Frances Castle, Stagdale and Clay Pipe Music

In the blistering summer of 1975, 12-year-old Kathy is struggling to adjust her new home: the remote and rather unwelcoming village of Stagdale. Marooned amid an atmosphere of stultifying torpor, she retreats to her new bedroom where she finds – hidden behind the skirting board – the 1938 diary of a young German boy.

Such was the cliffhanger at the end of Part 1 of Frances Castle’s evocative graphic novel series, Stagdale. Part 2 is now available and switches the story to pre-war Berlin, following the journey of the German boy in question: Max, who is dispatched to Stagdale by his persecuted parents as part of the kindertransport evacuation scheme.

Frances, of course, is the founder of Clay Pipe Music, whose releases are imbued with a distinct sense of time and place. A feeling also prevalent throughout Stagdale, where the affecting moods of both eras are conveyed with touching sparseness.

Back in May 2019, Frances and I discussed Part 1 of Stagdale – it’s here. I was delighted to chat with her again about Part 2… and a couple of future Clay Pipe releases, too. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Part 2 of Stagdale is a complete contrast to Part 1: different setting, different characters and different time period! That’s quite a bold move.

Frances: It’s a bold move, but I had to do it to tell the story. If anyone was expecting a 1970s pastoral story, then it’s not really that – although it will go back to that in the next book. But this one tells Max’s story, and it sets the scene of how he gets to Stagdale.

Tell us a little about Max himself…

He’s a young Jewish boy who has to escape Nazi Berlin. He’s 12, a similar age to Kathy in the first book. It starts on Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass – which is the night when German Nazi thugs smashed up Jewish property, broke into houses and set fire to synagogues.

The family are hiding in a cupboard and narrowly escape the thugs. They hide until the following morning, and this is the start of things becoming really bad for them. They decide that Max, their only child, should leave Berlin and take the kindertransport to the UK.

It sounds like Part 2 might have taken more research than Part 1…

Yes, it did. I read a couple of books… one called My Darling Diary, written by Ingrid Jacoby, who made a similar journey. And there’s a lot online, actually: people who took the kindertransport talking about their memories. I managed to take some of their stories, and incorporate them into Max’s journey. So a lot of the things that happen to him are true – his stamp collection being taken off him by a Nazi soldier, for example. That actually happened to a child that was travelling across Europe on the train. I wanted it to make it as lifelike as possible.

It’s things like Max only being allowed to take one bag and 10 Marks on the kinderstransport. That has to be real…

Yes, it is. There was a lot of work! I started before the pandemic, and then when the first big lockdown happened in March 2020, I was able to concentrate on it for a good few weeks. Just getting the story sketched out, which is the most time-consuming part.

Did you find a lot of photo references as well? After reading the book, I found myself looking at images of the Friedrichstraße railway station in the 1930s, and assumed you’d done the same.

I did! In fact, I gave a talk about it at a festival this summer. One of the things I did was pick out random pages and showed all the references I’d used for them all. That was the Adventure Travel Film Festival: there were mainly showing films about peoples’ travel adventures, but with other things that the organisers thought people might be interested in. It was really nice, and the feedback was brilliant. I thought no-one would come to my talk, but they did! So perhaps I’ll do more things like that in the future.

There are some heartbreaking scenes in Part 2. Max’s parents saying “We’ll follow you…” by 1938, would they have already known that was pretty unlikely?

That’s a thing that a lot of children were told by their parents. “You go first, and we’ll join you later…” Some children were actually lucky, and their parents did manage to get out. In My Darling Diary, Ingrid does eventually meet up with her mother. But obviously the vast majority didn’t. It’s horrible.

It’s interesting linking the 1970s with the 1930s in the way that you have – my memories of being a child in the ‘70s are of almost a lingering psychic echo of the Second World War. My Mum, my Dad and my Gran all had memories of the war, and they talked about it so much that I genuinely wasn’t entirely sure whether the conflict was still ongoing.

It was very much closer, wasn’t it? My Mum was born in 1939 and my Dad was born in 1936, so they were both children during the war, and they’d talk about it too. Or about about the period after the war, when rationing was still ongoing. Rationing only ended 20 years before we were kids! So it was all definitely in peoples’ memories a lot more.

Doing the maths is a bit jaw-dropping. If you remember being a kid in 1975… well, the war ended only 30 years before that. That’s the equivalent now of a devastating global war having ended in 1991. Which feels like yesterday… so it’s maybe no surprise that it felt so resonant.

I know, it’s scary! The two children in Stagdale are only a generation apart, and in the next book there’s going to be a lot more flicking between the two time periods. I haven’t started work on it yet, but it’ll start in 1975, then go back to Max’s story, then end back in 1975. And from then on really, it’ll be more about Kathy. I don’t know how long it will take to do though – at the moment, just running Clay Pipe and doing other work is taking up all of my time!

I didn’t know whether to ask that! Stagdale Part 1 came out in Spring 2019, and when we spoke back then, you said you were thinking of it as a four or five-part story. Could this be a ten-year project?

Definitely! I don’t know if anyone will still be interested by then… and there may need to be another lockdown before I can get started! Yeah, I think it’ll still be four or five parts… that’s just what it needs to tell the story. I really will get started as soon as I get a bit of time. Next year might be a bit quieter.

Max and Kathy are both such interesting characters. And they feel linked: obviously by their connection to Stagdale, but they’re both rather troubled outsiders, too.

Exactly, yeah. They’re both outsiders, and the village itself is very isolated. Most of the families who live there have been there for generations, and they don’t take kindly to newcomers. So obviously they’re both affected by that, and the bullies – the Bloat Family – are generations of bullies, too. Max is bullied by the parents of the children that bully Kathy. So the fact that they’re both outsiders in this very insular place is a big part of the story.

In the same way that you looked at genuine German locations in the 1930s, is Stagdale itself based on any particular English villages from the 1970s?

Weirdly, it isn’t. And it’s flipped around in my head, too. When I first started, I imagined it being up North somewhere. And then people said to me “Oh no, it’s in the South – because of the chalk stag on the hillside…”

Oh, there are chalk figures up here was well! There’s Kilburn White Horse, on Sutton Bank…

Oh, are there? I really didn’t want to pinpoint anywhere. It could be anywhere, really – any small, isolated village in the UK. I mean, I don’t know if there are many places like that left any more… but there probably were, in the 1970s.

Oh, definitely. I remember tiny villages that nobody really visited. There was less social mobility and maybe small places didn’t push themselves forward so much as tourist attractions. That’s changed a lot.

And I guess – even before lockdown – people had started remote working or commuting into offices just a couple of days a week. So what were quite isolated places have had townies moving in…

Were there remnants of the war still around when you were a kid? I remember playing around pillboxes in fields when I was tiny. They’re still there!

Yes! I was never really sure what they were supposed to be. And I remember once walking to school in Putney… oh, this is a really weird memory. I got off the bus with my friends, and in front of the shops, on a little piece of grass, it looked like they were digging up an old air raid shelter. I said this to my friends, and they just looked blankly at me!

I guess old shelters would still have been around at that point…

I mean, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just sewerage or drainage. But I remember seeing stairs going down into the ground.

It was still an era when unexploded wartime bombs were being found on a regular basis, too.

Yeah, and they’re still being found now in London. I remember one turning up in Stoke Newington, not far from where I live, only a few years ago. It still happens.

There are bomb craters all over the North York Moors, where I walk. I remember being told on a school trip that lots of German pilots didn’t fancy facing the anti-aircraft fire from Middlesbrough, so dropped their bombs on the moors instead and turned back around!

I remember visiting my grandparents in Sussex, and behind their house was a field – we used to walk down there a lot. That had a huge bomb crater, and I remember my Dad telling me that the planes would fly past to bomb London and then fly back over the English channel… and they’d just let their bombs drop in the fields, because they didn’t want to take them all back. It was a massive hole – I remember it very clearly.

There’s still a decoy building up on the North York Moors, in the middle of a farmer’s field. I walked past it for most of my life, just assuming it was a farm building, but then discovered recently that – during the war – it was lit up at night to make it look like a small village. So bombs would be wasted on it. Although it can’t have been hit directly, because it’s still there…

Oh, really? Near where I live in Finsbury Park, there was – until recently – an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. But I think it came down a few years ago. If you know where to look in London, there are probably lots of the things. I think the Natural History Museum has big cracks in the brickwork where bombs exploded.

When I was a kid, there were still bombed-out buildings in town centres. Incredible, really.

Yeah, car parks would often be on bombsites, wouldn’t they?

Absolutely. It was still hanging around. This kind of ties in, really – and I hope this is a compliment for you – but the dark subject matter of Stagdale, and the focus on the war, reminded me so much of Raymond Briggs’ work. The sparse use of dialogue, and just a distinct sense of melancholy. Was Briggs a big figure in your childhood?

Oh, really? Weirdly – I can’t think that I’ve ever read any of his stuff! Obviously I know of The Snowman… and isn’t there one about his parents as well?

Yeah – Ethel and Ernest. There’s When The Wind Blows too, about an elderly couple in a remote cottage coping with the aftermath of a nuclear war, and just treating it like a Second World War air raid. It’s heartbreaking.

Oh, this is something I really need to check out. I came to comic books more from the American side. Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, those kind of artists. Although I really like Posy Simmonds, too.

Ghost World is a big one for me.

Yeah, that’s a favourite of mine. I think I first read it in the late 1990s, and was blown away by it – “Wow, this is what you can do with comics”. It’s amazing, and I totally related to the characters.

I came to it through the film.

It’s great, isn’t it? I don’t think the film had come out when I first read the comic book. They’re quite different really, aren’t they? But both brilliant. He’s done another film hasn’t he? Art School Confidential – but I don’t think it’s meant to be anywhere near as good.

So what’s happening with Clay Pipe over the next few months?

There’s the David Boulter Christmas flexi-disc! And then, in the New Year, there’s the postponed Cate Brooks Cafe Kaput album. That’s a beautiful record. It’s called Maritime, and it’s about sailing… it was inspired by a little pack of cards with maritime flags on them. Cate had some, and I bought a vintage pack as well. So that’ll be up next… and then, after that, there’s a new Hardy Tree album. That takes us into the middle of next year!

Stagdale Part 2 is available here:

Stagdale Part 1 is still available here:

And Twelve Bells for Libuše, David Boulter‘s beautiful flexi-disc Christmas EP is also available. It’s a tribute both to Eastern European winter fairy tales, and to the late Czech actor Libuše Šafránková. It’s here:

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