Felt Trips: “The Natural History of C-3PO” by Henry Rothwell

For some of us, Star Wars changed everything. The passions of our pre-1977 lives, all those beloved Wombles and Mr Men, were cruelly swept aside by an all-conquering cavalcade of droids, stormtroopers, Wookiees and Jedi. We lived, breathed and – indeed – drew Star Wars. At the age of five, I felt more of a spiritual connection with Tatooine that I did with my native Teesside.

Also finding his previous childhood interests compromised was Henry Rothwell, the “recovering archaeologist” whose contrasting passions for both Star Wars and natural history competed throughout 1977, finally conjoining in a delightful tipping point, only uncovered decades later.

Over to you, Henry…

“1977 was something of a learning year for me. We’d moved from the small, oaky West Sussex village of Henfield to the lounging salt-stained metropolis of Brighton, and with it I’d swapped the fairly carefree existence of a small school, woods, brooks, ponds and plenty of wildlife, for a very large school, endless roads and traffic, and a small garden with very little in the way of adventure. But it also brought with it the promise of Star Wars, my obsession with which became a substitute for my obsession with tadpoles, newts, toads and slow-worms (though this too continued on a reduced level). In the US, the movie was released in May, but here in the UK we had an interminably long wait: unless you were one of the anointed few who attended the premiere, the chances are that the film you could have sworn you saw in 1977 was actually the film you saw in January 1978.

Preceding this however, several waves of merchandising made their way across the Atlantic; from Topps collecting cards to long playing records, at least one single, ‘making of’ magazines, t-shirts, rogue X-Wings cropping up in 2000AD comic panels, and a great deal more besides. Plenty, in other words, to feed a growing youth’s growing obsession. I think I must still have spoken at length about missing the country idyll I’d left behind, however, as when I reached double figures in November 1977, my aunt Anna and cousin Georgie gave me a paperback copy of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne. And much as I’d like to report that I greedily and precociously consumed the text, I very definitely didn’t. I probably dipped in here and there and quickly found that the nature diary of an 18th century parson just didn’t have the same pull as, say, anything to do with Star Wars, and I probably put it on my bookshelf unread, perhaps next to Star Wars, the novel (supposedly written by George Lucas, but not actually).

That being said, it must have made it through the mental haze of lightsabers and TIE fighters enough to have registered somewhere. As an adult I have managed to collect five different editions of the book, and recently while comparing the different copies, I found a pencil sketch of C-3PO, the second best droid in the film, on a sheet of paper that had been ensconced between the pages of the copy I received in 1977. It was a reminder that I had drawn the characters obsessively – mainly the droids, spacecraft and armoured members of the cast, as I wasn’t very good at people, and preferred the machines anyway. One of the reasons behind this infatuated scribbling was that I wasn’t receiving enough information about the subject of my hyperfocus, so I was forced into generating my own. I have no idea what befell the other pictures I drew; I suppose some of them, like this one, may still live on trapped between the pages of rarely opened books, and may yet come to light.

When the film was finally released, I inveigled various relatives to take me to see it a dozen times, and I still didn’t think it too many. The following twelve months was one of great significance; contributions from the big screen, the small screen and the radio would strongly influence my take on the world. In the same January that Star Wars made it to general release, Blake’s 7 appeared, then in March the altogether funnier and more erudite Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made its debut on the radio, with the year being bookended by the arrival of the remarkable Life on Earth on our televisions. Where Star Wars was escapist entertainment, Hitchhiker’s was escapist entertainment mixed with easily digested philosophy, and astounding sound design. Life on Earth contained mind-altering levels of information about planetary formation and the development of the earliest life, and also featured an inspired avant-garde score by Edward Williams. These last two (and dozens of nature programs before them) instilled in me an enduring love of ambient music, and it was with this last programme that my original obsession with nature was successfully and seemingly permanently resurrected.

Anyway. Here’s my picture of C-3PO.”

Thanks Henry… his charming Notes For The Curious website is here:

http://notesforthecurious.com/


Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 63)

Reviews originally published in Issue 63 of Electronic Sound magazine, March 2020:

RORY MOHON
Darkly Dreaming
(Burning Witches)

HUNTER COMPLEX
Dead Calm and Zero Degrees
(Burning Witches)

This is, quite literally, the sound of your nightmares. Rory Mohon‘s Darkly Dreaming was inspired by its LA-based composer’s desire to create aural evocations of troubled sleep, of a “soft pressure on the chest of the listener… of being weighed down slightly by a heavy blanket” as he puts it, rather menacingly, in the sleeve notes. The resulting seventeen, synth-heavy vignettes have a distinctly cinematic feel; perhaps not surprisingly, given that Mohon cites the electronic soundtrack to 2011 Ryan Gosling film Drive as a musical Road to Damascus turning point.

There are unexpectedly upbeat moments. ‘Dirt Roads and Firelight’ boasts clattering beats and a throbbing bassline: a high-speed escape, perhaps, from the guttural, subliminal mutterings that permeate the sinister ‘Zodiac’. But when the album descends into deeper realms of the unconscious, it becomes truly affecting. ‘Day Turns To Night’ sees impressionistic, Boards of Canada-style wooziness slowly subsumed by dark slabs of ambience, while ‘Apparitions’ is surely the fleeting, frustrating joy of being visited, in sleep, by those long since departed from the corporeal world. And ‘Everything at Halfspeed’ is the best-ever musical interpretation of attempting to flee unspecified nastiness through a world suddenly consisting entirely of treacle.

Album available here: https://burningwitchesrecords.bandcamp.com/album/darkly-dreaming

Darkly Dreaming is part of Burning Witches’ 2020 vinyl subscription scheme, as is Dead Calm and Zero Degrees, a more bombastic offering from Dutch producer Lars Meijer, in his guise as Hunter Complex. Described as a “twin record” to 2019’s Open Sea – itself an imagined soundtrack to William Gibson’s Neuromancer novel – it shares its predecessor’s open love of Moroder-esque film scores, and may elicit a misty tear from those whose teenage years were defined by the sound of a Yamaha DX7 in full flight. Or, indeed, the sight of Jennifer Beales in legwarmers. ‘Bitter Cold’ in particular is joyously anthemic, the lost theme to some typically widescreen overcoming-of-odds.

Elsewhere, there is more reflective material. ‘Steel Dynamics’ begins as pure Blade Runner homage, and ‘Hot Streets’ has hints of Vangelis too: a wistful, melancholy shimmer of a daydream. But it’s Meijer’s love of mid-1980s excess that is gloriously overwhelming, and every rumble of a vintage Linn Drum feels both heartfelt and heartwarming. Great fun.

Album available here:
https://burningwitchesrecords.bandcamp.com/album/darkly-dreaming

THE RELATIONS
Evocation
(Castles In Space)

The burgeoning love affair between contemporary electronica and the delicate strangeness of the English countryside continues to blossom, and Brighton’s Neil Hale has pledged his troth with this organic, melodic and rather beautiful paean to all matters rustic and weird. Fluttering synths and jazz pianos float idly around the mellifluous folk guitars of regular collaborator Stuart ‘Pilote’ Cullen, with the breathy, wordless vocals of Penny Ashby adding delicious hints of the ethereal.

Hale’s previous work as Correlations has occasionally veered towards the gently pastoral, but the presence of Cullen, Ashby and multi-instrumentalist Tim Young plants him squarely into a world of magic, maypoles and ancient myth. That feel reaches its zenith on the spectral ‘See Through Squares’, where Young’s accordion leads the dance into a gently hypnotic reel; and the winding, serpentine ‘Truth Will Follow You’, which could almost be an off-kilter Clannad. An album as fragile as gossamer, but with shadows lurking behind the hedgerows.

Album available here:
https://correlations-cis.bandcamp.com/album/evocation

JON BROOKS
How To Get To Spring
(Clay Pipe)

A sensitive meditation on the passing of winter and the bone-thawing respite of the months to follow, Brooks‘ fourth album for Clay Pipe unfolds with a sense of beguiling calmness entirely in keeping with the restorative properties of the season itself. The mood is dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic: drifting mellotrons and gently-plucked guitars creep unobtrusively from the retreating shadows, the hypnotic piano lines of ‘Dreaming and Further Still’ the perfect evocation of boundless, late-morning sleep.

There is a beautiful stillness here. And intriguing hints of Gaelic inspiration, too: ‘Sìorraidh’ takes its title from a poetic sense of the eternal and everlasting, and ‘Neist Point’ is the most westerly headland on the Isle of Skye. And both are as warmly, melodically invigorating as their titles suggest. An album of low sun and pale skies, of hard ground and budding leaves. But, most touchingly of all, an album of hope, renewal, and faith in the future.

Album available here:
https://cafekaput.bandcamp.com/album/how-to-get-to-spring


Jon Brooks interview here:
https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/2020/04/03/jon-brooks-shapwick-and-how-to-get-to-spring/

ALI WADE
Microhumans
(Frequency Domain)

Ali Wade‘s second album for his own Frequency Domain label is one of fascinating contradictions. “Tensile contemplation and melancholia” is his own description; but the drone-fuelled ambience frequently finds counterpoint in bright, shimmering melody. And yet, for every gently reflective piece like ‘Teething’, there’s a ‘Citizens of Our Starswarm’, which – despite taking its title from a Terence McKenna homily to magic mushrooms – has a sinister, sci-fi feel.

In fact, the sci-fi influence is strong: Wade admits the works of J.G. Ballard and Arthur C. Clarke were weighing heavily on his mind during the album’s gestation. And the throbbing, unsettling ‘My Mind Laid Out Before Me’ references the plight of a robot scientist dissecting its own brain, the crux of a Ted Chiang short story. Wade’s own descent into depression, and his subsequent recovery, were factors too; and the resulting contrast between light and shade on this immersive album is appropriately affecting.  

Album available here:
https://frequencydomain.bandcamp.com/album/microhumans

PULSE: Roman Angelos

Who he? 

The lounge lizard alter-ego of New York library music obsessive Rich Bennett, whose new 11-minute album Spacetronic Lunchbox is a collection of hilarious, bossa nova-infused, retro-futurist vignettes. Quite frankly – and no other word will suffice here – it’s groovy. “That genre creates its own secret world, with so many hidden things along the way to unlock,” says Bennett. “So you learn that Sven Libaek is an amazing Juilliard-trained composer, who also wrote all that groovy background music for ‘Scooby Doo’.” See? That word, again…

Why Roman Angelos?

I was watching the dinner entertainment on an overnight ferry to Croatia,” explains Bennett. “There was an older gentleman playing a very shoddy, modern Casio keyboard, and he just seemed so tired and bored. Beaten down by life. I remember thinking ‘What if this guy is secretly some amazing composer, but his whole life has been a series of mishaps that resulted in him never being recognized?'” Thus, Roman Angelos was born.

Tell us more…

“It’s an imaginary 1950s sitcom, where they have a robot maid that the older son has an awkward crush on…” says Bennett of the hilarious ‘I’m In Love With The Family Robot’. Elsewhere, ‘Highway Chase’ evokes images of Don Johnson wrestling with the wheel of a careering Ferrari Daytona, and if you can hear ‘Please Hold The Elevator’ without imagining a soft-focus Cybill Shepherd striding purposefully into a lift filled with middle-aged executives nervously adjusting their ties, then you clearly haven’t watched as much vintage television as the composer of this gloriously daffy collection. Let’s use the word “groovy” one final time, and be done with it.

Album available here:
https://happyrobotsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/spacetronic-lunchbox

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Robin of Sherwood, Andrew Orton and Hooded Man

If you were an inquisitive 11-year-old with an unhealthy interest in swords, sorcery and the darker aspects of English folklore, then there was arguably no better time to be alive than 1984. With the possible exception of 1190. But at least those of us lucky enough to reach adolescence in the era of Fighting Fantasy books and Robin of Sherwood were able to indulge our obsessions without the lingering inconveniences of serfdom or leprosy – and feel free to insert your own jokes about 1980s Teesside here, I’m not listening.

Robin of Sherwood, a lavish televisual update of the Robin Hood legend, was first broadcast in April 1984 and transformed my weekend ramblings around the woods and fields of North Yorkshire into soulful, mystical adventures: carving longstaffs from the dried husk of Giant Hogweed stalks and seeking the solace of Herne the Hunter in the woods on the edge of the new Wimpy estates.

The show, created by Catweazle writer Richard Carpenter, made stars of its young cast: Michael Praed as the youthful Robin, Judi Trott his spirited wife Marion, Clive Mantle a stoic Little John, Ray Winstone a ferocious Will Scarlet, Phil Rose a genial Tuck, Peter Llewellyn-Williams the innocent Much and Mark Ryan the deadly Saracen warrior, Nasir. For Series Three, Jason Connery assumed the role of Robin; and the bands sneering nemeses, the Sheriff of Nottingham and the bumbling Guy of Gisburne, were portrayed with delicious brio throughout by Nickolas Grace and Robert Addie, forming a gloriously fractious double act that crackles with an almost erotic tension.

In 2014, North-Eastern writer Andrew Orton wrote two comprehensive guidebooks to accompany the series. Hooded Man Vol 1 and 2 have now been reissued by Miwk Publishing, so it seemed like an apposite time to catch up with Andrew – especially as Robin of Sherwood itself was been discussed on this website only last month. Our conversation went as follows:

Bob: Oddly, Robin of Sherwood got a mention on the blog only a couple of weeks ago, when Jim Jupp of Ghost Box Records mentioned that the opening notes of the new Belbury Poly album, The Gone Away, were inspired by the show’s theme! Since then, quite a few people have independently told me that they’d already started a full rewatch. Is there something in the air? Does autumn bring out the Robin of Sherwood fans in all of us?

Andrew: It could be that… although I think of it as a Spring programme! It’s being repeated on ITV4, so it could be something to do with that. Do you know, that Ghost Box scene… it’s a fascinating area of music, and it’s one I wish I was more involved with. I know some of it, and what I’ve heard is remarkable. You can hear the influence of Clannad, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It’s fascinating how that stuff all gets reinvented, and how these things have spun off to make something new.

The blog is called The Haunted Generation, and it’s very much about that period of British culture and society influencing people in quite a profound way. You clearly appreciate those feelings, but I guess you would have been very young when Robin of Sherwood was first broadcast in 1984 – do you have any memories of it at all?

I haven’t, I’d just turned two when the first series was broadcast. But I had a cousin who was 19 in the early 1990s, and he got his first job in the crisp factory in Peterlee. And used to buy VHS tapes from Woolworths, and lend them to me. And one day he lent me the double box set of Series Two of Robin of Sherwood. I was about ten years old. It was a grainy Video Gems VHS… but it had something. The programme itself, and the writing, shone through – but what I really liked about it was the realism. Putting that realism together with the sword and sorcery side of the show shouldn’t work, but it really does. That grabbed me as a child. It’s a remarkable series.

Yes, and that supernatural aspect isn’t presented in an airy-fairy way. It’s not remotely fey: the presence of magic and Herne the Hunter is presented as an unremarkable fact of everyday life. I found that fascinating and inspiring as a kid, and I still do.  

What I’ve always liked about it is that, although the characterisation has a very modern feel, it’s set in a time before modern science, so they had mystical explanations for why things occur… and they become the show‘s explanations for why things occur! So, as you say, it’s about everyday life in a medieval village, with the peasants tilling the fields, and when something odd happens – well, it’s a witch or a wizard or a sorcerer that’s responsible. That’s what their explanation would have been at the time, so that’s what we see in the show.

I know you have an interest in British folklore, and in that period of medieval history – did that come from watching Robin of Sherwood as a child?

I think so… partly, yeah. It was probably the first of that kind of drama or literature that I really got into. Before Robin of Sherwood, I wasn’t particularly into fantasy – I liked Doctor Who and Transformers. And Lego – I was into building things! And fantasy isn’t a genre that I know a great deal about, beyond the big names – Tolkien, for example. But I think it spoke to my childhood in many ways, because I grew up in the North-East of England in a small town in the country. And so most of my childhood had that clash between this slightly parochial, faded industrial town – my dad worked in a factory for most of his life – and the fact that we’d play in the fields, and in the woods, and be outside all day. We got lost amongst dark trees!

That rural aspect was a big part of my life… that, and the slightly faded glory of an ex-mining community in the North-East. It wasn’t a place on the up. And so we got that sense of rurality that I know you’ve looked at, and that a lot of the Haunted Generation is about. We had odd local characters that felt a bit mystical to us, because we talked about them that way: there was almost a folky aspect to your little, local characters. A thousand years ago, you had a witch at the end of the street, and it was really just an old woman with a mole on her face. But we had characters like that, too!

Yes, and they had often had similar stories attached to them: it was never quite explained why, but we were always aware of people and places that we’d been warned to stay away from.

We had Mad Mel! The story was that he’d killed his wife and shagged his dog. Or possibly the other way round! [Laughs]. You just didn’t talk to him, because he was a bit odd. And there was a guy called Snecker Turnip, a farm labourer who walked up and down the street with wellies that squelched. Bizarre.

There’s something very medieval about all of that…

I never spoke to any of them, but I’m sure they were lovely people who had just been maligned by the local community. By the kids, really. But the legends survived, and were passed down. It’s the same process… ignorance, really.

I think one of the great things about Robin of Sherwood is that the characters are so relatable. Even though they’re medieval, they’re portrayed in a very contemporary fashion: something that’s very obvious when you look at the character of Will Scarlet. In previous adaptations of the story he was often rather effete, but Ray Winstone essentially plays him as a football hooligan. He’s violent man scarred by trauma: we find out in the first episode that his wife has been raped and murdered by mercenaries, and it’s turned him into a complete sociopath.

I think you’re right. It was a very conscious decision on the part of Richard Carpenter and Ray Winstone to depict him as a) a genuine human being, and b) yeah, a football hooligan. That description was actually brought up when they were creating the character. So he’s quite unpleasant at times, he argues with Robin and they have disagreements about who should be the band’s leader. And the other characters are like that, too… with the Sheriff and Gisburne, there’s a quote from Richard Carpenter: he said he wanted them to be “like Tory politicians”. And they are… they shout and argue, and expect to be in command. There’s definitely a modern feel to it all.

 The youthful quality of Robin himself really appealed to me as an 11-year-old, watching the series in 1984. It’s easy to forget how young Michael Praed was when he made the series.

Yeah, he was 22. There was a conscious desire to play up their youth… because they’re guerillas. They’re rebels. They’re like Che Guevara, up against the establishment – and that doesn’t really work if you’re 43-year-old Richard Greene! If you want a young, left-wing activist, then why wouldn’t you cast a 22-year-old in that part?

You mentioned Richard Carpenter… what did he bring to the traditional Robin Hood story that was new? Was it that magical, supernatural aspect? He’d written Catweazle, so he clearly had an interest in such things…

I think it was. He’d done other historical shows, too – Dick Turpin was a show that was very keen on depicting the realism of living in the past. But the swords and sorcery aspect was definitely something that he was keen to have in there. He’d had a Robin Hood book as a child, and in my book I speculate as to which one it actually was. He uses a lot of character names from the books by E.C Vivian… the Sheriff’s name “De Rainault” is taken from Vivian’s work. So he was aware of the legend, and of recent re-tellings of it, but none of those stories really had fantasy elements to them.

Robin Hood is one of the few real English legends, and traditionally it’s the one doesn’t have magical, mystical elements. So he thought he would put some in, and that would be his new spin on the story. That’s why Herne the Hunter is in there: I think the earliest literary reference to Herne is in Shakespeare, so he’s not a 1000-year character by any means, but he’s in Robin of Sherwood as a shamanistic figure: the Lord of the Trees. And Robin therefore has a reason for his crusade, to work as Herne’s son. It’s what Joseph Campbell would have called the “Hero’s Journey”: Robin is the son of a half-god, half-human figure, and undergoes a Luke Skywalker-style journey, with a mentor!

In fact, that first Robin of Sherwood script virtually is Star Wars: he rescues a princess from a castle, and fights Simon de Bellame – who’s pretty much a mystical Sith… honestly, the parallels are ridiculous. He was drawing on a lot of other things as well, but the Hero’s Journey is definitely in there.

The fantasy elements feel like they fit into a very 1984 zeitgeist, as well. In my mind, my love of Robin of Sherwood is tied inextricably to my love of Fighting Fantasy books. Both came into my life pretty much simultaneously. We tend now to think of the mid-1980s as a very digital, materialistic era, but I remember there being a fair bit of old school, analogue mysticism around.

I suppose we were started to get VHS recorders and things like that, but at the same time I was still going to the library three times a week for Choose Your Own Adventures books, and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. There was a burgeoning subculture… things like Dungeons and Dragons were coming through, too. Ten years earlier, it would have been slightly geeky, computer-obsessed types that were into all this, but by the mid-80s it was coming into the mainstream. There were films like Excalibur, too… it all kind of legitimised that slightly nerdy outlook! Not to the point where you’d actually tell anyone… [Laughs]. But it was more out in the open.

And it was all interwoven… so there were actually Robin of Sherwood gamebooks, but there was also a computer game version. A very tangled web was woven. I think there are a lot of elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark in Robin of Sherwood, too. They both mix religious elements with real life… and with the adventure side, obviously. I’d love to draw a network diagram of how all these texts interwove, and how they fed off each other. The 1980s was definitely a good time for that kind of thing.

When I was talking with Jim, he was saying that Robin Of Sherwood kind of epitomises the Ghost Box approach to folklore: he had a childhood interest in all kinds of myths and legends and strangeness, but – because we all grew up when we did, in the 1970s and 80s – it came from the medium of TV rather than oral tradition. And we were the first generation to really experience that.

That’s true. Even things like The Stone Tape… it doesn’t have an obvious overlap with Robin of Sherwood, and yet it treats ghosts in the same way. Places in Robin of Sherwood carry echoes of events that happened there previously. And Robin of Sherwood has something that I think is at the core of a lot of folklore: a clash between new technology and the natural order. So the Normans, who rule Britain in the series, are an armoured, militaristic power – they use crossbows, for example. Whereas the Saxons aren’t made up in the same way. They use magic, and traditional longbows. There’s a clash between new technology and old magic throughout the series, and I think that’s something that television depicted a lot during that time.

There are lots of TV shows and books from that ere where an older, stranger Britain bleeds through into the present day, and proves that – for all of our sophisticated modern trappings – we are really no match for these ancient forces. Even something like Penda’s Fen shows its main character being liberated from his 1970s sexual and political repression by this older, Pagan world bleeding through. It delivers him from the social mores that are constraining him.

Definitely. And something that Penda’s Fen and Robin of Sherwood share is that connection to landscape. And I have this when I go walking: I think “I wonder what happened in this field? Was there a Civil War battle, or was someone murdered or buried here?” And Penda’s Fen and Robin of Sherwood both play on that: their landscapes have a history beneath them. And that history is a combination of real events and mystical elements… the Pagan gods, and – in Robin of Sherwood – the power of Herne.

And I think Richard Carpenter also saw himself as a modern balladeer. He was carrying on the tradition of Robin Hood: every generation took the story, and tweaked it, and added something. So Robin began as a forest robber, then – in the Elizabethan era – he was gentrified and made into a nobleman, because that was the chivalric ideal of the age. The Victorians rediscovered him as a romantic figure, and then he went into pantomime and children’s books… Hollywood did him as a swashbuckler, and Disney as a cute fox… [Laughs] Carpenter knew all of that, and saw himself as a modern re-interpreter of the legend, adding something and giving that to the next generation. And he did. Elements that he added, like Nasir… or to give him his full name, and this is my party trick…

Go on!

Nasir Malik Kemal Inal Ibrahim Shams ad-Dualla Wattab ibn Mahmud. I learnt that six years ago, and I can’t forget it now! He was carried forward into further productions, and a Saracen character was featured in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the BBC’s 2006 Robin Hood series.

So there’s always been a sense of Robin Hood being reinvented using different technology. The story went from an oral tradition, to words in a book, to pictures on a screen, and then has been passed onto the next generation to do something new. It’s fascinating how it evolves. A remarkable process. 

Let’s talk about your books specifically – what made you decide to write them in the first place?

In 2003, I was going to set up a website to write articles and essays about Robin of Sherwood… it never happened, but I made some notes. Spin forward to 2011, and the Miwk publishing company had been set up, and were looking for books about archive television. I was aware that there was a Robin of Sherwood community, and was amazed that nobody had ever written a book about the series. So I put a pitch together and got in touch with Miwk. I already knew Matt West, who runs the company, and he snapped it up and we soon had two books on our hands!

The approach to doing it was very piecemeal, really. I had in mind the Doctor Who Handbooks from the early 1990s, as they tried to do a bit more than just describe the episodes. Over the years, that kind of analysis of TV programmes had become a lot more involved and detailed, and it seemed ripe to take that approach with Robin of Sherwood. There’s so much you can write about: the medieval stuff, and the Robin Hood legend, but also TV production itself. And, on top of that, I knew there were things like the Robin of Sherwood comic strips in Look-In… there was no information about those anywhere, online or in print.

They need re-printing somewhere…

They’re getting done! Barnaby Eaton-Jones is doing them… has he announced that anywhere?

Oh, great! If he hasn’t, we’ll scoop him…

I think he has! They’re an odd offshoot, because they’re nothing really to do with Robin of Sherwood. The characters have the same images and names, but the stories are very different. They’re not Richard Carpenter’s version of Robin Hood, but they’re interesting, and worth a read – I really like them.

(NB It has been announced – here! And Barnaby’s Spiteful Puppet company has also reunited the original cast for a series of audio dramas – available here)

So you break down every episode in the book, and detail elements of the show’s production – but also look into aspects of the corresponding history, too. Because the historical elements of Robin of Sherwood are pretty accurate, aren’t they? 

They are, although an odd thing happens between Series Two and Three! The first couple of series are set in the late 1190s, but Series Three appears to take place in around 1210-1215… but there’s no obvious gap between them, it just seems to shift! But yeah, a lot of the individual events that take place are based on real history. So, for instance, in the episode ‘The King’s Fool’, when Richard I returns from the Crusades, he holds a council in Nottingham. And that actually happened, he came to Nottingham and sold off a lot of noble titles to whoever had the most money. So various Earls either retained their seats, or were kicked out! A lot of the characters in that episode were based on real people.

A lot of research went into this when the series was being written, and I had to unpick that and find out who all these extras in funny costumes actually were. There’s a really great one: it’s such a minor point, but I was over the moon when I found this out. In that episode, in Series One, there’s the Earl of Warwick… and in Series Three he appears again, but it’s his son who has taken over the title. And he’s wearing the same costume! That attention to detail was something that, once I started to unravel it, did change my view of the series. You get a lot more out of it.

And then the other side is that I’m interested in television production in the 1980s: how they actually made the show and the locations they used… all of that gives you a different view of a TV series. I’m a big fan of actually seeing where programmes were shot, because you get a sense of the space, and how those places were turned into a piece of art, if you like. So the balance between writing about both medieval England and 1980s England was an odd one, as they’re not subjects that naturally go together. But the link between the two was made in Robin of Sherwood, and it was fascinating to draw it all together for the books.  

You found some wonderful anecdotes, too. Care to regale us with the plot to kidnap Matthew Kelly?

[Laughs] It was almost a success! They were filming around Alnwick, in Northumberland, and sent the cast there on a train. And they all got drunk and went to a hotel. In the same hotel, for some reason, were the team from Game For A Laugh – they were also filming in Northumberland, and at the time it was co-hosted by Matthew Kelly. So I think the Robin cast got drunk one night and thought; “Let’s kidnap Matthew Kelly, and tie him upside down to the door of Alnwick Castle!”

I don’t know how true this is – I’m sure it’s been embellished – but as I understand the story, they broke into his hotel room and saw him running away through the window and escaping over the fields!

Come on, Matthew Kelly might actually be bigger than Clive Mantle. He’d stand his ground.

That is true, but there was a whole group of Merries to contend with…

True! I think this story is in the book as well, but I had the privilege of spending a bit of time with Ian Ogilvy last year, and he was telling me that – when he appeared on the show – he witnessed a formation attack on the catering truck, with the entire main cast stretching out their arms, “flying” past it, and pelting it with eggs while singing the Dambusters theme…


[Laughs] I think it was a very happy production, and everyone seems to say they laughed for the whole three years. There are all sorts of stories like that, they did all sorts of crazy stuff. When Jason Connery started on the series, he was eating his dinner one night and found a piece of gristle, so he left it on the side of his plate. Somebody nicked it, and for weeks afterwards it would turn up… this horrible bit of mangled old gristle appearing in his meals, or in his cup of tea!

The other great story… sorry, I’m just telling you what’s in the book now! They were doing a Series Three story with Richard O’Brien, who wrote The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Jeremy Sinden was there, too – and, on a cast night out, was telling them all what he’d watched on television the night before. And he said: “Did anyone see that absolutely terrible film last night? What was it called… The Rocky Horror Picture Show?”

So Jason Connery lent over, and said “Actually, Jeremy… Richard was in it…”

He said “Oh, don’t worry old chap – it’s not your fault… it was probably the bloke who wrote it…”

Lots of TV programmes leave a profound effect on the fans, which is certainly the case with Robin of Sherwood, but it also seems to have had a profound effect on the actors themselves. I’ve rarely heard of actors in other TV shows with such a strong bond as the cast of Robin of Sherwood. They all keep in touch, and meet up regularly, don’t they? It’s really touching.

It is. I’ve been at events with the cast, and they all greet each other as if it’s only been five minutes since the last time they met. They all seem like a nice bunch, and they’ve stayed in touch. These days, I’m friends with some of them on Facebook, and they’ll post pictures when they’ve been to each other’s houses: in fact, just today I saw that Clive Mantle and Michael Praed had been on a trip together to the tithe barn where the Nottingham Great Hall scenes were filmed. They were a good group of people who all got on, I think.

I was at a Robin of Sherwood convention in 2006 where Mark Ryan spoke to us all over a speakerphone from the US, as he was over there doing voiceover work. And he was talking about his interest in the Tarot – he’s produced his own set, the Greenwood Tarot. And all of that came from working on Robin of Sherwood. And at the end of the conversation, I swear he started to get a bit emotional, and as we all shouted goodbye, he said “Herne Protect Us”… and he meant it! It was amazing. Genuinely touching.

And you told me about Mark’s autobiography… he’s had an interesting life! [Laughs] And given some of the action-packed things he’s got up to… you wouldn’t necessarily think they’d match with that Pagan aesthetic. But it’s absolutely part of his character. And the others too… they seem to love the series, and love talking about it. Sometimes you go to other conventions, and you know the actors are doing their tenth convention of the year and they’ve seen it all before. But my sense is that Robin Of Sherwood is the happiest convention on the circuit… it feels like a reunion every time. It’s a very unusual way of a TV show surviving. When finished in 1986, I don’t think any of them particularly wanted to stop. They would have kept going if possible. It’s a band of Merry Men.

When you research and write about something in such detail, it can actually put you off your subject a little bit. Do you still love Robin of Sherwood? 

I do love it, but the other side is that I haven’t watched it for quite a while! Actually, I watched the first story last month, but it was the first time I’d seen it for a few years. Because I’d seen it in such detail, I just needed a bit of distance from it. But when I was writing the book, the Blu-rays came out… and they reinvigorated my interest, too. It looked so fresh and new. It’s funny, you did an interview recently with Matthew Holness and I noticed he talked about how much he liked shooting on film, rather than digital. It really struck me how much the use of film contributed to the feel of Robin of Sherwood, particularly when I saw the new prints. Film has got a character that lets you connect with a show in a certain way, which I don’t think digital always has.

So I did have to step away from the show, mainly because I was doing other things, but I’ve started to come back to it now, and I think I’m going to watch the rest of the series!

I’m doing the same. I’m just about to start the Jason Connery era.

Which order are you watching them in, Bob? This is important.

I’ve actually discovered today that I’ve done them in the wrong order. I watched them in the order in which they’re presented on the Blu-rays, but as I did so I became convinced that I’d watched the two-parter, ‘The Swords of Wayland’, over Easter Weekend in 1985… mid-way through Series Two. But on the Blu-rays it goes at the end of Series One.

The problem was the original broadcast, rather than the Blu-rays! They were broadcast out of order back in 1985. But the Blu-rays actually put them back into the intended production order. ‘The Swords of Wayland’ was the first episode of Series Two made, but it was put out over Easter. If you’ve got a story about the Devil being resurrected, why wouldn’t you put that out over Easter? [Laughs]

Yes, filmed in an actual church as well…

There was hell on! Literally. So ‘The Enchantment’ would have been Michael Praed’s penultimate episode, but ‘The Swords of Wayland’ was broadcast between that and his final story. So in ‘The Enchantment’ they throw ahead to that final episode, and how ‘The Greatest Enemy’ is coming… but then you have to wait two weeks for it.

And Series Three is a bit of a mess… I devoted an entire chapter of the book to this subject! Jason Connery didn’t shoot his debut episodes first, they wanted to give him time to get into the part. Which is fair enough. Now Clive Mantle had just come offstage from doing Of Mice And Men and he’d had his hair cut short, so they gave him a wig – and he spends those episodes standing behind people with his hand covering his hair! And then they recorded Jason Connery’s episode, ‘Herne’s Son’, third… and Clive Mantle has shorter hair in that, so it looks like he’s had a haircut between series. And then the rest of the season is shuffled out of order, too!

Basically, my advice is to use the order I recommend in the book. It’s on Page 249. [Laughs]

You must be delighted that the books are back in print again, are you? They keep coming back and getting reiussed.

I don’t know how many reprints we’ve had now, but they’ve been through a couple of editions! When the first of the new audio plays came out, we did a revised version of Volume 2, but even that was three years ago now. And there still seems to be a demand for the books! I think that says more about the series than it does about my writing… [Laughs] But yeah, they’ve had a very good response, and I’m pleased they’re still going.

Nothing is forgotten, Andrew. Nothing is ever forgotten. Hooded Man Vol 1 is available here:

http://www.miwkpublishing.com/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=74&search=hooded+man

And Vol 2 here:

http://www.miwkpublishing.com/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=75&search=hooded+man


Musty Books: “Grinny” by Nicholas Fisk (1973)

To young children, old people can often appear alien. A scenario strikingly prevalent in the 1970s, when even the most benevolent of grandparents seemed to belong to an entirely different era: their funny sweets, fusty clothes and memories of a pre-technological Britain feeling entirely at odds with the typically garish and futuristic mores of the archetypal 1970s childhood. Grinny takes this concept to logical extremes: the sinister Great Aunt Emma, from whose nickname the book’s title is derived, is actually a malevolent alien. And only the snotty but switched-on kids of the Carpenter household are clever enough to defeat her.

From the off, Fisk cleverly blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, penning a personal introduction from his central character, 11-year-old Timothy Carpenter, in which the youngster claims the book is the result of his diary being handed over to “Mr Nicholas Fisk, the writer”. And the resulting story is constructed entirely from entries in said diary, “a big bound book in blue Morocco leather”, received as a Christmas present a matter of weeks before the mysterious Great Aunt Emma (abbreviated throughout as “GAE”) arrives unexpectedly at the door. A glacial figure in hat and veil, she becomes a permanent, sinister presence in the Carpenter household, claiming to be the sister of Mrs Carpenter’s mother: a story unquestioningly accepted by both of Timothy’s parents despite them freely admitting to no previous knowledge of GAE’s existence.

With Mr and Mrs Carpenter seemingly entranced in a hypnotic torpor, it is left to Timothy, his younger sister Beth and best friend Mac to investigate GAE’s true purpose. Permanently smiling (hence the nickname bestowed upon her by Beth), she peppers the children with inane questions (“What is a conker?”) that soon fuel their suspicion that she is – in fact – not of this Earth at all, and is gathering information as part of some sinister alien reconnaissance mission. The evidence mounts up, and – at the book’s halfway mark – is surmised in hilarious fashion by Timothy: “She doesn’t smell right” he notes, presumably expecting a vague aroma of wet cabbage and Murray Mints. “She is frightened of electricity” appears on the list too, as he entirely underestimates the profound influence of the era’s Public Information Films. It’s the 1970s, Timothy. Everyone is frightened of electricity. We’ve seen what happens to the curtains when the TV is left switched on overnight.

But irrefutable proof is provided by Beth, who – despite being only seven years old – repeatedly proves herself the most astute member of the family. Witnessing GAE slipping on the ice in the Carpenters’ back garden, she swears that her newly-discovered relative is actually Britain’s first Bionic Pensioner, claiming that GAE’s hideous wrist injury had revealed a mesh of metal bones protruding through fake skin (“like the fat on a mutton chop before it is cooked”), a wound that miraculously healed as she watched.

The book’s most endearing feature is perhaps its downfall, too. Timothy’s diaries, while possibly a little too floridly-written for the average 11-year-old, are the very essence of freewheeling, childhood joie de vivre. Peppered with jokey abbreviations (in addition to “GAE”, Timothy also frequently employs the eye-rollingly male 1970s observation, “WAW” – “Women Always Win”) and liberally applied exclamation marks, the style is authentically juvenile… but it rarely conveys a sense of genuine terror. One exception being the sudden appearance of a UFO above the Carpenter household, an experience that seems to scramble Timothy’s brain with “a sort of mental itch” that is delightfully unsettling.

The Carpenters are also perhaps the only suburban family* in 1970s Britain to own a private, heated swimming pool (“Muscle Beach”), an addition that seems so incongruous that for a time I was unsure as to whether the book was actually set in the USA. It’s a scene that seems to be included purely to provide GAE with the opportunity to take notes on the family’s bodies during their communal, naked weekend swim: a sequence that might raise the occasional 21st century eyebrow, and even Timothy acknowledges that they are living through exceptional times. “Since the Permissive Scene came on,” he muses, “You can’t even brush your teeth without feeling that you’ve got to prove something.” It’s a line that I found difficult to read without imagining it being delivered by a flustered Leonard Rossiter to a languid Frances De La Tour, stretched out on a grubby chaise longue.

*Possible exceptions: Joan Collins and George Best.

Those expecting profundity and genuine darkness may be slightly disappointed: Grinny is essentially a light-hearted story about an elderly lady who transpires to be an alien. But it’s a fun read, with the occasional unsettling moment and a climax that is both disturbing and empowering: Grinny’s unravelling as the children persistently perform their “Eyes Right” game on her (essentially: speak to someone, while keeping your gaze fixed on the middle-distance to the right of their face) is both unnerving and brilliant. And proof positive of what we’ve always known: no power in the universe is sufficient to overcome the ingenuity of snotty, switched-on 1970s kids.

POINT OF ORDER: It seems almost surreal given the small cast of characters and simple, suburban setting, but there has never been a full TV adaptation of Grinny. Which seems a shame, as Irene Handl would have been perfect in the title role. Who wouldn’t want to see a bionic Irene Handl? On 24th September 1988, a short, animated version was broadcast as part of the US Saturday morning morning anthology series CBS Storybreak. It’s cloyingly twee and looks as cheap as conkers, but at least the presence of the swimming pool feels more believable:

MUSTINESS REPORT: 9/10. My original 1973 edition is battered almost beyond usefulness, with its orange pages hanging out by a thread. I read it all with my Eyes Right, just in case any of them decided to make a break for it.

Felt Trips: “Jack The Ripper” by Mark R. Jones

Who would have thought that such an innocent-looking 1970s child could produce such works of appalling horror? Mind you, there does appear to be a death masque nailed to the side of his grandmother’s shed. This is Mark R. Jones, pictured in his Nan’s garden in 1978. As a teenager in the 1980s, Mark would become one of the most respected computer games artists in the country: he worked for the legendary Ocean Software, designing beautiful graphics for the likes of Wizball, Tai-Pan and Arkanoid 2: Revenge Of Doh.

But, long before the 8-bit revolution swept through the nation’s bedrooms, his soul had already been consumed by dark and dastardly forces. Over to you, Mark…

“I think my love of horror stems from when we used to make Saturday visits to my Nana and Grandad Tennet’s house, in the mid to late 1970s. Their youngest, my Uncle Andrew, had been born in the early 1960s and by this time he was in his late teens and still living with his parents. To make my visit interesting, while my mum and her mum and dad caught up on family gossip, I would be allowed to go to his room and choose a book to read.

Andrew was already a film buff and, nine times out of ten, I would choose A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford. In it were numerous horrific photos (horrific to me, anyway – I was between seven and nine years old at the time) from various horror films, dating from the turn of the century up to the book’s publication. There were plenty of photos that sent shivers down my spine, especially the ones with skeletons that had – shockingly – reanimated and were usually terrorising some poor female!

When we got bored after tea in the winter evenings, my sister and I would also go through a big wooden box of my Dad’s 7″ singles, in the back room of our house in Northampton. Among them were a few singles by Screaming Lord Sutch. The titles immediately caught my attention; ‘Jack the Ripper’, ‘Till the Following Night’ and ‘My Monster in Black Tights’. We regularly played these songs, trying to see how loud we could get them before the inevitable shouts of “Turn that down!” came from the front room, where Mum and Dad were trying to watch the television. All three songs had scene-setting sound effects: stormy winds, rainy storms, creaky doors banging shut and blood-curdling screams.

Reading Andrew’s horror film books and listening to Screaming Lord Sutch rubbed off on me and manifested itself in some of the drawings I did at the time. A pile of them from the mid-1970s still exist and the earliest – and perhaps most alarming – of them is a drawing I finished by adding ‘To mummy and daddy’ next to a big love heart surrounded by kisses. The drawing itself? Someone being beheaded in a guillotine, along with a masked executioner laughing at the dead body he was about to carry out. It dates from 1976 or ’77, so I was six or seven years old when I drew this. What Mum and Dad must have thought when I handed that over is lost to the mists of time, but it surely must have worried them a little bit.

Another drawing, from a few months later, is my impression of what Jack the Ripper actually looked like. I most probably didn’t realise at first that he was a real person and not some mythical monster. I’m sure that Dad would have enlightened us at some point and explained in gory detail what Jack did in London’s East End in the late 1880s, which probably made us want to play Screaming Lord Sutch’s single even more… and even louder!

Another Screaming Lord Sutch song became the subject of another drawing. The lyrics of ‘Till the Following Night’ describes a monster, and I used these (more or less) to visualise what he could have looked like:

“I got two horns on my head
And a twinkle in my eye
I got two feet of hair
And it makes the chicks all sigh
When I hit ’em with my great big clubs, start to holler and cry”

I gave the monster two heads though. I think I must have confused ‘two horns’ to mean ‘two heads’ but gave them two horns each so the monster ended up with four horns! I also drew his coffin, but failed to make sure that the monster I drew could have actually fitted inside it. It’s way too small. My drawing skill had improved a bit, so I’m guessing this is from around 1978.

The fourth picture is one that I drew a bit later – early 1979-ish – and it shows a half man/half horse beast thing that I’ve titled ‘The Devil’. He’s wearing a fetching jumper on his top half, emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. and has hooves for hands. Green eyes, green ears and red horns add a splash of colour! And he’s displaying a demented grin. I have no memory of drawing this one. It’s only because I have it in front of me that I know I actually did it…

I had still never seen a real horror film. That day would come around 1980/81, when I was ten years old. I was staying over at my cousin Hayden’s house one Saturday night and The Haunting was on the TV and scared the heebie-jeebies out of us. But I would carry on drawing ‘horrific’ pictures into the 1980s. As my skill improved, I included more grossness in my creations: beheadings, throat- cutting, severed body parts on spikes, people being burnt alive and rotting bodies emerging from their graves. I stuck a load of them in a homemade scrapbook around the end of 1982 and that book still exists. More of those later…”

Thanks Mark – and yes, there’ll be a follow-up instalment of Mark’s 1980s drawings coming soon.

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Kl(aüs), Castles In Space and Umlaut Etiquette

(Originally published in Issue 62 of Electronic Sound magazine, February 2020)

UP THE BRACKET

A friendship forged in Tasmania, cemented in Sydney and immortalised in the very human electronica of two epic yet intimate albums. Together, Stewart Lawler and Jonathan Elliott are Kl(aüs)… and they have something important to say about umlauts

Words: Bob Fischer


There’s a man in Australia who had a Moog in his school music room. Is everybody jealous already?

“I got to High School in 1979 as a big fan of Oxygene, and discovered they had an electronic music studio, which was a basic Moog patchable modular and a four-track,” confirms Stewart Lawler. “And I took to it like a duck to water because I’d been playing other musical instruments. And my old man was an electronic technician, so I was already into the electronic and computing side of things.”

Over a crackly Skype connection that feels entirely in keeping with the nature of the vintage technology being discussed, Lawler, one-half of Sydney-based duo Kl(aüs), is remembering his earliest experiences with electronic instrumentation. The other half of the partnership, Jonathan Elliott, nods appreciatively in an adjacent desktop window. They make a great double act: Lawler is fast-talking and irreverent, Elliott is laconic and self-deprecating, and they have the easy, laid-back repartee of long-term friends. It’s a relationship that dates back to their childhoods in late 1970s Tasmania, when Elliott befriended Lawler’s younger brother. Lawler was 11, Elliott was eight.

“My background is less interesting by a country mile,” adds Elliott, true to form. “I didn’t have much exposure to popular music up until the time I was 17 or 18. It took a chance encounter with Oxygene while staying on some guy’s couch during a chess tournament – of all things – that told me this was a type of music that could more or less consume me.  It wasn’t long before I encountered electronic instruments of a much less interesting kind than Stewart did… I reckon I saw a DX7 and a DX21, and my naive little brain said ‘Oh, these could conceivably make those noises.’ Which of course, they couldn’t. But it was a jumping-off point, and the beginning of my interest in making this kind of music.”

The first, self-titled Kl(aüs) album was released on the Castles In Space label in 2016, and was a dreamy homage to the duo’s shared love of Tangerine Dream, and the Berlin School of rhythmic ambience. 2020’s follow-up, the pragmatically-titled Kl(aüs) 2, feels – like all the best second albums – more ambitious in both scale and complexity, arguably drawing on the classical training that dominated the childhood experiences of both members.

“I was learning piano and singing everything from Victorian-era pop songs to medieval motets in the Rosny Children’s Choir,” remembers Lawler. “I wasn’t terribly good. I only got to Grade 6. He got to Grade 8 or something…”

“I got my Associates!” exclaims Elliott. “I’ve always said that people without talent but with determination can get their Associate Diploma of Music, and that’s me. And then people with talent can get the Licentiate Diploma of Music, which is essentially the concert pianist ticket, saying that you can play to concert standard. I was concentrating on that, more or less to the exclusion of actually doing any of my schoolwork, up until I was about 18. It didn’t really occur to me to listen to the radio, certainly not the pop music on the radio, and looking back I had an awful lot of catching up to do in my late teens and early twenties.”

Lawler made the move from Hobart to Sydney in 1990, “seeking fame and fortune”, and – on the first weekend in his adopted home – saw Depeche Mode in their Violater pomp, supported by Brisbane electro-pop outfit Boxcar. The latter band were riding high on the back of Billboard Dance Chart success, and not entirely averse to performing live in gas masks. In 1992, he auditioned successfully to join them as a keyboard player, and support slots with the Pet Shop Boys, The Shamen and D:Ream swiftly followed. “That D:Ream gig was hilarious,” he remembers. “We got up and started our set and I was thinking ‘Wow this is pretty cool, having hundreds of teenagers screaming at us.’ Until I realised they were screaming for us to get off, because they wanted the main act.”

Nevertheless, playing with Boxcar brought him to the attention of a hero of his teenage years: Tom Ellard, of Australian art-pop giants Severed Heads. Their 1983 album Since The Accident had been a formative favourite (“A mind-blowing, marvellous noise”) and his 1995 recruitment as keyboard player was the stuff of wild fantasy, beginning a musical association with Ellard that has lasted to the present day. “The 16-year-old me would be shitting himself if he knew that he’d end up playing with Severed Heads and touring overseas…”

Meanwhile, Elliott was spending his early 1990s attempting to forge a musical reputation back in their native Hobart. “It’s a small place,” he says. “Certainly when I was the age when I wanted to play in bands and get out there, the whole city was dominated by fairly noisy punk music, and I attached myself as keyboard player to a goth band, and played with those guys for five or six years. I started playing dance music in the early 1990s, very incompetently. And from the mid-1990s onwards, kind of competently…”

What was the goth band called?

“It had two incarnations. The first was called Prayers In Ashes.”

And the second?

“Blood Puppet. Which lacked a drummer. Basically, Prayers in Ashes’ drummer went deaf  – these things happen – so Blood Puppet became a Sisters of Mercy wannabe band, with me programming the drums and a lot of the other instruments. I’ve still got recordings…”

“Don’t let them leak on the internet,” smiles Lawler.

Elliot followed Lawler to Sydney in 2003, and the duo – acquaintances at school, where that three-year age gap can seem almost insurmountable – quickly kindled a close adult friendship. “We went out drinking a lot, going to goth clubs and talking about Tangerine Dream,” remembers Lawler. And seemingly it wasn’t long before the urge to make music together became irresistible. So was there a moment when Kl(aüs) were officially formed?

Lawler pauses for thought. “It was more a moment of… ‘Oh, we’ve both got wives, and rooms full of electronic equipment that they look askance at… and we haven’t got children, and we’ve got reasonable incomes, so why don’t we just go in together and hire a space?'”

“I think Tom, once again, was on the periphery here,” adds Elliott. “He said ‘I think you should guys should do this…'”

A 2015 recording found its way to Scotttish scenester Stuart ‘Frenchbloke’ McLean, whose annual ‘Dark Outside’ project transmits 24-hour radio broadcasts of previously-unheard music to remote British forest locations, for the exclusive pleasure of the huddled masses hidden between the trees. Word reached Colin Morrison, the one-man whirlwind at the helm of the Castles In Space label, who contacted the duo with thoughts of an album.

That 2016 debut earned plaudits for bringing a “human” feel to its waveforms, and both Lawler and Elliott are keen to stress the improvisational origins of their music. Nascent tracks are jammed organically before an extensive process of post-production. Lawler cites Dave Grohl’s 2013 documentary Sound City, detailing the golden age of the infamous LA studio, as an influencing factor: particularly a jam session between Paul McCartney and the surviving members of Nirvana. “I’m not interested in that form of music at all,” he explains. “But it just reminded me that when you get a group of musicians in a room together with their own specific voices and sounds, you can come up with something together that’s bigger than the sum of the parts. That’s what we’ve always said about Tangerine Dream too…”

“They are more than the musicians that are assembled in the room,” agrees Elliott. “It probably feeds into the idea that we tend to have short and medium-term collaborators…”

“We keep trying to get a third member, but they keep moving overseas!” laughs Lawler. “We’ve been through several, but that’s good because we get a diversity of different sounds on the records. I really like what [bassist] Simm Steel did on this new album. He’s a friend of mine that I was in a band with when I first moved to Sydney in the early 1990s and I only just recently caught up with him on Facebook. He came along and had a few sessions with us, and out of that came the ‘Alma Feble Struggles Into The Night’ track. And then he buggered off to live in the UK.”

Meanwhile, both members expresses concern for guitarist Stuart McVicar, whose new home near Milton, New South Wales, puts him close to the forefront of the Australian bushfires, news of which has loomed over our conversation throughout: Lawler describes his New Year’s Eve experience of “midnight at 11am”, and “ashy leaves coming out of the sky”. These are grim times for Australia, with seemingly little respite in sight. And although the recording of Kl(aüs) 2 clearly predates recent devastating developments, the uncluttered, elegant sweep of the music – and the explanations of initially cryptic track titles – sometimes feel like an attempt to capture a gentler side of the natural world.

So the intrepid, cosmic-sounding ‘Shurnackabtishashutu’ takes its title from a binary star in the constellation of Taurus; the original Arabic word translating evocatively as “under the southern horn of the bull”. The pulsating ‘Mammatus Clouds Over Saskatchewan’, meanwhile, is named after Craig Lindsay’s extraordinary photograph of sunlit, globular clouds, gathered in formation above silhouetted Canadian woodland.

The duo, unsurprisingly, are pragmatic about these references. “Officially, if there’s an astronomer in the group, it would possibly be me, because of my training. I’m a cosmic ray astronomer…” says Elliott. “But because the pieces are generally fairly filmic in one way or another, I think the titles on this album in particular have been selected because they match the atmosphere of the piece of music, rather than anything else. So the atmosphere of ‘Mammatus Clouds Over Saskatchewan’… I wouldn’t say grandeur exactly, but it’s got that sort of feel to it.”

“They’re really cute clouds,” shrugs Lawler. “And it rolls off the tongue in a funny way.”

Elsewhere, ‘Alma Febles Struggles Into The Night’ has its origins in a 1999 Lisa Belkin book, and neither Lawler nor Elliott profess to recall the origins of the hugely evocative ‘On The News, It Looked Like She Was Floating’.

“Something I saw somewhere…” smiles Lawler, enigmatically.

They are a hugely engaging partnership, and the music reflects that. These are albums made by friends, by people with a warm and genuine connection, hunkered in a room and performing together with a clear sense of adventure and joy. They make the epic sound intimate.  “There’s something about the way we work,” agrees Lawler. “I think of it as a small ensemble. Just a set of instruments, each with their own lines interacting with each other. It’s a different way of thinking about composition to starting off with a drumbeat and a bassline, and ending up with a dance track. Which is something that everyone else is doing, so we didn’t really want to do that.”

“We tend to play live from time to time,” adds Elliott. “And some of these gigs have been transcendent…” Characteristically, he pauses for thought. “Well, transcendent is a bit of a strong word. Hang on… some of these gigs have been very, very successful.” And the conversation, not for the first time, descends into self-effacing laughter.

And the name? It’s back to Tom Ellard, and those Sydney pubs. “Tom was telling us the story of Klaus Schulze’s manager having a rant about all the imitators out there, saying ‘There is only one Klaus!'” explains Lawler. “And it sounded like a good idea at the time. And then some wag on the internet suggested the brackets because… ‘(Aus)’!”

“And I just put the umlaut on it, even though I’m told it makes it all wrong. I thought if an incorrect umlaut is good enough for Motörhead, it’s good enough for us.”

“Apparently,” adds Elliott, “There is an electronic band in Argentina, also called Klaus.  Some wag who follows us suggested that they should have been called Kl(Arg)…”

Kl(aüs)’ debum album is available here:

https://only1klaus.bandcamp.com/album/kl-a-s

Kl(aüs) 2 is available here:

https://only1klaus.bandcamp.com/album/2

Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:

https://electronicsound.co.uk/

Adam Scovell, Drew Mulholland, Ness and A Haunting Strip of Marshland

From an early age, I have been affected by art with a profound connection to landscape. This passion undoubtedly derives from my childhood obsession with Alan Garner’s novels The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, books I re-read on a perpetual loop while simultaneously developing a deep appreciation of the dark, strange beauty of my native North York Moors. In the maelstrom of my young imagination, the black slate pits and windswept heather of our bracing family walks became an entirely inaccurate substitute for the genuine backdrop of the books’ uncanny adventures: Cheshire’s leafy Alderley Edge. But the link was made, and the formula became an integral element of my mental make-up: story + landscape + strangeness = joy.

In 2013, I read Robert Macfarlane‘s book The Old Ways, and found this “third book in a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart” (his own words) equally touching. While exploring the prehistoric trackways of the British Isles and beyond, Macfarlane seemed to draw ancient story and affecting oddness from the ground with his every footstep. I’ve been an avid reader of his books ever since, and his latest work – Ness – reverses the process, bringing his own story, an environment prose poem, to the unique psychogeographical melting pot of Orford Ness. A malleable sliver of shingle loosely attached to the Suffolk coastline, this windswept outpost spent most of the 20th century under the command of the Ministry of Defence, acting as wartime (and Cold War) weapons testing site, and as the host of ‘The Black Beacon”, an experimental radio tower.

Macfarlane’s prose was part of a wider, collaborative artistic project inspired by the topography and history of Orford Ness. The book also included evocative illustrations by Stanley Donwood, and came accompanied by a short film adaptation by Adam Scovell: the three artists reuniting six years after completing Holloway, a similarly inspiring pilgrimage around the ancient trackways of Dorset. And providing a soundtrack to Scovell’s film was Drew Mulholland, the acclaimed sound experimentalist whose 2001 album The Seance At Hob’s Lane had been a pivotal influence on the formation of my beloved Ghost Box Records.

The soundtrack itself, A Haunting Strip of Marshland, was released this week for the delayed Record Store Day, and is now available as a beautiful vinyl package (and a digital download) from the Castles In Space Label. It’s an aptly-titled and evocative collection of manipulated field recordings and vintage 1960s mellotron sounds, and comes recommended without hesitation. To celebrate the album’s release, I spoke to both Adam Scovell and Drew Mulholland, in quick succession on an appropriately windswept September afternoon. The conversations went as follows :

Bob: I’d assumed that the film Ness was a straight adaptation of the finished book, so was intrigued to discover that you actually started filming before Robert had started writing. Did book and film possibly even begin their lives as unconnected projects?

Adam: I can’t remember what exactly came first. I’d wanted to film on Orford Ness for a while, and around the time that I was making Holloway, with Robert, Stanley and Dan Richards – I think they’d mentioned that they were also planning something. And it maybe made sense, if there was going to be a similar project, for a similar Super 8 film to be made.

But that was around 2015, and a lot of projects came in-between. So I filmed on Orford Ness in 2015 and 2016, with a bare bones text that Robert had put together for what he thought the book was going to be at the time. That was three or four years before it was finally published, and the book changed quite dramatically. So I had about six or seven reels of Super 8, for a film that was working from a text with quite a different angle.

It came to a point where a couple of years had passed, and I still had this footage, and I was going to use it for another project of my own. But then Ness got back on track. I think Robert had mainly been focusing on writing his Underland book, which took a lot of time and work. But we chatted again, and planned the film’s screening for – hopefully – the launch of the book in 2019. And I want back to Orford with an extra reel or two of Super 8, and filmed the bits that were missing due to the text having changed.

So it was a very fluctuating, porous process. It wasn’t a straight adaptation like Holloway had been. It was very haphazard, very back and forth.

Can there be a certain merit in that as well, though? Can introducing unpredictable elements into the creative process be quite rewarding? 

Well, one of the things that I think came from that – apart from the fact that the gap allowed a change to be perceived in the location, because it’s a location that’s very much famous for its disintegration and degradation as time passes – is that the landscape itself, whether you’re writing or making films about it, is actually ripe for work with a sort of fragmented quality. I think it’s there in Stanley’s artwork: the way the crosshatching works; the little fragments that build up. It’s there in Robert’s prose too, and I think it works in the same way in the film. There’s a real fragmented quality, and that partly comes from the fact that the filming itself was so loose and haphazard compared to how film adaptations normally work.

How difficult was it to gain access to Orford Ness?

It’s actually run by the National Trust now… so in one sense it’s not difficult at all, providing you go to Orford on the right day and pay! A boat takes you over to the location.

Ah, I thought all kinds of permissions might be required.  

Well the main landscape is fine, but the laboratories that feature in the book and film are mainly out of bounds now. When the National Trust took over from the Ministry of Defence in the 1990s, it was one of the first sites on which they decided not to maintain the buildings. They let them fall and crumble. And what this has meant, over the last few years, is that accessing in particular the famous Pagoda site – which W.G. Sebald made famous in his book, The Rings of Saturn – has become more of a safety concern. To the point where the insides of the laboratories weren’t accessible to me for the second filming period. In the time between my two filming periods, the building had become too unsafe. They were even calculating how far the roof would travel if it slid off!

It’s quite ominous, in a sense: because of the weapons that were being tested within them, these buildings were designed to collapse inwards. So that automatically means that any degradation to the architecture makes them very unsafe. So the Ness itself can be visited, and the laboratories can be seen from a distance, but I don’t think you can go inside them any more. We were lucky in that sense: that early filming helped, because we weren’t able to visit them later.

I was going to ask you to describe the atmosphere of Orford Ness, then I saw an interview with both yourself and Robert, where you both compared it to the landscape of an Andrei Tarkovsky film. Which struck a chord, because I’d already seen the film at that point, and been struck by how much the Ness resembled the landscapes of Stalker!

It does! And I remember the very first filming trip was very much like Stalker. I went with my father to Suffolk, and the ranger for the National Trust had a little electric buggy that he’d been given to get around the site. My dad and I got on the back, and it zoomed off… and it was very much like the moment in Stalker when they enter The Zone in that little vehicle! And you can see that some of the shots in Ness are taken from that buggy. I remember getting my camera out, saying “I’ve got to film this,” and my father saying “Don’t, you’re going to fall off!” He was literally hanging onto my arm while I got those shots.

It is very much like The Zone, it’s not an exaggeration. It’s as close as you can get to that feeling without going to where Tarkovsky actually filmed.

And it’s possibly a safer option – hasn’t it been suggested that some of the cast and crew of Stalker became ill, and even died, after spending so much time filming in such a toxic location?

Yeah, and there’s actually a suggestion that Tarkovsky’s illness came from that. It probably didn’t help that, famously, he had to reshoot virtually the whole film because he’d used an experimental film stock before realising that none of it was working. So he had to reshoot in a place which may or may not have been somewhere that could have made you ill. He sacrificed a lot – quite literally – for that film, if rumours are to be believed.

There’s no danger of that on Orford Ness is there, given its military history? What was actually being tested there?

The military history of the Ness is actually quite complex. It had been a site for testing the lethality and vulnerability of certain forms of weaponry, but in the 1980s it was actually the MOD’s weapons disposal area. So when the National Trust took it over, the military had to sweep the area to remove any potentially dangerous debris that had been missed. And they still stop walkers from entering from the furthest point, near Aldeburgh, because you can never be 100% sure whether all the devices and weapons have been cleared. You don’t know what might be hidden under the shingles that have moved over the years! Stick to the path, and you’ll be safe. [Laughs]

Your use of Super 8 film stock for the film is incredibly effective, and I had a long chat with Matthew Holness for the website a couple of months ago, where he spoke passionately about the use of actual film providing almost a portal to a dreamlike world. Ness absolutely has that quality – was achieving that feel part of the reason for using Super 8?

Yeah, I think so. I have made films on digital before, but usually it’s been to highlight a difference between that and the analogue film featured within them. I definitely have a similar feeling to Matthew. There’s something about analogue images that you can’t quite put into words. Especially now, in the digital age, they feel even more cursed and bizarre. And for somewhere like Orford, which is – I think – very much from an analogue era, shooting on digital wouldn’t capture the same sort of feel. The stock I used for some of the reels, especially the colour reels, was actually older than me. It was from the late 1980s, and was degraded itself. Which was very fitting for somewhere with nuclear implications, in addition to the actual degradation of the buildings. It wouldn’t have worked on digital, it would have been quite a boring visual project.

Does the Super 8 format hold any personal nostalgia for you? Did your family have a Super 8 camera in the 1960s or 70s?

Not that I know of, no… my own parents were from beyond that era. I was only born in 1989. I first came across Super 8 myself, and realised that it was something very specific, when I first started looking into the films of Derek Jarman. It has always been, since then, an artistic medium rather than a home film medium. It was only after looking into Jarman’s work in my early twenties that I realised this had actually been the home film medium that people had once used. Finding older footage, and realising that they were using that kind of camera, came after my seeing artists using Super 8. The other way round, I think, to how most people would have come to this. Probably because I’m a millennial, I come to things backwards! [Laughs]

We’ve talked about the way in which the collaboration with Robert worked, but obviously the book has a visual element too, in the form of Stanley’s illustrations. Did you swap notes with Stanley during the creative process ? I actually had the book in front of me while I was watching the film, to see if any of the shots were directly inspired by the illustrations. Or vice versa!

There were two things that we did in the end: the first was to include the hagstone images, the little chapter markers that Stanley had drawn. And then once we had the finished illustrations, the last reels of the film – shot last year – were almost all designed to reflect the exact images that Stanley had drawn. They hadn’t previously been in the film because the artwork had very much been in its early stages when I’d first filmed there. I didn’t know which images were going to be in the final book. Aside from one, which we couldn’t have got access to anyway, because it was in one of the laboratories that’s now closed. They’d nicknamed it the Green Chapel, because it had these strange, cross-like designs on the wall.

But I don’t think either Stanley or I thought that meshing that illustration with the image would have worked anyway. It’s crosshatched, so it would have been too busy. There was one idea, which was eventually vetoed, which was a hagstone machine gun effect! I’d done a fast animation, with some of Stanley’s hagstones put to the sound of an Uzi going off – as if one of the characters had invented a machine gun that fired hagstones rather than bullets. But it was considered a bit too “pulp” I think, for this little film! That was the only one, I think, were they thought I’d gone a bit too far… [Laughs]

Was it all getting a bit too Guy Ritchie?

I’d been reading a few too many novels by Derek Raymond, and thought “You know what? I need some villains in this…” [Laughs] No, losing it was the right thing to do, but it was fun to make. 

Drew Mulholland’s soundtrack compliments the film perfectly. How did he come on board – was he someone you’d known for a while?

I met Drew a long time ago… probably at one of the early Folk Horror or Weird Landscape conferences, in the early 2010s. I’d been aware of his work for a while, because I think we have pretty much the same taste in virtually everything. And he very kindly, a few years ago, sent me one of his fragments from the original Wicker Man prop…

He sent me one of those as well!

He’s like the Wicker Man dealer now! If you need a chunk of the original Wicker Man for something, Drew’s your man. Nudge nudge, wink wink! No, he kindly sent me that, and I liked the album that Ghost Box re-released a long time ago, The Séance at Hobs Lane. We were struggling initially to think of music for this project… because I don’t think I knew of Drew’s own Orford Ness project until well after we’d already asked other people to do the music. But people said yes, and then no, and we were coming to the conclusion that it was probably going to be just… sounds.

But then Drew mentioned his Ness project, and it just clicked: “Of course, that’s the right thing to do.” He’d made these really hauntological soundscapes from the same things that we’d filmed, and he very kindly allowed us to use them. And we’re incredibly grateful. They’re fantastic pieces of sound work, and I can’t think of anything that would have complemented our project more.

If we’re talking about art with a distinct connection to landscape – as is the case with both the book and the film – then it’s hard to think of many artists working in the musical sphere that feel that connection as profoundly as Drew. Obviously he takes field recordings from the locations that inspire him, but he also takes actual objects from those places, and uses them in the physical creation of his music. Didn’t he coat the magnetic tapes used for A Haunting Strip of Marshland with lichen from Orford Ness?

Yes, he’s certainly very ritualistic! I think, because he’s been doing it for a while, that sort of practice is becoming more common. Probably because he’s starting to popularise it a little bit… people have seen that there are ways to use the physical aspect of a landscape in their work. When we made Holloway, we approached Richard Skelton, whose practice is very similar on some level to enmeshing yourself in a landscape and really getting to the raw earthiness of it before starting to compose music. It depends on the kind of landscape – and music – that you’re after, I guess. But Drew is at the forefront of that, for sure.

Can I ask about your own relationship with the landscapes that have surrounded you? I read a lovely interview with you today, in which you described spending your school years on Merseyside exploring the edgelands beneath the M53 motorway. My interest is very much in the ways in which our childhoods have influenced our adult lives – often quite a profound way. And if you’ll pardon the expression, exploring that mish-mash of imprints on the same piece of landscape is very “on message” for you!

[Laughs] Yeah, it is!

So do you feel as though your childhood experiences have really helped to shape the way that you work as an adult?

Certainly. And my next novel, which isn’t out until 2022, is actually all about that landscape, and is set underneath that motorway, and in that school. Being around that landscape removes the bias that people have towards what David Southwell calls “bastard landscapes”. Those in-between places. Being around them, and actually enjoying them, makes you appreciate them. And makes you appreciate work set in those sorts of landscapes as well. So you find that old TV shows set in abandoned research facilities chime with you in a way that they wouldn’t for other people!

There was actually an exhibition last year by the artist Mark Leckey, who re-created part of that motorway in Tate Britain. So I’m not the only one who finds interest and pleasure in those landscapes, and in that specific landscape of the M53.

And the abandoned research facilities of old TV shows brings me perfectly to Doctor Who – you’re a huge fan, aren’t you?

Oh yeah, definitely. As soon as I mentioned abandoned research facilities, I had an image of ‘The Green Death‘! [Laughs]

Me too – whenever I visit any new place, I tend to construct an idea of the kind of Doctor Who story that would be filmed there. And I’ve never been to Orford Ness, but I know full well it would perfect for a Jon Pertwee story.

It would definitely be a UNIT story! There would be a grumpy scientist… it would be like ‘Inferno‘, I think, but with weapons. I like that era more than most because it does focus on those landscapes… and quite unconsciously, I hasten to add: it does that because lots of those places were around in the 1970s. But in hindsight they’re glorious to look at, because lots of them don’t exist in quite the same way any more.

I’m always intrigued to speak with Doctor Who fans who grew up in the “wilderness years” of the 1990s: how did you discover the show at a time when it wasn’t being made?

It was my father. He was a bit of a fan: he had a couple of videos, and a TARDIS tin, but then it transferred to me and went to a whole different level. It was a thing I fixated on for the whole of my childhood, and a large chunk of my teenage years, and it hasn’t really left. I find it bizarre on one level that they’re actually called the “wilderness years”, because I had the first 27 years to catch up with on VHS, I had the Target novelisations, the Virgin New and Missing books, Big Finish, the TV Movie… the list goes on! It was glorious to me, because I had so much to discover. But I can imagine, if you were used to watching it on a Saturday night, then post-‘Survival‘ was probably a horrific period. [Laughs]

I was 17 when ‘Survival’ aired, and I’d started to drift away. I always think Doctor Who fans claim that the programme mysteriously went downhill just after the period when they personally were about fifteen! But I came back in the late 1990s when I got online, and have never looked back.

It’s a gateway into cult stuff generally, I think. I’m watching Timeslip at the moment, for the first time. There’s an endless amount of stuff to discover, and it’s all arguably coming from that bedrock of having religiously watched Doctor Who as a child. Probably over-watching it… not going on holiday anywhere without a VHS player, and taking episodes with me because I needed that comfort blanket!

How are you finding Timeslip?

It’s great. I’d been saving it for a while, because I feel like I’ve drained a lot of classic cult stuff now, and I’m very aware that I haven’t got all that much left to watch – so I’m very precious about it. It’s just so funny to see Spencer Banks acting so young, because obviously I knew him from Penda’s Fen! He’s like a mini version of Stephen from Penda’s Fen, before he turned into a precocious, Tory military teenager! [Laughs]. It’s incredible fun, and I’m looking forward to exploring it more.

The first story, with the portal to the wartime village, is a wonderful piece of TV.

Yes, and again – it doesn’t look that dissimilar to parts of Orford Ness. Orford has those military huts, and the old concrete pillars and bits of meshed fencing. It connects again to that aesthetic, and it’s an aesthetic that makes me very happy.

So what are you working on at the moment – you mentioned the novel, is that the current project?

Well, it’s already drafted and we’ll be doing the edit next year. It was pushed back by the publisher for a year because we’d already done a book a year for the last two years. So I’m actually working on a weird non-fiction book about Polaroid photography at the moment.

What’s your angle on that?

It’s complicated, really… I’m more using it as a lens to look at its role in wider aspects of culture. So it deals with a whole range of bizarre things: from Blade Runner to Walker Evans to Andy Warhol’s celebrity photography; to murder and crime scene photography, to Antonioni‘s Blowup… I hope it’ll be an interesting book. If it gets published!

This is possibly reflective of the seedy 1970s in which I that I grew up, but mention of Polaroid photography always just makes me think of Eric Idle’s “Nudge Nudge” character. When someone bought a Polaroid camera in the 1970s, there was always the temptation to knowingly ask: “Oh, aye? And what will you be using that for?”

[Laughs] I’ve literally just finished writing a section about that darker, seedier aspect, and what Polaroid photography was used for in the 1970s. And why it featured in so many crime novels. I’ve just finished that, and I’ve had to talk things as diverse as P.D. James novels, moving onto – unfortunately – Fred and Rose West. Polaroids cover all of those things, so it should be a weird, interesting project.

Immediately after saying goodbye to Adam, I called Drew Mullholland. I’d spoken to Drew a couple of times in the past: once in connection with Three Antennas In a Quarry, the album he recorded in 2019 from plans originally drawn up by Delia Derbyshire; and then later that year we discussed his album The Wicker Tapes, which utilised field recordings made around the original locations of The Wicker Man.

This time when I called, he was walking his dogs across the overgrown remains of a demolished Glasgow tenement, which felt like an appropriate place to find an artist whose work is often rooted in the melancholy of disappearing landscape
:

Bob: How did you end up working with Adam? He said you met at a conference in the early 2010s…

Drew: Yeah, we met at Cambridge. We were both at a conference called The Alchemical Landscape at Girton, Delia Derbyshire’s old college. It’s where I made quite a lot of the field recordings for the Delia album. It was the second Alchemical conference… I’d spoken at the first one, at Corpus Christi.

That whole thing was just quite brilliant for me, because Robert MacFarlane and I ended up following each other on Twitter. And I can’t remember the exact course of events, but it was either Rob or Adam that contacted me… I think Adam had actually said to Rob: “Look – I know someone that would be ideal to make the sounds on this.” And then Rob got in touch, and asked if I could send him something. I sent him some rough ideas, and got a text back from him saying “Drew, these sound… fucking hell!”

Ha! Was that good or bad?

[Laughs] No, it was really good! He said “You’ve got it immediately!”

So were you already working on material inspired by Orford Ness?

It was one of those things… about 20 years ago, I went all over Scotland looking at abandoned pillboxes and radar stations. These First and Second World War buildings in the middle of nowhere, just quietly rotting. I took photographs of them, and made field recordings, and I always had it on the back burner to do something about abandoned military places. So when the Orford Ness project appeared, it all just came together.

So when did you first visit Orford Ness?

Oh, I’ve never been! Rob sent me some sounds that he’d recorded, and I basically doctored and manipulated them. And I think the guy that took them over on the boat had keys to the buildings, and he sent some stuff, too. So in all I had about forty minutes’ worth, and I just got in amongst it.

Lichen was involved in the recording process as well, wasn’t it?

Oh, yes. That’s how Rob and I connected. I was doing a talk on micro-geography, and had examples of lichen. I ground it down with a mortar and pestle, and glued it to magnetic tape and let it go round. So that’s what that crunchy sound is… it just seemed the most normal thing in the world to do! People say: “What? You’ll destroy your machine?” But ah, you know… [Laughs]

So that was the starting point, when Rob came in. We connected over lichen.

Was it genuine Orford Ness lichen? Did he send some up to you?

Yes, but I had quite a lot myself as well. So it’s all mixed in. It’s quite strange, I think I told you about one of the tracks on my first record [E For Experimental, from 1979], where an 80-year-old woman was listening to it, and said “I don’t know what it is about that track, but it reminded me of being trapped in a cave. It was quite unpleasant.” And she didn’t know this, but the track was called ‘Feldspar’, which is a mineral that’s actually found in caves.

So the idea that you can put something into a record, and it will affect the listener’s perception of it… that’s really my whole focus at the moment, when it comes to sound. It really is fascinating. We’re getting into neurology, into psychology, into perception. That’s why, although I play my guitar every day, I don’t really think I can go back to writing verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-guitar break. I just don’t think I can do that now, I’m so taken up with this other business. This alchemy, or whatever it is!

That’s fascinating. I can understand you as an artist needing a physical connection to the landscape to inspire and create your work; but for somebody who doesn’t know about that connection to still get a sense of it from listening to the finished piece… that’s quite extraordinary.

It is. The reason for doing things like that is to help me focus, but when someone else picks up something you might not even have realised… some people say that’s spooky, but to me it’s based in that perception, that psychology. To me that’s what’s interesting about it: how on earth can you get those feelings from something where you don’t know what it’s about, where it came from, or even the person that wrote it? It’s like you’re communicating on a totally different level.

And is that something that can happen to you as an artist as well? Because, as you said, you’ve never been to Orford Ness, but both Robert and Adam have spoken about you really capturing something of the place. And you’ve done that through having physical objects and recordings from the Ness itself.

Yes… and also, having done the tour of the sites in Scotland. You get the feel of the concrete with the reinforced, rusted rods; of the weather, of the fact that these places are isolated. All of that comes into it… it’s like sunlight coming through a magnifying glass, it just hits and you’re off.

It does feel like Orford Ness in particular has a combination of elements that almost sum up the stuff that we love! It’s got wild, rural landscapes, Cold War connections, analogue radio technology… it’s almost a blueprint for our hauntological interests. Was that part of the appeal as well?

I think so, and also the fact that in a hundred years it won’t be there! So, in a historical sense, it’s there and then it’s gone.

I think that’s part of the appeal as well: and with hauntology, it’s one if the basic premises. The idea that people can have memories of Orford Ness, but they’ve never been there. Like myself. You know, it’s like how people can swear that something happened like this, but they’re a little bit off… and then, as time goes on, they may start to believe something that never actually happened.

Someone said to me a couple of weeks ago that what I was really exploring was the human condition. And I said: “Woah, hang on!” [Laughs]

The idea of playfully manipulating our memories is something that really appeals to me about this whole scene. Our memories do become confused, and within that confusion you can create really interesting art. You know, it’s Ghost Box artists creating theme tunes to TV shows that didn’t exist, but we can almost begin to believe that they did.

Yes… it’s Mark Fisher, and the future that didn’t exist. But now, we’re post that! My wife was actually telling me about an office, where somebody said: “Remember that story you were telling me about you and your dad going up in a hot air balloon?”

And the other guy said: “No, I’ve never been in a hot air balloon.”

“No, you definitely told me about it… you were about eight years old, and it was over the South Downs, and this happened and that happened…”

And he next day, he actually mocked up a photograph. And do you know what the other guy said? “Oh yeah, I remember that…” And then he started to provide a narrative for it.

But it was a completely false memory?


Yes. It had never happened.

[You can read more about this 2002 experiment here]

So where does that come from, psychologically? Is that essentially just people-pleasing, and not wanting to contradict someone else’s memories of you?

I think it’s more than that… the guy saw the photograph, and was absolutely convinced that that had happened. He remembered bits and pieces of his childhood: the photograph was a catalyst that brought together things that never actually were together.

In that case, there’s something pretty scary about the ease with which our memories can be manipulated…

Yeah. I mean, with music, we can get a feeling about something without knowing where it’s come from. Things like the Shepard Tone… do you know about this?

No, tell me!

The Shepard Tone… say you have a run from C to C on a piano, and also record it an octave up and an octave down, and play them all at the same time. At some point, the middle octave goes down in volume and the third one goes up in volume, so it sounds as though it’s continuous. And it never, ever ends. But it’s just the brain trying to make sense of it.

It’s like if you listen to a piece of music with no rhythm track, you’ll put one in. You’ll take all these disparate elements, and create a bigger picture. As humans, we don’t like things that aren’t tied up.

So maybe it’s all part of that? I don’t know.

Do you use elements like that when you’re creating sound, then?

I haven’t yet, but I’m definitely going to try a version of the Shepard Tone.

That’s a fascinating concept: people appreciating elements of your music that aren’t actually there.

Yeah, they’re bringing something to it that I never intended to be there. It’s such a journey, it really is.

Talking about landscape, and you journeying around Scotland looking at abandoned military facilities: what was the landscape of your own childhood? We’ve never talked about it that much. I assume you grew up in Glasgow?

Yeah. I grew up in the east end of Glasgow. I’m actually doing a book at the moment, so it’s all in there! The house that we had in Mount Vernon actually backed onto wheat fields, believe it or not. There was a lane called Old Manse Lane behind our house, and on the other side of that were the fields. And on the other side of the lane were heavy industrial scrap metal merchants! I’ll send you some pictures… they demolished old locomotives, that’s how hardcore it was. There was a gantry with a huge electromagnet that would go over the scrapyard and pick up bits of old, rusty trains.

It was incredible: on one side you had this really bucolic area, with air raid shelters, and bomb craters from the war and abandoned tunnels. And on the other side you had this really heavy noise going on. It’s funny, after all these years: I can see where it’s all come from now. Because we used to go out recording, in the air raid shelters, and the tunnels, and MacWilliams, the scrap metal place. So when I was writing I thought “Oh, god… that’s how I ended up where I am!” We used to make tape loops… [Laughs]

You’ve mentioned this before! When you were about twelve?

Yeah! We were obsessed.

What was the appeal at that age, then? Was it about preserving that moment in time?

I honestly don’t know. The starting point for it was my friend Paul, who was slightly older than me… and he had friends at school that were older than him, and had started a band. And the idea of being in a band, you know… that was The Who! People didn’t go into bands. And Paul came in one day and said “I’ve got this…” And it was the band, Lodestone. And he put it on, and it was a tape loop. I’ll never forget this… it was the sound of a big ball bearing rolling down a plastic drainpipe, over and over. And we were just: “What is this?!”

So we got the screwdrivers out and opened the cassette up. “Right, we’re off! We’re a group!” We were twelve years old. So there were all the usual arguments about what the group was called. I wanted to call it “Hyperion Illusion”! [Laughs]

Have you still got any of the recordings?

Oh God, I wish I had. This came up when I was writing the book: Why didn’t I take any photographs of MacWilliams? It would have been great to have some. But then I just typed it into Google, and these fantastic colour photographs came up, from 1969 or something. So we’re going to use one or two of them in the book, if we can.

But it was just boundless enthusiasm that got us going, really. This would have been about 1973 or ’74.

But none of that came out of you having heard experimental music as a kid? It was just your own curiosity?

Yeah, and I think that’s something that has thankfully stayed with me. I did a kind of Desert Island Discs show on Radio Scotland, and the producer said “Oh, I know what you’ll be bringing, I bet you’re going to play a track off this…” and it was a record by Beaver and Krause. And I’d never heard of them! He said “What was your first record?” I said “Bing Crosby…” [Laughs] These were the songs that we used to sing as kids.

And I’ve deliberately kept all that at arm’s length as an adult. I was talking to Jim Jupp from Ghost Box, and he said “Have you seen The Wire? Julian and I have done one of those Invisible Jukebox tests, and we didn’t know anything!”

I said “Damn – I wanted to do that, because I wouldn’t have known anything either!”

So yeah, you can’t get fetishistic about it. Getting into music, it was always things like a photograph, an album cover, or a quote. Not: “Oh, you should be listening to this“. And I think that’s what Jim and Julian picked up on with The Séance at Hobs Lane. It wasn’t contrived, but there was a certain isolation. “Give me space, let me do something, and then I’ll send it and see if you like it.” That’s my attitude, I suppose.

I was actually going to ask about the journey that brought you to using the mellotron, which features quite heavily on A Haunting Strip of Marshland. It’s all over the 11-minute track, ‘The Black Beacon’! It’s a sound that transports me to the psychedelia and prog-rock of the late 60s and early 70s. I was assuming you had the same feelings about it, but from what you’ve just said – maybe not?

I used to really like The Beatles. Not so much now, but I remember hearing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. And then I actually had a go on a mellotron, and saw the tapes go round… they’re tape loops, as well!

But the reason I decided to do something with it on this record… you’re probably too young to remember, but it was marketed in Britain by the TV magician, David Nixon. And I found an advert on Youtube of him and his father-in-law, where they say “I bet you’re think you’re listening to a whole band – but you’re not!”

So that was the push. I thought I’ve got to finally do something with it. And originally it was only 15 seconds, but then I got in amongst it… and it turned into 11 minutes! [Laughs]

Has it been slightly frustrating trying to get this record released? It was originally due out for Record Store Day in April, but obviously that didn’t happen…

Yeah, any musician will tell you – once you’ve finished a record, you don’t really remember what’s on it, or even what the tracks are. So, for me now, it just seems like “an old album”. But it’s been out for four days or something! My daughter was laughing, because I had to send one over to Ireland, and she said “What’s this?” I said “It’s the new album, and it’s all done… next!”

So it’s that kind of thing, it’s always about what’s next. Which is actually The Warminster UFO Club. It was an actual UFO club in the 1960s, and I’m designing a couple of T-shirts for when the LP comes out…

Can you tell us a bit more about the album? 

What happened was… The Wicker Tape recordings came out on The Dark Outside, the cassette label. And the feller that runs that contacted me, and said he’d had a message from Colin at Castles in Space, asking if I’d be interested in re-releasing Warminster, the [1999] recording I did with Adrian Utley. And I said “Yeah…” It had never been re-released, it sold its 2,000 copies in two weeks or something.

So I got in contact with Colin and said “By concidence, I’m actually reading about ‘The Warminster Noise’ that happened in the 1960s… all those UFOs were seen, but there were also a lot of noises connected to them. So I said: “If you want to re-release what I did with Adrian, that’s great… but give me a week and I’ll see where this takes me!”

So of course, by that time I had three new tracks written. So I said: “Why don’t why we make this slightly different to just a record being re-released? I’ll bring all this new stuff to it…” And he said “Brilliant, let’s go for it”.

So it was based around these reports of weird things happening around Warminster. I think it started in 1964, but it really took off – no pun intended – in about 1967. So in my mind, it’s the height of psychedelia… all that stuff comes into it. It’s like Keith Richards said, when someone asked him how he wrote the riff for ‘Tumbling Dice’: “When you’ve been doing this for such a long time, you sit there with a guitar and your antenna is up!” You just go: “Incoming, receive, transmit”. And that’s it! That’s absolutely it! You become attuned, and you know if an idea’s worth embracing. That’s one of the good things about working at something for twenty years.

But I can’t tell you any of the tracks on it! [Laughs]

So the album will be the original Warminster release, with the addition of the new stuff?

Yeah, Adrian and I did the original 23-minute track with all different sections, and that’s on one side. And all the new stuff is on the other side, and I did all the artwork for it. But it won’t be out until February.

And you mentioned writing a book – what’s that about?

It’s basically about how I got into music, and making sounds. And then it goes on to the history of how magnetic tape was discovered, and who invented it. There are two schools of thought about who should be credited for that! It’s taking a lot longer than I thought, because every time I start writing, I just keep remembering more and more stuff. Things like… there was a book that I got from the library, called Music Concrete For Beginners. And I thought “That’s really not the sort of thing that they would normally have had…” And then I remembered, it didn’t come from the library building itself, it was from a mobile library! The truck that used to come round…

It seems even less likely that a mobile library would have it!

Yeah! Well they didn’t have it for long, because I just kept taking it out every month! “Don’t you realise there’s a queue for this, young man…?” [Laughs]

So yeah, it’s all that. And seeing the photographs of MacWilliams, and old maps of where the fields where… you start remembering more and more. It’s about 40,000 words so far, but I’m going to have to tidy it up. But it’s all cranking along.

Enormous thanks to both Adam and Drew for their time and conversation. Adam’s website is here:

https://celluloidwickerman.com


A Haunting Strip of Marshland is available to buy here:

https://drewmulholland-cis.bandcamp.com/album/a-haunting-strip-of-marshland

And Drew has recently set up a Patreon profile, to support his work:

https://www.patreon.com/user?u=30762391

Felt Trips: “To The Far Distant Horizon” by Liz Taylorson

When I first met Liz Taylorson in 2017, I quickly realised she was some way removed from my stereotypical image of a romantic fiction writer. Her second novel, The Little Church by the Sea, had just been published, and is the charming tale of a lonely, female vicar finding love in an idyllic North Yorkshire coastal village:

But our conversation unexpectedly turned to J.R.R Tolkien, and our mutual teenage love of Lord of the Rings. As Liz became a regular book reviewer on my BBC Radio Tees show, we frequently found ourselves discussing the links between romantic and fantasy fiction: their shared common ground in traditional storytelling and balladic derring-do. And I was predictably intrigued when Liz told me that, as a 1980s teenager, she had written – and, amazingly, completed – an epic fantasy novel that combined her love of both genres.

Finally, the day has come for Liz’s unpublished first book to see the light of the day. Over to you, Liz…

“When I was thirteen, I was secretly in love with Robin of Sherwood. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be an outlaw in Sherwood Forest. I’d have hated it, of course, because I was never very good with insects, mud or trees and I suspect that life as an outlaw in Sherwood Forest would have featured quite a lot of all three. So, to fulfill my Robin of Sherwood fantasies, I took the less extreme step of writing a novel. It wasn’t actually about Robin Hood, that would have been way too simple. It was a fantasy ‘epic’ (I was also a huge Lord of  the Rings fan at this point in my life) called To the Far Distant Horizon, and was entirely written and illustrated by me. Here it is:

I used to carry my novel everywhere with me, in case I had a few spare moments to write. It was in an enormous black A4 binder covered in little stickers that said things like ‘Bring Back Blake’s 7‘.  I think it took me the best part of a year to write, and I even remember sitting down to write a few pages on Christmas morning, that’s how obsessed I was! I think (from a rough estimate) that the finished work ran to about 30,000 words. The dialogue is dire, the illustrations are worse, and I can’t believe I’m even considering sharing this in public, but here we go ….

Cue a bit of Clannad here!

‘Rian staggered into his hut exhausted after a hard day’s work in the fields …’ is the stirring beginning of my magnum opus. I then describe, in some detail, what he had for tea.

Our hero, who looks quite a lot like Michael Praed’s Robin, is an orphan. A mysterious stranger gives Rian a massive sword covered in runes (I wonder where I might have got that idea?) and sends him off to find some outlaws who live, quite obviously, in the… aha, I’ve got you there! They didn’t live in a forest at all, because I don’t like forests. They lived in the mountains, and I do like mountains. To get there, Rian has to cross the (imaginatively named) ‘Great Moors’. I also like moors, having spent half my childhood being taken for long walks across them while imagining I was a character in Lord of the Rings. There were no Playstations in the early 1980s, remember.

Rian sets off on his epic journey, and meets a girl named Ayla (who was meant to look a bit like me, but that drawing is atrocious.) Handily, she is one of the outlaws and guides him across the moors to their camp. She is somewhat suspicious of Rian, because she thinks he might be a spy for the evil dictator who has deposed the true king and usurped his throne. I also had quite an interest in the English Civil War at this period of my life, thanks to the swashbuckling 1983 Sunday night drama series By the Sword Divided, so much of the politics in my epic effectively consist of royalists versus roundheads.

On reaching the outlaws’ camp, the leader of the outlaws, Robyn (who also looks a lot like Michael Praed) recognises Rian, from the sword that he carries, as the lost king. They all set off on an epic Lord of the Rings-ish journey (there’s even a map!) with many trials and tribulations, mostly involving grey, rainy moorlands, to restore Rian to his throne.

There is a big showdown between Rian and the usurper. Now, here comes the good bit. Because Rian was brought up as a farm lad, he’s not very good with the sword and he’s losing the fight. Ayla (who has been secretly in love with him all along – bet you never saw that coming!) gets her trusty bow and arrow and shoots the dictator in the back to save Rian’s life. Now that is actually a twist worthy of a proper novel! Between them they cover up the fact that Rian didn’t actually kill the dictator in a proper fight.

Rian then marries Anne, the daughter of the dictator to (cliché alert) ‘heal the wounds of the country’. I got fed up with drawing faces by the time I got to Anne, so she had to look out of the window – I never liked her that much anyway.  There is bloodbath of an ending which I suspect owes something to the multiple deaths in Les Miserables, which was on a continual loop on my tape recorder at this stage of my life. Ayla and Robyn are murdered and found lying in a pool of blood, their deaths rather prosaically discovered when they don’t turn up for breakfast one day! Rian decides it’s all too much and he doesn’t want to be king, or married to Anne, any longer.

‘He shouldered his bundle, turned his back on the city and began to walk away into the darkening night. He did not look back at Anne who stood at the gate, a lonely figure gazing outwards to the far distant horizon.’

Cue more Clannad.

My first novel was complete, with a huge debt of gratitude to J.R.R. Tolkein, Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter, Victor Hugo and John Hawkesworth.  I was a sobbing wreck and I think there may even be tear stains on the manuscript. They’re either tears or tea.

I’d like to say that this was the end of my Robin of Sherwood obsession, and I moved on, but thirty-something years later, I’m actually a real, proper novelist with a publisher and everything – but this is still part of the notice board that sits on my desk!”

Huge thanks to Liz: her two novels, The Manor on the Moors and The Little Church By the Sea, are widely available and highly recommended. And her website is here:

https://liztaylorson.com


Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.