Gilroy Mere, Oliver Cherer and Over The Tracks

“The past in fading layers, visible from the present…” A phrase that Oliver Cherer used early in our conversation, perhaps perfectly summing up my own relationship with nostalgia, too. It’s the erosion of the past that truly moves and affects me. The forgotten people, places and objects that are in danger of being permanently lost from the 21st century collective consciousness: moving farther away in time; slipping inexorably backwards towards the boundaries of living memory.

And what also interests and delights me are the often-hidden areas where those elements of the past still protrude, sometimes unnoticed, into the present day. There is something both sad and reassuring about the remnants and traces of abandoned places and practices that still somehow intrude into the modern everyday. Feelings perfectly evoked by Oliver – recording as Gilroy Mere – on his new collection of recordings for Clay Pipe Music.

Both the current flexi-disc EP – Over The Tracks – and the forthcoming album – Adlestrop – take their inspiration from the overgrown remains of rural railway stations, all closed in the wake of the 1963 Beeching Report. Under these sweeping cost-cutting reforms, 2,363 stations were recommended for closure; but the remnants of many – all rotting sleepers and overgrown platforms – linger on. Many have been subsumed and reclaimed by the natural world, others replaced almost completely by the march of modernity; but their presence is – just about – tangible to the more diligent of modern-day visitors.

I asked Oliver about the background to both EP and album:

Bob: First of all, congratulations on Over The Tracks… the EP is lovely, and has been specifically inspired by St Leonard’s West Marina railway station, in Sussex. Can you tell us a little bit about the station? What was its history, and when did it close?

Oliver: Thankyou. St Leonard’s West Marina Station was the first station in the Hastings area, and it marked the arrival of the railway. But there was a certain amount of rivalry between competing rail companies, and it lost out to a different line. And, after a slow decline, it fell to the Beeching axe in 1967.

And I’m guessing it’s a station that has particular significance for you?

Well I live in St Leonards, and I pass through the place where the station stood on my way to my record shop at the De La Warr Pavilion, in Bexhill.

So what’s left of it now… does anything remain?

All that’s left is a buddleia-covered platform, opposite TK Maxx and a carpet warehouse. “Swallows” from the EP is an attempt to evoke the stillness of that platform between trains in the summer, when the buddleia is a-buzz with birds, butterflies and bees. I always have to look out for the platform as I pass, knowing that it goes almost completely unnoticed by everyone else.

Is there a sadness to passing through the remains of such a historic spot, then?

It’s not particularly sad, but it is perhaps a little poignant. The gradual erosion of the past by the present-day probably always is.

The other tracks on the EP are more obviously train-related, as I’ve tried to use the clickety-clack rhythms you got from the old railway tracks, before they made them smooth and continuous. All of the tracks have field recordings in them somewhere.

The forthcoming album, Adlestrop, is also beautiful… and is inspired by other stations closed by the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Is there something about vintage rail travel that appeals to you… or is it more the “lost” nature of the stations themselves?

Thank you. Actually, I don’t much like the idea that I may be something of a nostalgist. I’m not in a very strong position to deny it with my track record, but really I’m interested in the history of these places and any signs of a previous existence or incarnation. I got into a discussion recently where I might have used the phrase “palimpsest of ghostly resonances” to describe what steers me towards the hauntological.

That’s really what’s at the base of this album. It’s the past in fading layers, visible from the present.

That’s a beautiful phrase, and I think describes perfectly my relationship with nostalgia. And Adlestrop station itself, in Gloucestershire, was previously immortalised in poetry form by Edward Thomas. Is it a poem you’re particularly fond of? It’s very evocative…

It started with Adlestrop. The album, I mean. I’ve always loved that poem. It seems to mark, on a summers day in Gloucestershire, a moment of stillness, shortly before the Great War changed everything. Thomas couldn’t have known that, of course. But the war re-contextualises his poem and, like many of these stations, it becomes a scar on the present. I visited Adlestrop village, and all that’s left is a station sign in a bus shelter, nowhere near the original location.

‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas (published 1917)

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I wondered how many of the stations referenced on the album you’d actually visited… any other stories you can share?

Visiting Adlestrop spurred me to get hold of a copy of the Beeching Report. Which, in Appendix 2, lists all the services and stations recommended for closure in the 1960s. There are 2,000 wonderful names, like Black Dog Halt and Star Crossing – irresistible to the seasoned hauntologist! I kept it with me wherever I went, and made field recordings in as many locations as I could, using them as the starting point for each track. This worked in different ways for different pieces, but they all have something of the real place within them.

Some places have no evidence of their previous life as a station and some are still there, though maybe now converted into a house or cafe. It didn’t matter to me. My “brief” was simply to record what was there, and use that. “Just a River” is simply that – just a river and a road, and the fields in which the station once stood.

How did you try to capture the spirit of these stations in musical form? For example, “Bethesda“, a musical evocation of a station named after a religious chapel, has a very hymnal quality to it… I’m assuming that was deliberate?

Sometimes I’m reacting to the place as it is in the present, and sometimes to what was there once upon a time, especially if this is in some way obvious. Bethesda is a good example. The line from Bangor is now pretty much a footpath all the way. I joined it at Tregarth, and it cuts though rock and woods and over roads and raging white water rivers, all before winding up at Bethesda, where the chapel still stands in a wet and green valley.

It seemed weathered by a mossy , churchy stillness, and the melody came instantly, the moment I sat down at the piano with the recordings. This is probably true of a few of the tracks on the record, and I think two or three more have a “churchy” feel to them. They mostly started with these kind of improvised sessions, and some really didn’t have much more done to them.

These places are often in quiet, remote locations which is what, ultimately, closed most of them. So the feel tends to veer towards the still or sombre. Though I was probably going for “elegiac”!

I can’t resist asking about “Ravenscar” too, which is a location that’s pretty close to me, on the North Yorkshire coastline! A place with a fascinating history: in the late Victorian era, work was begun to turn the village into a huge resort town, intended to rival Scarborough. It was really ambitious! Plans were finalised, work was begun, roads were even laid down… but ultimately the finance ran out, and the actual houses were never built. What made you choose Ravenscar as a source of inspiration?

Ah, Ravenscar. I’ve known Ravenscar for years, and the moment I’d decided to make this record I knew I’d need to include it. My partner’s father spent a chunk of his youth there, as his rich uncle owned the Ravenscar Hotel and he went to live with him there for a spell. So I’d been there, and I knew its history. It’s the strangest kind of ghost town because it’s the ghost of a town that never was. All they built were the roads and the station, before the development went belly-up.

The station is still there, and the roads are still visible, though nature is gradually reclaiming them. It truly is a fading scar on the bald cliff top. Very atmospheric. A strange thing happened after I’d finished the record. Jenny’s dad Jo died, and we were sorting through his house and possessions, and I found a video and an old railway magazine covering the history of Ravenscar station, together in a pouch. I ran the video and played the newly-finished album with it, and it was just a perfect match.

Your previous album for Clay Pipe, The Green Line, was based on the bus journeys that it was once possible to take from London to the surrounding countryside. Is there something about the public transport of decades gone by that you find particularly evocative?

Well, I was talking to Frances, who runs Clay Pipe, and I said “I’m going to have to do something different next time, as I don’t want to be the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ guy!”

I do love old things, though. Trains, synths, guitars, houses, cheese. I’ve always thought I was a modernist, so maybe it’s my age that’s causing the nostalgia. I am increasingly interested in the past, and there’s nothing more fascinating than local history. All history is local somewhere, right? I’m not one of those people that thinks everything was better in the old days, though. After all, I was only able to make this record because of the luxury afforded to me by digital devices. And I love all the old gear, but I really don’t want to make records that sound like they were recorded forty years ago. Although again, occasionally guilty!

I’ve seen you talk about your home studio a few times, and your addiction to filling it with vintage gear from junk shops! Can you describe it a bit? What’s the stand-out piece of kit in your collection?

Anything that makes an interesting noise is a useful tool, I think. I’ve got some lovely bits and pieces, mostly bought cheaply in junk shops and boot sales. Some choice guitars and vintage synths, of course. I found two classical guitars in different charity shops that I love. One was made by a world renowned luthier in Japan in 1967, and the other was made by a man called Robert Kaye Kneller, in Worthing, in 1974. They’re both stunning, and I paid £27 for the pair. Those things don’t happen that often, but they make me joyous when they do!

Both guitars feature on the album and flexi-disc. I’ve also just acquired some amazing Spendor speakers that are going to transform my home studio, physically as much as sonically. Weirdly though, the thing that’s been on more records than anything else, at least in the last five years, is a car boot zither that I customised with a bit of wood cut from the back of a chest of drawers. I made a curved bridge so I could play it with a bow, and it has a unique sound. I christened it the “Partch Harp” as I tend to use it in a kind of Harry Partch microtonal way. It’s on everything.

The other thing that’s also always intrigued me about you… I think you might have worked under the most pseudonyms of anyone I’ve interviewed to date! Do they all have individual personas or musical styles that you feel suit different projects?

I guess the pseudonyms are used to demarcate musical territory, yes. Dollboy was a nickname coined by an old friend, and got used for a long time. I couldn’t have even considered using my real name back then – my ego wasn’t fully developed! I used a few different names on various releases on Deep Distance and Polytechnic Youth and it seemed like a game, really. It was fun.

I’ve never made any realistic effort to obscure my identity, though. I know there are people who only like the output of certain pseudonyms. My Oliver Cherer stuff doesn’t necessarily chime with fans of Australian Testing Labs, and that’s OK. It has been pointed out to me that I’d be better off if I made an effort to look less like a dilettante, but I honestly don’t care.


So where does “Gilroy Mere” come from?

“Gilroy Mere” was Frances’ idea, I think. Partly, anyway. Something English and pastoral, I think it was. It backfired on me when I was playing guitar with Pete Astor on a Marc Riley session. Pete thought it’d be a good wheeze to introduce me as Gilroy Mere, assuming Marc would know the Green Line record and make the connection, but he just scoffed at the posh berk on guitar and said “Oh aye, where d’yo get him from?”.

And what’s your next project?

The next project is a weird one. It’s the remixed soundtrack to Andrew Kötting’s next film, The Whalebone Box. If you’re into the hauntological, you’ll love it. It’s a strange tale of a sealed whalebone box, apparently washed up on a Scottish island and passed from one person to another, then finally returned to where it was found. It is about ghostly resonances and the spirits that occupy things and places, and it’s very beautiful and very strange.

Andrew asked me and Riz Maslen – aka Neotropic – for music that he could cut up and repurpose for his movie, and we duly obliged. He then gave us the finished soundtrack, half each and asked us to remix it. I did the first half of the movie and Riz did the second half. It’s going out on a double vinyl set, but it’s not official yet so I can’t tell you the label! Beyond that I’m beginning work on an album of songs with an actual band for the first time in years. I just fancied recording things with more of a live feel for a change. I think Adlestrop will be out in midsummer, and hopefully there will be some shows.

Thanks to Oliver for his time, and thoughtful responses. Find our more about Over The Tracks here…

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/over-the-tracks/

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 389

As well as this regular 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 most recent feature, from issue 389, dated February 2020.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…


“The general reaction from the press seems to be surprise, but also that it makes perfect sense,” says Jim Jupp, co-founder of Ghost Box Records. “It certainly does to us. His eclectic career takes in a lot of the areas that are part of the Ghost Box landscape – psychedelia, folk, electronica – and more generally I think it’s probably fair to say that his work often re-explores sounds and styles from the past, without them being straight re-enactments.”

“It’s a central idea of the label’s manifesto. If we had one, that is…”

He’s talking about one of the most unexpected musical collaborations of 2020. And some of us have barely taken the Christmas tree down. Ghost Box, the home of haunted electronica stalwarts Belbury Poly, The Focus Group and The Advisory Circle, have teamed up with the Modfather himself. Paul Weller‘s experimental EP In Another Room, released on the label on 31st January, combines abstract sound collage with a distinctly melancholy musicality. Wistful piano passages collide with mournful cellos, all infused with the sounds of distant church bells, summery birdsong, and juddering spirals of disquieting radiophonica. Unsettlingly pastoral, it evokes jumbled memories of crackly Percy Grainger 78s, of Ivor Cutler’s wheezing harmonium and the shocked delight of hearing The Beatles’ Revolution 9 for the first time. It is the sound of that late summer’s evening walk in the woods, when the darkness settles just that little too quickly for comfort. 

“We loved the four tracks he put together,” says Jim. “They connect directly to the world of vintage electronic music, musique concrète and tape music. But as you’d expect, they add a very musical sensibility, shot through with all kinds of instrumental passages. Sometimes just little sketches or dead ends that wrongfoot the listener.”

“In talking to me and Julian [House, Jim’s Ghost Box co-founder], it was clear that he’s very into early experimental electronics. Amongst others, Third Ear Band and Trevor Wishart came up in conversation.”

So how did the collaboration come about?  

“We discovered through an interview he did for Shindig magazine that he was a fan of the label,” explains Jim. “And he mentioned to the editor that he’d like to do something for us at some point, so he put us in touch. We were absolutely thrilled and honoured, as you can imagine.”

The vinyl 7″ is immaculately swathed in House’s trademark artwork; gloriously evocative of some strange, faded textbook in a dusty school library. It’s a beautiful object from a gentler, stranger era, and Jim hints tantalisingly at further collaborations. In the meantime, In Another Room is available from ghostbox.co.uk.

Elsewhere, the prolific boutique label Spun Out Of Control continues to release perfectly-crafted cassettes of eerie electronica, often with impressively high concepts. Glasgow’s Alan Sinclair – recording as Repeated Viewing – explains the genesis of his wonderfully sinister new instrumental album Nature’s Revenge: “The inspiration came to me whilst sitting up a hill in the middle of the beautiful Scottish wilderness,” he says. “The rugged landscapes of my homeland provide unparalleled moments of awe, often mixed with a sense of dread as the inevitable foul weather moves in. Is there an underlying narrative? Perhaps a poor-planned woodland wander gone sour, creepy encounters with strange forest beings, or ramblers frantically fleeing their unfortunate encounters with the ‘hill folk’…”

Meanwhile, Rupert Lally’s album The Prospect provides the soundtrack to his own short story, the tale of 19th century stagecoach robber Jack Delaney, whose bungled heist in the remote Canadian Rockies sparks a terrifying tale of supernatural visitations and blood sacrifice, all infused with a woozy, dream logic that bleeds into his epic, synth-drenched compositions. And I can’t trumpet enough the talents of Spun Out of Control’s resident sleeve artist Eric Adrian Lee, whose darkly beautiful artwork is both tasteful and outré, the meeting point between vintage Hammer Horror posters and lurid 1970s prog-rock sleeves. Visit spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/merch.

I’ve also become entranced by Wrappers Delight, a book compiled by Trunk Records’ irrepressible Jonny Trunk, showcasing the incredible, house-filling collection of sweet wrappers, crisp packets, drinks cans, bubblegum cards and other 1960s and 1970s ephemera amassed by Stockport man John Townsend. Over 500 of them have been scanned and photographed, and are – ahem – a giddy confection. An overwhelming reminder of the days when Anglia Shandy, Count Dracula lollies and Doctor Who sweet cigarettes were produced by tiny factories in Brentford, Slough and Cricklewood, it’s also liable to give you an insatiable hankering for the taste of a Rowntree’s Fingammy. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, it goes on general sale in February, published by FUEL.

Musty Books: “Mandog” by Lois Lamplugh & Peter Dickinson (1972)

A book with a curious title, and one taken from a relatively minor plot point in this 1972 hardback adaptation of a little-remembered BBC1 children’s series. In a nutshell: a family dog, Radnor, becomes the physical host for the mind of Justin, one of a group of revolutionaries who time-travel to 1970s Southampton from a dystopian Britain, 600 years in the future.

Hiding out beneath a nest of abandoned cars in a local scrapyard, “The Group” – as they are handily nicknamed throughout – are on the run from the 26th century secret police, “The Galas”. Here, I got a little lost in time myself: The Group – a team of scientists reluctantly working for a futuristic, totalitarian British government – appear to have travelled to 1972 specifically to spend a quiet fortnight in Southampton secretly perfecting a replacement time-travel device. Which will then “transmit” them straight back to the 26th century. Which begs the question – why did they bother in the first place? Perhaps the opportunity to see Mick Channon’s trademark windmill goal celebration in the flesh was just too tempting to resist.

Their plans are uncovered by three local children: Kate, her older brother Duncan, and her best friend Samantha “Sammy” Morris. And Sammy’s dog Radnor, of course, whose temporary mind-swap with The Group’s office junior Justin is the latter’s punishment for having followed his futuristic freedom-fighter friends to 1972, when his agreed job description was actually to stay behind in the 26th century and destroy their initial time machine before it fell into government hands. What none of them realise, of course, is that The Galas have also travelled to 1970s Hampshire, and are occupying the nearby flat of the girls’ schoolfriend, Mary Ndola.

What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable collision of 1970s kitchen-sink kids’ drama and downbeat science-fiction grittiness. Radnor the dog provides the comic relief, digging up next door’s sweet peas and developing – as his mind-swap incumbent Justin adjusts to 1970s life – a penchant for fried breakfasts that has Sammy’s parents swiftly tutting and muttering about the housekeeping. And there is an interesting dynamic between the girls: Kate is a wheelchair-user, frustrated with her mobility in the disability-unfriendly 1970s, but she is much more adept at her schoolwork than best friend Sammy, and there are subtle suggestions that each girl quietly craves the others’ advantages.

Meanwhile, Duncan is the textbook 1970s older teenage brother; awkwardly fancying Sammy (“a super girl”), and taking on odd jobs around town (at the book’s opening, he’s redecorating an entirely pink houseboat) to fill the aimless hinterland between school and full-time work. There is a lovely sequence in which he uses his apprenticeship as a TV repairman to infiltrate the Ndola household and “repair” a deliberately sabotaged TV… with the blessing of the occupying Gala forces, who are presumably keen not to miss a single episode of the Doctor Who story Day of the Daleks. A serial broadcast concurrently with the TV version of Mandog, and with a plotline also centered around a small group of futuristic revolutionaries travelling back in time to 1970s England. I’d love to read the BBC memos that flew around when that unfortunate scheduling clash became apparent.

As ever, it’s the intrusion of the otherworldly into ordinary 1970s life that appeals to me, and the prospect of rival futuristic factions let loose amidst the suburbs, schools and scrapyards of working class Southampton is a delicious one. Peter Dickinson had already made his name with his late 1960s novels The Weathermonger, Heartsease and The Devil’s Children, a trilogy he later adapted into the BBC’s acclaimed 1975 “series for slightly older children”, The Changes. As far as I can see from the book itself – and contrary to the show’s Wikipedia entry – Mandog was an original TV script by Dickinson then adapted into book form by Lois Lamplugh, but – as ever – I’m open to correction on that front.

POINT OF ORDER: Sammy’s mother, in the TV series, was played by a (just) pre-Slocombe Mollie Sugden.

MUSTINESS REPORT: My copy has a mild musty smell, a subtle 4/10. It has an inscription, too: it was once owned by Debbie Wilson, who wrote her address in Radcliffe, Lancashire on the back of the cover in black biro, along with the date… 18th October 1977, although she initially wrote this as 1976 before correcting it. October seems late in the year for this kind of confusion, so maybe Debbie too was involved in a bit of minor time-travelling? I’m certainly assuming she left Radcliffe at some later stage, as her entire address has since been crossed out in blue felt-tip.

UPDATE: I bought my copy of Mandog in The Book Emporium in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire, in February 2020. I wrote the above review at the end of that month, and – as mentioned – noticed that Debbie Wilson, a girl from Radcliffe in Lancashire, had written her full name and address on the inside cover in October 1977.

In July 2020, I received an e-mail via this website… from one Debbie Wilson, who grew up in Radcliffe in the 1970s, and was interested to know if the book might have once belonged to her! “I presume the address is Heber Street?” she asked… and indeed:

I can’t say how thrilled I was. For me, finding names, addresses, dedications and messages from previous owners are a huge part of the joy of collecting used books. These little snippets of lost family history echo through the decades, resounding from bookstall to jumble sale to charity shop, sometimes even hidden on dusty shelves for years, unnoticed. The thought of reuniting Debbie with her childhood book seemed such a touching idea, especially as – in subsequent e-mails – she told me that most her collection had been given away over the years. “Nice to hear at least one still survives,” she said. “I wish I’d kept some of them…”

We continued e-mailing, and Debbie told me that she was intending to travel to North Yorkshire in the near future to visit family. So, on 19th July 2020, I met Debbie and her sister Lesley outside Northallerton Town Hall… and returned my copy of Mandog to its original owner, 43 years after she’d written her name and childhood address on the inside cover.

We went for a coffee, and – inevitably – I couldn’t resist asking for a little chat for the website:

Bob: So tell us… how did you come to realise that I had your old childhood book?

Debbie: It was a Saturday, late at night, and I was bored – I’d just come back from furlough and there was nothing on the telly! So I’d been on my iPhone all evening, and just looked for my name, and my home town. And then I saw: “Debbie Wilson, Musty Books”. I clicked on it, saw the picture of Mandog and thought “You know what, I think I used to have that book…”

I read the review, and down at the bottom you’d mentioned Debbie Wilson and Radcliffe and the date… and I thought “Oh, my God”. [Laughs]. I didn’t know whether to own up to it or not! Did I reply straight away? It was really late on a Saturday night…

You did… at 2am! So how old were you in 1977, when you wrote your name and address on the cover?

I was thirteen.

(Debbie in 1977 – on the far right, with two of her sisters)

I loved the fact that you’d written 1976 originally, then crossed it out…

Yeah, 1977 must have been a better year!

So do you have any memories of actually buying Mandog?

I remember having it, but I can’t remember reading it. I don’t know where I got it from, but I wouldn’t have bought it. I wasn’t a science fiction fan. I think I must have been given it somewhere along the line, but not for a birthday or Christmas, anything like that. Although I remember it being in really good condition. It was a new book.

And did you write your name or address in all of your books?

After a certain age, I think I did – when I could spell it properly! It was either that, or that rhyme: “If this book should dare to roam, box its ears and send it home”.

So were you a big reader as a kid? You were telling me in an e-mail that you used to carry the shopping for an elderly neighbour, and that helped…

Yes… when I was at primary school, I used to walk down the old Coal Lane to get this lady’s shopping, then walk back to the village, and she’d give me one of the old sixpences. So then I’d walk back down to Radcliffe market, which at the time was really good, and really busy. And I’d go to the bookstall and buy Enid Blyton books: The Mystery Five, The Famous FiveThe Secret Seven I wasn’t so interested in, but I still got them! And then Mallory Towers as well. She must have been rubbing her hands together on that bookstall every time she saw me.

So any idea how it came to be in a used bookshop on the other side of the country? Do you know how it left your possession?

I think it probably got thrown out when I moved out, in 1984. I left a lot of books behind. And my brothers and sisters wanted the room, and they weren’t big readers.

And no idea where it would have gone from there? In my head, it just worked its way across the Pennines, through a string of used bookshops, each one just a bit further east…

I think my Mum might have taken it to a charity shop… she did work for one for a while, the Oxfam shop in Radcliffe. I wonder how many people have actually read it? I’ll read it again, and see if I suddenly start remembering it all, halfway through.

Honestly, I’m so delighted to return it to you. How does it feel to see your handwriting from when you were thirteen?

Isn’t it neat? I must have been trying my hardest! Now, it would just be a scribble. It’s a shame that people don’t do that any more, books don’t have any history to them. Thanks so much for letting me have it back… I did think you might think I was a bit strange if I replied to you!

Not at all, Debbie. Thanks so much for getting in touch – it’s been a genuine delight. And, indeed, huge thanks for donating a couple more Musty Books to my collection! I’ll keep reporting names, addresses and dedications that I find in any of the books that I’m reviewing, and if you think one of them may be yours… please get in touch.

The Black Meadow, Chris Lambert and The Soulless Party

A disclaimer: I am in love with the North York Moors. This vast sweep of bleakly beautiful countryside, occupying a remote corner of North-Eastern England, was virtually my childhood playground. Sunday afternoons were made for family yomps around the heather-coated hillsides of Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping, while school trips and Outward Bound courses began to introduce tantalising hints of sometimes-invented folklore. Did I ever get to the bottom of the ‘Black Heart of Whorlton Castle’, a terrifying, medieval ghost story set amidst the crumbling remains of this overgrown, 12th Century ruin? Yes, 25 years later, when I tracked down my former teacher, Mr Hirst, and he all but admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.

But that was part of the appeal: landscape attracts stories. Both ancient and modern. And now, when I tramp around the same desolate hillsides and ancient ruins as a middle-aged, weekend dog-walker, I take as much pleasure and inspiration from the folklore attached to the landscape as I do from those spectacular surroundings themselves.

Clearly Chris Lambert and Kev Oyston feel the same. Around five years ago, I became aware of their musical collaboration as The Soulless Party, and the folk-influenced electronica that claimed to take its inspiration from the sinister stories attached to The Black Meadow, an area of the North York Moors centred around the famous RAF Fylingdales. I knew, of course, the story of this mysterious military base; its legendary “golf ball” radomes had comprised arguably the most recognisable Cold War missile warning system in the world. Though these infamous spheres were demolished in the mid-1990s, and replaced by a sleek, concrete pyramid, the base remains an iconic local landmark.

I was, however, utterly unaware of the wealth of local folklore that Lambert and Oyston seemed to have unearthed. The Black Meadow was a name unfamiliar to me, as were its accompanying tales of a village that appears only “when the mist is high”: a darkly mystical community existing in a supernatural netherworld of pre-industrialised folk ritual and superstition. Just who was the “Rag and Bone Man”? Did the mysterious “Brightwater Archive” really attempt to document these stories in the 1930s, before being inexplicably shut down? And did Roger Mullins, a visiting professor at York University, genuinely vanish in the area while attempting further investigations in 1972?

Lambert and Oyston presented books, music, photographs, websites, blogs, lectures and even a “lost” 1977 Radio 4 documentary to reinforce the veracity of these stories, expertly blurring the lines between genuine folklore and invented fiction. I’ve since come to know them both well. I’ve interviewed them many times for BBC Radio Tees, and I’ve even collaborated with them on certain projects. Sometimes they admit to wild invention, other times they’re tantalisingly vague. It’s all part of the fun. And the project has been expanded further with the release of two new instalments: a wonderfully atmospheric album – largely by Oyston – and Lambert’s accompanying book, where tales of the “Ticking Policeman”, the “March of the Meadow Hags” and the “Village Under The Lake” further explore the legend.

Both book and album are entitled The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, and both are available now.

I spoke to Chris Lambert about the whole Black Meadow phenomenon…

Bob: For those unaware, tell us a little bit about the Black Meadow in your own words… as far as you’re concerned, where exactly is it?

Chris: The Black Meadow is an area of land on the Whiteway Heads Road, between Sleights and Pickering on the North York Moors. RAF Fylingdales, once of the iconic “golf balls” missile warning system, is located on the Black Meadow. For centuries, the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings. The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high. I first found out about it when a colleague of mine, Kev Oyston, was investigating a lost Radio 4 documentary, Curse of the Black Meadow, and asked me to assist him in his research. After that I was hooked.

Do you find that area of the North York Moors especially fascinating? It provides a direct link between ancient landscape – with its associated folk stories – and Cold War paranoia, in the shape of the aforementioned RAF Fylingdales. Is that a combination that you find particularly irresistable? 

It’s completely fascinating. It’s the incongruity of that vast landscape and the stark, strange pyramid that now sits atop it. The golf balls too were an eerie sight… even more eerie in the memory, and in faded photographs, now that they are gone. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War… though excitingly it is threatening a comeback, which will be a real boon for us Threads fans. But I remember living with a slight sense of dread constantly in the back of my mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to these places, and to these types of stories.

Just down the road from where I live, in Berkshire, is RAF Greenham Common, the now-decommissioned American missile base. That also holds a real fascination for me. And the silos were used as a location for Star Wars – The Force Awakens! I also love the pillboxes that are dotted along our local canal, to defend us against attacks on our waterways. Any site where there is a strange, seemingly anachronistic incongruity attracts me. That juxtaposition of the natural against the artificial, particularly in places where nature has actually won. That shows that these terrors are fleeting, and that the life of our planet is beautiful.

I think this might also be because I read a lot of John Christopher as a child, and loved the images of the decayed modern cities in The White Mountains, from the Tripods trilogy, and Beyond the Burning Lands, from the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Or the desolation in Empty World. More recently I read his adult novels The Death of Grass and Wrinkle in the Skin. They also scratched this itch, with their exploration of a vastly altered landscape.

What’s your own connection to the North-East? Were your parents from Teesside?  

My mum grew up in York, and her parents were from that area. My Dad was the vicar of the parish church in Saltburn in the 1960s and early 1970s, before I was born. He then moved the family down to Shaftesbury in Dorset, which is where I appeared! Interestingly, Shaftesbury is the home of Gold Hill, where the famous Yorkshire-set Hovis advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was filmed. So, quite aptly, I lived in an imagined Yorkshire, in the south of England. Interestingly my Mum told me just at the weekend that she never wanted to move south. She absolutely loves the north of England, and I suppose that enthusiasm has rubbed off. 

I know you had a strict religious upbringing, and I’m guessing traditional folklore wasn’t a big part of that. Is there an element of researching and writing about supernatural folk stories makes them almost “forbidden fruit” for you? 

Oh, my goodness. All of it! I think I appear to be very overexcited about things when I discover them. I don’t have the same cultural references as Kev Oyston or your good self, because I wasn’t allowed to watch, listen to or read quite a lot of things when I was little. My Dad would put the TV in the loft or in the cupboard during the week, and I would sneak an extension lead up there if they were out, and watch Alas Smith and Jones. It was a real pain when Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I did a talk about burning my Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when I was a young fundamentalist – I was led to believe that they would do me spiritual harm. So any folklore was off limits. Anything occult-tinged was a no-no. I remember my mum warning me about the dangers of Dennis Wheatley… who I had never heard of, but she made him sound very exotic and interesting. I still haven’t got around to him, as I don’t believe he could live up to the hype! I was brought up on the aggressive anti-gay/catholic/muslim/occult tracts by Jack Chick, and the only comics I read were Archie and the (now that I have revisited them) utterly appalling and deeply offensive Crusaders comics. With the exception of Archie, these comics introduced me to imagery of hell, torture, possession and demons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lucio Fulci or Armando de Ossario film. So oddly, it was these terribly written but evocatively illustrated works, intended to lure me away from Satan and all his works, that stuck in my head. I wouldn’t have known about these things if I hadn’t read them. Such a strange bubble to live in! 

So sometimes there is a little wicked part of myself that thinks – would this get burned? Is this a bit naughty? If it is, I’m more likely to research it or write it. This sounds a bit like rebellion but it doesn’t feel like it, I just write what comes into my head. But I can’t deny the influences of my childhood.

You’ve lived in Berkshire for many years – was there ever a temptation to write about Berkshire folklore, or is there something specifically about the North-East, and the North York Moors, that you find lends itself to strangeness?

I am very interested in Berkshire, and have written a kid’s play called Deadman’s Lane which, like The Black Meadow, is about a world hidden inside another. A re-imagined geography. Deadman’s Lane bisects the school grounds where I work. I’m also working on something based in my own immediate locality, which I plan to start if the Black Meadow ever frees me from its misty embrace. That said, the North York Moors do attract me hugely… partly because they’re physically distant, and so they give me the opportunity to imagine myself there. It’s the desolation of the moors that I love, that vast sweep of heather, interrupted by that strange pyramid and the floating mist. They’re a favourite place to holiday, too.

How did you first start writing about the Black Meadow? And what were your ambitions for it at the start of all this? It’s become quite a sprawling, multi-media project… 

The project began when Kev and I worked on the radio documentary, The Curse of the Black Meadow. Kev had created/discovered the theme tune for Tales from the Black Meadow and it was already growing into a larger project in his head, so he invited me to help write the documentary for which this would be the theme. As I was creating that, I decided that one of the key players, “Philip Hull”, would mention, off the cuff, several folk tales… such as “The Shining Apples” and “The Devil and the Yoked Man”. I then realised that these tales needed to actually exist to add weight to the documentary. So I began to create/discover them. Firstly for the documentary, but then as we went on, more were unearthed/written.

And I had no real ambition at first! We just sort of went in the direction the meandering paths took us, having fun. After that it evolved into the book and album, but I certainly didn’t envisage at the time that that little documentary would end up leading us here…

Can we talk about Kev Oyston himself? How did you meet, and what’s the division of labour like between you and Kev? 

It’s really interesting for me to pull this apart! We met online, of course. It started because a friend of mine, Dave Yates – aka Dolly Dolly – had done a track for Kev on his Electronic Encounters album, and sent me the link. I loved the album, and was fiddling about one day and decided to make my own Close Encounters-influenced track, Follow the Toys… which I then took a punt on, and sent to Kev. He was kind enough to pop it on his Electronic Encounters Special Edition. We then bandied tracks back and forth, and he sent me a couple of instrumentals that I added lyrics to… like a latter-day Vince Clark and Andy Bell. And then Black Meadow happened. He made an evocative video to accompany his track, and invited me to do the documentary.

The division of labour for the first album was, with the exception of one track, that he wrote the tunes and I wrote the stories. As the project progressed, the process became more knotty. Kev would write a track and send it – and the title – to me. From the title and the mood of the track, I would then write a story. However at the same time I would be writing another story which he would read, and then use the title for another track. I’m now not entirely sure who started which stories! I think he definitely wrote The Black Dog, from which I wrote the story… and I wrote The Shining Apples first, because Philip Hull mentioned that in his interview.

For this second album we used a similar method. I would immerse myself in the music and extrapolate a story from that and the title, or Kev would come up with a tune, from the story and title I’d provided. I have fond memories of listing to The Maiden of the Mist on repeat, while I worked on that story. I have the album on repeat when I’m writing, editing and typesetting, just to stay in that world. The second album has been a much longer process because Kev kept writing more music, and I kept coming up with more stories. It got so thorny that I had to make a spreadsheet just to keep track. Which Kev ignored on several occasions! Hence the thickness of the book.

What kind of reaction does the Black Meadow evoke in people? Do people generally believe it all?

We tread a fine line. When I do a talk I introduce myself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. I often have the word “LIES” on a screen behind me. But even though I say that, people still ask me if it’s all real. I had one person ask me if they should contact their MP about the disappearances on the moors… I actually didn’t give a her a definite “no”, as I was quite tempted to see what would happen.

I had a very strange conversation with one chap. I remember starting a sentence with “I made all this up…” and he asked me in the next sentence if what I was saying was true. I then told him “No, I made it up…” and carried on to another bit of folklore which I also preceded with a disclaimer. He then asked me about again about the truth of it all. This went on for the entire conversation… which I enjoyed immensely.

I think the issue is that people want to believe. There are also so many weird blimming things going on that they think it is all inspired by real occurrences. It’s a very interesting time to be doing a project like this, with all the talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. I never set out for this to be some sort of critique of that. But when you use real places, add dates, and use phrases such as “everybody knows” or “it has often been said” before telling a story, people seem to accept it as the truth. Even if you explicitly tell them it’s a lie.

Have you met sceptical souls?

I have met sceptical souls, but they tend to enjoy the wink and the nudge of it all. I often say that if you do even the tiniest bit of research this will all unravel, but most people can’t be bothered and would rather enjoy the fun.

Is blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction part of the appeal for you? How far will you go to achieve that?

I am very much into the idea of mythogeography, projecting a story onto a landscape and exploring that landscape through a different lens. We all do it to a certain extent… for example, we get a little frisson of excitement when we visit a film location. Gloucester Cathedral cloisters are the location of the Hogwarts corridors in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So if you visit, you can picture the martyrdom of Bishop Bonner alongside the petrification of Colin Creevey. And when I visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset the guide on the bus tour talked of how the two tall columns of stone influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. I don’t know if that was true at all, but even if it wasn’t, I could still picture Orcs peeking out from behind the stones.

It’s the urban myths told around camp fires: “It was just half a mile from here that his body was found, and it is said that….” So yes, it’s a huge part of the appeal. I think some of that comes from playing as a child in my garden. I was lucky enough to have a big, vicarage garden and would spend hours on my own imagining myself in epic fantasy adventures. I would make tunnels in bracken and bramble, and fashion maps where corridors and cave-like openings would have grandiose names.

The strange thing is, I visited the Black Meadow over a year after I had written the first tale and I was struck by how very real the stories seemed to be, and how they fitted with the landscape. It was very strange. I’m delighted that every time I’ve been there, it’s been shrouded in mist.

How far would you take the illusion? There is actually a little plaque on the moors, isn’t there… where – ahem – did that come from?

How far would I go? I think there’s a mischievous side to me, but I would be utterly appalled if we hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. So Kev and I both err on the side of caution. We aren’t planning to do an Area 51 style storming of RAF Fylingdales, for example. That said, the plaque commemorating the disappearance of Roger Mullins, which you can indeed find on the North York Moors, was put there by the Brightwater Archive and Roger’s family. It has nothing to with me or Kev, so I don’t know what you’re talking about there.

Back in 2017, you brought a party of drama students up from your Berkshire school, and performed a Black Meadow stage play at Caedmon College in Whitby, a stones throw from the meadow itself! I was there, and it was amazing. How on Earth did you persuade your head teacher to give the green light to all this?  

My school is great. I’ve worked there for over fifteen years, and have always been given the space to innovate. Before I was a teacher, I worked as a playwright, but I moved into teaching when I began to starve to death. From the start, I was getting the students to perform at local venues and trying out strange and wacky ideas. From medieval mystery plays around the whole school site, to a Deadman’s Lane radio play and a Zombie Walk!

Before we got to Tales from the Black Meadow – The Play, I had been working on a series of productions to try and get more boys into Drama. We went down the horror route and that did seem to work. I worked on a three-year “Trilogy of Terror” (without Karen Black or crazed African wood carvings) which started with an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos – right up your misty alley – followed by the aforementioned Deadman’s Lane, and then topped off with Night of the Living Dead for Kids. To promote the final play of the trilogy we did that Zombie Walk for charity and then, erm… I somehow persuaded the Parish Council to let the cast shamble after the runners when the Olympic Torch was passed through our village, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.

So taking the cast of Tales From the Black Meadow to Whitby? It wasn’t really a surprise. The head teacher just rolled her eyes and gave us her blessing. I think the parents thought we were mad, though… and they were probably right, the students still talk about it. My only regret is that they didn’t get to see Whitby, because we had to leave at 5am, get off the bus at 12pm, get into the school and set up, perform at 2pm, then get back on the bus… we did however drive through the Black Meadow to get there, and the mist was up.

How do you think the performance went down? Do modern kids understand that 1970s “haunted” feeling that we still seem to feel so profoundly?

It’s always interesting performing a play to complete strangers. Caedmon College were so kind to accommodate us, and gave us lovely feedback. We could have done without our smoke machine setting off their fire alarm in the first ten minutes, though! The students really got the play, but it’s hard to say whether they get our haunted feeling. I’m just an old man to them, and they aren’t bothered by our past experiences. In the same way that weren’t bothered by our own parents’ stories when we were kids. They live in strange times though, so maybe they’ll look back on this era in a similar way, with that nostalgia for dread. We had the Three Day Week, the Cold War and Public Information Films. They have Brexit, Trump and internet memes… something weird is going to be born from that, I’m sure.

Any future plans for the Black Meadow project?  

We plan to produce the next volume of the Black Meadow Archive soon, but there are rumblings from Whitehall that we won’t be given access to their files, so there could be something of a delay whilst we sort that out. The amount of back and forth we had, trying to get the latest publication past those censorious civil servants, beggars belief. We’d love to make a film or a radio documentary, too. I guess whatever the government allows, will happen.

The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, by Chris Lambert, is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Meadow-Archive-1/dp/1688953167

And the accompanying album, by The Soulless Party, is releases on Castles In Space, and is available here…

https://thesoullessparty-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-black-meadow-archive-volume-1