A book with a curious title, and one taken from a relatively minor plot point in this 1972 hardback adaptation of a little-remembered BBC1 children’s series. In a nutshell: a family dog, Radnor, becomes the physical host for the mind of Justin, one of a group of revolutionaries who time-travel to 1970s Southampton from a dystopian Britain, 600 years in the future.
Hiding out beneath a nest of abandoned cars in a local scrapyard, “The Group” – as they are handily nicknamed throughout – are on the run from the 26th century secret police, “The Galas”. Here, I got a little lost in time myself: The Group – a team of scientists reluctantly working for a futuristic, totalitarian British government – appear to have travelled to 1972 specifically to spend a quiet fortnight in Southampton secretly perfecting a replacement time-travel device. Which will then “transmit” them straight back to the 26th century. Which begs the question – why did they bother in the first place? Perhaps the opportunity to see Mick Channon’s trademark windmill goal celebration in the flesh was just too tempting to resist.
Their plans are uncovered by three local children: Kate, her older brother Duncan, and her best friend Samantha “Sammy” Morris. And Sammy’s dog Radnor, of course, whose temporary mind-swap with The Group’s office junior Justin is the latter’s punishment for having followed his futuristic freedom-fighter friends to 1972, when his agreed job description was actually to stay behind in the 26th century and destroy their initial time machine before it fell into government hands. What none of them realise, of course, is that The Galas have also travelled to 1970s Hampshire, and are occupying the nearby flat of the girls’ schoolfriend, Mary Ndola.
What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable collision of 1970s kitchen-sink kids’ drama and downbeat science-fiction grittiness. Radnor the dog provides the comic relief, digging up next door’s sweet peas and developing – as his mind-swap incumbent Justin adjusts to 1970s life – a penchant for fried breakfasts that has Sammy’s parents swiftly tutting and muttering about the housekeeping. And there is an interesting dynamic between the girls: Kate is a wheelchair-user, frustrated with her mobility in the disability-unfriendly 1970s, but she is much more adept at her schoolwork than best friend Sammy, and there are subtle suggestions that each girl quietly craves the others’ advantages.
Meanwhile, Duncan is the textbook 1970s older teenage brother; awkwardly fancying Sammy (“a super girl”), and taking on odd jobs around town (at the book’s opening, he’s redecorating an entirely pink houseboat) to fill the aimless hinterland between school and full-time work. There is a lovely sequence in which he uses his apprenticeship as a TV repairman to infiltrate the Ndola household and “repair” a deliberately sabotaged TV… with the blessing of the occupying Gala forces, who are presumably keen not to miss a single episode of the Doctor Who story Day of the Daleks. A serial broadcast concurrently with the TV version of Mandog, and with a plotline also centered around a small group of futuristic revolutionaries travelling back in time to 1970s England. I’d love to read the BBC memos that flew around when that unfortunate scheduling clash became apparent.
As ever, it’s the intrusion of the otherworldly into ordinary 1970s life that appeals to me, and the prospect of rival futuristic factions let loose amidst the suburbs, schools and scrapyards of working class Southampton is a delicious one. Peter Dickinson had already made his name with his late 1960s novels The Weathermonger,Heartsease and The Devil’s Children, a trilogy he later adapted into the BBC’s acclaimed 1975 “series for slightly older children”, The Changes. As far as I can see from the book itself – and contrary to the show’s Wikipedia entry – Mandog was an original TV script by Dickinson then adapted into book form by Lois Lamplugh, but – as ever – I’m open to correction on that front.
Point of order: Sammy’s mother, in the TV series, was played by a (just) pre-Slocombe Mollie Sugden.
Mustiness Report: My copy has a mild musty smell, a subtle 4/10. It has an inscription, too: it was once owned by Debbie Wilson, who wrote her address in Radcliffe, Lancashire on the back of the cover in black biro, along with the date… 18th October 1977, although she initially wrote this as 1976 before correcting it. October seems late in the year for this kind of confusion, so maybe Debbie too was involved in a bit of minor time-travelling? I’m certainly assuming she left Radcliffe at some later stage, as her entire address has since been crossed out in blue felt-tip.
A disclaimer: I am in love with the North York Moors. This vast sweep of bleakly beautiful countryside, occupying a remote corner of North-Eastern England, was virtually my childhood playground. Sunday afternoons were made for family yomps around the heather-coated hillsides of Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping, while school trips and Outward Bound courses began to introduce tantalising hints of sometimes-invented folklore. Did I ever get to the bottom of the ‘Black Heart of Whorlton Castle’, a terrifying, medieval ghost story set amidst the crumbling remains of this overgrown, 12th Century ruin? Yes, 25 years later, when I tracked down my former teacher, Mr Hirst, and he all but admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.
But that was part of the appeal: landscape attracts stories. Both ancient and modern. And now, when I tramp around the same desolate hillsides and ancient ruins as a middle-aged, weekend dog-walker, I take as much pleasure and inspiration from the folklore attached to the landscape as I do from those spectacular surroundings themselves.
Clearly Chris Lambert and Kev Oyston feel the same. Around five years ago, I became aware of their musical collaboration as The Soulless Party, and the folk-influenced electronica that claimed to take its inspiration from the sinister stories attached to The Black Meadow, an area of the North York Moors centred around the famous RAF Fylingdales. I knew, of course, the story of this mysterious military base; its legendary “golf ball” radomes had comprised arguably the most recognisable Cold War missile warning system in the world. Though these infamous spheres were demolished in the mid-1990s, and replaced by a sleek, concrete pyramid, the base remains an iconic local landmark.
I was, however, utterly unaware of the wealth of local folklore that Lambert and Oyston seemed to have unearthed. The Black Meadow was a name unfamiliar to me, as were its accompanying tales of a village that appears only “when the mist is high”: a darkly mystical community existing in a supernatural netherworld of pre-industrialised folk ritual and superstition. Just who was the “Rag and Bone Man”? Did the mysterious “Brightwater Archive” really attempt to document these stories in the 1930s, before being inexplicably shut down? And did Roger Mullins, a visiting professor at York University, genuinely vanish in the area while attempting further investigations in 1972?
Lambert and Oyston presented books, music, photographs, websites, blogs, lectures and even a “lost” 1977 Radio 4 documentary to reinforce the veracity of these stories, expertly blurring the lines between genuine folklore and invented fiction. I’ve since come to know them both well. I’ve interviewed them many times for BBC Radio Tees, and I’ve even collaborated with them on certain projects. Sometimes they admit to wild invention, other times they’re tantalisingly vague. It’s all part of the fun. And the project has been expanded further with the release of two new instalments: a wonderfully atmospheric album – largely by Oyston – and Lambert’s accompanying book, where tales of the “Ticking Policeman”, the “March of the Meadow Hags” and the “Village Under The Lake” further explore the legend.
Both book and album are entitled The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, and both are available now.
I spoke to Chris Lambert about the whole Black Meadow phenomenon…
Bob: For those unaware, tell us a little bit about the Black Meadow in your own words… as far as you’re concerned, where exactly is it?
Chris: The Black Meadow is an area of land on the Whiteway Heads Road, between Sleights and Pickering on the North York Moors. RAF Fylingdales, once of the iconic “golf balls” missile warning system, is located on the Black Meadow. For centuries, the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings. The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high. I first found out about it when a colleague of mine, Kev Oyston, was investigating a lost Radio 4 documentary, Curse of the Black Meadow, and asked me to assist him in his research. After that I was hooked.
Do you find that area of the North York Moors especially fascinating? It provides a direct link between ancient landscape – with its associated folk stories – and Cold War paranoia, in the shape of the aforementioned RAF Fylingdales. Is that a combination that you find particularly irresistable?
It’s completely fascinating. It’s the incongruity of that vast landscape and the stark, strange pyramid that now sits atop it. The golf balls too were an eerie sight… even more eerie in the memory, and in faded photographs, now that they are gone. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War… though excitingly it is threatening a comeback, which will be a real boon for us Threads fans. But I remember living with a slight sense of dread constantly in the back of my mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to these places, and to these types of stories.
Just down the road from where I live, in Berkshire, is RAF Greenham Common, the now-decommissioned American missile base. That also holds a real fascination for me. And the silos were used as a location for Star Wars – The Force Awakens! I also love the pillboxes that are dotted along our local canal, to defend us against attacks on our waterways. Any site where there is a strange, seemingly anachronistic incongruity attracts me. That juxtaposition of the natural against the artificial, particularly in places where nature has actually won. That shows that these terrors are fleeting, and that the life of our planet is beautiful.
I think this might also be because I read a lot of John Christopher as a child, and loved the images of the decayed modern cities in The White Mountains, from the Tripods trilogy, and Beyond the Burning Lands, from the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Or the desolation in Empty World. More recently I read his adult novels The Death of Grass and Wrinkle in the Skin. They also scratched this itch, with their exploration of a vastly altered landscape.
What’s your own connection to the North-East? Were your parents from Teesside?
My mum grew up in York, and her parents were from that area. My Dad was the vicar of the parish church in Saltburn in the 1960s and early 1970s, before I was born. He then moved the family down to Shaftesbury in Dorset, which is where I appeared! Interestingly, Shaftesbury is the home of Gold Hill, where the famous Yorkshire-set Hovis advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was filmed. So, quite aptly, I lived in an imagined Yorkshire, in the south of England. Interestingly my Mum told me just at the weekend that she never wanted to move south. She absolutely loves the north of England, and I suppose that enthusiasm has rubbed off.
I know you had quite a religious upbringing, and I’m guessing traditional folklore wasn’t a big part of that. Is there an element of researching and writing about supernatural folk stories makes them almost “forbidden fruit” for you?
Oh, my goodness. All of it! I think I appear to be very overexcited about things when I discover them. I don’t have the same cultural references as Kev Oyston or your good self, because I wasn’t allowed to watch, listen to or read quite a lot of things when I was little. My Dad would put the TV in the loft or in the cupboard during the week, and I would sneak an extension lead up there if they were out, and watch Alas Smith and Jones. It was a real pain when Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I did a talk about burning my Fighting Fantasygamebooks when I was a young fundamentalist – I was led to believe that they would do me spiritual harm. So any folklore was off limits. Anything occult-tinged was a no-no. I remember my mum warning me about the dangers of Dennis Wheatley… who I had never heard of, but she made him sound very exotic and interesting. I still haven’t got around to him, as I don’t believe he could live up to the hype! I was brought up on the aggressive anti-gay/catholic/muslim/occult tracts by Jack Chick, and the only comics I read were Archie and the (now that I have revisited them) utterly appalling and deeply offensive Crusaders comics. With the exception of Archie, these comics introduced me to imagery of hell, torture, possession and demons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lucio Fulci or Armando de Ossario film. So oddly, it was these terribly written but evocatively illustrated works, intended to lure me away from Satan and all his works, that stuck in my head. I wouldn’t have known about these things if I hadn’t read them. Such a strange bubble to live in!
So sometimes there is a little wicked part of myself that thinks – would this get burned? Is this a bit naughty? If it is, I’m more likely to research it or write it. This sounds a bit like rebellion but it doesn’t feel like it, I just write what comes into my head. But I can’t deny the influences of my childhood.
You’ve lived in Berkshire for many years – was there ever a temptation to write about Berkshire folklore, or is there something specifically about the North-East, and the North York Moors, that you find lends itself to strangeness?
I am very interested in Berkshire, and have written a kid’s play called Deadman’s Lane which, like The Black Meadow, is about a world hidden inside another. A re-imagined geography. Deadman’s Lane bisects the school grounds where I work. I’m also working on something based in my own immediate locality, which I plan to start if the Black Meadow ever frees me from its misty embrace. That said, the North York Moors do attract me hugely… partly because they’re physically distant, and so they give me the opportunity to imagine myself there. It’s the desolation of the moors that I love, that vast sweep of heather, interrupted by that strange pyramid and the floating mist. They’re a favourite place to holiday, too.
How did you first start writing about the Black Meadow? And what were your ambitions for it at the start of all this? It’s become quite a sprawling, multi-media project…
The project began when Kev and I worked on the radio documentary, The Curse of the Black Meadow. Kev had created/discovered the theme tune for Tales from the Black Meadow and it was already growing into a larger project in his head, so he invited me to help write the documentary for which this would be the theme. As I was creating that, I decided that one of the key players, “Philip Hull”, would mention, off the cuff, several folk tales… such as “The Shining Apples” and “The Devil and the Yoked Man”. I then realised that these tales needed to actually exist to add weight to the documentary. So I began to create/discover them. Firstly for the documentary, but then as we went on, more were unearthed/written.
And I had no real ambition at first! We just sort of went in the direction the meandering paths took us, having fun. After that it evolved into the book and album, but I certainly didn’t envisage at the time that that little documentary would end up leading us here…
Can we talk about Kev Oyston himself? How did you meet, and what’s the division of labour like between you and Kev?
It’s really interesting for me to pull this apart! We met online, of course. It started because a friend of mine, Dave Yates – aka Dolly Dolly – had done a track for Kev on his Electronic Encountersalbum, and sent me the link. I loved the album, and was fiddling about one day and decided to make my own Close Encounters-influenced track, Follow the Toys… which I then took a punt on, and sent to Kev. He was kind enough to pop it on his Electronic Encounters Special Edition. We then bandied tracks back and forth, and he sent me a couple of instrumentals that I added lyrics to… like a latter-day Vince Clark and Andy Bell. And then Black Meadow happened. He made an evocative video to accompany his track, and invited me to do the documentary.
The division of labour for the first album was, with the exception of one track, that he wrote the tunes and I wrote the stories. As the project progressed, the process became more knotty. Kev would write a track and send it – and the title – to me. From the title and the mood of the track, I would then write a story. However at the same time I would be writing another story which he would read, and then use the title for another track. I’m now not entirely sure who started which stories! I think he definitely wrote The Black Dog, from which I wrote the story… and I wrote The Shining Apples first, because Philip Hull mentioned that in his interview.
For this second album we used a similar method. I would immerse myself in the music and extrapolate a story from that and the title, or Kev would come up with a tune, from the story and title I’d provided. I have fond memories of listing to The Maiden of the Mist on repeat, while I worked on that story. I have the album on repeat when I’m writing, editing and typesetting, just to stay in that world. The second album has been a much longer process because Kev kept writing more music, and I kept coming up with more stories. It got so thorny that I had to make a spreadsheet just to keep track. Which Kev ignored on several occasions! Hence the thickness of the book.
What kind of reaction does the Black Meadow evoke in people? Do people generally believe it all?
We tread a fine line. When I do a talk I introduce myself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. I often have the word “LIES” on a screen behind me. But even though I say that, people still ask me if it’s all real. I had one person ask me if they should contact their MP about the disappearances on the moors… I actually didn’t give a her a definite “no”, as I was quite tempted to see what would happen.
I had a very strange conversation with one chap. I remember starting a sentence with “I made all this up…” and he asked me in the next sentence if what I was saying was true. I then told him “No, I made it up…” and carried on to another bit of folklore which I also preceded with a disclaimer. He then asked me about again about the truth of it all. This went on for the entire conversation… which I enjoyed immensely.
I think the issue is that people want to believe. There are also so many weird blimming things going on that they think it is all inspired by real occurrences. It’s a very interesting time to be doing a project like this, with all the talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. I never set out for this to be some sort of critique of that. But when you use real places, add dates, and use phrases such as “everybody knows” or “it has often been said” before telling a story, people seem to accept it as the truth. Even if you explicitly tell them it’s a lie.
Have you met sceptical souls?
I have met sceptical souls, but they tend to enjoy the wink and the nudge of it all. I often say that if you do even the tiniest bit of research this will all unravel, but most people can’t be bothered and would rather enjoy the fun.
Is blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction part of the appeal for you? How far will you go to achieve that?
I am very much into the idea of mythogeography, projecting a story onto a landscape and exploring that landscape through a different lens. We all do it to a certain extent… for example, we get a little frisson of excitement when we visit a film location. Gloucester Cathedral cloisters are the location of the Hogwarts corridors in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So if you visit, you can picture the martyrdom of Bishop Bonner alongside the petrification of Colin Creevey. And when I visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset the guide on the bus tour talked of how the two tall columns of stone influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. I don’t know if that was true at all, but even if it wasn’t, I could still picture Orcs peeking out from behind the stones.
It’s the urban myths told around camp fires: “It was just half a mile from here that his body was found, and it is said that….” So yes, it’s a huge part of the appeal. I think some of that comes from playing as a child in my garden. I was lucky enough to have a big, vicarage garden and would spend hours on my own imagining myself in epic fantasy adventures. I would make tunnels in bracken and bramble, and fashion maps where corridors and cave-like openings would have grandiose names.
The strange thing is, I visited the Black Meadow over a year after I had written the first tale and I was struck by how very real the stories seemed to be, and how they fitted with the landscape. It was very strange. I’m delighted that every time I’ve been there, it’s been shrouded in mist.
How far would you take the illusion? There is actually a little plaque on the moors, isn’t there… where – ahem – did that come from?
How far would I go? I think there’s a mischievous side to me, but I would be utterly appalled if we hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. So Kev and I both err on the side of caution. We aren’t planning to do an Area 51 style storming of RAF Fylingdales, for example. That said, the plaque commemorating the disappearance of Roger Mullins, which you can indeed find on the North York Moors, was put there by the Brightwater Archive and Roger’s family. It has nothing to with me or Kev, so I don’t know what you’re talking about there.
Back in 2017, you brought a party of drama students up from your Berkshire school, and performed a Black Meadow stage play at Caedmon College in Whitby, a stones throw from the meadow itself! I was there, and it was amazing. How on Earth did you persuade your head teacher to give the green light to all this?
My school is great. I’ve worked there for over fifteen years, and have always been given the space to innovate. Before I was a teacher, I worked as a playwright, but I moved into teaching when I began to starve to death. From the start, I was getting the students to perform at local venues and trying out strange and wacky ideas. From medieval mystery plays around the whole school site, to a Deadman’s Lane radio play and a Zombie Walk!
Before we got to Tales from the Black Meadow – The Play, I had been working on a series of productions to try and get more boys into Drama. We went down the horror route and that did seem to work. I worked on a three-year “Trilogy of Terror” (without Karen Black or crazed African wood carvings) which started with an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos – right up your misty alley – followed by the aforementioned Deadman’s Lane, and then topped off with Night of the Living Dead for Kids. To promote the final play of the trilogy we did that Zombie Walk for charity and then, erm… I somehow persuaded the Parish Council to let the cast shamble after the runners when the Olympic Torch was passed through our village, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.
So taking the cast of Tales From the Black Meadow to Whitby? It wasn’t really a surprise. The head teacher just rolled her eyes and gave us her blessing. I think the parents thought we were mad, though… and they were probably right, the students still talk about it. My only regret is that they didn’t get to see Whitby, because we had to leave at 5am, get off the bus at 12pm, get into the school and set up, perform at 2pm, then get back on the bus… we did however drive through the Black Meadow to get there, and the mist was up.
How do you think the performance went down? Do modern kids understand that 1970s “haunted” feeling that we still seem to feel so profoundly?
It’s always interesting performing a play to complete strangers. Caedmon College were so kind to accommodate us, and gave us lovely feedback. We could have done without our smoke machine setting off their fire alarm in the first ten minutes, though! The students really got the play, but it’s hard to say whether they get our haunted feeling. I’m just an old man to them, and they aren’t bothered by our past experiences. In the same way that weren’t bothered by our own parents’ stories when we were kids. They live in strange times though, so maybe they’ll look back on this era in a similar way, with that nostalgia for dread. We had the Three Day Week, the Cold War and Public Information Films. They have Brexit, Trump and internet memes… something weird is going to be born from that, I’m sure.
Any future plans for the Black Meadow project?
We plan to produce the next volume of the Black Meadow Archive soon, but there are rumblings from Whitehall that we won’t be given access to their files, so there could be something of a delay whilst we sort that out. The amount of back and forth we had, trying to get the latest publication past those censorious civil servants, beggars belief. We’d love to make a film or a radio documentary, too. I guess whatever the government allows, will happen.
The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, by Chris Lambert, is available here…
As a child, I was oddly fascinated by the idea of portals. I half-believed that they might be real, and that my wanderings through the grimy outskirts and overgrown fields of my rural home town would inevitably lead to the discovery of some incongruous gateway to another realm. It seemed entirely plausible that the moss-covered ruins of wartime pillboxes would, one day, echo to the ghostly sound of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, bleeding through from a shimmering timeslip. Or that a battered wooden door, abandoned in a skip or half-hidden by weeds on some frozen, tangled waste ground, would open to reveal the teeming strangeness of some magical netherworld beyond.
I thought of all this when I first heard In Another Room, Paul Weller’s new collaboration with Ghost Box Records; and a glimpse of the EP artwork delightfully reinforced these fuzzy, forty-year-old memories. The music is distant, fractured, melancholy; seeming indeed to be drifting fleetingly into our world from another plane of existence, one that might just be accessed through an out-of-place doorway in a remote, windswept field on the fringes of town…
The EP is officially released on 31st January, but a limited run of 1,000 vinyl copies sold out as soon as pre-orders were announced. Nevertheless, digital downloads are to follow, and Ghost Box’s Jim Jupp – interviewed on my BBC Tees show about the release – offered hope for those still seeking a physical version:
Bob: Congratulations on the EP! I’m guessing it’s been a busy time at Ghost Box over the last few weeks?
Jim: Yes, there was a lot of frantic activity, and it sold out in 45 minutes, which took us by surprise. We’re not used to that, being quite a small indie label. It was a pleasant surprise!
Are there any spare copies out there anywhere?
We’re going to keep about 100-200 copies back, depending on the stores that have ordered them. And we’ll put those up for the sale on the actual release day, 31st January. But it’ll be first come first served again, I’m afraid.
So the best advice is to head to the Ghost Box website on the day itself?
That’s right, they’ll go online at midnight on the Thursday night/Friday morning.
This is like phoning the doctors’ surgery at one minute past eight!
Yes, and like getting a festival ticket…
It’s such an interesting collaboration. Did this essentially come from Paul Weller, in a magazine interview, saying that he liked Ghost Box?
That’s exactly right, he did an interview forShindig magazine, and mentioned that he was into Ghost Box, and Broadcast, and related acts. The editor said to him “I can put you in touch,” but nothing came of it. And then, about 18 months ago, I got a call and had a long chat about what we might do together.
A call from Paul Weller himself?
Wow! So had you seen the interview when it was originally published, and wondered if something might happen?
I’d heard about it, and put out the feelers and said that we’d be open to something, but again nothing came of it. And then I actually got an e-mail saying “Here’s Paul’s number…” and thought wow, that’s a hell of a call to make. So I texted him! (Laughs)… and he actually called me back.
Ha! That’s always my tactic, too…
It’s the brave way out!
Phone conversations are scary, Jim…
Ah, but he’s a lovely feller. So it was no problem at all, he was good to talk to.
Was it a surreal moment for you? Were you a fan of The Jam and The Style Council when you were growing up?
Yeah, certainly when I was growing up. It’s probably fair to say that in recent years I’d maybe fallen out of touch with what he was up to, but then a few years ago Saturn’s Pattern came out, and somebody said to me that I should listen to it, because there was a lot of electronica on there. And then the last few albums I have followed, because I think he’s woven his love of folk music and electronica together with his soulful side and his songwriting. Which you’ve got to admire. So I kind of reconnected with it… it was a good time. And I think Julian [House, of Ghost Box] has always been a colossal fan, because Julian was something of a mod when we were schoolkids.
I can see Julian in a fishtail parka! So where did it go from there? Did Paul have ideas already, or did you make to suggestions to him?
I think he had some ideas. When I spoke to him, he’d not long since done a soundtrack for the movie Jawbone, and some of that was a bit more “out-there”… a bit ambient, and he had ideas that he’d worked on, but that didn’t make it into the film. And I think that was his starting point. He also talked to Julian on the phone a few times as well, just about what he was into at the time, and he’d been listening to things like the Third Ear Band and Trevor Wishart. A lot of avant-garde British stuff from the 1960s. Quite out-there tape music, and experimental stuff.
So we thought we would take that direction, and I suggested maybe an EP would be a good format. I knew this wouldn’t be an album, but with a bit of room to manoeuver and to explore something, an EP felt like the right length. And that’s what he went for.
It could have just been an EP of experimental sound collage, but there are hints of his other musical side on there as well. Tracks like ‘Rejoice’ obviously have experimental elements, but are also very much about Paul Weller on the piano…
Yeah, definitely. I don’t think the EP as a whole is as challenging as you might think, and I wouldn’t want to put people off. It’s certainly out-there and avant-garde, but there are a lot of melodic passages, a lot of instrumentation, and a few session musicians involved. It does create an atmosphere, and I think anyone can appreciate and enjoy it.
You can see the lineage as well… Ghost Box is about taking inspiration from the past, and being playful with nostalgia, and making something new from that. And you can make a case for Paul Weller having done that a lot throughout his career – even when you look at The Jam when he was a teenager, taking elements of 1960s mod culture. And then the Style Council took inspiration from 1960s film soundtracks and even the Swingle Singers… he’s got previous form!
Yeah, I think that’s why it makes such sense for us. It’s a surprise to some, but we were honoured. He’s always had that relationship with music from the past, and where you can take it in the present moment. Which is kind of what our artists do on Ghost Box.
Have you had Ghost Box fans surprised that you were working with Paul Weller, and vice versa – Paul Weller fans surprised that he was working with Ghost Box?
I couldn’t answer the second… but probably! There were probably Paul Weller fans surprised, and probably mystified as to who we were! But the reactions have been positive, and I think people have understood that it makes sense. People know that Paul Weller’s tastes are eclectic, and he’s done all sorts of things over the years. And he’s interested in current bands and labels… he’s always got his ear to the ground. And we were lucky that we were on his radar at the time.
Where did the title, In Another Room, come from – was that Paul’s?
It was Paul’s title. I think he had a few ideas, and we were certainly happy with that. I guess it partly refers to it being another compartment to his career, off on one side to what he does. But it also struck us as a very Ghost Box title. And the sound of the record… to me, it’s like things happening just out of view in other rooms, and sounds drifting in from other spaces. It fits with our Ghost Box world, I think.
As always, it comes swathed in Julian’s beautiful artwork, and he’s very much taken the title as his starting point…
Yes, that was obviously the thing: to capture that idea of rooms, and doorways, and moving through into other spaces. But what he’s also done… he had a few conversations with Paul, and he looked at some graphic scores, which used to be part of the avant-garde, where the musical score was a piece of artwork itself. So you’d often start with a conventional musical stave, but there’d be dynamic paint splatters or shapes on the sheet of music. So on the gatefold of the single, he’s taken that idea and overlayed a collage onto a musical stave.
(NB I had no idea about graphic scores, but the above illustration is a section from Cathy Berberian‘s score for her experimental 1966 piece, Stripsody. Cathy’s name inspired the title of Peter Strickland’s wonderful 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, the titles of which were also provided by Julian House. We’re travelling through portals again…)
Will you work with Paul again, do you think?
There are no firm plans. We spoke just the other day when I told him that sales were going briskly, and he mentioned maybe a Volume 2 at some point… so the door is always open as far as we’re concerned.
I do like the ways in which you’re keen to expand the boundaries of where Ghost Box can go, and I guess working with Paul is part of that. Have you other ideas of where you’d like to take the label, and indeed other collaborators that you’d like to work with?
Oooh! I don’t know… we’re always approaching people and asking people, it’s something we do want to develop. What we want to get away from, I think, is a slightly parochial, English white male thing. Which is how we started, and what we were, but we’re keen to expand it outwards. And in the last few years we’ve worked with people from different countries, from Germany and Portugal. And there are other voices on there: the Chanctonbury Ringsalbum we released last year had the voice of Justin Hopper, who’s American. So it’s nice to get these other voices in, and open out the world a bit. But it’s still based on these ideas of a misremembered past, and a slightly off-kilter version of the 1960s and 70s that we grew up with.
I had fallen into the trap of thinking that the “Haunted 1970s” feeling was a very British thing, limited to that era, but a lot of the stuff you’ve done recently has proved that I’m wrong. Like you say, Beautify Junkyards are Portuguese, and ToiToToi is German, and they quite clearly share those feelings, too. Has that been a nice surprise for you?
It has, and it’s slowly developed for us, too. I think we were in the same place, thinking that this is a uniquely British experience, those odd children’s TV things from the 1970s and the library music we were into… that general strangeness from the late 1960s and 70s. But I think every country had its own version of that. I think it was more something of the era than a uniquely British thing.
I was once chatting with an American writer called Michael Grasso, on Twitter. He’s into all this, and I asked him if there was an American equivalent. And he mentioned Sesame Street…
Sesame Street definitely, case in point! And if you think back to what Boards of Canada were doing – even in the name – that was a North American take on the stuff that’s generally called hauntology. It’s not just a British thing.
I was going to ask about Chanctonbury Rings, the album you did with Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus… you must have been delighted with the reaction it received, were you?
Yes, we really were. It’s an unusual one, and Justin and I spent a long time talking about what it might be, and what shape it would take. But I knew, when I’d seen their live show, that it would make an album. And it was going to be a poetry album, which is always a difficult sell. But it made sense to us to approach it in a way similar to the old BBC records, like The Seasons. Or BBC Schools Records… they did the Study Series, which a lot of people would remember from the schoolroom. The music teacher would put it on and have you doing strange activities: interpretations of poems, and that sort of thing. So we approached it in that way, and presented it in that kind of format. So yeah – I was very pleased with the reaction, and it’s done very well.
What’s next for Ghost Box in 2020?
Right now, we’re lining up the new album by Plone, called Puzzlewood, and that’s out in March, all being well.
And beyond that?
Beyond that there’s a new Belbury Poly album – my own work – out in the summer.
Oh, how’s that sounding? Your last album, New Ways Out, sounded very glam-rock in places…
Yeah, that was where my head was at that time. I was listening to a lot of Chicory Tip! So it was quite upbeat, that sort of vibe. I think the newer material is probably a bit darker, more electronic… back to where the Belbury project started.
Thanks to Jim for his time, as ever. In Another Room, by Paul Weller, is released by Ghost Box Records on 31st January.
As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 387, dated Christmas 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“I suffered from night terrors,” explains Richard Littler, “and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse…”
We’re discussing the inspirations behind the new Scarfolk Annual. Since 2013, Littler has been the self-appointed “Mayor of Scarfolk“, the grim, North-Western town that has provided the setting for a cavalcade of spoof information posters, book covers and magazine advertisements; one of which (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was even mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly as part of a 100-year celebration of bona fide Goverment posters (see FT 377:8). This new publication sees him turning his genius for pastiching the clunky, washed-out design and authoritarian tones of 1970s information culture into a magnificently dark homage to the hardbacked World Distributors annuals of his childhood.
“Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2,” he continues. “Which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory. A factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me…”
This 1970s predilection for providing primary school-age children with laughably inappropriate reading material is sent up with unerring accuracy in the Scarfolk Annual. The gung-ho Commando-style comic strip ‘Waugh in War’ sees unhinged army officer Ben “War” Waugh determined to execute his own soldiers; elsewhere there are illustrated guides to identifying “Council Surveillance Agents”, and advice on “How to Survive a Nuclear Thing”, reassuringly explaining that “national security terminology typically employed to describe the stages of a nuclear threat will be replaced by pleasant, friendly words. If you hear ‘Flopsy Bunny’ you should expect catastrophic, irreversible annihilation.”
“The 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while,” laments Richard. “If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised.”
And on a lighter note, the scariest member of the troupe of Play School toys, as parodied in the grisly ‘Scar School’?
“Hamble,” he replies, instantly. “She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be a baby, but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch, or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.”
The Scarfolk Annual (“Does NOT contain the original toxic inks”) is out now, published by William Collins.
It’s been a bumper few weeks for fans of Littler’s unique brand of dystopian satire, as October also saw the release of the pilot episode of his animated series Dick & Stewart. A disturbing twelve minutes of lovingly-crafted paranoia, it uses to great effect the gentle pace and limited colour palettes of such teatime favourites as Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge to lampoon the rise of 21st century surveillance culture. Narrated – in gentle homage to 1970s voiceover king Ray Brooks – by The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barrett, it follows the adventures of innocent schoolboy Dick and the sentient eyeball Stewart; all that remains of Dick’s former best friend after a mysterious playground accident. Together, they are ensnared by a sinister “man” who encourages them to play “a special game of I-Spy… all you have to do is watch and listen to everything your Mummy and Daddy do and say, and write it all down for me.”
“I loved the cartoons you mention,” says Richard. “I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss etc. The slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. Compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me…”
A woozy, analogue synth soundtrack is provided by Chris Sharp, in his guise as Concretism, further consolidating the atmosphere of 1970s unsettlement, although – again – Littler is adamant that his creations are very much concerned with contemporary, 21st century issues, particularly those of control and surveillance. “We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy,” he says. “I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug-of-war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast.”
And indeed, as the cartoon Dick is confined to bed, a camera emerges from his mouth, microphones from his ears, and a transmission aerial sprouts from the top of his head. The pilot episode can be found on the newly-founded Dick & Stewart Youtube channel.
Meanwhile, those seeking a more rural brand of wrongness will be delighted to hear of further developments on the Black Meadow. This bleak, secluded area of the North York Moors, in the shadow of the iconic RAF Fylingdales early warning station, has long since provided the inspiration for a multi-media exploration of dark folklore and Cold War disquiet, helmed by writer Chris Lambert and musician Kev Oyston. “For centuries the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings,” claims Chris. “The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high…”
A visit to the Black Meadow website at blackmeadowtales.blogspot.com will confirm that both Lambert and Oyston are masters at blurring the lines between genuine folk tales (both ancient and modern) and outright invention. Did folklore investigator Professor Roger Mullins, of York University, really vanish on the moor in 1972, and become the subject of a lost Radio 4 documentary? Make your own judgements: Lambert coyly describes himself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. His new book, The Black Meadow Archive, will be available in early January, and is a beautiful collection of surreal and grisly folk talks; where ‘the Blackberry Ghost’ meets ‘the Ticking Policeman’. And a new collection of similarly-titled music by Oyston – recording as The Soulless Party – will be released at the same time.
Oyston has also been busy compiling an LP of original music inspired by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s Scarred For Life book. The book, published in 2017, is an exhaustive compendium of the 1970s TV programmes that traumatised their respective childhoods, and the album invites veterans of the haunted movement to contribute music inspired by their own memories of the era; either alternate themes for existing programmes, or invented title music for fictional shows. The results are tremendous fun: The Heartwood Institute‘s ‘Women Against The Wire’ sounds like the opening to some hard-hitting BBC2 investigation into the Greenham Common peace camps; The Home Current‘s ‘Summer In Marstrand’ is pure half-term Scandinavian animation (think Moomins, but intent on evil); and Keith Seatman‘s ‘Words from the Wireless’ recreates the terror once instilled in him by the (literally) dream-like 1972 series Escape Into Night.
The album concludes on a poignant note: ‘Be Like A Child’ by Carl Matthews is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose life was cut tragically short by cancer; and all proceeds from the album are going to Cancer Research UK. It’s available now, on the Castles In Space label.
Elsewhere, it’s always a delight to welcome new material from Jon Brooks; often to be found recording for Ghost Box Records in his guise as The Advisory Circle, but new album Emotional Freedom Techniques is freshly available to download on his own Cafe Kaput label. A beautifully soothing and meditative collection of ambient electronica, it both evokes and creates a perfect sense of stillness and stasis. It’s available from cafekaput.bandcamp.com. I can also recommend Hattie Cooke‘s albumThe Sleepers, an evocative synth-heavy concept album detailing the consequences of a mysterious, worldwide sleeping sickness; and the self-titled debut album by The Central Office of Information, a beautifully-packed collection of entrancing melodic radiophonica and ambient disquiet, all produced by Kent-based artist Alex Cargill.
And what better way to round off the year than with a brace of releases from… well, A Year In The Country? Stephen Prince’s ongoing quest to explore the shimmering connections between folk music, electronica and a sense of lost pastoralism has borne fruit in the shape of a new book, Straying from the Pathways, a typically comprehensive collection of essays on some of the movement’s more esoteric influences, from Detectorists to Edge of Darkness. And a charming new album, The Quietened Journey, invites contributors including The Heartwood Institute and Howlround to create music inspired by memories of abandoned railway lines, stations and roads. Anyone looking for a dose of bucolic calm amidst the frenzy of the festive season would be well advised to use it as the soundtrack for an icy ramble amongst their favourite overgrown sidings.
For our parents, the TV and film Western was frequently an uncomplicated affair: chisel-jawed, straightforward hero figures – say John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott – rode purposefully into ramshackle frontier towns, tastefully dispatched any resident black-shirted baddies, scooped Maureen O’Hara into their arms, and rode wistfully back into the sunset.
For us children of the 1970s however, life became – inevitably – more complex. The “revisionist Western” films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, shown as late-night illicit TV treats throughout the decade, brought bloody reality and a slew of morally ambiguous lead characters to the genre. Later films, notably Clint Eastwood’s existential brace of High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, even introduced tantalising glimpses of the supernatural.
These latter developments have undoubtedly influenced Rupert Lally’s atmospheric new album, The Prospect, available now from Spun Out Of Control. A soundtrack to his own short story, it uses ambient synths and subtle, analogue instrumentation to depict the surreal aftermath of a bungled stagecoach robbery in the snowy, 19th century Canadian Rockies. Gang leader Jack Delaney, seriously wounded, finds himself in the remote mining town of Prospect, where a grieving widow mistakenly greets him as her miraculously returned husband… before her fellow villagers are revealed, rather alarmingly, to be no strangers to the practice of blood sacrifice.
There is, of course, a twist…
I asked Rupert about the influences behind both the story and music, and about his background as a musician. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of The Prospect. Had you written the story first, and decided it lent itself to a soundtrack, or did the story and music always go hand-in-hand?
Rupert: It was a story first. I’d had the basic story for a while… I’m a great hoarder of story ideas and quite often I’ll keep coming back to the good ones, trying to find a way of using them. The most extreme example of this is the novel I’m writing at the moment, based on an idea I came up with as a twelve or thirteen-year-old. Of course, over time, the story evolves. You forget some of the details of the original idea and add new ones. The story I’m telling in the novel has the basic idea and structure that I came up with all those years ago, but the details and the characters aren’t the sort of thing that the twelve-year-old me would have created.
The Prospect is a little bit like that. I came up with the first part, the robbery going wrong in a town on the edge of nowhere, as a teenager. But that was it. Later on, perhaps inspired by The Return Of Martin Guerre, I came up with the idea of Jack Delaney being mistaken for the dead man, and then – when I was thinking about the album – I decided to add the more disturbing elements of cannibalism and sacrifice. Up until then it had still essentially been a Western.
Knowing that Gavin from Spun Out Of Control was aiming for a December release, I thought pushing it in a slightly more gothic direction would be good. I wrote a first draft, which I then ended up altering slightly as the music progressed. The ending in particular got changed a couple of times… there was one version where Jack becomes a Wendingo-like creature and returns to destroy the town, though it was left ambiguous as to whether that was real, or simply in Jack’s head. Another version had the marshals arriving in Prospect looking for signs of Jack and spotting some of his belongings, only to be surrounded by the murderous townsfolk. In the end, I settled on the ending I used, because it seemed to make the most sense from both a narrative and scoring perspective.
Does that period of history, and the whole idea of frontier prospecting, hold a fascination for you?
It does. It’s one of those time periods that captivate me personally, in much the same way as the Bronze Age, or the Victorian London of Sherlock Homes and Jack The Ripper. Of course, I‘m fully aware that my image of life back then is a complete romantic fantasy that probably bears no relation to how hard and harsh the reality was.
More generally speaking, the vastness of North America is something that has fascinated me ever since I was a child, and one can only imagine how endless the land must have seemed to those travelling across it in those days, looking for a new life. It clearly appeals to certain isolationist tendencies in me, even though I know I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes back then. I’m far too much of a soft city boy…
Did you do any research into the history of Canadian prospecting and mining towns?
Not really. In fact, I’m deliberately vague about the story’s setting for good reason… because I didn’t want to have to do too much research! I did double check the banks and money transfers that are mentioned in the story, though, as I didn’t want to write anything that was completely wrong for the period.
Were there any particular films or books that you had in mind when you were making the album?
Movies were definitely an inspiration. The opening line, “The Canadian Rockies, Winter, 1882” is a direct homage to the opening title card from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Which was clearly an influence on the music, too.
In terms of Westerns, I‘d recently re-watched both Dead Man and McCabe and Mrs Miller for my film blog so they certainly had an influence, particularly the snowy atmosphere at the end of McCabe. Other influences were the Clint Eastwood films, High Plains Drifterand Pale Rider, the latter having a very cold and snowy setting. Another film which I haven’t seen in years, but which definitely had an influence on both the story and the music, was Antonia Bird’s frontier cannibal horror, Ravenous.
You live in Switzerland these days… did the country’s mountainous landscape have any influence on the genesis of The Prospect?
Funnily enough, yes. About fifteen years ago, when I first thought about incorporating the idea of Jack being mistaken for someone else. My wife and I were the Best Man and Maid of Honour at a friend’s wedding, in a little village quite high up in the hills. There was just the church and a few houses, surrounded by a rocky valley and a river. That was probably the initial template for the town of Prospect, though obviously it’s changed a little in the story. More generally, it’s just that sense of being incredibly small in relation to nature… that idea of being dwarfed in terms of scale. It’s something that stays with you. Also we have fairly regular snowfalls out here, so I certainly have a bit of personal experience of trudging through thick snow. And what real cold feels like…
And how did you try to use the music to reflect and encapsulate the story’s location and events? How did you go about that… were any particular sounds that particularly lent themselves to telling the story of Jack Delaney?
Well, it was clear from the beginning, as this was something deliberately created for Spun Out Of Control, that it would have a lot of electronic elements. I pitched it to Gavin as the imaginary score to a film that’s a cross between High Plains Drifter and The Wicker Man, as if scored by John Carpenter and The Haxan Cloak. I’d recently heard the score that Bobby Krlic – aka The Haxan Cloak – did for Midsommar, and thought that blend of electronics and weird acoustic sources might be right for this.
Equally, I thought combining that with the more overt electronics and insistent rhythms that Carpenter is famous for would be interesting. I started creating sounds that felt cold, or haunting to me. There’s one Boards Of Canada-style synth sound that’s prominent throughout the whole album. It features on the first track, Edge Of The Union, which was one of the first sounds I created for this, with my Roland ProMars plug-in. It’s got delay and an LFO modulating the pitch, so it’s constantly going slightly out-of-tune, as if it’s being carried on the wind, or the cold is affecting it.
I created a lot of sounds using Straylight, a granular synthesis plugin from Native Instruments, as well. Building patches built out of wind noises or voices… things that suggested cold or wind to me, yet could still be played like a musical instrument. There are also violins playing harmonics, or at the very top of their range, which has a very brittle, cold sound to my ears. Finally there’s that bass thump sound, pure Carpenter, which came from my Roland D-50. To me that was the sound of Jack… that thing inside him pushing him onwards, keeping him “on edge”.
Where did the character of Jack come from? Go on… who would play him in a film?
Perhaps it’s a failing of mine as a writer, but I never think of characters first. It’s always the story that comes first and then the characters are there to populate it. I’m constantly worried, when I write, that they might simply come cross as plot devices. But in my head, Jack looks a bit like Charlie Hunnam, or perhaps a young Robert Redford. Blond hair, scraggy beard. Like those soldiers you see in photos from the Civil War: boys who have had to become men before their time, but with the charisma that some people have that naturally makes them a leader.
Of course, the brothers are named Jack and Bobby after the Kennedys… but it was equally a case of wanting names that sounded right for the period. In the first draft, I had names and backstories for each of the Delaney gang, but I jettisoned them when I realized that it wasn’t necessary for the reader to know them – they’re dead and gone before the story really starts. Unsurprisingly, as the robbery is the oldest part of the story, that’s the part that’s the most clear to me, visually. I could almost storyboard it, frame by frame.
Your previous album consisted of music inspired by Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune. Can you sum up what the book has meant to you over the years? Are you a fan of the David Lynch film version, too?
You know what? That book was one of several I started as a teenager but never finished, and that I’ve recently made an effort to re-read and complete. The Lynch film I have great affection for. For the digital release of Dune, I wrote some sleevenotes, mentioning that my first encounter with the film was the toy figures of Paul Atreides and Feyd Rautha. Even now, when I read the book, I see the faces of those actors as the characters and – despite how much it’s hated by some fans of novel – the film is really quite faithful to most of the book.
Yes, definitely! They’re all authors that have meant a lot to me at one time or another. Ballard was a huge influence on me as a writer too, when I wrote my own sci-fi novella in 2018 – Solid State Memories – and created a soundtrack for it. Ballard and Philip K. Dick are clear influences on the story and its “twenty minutes into the future” setting. There are also characters named Ballard, Herbert, Matheson and Burgess.
William Golding too was hugely influential to me. Along with Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess, he was one of those gateway authors that transitioned me from reading genre fiction and movie novelisations to more “literary” work. Also, Greene and Golding both had those wonderful pen and watercolour drawings by Paul Hogarth on their covers in the 1980s. I’m consciously paying homage to those in the cover art for all the soundtracks to books on my Bandcamp page.
So when you read books, do you actually start imagining soundtracks to them?
Not unless I’m planning to score them. But I’m someone who imagines the entire visual world when I read a book; I could tell you what the characters look like, what they’re wearing, and the colour of the wallpaper. So for me, when I score a book, it’s like scoring a film or a TV programme in my head. The images make me think of the music that would work alongside them. Perhaps because of my background as a composer and sound designer for theatre and TV, I find it much easier to create music around a concept or a story. There’s no question of what the music needs to do next, or where it needs to go emotionally… the story tells you all that. As a composer you just need to respond to it.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background as a musician, and your theatre and TV work?
I started playing in bands as a teenager. I was – and still am – a pretty good drummer… and a so-so guitarist, turned half-decent bass player. I also got interested in sound engineering around the same time, and I worked a little in a few studios. Bizarrely, it took me until my last year at University, doing a technical theatre module as part of my degree, to see that there was a way of combining that music and sound engineering with my interest in theatre and film. I did a Masters Degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama and began a career as a composer and sound designer. I worked on numerous theatre shows in London, as well as the theme music for shows like ITV At the Movies. More recently, my music‘s been used in the filmThe Great White Silence, and in the iOS gameRebuild 3.
What made you decide to start composing and releasing your music as a solo artist?
My first release back in 2004, The Noisy Image, was to promote a production company that I’d started with my wife and a friend, and my first proper solo release under my own name was because I wanted an outlet for the more experimental stuff that I was interested in doing, stuff that had no place in my commercial work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much call for me to sound like Squarepusher or Four Tet with the clients I was working for.
What started as an extracurricular outlet eventually became my main focus, especially once my kids were born. Sometimes having my own project was what kept me going, creatively.
The Prospect also has one of my favourite album covers of 2019! Can you describe your feelings when you first saw it?
I loved it! I adore Eric Adrian Lee’s work and I won’t lie – his beautiful work was one of the reasons why I wanted to release stuff on Spun Out Of Control. The visual side of music is incredibly important to me. I do all the design for my Bandcamp releases, and I’ve done all the illustrations on my Bibliotapes releases. It’s the thing that links all the labels that I love, from ECM and Rune Grammofon, to Warp and Ghost Box, or Clay Pipe, Polytechnic Youth and Spun Out Of Control. They all have a really strong visual style. I was really curious to see what Eric would come up with for the story, because it’s a little different from the 1980s horror or Giallo vibe that some of their releases have had. But he’s such a genius that he came through in spades, and I think it gets across the vibe of the story perfectly.
Thanks to Rupert for his time, and The Prospect – including a limited-edition cassette run – is available here. And you can read the full storyline, too…
In August 2019, I spent an hilarious and fascinating afternoon with Christopher Maynard, writer of the classic 1977 book Mysteries of the Unknown: Ghosts, reissued by Usborne Publishing in October this year. It became a feature entitled “Where Ghosts Gather” in issue 385 of the Fortean Times, dated November 2019. The full article is now here…
WHERE GHOSTS GATHER
In 1977, Usborne published World of the Unknown: Ghosts, the children’s book that inspired a generation of junior Forteans. Four decades on, following a concerted fan campaign, the book is back in print… and the perpetually haunted Bob Fischer tracked down its pleasantly surprised writer, Christopher Maynard.
The man responsible for some of my more potent childhood nightmares is sitting opposite me at a picnic table in Old Spitalfields Market, basking in the syrupy East London sunshine of a late summers afternoon and – quite frankly – he’s at it again.
“There was an animal called the Behinder,” says Chris Maynard, in the mellifluous Montreal accent that has lost none of its delicious resonance since he left his native Canada for post-swinging London in the early 1970s. “You can tell when you’re being followed by a Behinder, because the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, and stand up. And the way to check that you’re being followed by a Behinder… when that happens, whip around really fast. If there’s nothing there, but you’ve still got that feeling, you know you’re being followed…”
Good grief, Chris. What do they look like?
“You can feel them, sense them, almost taste the fear they engender, but see them? Never! I’ve heard tell that you would drop dead if you ever saw one face to face. Though I take that with a pinch of salt…”
Forty years on, the architect of my 1970s night terrors is proving to be brilliant, engaging, and very funny company.
In 1977, Chris poured this fascination with the ghost stories of his Canadian childhood – told in hushed tones around the crackling fires of woodland summer camps – into a book that became a ubiquitous, and thrilling, mainstay of every British school library for years to follow. Ghosts was one of the earliest successes of the nascent Usborne Publishing house, one third of a trio of books issued under the umbrella title The World of the Unknown… the others being, inevitably, Monsters and UFOs. Its 32 pages are packed with tales of ancient hauntings, outlandish folklore and indispensable practical advice for primary school-age children with a healthy curiosity about what lies beyond the veil. Lovingly and vividly illustrated, it strikes a perfect balance between comic-book dynamism and factual reportage, all seemingly custom-designed to fire the imaginations of a generation of youngsters whose formative years had already been delightfully tainted by an upsurge of interest in all things supernatural. This, remember, was the decade of Rentaghost; of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films; of Horror Top Trumps and Shiver and Shake comics.
“Peter Usborne, the owner of the company, would be sitting in the bath,” laughs Chris, “and he would think ‘Let’s do something on dinosaurs. Fossils and dinosaurs… and then we’ll do something on the Ice Age and we’ll bundle it up.’ And somewhere along the way, the idea of folklore came up… which is why Ghosts was bundled with Monsters, which was bundled with UFOs. He would have just come in and tossed it onto the pile, and the editorial teams would have picked it up and said ‘Yeah, we’ll take that one.’ And that was it, that was the brief.”
So was it something that Chris actually pitched to write?
“I really can’t remember! Most likely what happened was that somebody would have come in and said, ‘Chris, these are the books we’re thinking of doing over the next year, which ones do you fancy running with?’ And I’d say ‘Yeah, I’ll do the Ghosts one… that’ll be a lot more fun.’ It just struck me as something that I could have a shot at. It struck a funny bone.”
“UFOs,” he confides, bashfully, “are not my cup of tea…”
I was around seven years old when I first discovered the book, nestling in a shadowy corner of Levendale Primary School’s modest library, somewhere between Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, a well-thumbed haul of Target’s Doctor Who novelisations, and a dusty, shamefully-neglected collection of the Children’s Brittanica. I can still remember the head-freezing pall of terror that enveloped me upon my first glimpse of a randomly-opened page; the collection of “Mystery Photographs” that swam back and forth through my nightmares for months to follow. There was the glowing, spectral figure of a woman in a flowing, formal gown, descending the stairs of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, captured on camera in 1936. There was the grinning driver of a 1950s Hillman Minx, entirely oblivious to the spirit of his recently-deceased mother-in-law, sitting expectantly on the back seat behind him. And – most chilling of all – there was the translucent figure of a spectral monk beside an elaborate altar, “taken in the early 1960s by the vicar of a church in England.” The hollow eyes of this latter apparition, two ragged holes cut into a white death shroud, seemed to bore into the very fibres of my being. I was convinced that my inadvertent eye contact with this terrifying spirit had, effectively, alerted the agents of the paranormal to my existence, and that a parade of malevolent ghosts, spectres and poltergeists, headed up by the towering, black-robed monk himself, would be gliding silently up the stairs to claim me in my sleep that very evening. As Chris’ text solemnly declares: “All three of these pictures are considered by experts to be genuine.”
If the experts were convinced, then so was I.
And yet this proto-panic attack inexplicably failed to deter me from investigating the rest of the book, and being somehow both terrified and intrigued by the stories within. I discovered “Tom Colley’s Ghost”, the spirit of the 19th century mob-leader, whose restless spirit was shackled to the rotting remains of his gibbeted body. In Tring. I winced at the fate of the phantoms of the Battle of Shiloh, grimly and ceaselessly re-enacting this brutal 1862 conflict of the American Civil War. I read wide-eyed about the Arabian “Afrit” ghost, whose rising could only be prevented by the driving of a fresh nail into the bloodstain of its associated murder victim; and of “Black Shuck”, the demon dog that haunted “lonely country roads, graveyards and old gallows sites”, distinguished by its “single cyclops-eye, as large as a saucer, in the centre of its forehead.”
And, obviously, I vowed never to set foot in “The Village With A Dozen Ghosts”: namely Pluckley, whose assorted spooks are vividly described beneath photographs of their respective haunts, all laid out on a detailed road map of this sleepy Kent idyll. Keen to hook up with the “White Lady of Dering”? Head for the burnt-out husk of Surrenden Dering manor, where she still glides silently through what remains of the library. From there, it’s a short walk to the Church of Saint Nicholas, where the 12th century “Red Lady” – “buried in a sumptuous gown with a red rose in her hands” – stalks the graveyard. Cross over Dicky Buss’s Lane to find “the hanging body of the schoolmaster”, a victim of suicide in the aftermath of World War I, whose phantom corpse, suspended from a laurel tree, “is said to be visible to this day, swinging in the breeze.” And then, on your way back to the railway station, pay your regards to “the ghost of the screaming man”, a brickworks employee “smothered to death when a wall of clay fell on him”, whose spirit still “screams in the same way as he did when he died.”
The book is an extraordinary feat of research, and I was intrigued to note that folklorist Eric Maple had been credited as “Special Consultant”. Maple, born in 1916 in Essex, was the son of a spiritualist medium and a voracious collector of folk and occult tales; his magnificently-titled works The Dark World of Witches, The Realm of Ghosts and The Domain of Devils forming a quintessentially 1960s triumvirate of books, published – entirely appropriately – by Pan.
“When I started doing research in libraries,” remembers Chris, “I realised that Eric Maple had a long pedigree. We tracked him down, and got in touch with him, and he’d been researching and writing folklore books for years. We wanted him as an advisor, as much to help me wade through this mountain of stuff that was out there. I was working through public libraries at the time, and he would have steered me towards newspaper libraries as well.”
The still-extant Society For Psychical Research is credited too, along with its one-time rival, the sadly defunct National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Chris has fond memories of making contact with a community of paranormal enthusiasts and societies that were arguably enjoying their heyday, in a 1970s Britain whose fascination with the otherworldly frequently crossed over into the mainstream media.
“They were these wonderful, eccentric little corners that we only discovered as we were working,” he smiles. “And they all had cuttings libraries – they’d been amassing folklore for years. And they would have regular symposia for people around the country… for all I know, people around the world. I never figured out the depth of all this. So they would be a real source of stuff that might not be in the broader public domain. That was really helpful, and Eric was particularly good at steering us to those kinds of places, and winkling out little bits and pieces.”
The double-page spread on Pluckley, however, was the result of an expedition made by Chris and Usborne art director David Jefferies, a day of bona fide ghost-hunting that makes him especially proud. “I like the fact that we did Pluckley,” he beams. “We went and did the research in the field. It was great, really delicious. [We had] the demented idea that we had to overlay it onto a map, so that was the one occasion when we actually took ourselves out and spent a day wandering around… and to my way of thinking at the time, it was a particularly successful page. This was important…” (We have a copy of the book on the table, open at the Pluckley double spread, and Chris is pointing proudly at one particular illustration.) “The compass! We wanted you to be able to orientate yourself, and made it a map where you could actually locate these various objects…”
But did any unsuspecting members of the Pluckley public not wonder why two strange men were wandering around their village all afternoon, taking photographs?
“I suspect,” laughs Chris, “if they had seen us, they would have thought we were estate agents! Or someone from the council. Why else would you be taking pictures of houses, and measuring up?”
Reading Ghosts as an adult, it’s clear that my seven-year-old self overreacted somewhat; certainly with regard to a curious period of 1980, when I became convinced that the White Lady of Dering had forsaken Pluckley for the wardrobe in our spare room. Although the stories and illustrations presented within are as chilling as I remember, the book frequently adopts a laudable stance of objective distance, and is filled with reminders for young readers to form their own judgements. “Ghosts are supposed to be the appearances of the spirits of the dead in a form visible to the living,” reads Chris’ introduction. “Whether they really do exist is still a complete mystery, but perhaps this book will help you to make up your mind.”
Elsewhere, there are accounts of “ghost stories” subsequently explained away as the results of flooded sewers and amplified alarm clocks, and – my favourite – the 200 metre-tall “Spectres of the Brocken” on the summit of a German mountain, which transpired to be the shadows of climbers, cast onto banks of cloud by a gently setting sun. The unambiguously-titled section “Sense or Nonsense”? even includes a bar chart displaying the results of an 1890 survey of 17,000 people; a mere 1,684 of whom claimed to have had a supernatural experience. Was all of this, I bravely ask, something of a Fortean approach?
“We adopted that,” nods Chris. “We stood back… we were the scientists. We were the researchers. And we just brought to the table the things that needed to be told and explained. We would have done exactly the same if we’d done a book about aeroplanes: we would have talked not as a manufacturer, not as a passenger, but purely in a factual way with that deadpan style… in fact, deadpan is precisely what it was! And my own feeling now, reflecting on what yourself and what other people have been saying, talking about your memories… I’ve come to realise the extent to which that approach made it possible for youngsters to engage with the material. Not because it was a rip-roaring story – they got their rip-roaring stories from somewhere else! – but because this was just factual, and their own imaginations could then pick that up and run with it and go… what if that’s real? Did I actually see that? What did my sister tell me that time? And that’s where, suddenly, the fascination comes in.”
Given this approach, is Chris slightly disconcerted that the book proved so terrifying to at least one unsuspecting seven-year-old?
“‘Thrilling’ works better for me than ‘terrifying’!” he laughs. “I would probably have been mildly shocked if someone said ‘You know… you’re going to scare the Bejesus out of kids.’ I wanted the kids to take something away, and feel that they owned a bit of knowledge, and had an insight into something about the world, an insight that may return fuller and more complete. They could sit down at the dinner table with their parents and expound… display what they had learned, talk about it, ask questions, ask their grandparents, run with it… that kind of thing. Start a conversation that would build upon this little pool, this little island of knowing that they had extracted.”
Since its publication, Ghosts has become a totemic symbol of the “haunted” childhood. The day after our meeting, I tweeted a photo of Chris holding up a rare, pristine copy of the original edition (a book I had to borrow from Usborne’s offices on the way to meet him; they’ve become an incredibly scarce collector’s item), and awaited the reaction. By the end of the day, 411 likes and 75 retweets later, I had been overwhelmed by a cavalcade of Proustian nostalgia from fellow children of the 1970s. “To the mid-forties set, he’s like our fourth dad – the other three being your actual dad (or stepfather or guardian), your favourite male teacher, and of course, Geoffrey from Rainbow,” tweeted writer and podcaster Paul Childs. “Chris Maynard is responsible for the person I am now!” added author and paranormal investigator Robert Johns, whereas fellow supernatural enthusiast Justin Cowell was merely full of gratitude. “I sincerely hope you thanked Chris for scaring generations of children,” he tweeted. “Some of whom were inspired enough to never stop being fascinated by this intriguing, delicious subject!”
Meanwhile, the most astute observation came from the shadowy mastermind behind the Things That Go Bump Youtube channel: “I bet Mr Maynard has no idea how many people consider him a hero and an inspiration…”
“No idea,” confirms Chris. “I’m over the moon. I mean, we all dreamed that what we were doing was important. We told ourselves that. We’d sit in the pub after work, and we’d say ‘you know… we’re knocking these books out, and yeah… we’re making life better. We’re giving kids tons of things to read.’ But we never could measure it. There were no ‘likes’, there was no internet, there was no social media, no real awareness.”
Ghosts was only one of “about 80” non-fiction books that Chris wrote in a twenty-year period from the mid 1970s onwards, and was published at a time that he now considers to be a halcyon era for the industry (“It was like producing music at the time of the Beatles and the Stones…” he tells me, “To be there, at that time… the golden age…”). And his level-headed but engaging approach to this most otherworldly of subjects clearly inspired a generation of budding Forteans, whose fascination with the likes of “Gef, the Talking Mongoose” (whose clawed paws I was convinced would one day poke through the cracks in my own bedroom ceiling, as the book’s alarming illustration suggested) has come to shape our adult pastimes and professions.
The 2019 reissue campaign began, curiously, in Finland, where – back in the 1970s – the book had been licensed to publishers Tammi, and published under the title Noidan Käsikirja. A Facebook group formed by Finnish fans gained almost 3,000 members, and led to an August 2018 reprint that sold out within a week; with the country’s latest sales figures now surpassing 18,000. Meanwhile, back in Britain, film director Ashley Thorpe and his Nucleus Films team contacted Usborne to request an interview with Chris; citing the book as a major influence on their forthcoming animated feature Borley Rectory, due for release this October. They found themselves in touch with Usborne marketing director Anna Howorth, herself a fan of the book, who was inspired enough to set up an online petition, hoping to convince the publishers that a UK reissue was a viable proposition. 1,000 signatories later, and with a promise in the bag from League of Gentlemen,Inside No. 9, and – indeed – Borley Rectory star Reece Shearsmith to write a new foreword, the deal was sealed.
“Again, amazement and thrill!” grins Chris, when I ask for his reaction, and he gushes with enthusiasm as I press him on the subject of the film. Although the infamously spook-plagued rectory itself is never mentioned by name in the book (there were, apparently, potential legal issues at the time), it clearly provided the inspiration for the “Haunted House” double page spread, detailing the trademark signs of a textbook ghost infestation (“an old skull screams whenever it is moved from the house”; “a bloodstain on the floor cannot be removed”), and Chris has been a willing participant in the film’s bonus features, with director Ashley Thorpe making a distinct impression on him. “A lovely guy from Exeter…” muses Chris, “who had in his school library a copy of the book that he took out regularly, and it lasted and stayed with him. He crowdfunded the various stages of the film, and part of the story that he told was his joy at taking a book that inspired him, and finally realising it in this wonderful animated film. And what he hadn’t expected was people then to say ‘Oh, I remember that book!'”
“We’ve broken down the walls of resistance to blowing off the dust from books that are twenty years out of date, and reissuing them like this. We’ve never had a revolt from below…”
Chris retired from full-time writing in the late 1990s, but is still clearly fizzing with energy and inspiration. In the two hours that we spend together, surrounded by the effervescent hubbub of the market stalls, he brims with ideas, anecdotes, thoughts and opinions: they tumble out of him, joyously, in a ceaselessly entertaining flood. “Two hundred years from now, people will be doing books like this about the ghosts of Old Spitalfields Market, and you and I will be sitting here,” he grins. “We are the hauntings of the future…”
As we part, and I begin the slow amble back to Liverpool Street station to return the original Ghosts book to Usborne’s bustling Farringdon offices, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I whip around fast, but there is – of course – nothing there.
But thanks to Chris, I’ve still got the feeling.
The reissued edition of The World of the Unknown: Ghosts is available now from Usborne Publishing…
Christmas morning! Without exception, the most exciting morning of the year. A head-spinning rush of excitable sleeplessness (In 1981, I stayed awake constantly from Christmas Eve morning until the early hours of Boxing Day – with a table football from Romer Parrish’s toyshop in the offing, sleep was impossible), giddy anticipation at the delights to come, and a wild, morning sugar rush on the only day of the year when it becomes socially acceptable to eat a Toblerone before 9am.
When I raced downstairs at six or (if my parents were lucky) seven o’clock, I would be greeted with a pile of brightly-wrapped presents stacked carefully below the branches of our silver Woolworths tree, its fragile plastic twigs groaning wearily beneath the weight of the entire Teesside tinsel reserve. After a few delaying tactic formalities (pot of tea, coal fire lit, curtains open to reveal drizzly twilight, local radio switched on because TV programmes didn’t start for another hour and a half), I would be allowed to “sort out” the presents into piles; individual stacks of oddly-shaped gifts for my Mum, my Dad, my Gran, my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose… and then a dizzily exciting mound of goodies for me, inevitably the largest of the lot. I was lucky, and I was spoiled, and with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, I can’t thank my parents enough for that. God knows, they must have worked themselves into the ground for our Christmases.
During this giddy sifting, it was – of course – essential to attempt to guess the nature of each present before the wrapping came off. And the easiest to identify by far were the annuals. A4, hardbacked, reassuringly solid… there’s something about the very distinct weight of them that still transports me back to childhood Christmases, whenever I lift one from the self in 2019. There would be Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee annuals, of course, but – as I grew older – also Doctor Who and Blue Peter, publications that combined the “Cor!” rush of fun comic strips with worthy, educational features and stories, and often rather disconcerting illustrations. They never could get Tom Baker quite right.
These publications have all provided the inspiration for the new Scarfolk annual, a devastatingly dark and unerringly accurate pastiche of the genre. Writer and artist Richard Littler, the genial self-proclaimed mayor of this fictional, dystopian, 1970s North-Western town, joined me to share some memories of his favourite childhood annuals, and to discuss the influences on his own rather wonderful book…
Bob: Congratulations on the Scarfolk annual… has it been a long time in the planning? When did you start thinking about this, and compiling material?
Richard: Thank you! I had the idea shortly after the release of the last book, but it took a while to collate the ideas for content because I was working on other projects. I was also still regularly creating Scarfolk blog posts, but an annual requires different content, so I decided to take a break from the blog in order to focus on this new Scarfolk direction. Throw a move to another country – and a few other issues – into the mix and suddenly a couple of years have zipped by.
It’s a brilliant homage to the annuals of our youth, always seemingly published by the mysterious World Distributors. Can you recall particular 1970s annuals that left a distinct impression on you as a kid? Any particular features, stories or comic strips you’d like to share?
When I was very small, I was fond of Playhour and Disney annuals. I suffered from night terrors, and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse. When I was a little older, my favourites were the 1968 TV Tornado annual, which contained strips of The Saint, Tarzan, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and others. Print technology changed a lot in the early 1970s, so it felt ancient with its rough paper and gaudy colours when I bought it from a school jumble sale, circa 1977. Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2, which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory, in a factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me.
I remember finding a certain ‘wrongness’ to 1970s annuals, too… the Doctor Who annuals, for examples, often had illustrations that bore little resemblance to the actors in the series, and there would be educational articles too, unconnected to the show. Was that feeling something you remember, and kept in mind when working on the Scarfolk annual?
Yes, I recall that well. Buffering the true, series-based content, there were many pages in annuals only vaguely connected by theme, especially factual or puzzle content. The 1976 Doctor Who Annual, for example, contains a feature about the signs of the zodiac, and the 1978 annual has an educational piece about the Apollo mission crew emblems. They were quite lazy, really: anything to do with time or space went in. “Doctor Who is about time, and they called him grandfather, so let’s do a chapter about workmen who clean grandfather clocks”. I parodied the loose space theme in the Scarfolk Annual, as well as other nebulous fact pages… such as the page about the origin of “things”.
The strip artists also frequently used existing source material in their work. In the 1976 Doctor Who annual strip called “Neuronic Nightmare”, the character Skizos is actually a sight rejigging of Vincent Price from the film Madhouse (1974). In the story “The Mission”, the character called Tamrik is a reworked image of Charlton Heston. In honour of that kind of thing, there’s an illustration in the Scarfolk Annual that I based on an image from the 1922 Scandinavian horror film Häxan.
The annual itself is bitingly political in places – which I know has always been a part of Scarfolk, but have recent political events made Scarfolk seem closer to 21st century reality than it’s ever been? “Foreigner Identification Badges” actually seem terrifyingly plausible, as do government statements dissuading people from protesting…
I think it might be the other way around to some extent: the 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while. If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised. That said, Scarfolk isn’t a fixed artefact like a novel. Because it’s a blog, there is some leeway and it can more easily “interact” with the latest political and cultural developments as they occur.
Has that come as a sad surprise to you over the last few years? You launched Scarfolk in 2013, which now seems like a relatively stable era in hindsight… did you have any inkling back then, that Scarfolk would become so relevant to modern life?
I didn’t at all expect that it would become so relevant to modern life. Looking back, it was an almost an innocent time. Back in comparatively utopian 2013, Scarfolk’s dystopian aspects were quaintly surreal. Since 2016 particularly, real-world developments have become absurd and tribal, Trump being a perfect personification of this. A real step back. Every time I see or hear Trump I can almost feel the human race regressing.
I loved the comic strip “Waugh in the War”, with the insane, titular “hero” determined to kill everyone… including his own soldiers. I actually remember being a little unsure as a very small kid was to whether World War 2 was still being fought in the 1970s, because it still just seemed to be everywhere. Were we still fighting it in our heads, do you think?
The 1970s were only 30 years from the war, very much within living memory of two, maybe even three generations, so it was bound to feature prominently in culture as we tried, as a society, to define what it all meant. Children’s books were full of simple tales of war-time heroism and “beating the Jerries”… as featured in comics such as Commando, Warlord and Battle, not to mention the innumerable films. Sadly, I think a lot of people still hold onto this idea of the war, which almost defines “Britishness” for them. We even hear it in mainstream political discourse. It’s facile.
Ilaughed a lot at the feature about “IFOs” as well – “Identified Flying Objects” – which gives supernatural significance to ducks and aeroplanes. And the “Seance Poodle”, too! Do you remember the 1970s as an era when the paranormal became an unlikely element of mainstream society? Not just in the media, with reports of ghosts on Nationwide and the like, but also everyday life… universities were still conducting “psychic research”, and I suspect belief in things like the Loch Ness Monster would have been pretty widespread. It was a pretty credulous era.
The supernatural was very much presented as scientific, rather than pseudoscientific, in the 1970s. As you say, university departments had psychic laboratories and parapsychology departments. It was all taken very seriously; it wasn’t joked about, and TV presenters didn’t make light of it at all. In fact, the same broadcasters also presented the news and other factual programmes. Books about UFOs, ghosts, Nessie, spontaneous human combustion and ESP were always in the non-fiction section rather than being in the “religion, spirituality, and new age” type category, which is where I tend to see them now.
Also, I don’t know what it was like anywhere else in Britain, but in the north where I’m from, people still went to spiritualist churches and visited mediums. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. Despite the modernist and brutalist architecture springing up around them, and the dreams of utopian, technological futures, interest in the supernatural was very much present – in fact, it accelerated. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a reaction to the concrete, glass and steel (and increasingly godless) progress that alienated some people.
Is that credulity part of what makes the era so ripe for satire? An era when people believed information provided by the mainstream media, and the government, in a way that they maybe don’t in 2019…
A few years ago, I would have said yes, the 1970s was a ripe era for satire – and it was – but seeing what has occurred in the past handful of years, I would say that gullibility is still a huge concern. Many people have been deftly manipulated into believing untrue, flagrant absurdities. Arguably, it’s worse now: At least in the past, people had the excuse of “innocent” ignorance, in that there was less access to information and knowledge. Nowadays, information is at everyone’s fingertips and, arguably, it doesn’t take too long to discern whether or not a piece of information is factual, manipulated or fabricated. More than ever we can see confirmation bias at work and this is frequently exploited by controlling agencies such as governments, corporations and media sources (and often so-called ‘alternative’ media sources).
On a lighter note, with “Scar School” in mind… which of the Play School toys did you find the most unsettling, and why?
It has to be Hamble. She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be baby but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She’s to be avoided at all costs.
I also love your ear for little phrases that remind me of feeling scared at school. Reading the annual was the first time in 35 years that I’d come across the phrase “Middle C of the piano”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I felt like I was supposed to know, and that scared me. Any other phrases like that that haunt you?
There are so many, and I try wherever possible to include words and phrases that aren’t in use as much as they once were. Even something simple like “Hallo” or “hullo”, instead of “hello”, which I remember from reading Enid Blyton books as a kid. The phrase that unsettled me the most – “for more information…” – I adapted into Scarfolk’s slogan: “For More Information Please Re-read”. I panicked whenever I read official documents, whether at school or elsewhere. And if you reached that kind of phrase at the end of forms, and still didn’t understand, you were in trouble. Too frightened to ask for fear of looking stupid, or risk a clip round the earhole from a proudly abusive teacher, you’d just smile and pretend that you got it.
This is complete nosey parkery on my part, but a recurring theme in Scarfolk is the breakdown of trust (or the attempt to drive a wedge) between children and their parents. The annual even has a feature called “Are You Parents Hurting You?”! Dare I ask… what’s your relationship with your own parents like, are you exorcising anything here?
Ha! My relationship with my parents is fine. Honestly (honestly!). Writing from the point-of-view of Scarfolk Council is really only like an actor playing an unsavoury character. “Method” blogging, if you will.
One central concept of the annual is about indoctrinating children – or anyone, I suppose – so I studied the brainwashing and coercive techniques of cults. One method is to break down the trust between a prospective cult member/victim and their closest family members and friends with the ultimate goal of pressuring the victim into cutting all ties so that they are under the full control of the cult. Once a cult has broken down the victim’s connection to the outside world, it starts eroding their concept of themselves as individuals. So, you know, I thought that would be a good idea for the basis of a children’s book. As you do.
Any future plans for Scarfolk that you could share with us? Could the annual become an, erm, annual occurrence?
It could only be an “annual annual” if I involved other artists and contributors, because of publisher and printer deadlines. The turnaround would be too tight for me on my own. Involving others was originally the plan for this book, but when I realised how much it might cost to commission so many contributors, I took on the onerous task of doing everything myself. I’m so cheap. I ended up having to teach myself to draw in the varied style of the old annuals. Thankfully, and very fortunately for me, the art in some of them is quite crude, but I still I had to improve myself enormously just to reach the dizzying heights of crudity!
Thanks so much to Richard for his time, and typically thoughtful and fascinating conversation. The Scarfolk Annual is available here…
And thanks, from me, to everyone who has been part of this blog throughout 2019! It’s been a joy to put together, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has contributed and commented, or simply read and enjoyed these articles. Particular thanks go to David Sutton and all at the Fortean Times. Lots more to come in 2020, in the meantime… wishing you all a merry – and hopefully not too haunted – Christmas.