Keith Seatman, Doctor Who and Time To Dream But Never Seen

British seaside towns exist in their own, weird pocket universe. The gaudy fairgrounds, the extravagant ice creams, the Kiss-Me-Quick hats and flashing arcades. The chips dusted with sand, the dogs on the beach. The works outings fuelled by beer and rock dummies; the windswept piers, the cockles and mussels, the inscrutable soothsayers and fearsome landladies. They are towns that teeter on a weird tipping-point between real-life hell and Carry On heaven, a direct portal from the everyday to the world of the 70s sitcom.

Time To Dream But Never Seen, the new album by Keith Seatman on the Castles In Space label, captures these feelings perfectly. It is strange, beautiful, utterly transportative: the very essence of modern psychedelia. And it seamlessly continues a lineage of British wonkiness that includes The Alberts, The Bonzo-Dog Doo-Dah Band, Syd Barrett, and every bizarre, half-baked novelty act that ever clattered onto a wooden stage in some draughty, tumbledown, end-of-the-pier palace of varieties.

I love it. Almost beyond words, although God knows it’s inspired me to write a few. It has weird fairground organs, bamboozling radiophonic noises, sleeve notes by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, and regular Seatman collaborator Douglas E Powell reciting a bizarre list of unlikely rustic aphorisms that never cease to make me laugh out loud: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.”

On the weekend of the album’s release, I called Keith at his home in Southsea, the Hampshire seaside resort whose culture, landscape and social history has clearly seeped into the album’s very DNA. We talked for almost an hour and a half, and it was wonderful. Here’s how the conversation went:

Tell us about your background as a musician… I know you were in a 1980s indie band called The Psylons, but had you done other things before that?   

No, that was the first thing. It was 1986, we were a load of twentysomethings kicking around, and we released a single that got Single Of the Week in the NME. Then it got into the Indie Charts, and then I think John Walters phoned up one day… I can’t quite remember, one of the other band members dealt with it! But it was basically: “John Peel wants you to come in for a session.” And we said “Right OK…” and we did that!

Then, about four or five weeks after that, we got another one. We got two sessions! We did a John Peel session and an Andy Kershaw session, and thought “Wahey, here we go!”

But we were just really unlucky. It went kind of pear-shaped.

This is an example of our bad luck, it’s absolutely true. The second single got played by Janice Long, and those were they days when – if you got a play on early evening Radio 1 – you were quite lucky. I got in one evening, and my Dad said “You’ve had a phone call from someone called O’Connor…” So I dialled the number up, and it was Hazel O’Connor’s brother, who worked for Martin Rushent, the producer. And he said “Martin wants to record you, can you come to Genetic Studios?”

So we piled in the car, went down to Genetic Studios in Berkshire, and we’re thinking “Christ, Martin Rushent… he’s done The Human League, he’s done Buzzcocks… wahey!” But after that we didn’t hear anything from him for weeks, and then the weeks turned into months. And we suddenly saw, in the NME, that they’d gone bankrupt. It kind of always happened like that, we were always just really unlucky. We sustained it until the 1990s, we finally got an album out that got good reviews in the Melody Maker and NME, but by then we were just fed up. We were all drifting in different directions, musically. And that was pretty much it.

So even in The Psylons, did you have that psychedelic influence in your music?

It was real post-punk. Noisy, with bits of psych and backwards guitar, and other bits and bobs. We had a list of hardcore things that we were all into, and that was… Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, very early Pink Floyd, a lot of psych. Then it kind of drifted. I was really into a lot of post-punk synth stuff, and Tangerine Dream. And they could never understand my love of Hawkwind, so there you go.  

Actually Jim [Jupp] and I were discussing Hawkwind recently, and trying to convince Douglas Powell how great they were. But he wasn’t having it at all!

Didn’t you first meet Jim when you were in The Psylons? Did he come to see you live?  

It’s one of those weird connections. I didn’t know Jim, but he came to our gigs. And Jez Stevens, who did the Avoid Large Places video on Youtube, was in a band with him. I got to know Jez through some other projects, and then became aware of Jim… it’s all mutual friends, really. Friends of friends in the pub, that kind of thing. And time crept on, and it became quite close-knit. Jez and Doug knew Jim, and I knew Jez and Doug, and it came together like that. And now we go for long walks together!

So was this pre-Ghost Box?

Yeah, because Jim then disappeared for a few years… was he an architect? It was a high-level, posh job! But then we all came together again. Jez was always in touch with him, and we all got together again in the late 1990s or early 2000s. And that’s continued to this day. We’re all going out on a Last of the Summer Wine day! Me, Doug, Jez, Jim and our friend Russ… we’re going for a walk to Lewes on the South Downs. It’s a lovely walk. We’ll end up in Lewes, in the Lewes Arms – which is a fantastic pub – and then at Jim’s. We all kip on Jim’s floor, and muck around into the night… it’ll end up with me and Jim trying to convince them all that Hawkwind are brilliant.

So after The Psylons, did you quickly want to make music as a solo artist?  

Yeah, I tinkered around with Jack and Simon who were in The Psylons. I still do stuff with Jack, he does a lot of my mastering and co-producing, because basically his studio is a damn sight better than mine! So I did stuff with Jack and Simon, and recorded bits and bobs, but it was the late 1990s and early 2000s again before I started really tinkering around with stuff. And to be honest I wasn’t that confident.

But by about 2008 or 2009, I had all these tapes and CDs of stuff, and Jez gave me a good talking-to in the pub one night. He said “You’re going to have to release it, otherwise you’re not going to do anything.” And I wasn’t that confident about releasing it… I thought “No-one’s going to buy this old crap!” (laughs) You think you’re working in isolation and that no-one’s going to like it.

But I released a couple of things on Bandcamp, and a few people did like it. In fact, one of the early people – this would have been about 2011 – was probably Kev Oyston, of The Soulless Party. We contacted each other through e-mails because I bought a copy of Exploring Radio Space, which I really liked. It looked like a Ladybird book! And I bought his Close Encounters album, too.

I was really lucky. I released the second album, Boxes, Windows & Secret Hidey Holes, and Shindig reviewed it. And I thought “Good Lord, somebody really does like it!” And it just progressed from there. Somewhere along the line, Stuart Maconie played a track… and it just genuinely seems to have snowballed, with a lot of support from a lot of people. Jim’s been fantastic, and yourself… if I had to write out a list of people to thank, it would be a massive list. One day I’m just going put it on the blog page. Without them, I probably would have been sitting in a room, recording stuff but not doing anything with it.  

Time To Dream But Never Seen really spoke to me, and reminded me so much of my childhood visits to the seaside. We’d get the train to Redcar or Saltburn, or the coach to Scarborough, and I was just transfixed by the otherworldiness of these places, and how different they were to the towns that I knew. The whole culture was so exciting and exotic – the fairgrounds, the arcades, the dummies in glass cabinets that laughed when you put a coin in… 

We’ve still got them! There’s one in the city museum, it’s fantastic – you put in 20p and he laughs away. You can hear the motors whirring and clicking away inside. It’s brilliant.  

Well, all of that came back when I was listening to the album. Did you intentionally set out to capture the atmosphere of the seaside, and the fairground in particular?

Oh, I’ll sound really pretentious here, but it really was a subconscious thing. It all just came together. In 2017, I did the All Hold Hands And Off We Go album, but then I got really bored. My attention span went completely, and I thought I’d just release EPs and singles for a while. So I did one of those, and then the Ghost Box 10″ with Jim and Doug… but I carried on recording. And I got quite obsessed in 2019, building up to finishing work for the summer [Keith works at a local college]. I was talking with my sister about the build-up to my nine weeks off, and I was saying that it was exactly the same feeling as when we were little. For two weeks before the holidays, there’s just a buzz in the air at work. The students are fed up with us, we’re fed up with them, and we’re all just looking forward to hitting the summer.

Living in Southsea, we always had access to the beach. And I was saying – the summer holidays would kick in, so we’d have six weeks off. And you could guarantee that, for the first few weeks, we’d be down the beach, at the fair, on the pier… arsing about doing stuff. And I suddenly realised that some of the tracks that I’d done sounded like that and I thought: “Oooh, there’s something going on here!” And then I started thinking about it more, and I realised that the summer holiday basically broke down into three periods.

So the first two weeks would be that build-up, and excitement, and you’re with your mates and getting up to stuff, drifting home, having your tea and going back out again.  

And then you’d hit the middle, where it was almost like… “OK, where’s it going now?”

And then, in the last two weeks of August, there’d be this weird feeling of impending doom. The whole seaside thing disappeared, and we’d go out with Mum and Dad to country fêtes. You know, where you’d stick your head through a piece of cardboard, and people would throw sponges at you. We’ve got the New Forest close to us, so we’d have all those weird fêtes with their home-made jams. And you’d realise that, in this strange, six-week period, you’d drifted from “all the fun of the fair” to these rural tents.

I remember getting told off by my Dad for jumping over the ropes on the tents! He used to say “If you fall over the rope, you’ll get harpooned by the tent peg, and it’ll go through your heart…”  

And then, inevitably, it would piss down with rain. You’d be at a fête and everything would be soggy, and then… well, the summer would be over. So it went from that initial excitement at the beginning, to a weird limbo in the middle, and then stuff with the family towards the end. And before you knew it, it was the autumn. For that last week… you always knew the autumn was on its way, creeping in.

Have you seen the TV series, This Country?  

Only a couple of episodes. I need to see more.

In the very first episode, there’s a scarecrow festival. And that’s what it reminds me of. There’s a bit of a breeze… it’s not cold, and it’s not hot, and there’s just this weird feeling of knowing autumn is on the way. Like Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes… that first chapter, where they’re getting ready for the autumn, and talking about the “autumn people” turning up. It’s a fantastic book, and it’s that feeling. There are clouds on the horizon.

And then it’s here, it’s the autumn. And the summer, all that stuff – mucking around with your mates, falling in the sea, trying to chat girls up, not succeeding at all – it’s all gone. It could almost be a lifetime away.

You go back to school, and everyone seems older. Before the holidays, they looked 13 or 14, and then suddenly they look 30! They’ve all got beards! How they hell did that happen? I was still standing there under my Buzzcocks and Undertones posters looking really pasty, and other students were coming in looking like Lemmy…

So it wasn’t a conscious thing to begin with. But once it was, everything seemed to match, and that’s how it all came together.

So the album was structured to reflect the changing feel of the summer holidays?  

Yeah, once I’d got the idea. The actual title track, ‘Time To Dream But Never Seen’, was probably about the fourth track I had, and then it started to come together. I thought I’d make that the final track, but I still had so many ideas, folders with samples, bits and bobs, and stuff laying around. There was a lot of stuff that I ditched that didn’t work at all.

In my head, I’d thought we were doing a CD, but then Colin [Morrison, from Castles in Space] said “No, we’re doing vinyl!”

“Oh crap, I’ve got to rethink it…” (laughs) I knew then that Side 1 had to end with ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’.

And ‘Waiting By the Window’… I got the title for that because I was once sitting in our house, on an afternoon towards the end of summer. It was absolutely piddling down with rain, and I was waiting for my Dad to come back… we were supposed to be going out, doing all that summery stuff. And I remember staring out of the bay window at the rain, just thinking “If I go away, and come back in five minutes it’ll be better. The sun will be out.”

But it wasn’t. It rained and rained, and I remember my Dad coming in with a look on his face that said “Yeah, we ain’t going anywhere…” And that was it, the end of the summer. It was Mousetrap and Ker-Plunk for the afternoon.

Your relationship with the seaside is an interesting one. Has it always been about Southsea for you?

Yeah, I grew up down this way. I’ve lived away a few times, but always come back. I went for a walk down the beach when it was windy the other day, and I thought – I’ve got a real affinity with it. I’d have a real problem moving inland, away from the sea. Even when I go to see Doug in the West Country, he’s not far from Barnstaple in North Devon, and it’s smashing – there’s sea up there, too! I’ve got to have some sort of water. It’s nice to come out of the house, go for a walk on the beach, and I can look at the sea forts from Doctor Who, The Sea Devils….

Is the strangeness and otherworldliness that I got from seaside towns something that you can appreciate when you actually live, and grew up, in one?   

Yeah. Definitely. There’s also a weird thing… I was chatting with my daughter about this: you go to the beach in the summer, and it’s pretty horrendous. Nowadays it’s barbecues, and there’s literally a dark cloud of apocalyptic smoke hanging over the beach – it’s appalling. You see families with binbags of 500 sausages from Iceland! But again, it’s that “end of summer” thing. When you go back to the beach in the autumn, when it’s still slightly warm… that’s what I really like. All the holidaymakers have gone, you can see the grassy bits on the beach again, and it can be eerie and wonderful. We actually went to see the sun come up on the beach on Christmas Day, two years ago. All sitting there at 7 o’clock in the morning… it was lovely.

Down this way there’s a lot of old history, a lot of forts and derelict sites. The eerie one is Fraser Range, where The Sea Devils was filmed. I had a wander down there the other week, because they’re slowly knocking it down and turning it into flats, which is a real shame. But growing up, it was so exciting going down there. It was an active range, and you’d hear the guns on a Saturday and a Sunday morning. They’d fire out into the Solent and put marker buoys out, to stop ships from coming in. And that’s basically what you see in The Sea Devils, when the hovercraft comes up, and they’re all running around. That’s Fraser Range.  

But you go down there now, and it’s all covered in graffiti. Online… they’re called urban explorers, aren’t they? They go into old buildings? There’s one for Fraser Range and it looks fantastic.

So yeah, it’s that sort of mystery. It’s quite nice. Even walking through the fair in the autumn, when everything is under canvas – you know, they cover everything up for the winter. As soon as dusk falls, anything at the funfair looks weird. With a full moon and eerie shadows.

So that Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils from 1972… obviously the fact that it was filmed in your town had a huge impression on you, but it’s also got one of the harshest radiophonic soundtracks ever! Malcolm Clarke’s music for that story is so experimental. Did that get to you as a kid as well?

It’s those screechy bits – I’m going to do one now! Weeeoooweeeeeeeooo! I was obsessed with that when I was a kid. Absolutely. My two favourites, and the only Doctor Who stories I’ve got on DVD, are The Sea Devils and The Daemons. I’ve always been a “take it or leave it” Doctor Who fan, but they’re my absolute favourites. One was filmed down here, and the other…well, it’s The Daemons! Set in the village church, there’s the little guy called Bok, the huge Daemons… and that’s got some good sounds on it as well.

But yeah, The Sea Devils is really extreme, isn’t it?  

I love the fact that we were exposed to avant-garde, experimental electronic music on BBC1 at a Saturday teatime. And not just that… I think it was actually considered really healthy at that time for children to experience leftfield art and music.

Jim said something once, when we were discussing stuff like that. That we were all into the same odd and strange stuff, but you never knew who else was into it… so when you met someone that was, it was quite exciting! A friend and I showed the intro from Children of the Stones to his son, who was about 18, and his daughter, and they just stared at it and said “What the hell is this all about?” (Laughs) And does anything actually happen? But they thought the opening was quite freaky.

And the intro to The Owl Service… that totally shook them up! They said “What’s it all about?” And I said “Well I’ve read the book, watched the TV show again recently… and I’m still not absolutely sure.” I’ve got two lovely editions of the book, one of them a lovely hardback that I picked up in an old junkshop, and I’ve got the DVD of the bloody series… but I still wouldn’t like to explain it to someone.

It’s one of my favourite books. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but I like that. 

Yes, you’ve got to keep reading it, and you’ll keep seeing different things in it all the time. We were all subjected to stuff like that, and I suppose – going back to The Sea Devils – it all fits in. The strange avant-garde electronica, the kids’ programmes with weird beginnings… I don’t know why it worked like that back then, and why it doesn’t work now. I’m going to sound really old, but everything has to be explosions now.

Although saying that, I did watch Doctor Who the other week, and there were a lot of Cybermen in it. And I thought “OK – I’ll go with this!” I like a good Cyberman.

The track you contributed to the Scarred For Life album was an homage to another unsettling TV series, Escape Into Night.  [NB the album is discussed in detail here]

Yes! I watched that with my sister. We had the book at our primary school, Marianne Dreams. I remember it being in our little, basic school library, next to Bedknobs and Broomsticks. And again – I didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on, apart from these rocks getting closer to the house, and scaring the crap out of me! I re-watched what I could some years ago, when it started appearing on Youtube, and I tracked down the paperback and re-read it, and it’s an absolutely fantastic story. And the crackling voice on the radio: “We can see you…”. Again, coming back to that Doctor Who approach… I don’t know if they just shoved a microphone through an old fuzz pedal, but it’s really, amazingly distorted. So that’s why I did that one!

I love ‘Avoid Large Places’ on the album, and I was trying to work out where I knew the sampled speech from…  

It’s not actually one sentence, it’s cut together from a larger bit of speech on a junior poetry album. I had to chop the whole middle bit out, so she doesn’t actually say “Avoid large places, keep to small…” It’s “Avoid large places… blah blah blah… keep to small!” I’ll try to dig it out. I pick up cranky old poetry albums, and record these samples, and I forget where they came from.

There’s a second-hand record shop in town, and somebody brought in an amazing collection. I was chatting with the guy in the shop, and he went downstairs and said “Oh, someone’s just brought in a load of BBC stuff… ” I ran down, and it was the usual sound effects albums, and I already had a few of them, but it also had these BBC albums of poetry and nursery rhymes, and an original copy of the orange-covered Play School album. So I just bought the whole lot… I think he wanted seven quid! It’s not what he would normally deal with…

So I think it’s from one of those. I do tend to scour eBay for odd poetry albums, I’ve got a couple from a series called Voices, they’re 1960s albums done as educational things. Shirley Collins is on them doing a couple of pieces, they’re on the Argo label. There was a whole series of them, but I’ve only got a couple. And then there’s one called The Searching Years… there seemed to be all these albums around then, with strange kids reading poetry! And glockenspiels being hit, and kids belching into microphones.

That’s another thing from that strange era… it was very acceptable for kids to have these odd albums. “Here’s a microphone and here’s an elastic band!” Nowadays, it’s all bloody laptops (laughs).

The Seasons, by David Cain and Ronald Duncan, is my textbook example of that. The music is so harsh, and the poetry is often quite disturbing and inappropriate… and yet it was absolutely intended to be played to primary school-age children. I wasn’t actually sure if ‘Speak Your Piece’, Douglas Powell’s spoken word piece on Time To Dream But Never Seen, was a little nod to The Seasons.  

Well, do you know what? I gave him a call on the Dougphone – I always imagine it’s like the Batphone, he lifts the receiver up and says “Yes, Keith!” – Diddleiddleiddleiddledum! [this is Keith doing the Batman music]

I said, “It’s that time again, I’ve recorded something, it’s really quiet… and I don’t want singing!” I said I wouldn’t mind some sort of poem. And he said “OK, leave it with me,” and then sent it to me…  and I can imagine some old sage sitting in the corner by the fire, recounting these tales to the young lad who lives up the road.

They actually reminded me a bit of Kev Oyston and Chris Lambert‘s Black Meadow stuff, especially Chris’ folk stories.

Oh, that’s fantastic stuff. I’ve got all the books now, and I bought a few as Christmas presents! I’ve met Chris a few times now, and I went to Reading to see one of the Black Meadow stage productions, with all the kids…

I saw the same show in Whitby! It was great! [Chris is a secondary school drama teacher, and enlisted his students to perform a Black Meadow play… you can read more about it here]  

It was really, really good. I just sat there and thought – “Brilliant!” It must have been a great adventure for the kids. I’ve only really met Kev once, and I felt very humbled. I’m always like that when I meet people. “Argh! It’s Kev! Kev from The Soulless Party! Can you sign me book please?” (laughs) That was in Reading Library, they put another Black Meadow thing on there, and it was fantastic. I tend to get a bit overexcited.  

Kev’s funny. When The Utopia Strong played in Newcastle, he somehow arranged for me and him to interview Kavus Torabi and Steve Davis  

I met Steve at the Delaware Road event. I was leaving at about 11pm… I’d watched Chris Concretism then made a move for home, but grabbed a coffee before I went. And I bumped into my mate Jez again, and he was chatting to some bloke. He said “This is Steve,” and I said “Alright, Steve, how you doing…”

“No, this is STEVE”!

And then I did a Scooby Doo head turn and went “You’re Steve Davis!” And then I didn’t know what to say. I think I just said “Smart… and really sorry, I’ve got to go!”

Jez said something about me and Castles In Space to him, and I just said “Yes, it’s coming out in the New Year…”

I bet Steve Davis has heard your album. He’s into everything.

I picked up the Utopia Strong album, and it’s frighteningly bloody good. I was chatting with someone a while back, and saying they really had to hear it. I said it’s Kavus from The Cardiacs, and it’s Steve Davis [and, indeed, Michael J York from Coil]. He said “What – Snooker Loopy Steve Davis?” But everyone’s known for a long time, he really is Mr Prog. He knows stuff about Turkish prog-garage bands from 1967.

And he still went “Steve Davis? Snooker? World Champion?”

He sits there with his big synth… it is amazing.

He told Kev and me that it felt like a new lease of life, starting a completely new career at the age of 60-odd. He was really excited.  

I was reading a really lovely interview with him, about how he just drifted into it. And I thought – yeah, imagine being in that position where you’re 60-odd years old, you’ve done all your snooker stuff, and you’ve got this whole second life. He’s a massive Magma fan, isn’t he?

That’s where him and Kavus met, they were at a Magma gig in Paris.

It’s absolutely amazing.  

One more thing about your album… I wrote a review of it for Electronic Sound magazine, and it got a bit florid. But the album really, really spoke to me… and I ended up talking about the “glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness”, and how you tapped into a lineage of strangeness that incorporated The Alberts and The Bonzo Dog-Doo Band, all that kind of thing. Did that strike a chord with you, or was I just rambling?

I showed that to my friend Greg that night, we were having a few drinks. And I said “I’ve got something to show you…” He said “Is it Mr Fischer’s review?”

And he read it, and looked up, and said “That’s pretty much nailed it!” (laughs). You mentioned Tommy Cooper…

It’s just that whole lost scene of strange British variety acts. Your album reminded me of that tradition. And, for some reason, him in particular.   

I enjoy a bit of Tommy Cooper. Greg and I always end up discussing old episodes of Dad’s Army, or Steptoe and Son. And the sadness of Steptoe and Son. We’ve sat there and analysed it, half sloshed, about how absolutely tragic it is… this grown man lives with his Dad, who’s so needy and won’t let him escape. He’s an absolute bastard.

And I very much like Ivor Cutler too, things like that. There’s a few Bonzo tracks that I like, but also – I have a massive love of The Cardiacs. Again, it fits in with that strange quirkiness. So yeah, I read it again, and Greg read it again, and said it had hit the mark.

And bearing in mind he’s from Stalybridge in Lancashire, he didn’t even say anything derogatory about North Yorkshire!

At this point we ended up rambling about my beloved North York Moors, but lost our train of thought when Keith knocked an empty beer bottle onto the kitchen floor (from the previous evening’s recycling – he was keen to point out that he hadn’t been drinking that lunchtime). So I’ll just say thankyou to Keith for a delightfully entertaining conversation, and point out that Time To Dream But Never Seen can be ordered here…

https://keithseatman-cis.bandcamp.com/

And sod it… here’s the full review I wrote for Issue 62 of Electronic Sound magazine. Which is well worth subscribing to, you can do it here.

KEITH SEATMAN
Time to Dream But Never Seen
(Castles In Space)

“Owner of some synths, and always a tad lost.” So goes Keith Seatman’s self-effacing description of himself, and both are apparent in this utterly magical concoction, an album steeped in the sweetshop mysticism of a stranger, gentler England. Certainly the wistful tootling of ancient keyboards are present and correct, conjuring delicious images of topsy-turvy fairground rides, of wonky, body-bending mirrors and clanging Ghost Trains. With Seatman himself marooned in the throng, bemused and out-of-time, a static observer in a stop-motion crowd scene.

Write his name in the centre of a crumpled notepad, and – as this extraordinary musical adventure unfurls – let the comparisons explode around it. You’ll end up with Syd Barrett, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, even Tommy Cooper and the remnants of Music Hall. But they’re not influences, nor inspirations. It’s more than that. It’s genetic. This is the sound a man of whose DNA is infused with the spirit of what the Alberts once described as “British Rubbish”. It’s the glorious inheritance of arcane weirdness, and it’s painfully touching to acknowledge that such a thing even exists any more. It’s like finding a beloved, elderly relative, long assumed dead, living in a disused lighthouse on the South Coast, surrounded by wheezing harmoniums and stuffed puffins.

You need actual proof? Try the zig-zagging, end-of-the-pier Wurlitzer of ‘Tippy Toe Tippy Toe’. The spectral, skeletal waltz of ‘Compact Bedroom Circus’. Or ‘Speak Your Piece’, in which poet, songwriter and regular collaborator Douglas E. Powell invokes the spirit of Ronald Duncan in his Seasons pomp: “Where the acorn lands upon the ground, the hare, mouse and pig are found.” We’re now six albums into the career of this Puckish troubador, this mercurial genius on the fringes of popular hauntology. But, like those old Nationwide weirdies who would row to abandoned sea forts in the Solent and declare them an independent state, Seatman has become the king of his own beautifully bespoke realm.

And a tad lost? Yes, but wonderfully so. Stay lost Keith, and keep sending us postcards like this. Assuming he’s on the same calendar as the rest of us dreary mortals, it’s barely February. But he might already have made the album of the year.

Musty Books: “Jill Graham and the Secret of Druids Wood” by Lesley Chase (1974)

Perhaps the most intriguing mystery for intrepid teenage detective Jill Graham to investigate is this: who was Lesley Chase? And how does the author of six novels, all published within the living memory of anyone over the age of 50, vanish without a trace? It’s perhaps reassuring, in an age when the the internet has removed almost all of the mystique from our information-drenched lives, that the enigmatic Lesley has somehow managed to remain firmly off-grid. I can see that she (or he? Even the name is tantalisingly ambiguous) wrote half-a-dozen “Jill Graham” books between 1974 and 1980, but – as far as I can ascertain – no other work has ever been published under that name. And that’s it. Neither Google nor the books themselves offer any further clues as to the author’s identity.

Thankfully, I can tell you more about Jill Graham. She’s an endlessly optimistic 16-year-old school-leaver in the midst of a long, lazy summer holiday whose life, by anyone’s standards, appears to be nigh-on perfect. She lives in a rambling cottage in the tiny village of Shayle, tucked into the corner of some fairly non-specific rural English idyll. She has two loving parents; her father being the editor of the local newspaper, and her mother a cheery, stay-at-home mum seemingly happy to provide wholesome, home-cooked meals for anyone who passes through the house at any time of day or night. Her older brother John is an tousled trainee journalist, and his best friend Geoffrey is Jill’s dashing would-be suitor. And Jill has a best friend of her own, Susan, who lives in the neighbouring village of Fallowfield and works for a local estate agent.

Jill also rides a horse called Conker. Of course she rides a horse called Conker.

There’s something almost weirdly timeless about all of this: so much so that I have a nagging suspicion that the book might not actually have written in the 1970s at all. Jill, Susan, John and Geoffrey all seem to exist in a bubble entirely divorced from the experiences of ordinary 1970s teenagers: there is no mention of TV, pop music, fashion, or films. And the escapades that follow feel more like 1950s derring-do than swinging 70s adventures, so it possible that the enigmatic Lesley Chase had been sitting on these stories for some time before finding a publisher?

Either way, it’s a gentle, straightforward ramble through a crime caper worthy of the Childrens Film Foundation. Jill, while cutting through the sun-dappled trees of the local Druids Wood, chances upon a red-bearded and vaguely untrustworthy-looking sort of chap (“He was a shabbily-dressed man, short and broad of chest”) acting suspiciously around a delapidated woodland hut. As she peers from behind the bushes, he sinks a metal box of used lightbulbs into a dank pond, and arranges a midnight tryst at the same location with Susan’s creepy boss, Mr Mostyn.

Much to-and and fro-ing through the woods commences, as the intrepid Jill takes it upon herself to prevent the unspeakable crimes that she seems convinced are an inevitable consequence of these dastardly actions. After all, what good could ever come of a man with a lop-sided eyebrow sinking a tin of lightbulbs into a woodland pond? As it happens, she’s right – there is, of course, a murder plot to uncover, and an impromptu kidnap along the way, too. All of which Jill faces with the unshakable confidence and righteousness of… well, a well-heeled Home Counties girl who rides a horse called Conker. If there were hockey sticks involved here, they would – we can be assured – be far from sullen.

It’s interesting to read a story clearly targeted at a young female readership of the 1970s: the female characters are strong and undaunted (Jill is never afraid of the dangerous situations in which she is placed), and the males remain fairly peripheral. The pleasures of domesticity are heavily stressed too, and it has none of the “wyrd” trappings that I suspect might have been included had the publishers been attempting to attract an fanbase of teenage boys. It’s a perfectly pleasant read, concise and tightly-plotted with likeable characters, and left me with the nagging suspicion that teen fiction for female readers has been somewhat overlooked in the great 21st century audit of 1970s ephemera. I look forward to discovering, in some musty bookshop of the near future, the little-known seventh book in the series, Jill Graham and the Mystery of Lesley Chase.

Mustiness Report: A wholesome 4/10. A book with the odour of a fresh breeze, gently wafting across the Fallowfield meadows on a bright, August morning.

Musty Books: “The Third Class Genie” by Robert Leeson (1975)

At first, this feels like a curious slice of whimsy from a writer I associate with grittier fayre: Robert Leeson’s series of Grange Hill spin-off novels from the late 1970s and early 1980s perfectly captured the ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ grimness of the TV series. And his 1983 sequel Forty Days of Tucker J was a pivotal part of my pre-adolescent reading, with the eponymous Jenkins given the titular deadline by his impatient mother: forty days to prove he can escape the spiralling dole queues before being forcibly marched back to school to gain further qualifications.

The Third Class Genie opens with a lighter touch. The hero is skinny, hangdog schoolboy Alec Bowden, who keeps a constant running score of the disasters and triumphs that mark his days in Bugletown, a fictional suburb of Manchester. Here, he lives in a crowded family terraced house between the railway line and the allotments (poor Granddad is even relegated to a caravan in the back yard), and spends his schooldays avoiding the attention of resident bully Ginger Wallace. Wallace, we learn, lives on nearby Boner’s Street (settle down at the back, there) and – as the story begins – is forbidding Alec from taking his usual shortcut home past the Wallace household, or “you’ll get a thump.”

Alec’s fortunes change when he discovers, in the grounds of derelict local factory “The Tank”, an abandoned beer can that plays host to the 975-year-old Abu Salem, “Genie of the Third Order of rank and merit in the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo”. Initially, typical Genie-based hilarity ensues: Alec exploits a seemingly endless supply of wishes with flawed attempts to gain new plimsolls, clean schoolbooks and even an extension to the family home. But as the story progresses, Leeson’s clear interest in contemporary 1970s social issues comes more and more to the fore.

Events turn with Abu Salem’s desire to aid Alec’s school project on the Crusades, encouraging him to document a perspective on these historical events that has previously been eschewed by his school textbooks. A perspective from which King Richard I is seen as “chief of the Frankish bandits”, the leader of foreign “barbarians” who came to slaughter. This approach earns him a rebuke from traditional schoolmaster “Tweedy” Harris, but praise from schoolroom pin-up Miss Welch… inevitably nicknamed “Raquel” by her students.

And then the crux of the book is revealed: Ginger Wallace is part of a West Indian community on Boner Street, a community under threat from eviction by a racist coalition of local councillors keen to redevelop the area. There are bigoted slurs and misinformation being spread around the neighbourhood, including ludicrous rumours of poor hygiene (“they keep their coal in the bath”) and a fictional illness “brought into the area, perhaps by an illegal immigrant.” And when Abu Salem – previously a disembodied voice inside the beer can – assumes physical form, he is revealed to be a black African slave, in danger himself of being branded a dangerous outsider in a town where tensions are clearly running high.

At this point, Leeson – a Cheshire man himself, with a background in left-wing politics – shifts the book into a higher gear, and it becomes complex, thought-provoking and remarkably progressive for an era when the politics of race were frequently exploited for comic effect. Schoolyard differences are set aside, and the battle becomes convincingly real. As a white North-Easterner, I perhaps feel a little self-conscious commenting on the accuracy of the depiction of black communities in the North-West of England, but the story felt both heartwarming and well-intentioned to me, and I enjoyed it enormously.

Mustiness Report: A disappointingly fresh 1/10. Barely any must at all to disclose, although my copy appears to be a 1987 reprint, so perhaps another ten years of solid, damp neglect are required for the book’s full musty potential to be fulfilled. No names or addresses inscribed on the inner pages either; 1980s children were a trusting bunch.

Gilroy Mere, Oliver Cherer and Over The Tracks

“The past in fading layers, visible from the present…” A phrase that Oliver Cherer used early in our conversation, perhaps perfectly summing up my own relationship with nostalgia, too. It’s the erosion of the past that truly moves and affects me. The forgotten people, places and objects that are in danger of being permanently lost from the 21st century collective consciousness: moving farther away in time; slipping inexorably backwards towards the boundaries of living memory.

And what also interests and delights me are the often-hidden areas where those elements of the past still protrude, sometimes unnoticed, into the present day. There is something both sad and reassuring about the remnants and traces of abandoned places and practices that still somehow intrude into the modern everyday. Feelings perfectly evoked by Oliver – recording as Gilroy Mere – on his new collection of recordings for Clay Pipe Music.

Both the current flexi-disc EP – Over The Tracks – and the forthcoming album – Adlestrop – take their inspiration from the overgrown remains of rural railway stations, all closed in the wake of the 1963 Beeching Report. Under these sweeping cost-cutting reforms, 2,363 stations were recommended for closure; but the remnants of many – all rotting sleepers and overgrown platforms – linger on. Many have been subsumed and reclaimed by the natural world, others replaced almost completely by the march of modernity; but their presence is – just about – tangible to the more diligent of modern-day visitors.

I asked Oliver about the background to both EP and album:

Bob: First of all, congratulations on Over The Tracks… the EP is lovely, and has been specifically inspired by St Leonard’s West Marina railway station, in Sussex. Can you tell us a little bit about the station? What was its history, and when did it close?

Oliver: Thankyou. St Leonard’s West Marina Station was the first station in the Hastings area, and it marked the arrival of the railway. But there was a certain amount of rivalry between competing rail companies, and it lost out to a different line. And, after a slow decline, it fell to the Beeching axe in 1967.

And I’m guessing it’s a station that has particular significance for you?

Well I live in St Leonards, and I pass through the place where the station stood on my way to my record shop at the De La Warr Pavilion, in Bexhill.

So what’s left of it now… does anything remain?

All that’s left is a buddleia-covered platform, opposite TK Maxx and a carpet warehouse. “Swallows” from the EP is an attempt to evoke the stillness of that platform between trains in the summer, when the buddleia is a-buzz with birds, butterflies and bees. I always have to look out for the platform as I pass, knowing that it goes almost completely unnoticed by everyone else.

Is there a sadness to passing through the remains of such a historic spot, then?

It’s not particularly sad, but it is perhaps a little poignant. The gradual erosion of the past by the present-day probably always is.

The other tracks on the EP are more obviously train-related, as I’ve tried to use the clickety-clack rhythms you got from the old railway tracks, before they made them smooth and continuous. All of the tracks have field recordings in them somewhere.

The forthcoming album, Adlestrop, is also beautiful… and is inspired by other stations closed by the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Is there something about vintage rail travel that appeals to you… or is it more the “lost” nature of the stations themselves?

Thank you. Actually, I don’t much like the idea that I may be something of a nostalgist. I’m not in a very strong position to deny it with my track record, but really I’m interested in the history of these places and any signs of a previous existence or incarnation. I got into a discussion recently where I might have used the phrase “palimpsest of ghostly resonances” to describe what steers me towards the hauntological.

That’s really what’s at the base of this album. It’s the past in fading layers, visible from the present.

That’s a beautiful phrase, and I think describes perfectly my relationship with nostalgia. And Adlestrop station itself, in Gloucestershire, was previously immortalised in poetry form by Edward Thomas. Is it a poem you’re particularly fond of? It’s very evocative…

It started with Adlestrop. The album, I mean. I’ve always loved that poem. It seems to mark, on a summers day in Gloucestershire, a moment of stillness, shortly before the Great War changed everything. Thomas couldn’t have known that, of course. But the war re-contextualises his poem and, like many of these stations, it becomes a scar on the present. I visited Adlestrop village, and all that’s left is a station sign in a bus shelter, nowhere near the original location.

‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas (published 1917)

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I wondered how many of the stations referenced on the album you’d actually visited… any other stories you can share?

Visiting Adlestrop spurred me to get hold of a copy of the Beeching Report. Which, in Appendix 2, lists all the services and stations recommended for closure in the 1960s. There are 2,000 wonderful names, like Black Dog Halt and Star Crossing – irresistible to the seasoned hauntologist! I kept it with me wherever I went, and made field recordings in as many locations as I could, using them as the starting point for each track. This worked in different ways for different pieces, but they all have something of the real place within them.

Some places have no evidence of their previous life as a station and some are still there, though maybe now converted into a house or cafe. It didn’t matter to me. My “brief” was simply to record what was there, and use that. “Just a River” is simply that – just a river and a road, and the fields in which the station once stood.

How did you try to capture the spirit of these stations in musical form? For example, “Bethesda“, a musical evocation of a station named after a religious chapel, has a very hymnal quality to it… I’m assuming that was deliberate?

Sometimes I’m reacting to the place as it is in the present, and sometimes to what was there once upon a time, especially if this is in some way obvious. Bethesda is a good example. The line from Bangor is now pretty much a footpath all the way. I joined it at Tregarth, and it cuts though rock and woods and over roads and raging white water rivers, all before winding up at Bethesda, where the chapel still stands in a wet and green valley.

It seemed weathered by a mossy , churchy stillness, and the melody came instantly, the moment I sat down at the piano with the recordings. This is probably true of a few of the tracks on the record, and I think two or three more have a “churchy” feel to them. They mostly started with these kind of improvised sessions, and some really didn’t have much more done to them.

These places are often in quiet, remote locations which is what, ultimately, closed most of them. So the feel tends to veer towards the still or sombre. Though I was probably going for “elegiac”!

I can’t resist asking about “Ravenscar” too, which is a location that’s pretty close to me, on the North Yorkshire coastline! A place with a fascinating history: in the late Victorian era, work was begun to turn the village into a huge resort town, intended to rival Scarborough. It was really ambitious! Plans were finalised, work was begun, roads were even laid down… but ultimately the finance ran out, and the actual houses were never built. What made you choose Ravenscar as a source of inspiration?

Ah, Ravenscar. I’ve known Ravenscar for years, and the moment I’d decided to make this record I knew I’d need to include it. My partner’s father spent a chunk of his youth there, as his rich uncle owned the Ravenscar Hotel and he went to live with him there for a spell. So I’d been there, and I knew its history. It’s the strangest kind of ghost town because it’s the ghost of a town that never was. All they built were the roads and the station, before the development went belly-up.

The station is still there, and the roads are still visible, though nature is gradually reclaiming them. It truly is a fading scar on the bald cliff top. Very atmospheric. A strange thing happened after I’d finished the record. Jenny’s dad Jo died, and we were sorting through his house and possessions, and I found a video and an old railway magazine covering the history of Ravenscar station, together in a pouch. I ran the video and played the newly-finished album with it, and it was just a perfect match.

Your previous album for Clay Pipe, The Green Line, was based on the bus journeys that it was once possible to take from London to the surrounding countryside. Is there something about the public transport of decades gone by that you find particularly evocative?

Well, I was talking to Frances, who runs Clay Pipe, and I said “I’m going to have to do something different next time, as I don’t want to be the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ guy!”

I do love old things, though. Trains, synths, guitars, houses, cheese. I’ve always thought I was a modernist, so maybe it’s my age that’s causing the nostalgia. I am increasingly interested in the past, and there’s nothing more fascinating than local history. All history is local somewhere, right? I’m not one of those people that thinks everything was better in the old days, though. After all, I was only able to make this record because of the luxury afforded to me by digital devices. And I love all the old gear, but I really don’t want to make records that sound like they were recorded forty years ago. Although again, occasionally guilty!

I’ve seen you talk about your home studio a few times, and your addiction to filling it with vintage gear from junk shops! Can you describe it a bit? What’s the stand-out piece of kit in your collection?

Anything that makes an interesting noise is a useful tool, I think. I’ve got some lovely bits and pieces, mostly bought cheaply in junk shops and boot sales. Some choice guitars and vintage synths, of course. I found two classical guitars in different charity shops that I love. One was made by a world renowned luthier in Japan in 1967, and the other was made by a man called Robert Kaye Kneller, in Worthing, in 1974. They’re both stunning, and I paid £27 for the pair. Those things don’t happen that often, but they make me joyous when they do!

Both guitars feature on the album and flexi-disc. I’ve also just acquired some amazing Spendor speakers that are going to transform my home studio, physically as much as sonically. Weirdly though, the thing that’s been on more records than anything else, at least in the last five years, is a car boot zither that I customised with a bit of wood cut from the back of a chest of drawers. I made a curved bridge so I could play it with a bow, and it has a unique sound. I christened it the “Partch Harp” as I tend to use it in a kind of Harry Partch microtonal way. It’s on everything.

The other thing that’s also always intrigued me about you… I think you might have worked under the most pseudonyms of anyone I’ve interviewed to date! Do they all have individual personas or musical styles that you feel suit different projects?

I guess the pseudonyms are used to demarcate musical territory, yes. Dollboy was a nickname coined by an old friend, and got used for a long time. I couldn’t have even considered using my real name back then – my ego wasn’t fully developed! I used a few different names on various releases on Deep Distance and Polytechnic Youth and it seemed like a game, really. It was fun.

I’ve never made any realistic effort to obscure my identity, though. I know there are people who only like the output of certain pseudonyms. My Oliver Cherer stuff doesn’t necessarily chime with fans of Australian Testing Labs, and that’s OK. It has been pointed out to me that I’d be better off if I made an effort to look less like a dilettante, but I honestly don’t care.


So where does “Gilroy Mere” come from?

“Gilroy Mere” was Frances’ idea, I think. Partly, anyway. Something English and pastoral, I think it was. It backfired on me when I was playing guitar with Pete Astor on a Marc Riley session. Pete thought it’d be a good wheeze to introduce me as Gilroy Mere, assuming Marc would know the Green Line record and make the connection, but he just scoffed at the posh berk on guitar and said “Oh aye, where d’yo get him from?”.

And what’s your next project?

The next project is a weird one. It’s the remixed soundtrack to Andrew Kötting’s next film, The Whalebone Box. If you’re into the hauntological, you’ll love it. It’s a strange tale of a sealed whalebone box, apparently washed up on a Scottish island and passed from one person to another, then finally returned to where it was found. It is about ghostly resonances and the spirits that occupy things and places, and it’s very beautiful and very strange.

Andrew asked me and Riz Maslen – aka Neotropic – for music that he could cut up and repurpose for his movie, and we duly obliged. He then gave us the finished soundtrack, half each and asked us to remix it. I did the first half of the movie and Riz did the second half. It’s going out on a double vinyl set, but it’s not official yet so I can’t tell you the label! Beyond that I’m beginning work on an album of songs with an actual band for the first time in years. I just fancied recording things with more of a live feel for a change. I think Adlestrop will be out in midsummer, and hopefully there will be some shows.

Thanks to Oliver for his time, and thoughtful responses. Find our more about Over The Tracks here…

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/over-the-tracks/

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.

Musty Books: “Mandog” by Lois Lamplugh & Peter Dickinson (1972)

A book with a curious title, and one taken from a relatively minor plot point in this 1972 hardback adaptation of a little-remembered BBC1 children’s series. In a nutshell: a family dog, Radnor, becomes the physical host for the mind of Justin, one of a group of revolutionaries who time-travel to 1970s Southampton from a dystopian Britain, 600 years in the future.

Hiding out beneath a nest of abandoned cars in a local scrapyard, “The Group” – as they are handily nicknamed throughout – are on the run from the 26th century secret police, “The Galas”. Here, I got a little lost in time myself: The Group – a team of scientists reluctantly working for a futuristic, totalitarian British government – appear to have travelled to 1972 specifically to spend a quiet fortnight in Southampton secretly perfecting a replacement time-travel device. Which will then “transmit” them straight back to the 26th century. Which begs the question – why did they bother in the first place? Perhaps the opportunity to see Mick Channon’s trademark windmill goal celebration in the flesh was just too tempting to resist.

Their plans are uncovered by three local children: Kate, her older brother Duncan, and her best friend Samantha “Sammy” Morris. And Sammy’s dog Radnor, of course, whose temporary mind-swap with The Group’s office junior Justin is the latter’s punishment for having followed his futuristic freedom-fighter friends to 1972, when his agreed job description was actually to stay behind in the 26th century and destroy their initial time machine before it fell into government hands. What none of them realise, of course, is that The Galas have also travelled to 1970s Hampshire, and are occupying the nearby flat of the girls’ schoolfriend, Mary Ndola.

What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable collision of 1970s kitchen-sink kids’ drama and downbeat science-fiction grittiness. Radnor the dog provides the comic relief, digging up next door’s sweet peas and developing – as his mind-swap incumbent Justin adjusts to 1970s life – a penchant for fried breakfasts that has Sammy’s parents swiftly tutting and muttering about the housekeeping. And there is an interesting dynamic between the girls: Kate is a wheelchair-user, frustrated with her mobility in the disability-unfriendly 1970s, but she is much more adept at her schoolwork than best friend Sammy, and there are subtle suggestions that each girl quietly craves the others’ advantages.

Meanwhile, Duncan is the textbook 1970s older teenage brother; awkwardly fancying Sammy (“a super girl”), and taking on odd jobs around town (at the book’s opening, he’s redecorating an entirely pink houseboat) to fill the aimless hinterland between school and full-time work. There is a lovely sequence in which he uses his apprenticeship as a TV repairman to infiltrate the Ndola household and “repair” a deliberately sabotaged TV… with the blessing of the occupying Gala forces, who are presumably keen not to miss a single episode of the Doctor Who story Day of the Daleks. A serial broadcast concurrently with the TV version of Mandog, and with a plotline also centered around a small group of futuristic revolutionaries travelling back in time to 1970s England. I’d love to read the BBC memos that flew around when that unfortunate scheduling clash became apparent.

As ever, it’s the intrusion of the otherworldly into ordinary 1970s life that appeals to me, and the prospect of rival futuristic factions let loose amidst the suburbs, schools and scrapyards of working class Southampton is a delicious one. Peter Dickinson had already made his name with his late 1960s novels The Weathermonger, Heartsease and The Devil’s Children, a trilogy he later adapted into the BBC’s acclaimed 1975 “series for slightly older children”, The Changes. As far as I can see from the book itself – and contrary to the show’s Wikipedia entry – Mandog was an original TV script by Dickinson then adapted into book form by Lois Lamplugh, but – as ever – I’m open to correction on that front.

Point of order: Sammy’s mother, in the TV series, was played by a (just) pre-Slocombe Mollie Sugden.

Mustiness Report: My copy has a mild musty smell, a subtle 4/10. It has an inscription, too: it was once owned by Debbie Wilson, who wrote her address in Radcliffe, Lancashire on the back of the cover in black biro, along with the date… 18th October 1977, although she initially wrote this as 1976 before correcting it. October seems late in the year for this kind of confusion, so maybe Debbie too was involved in a bit of minor time-travelling? I’m certainly assuming she left Radcliffe at some later stage, as her entire address has since been crossed out in blue felt-tip.

The Black Meadow, Chris Lambert and The Soulless Party

A disclaimer: I am in love with the North York Moors. This vast sweep of bleakly beautiful countryside, occupying a remote corner of North-Eastern England, was virtually my childhood playground. Sunday afternoons were made for family yomps around the heather-coated hillsides of Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping, while school trips and Outward Bound courses began to introduce tantalising hints of sometimes-invented folklore. Did I ever get to the bottom of the ‘Black Heart of Whorlton Castle’, a terrifying, medieval ghost story set amidst the crumbling remains of this overgrown, 12th Century ruin? Yes, 25 years later, when I tracked down my former teacher, Mr Hirst, and he all but admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.

But that was part of the appeal: landscape attracts stories. Both ancient and modern. And now, when I tramp around the same desolate hillsides and ancient ruins as a middle-aged, weekend dog-walker, I take as much pleasure and inspiration from the folklore attached to the landscape as I do from those spectacular surroundings themselves.

Clearly Chris Lambert and Kev Oyston feel the same. Around five years ago, I became aware of their musical collaboration as The Soulless Party, and the folk-influenced electronica that claimed to take its inspiration from the sinister stories attached to The Black Meadow, an area of the North York Moors centred around the famous RAF Fylingdales. I knew, of course, the story of this mysterious military base; its legendary “golf ball” radomes had comprised arguably the most recognisable Cold War missile warning system in the world. Though these infamous spheres were demolished in the mid-1990s, and replaced by a sleek, concrete pyramid, the base remains an iconic local landmark.

I was, however, utterly unaware of the wealth of local folklore that Lambert and Oyston seemed to have unearthed. The Black Meadow was a name unfamiliar to me, as were its accompanying tales of a village that appears only “when the mist is high”: a darkly mystical community existing in a supernatural netherworld of pre-industrialised folk ritual and superstition. Just who was the “Rag and Bone Man”? Did the mysterious “Brightwater Archive” really attempt to document these stories in the 1930s, before being inexplicably shut down? And did Roger Mullins, a visiting professor at York University, genuinely vanish in the area while attempting further investigations in 1972?

Lambert and Oyston presented books, music, photographs, websites, blogs, lectures and even a “lost” 1977 Radio 4 documentary to reinforce the veracity of these stories, expertly blurring the lines between genuine folklore and invented fiction. I’ve since come to know them both well. I’ve interviewed them many times for BBC Radio Tees, and I’ve even collaborated with them on certain projects. Sometimes they admit to wild invention, other times they’re tantalisingly vague. It’s all part of the fun. And the project has been expanded further with the release of two new instalments: a wonderfully atmospheric album – largely by Oyston – and Lambert’s accompanying book, where tales of the “Ticking Policeman”, the “March of the Meadow Hags” and the “Village Under The Lake” further explore the legend.

Both book and album are entitled The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, and both are available now.

I spoke to Chris Lambert about the whole Black Meadow phenomenon…

Bob: For those unaware, tell us a little bit about the Black Meadow in your own words… as far as you’re concerned, where exactly is it?

Chris: The Black Meadow is an area of land on the Whiteway Heads Road, between Sleights and Pickering on the North York Moors. RAF Fylingdales, once of the iconic “golf balls” missile warning system, is located on the Black Meadow. For centuries, the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings. The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high. I first found out about it when a colleague of mine, Kev Oyston, was investigating a lost Radio 4 documentary, Curse of the Black Meadow, and asked me to assist him in his research. After that I was hooked.

Do you find that area of the North York Moors especially fascinating? It provides a direct link between ancient landscape – with its associated folk stories – and Cold War paranoia, in the shape of the aforementioned RAF Fylingdales. Is that a combination that you find particularly irresistable? 

It’s completely fascinating. It’s the incongruity of that vast landscape and the stark, strange pyramid that now sits atop it. The golf balls too were an eerie sight… even more eerie in the memory, and in faded photographs, now that they are gone. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War… though excitingly it is threatening a comeback, which will be a real boon for us Threads fans. But I remember living with a slight sense of dread constantly in the back of my mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to these places, and to these types of stories.

Just down the road from where I live, in Berkshire, is RAF Greenham Common, the now-decommissioned American missile base. That also holds a real fascination for me. And the silos were used as a location for Star Wars – The Force Awakens! I also love the pillboxes that are dotted along our local canal, to defend us against attacks on our waterways. Any site where there is a strange, seemingly anachronistic incongruity attracts me. That juxtaposition of the natural against the artificial, particularly in places where nature has actually won. That shows that these terrors are fleeting, and that the life of our planet is beautiful.

I think this might also be because I read a lot of John Christopher as a child, and loved the images of the decayed modern cities in The White Mountains, from the Tripods trilogy, and Beyond the Burning Lands, from the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Or the desolation in Empty World. More recently I read his adult novels The Death of Grass and Wrinkle in the Skin. They also scratched this itch, with their exploration of a vastly altered landscape.

What’s your own connection to the North-East? Were your parents from Teesside?  

My mum grew up in York, and her parents were from that area. My Dad was the vicar of the parish church in Saltburn in the 1960s and early 1970s, before I was born. He then moved the family down to Shaftesbury in Dorset, which is where I appeared! Interestingly, Shaftesbury is the home of Gold Hill, where the famous Yorkshire-set Hovis advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was filmed. So, quite aptly, I lived in an imagined Yorkshire, in the south of England. Interestingly my Mum told me just at the weekend that she never wanted to move south. She absolutely loves the north of England, and I suppose that enthusiasm has rubbed off. 

I know you had a strict religious upbringing, and I’m guessing traditional folklore wasn’t a big part of that. Is there an element of researching and writing about supernatural folk stories makes them almost “forbidden fruit” for you? 

Oh, my goodness. All of it! I think I appear to be very overexcited about things when I discover them. I don’t have the same cultural references as Kev Oyston or your good self, because I wasn’t allowed to watch, listen to or read quite a lot of things when I was little. My Dad would put the TV in the loft or in the cupboard during the week, and I would sneak an extension lead up there if they were out, and watch Alas Smith and Jones. It was a real pain when Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I did a talk about burning my Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when I was a young fundamentalist – I was led to believe that they would do me spiritual harm. So any folklore was off limits. Anything occult-tinged was a no-no. I remember my mum warning me about the dangers of Dennis Wheatley… who I had never heard of, but she made him sound very exotic and interesting. I still haven’t got around to him, as I don’t believe he could live up to the hype! I was brought up on the aggressive anti-gay/catholic/muslim/occult tracts by Jack Chick, and the only comics I read were Archie and the (now that I have revisited them) utterly appalling and deeply offensive Crusaders comics. With the exception of Archie, these comics introduced me to imagery of hell, torture, possession and demons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lucio Fulci or Armando de Ossario film. So oddly, it was these terribly written but evocatively illustrated works, intended to lure me away from Satan and all his works, that stuck in my head. I wouldn’t have known about these things if I hadn’t read them. Such a strange bubble to live in! 

So sometimes there is a little wicked part of myself that thinks – would this get burned? Is this a bit naughty? If it is, I’m more likely to research it or write it. This sounds a bit like rebellion but it doesn’t feel like it, I just write what comes into my head. But I can’t deny the influences of my childhood.

You’ve lived in Berkshire for many years – was there ever a temptation to write about Berkshire folklore, or is there something specifically about the North-East, and the North York Moors, that you find lends itself to strangeness?

I am very interested in Berkshire, and have written a kid’s play called Deadman’s Lane which, like The Black Meadow, is about a world hidden inside another. A re-imagined geography. Deadman’s Lane bisects the school grounds where I work. I’m also working on something based in my own immediate locality, which I plan to start if the Black Meadow ever frees me from its misty embrace. That said, the North York Moors do attract me hugely… partly because they’re physically distant, and so they give me the opportunity to imagine myself there. It’s the desolation of the moors that I love, that vast sweep of heather, interrupted by that strange pyramid and the floating mist. They’re a favourite place to holiday, too.

How did you first start writing about the Black Meadow? And what were your ambitions for it at the start of all this? It’s become quite a sprawling, multi-media project… 

The project began when Kev and I worked on the radio documentary, The Curse of the Black Meadow. Kev had created/discovered the theme tune for Tales from the Black Meadow and it was already growing into a larger project in his head, so he invited me to help write the documentary for which this would be the theme. As I was creating that, I decided that one of the key players, “Philip Hull”, would mention, off the cuff, several folk tales… such as “The Shining Apples” and “The Devil and the Yoked Man”. I then realised that these tales needed to actually exist to add weight to the documentary. So I began to create/discover them. Firstly for the documentary, but then as we went on, more were unearthed/written.

And I had no real ambition at first! We just sort of went in the direction the meandering paths took us, having fun. After that it evolved into the book and album, but I certainly didn’t envisage at the time that that little documentary would end up leading us here…

Can we talk about Kev Oyston himself? How did you meet, and what’s the division of labour like between you and Kev? 

It’s really interesting for me to pull this apart! We met online, of course. It started because a friend of mine, Dave Yates – aka Dolly Dolly – had done a track for Kev on his Electronic Encounters album, and sent me the link. I loved the album, and was fiddling about one day and decided to make my own Close Encounters-influenced track, Follow the Toys… which I then took a punt on, and sent to Kev. He was kind enough to pop it on his Electronic Encounters Special Edition. We then bandied tracks back and forth, and he sent me a couple of instrumentals that I added lyrics to… like a latter-day Vince Clark and Andy Bell. And then Black Meadow happened. He made an evocative video to accompany his track, and invited me to do the documentary.

The division of labour for the first album was, with the exception of one track, that he wrote the tunes and I wrote the stories. As the project progressed, the process became more knotty. Kev would write a track and send it – and the title – to me. From the title and the mood of the track, I would then write a story. However at the same time I would be writing another story which he would read, and then use the title for another track. I’m now not entirely sure who started which stories! I think he definitely wrote The Black Dog, from which I wrote the story… and I wrote The Shining Apples first, because Philip Hull mentioned that in his interview.

For this second album we used a similar method. I would immerse myself in the music and extrapolate a story from that and the title, or Kev would come up with a tune, from the story and title I’d provided. I have fond memories of listing to The Maiden of the Mist on repeat, while I worked on that story. I have the album on repeat when I’m writing, editing and typesetting, just to stay in that world. The second album has been a much longer process because Kev kept writing more music, and I kept coming up with more stories. It got so thorny that I had to make a spreadsheet just to keep track. Which Kev ignored on several occasions! Hence the thickness of the book.

What kind of reaction does the Black Meadow evoke in people? Do people generally believe it all?

We tread a fine line. When I do a talk I introduce myself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. I often have the word “LIES” on a screen behind me. But even though I say that, people still ask me if it’s all real. I had one person ask me if they should contact their MP about the disappearances on the moors… I actually didn’t give a her a definite “no”, as I was quite tempted to see what would happen.

I had a very strange conversation with one chap. I remember starting a sentence with “I made all this up…” and he asked me in the next sentence if what I was saying was true. I then told him “No, I made it up…” and carried on to another bit of folklore which I also preceded with a disclaimer. He then asked me about again about the truth of it all. This went on for the entire conversation… which I enjoyed immensely.

I think the issue is that people want to believe. There are also so many weird blimming things going on that they think it is all inspired by real occurrences. It’s a very interesting time to be doing a project like this, with all the talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. I never set out for this to be some sort of critique of that. But when you use real places, add dates, and use phrases such as “everybody knows” or “it has often been said” before telling a story, people seem to accept it as the truth. Even if you explicitly tell them it’s a lie.

Have you met sceptical souls?

I have met sceptical souls, but they tend to enjoy the wink and the nudge of it all. I often say that if you do even the tiniest bit of research this will all unravel, but most people can’t be bothered and would rather enjoy the fun.

Is blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction part of the appeal for you? How far will you go to achieve that?

I am very much into the idea of mythogeography, projecting a story onto a landscape and exploring that landscape through a different lens. We all do it to a certain extent… for example, we get a little frisson of excitement when we visit a film location. Gloucester Cathedral cloisters are the location of the Hogwarts corridors in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So if you visit, you can picture the martyrdom of Bishop Bonner alongside the petrification of Colin Creevey. And when I visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset the guide on the bus tour talked of how the two tall columns of stone influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. I don’t know if that was true at all, but even if it wasn’t, I could still picture Orcs peeking out from behind the stones.

It’s the urban myths told around camp fires: “It was just half a mile from here that his body was found, and it is said that….” So yes, it’s a huge part of the appeal. I think some of that comes from playing as a child in my garden. I was lucky enough to have a big, vicarage garden and would spend hours on my own imagining myself in epic fantasy adventures. I would make tunnels in bracken and bramble, and fashion maps where corridors and cave-like openings would have grandiose names.

The strange thing is, I visited the Black Meadow over a year after I had written the first tale and I was struck by how very real the stories seemed to be, and how they fitted with the landscape. It was very strange. I’m delighted that every time I’ve been there, it’s been shrouded in mist.

How far would you take the illusion? There is actually a little plaque on the moors, isn’t there… where – ahem – did that come from?

How far would I go? I think there’s a mischievous side to me, but I would be utterly appalled if we hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. So Kev and I both err on the side of caution. We aren’t planning to do an Area 51 style storming of RAF Fylingdales, for example. That said, the plaque commemorating the disappearance of Roger Mullins, which you can indeed find on the North York Moors, was put there by the Brightwater Archive and Roger’s family. It has nothing to with me or Kev, so I don’t know what you’re talking about there.

Back in 2017, you brought a party of drama students up from your Berkshire school, and performed a Black Meadow stage play at Caedmon College in Whitby, a stones throw from the meadow itself! I was there, and it was amazing. How on Earth did you persuade your head teacher to give the green light to all this?  

My school is great. I’ve worked there for over fifteen years, and have always been given the space to innovate. Before I was a teacher, I worked as a playwright, but I moved into teaching when I began to starve to death. From the start, I was getting the students to perform at local venues and trying out strange and wacky ideas. From medieval mystery plays around the whole school site, to a Deadman’s Lane radio play and a Zombie Walk!

Before we got to Tales from the Black Meadow – The Play, I had been working on a series of productions to try and get more boys into Drama. We went down the horror route and that did seem to work. I worked on a three-year “Trilogy of Terror” (without Karen Black or crazed African wood carvings) which started with an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos – right up your misty alley – followed by the aforementioned Deadman’s Lane, and then topped off with Night of the Living Dead for Kids. To promote the final play of the trilogy we did that Zombie Walk for charity and then, erm… I somehow persuaded the Parish Council to let the cast shamble after the runners when the Olympic Torch was passed through our village, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.

So taking the cast of Tales From the Black Meadow to Whitby? It wasn’t really a surprise. The head teacher just rolled her eyes and gave us her blessing. I think the parents thought we were mad, though… and they were probably right, the students still talk about it. My only regret is that they didn’t get to see Whitby, because we had to leave at 5am, get off the bus at 12pm, get into the school and set up, perform at 2pm, then get back on the bus… we did however drive through the Black Meadow to get there, and the mist was up.

How do you think the performance went down? Do modern kids understand that 1970s “haunted” feeling that we still seem to feel so profoundly?

It’s always interesting performing a play to complete strangers. Caedmon College were so kind to accommodate us, and gave us lovely feedback. We could have done without our smoke machine setting off their fire alarm in the first ten minutes, though! The students really got the play, but it’s hard to say whether they get our haunted feeling. I’m just an old man to them, and they aren’t bothered by our past experiences. In the same way that weren’t bothered by our own parents’ stories when we were kids. They live in strange times though, so maybe they’ll look back on this era in a similar way, with that nostalgia for dread. We had the Three Day Week, the Cold War and Public Information Films. They have Brexit, Trump and internet memes… something weird is going to be born from that, I’m sure.

Any future plans for the Black Meadow project?  

We plan to produce the next volume of the Black Meadow Archive soon, but there are rumblings from Whitehall that we won’t be given access to their files, so there could be something of a delay whilst we sort that out. The amount of back and forth we had, trying to get the latest publication past those censorious civil servants, beggars belief. We’d love to make a film or a radio documentary, too. I guess whatever the government allows, will happen.

The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, by Chris Lambert, is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Meadow-Archive-1/dp/1688953167

And the accompanying album, by The Soulless Party, is releases on Castles In Space, and is available here…

https://thesoullessparty-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-black-meadow-archive-volume-1