There are joyless souls out there who will attempt to convince you that the traditional British Halloween celebration is a modern affection, imported from the United States at some indeterminate moment in the mid-1980s, somewhere between the red-carpet premieres of E.T. and The Goonies; a festival previously as alien to British children as Thanksgiving or Independence Day. “It didn’t exist when we were kids!” they chant in unison, rolling their eyes at the shelves of pumpkins and rubber spiders that cast a delightfully gothic pallor across our favourite supermarket aisles.
They’re wrong. In 1978, my friend Lisa Wheeldon and I dressed as vampires – complete with fangs from the Saltburn joke shop, and dripping blood courtesy of my Mum’s Max Factor – and knocked on random doors in the streets around my Grandmother’s bungalow in Acklam, a new-estate suburb of our native Middlesbrough. “The sky is blue, the grass is green,” we chanted in unison, “can you spare a penny for Halloween?” I have no idea who taught us the rhyme; it seemed to have been passed down as a race memory, and the inclusion in a later line of the humble “ha’penny” certainly suggested distinctly pre-decimalised roots.
Nobody reacted with bafflement or bemusement… they laughed, and pressed ten or even fifty-pence-pieces into our tiny hands. They knew the deal. In the North-East at least, this was a long-standing tradition. In 2016, I brought up the subject live on my BBC Tees radio show, and was rewarded with listeners’ memories of proto-Trick or Treating stretching back to the early 1950s. Some of the surface details have evolved; and certainly smooth, Peanuts-style pumpkins have now all but replaced the gnarled, warty faces of traditional British turnips, but the principle remains the same.
For me, at least, it was an evening of magic and danger combined; the whiff of coal fires and the sparkle of first frosts, alongside the thrill of monetary gain (those Star Wars figures in Romer Parrish’s toyshop weren’t going to buy themselves) and a genuine fear that the stories of supernatural Halloween malevolence that had permeated our classroom activities all week might actually be real. In a school assembly the previous year, Mrs Parker had spoken carelessly of “the dead rising from their graves”, a prospect that disturbed me enough for me to express my concerns to my Mum later that night, over teatime arctic roll. “If the dead were rising from their graves, your Grandad would be walking around in the garden, and he’s not,” she (not entirely) comforted me. As the evening wore on, I repeatedly cast furtive, nervous glances through the gaps in our front room curtains, seeking constant reassurances that a legion of deceased grandparents weren’t striding purposefully across my Dad’s herbacious borders, trailing a flock of assorted witches, vampires and spectral beasties in their wake.
So Halloween has always been a special time for many of us, and it’s a delight to see the ever-reliable Clay Pipe Records – and new recruit Alison Cotton – honouring the tradition. Alison’s mini-album The Girl I Left Behind Me – timed perfectly for this year’s Halloween celebrations – is an immaculate 10″ vinyl edition of two musical suites inspired by short ghost stories written – in 1957 and 1966 respectively – by Muriel Spark. The first of these, the title track, was originally recorded for BBC 6 Music’s Gideon Coe, and his annual “Ghost Story For Christmas” slot. The other, The House of the Famous Poet, based on a 1966 tale, is new to this release. Both pieces boast a genuine haunting beauty; mournful, spiralling viola recitals weave around spectral choirs of multi-tracked choral singing and washes of unsettling electronica to create the perfect soundtracks to two tales of austere, post-war eeriness. I asked Alison about the process of writing and recording the album…
Bob: Talk us through the two Muriel Spark stories that have inspired these recordings… first of all, The Girl I Left Behind Me?
Alison: In The Girl I Left Behind Me, the narrator tells her story from the grave. The story is about a girl who works in a London office, her first job after a long illness. As she leaves work one evening, she is struck by a strong conviction that she has left something important at the office, but can’t work out what it can be. There’s a twist in the tale as the story draws to a dramatic and unexpected conclusion…
And The House of the Famous Poet?
The House of the Famous Poet is set in 1944, in wartime London. On a delayed train journey, the narrator meets a soldier and a girl named Elise, a maid. She invites the narrator to stay at the house where she works, as the owners are away. The house turns out to be the home of a famous poet who the narrator greatly admires. The following morning the story takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality, when the soldier from the train turns up at the house with an enormous box that he says contains an “abstract funeral”, which he proceeds to sell to the narrator. Later that day, both Elise and the famous poet are killed when a bomb hits the poet’s house…
Have you always been an admirer of Muriel Spark’s work?
I’d only read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which I remember I’d enjoyed when I was younger. I’d like to re-read that, and more of her work. Gideon Coe’s producer, Henry Lopez-Real, sent me the story of The Girl I Left Behind Me when I was asked to soundtrack it for the show, and I bought her collection of Ghost Stories after recording that soundtrack. I thought they were all so well written and chilling, and I loved how they were mostly written from the ghosts’ perspectives, really focusing on those characters.
How did you end up recording these for Gideon’s 6 Music show? Did they approach you?
Yes, Gideon’s producer Henry approached me. My band, The Left Outsides, had played several sessions for shows that Henry had produced, and Gideon regularly plays us, and had played tracks from my solo album on the show, so they were both very familiar with my work. I was sent the story to read, and asked to record a fifteen-minute piece inspired by it which was then used on the show at Christmas. Alongside the story, narrated by Bronwen Price.
The idea of “A Ghost Story for Christmas” is a great BBC tradition… was it one that had some resonance with you? Had you seen some of the M.R. James TV adaptations?
It certainly was, and it was such an honour to be asked to record this. I think those M.R. James TV adaptations were a bit too early for me… or at least I’d have been too young. But I’ve seen them all in recent years and I think they’re amazing. In fact, I was in Norfolk not so long ago, and I recognised a church in a village we visited as being the one from A Warning to the Curious… it’s in Happisburgh. It even felt quite eerie on the day I was there, with only an elderly man wandering around in front of the church. And no-one else in sight. The hotel we stayed in nearby could have easily originally been the inn from the film too, going by the internal structure of the building… but I looked it up and it wasn’t!
I also really enjoyed a Nunkie Theatre reading of that story, a few years ago.
How did you go about adapting these stories into musical form? Were there any particular sounds or instruments that you felt particularly captured their feel?
I read both stories quite a few times to try to gain a better understanding of them, and I guess also to feel closer to the characters involved. I’m accustomed to singing from a character’s perspective, as that’s what I’m doing with most of the lyrics I write for The Left Outsides, in the same way that I do when I sing traditional folk songs. So, with The Girl I Left Behind Me, I tried to do this instrumentally, and I imagined myself as the main character of the story as I was playing. I composed an eerie melody for this piece, following the structure of the story and building up the suspense with my wordless singing as the story draws to its conclusion.
I chose The House Of The Famous Poet to soundtrack because an aspect of it fascinated me, and I wanted to focus on it with the feel of my piece: the strange and surreal concept of an “abstract funeral.” This “abstract funeral” is sold to the narrator by the soldier she meets on the train. The viola has a naturally mournful tone and I endeavoured to capture the mood of how I’d imagine an “abstract funeral” march would sound, with my layered vocals enhancing the melancholy, and the crescendo of cymbals adding to the solemnity of the drama.
So you tried to follow the structures of the stories with the music, and reflect events in the narrative accordingly?
With The Girl I Left Behind Me, I did try to follow the structure of the story, particularly with the overdubs I added. I felt the story had a steady pace and it suited a structured viola melody, which I composed in advance. The overdubs mainly followed the storyline, with a very dramatic ending.
Was your musical approach quite improvisational? I’m told the wonderful viola on The House of the Famous Poet was done in one take!
Yes, it was completely improvised, and recorded in the first take. I played a drone in A minor and improvised over the top of this. When I’d finished the take, fifteen minutes later, I just didn’t think another take would have that same intense feel. It was also clear from that viola line that this piece needed to be minimal. It didn’t call for many overdubs, I just added some wordless vocals and the cymbals. I felt the starkness of the piece made it more eerie…
How did the collaboration with Clay Pipe come about? Do you go back a long way with Frances?
We were introduced a few years ago by a mutual friend, and got on really well, as we had similar interests. Frances heard The Girl I Left Behind Me on the radio and really liked it, so asked if she could release it, along with another soundtrack from me. And it made sense to choose another Muriel Spark ghost story for the B-side. I really love the label and Frances’ artwork is incredible – it’s an honour for me to have a release on Clay Pipe.
You played at the Delaware Road event in Wiltshire in August, and I really enjoyed your set! How was it for you? Any other experiences or performances that really stood out for you?
I thoroughly enjoyed the Delaware Road event. Such an exciting event in such a unique and eerie location, with lovely people in attendance and great music. It was clear how much work had gone into it and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I was really happy to be asked to play and I loved playing in that Nissen Hut! It was only the fourth solo gig I’ve done and I was happy with how my set went. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Bob! I saw so many good performances but also missed a few people I wanted to see. I think my favourites were Penny Rimbaud, Natalie Sharp, Sarah Angliss and ARC Soundtracks.
Any idea what your next musical project might be? Another solo work, or something with The Left Outsides? Or your other band, the Trimdon Grange Explosion?
I always have so much going on it’s difficult to keep track sometimes. I have a few solo shows coming up. I’ve also started recording the next solo album. We’re about three-quarters of the way through the next The Left Outsides album and I’ll be recording my parts for the next Trimdon Grange Explosion album soon, too.
Thanks to Alison for her time and thoughts… The Girl I Left Behind Me is available from Clay Pipe music, here: