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
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The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 389

As well as this regular blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 389, dated February 2020.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…


“The general reaction from the press seems to be surprise, but also that it makes perfect sense,” says Jim Jupp, co-founder of Ghost Box Records. “It certainly does to us. His eclectic career takes in a lot of the areas that are part of the Ghost Box landscape – psychedelia, folk, electronica – and more generally I think it’s probably fair to say that his work often re-explores sounds and styles from the past, without them being straight re-enactments.”

“It’s a central idea of the label’s manifesto. If we had one, that is…”

He’s talking about one of the most unexpected musical collaborations of 2020. And some of us have barely taken the Christmas tree down. Ghost Box, the home of haunted electronica stalwarts Belbury Poly, The Focus Group and The Advisory Circle, have teamed up with the Modfather himself. Paul Weller‘s experimental EP In Another Room, released on the label on 31st January, combines abstract sound collage with a distinctly melancholy musicality. Wistful piano passages collide with mournful cellos, all infused with the sounds of distant church bells, summery birdsong, and juddering spirals of disquieting radiophonica. Unsettlingly pastoral, it evokes jumbled memories of crackly Percy Grainger 78s, of Ivor Cutler’s wheezing harmonium and the shocked delight of hearing The Beatles’ Revolution 9 for the first time. It is the sound of that late summer’s evening walk in the woods, when the darkness settles just that little too quickly for comfort. 

“We loved the four tracks he put together,” says Jim. “They connect directly to the world of vintage electronic music, musique concrète and tape music. But as you’d expect, they add a very musical sensibility, shot through with all kinds of instrumental passages. Sometimes just little sketches or dead ends that wrongfoot the listener.”

“In talking to me and Julian [House, Jim’s Ghost Box co-founder], it was clear that he’s very into early experimental electronics. Amongst others, Third Ear Band and Trevor Wishart came up in conversation.”

So how did the collaboration come about?  

“We discovered through an interview he did for Shindig magazine that he was a fan of the label,” explains Jim. “And he mentioned to the editor that he’d like to do something for us at some point, so he put us in touch. We were absolutely thrilled and honoured, as you can imagine.”

The vinyl 7″ is immaculately swathed in House’s trademark artwork; gloriously evocative of some strange, faded textbook in a dusty school library. It’s a beautiful object from a gentler, stranger era, and Jim hints tantalisingly at further collaborations. In the meantime, In Another Room is available from ghostbox.co.uk.

Elsewhere, the prolific boutique label Spun Out Of Control continues to release perfectly-crafted cassettes of eerie electronica, often with impressively high concepts. Glasgow’s Alan Sinclair – recording as Repeated Viewing – explains the genesis of his wonderfully sinister new instrumental album Nature’s Revenge: “The inspiration came to me whilst sitting up a hill in the middle of the beautiful Scottish wilderness,” he says. “The rugged landscapes of my homeland provide unparalleled moments of awe, often mixed with a sense of dread as the inevitable foul weather moves in. Is there an underlying narrative? Perhaps a poor-planned woodland wander gone sour, creepy encounters with strange forest beings, or ramblers frantically fleeing their unfortunate encounters with the ‘hill folk’…”

Meanwhile, Rupert Lally’s album The Prospect provides the soundtrack to his own short story, the tale of 19th century stagecoach robber Jack Delaney, whose bungled heist in the remote Canadian Rockies sparks a terrifying tale of supernatural visitations and blood sacrifice, all infused with a woozy, dream logic that bleeds into his epic, synth-drenched compositions. And I can’t trumpet enough the talents of Spun Out of Control’s resident sleeve artist Eric Adrian Lee, whose darkly beautiful artwork is both tasteful and outré, the meeting point between vintage Hammer Horror posters and lurid 1970s prog-rock sleeves. Visit spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/merch.

I’ve also become entranced by Wrappers Delight, a book compiled by Trunk Records’ irrepressible Jonny Trunk, showcasing the incredible, house-filling collection of sweet wrappers, crisp packets, drinks cans, bubblegum cards and other 1960s and 1970s ephemera amassed by Stockport man John Townsend. Over 500 of them have been scanned and photographed, and are – ahem – a giddy confection. An overwhelming reminder of the days when Anglia Shandy, Count Dracula lollies and Doctor Who sweet cigarettes were produced by tiny factories in Brentford, Slough and Cricklewood, it’s also liable to give you an insatiable hankering for the taste of a Rowntree’s Fingammy. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, it goes on general sale in February, published by FUEL.

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 387

As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 387, dated Christmas 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology


“I suffered from night terrors,” explains Richard Littler, “and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse…”

We’re discussing the inspirations behind the new Scarfolk Annual. Since 2013, Littler has been the self-appointed “Mayor of Scarfolk“, the grim, North-Western town that has provided the setting for a cavalcade of spoof information posters, book covers and magazine advertisements; one of which (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was even mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly as part of a 100-year celebration of bona fide Goverment posters (see FT 377:8). This new publication sees him turning his genius for pastiching the clunky, washed-out design and authoritarian tones of 1970s information culture into a magnificently dark homage to the hardbacked World Distributors annuals of his childhood.

“Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2,” he continues. “Which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory. A factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me…”

This 1970s predilection for providing primary school-age children with laughably inappropriate reading material is sent up with unerring accuracy in the Scarfolk Annual. The gung-ho Commando-style comic strip ‘Waugh in War’ sees unhinged army officer Ben “War” Waugh determined to execute his own soldiers; elsewhere there are illustrated guides to identifying “Council Surveillance Agents”, and advice on “How to Survive a Nuclear Thing”, reassuringly explaining that “national security terminology typically employed to describe the stages of a nuclear threat will be replaced by pleasant, friendly words. If you hear ‘Flopsy Bunny’ you should expect catastrophic, irreversible annihilation.”

“The 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while,” laments Richard. “If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised.”

And on a lighter note, the scariest member of the troupe of Play School toys, as parodied in the grisly ‘Scar School’?

“Hamble,” he replies, instantly. “She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be a baby, but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch, or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.”

The Scarfolk Annual (“Does NOT contain the original toxic inks”) is out now, published by William Collins.

It’s been a bumper few weeks for fans of Littler’s unique brand of dystopian satire, as October also saw the release of the pilot episode of his animated series Dick & Stewart. A disturbing twelve minutes of lovingly-crafted paranoia, it uses to great effect the gentle pace and limited colour palettes of such teatime favourites as Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge to lampoon the rise of 21st century surveillance culture. Narrated – in gentle homage to 1970s voiceover king Ray Brooks – by The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barrett, it follows the adventures of innocent schoolboy Dick and the sentient eyeball Stewart; all that remains of Dick’s former best friend after a mysterious playground accident. Together, they are ensnared by a sinister “man” who encourages them to play “a special game of I-Spy… all you have to do is watch and listen to everything your Mummy and Daddy do and say, and write it all down for me.”

“I loved the cartoons you mention,” says Richard. “I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the EngineBagpuss etc. The slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. Compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me…”

A woozy, analogue synth soundtrack is provided by Chris Sharp, in his guise as Concretism, further consolidating the atmosphere of 1970s unsettlement, although – again – Littler is adamant that his creations are very much concerned with contemporary, 21st century issues, particularly those of control and surveillance. “We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy,” he says. “I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug-of-war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast.”

And indeed, as the cartoon Dick is confined to bed, a camera emerges from his mouth, microphones from his ears, and a transmission aerial sprouts from the top of his head. The pilot episode can be found on the newly-founded Dick & Stewart Youtube channel.

Meanwhile, those seeking a more rural brand of wrongness will be delighted to hear of further developments on the Black Meadow. This bleak, secluded area of the North York Moors, in the shadow of the iconic RAF Fylingdales early warning station, has long since provided the inspiration for a multi-media exploration of dark folklore and Cold War disquiet, helmed by writer Chris Lambert and musician Kev Oyston. “For centuries the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings,” claims Chris. “The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high…”

A visit to the Black Meadow website at blackmeadowtales.blogspot.com will confirm that both Lambert and Oyston are masters at blurring the lines between genuine folk tales (both ancient and modern) and outright invention. Did folklore investigator Professor Roger Mullins, of York University, really vanish on the moor in 1972, and become the subject of a lost Radio 4 documentary? Make your own judgements: Lambert coyly describes himself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. His new book, The Black Meadow Archive, will be available in early January, and is a beautiful collection of surreal and grisly folk talks; where ‘the Blackberry Ghost’ meets ‘the Ticking Policeman’. And a new collection of similarly-titled music by Oyston – recording as The Soulless Party – will be released at the same time.

Oyston has also been busy compiling an LP of original music inspired by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s Scarred For Life book. The book, published in 2017, is an exhaustive compendium of the 1970s TV programmes that traumatised their respective childhoods, and the album invites veterans of the haunted movement to contribute music inspired by their own memories of the era; either alternate themes for existing programmes, or invented title music for fictional shows. The results are tremendous fun: The Heartwood Institute‘s ‘Women Against The Wire’ sounds like the opening to some hard-hitting BBC2 investigation into the Greenham Common peace camps; The Home Current‘s ‘Summer In Marstrand’ is pure half-term Scandinavian animation (think Moomins, but intent on evil); and Keith Seatman‘s ‘Words from the Wireless’ recreates the terror once instilled in him by the (literally) dream-like 1972 series Escape Into Night.

The album concludes on a poignant note: ‘Be Like A Child’ by Carl Matthews is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose life was cut tragically short by cancer; and all proceeds from the album are going to Cancer Research UK. It’s available now, on the Castles In Space label.

Elsewhere, it’s always a delight to welcome new material from Jon Brooks; often to be found recording for Ghost Box Records in his guise as The Advisory Circle, but new album Emotional Freedom Techniques is freshly available to download on his own Cafe Kaput label. A beautifully soothing and meditative collection of ambient electronica, it both evokes and creates a perfect sense of stillness and stasis. It’s available from cafekaput.bandcamp.com. I can also recommend Hattie Cooke‘s album The Sleepers, an evocative synth-heavy concept album detailing the consequences of a mysterious, worldwide sleeping sickness; and the self-titled debut album by The Central Office of Information, a beautifully-packed collection of entrancing melodic radiophonica and ambient disquiet, all produced by Kent-based artist Alex Cargill.  

And what better way to round off the year than with a brace of releases from… well, A Year In The Country? Stephen Prince’s ongoing quest to explore the shimmering connections between folk music, electronica and a sense of lost pastoralism has borne fruit in the shape of a new book, Straying from the Pathways, a typically comprehensive collection of essays on some of the movement’s more esoteric influences, from Detectorists to Edge of Darkness. And a charming new album, The Quietened Journey, invites contributors including The Heartwood Institute and Howlround to create music inspired by memories of abandoned railway lines, stations and roads. Anyone looking for a dose of bucolic calm amidst the frenzy of the festive season would be well advised to use it as the soundtrack for an icy ramble amongst their favourite overgrown sidings.  

Where Ghosts Gather… Usborne’s “Ghosts” book in the Fortean Times

In August 2019, I spent an hilarious and fascinating afternoon with Christopher Maynard, writer of the classic 1977 book Mysteries of the Unknown: Ghosts, reissued by Usborne Publishing in October this year. It became a feature entitled “Where Ghosts Gather” in issue 385 of the Fortean Times, dated November 2019. The full article is now here…

WHERE GHOSTS GATHER

In 1977, Usborne published World of the Unknown: Ghosts, the children’s book that inspired a generation of junior Forteans. Four decades on, following a concerted fan campaign, the book is back in print… and the perpetually haunted Bob Fischer tracked down its pleasantly surprised writer, Christopher Maynard.

The man responsible for some of my more potent childhood nightmares is sitting opposite me at a picnic table in Old Spitalfields Market, basking in the syrupy East London sunshine of a late summers afternoon and – quite frankly – he’s at it again.

“There was an animal called the Behinder,” says Chris Maynard, in the mellifluous Montreal accent that has lost none of its delicious resonance since he left his native Canada for post-swinging London in the early 1970s. “You can tell when you’re being followed by a Behinder, because the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, and stand up. And the way to check that you’re being followed by a Behinder… when that happens, whip around really fast. If there’s nothing there, but you’ve still got that feeling, you know you’re being followed…”

Good grief, Chris. What do they look like?  

“You can feel them, sense them, almost taste the fear they engender, but see them? Never! I’ve heard tell that you would drop dead if you ever saw one face to face. Though I take that with a pinch of salt…”

Forty years on, the architect of my 1970s night terrors is proving to be brilliant, engaging, and very funny company.

In 1977, Chris poured this fascination with the ghost stories of his Canadian childhood – told in hushed tones around the crackling fires of woodland summer camps – into a book that became a ubiquitous, and thrilling, mainstay of every British school library for years to follow. Ghosts was one of the earliest successes of the nascent Usborne Publishing house, one third of a trio of books issued under the umbrella title The World of the Unknown… the others being, inevitably, Monsters and UFOs. Its 32 pages are packed with tales of ancient hauntings, outlandish folklore and indispensable practical advice for primary school-age children with a healthy curiosity about what lies beyond the veil. Lovingly and vividly illustrated, it strikes a perfect balance between comic-book dynamism and factual reportage, all seemingly custom-designed to fire the imaginations of a generation of youngsters whose formative years had already been delightfully tainted by an upsurge of interest in all things supernatural. This, remember, was the decade of Rentaghost; of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films; of Horror Top Trumps and Shiver and Shake comics. 

“Peter Usborne, the owner of the company, would be sitting in the bath,” laughs Chris, “and he would think ‘Let’s do something on dinosaurs. Fossils and dinosaurs… and then we’ll do something on the Ice Age and we’ll bundle it up.’ And somewhere along the way, the idea of folklore came up… which is why Ghosts was bundled with Monsters, which was bundled with UFOs. He would have just come in and tossed it onto the pile, and the editorial teams would have picked it up and said ‘Yeah, we’ll take that one.’ And that was it, that was the brief.”

So was it something that Chris actually pitched to write?

“I really can’t remember! Most likely what happened was that somebody would have come in and said, ‘Chris, these are the books we’re thinking of doing over the next year, which ones do you fancy running with?’ And I’d say ‘Yeah, I’ll do the Ghosts one… that’ll be a lot more fun.’ It just struck me as something that I could have a shot at. It struck a funny bone.”

“UFOs,” he confides, bashfully, “are not my cup of tea…”

I was around seven years old when I first discovered the book, nestling in a shadowy corner of Levendale Primary School’s modest library, somewhere between Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, a well-thumbed haul of Target’s Doctor Who novelisations, and a dusty, shamefully-neglected collection of the Children’s Brittanica. I can still remember the head-freezing pall of terror that enveloped me upon my first glimpse of a randomly-opened page; the collection of “Mystery Photographs” that swam back and forth through my nightmares for months to follow. There was the glowing, spectral figure of a woman in a flowing, formal gown, descending the stairs of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, captured on camera in 1936. There was the grinning driver of a 1950s Hillman Minx, entirely oblivious to the spirit of his recently-deceased mother-in-law, sitting expectantly on the back seat behind him. And – most chilling of all – there was the translucent figure of a spectral monk beside an elaborate altar, “taken in the early 1960s by the vicar of a church in England.” The hollow eyes of this latter apparition, two ragged holes cut into a white death shroud, seemed to bore into the very fibres of my being. I was convinced that my inadvertent eye contact with this terrifying spirit had, effectively, alerted the agents of the paranormal to my existence, and that a parade of malevolent ghosts, spectres and poltergeists, headed up by the towering, black-robed monk himself, would be gliding silently up the stairs to claim me in my sleep that very evening. As Chris’ text solemnly declares: “All three of these pictures are considered by experts to be genuine.”

If the experts were convinced, then so was I.

And yet this proto-panic attack inexplicably failed to deter me from investigating the rest of the book, and being somehow both terrified and intrigued by the stories within. I discovered “Tom Colley’s Ghost”, the spirit of the 19th century mob-leader, whose restless spirit was shackled to the rotting remains of his gibbeted body. In Tring. I winced at the fate of the phantoms of the Battle of Shiloh, grimly and ceaselessly re-enacting this brutal 1862 conflict of the American Civil War. I read wide-eyed about the Arabian “Afrit” ghost, whose rising could only be prevented by the driving of a fresh nail into the bloodstain of its associated murder victim; and of “Black Shuck”, the demon dog that haunted “lonely country roads, graveyards and old gallows sites”, distinguished by its “single cyclops-eye, as large as a saucer, in the centre of its forehead.”

And, obviously, I vowed never to set foot in “The Village With A Dozen Ghosts”: namely Pluckley, whose assorted spooks are vividly described beneath photographs of their respective haunts, all laid out on a detailed road map of this sleepy Kent idyll. Keen to hook up with the “White Lady of Dering”? Head for the burnt-out husk of Surrenden Dering manor, where she still glides silently through what remains of the library. From there, it’s a short walk to the Church of Saint Nicholas, where the 12th century “Red Lady” – “buried in a sumptuous gown with a red rose in her hands” – stalks the graveyard. Cross over Dicky Buss’s Lane to find “the hanging body of the schoolmaster”, a victim of suicide in the aftermath of World War I, whose phantom corpse, suspended from a laurel tree, “is said to be visible to this day, swinging in the breeze.” And then, on your way back to the railway station, pay your regards to “the ghost of the screaming man”, a brickworks employee “smothered to death when a wall of clay fell on him”, whose spirit still “screams in the same way as he did when he died.”

The book is an extraordinary feat of research, and I was intrigued to note that folklorist Eric Maple had been credited as “Special Consultant”. Maple, born in 1916 in Essex, was the son of a spiritualist medium and a voracious collector of folk and occult tales; his magnificently-titled works The Dark World of Witches, The Realm of Ghosts and The Domain of Devils forming a quintessentially 1960s triumvirate of books, published – entirely appropriately – by Pan.

“When I started doing research in libraries,” remembers Chris, “I realised that Eric Maple had a long pedigree. We tracked him down, and got in touch with him, and he’d been researching and writing folklore books for years. We wanted him as an advisor, as much to help me wade through this mountain of stuff that was out there. I was working through public libraries at the time, and he would have steered me towards newspaper libraries as well.”

The still-extant Society For Psychical Research is credited too, along with its one-time rival, the sadly defunct National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Chris has fond memories of making contact with a community of paranormal enthusiasts and societies that were arguably enjoying their heyday, in a 1970s Britain whose fascination with the otherworldly frequently crossed over into the mainstream media.

“They were these wonderful, eccentric little corners that we only discovered as we were working,” he smiles. “And they all had cuttings libraries – they’d been amassing folklore for years. And they would have regular symposia for people around the country… for all I know, people around the world. I never figured out the depth of all this. So they would be a real source of stuff that might not be in the broader public domain. That was really helpful, and Eric was particularly good at steering us to those kinds of places, and winkling out little bits and pieces.”

The double-page spread on Pluckley, however, was the result of an expedition made by Chris and Usborne art director David Jefferies, a day of bona fide ghost-hunting that makes him especially proud. “I like the fact that we did Pluckley,” he beams. “We went and did the research in the field. It was great, really delicious. [We had] the demented idea that we had to overlay it onto a map, so that was the one occasion when we actually took ourselves out and spent a day wandering around… and to my way of thinking at the time, it was a particularly successful page. This was important…” (We have a copy of the book on the table, open at the Pluckley double spread, and Chris is pointing proudly at one particular illustration.) “The compass! We wanted you to be able to orientate yourself, and made it a map where you could actually locate these various objects…”  

But did any unsuspecting members of the Pluckley public not wonder why two strange men were wandering around their village all afternoon, taking photographs?

“I suspect,” laughs Chris, “if they had seen us, they would have thought we were estate agents! Or someone from the council. Why else would you be taking pictures of houses, and measuring up?”

Reading Ghosts as an adult, it’s clear that my seven-year-old self overreacted somewhat; certainly with regard to a curious period of 1980, when I became convinced that the White Lady of Dering had forsaken Pluckley for the wardrobe in our spare room. Although the stories and illustrations presented within are as chilling as I remember, the book frequently adopts a laudable stance of objective distance, and is filled with reminders for young readers to form their own judgements. “Ghosts are supposed to be the appearances of the spirits of the dead in a form visible to the living,” reads Chris’ introduction. “Whether they really do exist is still a complete mystery, but perhaps this book will help you to make up your mind.”

Elsewhere, there are accounts of “ghost stories” subsequently explained away as the results of flooded sewers and amplified alarm clocks, and – my favourite – the 200 metre-tall “Spectres of the Brocken” on the summit of a German mountain, which transpired to be the shadows of climbers, cast onto banks of cloud by a gently setting sun. The unambiguously-titled section “Sense or Nonsense”? even includes a bar chart displaying the results of an 1890 survey of 17,000 people; a mere 1,684 of whom claimed to have had a supernatural experience. Was all of this, I bravely ask, something of a Fortean approach?

“We adopted that,” nods Chris. “We stood back… we were the scientists. We were the researchers. And we just brought to the table the things that needed to be told and explained. We would have done exactly the same if we’d done a book about aeroplanes: we would have talked not as a manufacturer, not as a passenger, but purely in a factual way with that deadpan style… in fact, deadpan is precisely what it was! And my own feeling now, reflecting on what yourself and what other people have been saying, talking about your memories… I’ve come to realise the extent to which that approach made it possible for youngsters to engage with the material. Not because it was a rip-roaring story – they got their rip-roaring stories from somewhere else! – but because this was just factual, and their own imaginations could then pick that up and run with it and go… what if that’s real? Did I actually see that? What did my sister tell me that time? And that’s where, suddenly, the fascination comes in.”

Given this approach, is Chris slightly disconcerted that the book proved so terrifying to at least one unsuspecting seven-year-old?

“‘Thrilling’ works better for me than ‘terrifying’!” he laughs. “I would probably have been mildly shocked if someone said ‘You know… you’re going to scare the Bejesus out of kids.’ I wanted the kids to take something away, and feel that they owned a bit of knowledge, and had an insight into something about the world, an insight that may return fuller and more complete. They could sit down at the dinner table with their parents and expound… display what they had learned, talk about it, ask questions, ask their grandparents, run with it… that kind of thing. Start a conversation that would build upon this little pool, this little island of knowing that they had extracted.”

Since its publication, Ghosts has become a totemic symbol of the “haunted” childhood. The day after our meeting, I tweeted a photo of Chris holding up a rare, pristine copy of the original edition (a book I had to borrow from Usborne’s offices on the way to meet him; they’ve become an incredibly scarce collector’s item), and awaited the reaction. By the end of the day, 411 likes and 75 retweets later, I had been overwhelmed by a cavalcade of Proustian nostalgia from fellow children of the 1970s. “To the mid-forties set, he’s like our fourth dad – the other three being your actual dad (or stepfather or guardian), your favourite male teacher, and of course, Geoffrey from Rainbow,” tweeted writer and podcaster Paul Childs. “Chris Maynard is responsible for the person I am now!” added author and paranormal investigator Robert Johns, whereas fellow supernatural enthusiast Justin Cowell was merely full of gratitude. “I sincerely hope you thanked Chris for scaring generations of children,” he tweeted. “Some of whom were inspired enough to never stop being fascinated by this intriguing, delicious subject!”

Meanwhile, the most astute observation came from the shadowy mastermind behind the Things That Go Bump Youtube channel: “I bet Mr Maynard has no idea how many people consider him a hero and an inspiration…”

“No idea,” confirms Chris. “I’m over the moon. I mean, we all dreamed that what we were doing was important. We told ourselves that. We’d sit in the pub after work, and we’d say ‘you know… we’re knocking these books out, and yeah… we’re making life better. We’re giving kids tons of things to read.’ But we never could measure it. There were no ‘likes’, there was no internet, there was no social media, no real awareness.”

Ghosts was only one of “about 80” non-fiction books that Chris wrote in a twenty-year period from the mid 1970s onwards, and was published at a time that he now considers to be a halcyon era for the industry (“It was like producing music at the time of the Beatles and the Stones…” he tells me, “To be there, at that time… the golden age…”). And his level-headed but engaging approach to this most otherworldly of subjects clearly inspired a generation of budding Forteans, whose fascination with the likes of “Gef, the Talking Mongoose” (whose clawed paws I was convinced would one day poke through the cracks in my own bedroom ceiling, as the book’s alarming illustration suggested) has come to shape our adult pastimes and professions.   

The 2019 reissue campaign began, curiously, in Finland, where – back in the 1970s – the book had been licensed to publishers Tammi, and published under the title Noidan Käsikirja. A Facebook group formed by Finnish fans gained almost 3,000 members, and led to an August 2018 reprint that sold out within a week; with the country’s latest sales figures now surpassing 18,000. Meanwhile, back in Britain, film director Ashley Thorpe and his Nucleus Films team contacted Usborne to request an interview with Chris; citing the book as a major influence on their forthcoming animated feature Borley Rectory, due for release this October. They found themselves in touch with Usborne marketing director Anna Howorth, herself a fan of the book, who was inspired enough to set up an online petition, hoping to convince the publishers that a UK reissue was a viable proposition. 1,000 signatories later, and with a promise in the bag from League of Gentlemen, Inside No. 9, and – indeed – Borley Rectory star Reece Shearsmith to write a new foreword, the deal was sealed.

“Again, amazement and thrill!” grins Chris, when I ask for his reaction, and he gushes with enthusiasm as I press him on the subject of the film. Although the infamously spook-plagued rectory itself is never mentioned by name in the book (there were, apparently, potential legal issues at the time), it clearly provided the inspiration for the “Haunted House” double page spread, detailing the trademark signs of a textbook ghost infestation (“an old skull screams whenever it is moved from the house”; “a bloodstain on the floor cannot be removed”), and Chris has been a willing participant in the film’s bonus features, with director Ashley Thorpe making a distinct impression on him. “A lovely guy from Exeter…” muses Chris, “who had in his school library a copy of the book that he took out regularly, and it lasted and stayed with him. He crowdfunded the various stages of the film, and part of the story that he told was his joy at taking a book that inspired him, and finally realising it in this wonderful animated film. And what he hadn’t expected was people then to say ‘Oh, I remember that book!'”

“We’ve broken down the walls of resistance to blowing off the dust from books that are twenty years out of date, and reissuing them like this. We’ve never had a revolt from below…”

Chris retired from full-time writing in the late 1990s, but is still clearly fizzing with energy and inspiration. In the two hours that we spend together, surrounded by the effervescent hubbub of the market stalls, he brims with ideas, anecdotes, thoughts and opinions: they tumble out of him, joyously, in a ceaselessly entertaining flood. “Two hundred years from now, people will be doing books like this about the ghosts of Old Spitalfields Market, and you and I will be sitting here,” he grins. “We are the hauntings of the future…”

As we part, and I begin the slow amble back to Liverpool Street station to return the original Ghosts book to Usborne’s bustling Farringdon offices, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I whip around fast, but there is – of course – nothing there.

But thanks to Chris, I’ve still got the feeling. 

The reissued edition of The World of the Unknown: Ghosts is available now from Usborne Publishing…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/World-Ghosts-Christopher-Maynard/dp/1474976689/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=usborne+ghosts&qid=1577725559&s=books&sr=1-1

Thanks to Chris Maynard, to Anna Howorth and Emma Baxter from Usborne, and to Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books.

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 385

As well as this regular blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 385, dated November 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…


“In The Girl I Left Behind Me, the narrator tells her story from the grave,” says Alison Cotton, discussing Muriel Spark‘s 1957 short story, the inspiration for her new album of the same title. “The story is about a girl who works in a London office, her first job after a long illness. As she leaves work one evening, she is struck by a strong conviction that she has left something important at the office, but can’t work out what it can be…”

The opening side of this beautiful 10″ vinyl release was originally commissioned and recorded for Gideon Coe‘s BBC 6 Music Show in 2018, to accompany a Christmas reading of the story itself, by actress Bronwen Price. A single, thirteen-minute suite of melancholy viola captures perfectly the downbeat, rain-soaked ambience of austerity-era London, underpinned by a fluttering murmur of dread that escalates as the narrative speeds towards its chilling conclusion. “As I was playing, I imagined myself as the main character of the story,” continues Alison. “I composed an eerie melody, following the structure of the story, and building up the suspense with my wordless singing…”

The flipside is inspired by a later Spark tale, 1966’s The House of the Famous Poet, and Alison’s ethereal vocals feature even more prominently here, amidst a wash of drone-like omnichord, and an elegant, spiralling viola recital recorded – impressively – in a single, improvised take. Set in wartime London, the story is the surreal tale of an “abstract funeral” sold to the narrator by a mysterious soldier that she meets on a delayed night-train journey from Edinburgh: “An aspect which fascinated me,” admits Alison, going on to enthuse further about her recent discovery of some of Spark’s lesser-known stories. “I’d only read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which I remember I enjoyed when I was younger,” she says. “But I bought her collection of Ghost Stories. I thought they were all so well-written and chilling… and I loved how they were mostly written from the ghost’s perspective.”

The Girl I Left Behind Me is released by Clay Pipe music on (of course) Halloween, the second of two releases in quick succession from this beautifully consistent label; the other being Vic MarsInner Roads and Outer Paths, an album influenced by the writing and photography of Herefordshire ley-line pioneer Alfred Watkins, and by Vic’s own childhood explorations of the same county’s various abandoned houses and factories. Gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths evoke an emotional connection to the British countryside… think Ralph Vaughan Williams with a Korg Monopoly. Both albums are available, on vinyl and as downloads, from claypipemusic.co.uk.

Also taking inspiration from a classic spooky text is Neil Scrivin, whose album This House Is Haunted, released under his new nom-de-plume of The Night Monitor, provides an eerie radiophonic soundtrack to Guy Lyon Playfair‘s famous late 1970s account of his investigations into the notorious “Enfield Poltergeist“. The album is strong on verisimilitude: there are knockings, white noise and tantalisingly indecipherable hints of electronic voice phenomena, amidst slabs of atmospheric music concrète that Doctor Who fans will find deliciously reminiscent of Roger Limb‘s percussive, synth-drive compositions for the show. A limited edition cassette release on the Bibliotapes label will be followed by a digital download… head to bibliotapes.co.uk, soundcloud.com/thenightmonitor, or follow @TheNightMonitor on Twitter.

Meanwhile, irrepressible composer and “sound archaeologist” Drew Mulholland has used his 20-year-old field recordings, recorded onto old-school magnetic tape at locations used in the filming of The Wicker Man, as the basis for The Wicker Tapes, a delightfully left-field sound collage. “There was still about five foot of each leg, both set into a concrete base with ‘WM 73’ carved into it”, recalls Drew of his 2002 visit to Burrowhead, in Dumfries and Galloway. A very limited release in August saw each cassette coming with a sliver of wood from the remains of this legendary prop, which also played a major role in the sound manipulations that shaped the album. “I built a Heath Robinson device that allowed the tape essentially to be destroyed by an actual piece of the Wicker Man,” he continues. “After that I set the wood alight, and – when cooled – crushed it to ash and coated the near-destroyed tape with it.”

The results are an album of dark, disquieting ambience, peppered with fleeting, folky motifs that evoke disturbing images of the film’s own climactic and merciless procession. Although the original cassette immediately sold out, the album is available for digital download from drewmulholland.bandcamp.com/track/the-wicker-tapes.

The next printed Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 587 of the Fortean Times – the Christmas edition, no less. In the meantime, Issue 586 is on the shelves now, and looks like this…


The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 383

As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 383, dated September 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…


“Being half asleep on the couch with German Measles, refusing to eat my Heinz Lentil Soup, with Crown Court on. Covered in calamine lotion. My mum had this old lady who came round to look after us, Mrs Wolf. She taught us how to make birdboxes in the cellar. Maybe Quentin’s obsession with birdboxes came from her?”

Listening to film-maker Sean Reynard‘s memories of his 1970s childhood is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness experience. It’s almost as woozily evocative as descending down the Youtube wormhole he has created; a channel devoted to Sean’s alter-ego “Quentin Smirhes”, a terrifyingly austere spoof 1970s television presenter with a predilection for elaborate birdboxes and antique crumhorns. I first became aware of Quentin in 2016, when I discovered Sean’s magnificent pastiche of the Picture Box titles, a “found footage” extension of the opening sequence to this disquieting 1970s daytime TV fixture. As the “picture box” itself gently rotates, the camera pans to reveal a hidden handle being cranked by the unsettlingly hirsute Quentin, sporting a disconcerting leer and a truly alarming pair of black underpants.

“It was all very reminiscent of Victorian austerity and secret rooms, and shadowy corners,” muses Sean, recalling the original Picture Box titles. “A sense of warm claustrophobia, slightly anesthetised, and then [presenter] Alan Rothwell, with his relentless, hooded eye contact. I’d always wanted to film a wider pan of those titles, and see the whole set-up…”

Since then, Sean has cultivated a cottage industry of gloriously strange viral films, all spoofing the dustiest corners of the 1970s regional TV archive; where puppet choirboys are taught the rudiments of medieval instrumentation, and where disembodied fingers poke from wooden Heath Robinson contraptions, accompanied by the wistful, wobbly strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1. Search for the ‘Quentin Smirhes’ channel on Youtube, or follow Sean on Twitter, where he’s @raghard.

Meanwhile, committed heliophobes may find respite from the unrelenting summer stickiness by immersing themselves in The Dark Is Rising, an imagined TV soundtrack to Susan Cooper’s classic childrens’ novel. This much-loved tale of ancient magic loosed upon a festive, snow-bound Buckinghamshire has cast its spell over Finland-based Teessider Rob Colling, aka Handspan. “I asked myself… what would the music sound like if the BBC had commissioned a mini-series when the book was published, in 1973?” he explains. “My answer was that they would have given it to Peter Howell or Roger Limb or Paddy Kingsland from the Radiophonic Workshop… and it would have absolutely scared the pants off everyone who heard it.”

The album is marvellously redolent of Kingsland’s work in particular, and the perfect musical realisation of a story steeped in traditional myth. “It brings together all kinds of English folklore, from Herne the Hunter to King Arthur,” muses Rob. “And it just caused melodies to start pouring into my brain. They felt like they were thousand-year-old folk melodies…” Combining swimmy, retro synths with “early” instrumentation (you have to admire the dedication of a man who can teach himself to play the Finnish kantele), the album is as crisply keen as the sweeping snowdrifts and slate-grey sky that lend the book such an air of forbidding, suffocating stillness. Following a limited – and quickly sold-out – release on cassette, The Dark Is Rising is now available as a digital download from handspanmusic.com.

Other musical gems that have caught my attention this month: the album Flora, by Polypores, is an ambient but melodic exploration of a tangled, fantastical woodland, released on the Castles In Space label with a cover that Roger Dean would be proud of; and Sizewell, composed by Robin Saville and Oliver Cherer, builds beautiful organic soundscapes from field recordings made in the natural environs surrounding Suffolk’s famous nuclear power stations. It’s available from the Modern Aviation label.

Those seeking oddness in more built-up areas, however, should investigate the latest publications from the Folk Horror Revival stable. Urban Wyrd, edited by FT contributor Andy Paciorek, comes in two volumes (Spirits of Time and Spirits of Place) and collects essays, reviews and interviews that celebrate – as Adam Scovell puts it in his introduction – “dark skulduggery and strangeness beyond the reasonable confines of what we consider part of city life.” Further contributors include such luminaries as Will Self and Iain Sinclair, with Paciorek himself providing his own share of quirkiness… his exploration of “wyrd Trumpton” tickled me, as did his ruminations on the haunted qualities of motorway service stations. Both books are available from folkhorrorrevival.com/tag/urban-wyrd, with all proceeds going to the Wildlife Trusts conservation charity.

The next Haunted Generation feature in the Fortean Times will be in Issue 385, on the shelves on 10th October.

Hobnobbing with the Hobs

My first published article in the Fortean Times came as the result of Worms, Witches and Boggarts, a radio documentary that I made for BBC Tees in 2014, investigating some of the stranger little corners of traditional North-Eastern folklore. A tweet ahead of the programme’s broadcast led to the magazine’s editor, David Sutton, inviting me to contribute an article about “hobs”, the mischievious, hobbit-like figures of the North York Moors, to the FT’s Forum section. Since then, the feature has been adapted into a talk, which I’ve been delighted to give at the Weird Weekend North conference, as well as Hartlepool Folk Festival, Whitby Musicport Festival, the Pint of Science festival, and ar a folklore season at Middlesbrough Central Library. I’m always happy to take it on the road, if anyone is in the market for a very real hairy, short-arsed Northern man talking enthusiastically about his more mystical ancestors.

From the Fortean Times issue 330, dated August 2015, here’s the article in full…

HOBNOBBING WITH THE HOBS

Bob Fischer wonders whether North Yorkshire is falling back in love with its mystical, moorland hobs…

I’ve spent pretty much my entire life wandering idly around the rugged idyll of the North York Moors, but had never heard of the legends of the local hobs until 2010. Which seems odd, as they’d been around for a long time by then. Possibly – as we’ll discover – over 1000 years. And, to boot, I was brought up in the 1970s, when it seemed almost compulsory for primary-school age children to be steeped in all manner of rustic oddness as part of their daily education. So how did I manage to read The Hobbit at the age of eight without anyone telling me that my favourite moorland walks were filled with their own breed of dwarf-like, mischievous, hairy-footed men with a tendency to lurk around simple farming communities?

It took the chance discovery of a distinctive marker stone on windswept Gisborough Moor (O.S. Ref. NZ 646 124, if you’re that way inclined) to bring these enigmatic creatures to my attention. Carved into the stone is the legend ‘Hob On The Hill’ and – on the other side – the date 1798. It was the beginning of my ongoing fascination with these mercurial beasties. Many of whom, as documented in Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson’s folklore bible The Lore of the Land, were as domesticated as their literary near-namesakes:  

‘In Yorkshire, notable hob territory, they included spirits who “lived in” and did household chores… and some who, like the hobman of Marske-on-Sea, lived outside human society and safeguarded the community’.

Tales abound of hobs attaching themselves to remote Yorkshire farms, merrily threshing corn in barns overnight for no reward other than a bowl of milk, and becoming mortally offended – usually never returning – if farmers attempted to repay their efforts with labourers’ clothing to cover their customary nakedness. Although other hobs were more mischievous in their intent; indeed, one tale – referred to widely as the ‘Ay, we’re flitting’ story – tells of a household hob so disruptive that the family attempted to move house in order to escape him. It’s a story that Ryedale Folk Museum, an idyllic miniature village of pre-industrialised Yorkshire nestling in a nook of Farndale, has now claimed as its own, applying it to the dale’s resident hob, Elphi. The story is told in a pamphlet available in the museum…

‘The hens stopped laying. The milk turned sour. The butter wouldn’t churn no matter how long the wife turned it… the family decided they would have to leave and try their luck on another farm. They made all the arrangements and loaded their furniture and belongings onto the cart ready to go to their new home. By the gate, a neighbour passes and asked “Now then, is tha flitting?” Before the farmer could answer, a voice came from the depths of the cart. “Aye, we’re flitting”. They looked in horror, there was Elphi, the hob, going with them’.

So when did these tales begin to circulate? Clearly by 1798, belief in hobs was widespread enough for the stone on Gisborough Moor to bear their name. But it seems that their influence had been deeply felt in the region for many centuries before that. In his evocative 1891 book Forty Years in a Moorland Parish: Reminiscences and Researches in Danby in Cleveland, the Rev J.C. Atkinson recalls his visit to an elderly, female parishioner who regaled him with the couplet:

Gin Hob mun hoe nowght but a hardin’ hamp
He’ll come nae mair, nowther to berry nor stamp.

Baffled? Don’t worry, so was Canon Atkinson, because – despite appearances – not all of this archaic dialect belongs to North Yorkshire folk-speech. It’s essentially another warning not to offend your resident hob by leaving him work clothes, but the words ‘berry’ (meaning to thresh) and ‘hamp’ (a peasant’s smock), reports Canon Atkinson, ‘had no actual meaning to the old dame who repeated the rhyme to me’, concluding that ‘the word (hamp) seems to be clearly Old Danish in form and origin’.

He was left in no doubt that his older parishioners, even on the cusp of the 20th century, firmly believed in the veracity of stories whose telling, he implies, had been equally relished by Scandinavian invaders over a thousand years earlier. ‘It was impossible to doubt for a moment her perfect good faith’, he writes. ‘She told all with the most utter simplicity, and the most evident conviction that what she was telling was matter of faith, and not at all the flimsy structure of fancy or of fable’.

In March 2015, Tees Archaeology‘s Peter Rowe met me in his Hartlepool office, and cited the descriptive nature of names like ‘Hob on the Hill’ as further evidence of a Danish influence. ‘The Anglo-Saxons, and the Scandinavians after them, were very keen on descriptive place names,’ he told me, ‘and you pick that up in a lot of local places. So “Hob on the Hill” is a hill, and it’s associated with the folklore of hobgoblins. There’s nowhere that you’ll see this written down in the history books, as these places weren’t really connected with settlements and nobody was taxing them, but I would say there’s a good chance that the hob place names are Anglo Scandinavian or Anglo Saxon. So we’re talking around 600-900 AD’.

If Peter and the good Canon Atkinson are correct, it appears that widespread belief in the North Yorkshire hobs persisted for at least a millennium. So when did their influence begin to wane? The turn of the 20th century, it seems, was something of a hob watershed, and by 1905, even the once-legendary Elphi was firmly residing in the where-are-they-now file. That year saw the publication of Gordon Home‘s The Evolution of an English Town (the town in question being Pickering), which reported – after discussions with local folklorist Richard Blakeborough, who’d done the legwork – that  ‘after most careful enquiry during the last two years throughout the greater part of Farndale, only one person has been met with who remembered hearing of this once widely known dwarf’.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that by the time I’d started exploring the moors 70 years later, stories of the humble hob had ceased to seen as factual local history and had drifted into the fantasy realms of Tolkien and his ilk.  

But are they making a comeback? I sense a whiff of a hob revival in the air. In 2010, two Teesside artists, AJ Garrett and Rebecca Little of the Peg Powler Art Collective, became so fascinated by these relatively obscure nuggets of folklore that they ran a ‘Mop Top Hob Shop’ in an empty shop unit in Stockton-on-Tees, encouraging local children to draw their own impressions of the local beasties. ‘We couldn’t find anything about them on the internet,’ Rebecca told me, ‘so we went to Middlesbrough Reference Library, and searched through books for hours.’

‘Kids take to it,’ chipped in AJ. ‘They say “So there are these little creatures in the middle of the countryside, and some of them are good and some of them are evil… OK!”, and they just go for it’. AJ and Rebecca still have many of the pictures drawn that day, showing an ingenious variety of hobs sporting horns, fangs, pointed ears and – in one impressive application of artistic licence – what appears to be a stetson.

Then there’s the small matter of Elphi’s second wind. Ryedale Folk Museum now plays host to ‘Elphi’s Trail’, a treasure hunt of hob-related artefacts designed to gently guide younger visitors around the attraction’s exhibits. The museum’s director, Jennifer Smith, followed the trail with me, and I couldn’t help but notice that one of the stopping points, ‘Elphi’s House’, was a tiny cottage whose roof had been constructed from an old hardback edition of Forty Years in a Moorland Parish. It seems Elphi, at least, remains as mischievous as his reputation suggests.

‘It’s a really lovely way to get children to engage with the museum’s collection and the area’s history,’ Jennifer told me. ‘I think museums have got more astute in realising that people are interested in things that you can’t see or touch, so they’re doing more about that intangible heritage, and sharing these stories in all manner of different ways. There is absolutely a resurgence of interest’.

Meanwhile, over on the North Yorkshire coast, professional storyteller Rose Rylands finds that the guests on her regular folklore walks are equally fascinated by tales of the coastal hobs dwelling in the region’s various caves and coves. I met Rose on the windswept beach of Runswick Bay, where a benevolent hob with the power to cure whooping cough lurks in a darkened recess of the cliff face; and we spent an idle afternoon wandering slowly up the coast to Boggle Hole, another renowned hob hotspot.

Rather strangely,’ Rose insisted, ‘I had an e-mail last spring from a gentleman who swore to me that, when he was a child, he was walking down this very stairwell when he saw a man-cum-creature… and he described, exactly, a hob. It ran across the path in front of him. It was there, and it was gone. I have to confess that I haven’t followed up this particular enquiry, but sometimes it’s good to leave a mystery right where it is’.

‘Aye, we’re flitting’? Don’t you believe it.