utopian dream era – though that’s my retrospective labelling of it. Whether it actually felt like that to live through I can’t say. At the time I was occupied with Airfix kits and Commando comics.

I also chose it because my lead character, Martyn, is just a little too old for the social revolution that started with rock’n’roll in the 1950s and then into the hippie/free love era of the 60s. He’s 36 in 1972, meaning he was 20 when Elvis had his first UK hit. He did national service. He was already in his thirties in the Summer of Love. So he is somebody just outside of that culture – close, but not quite fitting in. 

Ever had any experiences yourself with groups like the Olive Grove?

No personal experience. I did a little desk research.

What’s your background as a writer? I know you’ve written a lot about electronic music…

I’ve written several non-fiction books about music, and have worked – intermittently – as a music journalist for more than 20 years. Writing wise, my main interests are US singer songwriters from the 60s (Tim Hardin, David Ackles, Phil Ochs etc) and very early electronic music. By very early I mean pre-synth. I tend to drift off a bit by the 1970s. My most recent music book is Sound of Tomorrow, about early commercial electronic music (film soundtracks, TV adverts – that sort of thing). When it was published I did an associated Radio 4 documentary with Stewart Lee about early British electronic music. Undercliff is my first novel.

And what have you worked on as a musician?

I’ve been active since the 1980s, with various bands including the Palace of Light, Mabel Joy and Fariña, recording for lots of indie labels (in the old, real sense of the term) including Bam Caruso, Second Language, and Static Caravan. For a while I recorded as Ghostwriter, which was a loose association of collaborators helmed by me, making mainly instrumental music, with archive spoken word collages. Under that name I collaborated with Jim Jupp, of Ghost Box, on an EP called Dimensions, which was released on Chaffinch Records a few years back. I’ve collaborated with a few other people over the years, too – including Michael Weston King and Darren Hayman.

Fariña was originally active in the late 90s and early 00s, in which time we released two albums on Picked Egg. We reformed last year, and our first release is an EP of incidental music for Undercliff, which will be released by Hanky Panky, a Spanish label, later this year. The label has previously reissued my 80s and 90s bands, Palace of Light and Mabel Joy.

Whenever I read a novel, I can never resist casting it in my head… and I went for Robert Powell as Martyn, and Anouska Hempel as Amelia. Do you ever do this when you’re writing? Am I anywhere near your mental images of the lead characters, or am I way off the mark?

I can’t say I do cast people when writing, no, but several readers have proposed actors for various characters in the book. Miles Jupp as the vicar, George Parsons, is a favourite. Robert Powell? Yes, maybe, in the sense that I think of him as the definitive British actor of the 1970s. He might be a bit too dashing and handsome for Martyn, though – who I think of as a sort of humdrum everyman. Anouska Hempel? Yes, with a short haircut.

I found a blog post today where you wax lyrical about the influence of a writer called Phyllis Paul on your work… and I’m totally unfamiliar with her! Can you tell us a little about Phyllis’s work, and why it means so much to you?

Most people are totally unfamiliar with her. I am, too, almost. The little I know of her comes from the Wormwoodiana blog and the writing of the literary critic Glen Cavaliero. I’ve only actually read two of her 11 novels, and seen a copy of one other in a National Trust house in the Cotswolds. Her books are incredibly hard to track down. She was English, and published from the 1930s to the 1960s. She died in a road traffic accident in the early 1970s. All of her books were published by mainstream publishing houses, and some were published in the US too, so she must have had some kind of profile, but they couldn’t have sold well because you just don’t see them around now.

Cavaliero considers her to be similar to Charles Williams, the autodidact Christian mystic writer and Inkling, who was much admired by CS Lewis, TS Eliot and WH Auden. I like his novels, though find his other writing (poetry and theology mainly) pretty impenetrable. He and Paul wrote what you might class as literary supernatural thrillers – if an Amazon-style category is required (though to my mind Paul is more ‘literary’ than Williams). What I like about Paul’s books – or at least the two I’ve read – is an atmosphere of ambiguity: something is probably not right here, but exactly what is hard to say.

In a sense I think I like the idea of her as much as her books (because I’ve read so little of her work). It’s the perpetual fascination with the obscure genius working on alone – a story that always appeals, whether it’s a writer or a musician. The second Ghostwriter album, Morrow, which I made with Michael Paine, included several pieces inspired by her, which borrowed the titles of some of her novels. There’s also a piece on it called the Death of Phyllis Paul, which is an attempt to musically recreate this description of her death, by Cavaliero in The Supernatural and English Fiction (OUP, 1995):

“Phyllis Paul died on 30 Aug. 1973, in Hastings [England], as a result of being struck by a motor cycle while crossing the road. The account at the inquests suggests that she was not known locally as a writer, being only identified by the Cash name tag on her handkerchief. A neighbour commented that ‘Miss Paul kept herself to herself. When she walked she had a habit of looking quickly to one side and then the other, and then she would look down again.’ A witness to the accident was more graphic still, remarking that what he saw was ‘an old lady going across the road like a sheet of newspaper.’

Thanks to Mark Brend for his time… he’s @MinuteBook on Twitter, and his website is here.

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