More of a Wet Wednesday than a Freaky Friday, this familiar tale of a mother/daughter body-swap feels, appropriately, like an engaging, powerful story being forced to masquerade in the form of an ungainly knockabout comedy. Four (four!) feature-length screen adaptations to date, all produced by Disney, have given Mary Rodgers’ tale a genuine pan-generational appeal, but the book is very firmly rooted amid the middle-classes mores of Nixon-era New York, and is centered around a family whose reactions to a perspective-altering case of otherworldiness seem disappointingly glib.
Disappointing, because it’s a genuinely brilliant premise. 13-year-old Annabel Andrews wakes up to discover that she now inhabits her own mother’s body; and has therefore inherited a full gamut of family responsibilities: her busy executive father, her six-year-old brother Ben (or “Ape Face” as Annabel has nicknamed him), and – indeed – her own absent physical form, which she assumes to be now inhabited by her mother’s personality, although this supposition remains tantalisingly vague until the book’s final chapter.
Things predictably go awry: overwhelmed by the obligations of the adult world, Annabel – a typically scatty and wayward teenager – finds herself baffled by her mother’s vague diary appointments; out of her depth in a school meeting about her own underachievements; and – ultimately – not only concerned about the disappearance of her own physical form, but also that of her younger brother. Because Ben, we learn, has been inexplicably allowed to leave the house with a “beautiful chick” stranger who calls at the apartment, charming teenage babysitter Boris into letting the trusting infant wander the streets of New York in her company.
Boris, an adenoidal 14-year-old adored by Annabel – although, predictably, he himself is in love with the senior Mrs Andrews – does actually provide effective comic relief: I certainly laughed at the revelation, after an entire book’s worth of sleight-of-hand, that his name is actually Morris, but a cavalcade of sinus-troubling allergies render him unable to pronounce it correctly. It’s the 1970s New York equivalent of the “Decond Class Redurn Do Dottingham”. But elsewhere, it’s the humour that actually stymies the story. Which would be fine, if the book was intended as nothing more than light whimsy; but it clearly has pretentions to making a serious point about the responsibilities of adults towards children, and it occasionally veers into unexpectedly dark territory. At one stage, Annabel – in her mother’s body – fires the family housekeeper for using racist language; and in another scene fears that her own physical form may actually have abducted, raped and murdered.
This uneasy combination of the shocking and the lighthearted comes to a head in the book’s closing chapters, when Annabel eventually attempts to report both the disappearance of her own physical form and that of her younger brother to the police. What should be a moment of heart-pounding tension is depicted as high farce, and a serious of knockabout telephone misunderstandings (“I can’t figure out whether the dame is a fruitcake or for real!” chuckles Patrolman Plonchik to a colleague, as – no, really – a distressed woman attempts to report the abduction of her six-year-old son) fizzles away the tension into (very) sub-Mel Brooks wisecracking.
Unlike other readers whose reviews I’ve poked through, it doesn’t bother me that the exact method of the body-swap is left unexplained. In fact, I rather like weirdness that’s simply left there for us to deal with: that ambigious oddness is a staple of many of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes, and clearly Mary Rodgers was of the generation that took inspiration from some of Rod Serling’s finest TV work. But, unlike in the best Zones, the reaction of the characters in Freaky Friday never really convinces. Annabel responds fairly calmly to finding herself in her mother’s body, setting methodically about living Mrs Andrews’ life rather than responding in any believable way (my own response, I suspect, would be to scream obscenities at the mirror and pound the walls until my hands bled), and although she (and we) gain a few insights into the world her mother inhabits, it feels, frustratingly, like we barely scratch the surface.
But perhaps most disappointingly of all is Mrs Andrews’ response to spending the day in Annabel’s body, and any committed “Women’s Lib” advocates (to quote the book itself) might want to bite their lip and take a moment here. While it would have been fascinating to learn of the insight she gains from spending the day inside her teenage daughter’s body, she is absent from virtually the entire book, re-emerging only at the end to reveal that she has taken full advantage of the body-swap scenario to give her 13-year-old tomboy daughter a makeover, a new hairdo, a new wardrobe and a spot of dental work for good measure.
Boris – or Morris, if you will – is predictably delighted. But although there are some very funny and very thoughtful moments scattered throughout the book, I was a little less enamoured.
Mustiness Report: 1/10. My copy is as fragrant as a Spring morning, a 1987 hardback reprint that seems to be No 16 of a series called “Collins Cascades”. There’s no price tag and no bar code, so I’m wondering if this was a selection of childrens’ books reiussued specifically for British schools? The “Stokesley School” stamp on the first inner page of my copy suggests so.
(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 390, dated March 2020)
For almost 70 years, John Townsend amassed an extraordinary collection of 20th century ephemera that has now inspired a new book, Wrappers Delight. Bob Fischer carefully unwraps the story, then puts the packaging to one side for safe-keeping
“He was collecting on a different level,” says Jonny Trunk. “Relentless. Absolutely relentless. It’s so hardcore.”
This is quite something coming from Jonny, a irrepressible gatherer of vintage curiosities himself. His label, Trunk Records, has become the stuff of legend; breathing new life into musical obscurities of the mid-20th century. But his new book, Wrappers Delight, shines a spotlight on one of the most prolific collectors of British ephemera ever to have lived. The late John Townsend lived in the suburbs of Stockport, dedicating his entire life to a house-filling (and, indeed, shed, caravan and summerhouse-filling) collection of cards, stickers, wrappers, packaging, tins, junk mail… pretty much anything that ordinary households would routinely throw away.
The story of the book began with promotional flexi-discs. A friend of John Townsend’s son Robin borrowed a boxful from the house, and uploaded an audio mix of them onto Youtube; before alerting Jonny Trunk, who has a profound interest in such matters. “There was the Barbara Moore Singers doing a Tango advert; there was a Bryant & May ‘Message from the Chairman’, that sort of thing,” remembers Jonny. “Just my sort of advertising rubbish! I went up and offered Robin a good sum of money for the box, and I said ‘Let’s have a look around the house’. And from there… “
“It was an Aladdin’s Cave. Hanging in the hall was a Weetabix T-shirt, and I thought ‘What?! Why is there a Weetabix t-shirt there?’ It was the one where they turned the Weetabix into little skinheads, remember that? And on every shelf there was a thing, a tin can that was a promotional item that had been turned into a radio… wherever you looked there was something. He had loads of mugs, and I love mugs. And they were everywhere… mugs from Robertson’s Jam or the Swizzels factory.
“There were bags, and in the bags were boxes, and in the boxes were more bags, and in the bags was more stuff. I’m a collector, and I know how much time, energy and effort it’s taken to collect the roomful of records I’ve got. And he did it with postcards, cigarette cards, tobacco silks, first day covers… everything. What most people spend their life doing for one thing, he did across several. I got really excited by the possibilities.“
The book is a sumptuous affair, with 500 of John Townsend’s most vividly evocative items scanned and photographed in loving detail. From Pink Panther candy to Yellow Submarine sweet cigarettes, from Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs to Kung Fuey crisps, they provide a direct portal to an era when luridly-packaged treats would be eagerly snaffled by grubby-faced kids all over the country, queuing in pokey sweetshops and street corner newsagents alike.
Three days after speaking with Jonny Trunk, I travel to Stockport to visit the Townsend household itself, finding myself at the door of an impressive, five-bedroomed house in a leafy cul-de-sac: the very epitome of unassuming suburbia. I’m greeted by Robin, a whiskery blues musician now known universally as Robin Sunflower (“It was chosen for me by the people of Ashton-Under-Lyne”, he smiles, enigmatically). His wife Paula is also there, as are two incredibly excited dogs, one of whom is called Elvis.
Immediately, I get a sense of what Jonny has described as a “strange energy”; John Townsend’s collection, although depleted since his death in 2014, still dominates every available space. The house is a riot of ephemera, a museum of 20th century pop culture and packaging that is still piled halfway to the ceiling in some rooms. As we settle down by the fireside, Robin begins to tell me his father’s life story.
“He was born in Surrey in 1937,” he says. “His dad died quite young, and his mum got another man, so he ended up going into a children’s home. And he spotted that the milk that was delivered there every day had different patterns on the cardboard bottle tops. And he started collecting them. It was something that he could have, something that made him different to everybody else. And from there he went onto collecting cigarette cards, tea cards… and then anything.”
“He had an eye for design, and logos…” adds Paula. “They would have appealed to him…”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Logos fascinated him. So he went from cigarette cards, to bubble gum cards, and then the actual packaging. Everything that came into the house was planned. It wasn’t just a case of ‘We need some beans, we need some Cornflakes.’ He’d be in the shop, and he’d say ‘We’re going to get these beans, because they’re advertising this film…'”
John moved from Surrey to Stockport in the late 1950s, and into the current house in the early 1970s. He spent his entire working life as a rep for Bird’s Eye (“We were never short of frozen peas,” deadpans Paula), weaving his love of collecting into his regular family life, with wife Brenda and three young sons – Martin, Robin, and Christopher.
“Me and my older brother Martin were very much employed, at not fantastic rates!” laughs Robin. “My dad would regularly come back with boxes of bubble gum… 144 packets in each box. And in each packet there’d be one piece of bubble gum and four or five cards of whatever series it was; footballers or pop stars. We would flatten all the wrappers, then get all the cards and put them into order, onto boards. There’s No 7 from that series, and there’s No 22…”
What comes over strongly is that John’s hobby wasn’t merely collecting for collecting’s sake: he felt a overpowering duty to preserve the minutiae of 20th century life for future generations to enjoy, and had a visionary sense that eventually these throwaway items would amass great cultural importance, simply because most households were throwing them away.
“There was definitely a social history angle,” nods Robin.
Paula agrees. “Everything to do with disposable life fascinated him,” she says. “He was always going on about the throwaway society, and how it was wrong and he should keep everything. And how one day it was all going to be in this glorious museum. He never got round to that… he never gave himself time, because he was always just collecting more and more.”
“People would bring him things as well,” adds Robin. “He’d say ‘Please collect all your empty cereal boxes and bring them to me… all your junk mail, all your phone cards, all your bus and train tickets…'”
And some of John’s collection has accrued remarkable value.
“There were two boxes full of flattened cereal packets, mostly from the 1970s,” says Robin. “I looked through, and said ‘This one’s got Star Wars on it…’. So we put two Star Wars Shreddies boxes onto eBay with a starting bid of a fiver. Someone got in touch, and asked ‘Would you take £300 for the two?’ It was like… right, OK… let’s tread a bit more carefully now. We’ve also got Battlestar Galactica, Superman, The Black Hole…
“And the Doctor Who Weetabix boxes, we just couldn’t believe. One bloke bought three of the four, on the same day. He spent over £1,000 on three empty Weetabix boxes.”
So objects that were designed to be collectible are now worth less than the packaging that housed them, simply because people kept the former, but not the latter?
“Yeah,” nods Robin. “People might have kept the little plastic figures or the cards, but not the box. That’s the nature of ephemera.”
“Your dad knew that all along,” says Paula. “He understood that immediately.”
The presence of John’s wife Brenda seems to have tempered the scale of the collection, but the intensity of his hobby escalated following her death in 1989. “It was different when Mum was alive,” agrees Robin. “There were certain areas where his collection was, and certain areas where it wasn’t. But once there was only him, there was no need for any demarcation lines.”
This change in circumstances led John’s fascination with printed matter into some unexpected new territories, too: notably, a notorious Manchester nightclub whose name become synonymous with 1990s rave culture.
“Haçienda club flyers,” says Paula. “He loved those.”
Robin nods. “He used to go into Manchester with a rucksack, a shopping trolley and a couple of shoulder bags, and he would go round Affleck’s Palace and Eastern Bloc Records, picking up huge stacks of them. His bag would weigh a ton!”
This new direction prompted John to put his collecting on a more formal footing, with the foundation of an official society. “He was running a club called the M.I.C.E. club,” explains Robin. “All about club flyers, tourist information cards, free postcards… things that were given away as promotional items.”
At this point, he retrieves from the shelf a book that gives an indication of the level of attention that John’s collection began to attract. The Ultimate Guide To Unusual Leisure, by Stephen Jarvis, was published by Robson Books in 1997. It includes an entry on M.I.C.E, the “Modern Information Collectors Exchange”, founded by John to swap promotional flyers with similar enthusiasts dotted around the country.
“What would life be like if you saved every piece of junk mail?” the book speculates. “Probably like John Townsend’s life, who has boxfuls of the stuff all over the house. It’s even on the staircase. He says: ‘There’s a gap down the middle of the hall, where I walk…'”
Robin closes the book, proudly. “It’s also got entries on Zen Archery, the Friends of the Museum of Bad Art, The Flying Nun Fan Club, and barbed wire collecting.”
“I’m surprised your dad didn’t get into that,” smiles Paula.
So did the collection take over the house as spectacularly the book suggests?
“It was quite extreme at one point,” says Paula. “You could sort of shuffle around, but you had to do it really slowly. Sometimes you would actually have to climb over boxes. If you laid flat, you could sort of slide over them. And I don’t remember going upstairs for the first few years. I don’t think it was accessible upstairs.”
“Sometimes you’d hear a sort of rumble upstairs, as something collapsed…” remembers Robin, wistfully.
“But there was never any shame over it,” adds Paula. “He was always ‘Take me as you find me, this his how I want to live’. And everybody accepted that, because it was just… John.”
Both Robin and Paula recall John’s sense of humour and gregarious nature, describing a funny and sociable man who was entirely aware of his own idiosyncrasies. “He liked the thought of being the eccentric English gent,” nods Paula. “He loved being the centre of attention, and if he got the opportunity to be on the radio or the telly, then he loved that, too.”
And the dawn of the 21st century provided the opportunity for John to expand his collecting habits even further. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was an enthusiastic early adopter of eBay.
“He had his own van that the Post Office would send out specifically to come here,” recalls Paula. “Nowhere else. A massive box of condiments, free sachets of brown sauce, turned up one day. We said ‘Why have you bought this?’ He said ‘Because I’m collecting free giveaway condiments, obviously.’ He never used them, they just sat there for years in the box, then got totally moused…”
Robin laughs. “He ran a M.I.C.E club, and them some real mice joined…”
“The kitchen was really scary,” laughs Paula. “Remember that big tin of Mango Purée that exploded?”
Both agree that the collection reached its peak in 2007, by which stage the house was so dominated by bags and boxes that John moved into the garden summerhouse. And shortly before his death in 2014, he was still ordering eBay items from his nursing home: they would arrive unexpectedly at the house, much to Robin and Paula’s surprise.
The couple moved into the house when John died, and began the bittersweet task of gently dismantling the collection. As the family sift through what John once conservatively estimated to be 34,000 items (“Possibly 34,000 squared!”, jokes Robin), older brother Martin has been tasked with listing the more interesting items on eBay.
“It feels strange, it all going out of the house,” admits Paula. “Because the house and the collection have kind of become one. And it is Robin’s dad. Having had years of arguing with him, I now feel that I understand where he was coming from, and why he couldn’t let it go. I thought it would be easy just to get rid of it, but it’s really not. When stuff goes out of the house, it does tug on your heartstrings a bit, because we’re never going to see it again. But realistically, we can’t keep hold of it.”
Robin agrees. “It’s a shame that he spent a lot of time gathering these things together, and now they’ve been fragmented. Maybe out there now, there’s someone desperately trying to gather them together again…”
Wrappers Delight, of course, immortalises a corner of the collection, and cements John Townsend’s visionary status: Jonny Trunk’s 2019 crowdfunding campaign to finance the book reached its £20,000 goal in 36 hours, proving that the world has finally come round to John’s way of thinking. We now positively delight in the disposable ephemera of decades past. And Jonny Trunk himself is rightly proud of the finished product. “On every page I’ll see something I like,” he says. “There’s a lot of illustration which I think is really quite charming. Some of it’s brilliant, and some of it’s not very good at all… that slightly ‘outsider’ art of badly drawn pop stars, you know. But there’s something on every page I’d buy.”
Meanwhile, Robin and Paula are a delightful couple, and inexhaustibly welcoming. As we potter around the house, I get an overwhelming impression of their love for John, and their willingness to share and celebrate his story. Touchingly, on top of a drinks cabinet in the front room, are the modest pile of 1940s cardboard milk bottle tops that sparked the whole collection. They graciously offer them for me to inspect; the faded remnants of a traumatic, wartime childhood. I’m subsumed by a feeling of incredible sadness.
“He lost everything when he was a kid,” says Paula. “But these were something that he could take, that he could just have. It was like everything he’d lost, he put into his collecting. I think a lot of it was about him taking control of his life.”
“Yeah,” agrees Robin. “Existing on his own terms.”
And as we pass the foot of the staircase, John’s story has one final, heart-rending twist. Posing for photographs beside a promotional cardboard cut-out of a beaming 1970s schoolboy sporting a Superman t-shirt and a chequered flat cap, Robin smiles. “If we stand here, my parents are in the picture, too”, he says. And he points out two charcoal-grey cardboard boxes, nestling almost unnoticed beneath a fluffy, sleeping toy cat.
John Townsend has become part of his own collection. It’s impossible not to conclude that it’s what he would have wanted.
Wrappers Delight, by Jonny Trunk, is available from FUEL Publishing, RRP £24.95. It’s here…
It’s almost possible to play Terry Nation Bingo with many of the scripts that the debonair Dalek supremo turned in for Doctor Who during his 1960s and 1970s heydey. There will be a remote planet with a frighteningly hostile environment (check); there will be a futuristic citadel that provides fragile respite from the dangers present on the planet’s surface (check); there will be an eccentric scientist working alone on a secret project (check); and a sizeable chunk of the story will essentially consist of an “obstacle course” journey across a hazardous landscape populated by deadly beasties, with the eventual goal of reaching – literally – the story’s ultimate place of resolution. It’s usually on the other side of an acid lake, or a deadly, petrified forest.
Check. All of these elements are present in Rebecca’s World: it only really needs the lingering threat of radiation poisoning for the complete Terry Nation Full House.
What separates it from the bulk of his TV work, however, is the book’s ultimate strength – a delightfully surreal and clearly Goons-inspired sense of humour. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise given Nation’s background as a comedy writer: his first–ever professional credit was for a sketch sold to Spike Milligan in 1955, and he subsequently worked on hundreds of radio scripts for likes of Eric Sykes, Harry Worth and Frankie Howerd, before joining the long list of illustrious collaborators to have been fired by Tony Hancock.
For better and for worse, Rebecca’s World clearly draws heavily on these experiences. The titular lead character is a sparky young girl, bored to tears during a school holiday in her sprawling country home. She has an unmistakably Edwardian quality – clearly reinforced by the book’s interior illustrations – although there’s also a single, slightly surprising reference to her once watching television. Perhaps a leftover from a previous draft? Either way, after unwisely dabbling with her father’s gigantic astral telescope, she finds herself transported across the universe to a decidedly unusual – and curiously unnamed – “Forbidden Planet”.
At this stage, Nation’s influences become clearly apparent: we’re essentially thrown into a Milligan-esque reworking of The Wizard of Oz. Rebecca discovers that the planet is in thrall to the dastardly Mister Glister, a debonair tyrant with the sartorial tastes of Liberace. Glister keeps the population subjugated by controlling – and charging for – access to shelters that will protect them from the murderous GHOSTS that are roaming the planet’s surface; and yes, the capitals are Nation’s, and are used throughout. Keen to become an unlikely hero on her new home world, Rebecca teams up with three lovable local misfits and embarks on a lengthy quest across the planet’s surface to liberate the cowering populace.
So there’s Grisby, a fur-coated hangdog (in fact, almost a fur-coated Hancock) with the most painful feet in the world; Kovak, a hopeless spy and hilariously transparent “master of disguise”; and Captain K, a feeble, bespectacled superhero whose power lies in his possession of a “GHOST stick” – the last remnant of the forest of GHOST trees that kept these malevolent spirits at bay for generations. Until, that is, Mister Glister chopped the trees down to build said “GHOST shelters”, charging the public a small fortune to enter these tiny refuges, their only way to remain safe during the dangerous GHOST raids that frequently sweep the planet.
Pursued by Mister Glister and his hapless henchmen, the mis-matched foursome travel across land to reach the mythical “last GHOST tree”; encountering a succession of genuinely great characters along the way: my favourites being the creepy “Scarepeople” – a legion of giant, dark-robed screaming figures that line the rim of a desert canyon; and the “Bad Habits”, a initially genial elderly couple who transpire to be the originators of all the irksome peccadilloes picked up by children the world over; training tiny, furry creatures to whisper “Bite Your Nails” into the ears of sleeping infants at the dead of night.
The landscape too is the stuff of fairytales, all towering needles and bottomless feather wells. It’s genuinely terrific stuff. But Nation’s background as a sketch writer, and the influence of Milligan in particular – a strength when it comes to the book’s humour – is perhaps his downfall, too. The story is essentially a sequence of fairly unrelated incidents and set pieces, and never quite connects as an genuine journey, with character and consequence. Maybe I’m asking too much of a book clearly aimed at a very young audience, although it’s not a criticism I could level at – just thinking out loud here – The Wizard of Oz. Regardless, it’s never less than good fun, and shows an interesting flipside to Nation’s typically traditional TV science fiction scrips.
Point Of Order: This is the first “Musty Book” of which I can claim previous experience. In 1982, my primary school teacher Mr Hirst read the opening chapters to me and my fellow ten-year-olds, shuffling impatiently on the parquet floor of Levendale Primary School. Iintended then to complete the rest of the book one day, so never let it be said that I don’t play a long game.
Update: Thanks to ‘Joe Dredd’ on the Roobarb’s TV forum for pointing out the Rebecca was, in fact, the name of Terry Nation’s daughter. And to Chris Orton, who added that she also lent her name to the character of Rebec in Nation’s 1983 Doctor Who story, Planet of the Daleks.
The paranormal was taken far more seriously in the 1970s. Mainstream news programmes like Nationwide would frequently include UFO sightings and poltergeist infestations alongside analysis of the latest economic forecasts and industrial action; and their 1976 report on the Hexham Heads – the buried stone carvings that unleashed both a werewolf and a rather curious half man/half sheep creature on this sleepy Northumberland town – has become the stuff of legend. In newsagents, the books of Erich Von Daniken nestled happily alongside the latest Jilly Coopers, and – by the turn of the 1980s – Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World was a fixture on primetime ITV. It was, as one dedicated Loch Ness Monster-hunter* once said to me, “a very credulous era.”
*Yes, I’ve met a few.
Into this mix was thrown the fascination with a paranormal phenomenon that perhaps came closest to arousing genuine scientific interest: that of Extra Sensory Perception. The idea of a “sixth sense”, an innate psychic ability ready to be unleashed in all of us, was a mainstay of 1970s weirdness: it was an era when Uri Geller became an enigmatic international celebrity, and when there was even talk of the CIA employing military-grade psychic readersto gain an advantage in a still-simmering Cold War.
This delicious combination of nebulous strangeness and academic respectability is evoked perfectly on Parapsychedelia, a new collaborative album by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse. The transatlantic duo (essentially Jonathan Sharp, from Cumbria, and Wayne P. Ulmer, from California… god knows, if they ever visit each other, they’re in for a hell of culture shock, climate-wise) have created a melodic, dreamy collection; where the authoritarian voices of beardy-weirdy 1970s researchers emerge chillingly from beautiful, eerie soundscapes, redolent of both the authentic vintage library music of the era, and the first giddy wave of Ghost Box-led Noughties hauntology.
The album is released on the Castles In Space label this week, and I asked Jonathan and Wayne about the background to it all:
Bob: The album is great fun! Between the pair of you, whose idea was it to make an album about ESP research?
Jonathan: Thanks! When we initially started planning this, Wayne suggested the ESP theme, and he passed me a mood board of images and text. It sort of grew out of that. It was a bit of a lucky chance, as I’d just been reading a book on remote viewing, so it all kind of clicked. A lot of Wayne’s initial images were so evocative, and dovetailed with what I’d just been reading.
Wayne: That’s right, I had been wandering the stacks in a local library a few years ago and came across a book on parapsychology. Flipping to the index, I was greeted with a list of peculiarly resonant words, and wrote them down for future use. Later, in communication with Jonathan, these resonances would prove to be a fertile aesthetic from which to draw inspiration.
What are your memories of the paranormal from being a kid? Did you watch Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and similar programmes?
Jonathan: Oh absolutely, I think I was at exactly the right age for that to be a big influence and spark my interest in the broader subject. There seemed to be quite a widespread interest at the time in UFOs, parapsychology and ESP… all that stuff. As well as those Usborne books, there was just so much available: everything from Chariots Of The Godsto The Highgate Vampire. And lots of it was targeted at children as well as adults.
Wayne, was there a US equivalent of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World? I know Leonard Nimoy presented a similar show… was there other stuff as well?
Wayne: Ah, you’re thinking In Search Of…, but that was a bit before my time. As a child in the late 1980s, it was Unsolved Mysteries after dinner, and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown books in the school library. There was definitely something in the air, and anything paranormal got my attention. Beyond the cultural reference points, I’ve always felt a natural predisposition to magical thinking, and wonder.
Did this stuff scare you both as children? The ‘Monsters of the Deep’ episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World gave me nightmares for months…
Jonathan: Honestly, it was a bit like watching a real life version of Doctor Who… there were things that were certainly scary! But I watched it religiously. The one that has stuck in my mind after all these years is the Tunguska episode.
Wayne: I’ve always been terrified of lots of things! Close Encounters was my favorite movie growing up and – though not scary in the traditional sense – it sure scared the living hell out of me. I’d watch our VHS copy over and over. So when my family moved to the Mojave Desert in 1986, I would camp out and search for UFOs in the night. Often paralyzed with fear, but it felt wonderful. That tipping point of otherness, just beyond perception.
Oh, I have to ask… did you ever see one?
Wayne: There was one lone instance. Spherical lights, maybe four or five on the horizon to the east, fading in and out of visibility in a sequence, from right to left. Pulsing like an inchworm across the night sky, slowly. As one light dimmed on the right, another would fade in on the left. It lasted only long enough to baffle me, and leave me transfixed.
Do you think it was an age when ESP and other paranormal fields of interest were taken more seriously – both by the mainstream media and by academia?
Jonathan: Oh totally, I mean this was the time of Uri Geller being a huge TV star. It did seem like certainly the mainstream media took it all more seriously, or certainly gave it screentime without attempting to debunk it with a knowing wink. Likewise, academia was a bit more open, too. I have some great T C Lethbridge books from the period, plus things like The Occult, by Colin Wilson. I think it really was the tail end of the “Age of Aquarius”.
Wayne: For sure, Jonathan. But I understand why that openness has gone away. With the advent of smartphones and related tech, there should be more documentations of unexplained phenomena, but instead we have fewer. The hard sciences are universally lauded – and rightfully so – but the ability to not-know can be equally important in a moment. I think we worked on Parapsychedelia from a space which embraced our classically shared touchstones of the unexplained, but I can’t help but feel it all points to something much closer.
Are you a believer in any of this stuff yourselves, then? Have you ever tried experimenting with Zenner Cards, for example?
Jonathan: I have a set of Zenner cards that came with a copy of The Unexplained magazine. I’ve never had much luck with them though! Let’s say I’ve an open and enquiring mind on this and a lot of similar esoteric subjects.
Wayne: Traditional parapsychology? Not particularly. But I believe the reality of our situation to be several magnitudes weirder than any of that!
The idea of a collaboration between a Cumbrian artist and a Californian artist is an intriguing one! How did it come about?
Jonathan: I’d been familiar with Wayne’s Panamint Manse releases, and we started chatting back and forth. I really liked his last album a lot and he said “Well… how about we do some kind of collaboration and see what happens?”
I don’t think either of us had any initial expectations of it turning into a full album, but he sent me some initial ideas to play with, and it quickly became apparent that we clicked musically and had something pretty cool. The whole thing took shape over a few months as ideas bounced back and forwards, and suddenly we had an album’s worth of stuff.
Wayne: Yeah, I had admired Jonathan’s work from afar before we began corresponding. After devouring all I could of the more popular stuff, I’d search Bandcamp for music tagged with “Hauntology” – I know it’s uncool, thanks – and The Heartwood Institute stood out for me. I remember hearing Calder Hallin 2016, around the same time I put my first music on the platform. I think Bandcamp can be a great tool for fostering communities and building connections. But it was Jonathan’s willingness to work with a bit of an outsider that allowed Parapsychedelia to develop.
Have you ever met each other in person, or even spoken in real time?
Jonathan: No, we’ve not met in person at this point, but yes – we’ve talked at length in actual, real time. And probably sent several thousand words of e-mails and messages!
Wayne, how have you found it working “remotely” in this way?
Wayne: We have similar setups so it wasn’t insurmountable, but I love being forced to commit and bounce down audio, because I can be so indecisive in my own work. Sending audio and MIDI, and text and pictures to friends are great frequencies for me.
What do you think each other brings to the collaboration? How do you complement each other’s work?
Jonathan: Well, I’ve been jokingly saying that Wayne brings the tunes and melodies, and I bring the noises. Which is probably a bit flippant, but I think we each have different strengths, and when they come together it makes for something that neither of us would do by ourselves.
Wayne: Haha, yes. It’s not all so black and white obviously, but there is a mixture of dark and light going on. I tend toward sentimentalism in my own work, and so it’s pleasant to explore murkier zones with Jonathan and just let go a bit. Not every song needs a chorus, Wayne!
Can I ask where some of the track titles come from? I’m intrigued by ‘Black Ant, White Magic’…
Jonathan: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’ and most of the other titles are Wayne’s – he’s great at mashing existing words to make new ones that sound like they ought to actually be a thing. I loved what he came up with, it’s kind of a woozy melange of psychedelia and parapsychology.
Wayne: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’… mostly, I just liked the sound of it. I wanted to retain some of the desert connections, and huge black ants are everywhere here in summer. ‘White Magic’ is just an attempt to be gentle, and not overly morose about the project. But I guess it’s been awarded some context after the fact… Jonathan is the black ant, and I bring the white magic.
Ooof, that’s lame.
And the rest? ‘Mesmercuria’? And ‘Amaranthracine’? Neither of these appear to be actual words… did you have fun inventing new words for this album?
Wayne: OK, nerding out here, but for the titles you mentioned I’d start with a word thematically related to our aesthetic, like “mesmerism”, and then bring up the default dictionary on OSX. You type three letters into the dictionary, it begins to auto-populate on the left, and you can scroll for something you like. Then you can just keep twisting away by repeating the process. So for the above example I used “mercurial”, but just dropped the “l” from the end, for added mystique. But perhaps “mesmeridian” could have worked, or “mesmercyanemiasma”? It’s like a directed cut-up or something. ‘Clairvoyeurism’ works in that way, as does Parapsychedelia. Overall, we tried to find a good mix of simple and graphic.
Can you tell us where some of the samples on the album came from? They’re very evocative.
Jonathan: I went down a massive Youtube rabbit hole of 1970s American science-fiction, and weird documentaries. A big resource was that Leonard Nimoy In Search Of…. programme. Which is very similar to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, so there was much to be had from that. Also, there are some bits pieces lifted fromPhase IV. I think if this whole project referenced one movie: stylistically, visually and content-wise, it would be Phase IV.
Wayne, are they any samples on the album that you’re particularly fond of, or find especially evocative?
Wayne: Definitely what Jonathan said about Phase IV… I love the dialogue at the end of ‘Amaranthracine’. ‘Onyx Oracle’ uses non-repeating. one second snippets from various VHS tapes. And the percussion sounds from Within The Woods on ‘Precognition’ were an absolute pain!
Will you both work together again, do you think?
Jonathan: Oh yes! We have plans for another joint album, and we’ll be digging further into the shadowy world of the Mobius Group.
Wayne: We will go much, much deeper during future investigations… it’s inevitable.
I meant to ask about the Mobius Group. The vinyl album comes with a couple of curious documents that allude to the existence of this mysterious organisation. What more can you tell us about them?
Jonathan: The Mobius Group… is standing by. Who they are, and what they do, is the subject for the next album. They are a shadowy group of people with extraordinary powers…
Thanks to Jonathan and Wayne for forging a psychic connection and transmitting the results remotely to the Haunted Generation… Parapsychedelia, by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse, can be ordered here:
What is “The Nature of the Beast”? Literally speaking, it’s the identity of the mysterious animal that is slaughtering livestock on the hills above Haverston, a remote moorland town in North-West England. But it equally applies to the simmering fury that threatens to overwhelm the book’s central characters – teenage narrator Bill Coward and his father Ned – as well as being a remarkably philosophical dismissal of the whole sorry situation by Bill’s beer-sodden grandfather, Chunder.
Surely written during (and inspired by) the troubled fury of the 1984 miners’ strike, the book is a damning condemnation of the economic policy of the era. Haverston’s main employer, Stone Cross Mill, is closing down, forcing the bulk of the town’s working population – including Ned – into redundancy, and robbing an already-depressed area of its main identity. Bill, effectively sharing a home with both his father and grandfather, sets out his stall early on: confiding, with best friend Mick, that his long-term plan to escape a seemingly hopeless future is to live in a cave on the moors, shooting rabbits and grouse with his air rifle and raiding allotments during the winter months.
Into this situation comes “The Beast”, whose arrival – surprisingly late in the tale – at least gives Bill a sense of short-term purpose. Brutally slaughtering the hens that Chunder has acquired in a vague plan to build a lucrative cockfighting empire (yes, the book is that bleak) and picking off the sheep of windswept moorland farms, it naturally excites the headline-writers of the town’s sensationalist Gazette newspaper (“HAVERSTON BEAST STRIKES AGAIN!”), and the paper’s offer of £500 for a clear photo incites Bill and Mick to steal a camera from their well-meaning teacher “Oggy” Oglethorpe’s car and head to the moors, seeking both glory and brief financial respite for their families.
The exact setting of the novel might be left a little vague (there are mentions of Lancashire, but also of Border TV and seagulls, so my educated guess is somewhere close to the Lancashire/Cumbrian coastline… if I had a map, the pin would be hovering above Barrow-in-Furness) but the sense of place and landscape, and indeed of a very distinct and depressed era of social history, is almost overpowering. This a town seemingly permanently shrouded in darkness, with a strong community huddled into pubs and houses virtually unchanged since the 1940s. Indeed, the occasional intrusions of modernity – the TV crews, for example, that cover the Mill’s closure – seem starkly incongruous.
And the moor itself, a black deathtrap of peaty marshland and bare-boned sheepfarms, smothers the town and effectively as effectively as the prevailing economic climate. Bill – a perceptive and intelligent teenager – is trapped in Haverston in every conceivable sense, and his righteous fury at this situation threatens to increasingly overpower him. I was even a little disappointed when a rational, believable explanation for the presence of “The Beast” is ultimately offered: it works so well as a metaphor for Bill (and Haverston’s) anger, a physical manifestation of their rage, its nocturnal raids on livestock and livelihoods effectively an act of self-harm.
But nevertheless, what a book. It effortlessly weaves the desolation of its setting and situation with the charming internal monologue of a typical smalltown teenage boy. The friendship between Bill and Mick – hiding in ramshackle dens, adding to the pointless graffiti (‘MOOR MODS RULE OK’) in bus shelters – is touchingly and believably portrayed, and given an extra depth by the revelation that Mick’s father is Stone Cross Mill’s put-upon Union Rep, blamed by the community for not making a firm enough stand for their jobs, and himself bitter about what he perceives to be his own workforce’s apathetic lack of militancy.
The ending is shocking and heart-rending in so many ways. Bill finds personal vindication in his quest to uncover the identity of the moorland killer, but his story is characteristically written-off in favour of the local media’s preferred narrative. Even in triumph, he has no voice. And you may even find some sympathy for The Beast: I did. Janni Howker wrote only three books and a handful of short stories, and – as far as I can see – there’s been nothing since 1997. But she rightly earned the Whitbread Literary Prize for Childrens’ Books for this, her debut novel, and you’ll rarely find a book that reflects the anger and hopelessness of the 1980s Northern industrial experience in such a devastating fashion.
Mustiness Report: A fragrant 3/10. My copy is a 1987 reprint, so there’s time yet for for it to achieve its full Mustiness Potential. The pages, though, are the colours of an old-school pub ceiling, which is pleasing: for sake of argument, let’s say it’s the Hare and Hounds, in nearby Kirkby Haverston.
There seems to be a burgeoning love affair between contemporary electronica and the soothing – if sometimes otherworldly – qualities of the British countryside. Recent albums by Pulselovers, The Relations, Polypores and Jon Brooks have all celebrated a distinct emotional connection to nature, with moods that range from the wistfully nostalgic to the powerfully invigorating.
Treedom, the new album from The Central Office of Information, takes the passion for flora deeper underground. Quite literally. It celebrates, with a very organic form of electronic experimentation, the secret connections between plant and tree that lay beneath the soil… the so-called “Wood Wide Web“.
The Central Office of Information is the project of Kent-based Alex Cargill, and a self-titled debut album was released by Castles In Space in 2019, very much exploring the light and shade of childhood nostalgia. This follow-up, released on the Woodford Halse cassette label established by Pulselovers’ Mat Handley, is both melodic and atmospheric; a combination of sounds and textures as intricately tangled as the underground network of roots and radicals that it celebrates.
I asked Alex about both albums…
Bob: Congratulations on Treedom! It’s great – you must be very proud of it?
Alex: Thank you Bob, that’s very kind! I owe a great deal to Mat Handley of Woodford Halse for how nicely the finished product has turned out.
So can you tell us a bit about the “Wood Wide Web”? What’s your understanding of how it works?
I’ll try my best. The Wood Wide Web is a subterranean social network which is almost 500 million years old. It exists beneath forests and woods and is essentially a complex network of roots, fungi and bacteria which connect trees to one another. The fungi form connections with the roots, and consume some of the sugar that trees produce through photosynthesis. In return the fungi provide the trees with nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients from the soil. Through this vast network, trees are able to share water and nutrients and to communicate using chemical, hormonal and electrical signals: for example, warning each other of attack from insects, disease and drought. Larger, older trees have been shown to support young saplings which may be struggling for sunlight by pumping sugar into their roots through the network. Dying trees have been shown to release their nutrients to their neighbouring kin.
Recent evidence suggests that some plants can even emit sounds, in particular a crackly noise in the roots at a 220 hertz frequency, inaudible to humans.
Are you an enthusiastic woodland walker yourself, then?
I’ve always enjoyed the visual beauty of trees and woodland, but I was never especially interested in trees per se until fairly recently. In the summer of 2017 I attended my first yoga and meditation retreat just outside of Totnes in Devon. For a few days I was sharing a Grade-1 listed Palladian villa and the vast surrounding estate on the banks of the river Dart with about a dozen other like-minded souls. It was pure bliss – I’ve been back since and will be returning again as often as I can. A lot of the time was spent in silence, so during “personal time” I would relax in the library, browsing through books and playing an acoustic guitar which resides in the corner… I actually wrote ‘The Fleeting Freedom Of A Seedling’, from Treedom, on that very guitar.
I stumbled upon a book called The Secret Life Of Trees by Colin Tudge, which shocked me with its revelations about trees communicating with each other beneath the soil. My mind was blown and my interest well and truly piqued. When I returned from the retreat I started reading articles and watching YouTube videos and Ted Talks about the Wood Wide Web and generally becoming fascinated by it all. I was inspired to start a musical project where I could explore the subject in my own unique way. The title Treedom came directly from Colin’s book.
Any local woods that you particularly enjoy walking around?
I’ll be honest – I’m a fairweather walker. I love to explore fields, meadows and woodland but you’ll probably only catch me out there in the spring and summer, possibly the early autumn too if the weather is dry. I’m not a winter person at all. If I could, I would love to just hunker down and hibernate for those three months of the year.
But my current favourite place to walk is Scadbury Park which is on the outskirts of Sidcup, the town in Kent where I’ve lived for the last nine years. It’s a vast expanse of woodland and wild meadow, absolutely beautiful, and the perfect antidote to the hectic pace of modern life. My parents live just outside the town of Devizes in Wiltshire – where I originally hail from. When I visit them, I love to walk along the footpaths which cross the perfectly flat farmland of their village, or to explore the nearby Roundway Hills which provide a stunning backdrop. And the Sharpham Estate in Devon is another favourite place of mine to explore when I’m down that way. The peaceful isolation and the scenery is heavenly.
How does it make your feel when you walk in these places?
I love the innate feeling of connection to the land and the wildlife that I get when I spend time alone in nature. I think that if you look hard enough, you can see a spark of divinity in everything. Even wasps.
I like to meditate every day and one of my favourite things is to meditate outdoors. Usually this will just be in my garden, but occasionally I go further afield. Last summer I spent a morning exploring the woods and meadows of Scadbury Park. I sat in the middle of a wild meadow to meditate (meadowtate?) and it was such a beautiful and life-affirming experience – surrounded by long grass, with the sound of birds, bees and insects all around. During deep meditation, I really do get a sense of the Earth as one large living organism with all of us connected, interdependent and playing our own very small part in the big picture.
When I eventually opened my eyes there was a caterpillar lazily crawling across my leg. It’s funny how when you sit perfectly still, the local wildlife will actually come and investigate you, rather than reacting with the usual flight response. I notice this in my own garden too – if I keep very still and quiet then the birds, squirrels and even random cats will come very close. I wholeheartedly recommend meditation to absolutely everyone. It really does work wonders for your mind, body and soul in this crazy, fast-paced Western world that we live in. Also, a lot of my musical and creative ideas tend to come to me when I’m meditating, so I’d recommend it even more so for creative types. I’ve even heard the absolute legend that is Mr C of The Shamen confirming this too, so that’s quite an endorsement!
Are these places where some of the field recordings came from, then?
I do like to make my own field recordings occasionally but – at the risk of being shunned by the entire hauntological fraternity – the natural ambiences used on the Treedom album were all ‘pre-rolled’. They were taken from my enormous, bloated sample library. I’ve been collecting sounds for about 20 years now and they tend to come from any number of sources – old sound effects albums, online resources, TV and film, as well as my own personal recordings. It’s become almost de-rigueur these days to gather your own field recordings for a musical project and I actually quite like that trend. So I took some field recordings at Scadbury Park last summer specifically with this album in mind, but they didn’t come out quite as well as I’d hoped and therefore didn’t make the final cut. Most of the ambiences on this particular album came from old sound effects CDs. I often tinker with them in order to make them a bit more ‘haunty’ (copyright Bob Fischer 2018) though. For example you might notice a bit of reverse-reverb on the crows, which gives them that slightly otherworldly, psychedelic quality.
This is a much more “organic” sounding album than your debut, too. There are guitars! And other acoustic instruments! Was that deliberate, given the subject matter?
Yes, the use of guitars and other acoustic instruments on Treedom was deliberate. I wanted to go for a more organic and pastoral vibe which would reflect the subject matter, while still keeping the core COI vibe intact. I think I just about managed it – certainly the initial reaction to Treedom has been very kind.
On my Castles In Space debut album, a lot of those tracks had been kicking around for many years – ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’, for example dates, back to early 2010. So I think there was a certain feel to the album as a whole and the tracks that Colin Morrison and I agreed on for the final cut all seemed to fit together rather nicely. Colin has a natural flair for that sort of thing. A couple of guitar-based tracks had been submitted for consideration, but we didn’t include them and I think that this was the right decision. Colin had a very strong vision for the album and I think that he delivered it perfectly.
With Treedom I felt a bit more relaxed. I had received such positive feedback from people who’d bought the first album and it had received a lot of airplay from yourself and many other DJs. So I felt confident enough to take a risk and broaden the sonic palette, throwing in acoustic guitar, electric guitar, theremin and even melodica on the title track. The melodica is a really fun instrument and is dirt cheap too. Melodica lessons should be compulsory for primary school kids. Whack a bit of delay or reverb on it and you’re basically King Tubby. There could be classrooms up and down the country full of budding young Lee ‘Scratch’ Perrys, imagine that!
Can I ask about your background as a musician? And, indeed as a music fan? Who did you listen to as a kid?
I’ve been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. My early idols included Adam And The Ants and Shakin’ Stevens. As a kid I was into all the great pop music of the time, but I became especially fascinated with electro and hip-hop. I used to make rap tapes with friends… no doubt these recordings would’ve been laughable. We used to beatbox, scratch on our Dads’ record players – sorry Dad! – and breakdance in our living rooms.
Leading on from this, I got a Casio PT-80 keyboard for my 10th birthday in 1985. I never had any formal training, but I picked up a few choice melodies of the time from friends – ‘Axel F’, ‘Fourth Rendez-Vous’, ‘Chariots Of Fire’, ‘Inspector Gadget’ and so on.
When I was 14, I got into hard rock, heavy metal, thrash and punk. Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, The Sex Pistols and Metallica, I took up electric guitar in 1990. I had lessons for about eight months and this enabled me to become a competent player and also to understand a bit about how music works in general. I don’t think I’d be making electronic music today had I not had those guitar lessons. Whilst I was never really in what you could call a proper band, I used to jam a lot with another guitarist, a drummer and a vocalist… of sorts. We often talked about forming a proper band and doing gigs, but we were we young, we lacked discipline and just wanted to party every weekend.
I was also really into the house music and acid house that was crossing over into the charts in the later part of the 1980s. I was only 13 years old when I first heard ‘Stakker Humanoid’ in 1988, but it completely blew my mind. I remember it vividly. It was the first proper acid track I’d heard, and back then it sounded like music from another planet. I’ll never tire of that squelchy, slippery acid sound and it often finds its way into my COI stuff. From 1991 to 1993, when the hardcore rave scene exploded in the UK, I was completely hooked. That short period was the most exciting time that I can personally remember in UK music. It was such a creative peak and it felt like new sounds were coming out almost every week. I loved the DIY attitude…young bedroom producers were fusing hip-hop, house, techno, dub and ragga to create this very British sound which seemed to suddenly appear from out of nowhere. It had everything – funky breakbeats, heavy basslines, euphoric piano and soaring vocals – but it also had that dark, hypnotic techno groove. I couldn’t get enough of it.
At the same time there was also home-grown techno from the likes of 808 State, Orbital and The Shamen, amazing techno coming in from America and Europe, as well as the beginnings of ambient house. So it was just a really vibrant period that I will always be really fond of. I happened to hear some current house music very recently and they are still churning out the same old samples nearly 30 years later. So whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, the legacy of that era is still being felt by the kids of today.
When I went to university in 1993 my flatmates had turntables, and I soon learned to DJ. At this point, I was becoming immersed in hard trance, acid, electronica (I refuse to call it IDM or worse still, EDM), jungle and ambient music. A few years later when I was sharing a flat with friends we had a drumkit set up in the kitchen – as you do – and a flatmate, the drummer from my school days, taught me the basics, which has helped me to this day. I then started making electronic music in 1999, initially on a Playstation. This early material was produced under the oh-so-1990s pseudonyms of Sonik Science and Phatcamp and was very much dancefloor-orientated, covering genres such as techno, house, breakbeat, acid, drum n’ bass, electronica, glitch, trip hop and eventually dubstep, as well as some forays into ambient and dub. In 2005 and 2006 I received some airplay on BBC Radio One. Between 2005 and 2007 I also made DJ appearances at DiscoWhip events in Wiltshire, warming up the turntables for legendary house DJ Brandon Block on several occasions.
So when did you discover the whole “haunted” aesthetic – was it Ghost Box Records? I’m always intrigued to know when and how people drifted into this strange world…
Around 2005 or 2006 I started to become fascinated with the woozy, nostalgic sounds of Boards Of Canada and it soon began to influence my own music. I discovered Ghost Box Records and Moon Wiring Club in early 2010, purely because Amazon started recommending their albums to me based on my previous purchases.
How did you feel when you discovered all this? It was almost a sense of relief for me, that I’d found people who clearly remembered their childhoods in the same weird way…
When I first heard Boards Of Canada it resonated with me on a really deep level. It was like someone flicked a switch inside my mind. It brought up feelings of warm, fuzzy nostalgia. It felt as if long-forgotten, half-remembered childhood memories were being unearthed, and it was powerful stuff. The music was ‘warm’ and woozy, but it also had melancholic or eerie undertones which really reflected my own memories of childhood in the late 1970s and early 80s – the fear and paranoia as well as the happy times. Musically, it was a breath of fresh air – despite the obvious retro feel – and it really inspired me creatively.
When did you start making music as The Central Office Of Information?
I made a few Boards of Canada-inspired tracks under my Phatcamp pseudonym in the late noughties. Then, in 2010 after discovering Ghost Box and specifically the Other Channels album by The Advisory Circle, I decided to begin The Central Office Of Information as a separate project devoted solely to this kind of sound.
‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ was the first ever COI track and was inspired directly by The Advisory Circle’s ‘Civil Defence Is Common Sense’. I remember sitting on my bed listening to the CD for the first time and I’m pretty sure I smiled or possibly even chuckled when I heard that track. Like Boards of Canada, it resonated on a really deep level and I was instantly transported in my mind back to primary schools days, being sat in a classroom of kids huddled around a massive old telly watching Programmes For Schools And Colleges. I hadn’t heard music like that for years and I was amazed that somebody was even making that type of music in the 21st century. Whereas Boards of Canada induced woozy, hazy memories using production techniques to deliberately muddy the sound, this was a much more direct link to the TV music of my early childhood. It was uncannily accurate, I thought.
Given the name that you record under, I’m guessing Public Information Films were a big influence on you… can you remember which ones particularly got to you as a kid?
Again, I had completely forgotten about Public Information Films until listening to Other Channels, which contains the Frozen Ponds PIF. Of course the memories came flooding back instantly. That was a particularly nasty one, and the sound of the ice cracking is truly chilling. As a child, the other PIFs that really disturbed me were Play Safe – Frisbee and Apaches. The latter was utterly horrific, and to this day I cannot believe that the government deemed it suitable for kids. It was basically a short horror movie. However, it certainly had the desired effect and I never did decide to go and mess about with farm machinery. I would feel uneasy even watching it now in my forties – that scene with the kid drowning in silage is beyond disturbing!
I genuinely found your music by chance, when I was presenting the BBC Introducing show on BBC Tees, and I used to put random words into the BBC staff portal, and see which artists came up. And in May 2018 I tried the word “office” and found you! And a track called ‘Pools Of Witchlight’. Was it a surprise? I got the impression you hadn’t made any music for a little while…
It was certainly a lovely surprise. I’ve never actually stopped making electronic music since I started in 1999 – I’m constantly churning it out – but I had definitely reached a stage where I was resigned to music being just a hobby for my own benefit as opposed to something that would be of interest to others. I think the tracks that I’d submitted to BBC Introducing had been sat there for quite some time, maybe even as long as two years. I’d honestly forgotten all about it. So, yes it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.
How did that lead to Castles in Space putting out your debut album?
After the first two airplays on your BBC Introducing show, I felt so reinvigorated! At the time, I hadn’t sent out any demos to labels for about a year. You recommended the music of Concretism – who had also featured on your show – and I subsequently bought For Concrete And Countrydirectly from Castles In Space, a label with which I was unfamiliar at that point. Of course, I loved the album and it occurred to me that CiS might even be interested in my own music. So I e-mailed Colin [Morrison, label boss], who was really supportive. He basically walked me through the whole process, bringing in Jez Butler of The Twelve Hour Foundation on mastering duties, and Nick Taylor of Spectral Studio for the artwork and the logo.
That debut is a lovely mix of rather homely sounding tracks, and others that are much more sinister! It’s ‘Home-Made Jams and Chutneys’ vs ‘Chemtrails!’ Were you keen explore both sides of nostalgia, both light and dark?
Absolutely, I was keen to explore both sides of the haunted coin. I love really euphoric and uplifting music – disco, house, rave etc – but there is a part of me that has always been drawn towards the dark side too, and I seem to have an unusual knack of coming up with dark, eerie tracks. I guess it stems from the thrash metal influence, the short-lived ‘darkcore’ rave era of 1993, drum n’ bass, and listening to artists such as Aphex Twin, The Future Sound Of London and Moon Wiring Club. I personally enjoy albums which have a nice mix of darkness and light – The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld would be a good example of this.
The track ‘Chemtrails’ came about after watching an interview that Prince gave on American TV in which he spoke emphatically about his own belief in the chemtrails conspiracy theory. This was all new to me, but I was intrigued and immediately started reading articles and watching YouTube videos on the subject. The title ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ came from a hand-written sign that I spotted on the bar in a village pub in Wiltshire. I actually bought one of those chutneys and it was superb, but I can’t remember exactly what was in it.
What about jams? What’s the best jam you’ve ever tasted?
My all-time favourite jam would have to be the plum jam that my Granny used to make when I was a kid, bless her.
The packaging on that album was sumptuous – what was your favourite bit of it? I was particularly intrigued by the postcards of Ilston Church and the Norman Staircase in Canterbury. And the Welsh Publishing Company that one of them is addressed to…
Yes, the packaging on the CiS album was next-level! We may well have set a new world record for the greatest number of inserts within an album. The A4 sheets with Nick’s artwork and the COI badge were my personal favourite bits of ephemera, but the Telephone Exchange and Telegraph Linesmen postcards were also nice. I wish I could explain all of the mysterious inserts, but you would really need to ask Colin as he was the mastermind behind it all. I had some degree of input, but really Colin and Nick have to take the credit for the overall aesthetic – both are excellent at what they do and were really nice to work with. Jez was also lovely to work with and my fairly limited understanding of the mastering process has improved as a result. Let’s just say that he had fewer “woolly frequencies” to contend with when he mastered my second album!
So what’s next for you?
My next release will actually be the first official Phatcamp album, titled Transport For London. I’ve been working on it since 2017 and am just applying the final touches now. I’m aiming for a 1st June release. It will be a digital download only, sold through Bandcamp. I describe it as follows: “an electronic soundtrack for London’s hectic and often overloaded transport network. The familiar soundscape of the London Underground forms an ambient backdrop which occasionally adds its own mechanical rhythms to the techno, acid and breakbeats that roll across it”.
The release details will be confirmed nearer the time by me on Twitter and by Kat (Mrs COI) on Instagram.
I’ve produced an exclusive COI track for the next Scarred For Life compilation album, due out later this year. I’ve also done a track for a compilation called Electrophon – A Journey Through Radiophonica which is being released on a label called Wormhole World in around May. This compilation celebrates the work of Delia Derbyshire and other early pioneers of electronic music.
I have some ideas and at least a couple of tracks ready for the next COI album, but I don’t expect to release anything now until 2021. I’m super busy right now working on a COI podcast, a COI live show and I’m also attempting to write a book on electronic music production. It’s for people who have always wanted to have a go at making electronic music but have never quite taken the plunge, and also for those with some previous experience who might want to take it a little bit further or simply to brush up on their existing skills.
Thanks to Alex for his time, and for a lovely natter. The self-titled Central Office of Information debut album is available here…
Grief, outsiderdom, friendship and prejudice: they’re all explored in this beautiful, poetic and perceptive book. It’s an extraordinary piece of children’s literature, and it haunted me throughout.
Untypically, the outsiderdom is not that of the classic “new girl” who narrates the story: she is Becky Stokes, a personable schoolgirl uprooted from her Birmingham roots to live in Okingham, a sleepy 1950s Buckinghamshire village; and she is quickly co-opted into the close-knit social circle of classmates Hermione, Barbara and Susan. However, she has to conceal from them a burgeoning – and arguably more intense and genuine – friendship with Cora Ravenwing, a lonely and morbidly troubled young girl who has become a pariah within this tiny community.
Cora is a fascinating character: the daughter of a free-spirited, proto-hippy mother who died during the birth, she was nursed as a baby by village busybody Mrs Briggs (whose own child has been a victim of cot death) before being returned into the care of her gravedigger father, whose grief is so absolute that he has played little part in her subsequent upbringing. Cora’s proximity to so many aspects of death and mortality has had a profound influence on her character, and a terrible impact on the community’s opinion of her. Spending her days obsessively tending her mother’s grave, she has gained a reputation as almost a harbinger of doom; even being described as a “devil child” by Mrs Briggs, now the chief instigator of the village’s unanimous policy to ostracise Cora from its everyday activities.
She is awkward, pale, detached and friendless… at least until she meets Becky, who is unsettled by Cora’s morbidity, but fascinated by her unaffected authenticity; an authenticity in stark contrast to the seemingly shallow, aspirational lifestyles of Hermione, Barbara and Susan. This contrast is epitomised, curiously, by poetry: Hermione’s “nature poetry” is lauded by teachers, pupils and parents alike… but despised by Cora, whose loss has given her a genuine connection with both the beauty and brutality of nature, and who sees Hermione’s verse as twee and superficial. Obsessed by her dead mother’s diaries and nature writing, Cora also possesses an impressive knowledge of traditional folk song, and a singing voice of remarkable purity. She reminded me a lot of Mina, the nature-obsessed teenager in David Almond‘s bookSkellig(and its later prequel, My Name Is Mina), whose all-consuming relationship with the natural world, and her willingness to turn it into art, is equally profound and – indeed – has similar hints of the macabre.
Becky, of course, is tormented by a typically teenage dilemma: if she follows the advice of adults and fellow children alike, and abandons Cora, both children will be robbed of a friendship that has genuine depth and resonance. But maintaining the relationship will lead to Becky’s exclusion from virtually every other social group in the village, an impossible situation for someone so young. The book depicts this appalling quandary with incredible sensitivity and depth of character, and boldly offers little in the way of resolution: the ending, in particular, is both dramatic and unflinching. I was completely unaware of Cora Ravenwing until I found a copy recently, hidden in a used bookshop in a quiet North Yorkshire town, but I’m delighted to see that it was reiussed by Faber & Faber in 2013, and that Gina Wilson continues to gain praise and acclaim for her work as a poet.
Friendships at the turn of adolescence can be intense and profound, and often cast a long-standing shadow over our ensuing adult lives. That influence has rarely been more beautifully explored than in the story of Cora Ravenwing.
Point of Order: The back cover of my 1986 edition described the main protagonist as “Becky Schofield”, but in the text she is very definitely “Becky Stokes”. A late name change, perhaps? Can anyone with the 2013 reissue confirm whether poor Becky is now uniformly a member of the Stokes family?
(Update: thanks to Rachel Coverdale for pointing out that Becky is definitely a Stokes on the back cover of the 2013 edition!)
Mustiness Report: A delicate 3/10. My edition’s pages have the reassuring waft of an old, wooden wardrobe on a fresh summer’s morning.