One Man’s Trash… The Ephemeral Obsessions of John Townsend

(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… “

He pauses.

“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…

http://fuel-design.com/publishing/wrappers-delight/

And if you’d like a slice of John Townsend’s collection… look for the eBay ID “oldtom85”.

Thanks to Robin and Paula, Jonny Trunk, and to ace photographer Andrew T. Smith; gratitude to FUEL Publishing too, for providing images from the book.

The new Fortean Times (Issue 391) is now available, and has the latest printed Haunted Generation column, featuring reviews of new albums by Keith Seatman, Plone, The Heartwood Institute & Panamint Manse and Capac with Tom Harding. It looks like this
:

Usborne’s Ghosts, Christopher Maynard and Bosworth Hall Hotel

I can remember exactly where I was sitting when the Spectre of Newby Church first froze the blood in my unsuspecting eight-year-old veins. I was in my tiny, North-Eastern home town of Yarm, in the corner of Levendale Primary School library: a makeshift enclave of plastic shelving units between ‘Middle Band’ and ‘Upper Band’; an educational liminal space packed with Target paperbacks, encyclopaedias that fell suspiciously open at the ‘human reproduction’ pages, and an unseemly collection of Willard Price novellas.

“Look,” said Christopher Herbert, his customary aroma of guinea pigs and acute flatulence filling the room with a wafting, beige haze. “It’s a ghost”.

I peered at the book that lay open on his bony knees, and every vital fluid in my body instantly evaporated. My limbs felt cold and lifeless, my senses numbed in a split-second of sheer terror. It was a ghost. Unmistakeably. A towering spectral monk, thin and hollow-eyed, staring straight back at me from a bank of steps beside an austere church altar.

I barely slept for almost a week. The Spectre of Newby Church had looked directly into my soul. He knew me. Had seen me. My card was marked, and he would come for me during the night; floating up the stairs, passing effortlessly through my Star Wars-stickered door, and laying a bony hand upon my trembling forehead to claim me as the latest denizen of his dark and tortured netherworld.

Had I know at the time that Newby Church was barely thirty miles from Yarm, I might still have been awake at Christmas (Which, admittedly, I was anyway… 1980 was the year of the Palitoy Millennium Falcon).

And the book? It was, of course, Usborne’s legendary Ghosts book; alongside Monsters and UFOs, one third of a magnificent triumvirate of worryingly factual paranormal-themed volumes issued by this nascent childrens’ publisher under the umbrella title The World of the Unknown. This pivotal totem of the original “haunted” childhood was published in 1977, its 32 pages packed with stories of infamous visitations: from Black Shuck and Gef the Talking Mongoose to the specture of a decidedly deceased mother-in-law, lurking on the back seat of her unsuspecting son-in-law’s 1950s Hillman Minx. There were, of course, thorough debunkings as well… but naturally I paid less attention to those.

When I discovered – via Usborne’s Anna Howorth, and bookseller Tamsin Rosewell – that the Ghosts book was being given a 2019 reissue following a concerted fan campaign, I immediately pitched an accompanying feature to the Fortean Times. The resulting article, in which I met up with the book’s delightful (if somewhat bemused) writer Christopher Maynard, is the cover feature of the current issue, No 385, dated November 2019. It’s available now, and looks like this…

…. and on Saturday 19th October, I was delighted to be invited to a launch party held by Usborne and Haunted magazine, in the splendid location of Bosworth Hall Hotel, a rambling (and, of course, notoriously haunted) country pile nestling amidst the winding, shadowy lanes of Warwickshire. A treacly haze of autumnal sunshine was slowly descending as I arrived, and – as I rounded the corner – I was delighted to discover a blue plaque marking the birthplace of one of my favourite folk guitarists, Davey Graham. Awaiting me on the wide, winding staircase down to the hotel bar were Usborne’s Anna Howorth, the (still bemused but utterly charming) Chris Maynard, and writer Edward Parnell, whose new book Ghostland – an evocative travelogue of landscapes that inspired some of Britain’s most prominent writers of supernatural fiction – has an extract serialised in the same issue of the Fortean Times, a chapter exploring the Cardiganshire locales of William Hope Hodgson.

“I’m on the page after you,” smiled Edward, enigmatically.

Chris helpfully opened the copy that remained proudly tucked under his arm for the rest of the evening.

The party was a delight; an eclectic mix of the Haunted team – with editor Paul Stevenson an effervescent presence all night – eager ghost-hunters, writers, film-makers and dedicated enthusiasts of all matters spooky. I found myself sitting with SFX magazine stalwart turned novelist Nick Setchfield for most of the evening, as we discussed (of course) the nature of the 1970s haunted childhood, the oddly beautiful photographs of mushroom-coated graves that he’d taken in the hotel grounds, the lost 1984 single ‘London Story‘, and his new supernaturally-tinged Cold War novel The Spider Dance.

Also present was film-maker Ashley Thorpe and his Nucleus Films team, whose new feature Borley Rectory documents the somewhat chequered history of this notorious Essex vicarage, famously described as “the most haunted house in England” by 1930s psychic researcher Harry Price. We were treated to an after-dinner screening of this fascinating piece of film-making, preceded by a few words from its director – who explained the influence of the Usborne Ghosts book on his lifelong interest in the supernatural – and a specially-filmed introduction from star Reece Shearsmith. The film is boldly shot as a hugely evocative homage to the 1930s German Expressionist style, and tells the story of the rectory’s disturbing history concisely and entertainingly; Shearsmith plays diligent Daily Mirror reporter V.C. Wall, and I was delighted to spot Richard Strange, frontman with 1970s proto-punks Doctors of Madness, turning up as the house’s original Victorian rector, Henry Dawson Bull.

Afterwards, Edward hosted an entertaining Q&A with Ashley, Anna and Chris Maynard himself; still bemused that one of the eighty books he wrote during a twenty-year career penning childrens’ non-fiction had exerted such an influence, and gleefully signing copies of the reiussed version (with an effusive new Reece Shearsmith foreword) all evening. And then we decamped, en masse, to a darkened, upstairs function suite, where a random word generator on a laptop brought traditional table-rapping firmly into the 21st century, with requests for communications from beyond the veil being met with responses that included ‘PSYCHIC’, ‘CONTACT’, and – intriguingly – ‘KEITH’. A lively discussion about the nature of supernatural investigation could probably have thrived without my rambling thoughts on the hypnagogic hallucinations that occasionally blight my bedtimes (I usually see giant spiders, but on one occasion a World War 2 airman stood patiently at my bedside before fading into nothingness) but then I’d had a few bottles of the complimentary Peroni by this point, and had thrown caution to the wind.

There was still a bottle in my jacket pocket when this photo of Chris Maynard and me was taken at 1.35am…

Thanks to Haunted magazine and Usborne Publishing for a hugely entertaining evening. The reissued World of the Unknown: Ghosts is available now, from – as ever – “all good booksellers”. And congratulations to Edward Parnell, who – the following day – revealed on Twitter that his other favourite supernatural childhood tome – 1975’s Haunted Britain by Anthony D. Hippisley Coxe – has a chilling entry on Bosworth Hall, urging visitors to be mindful of an “indelible red stain, which unlike most stains is said to remain damp.”

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, let’s blame Keith.


Ritual & Resistance, the Delaware Road, Concretism and Imber village

We’d driven along the winding, narrow roads of Salisbury Plain for at least two miles; a convoy of civilian family cars packed with camping equipment, passing countless “Unexploded Military Debris” warning signs in troubled, late summer sunshine, all of us drawn to the cluster of grey concrete bunkers that perodically peered, surreptitiously, from behind a pockmarked horizon.

This was New Zealand Farm Camp, location for the latest extraordinary Delaware Road event, and – when not playing host to a prestigious assembly of artists sharing DNA based loosely in the electronic avant-garde – a site used by the Ministry of Defence to simulate urban combat, the clump of army boots and the rattle of live ammunition echoing around its muddy trackways and fordibbing, brutalist architecture.

“What’s the book?” asked the guard at the main gate, poking diligently through the travel bag on the back seat of my car.

“It’s Suggs’ autobiography,” I replied.

“Very nice. I’ve just started Kenneth Williams’ memoirs.”

Alison Cotton began proceedings, performing a beautifully ethereal and haunting suite to an attentive crowd in the Nissen Hut that housed the event’s main stage. Stephen ‘Polypores’ Buckley and Chris ‘Concretism’ Sharp were amongst the friendly faces I spotted in attendance, and warm greetings were exchanged at the end of the set before I followed them to Bunker B1, where Colin Morrison’s Castles in Space label – home to recent releases by both – had set up camp for the evening. Stephen performed a throbbing, mesmerising Polypores set of seamless, pulsing ambience to a bustling crowd, tightly packed into this shadowy, concrete hideaway. Including Portsmouth’s own psychedelic troubador Keith Seatman, who cheerfully introduced himself and gleefully briefed me on the history of the 19th century sea forts heavily featured in the 1972 Doctor Who adventure, The Sea Devils.

The evening became a blur of music, conversation, cider and the occasional occult ritual. I paid a visit to Frances Castle, whose Clay Pipe stall was ensconced in Bunker 3, and boasted tantalising first glimpses of the artwork for two forthcoming albums: Vic Mars‘ intriguing Edgelands-influenced project Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alison Cotton’s Halloween release The Girl I Left Behind Me, inspired by two Muriel Spark ghost stories, and originally composed for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show. I swapped genial greetings with Push and Neil from Electronic Sound magazine, dishing out freebies from a towering pile of stylish back issues in the basement of a building where, upstairs, the ever-welcoming Robin The Fog was warmly greeting interested snoopers in the midst of a Howlround soundcheck.

It was a delight to catch the professorial figure of Sarah Angliss performing live; her album Air Loom has been one of my highlights of 2019, and she makes for an extremely engaging live performer; funny and self-deprecating, but an expert in building beguiling symphonies from samples, theramin and an ancient clavicymbalum… a medieval precursor of the harpsichord, apparently; these disparate sounds all perfectly entwined around Sarah’s soaring, crystal-clear vocals. I then squashed back into the crowds of tiny B1 to catch Jez and Polly of The Twelve Hour Foundation present a magnificent. feelgood set of John Baker-inspired radiophonica; transporting a bunker filled with grinning fortysomethings back to childhoods soundtracked by the themes to long-forgotten Open University modules and John Craven’s Newsround.

Amongst their number was the effusive Alex Cargill, whose epic debut album as The Central Office of Information is set to become Castles In Space’s debut CD release. It was a delight to meet Alex, who repaid my insistence on playing his tracks on my BBC Tees show with another pint of cider from the impromptu stall outside the main hut. The evening was becoming slightly blurry…

I enjoyed Crass founder Penny Rimbaud‘s spoken word performance on the main stage, accompanied by a plaintive, mournful cello; then found myself caught in the midst of a procession to the woods, where a circle of bemused participants were anointed with oil to the lower lips and encouraged to worship “The Spirits of Place” with a spiralling chorus of animal howls. I imagined the noise my beloved border collie, Megan, would make when I returned home the following day, and threw myself into the maelstrom accordingly. The green-faced Chris Lambert – accomplished mummer and long-term resident of The Black Meadow – was a constant presence in the series of ritual events that sparked up throughout the evening; whenever, that is, he wasn’t leaning against a bunker wall and discussing the finer points of Krull with Stephen Buckley, the pair of them entirely oblivious to the extroardinary double rainbow forming outside, seemingly bestowing its radiant, benevolent blessing on the whole, strange shebang.

Howlround’s performance – in cahoots with audio-visual artist and Psyché Tropes supremo Merkaba Macabre – was typically hypnotic, and equally typically packed, the audience nestling shoulder-to-shoulder. I had to watch from the stairs, while a succcession of vintage washing powder and detergent advertisements flickered on the bare wall behind me. And then it was back to the Castles in Space hut, where Chris Sharp presented an hour-long Concretism set, a mesmeric evocation of delicious Cold War austerity, to another attentive gathering.

Back in May, Chris spoke live on my BBC Tees show to both myself and the show’s resident electronica wizard, Kev Oyston. This seems like an appropriate moment as any to transcribe it…

Tell us a little bit about your background… when did you start making music as Concretism?  

It was around 2010. If I remember, about a year before, I’d discovered Boards of Canada, and they were a massive influence on me. I’d always written music, but I got bored and despondent with it. But I remember hearing Boards of Canada, and they absolutely blew me away, and I thought… I want to make music like that. What really fascinated me was how they can evoke and create the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s kind of how it started, but Concretism – when it began – was quite different to how it is now. It was more of a drone project, and it wasn’t as Cold War-influenced. For the first few years, it was more inspired by things like Public Information Films, and a lot of 1970s documentaries. But for the last few years it’s gone in that Cold War direction, which is only a good thing!

As a kid, and then a teenager, in the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to permeate every aspect of my childhood, and the prospect of nuclear armageddon was something I thought about every single day. Was it the same for you?
 

Absolutely, yeah. I remember the Star Wars programme… that’s what I think made the 1980s such a scary time, with regards to nuclear confrontation; Reagan’s stance against the Sovet Union, with the Star Wars programme being a big part of that. And then obviously Chernobyl, in 1986… and although that wasn’t nuclear war, it was still nuclear. I used to watch the news as a kid, because I was a strange child, and I remember seeing all the Chernobyl stuff and thinking “Oh my God, that’s terrifying… what if the radiation gets over here?”

And the other thing… when I was about nine or ten, my dad took me to the cinema to see When The Wind Blows, which I’m sure is not a film you should really take a nine-year-old to see.

No! I can’t believe you saw it at the cinema!

I did, and I was so depressed and upset. And to this day, I haven’t seen it since. I’ve only seen it that once. Even as an adult, I refuse to watch When The Wind Blows. I will not watch that film. It upset me so much.

I bet your dad thought he was doing a really good thing… come on Chris, it’s by the same guy who made The Snowman!

Yeah! And it’s funny, I can watch Threads… I can watch Threads a million times. I never saw it as a kid, only as an adult. And I just think it’s quite a funny film…

Oh, come ON!

No! Because the characters in Threads are a bit two-dimensional, aren’t they? You don’t really care about the characters in Threads, whereas if you watch When The Wind Blows, you really care about this old couple.

I care about the characters in Threads so much that the last time I watched it, I got half an hour in, and the feeling of impending doom was so much I had to turn it off. I didn’t want to see Reece Dinsdale die! I like Reece Dinsdale!

We all like Reece Dinsdale, honestly! But no, I can watch Threads and it doesn’t bother me at all.

Did you have any sirens close to your house? Anything that might – for example – have been mistaken for the four-minute warning? 

I live quite close to the Thames, in the south of Essex. I live in the house I grew up in, I bought it from my dad, and I’ve lived here forever. And we still, to this day, have flood sirens down on the Thames, which are basically just repurposed World War Two air raid sirens. And every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, they test them… they give them one blast for about thirty seconds. So quite often, if I’m working at home and I have the window open, I’ll hear “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm….” and it’s not rising or falling, it just rises then drops down again. But it’s pretty scary. Luckily I know what it is, but if anyone was in the town and didn’t know that they test the flood sirens every week… they would soil themselves, I think!

Have I seen somewhere that there are no nuclear sirens in the UK any more? They’ve all been decommissioned?

I think, during the Cold War, a lot of stuff was repurposed. So they just used air raid sirens that had been left over from World War Two, and also bunkers… generally, they didn’t really build a lot of nuclear bunkers, they just used old World War Two bunkers, and reclaimed spaces. So there must be some kind of attack warning now, but it’s probably a text message! They had that thing in Hawaii didn’t they, about a year ago? I think it would be that. Or a WhatsApp message. Or a tweet.

I saw you in 2017, performing at the Delaware Road event in Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, the underground facility that would have housed the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. What did you make of the place? 

It was pretty cool. I didn’t actually get to see much of the bunker, because it took me about an hour to set my gear up, and then I did my gig and played for just over three hours, and then my mate – who is my roadie – had to catch an early flight in the morning. So as soon as I finished, I packed all my gear up, got in the car and left! But I briefly had a very quick look around the bunker, just after I soundchecked, and what I saw of it was really impressive, and really big. And creepy… I found it very creepy. There’s something very unsettling about it, even though it was never used for real. Not helped by the fact that there are mannequins and dummies all over it!

Talk us through your album, For Concrete And Country. There are some interesting references amidst the track titles… Microwave Relay was the one that really fascinated me. Can you explain that?  

It’s a reference to the Microwave Tower Network, which was codenamed “Backbone” during the Cold War. They built a lot of these big wire mesh towers, and many of them are still standing now… and some of them are concrete, too. Part of the Backbone Network was the Post Office Tower. But again, I think a lot of it was repurposed, or even used at the same time for TV and radio broadcasts. So BBC Tees might well be using mouldy old Backbone masts!

It’s more than likely…

So Microwave Relay is a reference to that Backbone Network, which would have been resilient to nuclear attack… far more so than other systems.

There’s a track called Pye Green Tower on the album too, was that part of the same network?

That was one of the towers, yeah. That one was concrete, and it’s in Staffordshire. I’ve never been to the Pye Green Tower, but it looks pretty impressive!

Given that all of this stuff traumatised us so much as a kids, why are we looking back on it with a sense of almost rose-tinted nostalgia? We’re like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen…

I think it could be the fact that nuclear war never actually happened. There’s a sort of relief, isn’t there? We can look back at these horrific things like Threads and When The Wind Blows – well not me, obviously, because I won’t watch it – with a kind of relief, as adults, that the war never happened. It would have been absolutely horrific. And it could still happen, but I think what we need to worry about more in the 21st century, going forward, is Artificial Intelligence. Which I think a lot of people are saying is a bigger threat to the future of humanity than nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t have the same cool factor, does it…?

In twenty years time, when nothing has happened, the musicians that were teenagers in 2019 can make albums about that…

Yes, there’ll be a hauntology movement about Artificial Intelligence!

From midnight onwards, Ritual and Resistance took on increasingly surreal (well, more surreal) proportions… I watched Natalie Sharp, in her Lone Taxidermist persona, perform a disturbing but captivating set, accompanied by what appeared to be two suspended human spines. And then, outside the camp’s Water Tower, I bumped into Jez and Polly of the Twelve Hour Foundation for a final time, and we whiled away the early hours by discussing the alluring qualities of their home towns; Cleethorpes and Scarborough respectively. I then capped off the evening by dancing (alongside journalist and Modern Aviation owner Will Salmon, who has some sensational moves) to a pounding DJ set by former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, who had been an affable preseence throughout the day, and who spoke passionately to a small, assembled throng of us afterwards about his love of the Delaware Road project, and his lifelong passion for underground music and electronica.

It was 3.40am before I collapsed into my spider-infested tent beneath a rustling oak tree, but not before I’d grabbed the picture below…

As a wonderful addendum to an incredible evening… on the Sunday morning, as fragile heads were being soothed by gentle conversation and coffee, it became apparent that a fleet of vintage Routemaster buses were transporting campers to the nearby abandoned village of Imber, requisitioned by the MOD in 1943 for wartime training, and uninhabited ever since. With a long journey back to the North-East ahead of me, I uncharacteristically decided to forsake its haunted pleasures, and set off in the car… but, as three double-decker buses bobbed on the horizon ahead of me, I couldn’t resist. I followed them, and spent an hour poking around Imber’s deserted buildings and (surprisingly busy) 16th century village church, joined by blog-reader Richard – who records as Caveat Auditor – and ever-genial electronica and Early Music enthusiast Rolf, who I’d last seen in June, at 3am in Shoreditch High Street, at the climax of the State 51 Conspiracy/Ghost Box/Trunk Records Midsummer Night’s Happening.

As Steve Davis had emotionally proclaimed at the end of his wee-hours DJ set, “It’s like a big family, isn’t it?” He’s right, and I look forward – as ever – to the next gleefully dysfunctional reunion.

Thanks to Delaware Road and Buried Treasure supremo Alan Gubby for all his extraordinary efforts in making Ritual and Resistance such a memorable event… and to Alison Cotton, Colin Morrison and Andy Collins for their photos.

The Delaware Road, Alan Gubby and Ritual & Resistance

“Please remember as you leave tonight… secret forces gather in plain sight…”

It’s July 2017, and the above phrase is being repeated to me, in unison, by a column of green-faced, black-clad mummers, standing guard along the walls of a steep corridor that descends deep into a network of tunnels hidden beneath a deceptively innocuous bungalow, all concealed within the rustling leaves of a remote Essex thicket.

As I progress deeper underground, the sound of pulsating electronic music wafts from a connecting network of gloomy passageways, and I emerge into a complex warren of long-abandoned rooms; all filled with the alarming paraphenalia of Protect and Survive-era nuclear paranoia. There are banks of vintage radio equipment and communications devices, and offices filled with blank-screened 1980s computer systems. Emergency telephone hotlines provide direct contact to the government ministries that remain functional, water-rationing guidelines are pinned to notice boards, and further instructions for survival in the “fall-out room” are readily available. This is Kelvedon Hatch, the “secret nuclear bunker” (now amusingly signposted as such for several miles around) built in 1952 and intended to provide shelter for regional government in the event of the global thermonuclear war that – for several decades – seemed all too inevitable.

Decomissioned in 1992, the bunker now stands as a permanent memento of that chilling era of Cold War paranoia, and – on the July night in question – provided the extraodinary location for an evening of live electronica, theatrical performances and film screenings: the latest development in the ongoing Delaware Road multi-media project helmed by Buried Treasure Records supremo Alan Gubby. The narrative, unfolding through a series of graphic novels, musical releases and live performances, tells the ficationalised tale of two pioneering electronic musicians employed by (ahem) a large, authoritarian state broadcaster, and the dabblings with occult practices that have life-changing consequences for them both.

And the story is far from over. The latest chapter in the Delaware Road saga takes the form of Ritual & Resistance, a two-day event in August 2019, hosted in similarly austere surroundings: this time, the New Zealand Farm Camp, an active army training facility on Salisbury Plain. It promises to be an extraordinarily ambitious and immersive experience, with many Kelvedon Hatch veterans – including Concretism, The Twelve Hour Foundation, Howlround and Ian Helliwell – returning, all included as part of a much-expanded and incredibly impressive line-up. I asked Alan Gubby himself about this latest event…

Bob: Talk us through Ritual and Resistance – can you give us a little flavour of how the event will look, feel and sound?

Alan: Inside the base at New Zealand Farm Camp there are a range of buildings called Stone Tents. They were designed for combat training, skirmishes and night vision operations. Because of the totalitarian and military themes in The Delaware Road graphic novel, it’s the perfect location for our third live event. The buildings will be used to present various live performances, sound experiments, screenings, installations and talks by a wide range of artists who explore similar themes and ideas to those within the Delaware Road text.

How did you find the site? Was it somewhere you’d previously visited? Go on, describe the location a bit…

I found it thanks to a family member who mentioned that some of the Salisbury sites were becoming available for film shoots and other activities… this was early 2018. It then took a year of negotiations, meetings, overcoming technical issues and obtaining licenses.

The site is quite remote, hidden on the Salisbury Plain training area. It’s a stunning but dangerous landscape… the army uses live ammunition in the area, and although there are no exercises whilst we’re there, it’s very important to follow the warning signs and stay on the main roads! The camp is about sixty acres in size, enclosed by a circular, concrete wall with barbed wire and gun turrets. Once you’re inside, half the site is green and wooded for camping, whilst the other half contains the stone tents and other buildings – including a water tower, two barracks and two bunkers.

I went to your previous Delaware Road event, at Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex… and it was incredible. What are your fondest memories of the night?

The Kelvedon Hatch gig was amazing… a very special and intimate atmosphere, all thanks to the brilliant performers, and a lovely, receptive audience. I had lots of messages from people afterwards saying it was one of the best things they’d been to. It had its challenges, though… we weren’t allowed inside the bunker until quite late in the day, so it was a mad rush to get things ready before the audience arrived. Also, trying to communicate with the crew and artists across three subterranean levels was tricky with no phone signal!

The artists and crew coped brilliantly though. One of my favourite moments was seeing Teleplasmiste perform a cosmic folk ritual whilst leading the crowd down into the nuclear corridors.  

Is that era of Cold War history one that strikes a chord with you? Like me, did you lie awake at nights in the 1980s, worrying about nuclear armagaddon?

The Cold War had an impact on everyone in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t it? It’s not a central theme in The Delaware Road, but the anxiety and mistrust caused by overbearing authority certainly is. I grew up near Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital in Berkshire. Every Monday they would test the sirens that would alert the public if a patient escaped. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper was – and still is – one of many infamous and terrifying patients held there.

The sirens had a dual purpose as the four-minute warning for an impending nuclear attack. This was between 1978 and 1983. Everyone I grew up with was terrified by that siren going off each Monday morning. Oh, what a joyous and formative childhood memory!

The Kelvedon Hatch event was so immersive… your stewards were all in military uniforms, and there were green-faced mummers passing on secret codes as we walked past them. And then there were Dolly Dolly‘s terrifying speeches to the nation! Is it important to have that theatrical element to your events?

It’s important to get jolted out of your comfort zone, and to be wrong-footed from time to time. Dolly Dolly’s spoken word sections and the other theatrics are unnerving and disorientating, but they help the performers and audience to lose themselves in the event.

Can we expect simlarly immersive and interactive elements at Ritual & Resistance, then?

Yes, the Ritual & Resistance subheading nods towards sound being used to harness power, to mesmerize, worship or use as a weapon of defiance. Tim Hill is organizing a procession of “rough music” on the night, a medieval tradition where crowds gathered outside someone’s home to make a cacophony of discordant noise. This form of musical ridicule has dubious origins, but by the 19th century it was mostly targeted against men who had exceeded their authority. Can you think of anyone in the news recently fitting that description? Hmmm.

There are also spoken word performances, experiments with sound healing and magnetism, talks on local mythology, archaeology and wildlife, folk, jazz, post-punk & electronic live acts, DJ sets, art exhibitions, and a ceremony worshipping the local landscape.    

One of the more surreal moments about Kelvedon Hatch was finding myself standing next to former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis at several performances! Did you get to spend much time with him?

I kept bumping into Steve around the bunker, too. He was having a great time, losing himself in the performances, and he just understood what we were trying to do. He’s been a collector of experimental and electronic music since the 1970s. We stayed in touch, and when he heard about this year’s event he asked if he could play. I bit his hand off, obviously.

Can you talk us through the rest of the line-up? Who are you most looking forward to seeing?

I’m so pleased with this year’s lineup… it’s the most diverse so far, with acts and labels from around the country. Front & Follow from Manchester, Cattle from Leeds, Psyche Tropes from London, R.E.E.L. from Somerset, and more.

And having Penny Rimbaud perform is deeply significant. He was one of the organizers of the original Stonehenge free festivals of the 1970s and early 1980s, and a founding member of anarcho-punk agitators Crass. I love his spoken word performances, and I know we’re in for something special with a new piece he’s written called “How?”. It’s a sequel to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, and a diatribe against the commodification of pure art.

There are a number of inspirational female artists too, including Sarah Angliss, Andrea Parker, Natalie Sharp, Lia Mice, Janine A’Bear, CuKoO, Frances Castle, Geraldine Wolfe, and Alison Cotton. Plus most of the artists from previous shows are making a very welcome return. I’ve tried to schedule the sets this year so you can see as many of them as possible. 

Is there a “ghost village” nearby, too? Can you tell us a bit about it?

Imber village is about two kilometres from The Delaware Road site. It was evacuated by the British government in 1943 so American troops could use it for combat training, prior to the allied invasion of Europe. After the war it was deemed too dangerous for the original villagers to return. It’s been uninhabited ever since. It opens to the public a couple of times a year and, as luck would have it, it’s open on the same weekend as the Delaware Road event. It gets better – a vintage bus service with 25 double-deckers is offering daily tickets so you can travel across Salisbury Plain, between Warminster train station, Imber and The Delaware Road. If you can’t find me on the Sunday morning, that’s because I’ve nipped onto one of the buses to explore Imber’s 16th century church!

Thanks to Alan for his time, and to Pete Woodhead, who kindly gave permission to use his superb photos from Kelvedon Hatch. Tickets are still available for Ritual & Resitance, and can be purchased from:

www.thedelawareroad.com

The Art of Clay Pipe Music

It’s a hot, humid, bad-tempered Friday afternoon, and I’m drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, hopelessly lost in Leeds city centre. Quarry House car park is hemmed in by roadworks, there are queues of rush-hour traffic backed up on every sliproad, and a rumbling undercurrent of hay fever has turned my eyes into quagmires.

Thankfully, an oasis of calm is nearby. The Colours May Vary bookshop and event space is hosting an exhibition of artwork by Frances Castle, all created for releases on her beautiful, bespoke record label, Clay Pipe Music. For the last few years, Clay Pipe’s releases have frequently provided me with a respite from the hurly-burly of frenetic, 21st century life; a beautifully coherent body of work with its roots in a very firm sense of place, offering musical evocations of both gentle pastoralism and urban stillness alike. I discovered the label via Jon Brooks’ 2012 album Shapwick, a haunting musical account of an unexpected, nocturnal car journey through the Somerset countryside, and have been transfixed by Clay Pipe’s releases ever since: from Sharron Kraus’ Friends and Enemies, Lovers and Strangers – a folk interpretion of the Mabinogion myth cycle – to Gilroy Mere’s The Green Line, an ambient requiem for the bus services that once linked central London to the distant countryside; from the anonymous Tyneham House album, a wistful paen to the MOD-requisitioned Dorset village, frozen in time since 1943, to Retep Folo’s Galactic Sounds, a Farfisa-drenched evocation of its composer Peter Olof Fransson’s childhood, spent gazing longingly into the Swedish night skies and detuning his AM radio in the hope of receiving alien transmissions.

Every release arrives immaculately packaged in Frances’ own distinctive artwork, and it’s a genuinely touching sight to see them arranged together in this tasteful, white-walled exhibition space. As I arrive, Frances and her partner John are chatting genially with shop-owners Andy and Becky, dishing out chilled beers to allcomers, and faithful shop dog Stevie is wandering excitedly from visitor to visitor. It’s an idyllic scene, and Frances and I retire to a quiet corner for a chat about Clay Pipe’s history and ethos…

Bob: This is a lovely exhibition! How did the whole thing come about?

Frances: It came about because Andy, who runs the shop, was basically buying Clay Pipe records, and he asked me if I wanted to do it… they have quite a lot of exhibitions here. This was probably about a year ago, so we’ve planned ahead a bit.

Is it nice to see so much of your artwork in one place? It gives a lovely overview of the whole feel of the label, and the body of music you’ve released.

It is actually, because usually it’s all spread around… in drawers, and all the records are in boxes, and the prints are all in portfolios. And it’s such a really nice room, with tasteful furniture and white walls… it’s really good.

Can I ask a little about your background? Your grandfather Frank Sherwin was quite a renowned artist, wasn’t he?

Yeah… I wasn’t aware of it as a child, and I don’t think he was renowned then. But because he did a lot of work on railway posters, and because I think they’ve become more popular now than when he was alive, I’ve recently been trying to promote his work. I’ve set up an Instagram account. A lot of the stuff that he did for the railways is owned by the Railway Museum, and gets used on books and all types of things, but he never gets credited.

Was he alive when you were a kid?

Yeah, he died when I was a teenager. He did a lot of watercolours then, he was a very good watercolour artist, but I didn’t know anything about his commercial work. He was selling watercolours to printmakers, and they were selling them as prints, but by that time I think he’d semi-retired, really. I didn’t really know about his more commercial stuff, and his posters, until later on.

Has his style been an influence on you? I can certainly see a lineage…

When I look at my work, I can see his hand in it… which is really strange, and I don’t know whether it’s just because I grew up with him, looking at his work, or whether it’s some sort of genetic thing about the way we draw. I don’t know! But definitely… there is something.

So as a kid, did becoming an artist always feel like a calling for you?

I was encouraged, because of my grandfather. And apparently I was quite good at drawing when I was a kid. And I was absolutely useless at anything else… I couldn’t spell, I couldn’t do maths… I was useless at school, so I was pushed in that direction, yeah.

Are your parents arty at all?


My Mum is a good painter, yeah. But she’s never pursued it as a career.

So it was very much the art that came before the music? 

Pretty much actually, yeah. I always loved music, even when I was quite a small child, and I did have clarinet lessons… but I wasn’t very good! Although I could play the recorder quite well as a kid. But as soon as I found I could make music on a computer in the late 1990s, it was like… this is brilliant, I can sample and loop stuff. And that’s when I started making music myself. As a child I actually had two tape recorders, and I recorded my recorder, playing along with myself… I multi-tracked! I wish I still had that. So that interest was always there, but I don’t think the technology was.

You were telling me earlier, to my surprise, that you actually worked on graphics for computer games for a while…

Yeah, I’d started doing illustration, but it didn’t really work out. So I went back to college and studied computer graphics, 3D graphics. This would be the late 1990s. And I ended up getting a job doing 3D graphics for computer games… I worked for a company called Probe, in Edgware. I worked on the Die Hard game!

Did you make a computerised Bruce Willis?

I didn’t, actually… I was doing a bit of animation for the beginning of the game, a few fancy bits. I can’t remember what I did, actually! And then I got made redundant from that job, and worked for another company called Argonaut. And I worked on the first Harry Potter game for the Playstation!

Did you make a computerised Daniel Radcliffe?


I drew all the faces for the children! So if you zoom right into that game, those are my faces.

Did you have any interest in computer gaming yourself?

Not really. I didn’t really grow up playing them…  

So how did that lead back into the kind of illustration work that you do now?

Well, I got made redundant again. The industry had completely changed from when I started out, and by this stage the Playstation 3 was coming out. And artists were just doing tiny bits. When we worked on Harry Potter, not only did we work on the  characters, but each artist was given a level to do. So you had quite a lot of input. But as the games become more complex, you ended up doing the smaller bits, so you’d just do props, or bombs, or guns.

And as you say, did I love games? No, I didn’t really love games. And the amount of hours you were asked to work was crazy. So I thought… I’m not doing this any more. The company went under, and I had to think about what I wanted to do, and that’s when I went back to illustration. 

Clay Pipe’s music seems to have a very distinct aesthetic… can you put it into words?  

(Laughs) I always kind of wing it, I think… it’s just instinctively choosing the right music. And I don’t want it to be stagnant and keep doing the same things. But I guess… I love folk music, and I love electronic music, and Clay Pipe straddles those things, I think.

Do you try to give the artwork a consistent feel at all?  

Actually… I try hard not to, because I don’t want to repeat myself, I want to keep pushing a bit. So I’ve done more abstract stuff recently… I want to try new things.

One that that always intrigues me… as far as I know, you’ve always lived in London, and have a completely urban background. And yet your pastoral artwork, the scenes depicting the English countryside, or just so evocative. Are you a country person at heart? 

Well, my Mum and Dad live in the country now, they’ve retired. And I always visited my grandparents, who lived in the country when I was a kid. So it wasn’t like I didn’t ever go… but I love London, I just love it, and I’d find it very hard to leave, if I’m honest.

Is there a particular piece of Clay Pipe artwork that you’re especially proud of, or that you think complements the music especially well? 

There are bits that I don’t like…

Oh, which ones?


(Laughs) I’m not telling you! There are ones that I’m not so happy with, but I’m not so sure about the ones that I am really happy with, Put it that way. It’s really hard.

Come on, which album sleeves have you got on your wall at home?

(At this point, Frances looks over to her partner John for suggestions) Have we got any at home? I don’t think we have, have we? I’ve got a poster I did for a Sharron Kraus gig… that’s about it, isn’t it? (John points out a framed print of artwork from The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, an album by Frances’s musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree) Oh, we have got that one! Yes, The Hardy Tree… I forgot about that.

Is the creation of the album artwork a collaborative process with the musicians themselves?  

It really depends on the artist. The stuff that I’ve done with Jon Brooks, he’s been… not saying what he wants as such, but he’s had ideas. He’s even done a mood board for me, stuff like that. For Autres Directions, he gave me photographs that he’d taken on holiday in France, and there were a lot of road signs, and telephone signs… so that telephone (Frances points out an abstract telephone design on a nearby copy of the album) came from that. That was really helpful.

But a lot of the time… with David Rothon, he was very keen that the artwork for Nightscapes should be night-time, but it shouldn’t be spooky. And the first one that I did came out too spooky! And, actually… the finished cover works much better.

When I was a teenager, I used to get a feeling of odd reassurance, walking home through a dark, deserted town after a night out, and seeing the occasional bedroom light still on… it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only person still awake. The artwork for Nightscapes always reminds me of that feeling, it’s lovely.

I remember Jim Jupp from Ghost Box once telling me that – in a nice way – they rely on the artists they work with on to surrender a little to the Ghost Box ethos, and let Jim and Julian House be part of the creative process, too. I guess the same applies with Clay Pipe as well?

Yeah, I think so. You kind of have to become a part of my brand a little bit! And so far, everyone’s been fine about it.

We spoke a little while ago about your debut graphic novel Stagdale, which seems to have been a success for you…  

It has… and I’ve got to do some more now! The second book is something I have to get my head around for the next few months, really. That’s actually all going to be set in Nazi Germany, so it’s going to be completely different to the first book.  

Do you have the whole story mapped out?


Yes, it’s just doing it! And because it’s set in Nazi Germany, I need to do quite a lot of research, so that’s going to be time consuming as well. I have to get everything right.

Is the village of Stagdale based on anywhere in particular, or does it exist completely in your head?

It’s not based on anywhere in particular really, but it has bits of certain places! It’s a mish-mash of different places.

And what have you got lined up for future musical releases?  

The next record well be… well, it’s a toss-up between Alison Cotton’s record, which is hopefully coming out for Halloween. Alison is in the band The Left Outsides, and she plays viola. She’s had a couple of solo records out recently, but this is something she did for Gideon Coe on BBC 6 Music last Christmas… they got an actress to read a ghost story by Muriel Spark, and Alison did the soundtrack to it. So we’ve taken the soundtrack, and put it on 10″ vinyl, and she’s done another track for the other side… another Muriel Spark ghost story. So we’re hoping to bring that out for Halloween.

And then Vic Mars has just done his second record for Clay Pipe, which we’re hoping to put out before Halloween, but we’ll just have to see how it goes with pressing times. The artwork for both of them is nearly finished… but not quite!

Is there a theme to Vic’s album?

The theme is kind of… where the country meets the town. Or the town meets the country!

Oooh, the Edgelands!

The Edgelands, yeah!

That’s not the album title that I’ve stumbled upon, is it?

No, he’s told me that he’ll have a title for me when I get back! So that’s another problem, we don’t have a title yet. But I’ll tell him Edgelands is a possibility!

The Art of Clay Pipe Music exhibition runs at the Colours May Vary shop in Leeds until 1st August, and a selection of otherwise unavailable Clay Pipe rarities are for sale through the shop’s website. Thanks to Frances, John, Andy, Becky and Stevie for their time and hospitality.

Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper & Sharron Kraus, and A Midsummer Nights Happening

I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but soon there were tell-tale signs: a woman with a Trunk Records tote bag slung nonchalently over one shoulder, striding purposefully along Shoreditch High Street; a brace of bearded blokes buying Wispa bars from Sainsburys, both of whom I vaguely recognised from long-ago Doctor Who conventions; and – ultimately – the mysterious gates of the state51 Conspiracy factory on Rhoda Street, sporadically and tantalisingly swinging open to allow access to the enticing “Midsummer Nights’ Happening” beyond. It was 6.30pm, Friday 21st June, and the air lay heavy with the scent of sunscreen and free-flowing beer, combined with the first opening salvo of vintage electronica from the turntables concealed within. Once inside, I was greeted cheerily in the courtyard by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, resplendent in canvas cap, and he wasted no time in introducing me to the genial Martin Jenkins – Pye Corner Audio, to Ghost Box devotees – and his friend Darren, instructing us to help ourselves to the free bar.

Yes, that’s right, the free bar. Oh dear… this could get messy.

The hidden HQ of the delightfully clandestine state51 Conspiracy had been decorated with impeccable attention to period detail. In the “utopian glade” of Pan’s Garden, pot-bellied effigies peered knowingly from clusters of rustling foliage, the floor crackling with the crunch of unseasonal dead leaves. A rustic wooden signpost (with a font to warm the cockles of Patrick McGoohan’s incarcerated heart) directed me to the TV Chamber, where fleeting glimpses of Jack Hargreaves and Arthur C. Clarke flickered across the screens of ancient, wooden-bodied televisions. In the opposite direction, the extravagantly bearded Dan was pressing bespoke event t-shirts with what appeared to be an elaborate mangle.

In a space of a few fleeting, giddy minutes, I exchanged greetings with cheery figures who – previously – had only been known to me from e-mails, tweets, phone conversations… or even, simply, the credits on albums that I’d bought, played, loved, and treasured. Julian House, Frances Castle, Jonny Trunk, Robin The Fog and Vic Mars. João Branco Kyron from Beautify Junkyards. Colin from Castles in Space, Gavin from Spun Out of Control, Stewart from the brilliant Concrete Islands website. There was Haunted Generation reader Eamonn and his wife, who’d travelled all the way from Northern Ireland, and Rolf from Southport, who’d bought a copy of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ from me online a week earlier, and was keen to say hello. And the always ebullient Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records, who I’d last chatted to in 2017 at the concealed entrance to Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, after the climax of his most recent, most extraordinary Delaware Road event. He was delighted to discover that the Delia Derbyshire badge that he’d given me that evening had been pinned to the lapel of my jacket ever since.

It was a delirious, surreal, gathering of the haunted clans: a cavalcade of eclectic live performance, inventive DJ sets, and magnificently fevered conversation that continued long into Saturday morning. And it conicided conveniently with the release of the latest Ghost Box Records LP, Chanctonbury Rings, a collaboration between US writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus, and Jim Jupp himself, in his customary guise as synth-prog overlord Belbury Poly. The album combines Justin’s thoughtful, beguiling spoken accounts of mystical experiences on this ancient Sussex landmark with a swirling malestrom of musical textures: gently-strummed autoharp, wistful recorders, Sharron’s floating, graceful vocals, and Ghost Box’s trademark woozy, analogue synths.

As the first live act to the take to the stage at A Midsummer Nights’ Happening, they performed Chanctonbury Rings immaculately, in its entirety, to a hugely appreciative audience. Two days earlier, I’d spoken to them both on my BBC Tees Evening show about the albums’ inspiration, and the creative process involved. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: How did the collaboration between the two of you come about? I saw you performing separately at the Folk Horror Revival event in Wakefield in 2017. That wasn’t the genesis of this, was it?

Justin: No, we’d met before that, and I think we’d even discussed this…

Sharron: Yes, we were already plotting by that point. I don’t think we’d started work, but Justin had asked me if I was interested in doing some music for some of his texts.

Justin: Yeah, the project comes from one chapter of my book, The Old Weird Albion… and your listeners will tell from the way I talk that I’m not from Middlesbrough, but in fact from Pittsburgh – the Middlesbrough of America! But I’ve written a book about my encounters on the South Downs.

So were you contemplating doing some readings from the book, and thought that a bit of accompanying music would be handy?

Justin: Yeah, me reading for fifteen or twenty minutes is not a very exciting proposition. So Sharron threw herself onto that funeral pyre, and was willing to write some music.

Sharron: It was quite the opposite, because Justin sent the text over to me, and it immediately conjured up all sorts of images. So I sat down and spent an afternoon just creating lots of musical sketches, and I was loving the things I was coming up with in response to his work. So to me, it was exciting.

I did wonder how the collaboration had worked on a practical level, whether Justin had sent you readings of his work for you to compose the accompanying music, or whether you’d sent Justin music for him to fit his readings around… or a little of both?

Sharron: Yeah, a bit of both. He just sent me a Word document, and I created segments of music that I thought would fit with different bits of the text. And then, when we had the first couple of shows, I came down to Essex and we spent the day fitting the bits together. At that point we didn’t know if they were going to fit very well together… but they seemed to.

Justin: And obviously there’s a little bit of goat sacrifice, and such. We read the entrails and figure out the chord changes.

A bit of goat sacrifice is surely an important element of any creative process…

Sharron: Related to that, but on a more serious note… we did, last Mayday, before we performed the first gig that we’d ever done, go up to Chanctonbury and perform a very stripped-down, acoustic, ritualised version of it, with some other friends reading poetry, some Morris Dancers dancing… so that was really magical, and kind of cemented the project as something that was more than jut a one-off gig.

I was going to ask a little about Chanctonbury itself, a place I’ve never visited… can you tell us a little bit about the site itself, is it a Bronze Age settlement?

Justin: It’s genuinely every age. It’s certainly been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and it is a genuinely strange place. It’s just above the village where my grandparents lived, in Sussex, so I used to go there during my childhood. And I know some fairly serious occultist-type people, who’ve essentially been unable to spend the night on Chanctonbury. Because of the strange things that they hear, and indeed see. Levitation is quite a common occurrence up there… allegedly. I’ve barely seen that. Not with the living.

But it’s an interesting and strange place. Like I said it’s been inhabited throughout the ages, and it’s been a worship site… it was a Druidic site, and a Roman site, and Pagan site and a Saxon site… it’s been everything.

I read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, in which he attempts to spend the night there, and has a very strange and scary experience.

Justin: He’s quite terrified up there, and he’s done a lot of things. It’s a fairly well-known spot for that kind of action, and indeed for artistic response as well. It’s been written about for hundreds of years, so I like to think we’re part of a continuum.

Sharron, was it a place that you’d visited before starting work on this project?

Sharron: No it wasn’t, and the thing that was really interesting for me was that I was deliberately not Googling it, and not looking at photographs… I was trying to just work from Justin’s text, and to just respond to his version of the place and create this fictional musical world. And I was really interested to see, when I went there, whether it would feel like it was the same place, or if I was way off the mark. But it just… I drove through Sussex to meet Justin there, and as I was getting closer, along the Downs, I was getting this sense of familiarity, and when we actually went up Chanctonbury in the morning, it was wonderfully close to what I had imagined. That was really special for me.

Justin, there is a fascinating part of the narrative where you suggest you saw a vision of your late grandmother up on Chanctonbury Ring… was this based on a real experience?

Justin: Yeah… its quite funny to say in front of a bunch of people I’ve never met – your listeners – that I see my dead grandmother most times that I go up to Chanctonbury, and yet I genuinely don’t think I’m crazy or anything. But you know… there’s this experience that I think everyone has where you see these things, you encounter these things out of the corner of your eyes. You’re trying to look at them, and they’re not quite there, or not quite in focus, or not quite what you thought. And the fact that you can’t touch these things, can’t take a photograph of them or even maintain them within your field of view for more than a fraction of a second… I don’t think that makes them any less real. Memory is a haunting thing, and I think that’s what all this is about in many ways. Both haunting and belonging.

Was Chanctonbury a place that held a deep connection for your grandmother as well, then?

Justin: Yeah, she would have gone there every week for at least 25 or 30 years. And she took the rest of us whenever we were there.

I wanted to ask about Ghost Box Records, a label I’ve fallen in love with, and they deal with feelings that transport many of us back to our childhoods years in the 1970s, and evoke strange, disquieting memories of that era. But I don’t think they’ve really done anything like Chanctonbury Rings before, a spoken word album… how did the link to Ghost Box come about?

Justin: I met Jim Jupp when I first moved to this country – and I literally can’t remember how – but I met him and we became friends quite quickly. He worked on a project that I did called Ley Line, which was a piece I recorded with the folk singer Shirley Collins, and some artists from Pittsburgh, where I’m from. And that piece needed something extra, some production, and he worked on that.

And in a way this is like a big, grown-up, professional version of what we started with that. We’ve got a real musician actually composing music! Instead of me saying “I think it sould go “Woooooooooo”

Sharron: You get me going “Wooooooooo” instead!

Justin: I didn’t grow up in this country, so Sharron… was that haunted 1970s and 80s lifestyle that Ghost Box is about part of your childhood?

Sharron: Yeah, it really was. Once of the things I’m interested in is how there are so many haunted elements of life in this country. Something happened in the 1970s that was more extreme, I guess we would all say… and Ghost Box tap into that, and give us the nostalgia, but also something richer than just harking back. They’ve created a world that certain projects seem to fit into.

Ghost Box are like a parallel universe version of our 1970s childhoods, filling in the bits that we’ve forgotten, or that are missing…

Justin: It’s as though they’re fitting in the bits that you think you’ve forgotten, but actually… they never happened! One of the things that I would say we’ve very subtly done with this record, including with the artwork… we talked a lot with Jim and Julian House, the designer, about having the feel of these BBC Poetry For Schools albums from the 1960s and 70s, they’re really interested in those, and the Topic Records compilations that came out in the early 1970s. But my Spoken Word origins are in those Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen albums, or Ken Nordine albums… I think of them as very Mid Western American albums… a sort of Psychedelic Midwest. And they’ve done a really cool job of putting those things together, so the back cover really has this beatnik jazz poetry album feel to it, while also maintaining that psychedelic folk aspect.

I love Ken Nordine’s work. I once actually played Ken Nordine’s Colors album in its entirety on the radio, all 36 tracks over 36 consecutive shows. When I first heard Chanctonbury Rings, I thought there was a little whiff of Ken about it…

Justin: It’s all part of that surrealist Midrwestern thing… that William Burroughs and Ken Nordine upbringing of mine. That’s lovely, thankyou.

The other comparison that struck me was that of Ronald Duncan and David Cain’s notorious 1969 BBC album, The Seasons. Was that an album that you had in mind?

Sharron: For me, it wasn’t something that I’d heard when I was making the music. But it was a touchstone for Jim… he referenced that album when thinking about what we could do with the project, in terms of artwork and ideas. Had you heard it before?

Justin: I’d only barely heard it, and only through Jim. I knew it was essentially why Ghost Box thought it might be OK to put out a spoken word album. So it’s been a touchstone in terms of the production parts that Jim did… the Introduction for example, which is a Belbury Poly composition, that’s definitely of the David Cain school of music. So yeah, it was an important part of the music’s upbringing.

There are some lovely analogue synths on there, Sharron…

Sharron: Yes, my little Korg! It does all sorts…

Justin: We’re proud of the sounds, and it’s also a beautiful slab of vinyl packaging. So even if you don’t like what you’ve hard, buy one and just put it on your wall! 

Justin and Sharron’s performance at A Midsummer Night’s Happening was barely the beginning of an extraordinary evening. At 9.34pm, I texted my radio cohort Uncle Harry with the astute observation: “I’m drunk in Shoreditch, and I’m watching Jonny Trunk and Wisbey perform slow jazz versions of the themes from Bergerac and Match of the Day“. Which is pretty much what’s happening in the photograph above. Then, silhoutted before a bespoke, head-swimming film collage created by Julian House, The Soundcarriers performed an immersive set of semi-improvised psychedelia, with tantalising excerpts of their album Entropicalia – a long-standing Ghost Box favourite of mine – bleeding through. Jonny Trunk and Robin the Fog joined forces to play previously unheard recordings made by sound pioneer Basil Kirchin, with live piano accompaniment from Steve Beresford. Martin Jenkins pounded Pye Corner beats from within an all-pervading fug of dry ice and Julian and Frances and João all took to the decks, although I’m embarrassed to report that I missed Jim Jupps’ airing of The Rah Band’s 1977 classic synth-pop single The Crunch because I was outside in the balmy night air, possibly rambling a little too long (and a little too incoherently) to the admirably patient Edd Gibson from Friendly Fires about my love of his collaboration with the enigmatic Jon Brooks’ on the Pattern Forms album, Peel Away The Ivy.

As Friday became Saturday, and as indoors performance became outdoors mingling, the night air was filled with the promise of newly-forged alliances (“Let’s do something together! What’s your number?”) and enthused reminsicing. My last recollection is getting a little too noisily excited about the work of the 1960s Barrow Poets with Jim, and – as he pulled out his phone to find a Youtube clip – noticing it was 2.47am. Rolf and I left together and wandered into the night, looking for taxis in opposite directions. Shoreditch High Street was still awash with light and noise, but nowhere in any of the surrounding bars did I see flickering footage of Pan’s People or hear the lilting refrain of the theme from Bergerac. A unique and captivating happening indeed.

Thanks to the state51 Conspiracy, Ghost Box Records, Trunk Records and everyone involved for a truly special event… and to Justin and Sharron for the radio chat. ‘Happening’ photos of Pan, Justin and Sharron, Jonny Trunk and Wisbey, and Julian House are all by Lois Gray. The Haunted Generation blog would like to clarify that it does not, in reality, endorse goat sacrifice as part of the creative process.

Svarts and Crafts… Thursbitch, Alan Garner and the Blackden Trust

HERE JOHN TURNER WAS CAST AWAY IN A HEAVY SNOW STORM IN THE NIGHT IN OR ABOUT THE YEAR 1755
THE PRINT OF A WOMAN’S SHOE WAS FOUND BY HIS SIDE IN THE SNOW WHERE HE LAY DEAD

The stone is not especially conspicuous, but it’s not inconspicous, either. It’s just there. We spotted it easily enough from the car window, as we trundled merrily towards the A537. The distilled essence of a 300-year-old mystery, surrounded by tufts of long grass at the side of a dry stone wall in Cheshire, barely ten minutes drive from the nearest 24-hour Tesco and a drive-through McDonalds.

The enigmatic inscription on the stone provided the inspiration for Alan Garner’s moving 2003 novel Thursbitch, a book in which this intertwining of the ancient and modern is a powerful driving force. John Turner is a jagger, a packman, trading salt and malt between Cheshire and Derbyshire, the only member of his tiny community to have experienced an existance outside of Thursbitch valley itself, where a paganistic, hallucinogenic bull-worshipping religion inextricably connects the local farmers to the dark, unforgiving landscape that surrounds them. That connection is threatened when one of Turner’s excursions brings Christianity – and, ultimately, the founding of the still-extant Jenkin Chapel – to the valley, and the echoes of these tumultuous events resound into the 21st century, becoming entangled with the lives of Ian and Sal, a modern-day couple (of sorts) whose regular walking trips around the stones and ruins of Thursbitch lead to the unwitting forging of a symbiotic link between their own touching plight and those of its 18th century inhabitants.

I visited Thursbitch on May Bank Holiday Monday, with my friends Nathan and Natalie. Unlike Ian and Sal, we didn’t appear to drift backwards in time… although the hailstones that engulfed us in the ruins of the valley’s most remote farmhouse certainly belonged to an entirely different season. Like John Turner, we tracked an inquisitive hare as it lollopped from stone to stone, and we stopped for a rest amongst the weather-worn headstones of Jenkin Chapel itself. “This place has had enough of us,” quipped Nathan, quoting Sal from the book, as we lost our bearings amidst a zig-zag of faded tracks.

In the evening, we went to the Old Medicine House. This timber-framed 16th century apothecary was, in the early 1970s, on the verge of demolition before Alan Garner and his wife Griselda transported it seventeen miles across the Cheshire countryside to be rebuilt alongside their existing family home. It now forms the hub of their charitable foundation, The Blackden Trust, an organisation that encourages visitors to uncover the secrets of the surrounding landscape through a delightful cavalcade of workshops, lectures, schools programmes and arts events. Those familiar with the locations of Alan’s books will find the setting oddly evocative… as we approached the house, the supine dish of Jodrell Bank observatory was peeping incongrously through the trees, and the occasional hum and rattle of express trains to Crewe never fail to remind me of the lovelorn Tom, the intense 1970s teenager whose tortured love for his more pragmatic girlfriend Jan forms an integral part of the haunting Red Shift. By the fireside of the Old Medicine House, Nathan, Natalie and I watched acclaimed folk musicians James Patterson and John Dipper perform a gentle, good-humoured set of exquisitely-played traditional songs; the latest of many Blackden Trust events that we’ve attended together. As Griselda joyously commented to us afterwards, their events have become a community in their own right, and it’s an extremely warm and welcoming community.

I could ramble endlessly about the influence that Alan Garner’s books have exerted upon the last 35 years of my life… and I suspect that I frequently have. When I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingman and The Moon of Gomrath at the end of my time at primary school, I transplanted their captivating, mystical storylines into the setting of my native North York Moors, the only comparable countryside that I’d experienced in my short lifetime. Those books gave me a connection with, and an appreciation of, my own locality and landscape that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. As the years roll by, I find increasing solace in losing myself amidst the rolling moors of my childhood, submerged by their stories, their folklore, their people, their ancient stones and valleys, their sheer power. Alan Garner gave me that, and I’ll always, always be grateful.

I’ve tried to tell him in person, but his presence renders me incapable (well, more incapable) of coherent speech.

In 2015, on my first visit to the Blackden Trust, I discovered that writer and editor Erica Wagner was compiling a compendium of appreciation of Alan’s work, entitled First Light, with contributors that included Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood. I interviewed Erica for the Fortean Times, and the following feature appeared in Issue 336, dated January 2016. It’s a love letter to First Light, which is an inspiring and hugely entertaining collection of tributes, reflections and memories, but also to Alan’s body of work, and the influence it has exerted upon us both…

THE WIZARD OF THE EDGE

Bob Fischer looks forward to a new anthology of appreciation for the work of Alan Garner
, whose novels of folklore, myth and magic have enthralled generations of readers.

“At dawn one still October day in the long ago of the world, across the hill of Alderley, a farmer from Moberley was riding to Macclesfield fair.”

It’s a drizzly, autumnal afternoon, sometime in October or November 1983, and a softly-spoken primary school teacher, all drooping moustache and bifocals, grips a battered paperback and begins reading the above passage aloud to a whispering gaggle of ten-year-old children. Some are restless, most are entranced; at least one is entirely unaware of the profound impact the book is to have upon his life. And yet, as a sheet of rain dissipates against the library window, and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen plunges swiftly into a murky world of lost magic, dark forces and twisted folklore, I gradually begin to realise that I have found my Favourite Writer In The World.

It might be 32 years since the inspirational Mr Millward read Alan Garner’s debut novel to me and my snotty-nosed classmates, but – in the intervening three decades – my opinion has never faltered. Ever since that fateful afternoon, Garner’s books have been a constant in my life, not just shoved onto a shelf or piled upon a bedside table, but almost woven into the very fabric of my being; whether as a dreamy schoolboy excitedly searching for Svarts and Mara in the tangled woodland of my native North York Moors; or as a beardy fortysomething, keen to research the long-lost folk tales of the very same windswept landscapes.

Garner’s work is primal, hypnotic and essential. I can’t imagine life without it, any more than I can imagine life without oxygen, water or Chocolate Hobnobs. And I really like Chocolate Hobnobs. When I read books like Weirdstone and its soulful, feminine sequel, The Moon of Gomrath; when I revisit the suburban weirdness of Elidor and the simmering, sensual myth cycle of The Owl Service; they occupy my thoughts to the virtual exclusion of everything else around me. Mundane existence feels pale and grey; Garner’s books are thrillingly alive.

And then there are the later works: Strandloper, Thursbitch and Boneland; the latter of which, published in 2012, unexpectedly completed the Weirdstone trilogy five decades after the saga had begun. Infused with complex themes of loss, grief and fractured time, these books have proved as profoundly affecting to adult readers as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was to those of us whose childhoods it illuminated. Garner’s readers have, in every imaginable sense, grown up alongside him.

Alan turned eighty last year, and – to celebrate – a new anthology of appreciation for his work has been compiled by writer and journalist Erica Wagner. Entitled First Light, it collects together essays, poems and similarly creative tributes from the likes of Stephen Fry, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper and David Almond.

“Alan Garner is really a unique literary figure,” Erica tells me, on yet another drizzly, autumnal afternoon. “And one thing that’s worth saying is how many different kinds of people – writers, historians and scientists – have been drawn to his work over the years. So it wasn’t hard to come up with a list of people that we might approach to contribute. And somehow I was not surprised when, really, everyone that we thought to ask agreed to do it. And that’s a sign of how important Alan Garner has been; not just to them, but to a broader reading and literary culture.”

Curiously, unlike most of her contributors, Erica’s childhood was completely untouched by Garner’s work, and she offers up the entirely reasonable excuse of having been born and raised in Manhattan.

“I came to Britain as a late teenager, so I didn’t grow up with Alan’s books,” she says. “I discovered his work as an adult, and I can only imagine what their effect would have been on me if I’d read them when I was ten or eleven. The first book of his that I read was a reissue of The Stone Book Quartet, in the late 1990s. At the time, I was editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and – of course – every book that was ever published came across my desk at one time or another. Thinking that I was a terribly well-educated person, I found myself asking ‘Gosh, what is this book that’s being called a classic? I’ve never heard of this book, I’ve never heard of this author… what’s going on?’. So I started to read… and that was it. My life changed.

“Maybe the reason I came to Britain is that I wanted access to another world. I was interested in folklore and mythology, and I felt it was much closer to the surface in Britain. Much more available. So when I discovered Alan’s work, it just spoke to me as the thing that I’d been looking for.” 

Originally published between 1976 and 1978, The Stone Book Quartet comprises four short novels – The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate – and is arguably the most overt manifestation of the roots of Garner’s work; grounded as it is in the landscape and architecture of his native Alderley Edge; and infused with a sense of his own family history.

“Alan comes from a very interesting and unusual place in modern culture,” says Erica. “He comes from a family of craftsmen. Always rooted in one place, living a kind of ancient life, up until the early 20th century. And then Alan went to Manchester Grammar School, he went to Oxford to study Classics… so he has two kinds of knowledge in his head: the ancient knowledge of where he and his family come from; but then he also has book knowledge. And I think there is, in his books, a kind of fissure; a bridge that always has to be crossed. And I think that’s expressive of that balance. There are always two worlds in Alan’s books. And how those two worlds interact with each other is different every time.”

Even as a ten-year-old in 1983, sitting at Mr Millward’s feet in Levendale Primary School library, I found that this sense of duality was the major contributory factor in drawing me inexorably into Garner’s world. In the early books, that “bridge” is the crossing point from the humdrum to the fantastical; it’s the unassuming rock that conceals the magical gates of Fundindelve; it’s the derelict church in a Manchester slum that provides the portal to the nightmarish realm of Elidor. But more than that; it’s the Weirdstone‘s anorak-sporting hikers, wandering idly through the Cheshire countryside; transpiring – as we discover – to be warlocks steeped in ancient, dark magic. It’s a unicorn loose in an alleyway by a railway line, a Welsh myth cycle manifested in a sabotaged motorbike, a vengeful Celtic spirit unleashed by the excavation of a pub car park. Like the ancient folklore from which he so often takes his inspiration, Garner’s fantasy is not “elsewhere”, in some fictional land… it’s here, and now, and living with us. Beneath every stone, within every hollow tree trunk, lurking in the corner of the attic, behind the water tank.

Within a year of my epiphany on that rainy autumnal weekday, I’d read the first five of Garner’s novels, up to and including Red Shift; a personal literary journey that straddled the terrifying transfer from the warm enclaves of my primary school to the stark, alien bleakness of secondary education. And, looking back, I see the complex passage from childhood to adolescence as another recurring theme in these older books; perhaps a further explanation for my all-encompassing obsession with them at the time. There are echoes of it in Susan’s painful longing for womanhood in The Moon of Gomrath; it’s a driving force behind Elidor‘s textbook “youngest child” Rowland, desperately craving to be taken seriously by his elder siblings; and it positively boils over in the fractious teenage tensions of The Owl Service.

“Yes,” agrees Erica, “the other two worlds are the worlds of childhood and adulthood. It’s frightening. And we don’t talk much about that; we talk about practical things; sexuality, doing your GCSEs, what happens when you go on a date. But my son is fifteen. And I remember being fifteen, dimly, and it’s really scary. And I think a lot of what Alan does is a metaphor for how scary that is.

“Stephen Fry says in First Light that, when he first read Alan Garner, he felt trusted by the books. And I think that’s a very interesting point… one thing that Alan Garner never does is talk down to his readers. His books, which deal in most cases with pretty dark, dangerous and scary stuff, know that these are things that young people think about, and are able to deal with. Need to deal with, indeed. You feel like you’re in a serious partnership with Alan Garner when you’re reading his books. You and the author are on a really important journey together. And I think that’s something that all of these pieces have in common; they’re all describing a partnership with an author.”

Those of us who have had our lives transformed by Garner’s work know that it’s a partnership that lasts a lifetime.

First Light was published in May 2017, and is widely available – and highly recommended. And for more information on the Blackden Trust and its events, visit…

www.theblackdentrust.org.uk

And, as a curious postscript, I’m proud to report that the link between my native Teesside and North Yorkshire landscapes and the books of Alan Garner – forged in my head as a ten-year-old – has become oddly tangible in recent years, with the discovery that the Garner family dinner service that inspired the The Owl Service, with its mysterious, abstract pattern of flower petals and owl faces, was designed by the emiment Victorian aesthete Christopher Dresser, a large collection of whose work is held in the Dorman Museum in my birthplace, Middlesbrough. As part of the the 50th anniversary celebrations of the book’s publication, Alan and Griselda kindly donated a plate from the service to the Dorman… and your shambling correspondant was charged with the responsibility of transporting it across the Pennines. I’ve never driven so carefully in my life, and we kept a constant guard on the car during a toilet-stop at Birch Services on the M62.

If you’re passing through the North-East, please pop into the Dorman Museum and pay your respects, but I accept no responsibility for the compulsive construction of origami owls in the days to follow.

Meanwhile, Alan Garner’s latest book Where Shall We Run To? was published in 2018, and is a touching and evocative memoir of his formative years in 1930s and 1940s Cheshire, written primarily – and ingeniously – from the perspective of his childhood self, and dotted with revelations that shed revelatory autobiographical light on the events and iconography of his subsequent novels. The revelation of his personal involvement in the uncovery of Alderley Edge’s “Goldenstone” left me reeling, and oh… the tale of Bunty the budgie will rend the flintiest of hearts.