Jonny Trunk, Wrappers Delight and John Townsend

Trunk Records! Everybody loves Trunk Records, surely? A label that offers such an overpoweringly direct link to the nostalgic ephemera of the British 1970s childhood; whether by collating the wistful folk music of vintage pre-school television on the sublime Fuzzy Felt Folk compilation; introducing a new generation to the unsettling radiophonic sounds of The Seasons (an album so redolent of its era’s school halls that the sleeve should really have come with a “scratch and sniff” whiff of parquet flooring), or reissuing the beautiful, melancholy soundtracks to Fingerbobs and Ivor The Engine.

And this obsession with the ‘between the cracks’ minutiae of the 1970s childhood experience barely scratches the surface of the Trunk oeuvre. Elsewhere, there are long-lost film soundtracks, vintage 1950s jazz and exotica, spoken word oddities, even an archly-voiced album of letters written by lonely (if imaginative) gentlemen to their favourite adult magazine and movie stars.

The latest Trunk project is a belter. A barnstormer. An project so bound up in this joyous love of the little, the lost and the forgotten that it’s deserves to become a keystone of the label’s already prodigious output. A new book, deliciously titled Wrappers Delight, showcases the highlights of a forty-year collection of British ephemera that filled an entire house (and accompanying caravan and summerhouse) in Stockport. We’re talking sweet wrappers here… and crisp packets, cigarette cards, cereal boxes, fizzy drinks cans; in fact, pretty much anything with a branded label that ever graced the shelves of Liptons or Presto or Fine Fare or – indeed – the little corner shop on the end of your street with an impressive selection of Mini Milks and Flash Gordon stickers.

The man behind the collection was John Townsend, and the man collating the book is Trunk Records’ irrepressible Jonny Trunk, who – in collaboration with Fuel Publishing – has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to get the project off the ground. Impressively, the target was met within 36 hours, but potential punters still have until 6th July to offer their backing, and claim any number of superb bonuses – including a Planet of the Apes bubblegum print, a striking Space Dust t-shirt, and a pink 7″ single of advertising jingles by British jazzman Kenny Graham. The link is here…

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jonnytrunk/wrappers-delight

I spoke to Jonny Trunk for my BBC Tees Evening Show. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: Can you start me telling me a little bit about John Townsend himself?


Jonny: He was born in Surrey, and he was an orphan. And at the orphanage where he lived, post-war, he realised that every day when the milk arrived, the cardboard bottle tops were all different. So he thought “Oh, I’ll start collecting those…”

By the 1950s he’d amassed a huge collection of what’s called “cartophilia”… cigarette and tobacco cards, that kind of thing, and he became a legend within those circles. He knew all about advertising printed on silk, and anything to do with soap… he was quite a manic collector. I’ve never really seen anyone like him, with that broad scope of interests. For the rest of his life he collected, and then – when he retired – he became an advisor to companies like Lever Brothers, because he knew so much about Port Sunlight! He just couldn’t stop collecting everything. Anything to do with brands… club flyers, phone cards, first day covers, playing cards… honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life.

We’re talking about the kind of collection that takes over the entire house here, aren’t we? And the garage, and the shed, and the caravan…

Yeah, when he passed away in 2015, his son took over the house, and pretty much lived in the kitchen and a little bit of the sitting room. The rest of it was just full. I came across it by complete accident, really… I was going to see his son about some advertising flexi-discs, because John collected those as well. Because they were brand-based… anything to do with a brand, he got involved with, and wanted to collect. So Robin, his son, told me all about John… and when I got to the house, there were just these extraordinary piles of… everything. In a box, there’d be another box full of three different collections of cards from Typhoo Tea, from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, and from Sunblest Bread. And then, in another bag, there’d be labels from sweet rock going back to the 1950s… but there’d be two and half thousand of them. It was extraordinary.

Your eyes must have lit up…

A little bit, but I was also quite apprehensive. There was quite a strange energy in the house, because of the amount of effort in bringing a collection like that together, and then filing some of it, and not filing other bits… you’d open a box, then have to sit down and say “I just don’t understand this.” There’d be a wrapper from a chocolate bar you’d never heard of, a box full of football pennants from 1960s bubble gum, weird things about the American Civil War that were given away as stickers from a comic… but they’d all be together. You almost had to try and process it, in a very strange way. But luckily his sons were very helpful, and said “anything you want to do… have a go.” So Wrapper’s Delight is the end result.

I imagine it was quite a bittersweet experiences for John’s sons? This was their father’s life’s work…

I think so in some respects, but they’d lived with it… they were the ones who had to eat all the sweets when they were little! There might have been some dental issues going on!

How had John’s family coped with it over the years? Had they ever tried to talk him out of collecting?

No, from what I gather, John Townsend was a very focused man. He had to be focused to collect what he collected, on a level that I’ve never seen before. I mean, it’s extraordinary. He was very single-minded, very determined, hugely intelligent… and they knew he was doing it, and that was it. They had their own lives.

What made him do it, do you think?

I don’t know. I’ve no idea. I mean you could go back psychologically and ask whether it was him being an orphan, and wanting to grab onto something that’s a bit more permanent… who knows. But he was brilliant at it.

We should be thankful that he did do it, because this stuff is ephemeral, and most people would look at a lolly wrapper or crisp packet, and decide to throw it away

Everyone did!

…which is why collections like this have such nostalgic resonance, I guess. The scarcity of this stuff…

Yeah, but he would also write to companies…. say if you wanted Womble stickers, and had to collect six packets of Womble chocolate to get them, he’d just phone up the company and say “Hi… can I just have the stickers, because I’m a collector”. And they’d say “Yeah, sure!”

Have you been through the whole collection now?

Yeah… I sort of knew what areas of interest I had, which was the stuff I grew up with, or that rang a bell in my head. So I went through all the tin cans, crisp packets, lolly wrappers, bubble gum packets, cards, all sorts of stuff like that. The confectionary… I mean, the sweet cigarette collection. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was mindblowing.

You put a lovely Generation Game-style video together, with this stuff going past on a conveyer belt, and so much of it just transported me. Was there a Star Wars lolly wrapper on there?

Yes!

I actually ate one of those when I first went to see Star Wars in 1978… my dad bought if for me during the interval, from a lady with a tray strapped around her neck… and I’ve never seen one since.

There’s quite a lot of that. And some of it’s not that obvious, it’s a little bit more obscure. So the book’s not full of Mars wrappers from 1972, it’s a bit weirder than that. There are things like Trebor Prehistoric Chews, do you remember those?

Did they have dinosaurs on, by any chance?

Yeah! And he’s not only got the wrappers, he’s got the cardboard box they were shipped in. We found, in the attic, two huge boxes full of flattened Weetabix boxes… which we didn’t realise were worth a huge amount of money, because they’ve got Doctor Who all over them. A cut-out TARDIS on the back of the box, that kind of thing.

So what form does Wrappers Delight actually take? Have you been doing a lot of scanning?

We’ve been photographing all the three-dimensional objects, like the Cresta can, and then anything that’s two-dimensional, like the flattened wrappers, have been professionally scanned. So we need the Kickstarter to produce a 240 page, full colour, magnificent beast of a book.

And you actually reached your Kickstarter target on… was it Day 1?

36 hours. I thought we were going to be pushed to do the whole thing, but I was overwhelmed by peoples’ enthusiasm and generosity. It’s been extraordinary.

It’s your first crowdfunded projecty, isn’t it? Were you nervous?

Yes, of course… you’re throwing yourself out there, and the way that this is crowdfunded, it’s all or nothing. You either get the funding and can do the book, or you don’t get the funding and you can’t do the book. It’s nerve-wracking, but strangely exciting. I think the Generation Game video helped a lot, and I think people saw the humour and the charm in it, and were seeing things that they’d never seen before. I’ve seen a lot of this stuff, and there were still things that I’d never seen before. It’s on such another level, it’s really interesting.

Great to see that Jarvis Cocker is writing the book’s introduction. I’m guessing this stuff struck a chord with him, too?

Yeah, we sent him over the video… we thought “He’s a pop star…” and you know, it’s all a bit pop, isn’t it? And he was up for it. And what’s interesting is that there was very much a sort of… well, I wouldn’t call it a North-South Divide, but there were certain brands that only really appeared in the North. What’s the one I was looking at today… GBs? That’s quite a weird one. A Scottish tinned mineral drink, a fizzy drink that only appeared up there. Bob’s, too… do you know Bob’s Lemonade? That’s quite an odd one.

I feel like I should, but I don’t…

Honestly, there are some really obscure ones that I’ve never seen before.

I’ve only discovered recently that quite a few brands were trailed in the North-East, before going fully national. Wispas, for example. And the one that I’ve really been trying to look into recently is Glee Bars, which I remember eating in the early 1980s. They were a bit rummy. In fact, I’ve seen rumours online that they were actually taken off the market due to their alcohol content.

They do sound highly questionable…

Yes, kids were getting fighting drunk on Glee Bars in the mean streets of Middlesbrough. The only people I can find that remember them are from Teesside, or at least the North-East. 

I’m pretty sure there are some strange regional crisps as well. They’ll all be finally revealed as and when the book’s finally published, in October or November.

Can people still contribute to the Kickstarter?

Yes, we’ve got another three weeks. It’s great… the reason John’s family have been very generous with the collection, and said I that I can do what I want, is that they get a good percentage of the book. So the more we get, the more they get. And the more fun everybody will have.

And on a thoughtful note, it’s a lovely celebration of John’s life, too. 

That’s whole point. And if this goes well, believe it or not there are probably two other books that could also appear. They’re not related to sweets or anything like that, they’re a bit stranger, but they’re still from his remarkable archive. It’s extraordinary what’s in there. Extraordinary. And it’s good fun, that’s the whole thing. It works on a pop level, on a strange nostalgic level, on a graphics level… it’s just brilliant.

Thanks for Jonny for the natter, and please have a rummage through the Kickstarter options on offer… there’s some great stuff available. And, on an entirely unrelated front, the next issue of the Fortean Times magazine (No 381, July 2019) has the latest printed Haunted Generation column, with thoughts on Jonathan Sharp’s album Divided Time; the new A Year In The Country compilation The Watchers; and Mark Brend’s creepy new novel Undercliff. It’s available on Thursday 20th June.

Divided Time, Jonathan Sharp and faded Polaroids

I think it’s the scarcity of my childhood photographs that gives them such potency. I’d estimate that, during the first eighteen years of my life, fewer than 100 photographs were taken of me… and the family camera was seen almost as a sacred object: brought out of its leather case for daytrips or family occasions, but otherwise kept hidden in a musty nook of the sideboard, nestling between unopened bottles of Campari and Warninks Advocaat, all gathering dust and – like me – counting down the interminable, slow-moving days until Christmas.

The process of developing photos was slow and laborious, too… there was the endless wait to “finish the film” before it was packed into an envelope and sent away – with an accompanying cheque – to Truprint or Turners: mysterious-sounding companies in secret laboratories that my fevered imagination transformed into the photographic equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Weeks would then pass before we could finally discover whether that picture of my Grandma feeding the giraffes at Flamingo Land had actually “come out”, or whether my clumsy thumbs had decapitated the entire family once again.

Photographs became forgotten objects, rarely shared… filed away in gaudy envelopes with their accompanying negatives in a secret pouch, or stuck carefully into musty, brown-card albums and relegated to bedroom cupboards. They physically faded, too… stark monochrome images became fuzzy grey shadows, and vibrant 1970s colours melded into the uniform orange and brown wash that has come to epitomise my memories of the decade. And yet this paucity, and this degradation, has lent our surviving childhood photos such extroardinary power. Fragments of frozen moments and long-lost loved ones, preserved in attics and chests of drawers, may be frequently unseen… but they are never unloved.

These feelings have inspired the new album from Jonathan Sharp, founder of The Heartwood Institute, and purveyor of “Hauntronica from the Heart of the English Lake District”. Previous Heartwood Institute releases – including the superb Secret Rites – have taken inspiration from the stories and landscape of his native Cumbria, but the new album Divided Time, released under Jonathan’s own name, does so in a way that feels more intensely personal, inspired directly by an album of evocative childhood photographs discovered amongst his mother’s belongings.

The album is a beautiful collection of elegaic piano-led pieces, each taking direct inspiration from individual photographs of Jonathan and his family taken in a period spanning 1970-1977; largely capturing the lakes, hills and seaside towns of his native county, but also peppered with intriguing detours to cosmopolitian Kensington and Battersea, and excursions to Hyde Park. There are woozy synths and plaintive glockenspiels that occasionally – for this listener, at least – conjure up memories of school music lessons. I asked Jonathan about the stories behind Divided Time, and his memories of the photographs that influenced the music…

Bob: How and where did you find the photos? Had they been hidden away for a long time?

Jonathan: I found them about twelve months ago. I knew my mother had lots of albums and I was really curious to go digging and see what was there. So they weren’t hidden… more like forgotten.

Do you have specific memories of any of them actually being taken?

It’s a long time ago, but some of them… yes, I clearly remember them being taken. With others, not so much – it’s more of a case of remembering the place, if not the time. Or they’ll bring back related memories.

“Carlisle to Euston Train, 1974”

I imagine they evoked particularly special memories of your parents…

Lots and lots of very happy memories. I had a very happy childhood.

They brought back memories of how different the world was back then… of trains having compartments. I clearly remember the flat in Drayson Mews, Kensington like it was yesterday, and it’s the same for the photos of the Steam Gathering in Kendal.

But sure, lots of memories of my parents too – my father died some time ago, and my mother isn’t in the best of health right now. The photo of Silloth, that’s me with my grandmother and her sister. So I’ve tried to include as much of my family as possible, that seemed really important to the whole project.

“Silloth, Promenade 1975”

There’s a lovely sense of place to some of these photos, particularly the pictures taken in Cumbria. Were visits to places like Bassenthwaite and Silloth a big part of your childhood? Can you talk us through some of the locations that inspired the album?

Sure… the opening track is inspired by a really early photo from 1970 of me looking at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a place that I’ve just kept going back to over the years. I actually have no memory of that photo, so I was surprised to find I’d been there as such a small child. Maybe that’s where my obsession with the place started.

Silloth… oh yes, the place to be as a kid. It’s an Edwardian seaside retreat that hasn’t aged well, but as a kid there was a penny arcade and donkey rides… imagine a scaled-down Morecambe or Blackpool and you’re there. Going to Silloth was a real treat. Bassenthwaite too, that was somewhere we went often, just to walk around… it’s the closest Lake. That particular photo brings back memories of an incredibly bitter winter when the lake actually froze over.

And there’s a whole batch of photos from London in 1974 and 1975, some of which I actually took myself. Those will be the wonky out of focus ones!

“Castlerigg 1970”

Where’s Cherry Woods? That’s a very evocative name.

It’s a wood close to where I grew up in Cumbria, but it’s not on any map under that name. I think that’s just what we called it… or how it had always been known to my parents’ generation. But obviously, in the world of Google Maps, it doesn’t exist under that name. Which says a lot about how digitalisation has reshaped our lives.

“Cherry Woods 1975”

For a kid growing up in Cumbria, you seemed to spend a lot of time in London in the mid-1970s. Did you have family there?

Well, I should explain… my father lived and worked in London, and my mother lived in Cumbria. So for most of our holidays we’d go to London. So yes, I spent quite a bit of time there in the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s. We’d go where he was working, so I also spent some time in New York in the late 1970s… but that’s for the next album!

For someone from a very rural background, London was just an incredible, eye-opening experience. I think I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to such a vibrant, multi-cultural experience at such a young age. There was certainly a sense of wonder… even at something as simple as a black cab or a steakhouse, these things just didn’t exist in Cumbria back then. It may sound mind-boggling, but… pizza! Pizza just was not something you could get in Cumbria, and I clearly remember thinking that I was being so exotic and grown-up, eating my first pizza in London.

It’s funny, but my other abiding memory of London is the security. This was prime IRA bombing time, and I clearly remember being searched when I was going into museums and theatres. That, and the sheer number of Hare Krishnas in robes! It’s funny what sticks in your mind.

“Hyde Park 1975”

A huge element of my childhood nostalgia is that so little of my childhood was “recorded”… I reckon there are fewer than 100 photos of me from the first 18 years of my life, and there’s no moving footage at all. Do you have similar feelings? Does this give nostalgia from the “pre-digital” era a real sense of yearning?

It’s absolutely the same for me. Maybe there are more than a hundred photos of me, as both my parents were into photography, but there are no moving images of me from that period. It’s the nature of the format as well… Polaroids, and photos that have degraded over time. I think that “fuzziness” contributes to the nostalgia factor too. Honestly, it’s like looking through a slightly oblique window into a different world. And really, it was a completely different world in so many ways.

How did you go about emulating the feel of the photos with the music on the album? Were there specific sounds, musical textures, even instruments that seemed to capture the feel of different photos? There seems to be a bit of glockenspiel on there, which reminded me of school music lessons!

Ha, school music lessons… you know, I think there was a certain element of that, at a subconscious level. I was certainly exposed to music at a very young age, I started piano lessons at about six or seven, and I also remember those “Music and Movement” sessions at junior school. I always liked the ones where the instruments came out… things like glocks and mini xylophone.

Probably 90% of these tracks started out as piano sketches, so there are a lot of different kinds of pianos deployed, from jazzy electric Rhodes and classical piano through to Hauschka influences… broken and prepared pianos. I find piano a very expressive instrument. And then the images themselves tended to suggest a tonal palette… be it synths, orchestral elements or more glitchy abstract sounds.

I’ve had a few people comment on how sad the overall feel is, which is a surprise to me as that’s not the vibe I was going for, I was aiming for more a kind of warm, fuzzy, slightly degraded vibe. A personal hauntology, if you like!

Divided Time is released on 21st June on limited edition vinyl, and via download, from the excellent, and prolific, Castles In Space label. It can already be pre-ordered here…

https://jonathansharp-cis.bandcamp.com/album/divided-time

Jonathan Sharp is @Doctorninesharp on Twitter, and you can follow The Heartwood Insitute @Heartwood9. Castles in Space is @CastlesInSpace. Thanks to Jonathan and to Colin Morrison from Castles in Space… and Divided Time will also be featured in the next Haunted Generation column to be included in the Fortean Times magazine, available on 20th June.

Picture Box, Sean Reynard and Quentin Smirhes

It’s 1978. Or 1979. Or 1980… it doesn’t really make any difference. What’s important here is that I’m ill, and off school, languishing in a somnambulent haze of measles or mumps (again, delete as applicable), lazily crinkling the orange cellophane on a glass bottle of Lucozade, and allowing the sparse pleasures of midweek daytime television to wash over me. There will, of course, be Crown Court and Programmes for Schools and Colleges. There may even be the illicit pleasures of Farmhouse Kitchen or Paint Along With Nancy. But nothing evokes the woozy nostalgia of childhood malady more potently than the austere, discordant opening titles of Picture Box

Produced by Granada TV from 1966 to 1990, and presented for almost the entire run by Alan Rothwell, a deceptively gentle actor with an under-appreciated granite edge (it’s an impressive CV that can include both a stint as genial sidekick to Humphrey Cushion in Hickory House, and a year as doomed heroin addict Nicholas Black in Brookside), the programme made an indelible impact on a generation of small children already rendered vulnerable by the lingering effects of spots, sniffles and calomine lotion. Inside the ‘Picture Box’ itself were tales from around the world, all imported by Granada on crackly 16mm film, all introduced by Rothwell, and all preceded by that iconic, unsettling title sequence… a combination of music (Manège, by French sound sculptors François and Bernard Baschet) and the unsettling footage of the rotating box itself, a sequence that Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp once described to me as “the central image we had in mind when we came up with the name and the mood of the label.”

In 2016, I was tipped off about a magnificent spoof version of the Picture Box titles, a “found footage” extension of the opening sequence in which the handle of the mysterious, revolving apparatus is revealed to be cranked by an outlandish figure from the darkest realms of deep archive TV… a sinister, moustachioed individual with a medieval fringe and a skin-tight, mustard-coloured sweater. And black underpants.

Tight, black underpants.

Oh good god, the underpants.

It all reeked of sinister 1970s academia, of smoke-filled common rooms in brutalist polytechnics; of whiskered (and whiskey-soaked) duffers diligently explaining the intricacies of “Water – An Amorphous Form”; presenting long-lost Open University modules on drizzle-soaked Tuesday afternoons, all BBC2 and almond slices.

It made me laugh like a drain, and I loved it.

It transpired to be the work of writer, film-maker and performer Sean Reynard, who – since then – has given his sinister handle-cranker a name (Quentin Smirhes) and cultivated a cottage industy of short, viral films, all spoofing the dustiest corners of the 1970s regional TV archive; where puppet choirboys are taught the rudiments of medieval instrumentation, where disembodied fingers poke from Heath Robinson birdboxes to the wistful, wobbly strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1; where the whispering, be-permed “Gentle Jeff” phones Facebook to softly request a “like” on “Samantha Wright’s photo of a baby eating a lemon.”

I’ve become entranced by it all, and was delighted when Sean agreed to a natter about this beautifully strange body of work. On, appropriately enough, a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. Although, disappointingly, I don’t think either of us were suffering from mumps or chickenpox. I did have a touch of hay fever, though.

Bob: Where did the character of Quentin come from? He’s such a perfect encapsulation of the figures that would pop on TV during our childhoods… did you have anyone in particular in mind when you created him?

Sean: Quentin came about after I’d read an article on Facebook about euphemisms for sexual intercourse… all from the 15th century! The phrases tickled me so much that I was compelled to say them out loud, and the voice that I used was the voice of Quentin… he must have been lurking in me all along. I had no particular person in mind,  I just knew that the flowery terminology required a clipped upper class accent. This was the time when the ‘Vine’ app started… remember that? You could record youself for six seconds, and loop it. So I immediately pranced about the house in my wig, spectacles and St Michaels paisley dressing gown delivering sentences like “Dance The Paphian Jig”, “Grope For Trout In A Peculiar River” and “Take A Turn Among The Cabbages.” The mustard jumper came later.

I feel that I’ve probably subconsciously channelled all three Goodies into one person, with a soupçon of Brian Sewell, perchance. Who knows?

Did you realise at that stage that Quentin had long-running potential?

I’d never planned in my life to have a “character”. But because he feels so easy to do, and he’s so part of me… he’s the dark, neurotic, twisted f***-ed up side of me! I don’t know how he came about, but he just lurks under the bed, like Bob from Twin Peaks… staring at me. And I realised that he was a character that I actually enjoyed doing.

The first time I ever saw Quentin was in your brilliant spoof titles to Picture Box. Those titles (and music) seem to be a disquieting memory of so many people… was it the same for you? Why do you think we found them so unsettling?

They have a haunting atmosphere. And it’s conjured by such a simple sequence, an antique French jewellery box revolving and glistening  in the dark, accompanied by the sound of the Cristal Baschet – obviously an instrument that no one had any idea about then, really… and they still don’t, to this day. It was all very reminiscent of Victorian austerity and secret rooms, and shadowy corners. A sense of warm claustrophobia,  slightly anesthetised, and then the formidable head of Alan Rothwell with his relentless, hooded eye contact. And his obligatory “Hellooooo”…

When did it strike you to incoporate Quentin into those title sequences?

I’d always wanted to film a wider pan of those titles, and see the whole set-up. My original plan was to have some kind of deformed dwarf turning a crank handle, but that didn’t happen… then I went to a props store and saw an old gramophone, and thought “Ah! I’m going to use that, and I’ll have Quentin as the person turning the crank!”

Before that, I’d been looking for motors that would re-create the precise RPM of the Picture Box titles, so I had all that set up, and then the gramophone had the wooden horn, and I had another piece of antique furniture… I just faked it really, to make it look like some sort of wind-up contraption. And then I taught my wife at the time… (Sean is laughing infectiously at this point) Aw… I was there in my underpants, directing Justina – who was on the couch – to get the right bloody distance away, so she should zoom in at the right time. And I was telling her off like Quentin – “No! Do it again!” – and the whole living room was blacked off with material… (laughs)

I wanted to make it as perfect as possible, to fool people into thinking they were just watching Picture Box, before the reveal where it becomes more distorted and haunting. People have asked: “Where did you get the box from?” Well, I researched it a lot…

Hang on, you actually found an exact replica of the box from the title sequence? I assumed that was a clever splice or edit, or some kind of other technical jiggery-pokey…

I own the Picture Box, it’s on the mantlepiece! It’s an antique, French, bevelled glass jewellery box. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one with a red cushion. The one that I got is a reproduction from Australia, and I ended up getting my sister to make a silk cushion for it. I’ll take a picture of it, and send it to you! I keep fake worms in it.

Quentin seems very fond of ‘early music’… crumhorns and the like. Was traditional folk music something that made an impact on your childhood? It seemed to be curiously commonplace on the childrens’ TV shows of the 1970s.

I suppose, subconsciously, it must have. I was also exposed to Shakespeare by my parents, as each year we’d visit Stratford-Upon-Avon, and I became obsessed with doing brass rubbings of kings and queens in gold, silver and especially copper crayons. And in my teens, my friend’s father used to build medieval instruments in his spare time and sit in his study listening to early music, and I wanted to be him.

I had a fascination with experimental music in my early twenties and started to build sound sculptures and adapt conventional instruments. I feel I’ve now brought the two worlds together. Hence my Crumtrombone, which expresses milk.

You seem to have a slight fascination with the Kings Singers, too. Where did that come from?

I tend to remember things that most people try to forget. Memories of The King’s Singers, The Cambridge Buskers, The Houghton Weavers and Skellern… I searched for the Kings Singers on Youtube and became obsessed with their Madrigal History Tour. They’re Quentin’s favourite. Their attire is most fetching.

[I have very vague memories of The Magical History Tour, broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday evenings, throughout May and June 1984. The Radio Times entry for the first episode, Sunday 13th May 1984, promises…

“The Ducal Palace, Mantua, is the starting-point for this expert series about the ‘pop’ music of the High Renaissance. With a selection of songs that range from the light, witty and erotic to the passionate and heartfelt, The King’s Singers outline the rise in popularity of madrigals and show how they became the rage of Europe. Emma Kirkby and the Consort of Musicke, directed by the series’ musical adviser, Anthony Rooley, perform additional examples. The programme also offers a panorama of the 16th century as a prelude to the ‘tour’ which begins next week in France.”]

Many of your films capture a feeling of stillness and slowness that really sums up my memories of 1970s TV. Do you have any specific memories of that feeling?

Yes, being half asleep on the couch with German Measles, refusing to eat my Heinz lentil soup, with Crown Court on. Covered in calamine lotion. I want to know why they don’t put programmes for ill kids on TV anymore. Or maybe they do? I don’t have an ill child.

I think I managed a two-week skive once… my mum had this old lady who came round to look after us, called Mrs Wolf. She was brill. She taught us how to make birdboxes in the cellar and finger bobs. Maybe Quentin’s obsession with birdboxes came from Mrs Wolf? I’ve never thought of that until now.

I’m increasingly convinced that many of our “haunted” memories of the 1970s stem from the fact that childhood illness was much more commonplace. Most of us contracted some combination of the “big three” in the 1970s and early 1980s… measles, mumps and chickenpox. And they required lengthy spells off school, woozily dozing in front of unsuitable Open University modules, or impenetrable schools programmes for much older childen.

When I made my 3-2-1 film, people told me it reminded them of this exact feeling. A dream-like state, dropping in and out of consciousness thinking you understand what’s happening, then slipping back into a trance-like fever dream. I’ve always wanted to capture that feeling, and this is how I’d like to continue with my work. Childhood memories tend to be a distorted interpretation that we try to cling onto as adults. I reflect quite heavily on these things in my work and hopefully other people will relate to them too… although it’s very personal. Poignant things like the colour and texture of your auntie’s purple carpet, and looking at the dust floating in the sunlight as the Granada start up music comes on… as you quaff Quosh from your gnawed yellow beaker. Sorry… I’m actually answering this as if I’m having a bloody fever dream!

Has that feeling of “slowness’ gone from TV now, do you think?

It’s difficult to compare stuff from the past to stuff from the present. We’ve all been moulded to speed up our attention spans, so even watching an episode of The Sweeney on Gold… it feels like it’s been on for three f***ing hours! Saying that, I thought 3-2-1 went on all night in the 1980s.

I still have a fondness for a slower pace. We don’t have time to breathe these days. I much prefer a story that is allowed to take the required time necessary, to gather nuances that we seem to skirt over these days. I think this is the reason things felt creepier or more psychologically damaging… today’s sped-up techniques are merely relying on the “shock” factor. It’s like smacking your kids, as opposed to politely instilling fear and low self-esteem in them. I have no idea what I’m on about now… sorry, what was the question?

What’s your own background as a film-maker and performer?

I started playing the bass in bands in St Helens, then continuing to make music at Art College in Sheffield. I got involved in the improvised music scene there and produced sound installations and sculptures. I moved to London in 1996 with some friends – including Tom Meeten – and realised I enjoyed making comedy videos with him slightly more than the seriousness of making experimental music. Saying that I found many improvised music performances extremely funny… even though they were deadly serious.

We would sometimes play around pretending we were Eastern European avant-garde sound artists in Brockwell Park, wiring up trees and passing rooks’ thoughts through an oscilloscope. I moved to Berlin in 1998 and continued making music, but was steered more towards making films. I would regularly visit London to continue making sketches with Tom and he would visit me whenever possible. Over time, I went my way, and he went his. I had numerous screenings and installations in Berlin and became more involved in the art scene rather than the comedy scene. I was in Berlin, don’t forget!

I moved to Sydney in 2007 and continued to make short films, but also started to get into creating images in Photoshop, as that was a quicker method of getting my ideas out. Moving back to London in 2009, I continued to make predominantly Photoshopped work – with the odd film exception – until the Vine app came about… and that tricked me back into making films again. Short, daft, spontaneous and experimental… just what I needed. After a while I realised a few repeat offenders keep appearing, particularly Quentin Smirhes. I’ve lost most of that material as Vine ceased to exist and, stupidly, I didn’t save them all.

Can you talk us through some of your other characters? What can you tell us about Gentle Jeff, for example?

Basically I dress up, or find a wig, and “Viola!” a new character happens. Jeff happened by accident… I suppose I was channelling the spirit of Bob Ross, with a suggestion of Jeff Lynne… and just a really, really, really, nice, cuddly, positive and content man. He’s the lighter side of me. I should visit him more often, as I fear Quentin will one day send me to the loony bin! And as for Erm Man…

Are Quentin and his friends beginning to take over your life a bit?

Yes, doing this can take over a little so I need to lock him in the cupboard for long stretches. But he likes it in there. Its quiet and warm, and he thrives on the occasional moth.

Any plans for future films or projects?

I have many new ideas and projects for the future, both for Quentin and for other stuff. And I need to complete a film that I shot over a year ago, called MidWiffery. Imagine The King Singers, cross-dressing, in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. On DMT. I intend to complete that in the next few months.

Thanks to Sean for a delightful chat… he’s @raghard on Twitter, and his Youtube channel is here…

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHw0B9zAL4Z08sVRRjfx5g

And, although this is largely unconnected to Sean (and, indeed Quentin), thoughts of 1970s illness, and time off school, prompted me to search for episodes of Paint Along With Nancy on Youtube, and I’m thrilled to report that a few minutes of La Kominsky’s finest HTV hour have turned up, here… so “just be happy to get something that looks human” as you poke another hole in the crinkly cellophane on your Lucozade bottle…

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 379

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 inaugural column, from issue 379, dated May 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

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

Are you craving the oddly warm reassurance of 1980s Cold War paranoia? Is it impossible for you to walk past an electrical substation without recalling crackly Public Information Films, and 16-year-old Jimmy’s stray frisbee wedged into a tower of humming transformers? Do you still feel mild disquiet at the sight of the faceless Edwardian children in the opening titles of Bagpuss? Chances are, you’re one of the ‘Haunted Generation’. The article that I wrote for the FT in 2017 (FT 354:30-37) resulted in an overwhelming reaction from readers keen to share their own recollections of growing up in the “creepy” era; that loose 1965-85 sprawl of inappropriate childrens’ television, radiophonic music, and the vague disquiet of an older, grottier Britain. So I’m delighted to have this opportunity to provide updates on the work of some of the artists, writers and musicians who contributed to that feature, and others whose creativity has been similarly fuelled by the potency of their childhood memories.

Frances Castle, whose evocative artwork adorns the covers of releases on her own Clay Pipe Music label, has just completed the first instalment of her debut graphic novel Stagdale. Set in 1975, it sees  12-year-old Kathy and her recently divorced mother beginning a new life in the titular village, where the discovery of a 1938 diary written by Max, a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, puts Kathy on the trail of long-lost Saxon treasure. “It’s a little bit inspired by programmes like Children of the Stones,” says Frances, doubtless striking a chord with many who recall this creepy 1977 HTV series, and Stagdale certainly boasts a similar ambience of muted, rustic disquiet. The novel can be ordered from claypipemusic.com, and is accompanied by a wistful EP from Frances’ musical alter ego, The Hardy Tree. 

Fans of vintage electronica have cause to be excited too, as a new interpretation of a lost work by Delia Derbyshire sees the light of day, on the Buried Treasure label. Delia is rightly revered for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including her pioneering 1963 arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. By the 1990s, she had become somewhat reclusive, but still befriended musician Drew Mulholland (aka Mount Vernon Arts Lab, whose 2001 album The Séance At Hobs Lane is a Quatermass-inspired riot of gothic radiophonica) and presented him with a late 1960s score of original, unrecorded music, giving her blessing to a new interpretation. The result, Three Antennas In A Quarry, is a 12-track collection of dark, ambient soundscapes. The album is available to download from https://buriedtreasure.bandcamp.com/album/three-antennas-in-a-quarry

And those keen to combine their retro electronica with a journey into one of the stranger corners of the English countryside should head to Wiltshire on 17th August, where Buried Treasure overlord Alan Gubby is staging Delaware Road: Ritual and Resistance… ten hours of music, theatre and film inside a secret military base, close to Stonehenge. He has previous form in this department:  in 2017, I attended a similar shindig, held deep underground at the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex. Here, artists including Concretism and the Twelve Hour Foundation provided live soundtracks to a surreal evening of Cold War disquiet and rather intense mummery. This year’s celebration is headlined by the founder of Crass (and, indeed, the 1972 Stonehenge Free Festival) Penny Rimbaud, and tickets are available from www.thedelawareroad.com.

It could be quite a summer for mass, organised hauntedness, as I’m also hearing whispers of an exciting event to accompany the next release from Ghost Box Records. The Chanctonbury Rings album, out in June, sees writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus and Ghost Box’s own Jim Jupp (aka Belbury Poly) teaming up to take musical inspiration from Justin’s excellent 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, a psychogeographical ramble through the South Downs. It’s a project that Jim tantalisingly promises will be “reminiscent of a 1960s or 1970s music and poetry for schools LP”, and the record will be launched at a Ghost Box event in Shoreditch. Details should be “available by the time you read this”, says Jim, wryly! www.ghostbox.co.uk is the place to keep checking.

(NB Since this article was published, the event has sold out… but look out for a full report on the blog at the end of June…)

To finish off, those intrigued by the recent news that one of artist Richard Littler’s spoof Scarfolk posters (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly alongside genuine Goverment posters from the last 100 years (FT 377:8), will be delighted to learn that a Scarfolk annual is on the way… and is available to pre-order now. Richard’s online evocation of a dystopian North-Western town, all pagan rituals and pylons, provides an immaculately distilled essence of 1970s childhood unsettlement, and encapsulates perfectly those vague, murky feelings of being warned about deadly contagions in your primary school hall.

Issue 380 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 381, available from 20th June.

Delia Derbyshire, Drew Mulholland and Three Antennas in a Quarry

“The most striking thing about the whole programme was the music. Until then, as far as I know, there hadn’t been any pure electronic music. In the early sixties there was still a fair amount of the old 1950s rock and roll around, but then this music came out… no instruments… purely electronic… and I’d never heard anything like it before…”

It was only a matter of time before my Uncle Trevor made an appearance in this blog. Trevor is a lovely bloke, and with the benefit of adult hindsight, I can see what a important influence his tastes exerted on my 1970s childhood. He liked electronic music. He liked Doctor Who. And the above quote is his abiding memory of watching the first episode of the show as a 10-year-old, in November 1963. Yes, he remembers William Hartnell emerging from the TARDIS in a murky Shoreditch scrapyard, but it was the whooshing, swooping, radiophonic theme music that truly captured his imagination. To the ten-year-old 1960s child, the experience of hearing music without any discernable instrument was… well, unearthly.

Although Doctor Who‘s theme had been written by Australian musician Ron Grainer, whose title music for Maigret, Steptoe and Son and That Was The Week That Was had already built him a solid reputation in the TV industry, it was arranged and realised by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire. Surrounded by piles of sliced analogue tape and test-tone oscillators, she painstakingly transformed Grainer’s notation into a resolutely avant-garde slice of musique concrète. Is it, alongside The Beatles’ Revolution #9, perhaps the most widely-heard piece of experimental music ever produced? Grainer himself was certainly taken aback. “Did I really write this?” he famously pondered, as Derbyshire played him the final mix. “Most of it,” she laconically replied. His subsequent noble attempts to secure her a co-writing credit were thwarted by grey-suited BBC beaurocrats, who preferred members of the Radiophonic Workshop to skulk in shadowy anonymity.

Nevertheless, Delia Derbyshire became a pivotal figure in the development of experimental, electronic music, firmly entrenched in that intoxicating middle-ground between art and technology, her life almost defined by the delicious power of contrasts: she was a working class Coventry girl who gained a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University; a tweed-skirted former primary school teacher who found herself at the very farthest edge of the 1960s counter-culture. She exhibited music at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, the 1966 ‘happening’ at which The Beatles’ other experimental opus, the since resolutely-unheard Carnival Of Light, was aired. And – alongside fellow Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson and US-born electronica enthusiast David Vorhaus – formed the band White Noise, whose 1969 album An Electric Storm is a captivating mix of psychedelia, occult-tinged folk-pop and eerie, disturbing soundscapes.

By the 1990s, Derbyshire had seemingly long-since stopped making music, however – towards the end of the decade – she befriended musicians Pete Kember and Drew Mulholland, collaborating with the former on a 2001 track entitled Sychrondipity Machine (Taken from an Unfinished Dream), and passing onto the latter the score for an unfinished piece of electronica, dating – as far as she remembered – from the late 1960s. I knew of Drew from his recordings as Mount Vernon Arts Lab, particularly his wonderfully atmospheric album The Séance at Hobs Lane, originally released in 2001, and then reiussed by Ghost Box Records in 2007. So I was intrigued to discover, earlier in 2019, that he had finally realised Delia Derbyshire’s “lost” score, transforming it into the album Three Antennas In A Quarry, now available from Buried Treasure records.

Drew’s interpretation is incredibly evocative of Deliba Derbyshire’s 1960s work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Doctor Who fans with a particular love of the William Hartnell era may find themselves drifting dreamily to a long-forgotten front room, or – indeed – to a gleaming corridor on a hostile alien planet. I might even buy a copy for my Uncle Trevor. I spoke to Drew Mulholland for my BBC Tees Evening Show, and this is how the conversation went…

Bob: I’m assuming that even before you got to know her personally, you admired Delia’s work a lot?

Drew: Yeah, even on my first records, on the run-out groove it said “Delia Derbyshire we salute you”! So she was always around. One of the things that I ‘fessed up to was that, when I was a 12-year-old, I did shoplift quite a bit… and one of the records I got was Out of This World by the Radiophonic Workshop. And I remember – because there were 100 tracks or something on it – writing down the ones that really stood out for me, and they were all by someone called “DD”. So I checked the index, and it was Delia, of course. And for me, as a 12-year-old, they were head and shoulders above everything else.

That is pretty esoteric music taste for a 12-year-old… like lots of us, did you come to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop through their work on Doctor Who?

Yeah, but also… I’m writing the story of how I got involved in music, and I had to – as Syd Barrett would have said – tread the backward path. So I was thinking about all of this, and it came from… not necessarily Doctor Who, but BBC Schools music. Those weird programme that we’d listen to, maybe on the World Service, that had all these sounds, rather than music. I think that sensibility was very quietly going on in the background, and I was soaking it up.

It’s odd, last week I watched Georgy Girl, the Lynn Redgrave film, and she’s a nursery school teacher, and in the opening five minutes she’s teaching kids to interpret what is clearly an experimental Radiophonic Workshop track! And you’re right, we did hear this stuff at school. Music, Movement and Mime

That was one of them… I think that was a series of LPs. A lot of the stuff that Ghost Box have picked up on, that whole ethos, is very much based on that time. Now we’ve got so much distance from the 1970s, we can look back as adults and go “Actually, that was pretty weird…”. You know, the Public Information Films and all those hauntological tropes. It was a strange time.

It was a time when it wasn’t seen as particularly out of the ordinary to give really small kids some quite avant-garde things to listen to. It was seen as quite a healthy thing. I mean, the BBC produced this stuff for kids… the state broadcaster!

How times have changed!

So how did you get to know Delia? Did that happen in the 1990s?

Yeah, the late 1990s. It was Pete Kember from Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R… we were making a record together, and he phoned one day – very excited – and said “You’ll never guess who I’ve just been talking to…” and I said “Right, can you phone her back, and ask if it’s OK if this guy in Glasgow phones her?”

And I’ve told this story before, but I called her at seven o’clock, and she said “I’m really busy just now, can you call at twelve tomorrow?’ So right on twelve o’clock, I picked the receiver up and dialled the number… so her phone rang at about a minute past twelve. And she just picked the phone up and said “You’re late!'”

Ha! Rumour did have it that she was somewhat eccentric… and also quite reclusive by the 1990s. How did you find her as a person?

I’ll be diplomatic… it depended what time of day you spoke to her. If it was early on, she was sweetness and light and very helpful. She was great. Other times, not so.

I’ve seen you say that she was the only person you’ve ever encountered who could say “Oh Crumbs!” and not make it sound remotely contrived. Did she have that kind of sweet, old school quality to her?

Very much so. “Gosh and golly”, things like that! You didn’t even question it, it was just… that’s Delia. It was very natural, and hilarious of course.

So how did Three Antennas in a Quarry come into your posession? Was it something that you’d talked about working on together?

No, I think she was doing some recording with Pete Kember, it was around that time. We did a kind of mini-tour with E.A.R… Experimental Audio Research, one of Pete’s many groups. This would be summer or autumn 1998. And she’d phone up, and just say… without any pre-amble… “Do you use spices? I can get you some spices! My man works in a spice factory…”

And then she’d phone up and start talking about snuff…

Oh, I’d seen that she was a very enthusiastic snuff user…


Yeah! She said to me once that she’d had a special mix made up at the Sheffield snuff mills.

We need to find that, someone could market it… branded Delia Derbyshire Snuff. I suspect the market for snuff is quite niche these days, but you know…

One of the things that really annoys me is that Pete gave me one of Delia’s snuff tins… and I’ve lost it. I’ve no idea what happened to it.

If your house is anything like mine, it’ll be down the back of a radiator or sofa. So in what form did Three Antennas in a Quarry come to you? From listening to the album, it doesn’t sound like it lends itself to traditional notation.

No, not at all… it was a graphic score, which can be anything – a drawing, a sketch, dots on a page, a graph… it was very much the classic “scribble on the back of an envelope”. It was a sheet of A4, and there was a lot of numerical notation, and references to reel-to-reel tape recorders and what speed they would go at. So it was quite intense tying to find a route into it, because apart from the tape recorders and speed there wasn’t any direction as to how the music should go, the tempo, that kind of thing… but I like that, because I’m a researcher!

Where did some of the titles come from? ‘Calder Woodward’, for example?

A mixture of Calderwood, where I lived briefly as a child, and… Edward Woodward. You’ve got to have fun when you’re making a record!

Any idea what Delia had intended to do with the score? She even seems to have been quite vague about when she’d written it… the late 1960s, but she wasn’t quite sure…

No, she wasn’t sure. I don’t even know if it was supposed to be for the Radiophonic Workshop, or if it was a theatre piece… because she did lot of stuff for television and theatre… or if it was even an idea that she pursued. It was just one of those things that was either abandoned, or drastically transformed into something else.

Did you speculate at one point that she might have intended it for Syd Barrett, or Pink Floyd?

I don’t know… obviously it can never be proven, but I know that she invited Pink Floyd to the Radiophonic Workshop. We got the calendars out, and it would have been October 1967. And Syd was still in the band then, so the idea of Syd and Delia in the same room together fires the imagination.

She seemed to have this connection with the biggest rock stars of the day, and they had a fascination with her as well… didn’t Paul McCartney and John Lennon visit her at one point?

Yeah, Paul McCartney had written Yesterday, so this was 1965. And he knew that he didn’t want the full band to play it: he didn’t want the normal bass, two guitars and drums. So he asked George Martin -“What do I do with this?” and he said ‘”There’s this woman at the Radiophonic Workshop, go and have a word with her…”

I’d literally just read about that in Barry Miles biography of Paul McCartney, and I called her straight away, and said “What’s all this about?” And she now famously said “Yes, he came to see me… with the other one… the one with the glasses”. I said “That’ll be John Lennon, then?” She said “Lennon, that’s it… golly!”

So she lived in a separate world to the pop music of the era, then?

I think so, yeah. I visited Girton College in Cambridge [where Delia studied in the late 1950s] to give a talk there, and I did some field recording, and stayed there for a couple of days… and really started to get a sense of separateness. From the world, basically.

Although she did seem to have a certain fascination with Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones…

Yeah, we spoke to her up here for a radio interview, and she said that when she heard the news that he’d died, she was doing he washing up, and she cried into it. She said he was really nice, and remembered his frilly cuffs! But the spooky coincidence is that they both died on the same day… July 3rd. Which was also the day that my Dad died… and Jim Morrison!

Don’t throw any more in, it’s getting spooky! She’s such an extraordinary figure, and an ahead-of-her-time figure… my Uncle Trevor, who is a big influence on me, saw the first episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 1963, when he was ten… and he said it wasn’t so much the programme itself that stuck in his mind, it was the music… he and his friends had never heard music before where you couldn’t discern any particular instrument. That must have been a mind-blowing thing for an early 1960s kid. Incredibly forward-thinking.

Oh, incredibly! It’s like a stun grenade going into a room… there were only two channels on TV at that point, and not only did you have the introductory music, but you also had those visuals as well. The video feedback… it was the first time that had been used. And this wasn’t some out-of-the-way arts programme, it was teatime on a Saturday. I was two then, so I don’t remember it, but we’ve all grown up with the Doctor Who theme, and more and more television channels, and CGI and all this… but at that time, it must have been a bit of a cultural shift. Suddenly… this is what’s possible. And perfectly timed, in the early 1960s.

Yes, psychedelia, just before actual psychedelia…

Well that’s why they called it psyche-Delia!

Twenty years in regional radio, and I’m still being beaten to solid-gold opportunities for brilliant puns. “Pyschedelia Derbyshire”! Good grief, I hang my head in shame. Thanks to Drew Mulholland, and to Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records. A limited vinyl edition of Three Antennas in a Quarry has now sold out, but the full album can be downloaded here…

https://buriedtreasure.bandcamp.com/album/three-antennas-in-a-quarry

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.

Stagdale, echoes of war, and the Fortean Times

I’m six years old, it’s a breezy summers afternoon in 1979, and I’m walking through the long, scratchy grass of a slippery North Yorkshire riverbank when my dad, ever the amateur historian (well, he has a O Level) spies an outcrop of pale, rectangular concrete, jutting at an unlikely angle from a nearby hillside.

“See that little building? Do you know what that is?”

“Yes…” (I’m lying, of course, but no self-respecting six-year-old wants to demonstrate weakness in the face of his dad’s omniscience)

“Stop fibbing… it’s a pillbox. It’s where we waited during the war for the German soldiers to come…”

My dad, born in 1939, may have been somewhat embellishing his own experiences of wartime service (and the prospect of a land invasion of Yarm), but he was nevertheless right about this evocative relic of civil defence. The concrete wartime pillbox, scarred and overgrown, was a direct and tangible link to an era of history that, in 1970s Britain, still felt remarkably raw. So pervasive was the spectre of “the war” during my childhood that – as a very small boy – I remember being vaguely unsure as to whether it was still being fought. The comic racks in Mr Murray’s newsagents were filled with titles like Victor and Commando; still-youthful relatives would talk of wartime memories that felt disconcertingly fresh (my Mum, only 37 in 1979, recalls tanks rumbling through Middlesbrough town centre) and my enthusiastic schoolfriends honed their artistic talents incorporating divebombing Spitfires into felt-tip recreations of the battle scenes from Star Wars.

Our local landscape bore the scars of war, too… tangled woods concealed the remains of moss-covered gun emplacements; rolling moors were pockmarked with the craters of German bombs that hadn’t quite made it to their targets amidst the industrial heartland of Teesside; and those musty pillboxes were dotted around the fringes of my home town like vigilant, concrete sentinels.

The lingering impact of the Second World War on the childhood experience of the 1970s forms an integral part of Frances Castle’s beautiful new graphic novel Stagdale. Set during the stifling summer of 1975, it sees timid, 12-year-old Kathy and her recently-divorced mother making a fresh start in the titular village, a vaguely unsettling rural outpost stuck in a disqueting torpor. It’s a community that boasts a Norman church, an annual medieval hunting ritual, and an ancient, chalk stag carved into the looming hillside, dominating the nestling huddle of tumbledown cottages below. The book captures perfectly the insularity of the textbook “creepy village”, redolent of so much classic childrens’ television of the era… as well as the suffocating stillness and silence of a 1970s school holiday. “Stagdale folk don’t tend to travel far,” admits Kathy’s new friend Joe, as the duo tramp aimlessly through a sun-dappled churchyard bristling with familiar village surnames. It’s a languid, leisurely tale, liberally dotted with totems of the era: toy Wombles, racks of Texan bars, scary, violent summer thunderstorms and a tiny museum of corn dollies and Bellarmine witch-bottles… a location in which Kathy learns for the first time the wartime story that drives the book towards a tantalising twist: the discovery of a 1938 diary behind the skirting board of her new bedroom.

I spoke to Frances Castle about Stagdale, and her record label Clay Pipe, for my evening radio show on BBC Tees. This is the conversation…

Bob: Congratulations on Stagdale… it’s a beautiful piece of work, and clearly a labour of love. How long has it taken you?  

Frances: I’ve probably been working on it for about seven years. It’s taken many different forms over that period, and it finally came together around the end of last year. It started initially as a couple of short, graphic stories that were seen by a childrens’ publisher, and they were interested in me coming up with an idea for a book. They came up with a story that involved a diary being found in an attic, and then I went away and came back with the basic story of Stagdale. Which they seemed to like… but they wanted the main character to be an American boy.

So that’s how it started, and I came up with a few spreads and some ideas, but nothing came of it really, and they kind of lost interest. And then I thought “Well, I’m going to carry on with this… but I’m going to change it in way that appeals to me.”

Was it a nice thing to have it come back into your control?

Completely. Suddenly the main character became a character that I could relate to, and had more experience of, and it became something that was more personal. I then became so busy with other illustration jobs that I couldn’t do anything with it for a long time… but if I ever had a little bit of spare time, I worked on it. And then I went through a period last year of not being very busy, so I just picked it up, and ended up getting as far as I’ve got… which is the first part of the story.

Yes, this is very much Part One of Stagdale… how many parts will there be?

Probably four or five, I think.

The main character in the book is a 12-year-old girl called Kathy… and you said that she was a character you could relate to. So was she based in any way on yourself, at that age?

Possibly… (laughs!) It could be! The original publishers wanted a boy, because girls will read stories about boys, but a lot of boys won’t read stories about girls. And they wanted him to be American so – if they sold the book to America – American readers could relate to it. So that wasn’t so easy to relate to for me, but bringing a girl into it… as soon as I made that decision, it made things a lot easier. And I felt a lot more at home with the story.

It’s got a similarly creepy atmosphere to so many classic childrens’ TV series of the 1970s… and we’ve chatted over e-mails about programmes like Children of the Stones. Was it that kind of feel that you had in mind when you were working on Stagdale?

Very, very much so. At that point, a lot of those 1970s shows had been re-released on DVD, so they were quite easy to watch again. And obviously I remember watching them on TV as a child, but watching them again as an adult… well, they couldn’t help but be an influence, really.

There’s something about the TV of that era that’s incredibly evocative, isn’t there? Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what…  

I know, and I wanted to bring that into the story. The eeriness, the slight strangeness… I wanted that to be part of it.

There’s one frame in there that really transported me, and it’s a silly little thing… but there’s a scene in the village shop, with a depiction of the sweet racks, and there are Marathon and Texan bars for sale!

I know! There’s going to throw some younger people, isn’t it? They’re not going to understand…

So tell us a little bit about where the story goes… it’s about a girl called Kathy, who comes to live in the slightly creepy village of Stagdale, and discovers something intriguing…

Yes, Kathy finds an old tin with a diary in it, and the diary has been written by a boy who lived in the same house during the Second World War. Basically, he’s a Jewish boy who has come over from Germany just before the war, on the Kindertransport. So these two children have a similar experience of the village, in that they’re both outsiders. And then there’s a jewel that’s goes missing, and the German boy is accused of taking it… and it’s become almost part of the folklore of the village that it was stolen by him during the war. But that isn’t really what happened, and finding out what did happen is the main part of the story.

So there’s a connection between Kathy and the German boy, across forty years of history?

Yes. It’s one of those classic stories of an outsider going into a very rural, small-minded place, where the villagers are slightly odd and creepy. And they both have that similar experience, over different times.

I wanted to ask a little bit about Clay Pipe Music, too. This is your record label, and you’re releasing Stagdale through it… tell us a little bit about the label. When was it founded?

The label started at the end of 2011. I’d made music over the years, but I hadn’t done anything for a long time. But I made a record [The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, by Frances’ musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree] and thought “I wonder what I’ll do… I’ll maybe put it out myself”. I’d had music out on other labels way back, but that was pre-internet, and pre-MP3 downloads. So I thought I’d do it myself this time, and that’s how I started. I did a CD and, being an illustrator, thought I would use it as an excuse for some hand-made stuff…and so I hand-printed all the covers. I think it started off quite slow… and then Jarvis Cocker played it on his 6 Music show, and sales went through the roof!

That helped, and I thought “Oooh… I’d like to do something else”‘. So the next record I put out was by Michael Tanner, called Thalassing, and that also did well… and things slowly started building up. And around about the time of the first Jon Brooks album Shapwick – which initially came out on CD – I swapped over to doing vinyl. I’d reached a point with the CDs where I was hand-making them all, and I could do about 200 at a time, but they were selling out so quickly that I really needed to be able to make more. And vinyl seemed to be the best way for me to do that, and that was the right decision to make. Totally.

Clay Pipe is very much about music and art going hand in hand, and I guess there’s not a lot you can do with a small CD sleeve… but with a vinyl sleeve, my word. You’ve made some beautiful packages.

Exactly, it’s just the perfect size and format to design for, and people pay attention to it, too… they’ll sit and look at it, and listen to the music. It’s just a perfect vehicle for illustration and design.

One of the things I love about Clay Pipe is that the artwork can be as evocative as the music itself… do you work hand-in-hand with the musicians, and consult on any ideas that they might have for the packaging?

Yes, exactly. It’s very much a collaborative thing. Although it varies… some people are happy to let me get on with it, some people come with their own ideas, and some people don’t like my initial ideas! But it’s always worked out, every time.

And is there an ethos to Clay Pipe? Landscape and place seems very important to you…

Yes, pretty much… I don’t just put out collections of random songs, the album has to work as a whole, and there has to be some sort of theme to it, some sort of connection… and yes, landscape has played a big part in it, and place. I think I’m just naturally attracted to music that has that anyway, so that’s always been part of the label, and I think it’ll continue to be.

Stagdale is available directly from Clay Pipe Music, and is also discussed in the first regular Haunted Generation column in the current Fortean Times (Issue 379, dated May 2019)… along with Buried Treasure‘s release of Three Antennas in a Quarry, a Drew Mulholland interpretation of a lost Delia Derbyshire score; the forthcoming Delaware Road: Resistance and Ritual event in Wiltshire; Ghost Box Records‘ latest project Chanctonbury Rings, and the Scarfolk Annual, due for publication in October.