The crackly, rustic theme tunes; the muted colour palettes; the crude but charming animated styles, the gently-clipped narrations by honey-voiced character actors, their fruity tones steeped in sugary tea and the pallid smoke of untipped cigarettes. The short cartoons of our 1970s childhoods – from Mr Benn to The Magic Ball, from Bod to Mary, Mungo and Midge – had a very distinctive style, and a very special place in our hearts; broadcast ‘for our younger viewers’ in the five-minute run-up to Pebble Mill at One, or sandwiched between Blue Peter and the unsettling headlines of the 5.40pm news. One final, daily hurrah of childhood innocence before Kenneth Kendall or Richard Whitmore arrived, and our cosy front rooms were once again subsumed by news of international arms races and imminent industrial action.
Richard Littler – who, since 2013, has been the benevolent overlord of Scarfolk, the dysfunctional North-Western town trapped in a perennial, authoritarian late 1970s nightmare – has combined many of these evocative factors to create Dick and Stewart. While re-creating perfectly the gentle trappings of those teatime institutions, it’s actually a nightmarish, satirical look at 21st century surveillance culture, seen through the eyes of a very 1970s schoolboy – the trusting, innocent Dick – and the living eyeball that he carries everywhere; the last, living remnant of his friend Stewart, who – we learn – has died in a playground accident.
Narrated by Julian Barratt, of The Mighty Boosh and Flowers fame, it’s a disturbing but beautifully-made piece of animation, with the pilot episode – I Spy With My Little Eye – available to watch, in full, on Youtube…
I asked Richard about the process of making Dick and Stewart, and the inspirations behind it…
Bob: Congratulations on Dick and Stewart… it’s wonderful. Can you tell us a bit about the process of getting it made, and how difficult that might have been?
Richard: Thanks a lot. I was flying blind a bit because, although I’ve worked in motion graphics before, I hadn’t done any kind of character or narrative-based animation. It took me a while to find my feet and develop my own process. I ended up creating Dick and Stewart with a mix of open source software and Adobe After Effects, which I don’t think is typically used for this kind of production. There weren’t any deadlines so I just took my time. On my own, it took months to complete.
As a graphic designer, had you always harboured ambitions to try your hand at animation?
In addition to Disney, Warner Bros and Tex Avery – which was my favourite – I was also brought up on Terry Gilliam’s Python animated inserts. It was seeing his rudimentary style that first made me think that animation may be possible even for someone like me. Gilliam didn’t need a studio of Disney animators, nor did he care about the kind of slick refinement you’d see in a film like Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty. He just did it all in his bedroom, even when he was making it for the BBC. Gonzo or punk animation. Low-budget, daytime kids’ animations were also similarly simplistic.
Yes, it’s clearly very much inspired by the 1970s animations that we all saw as children… the likes of Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge. Can you talk us through your memories of watching these, and other shows of the same ilk, and how they made you feel as a child? Which of them were your favourites?
I loved the cartoons you mention. I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss etc. Looking back at the cartoons before I started Dick and Stewart, I was surprised how technically crude – albeit charming – some of them are. You can frequently see pencil marks, rubbings out and felt-tip pen strokes. Rostrum cameras were also used extensively, so thirty seconds might go by and the audience would only see a zoom or pan of a static illustration.
This slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. I wasn’t as much a fan of noisier cartoons like Roobarb – as much as I love Richard Briers – or American cartoons like the Hanna Barbera stuff. I also preferred hypnotic narrators such as Ray Brooks and Oliver Postgate, the co-owner of Smallfilms.
The trance-like quality was compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me.
Interesting that you mention dreamlike qualities, as we’ve spoken before about your childhood inability to distinguish between reality and the horrible nightmares you suffered from… does that remain a motivating factor in your work?
I don’t think it’s a conscious factor, but I have always preferred art, music and books with dreamlike, or rather unexpected or out-of-place elements and qualities, though my interpretation of whether something is dreamlike or not is probably subjective, rather than the intention of the artist in question.
People often talk of the 1970s as being a decade of bright, clashing colours, but my memories are of everything being rather washed out and pale. And the colours of Dick and Stewart really capture that… was the colour palette something you thought about carefully?
You’re right, 1970s cartoons were quite washed out. Or all our TVs were on the blink! The colours were very important, so I spent some time extracting colour palettes from programmes such as Mary, Mungo & Midge, The Magic Ball, Mr Benn, Bod and Joe. The latter of which I’d never seen before, but I liked the thick, black, rough lines and distinctive period colours.
(Curiously, I’d never heard of Joe either, but it was broadcast on BBC1 throughout the early 1970s, with the second series – from which this episode comes – being narrated by Colin Jeavons…)
The themes of surveillance and authoritarianism are terrifying… is this a reflection of how you feel about the 1970s, with its powerful state, or more how you feel about the present day?
Although I loved the black-domed, in-store surveillance CCTV cameras in the 1970s, which resembled Dalek heads or the torture droid in Star Wars (I still want one!), the surveillance in Dick and Stewart is inspired by contemporary issues. Brits sometimes appear quite complacent about encroaching surveillance, more so than in other countries I’ve lived – Germany, for example. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s bulk interception of data was against human rights. It’s an issue we need to… well, keep an eye on to ensure that civil liberties are not impinged upon, or worse. I’ve also completed similarly-themed design work for organisations such as the Open Rights Group. For example, a while back, I created a series of surveillance images parodying Fougasse’s wartime propaganda posters.
The normalisation of control is the most disturbing element of Dick and Stewart for me – as epitomised in the song, with its “watching is normal and healthy” refrain! Is this a road we’re being nudged down, do you think? Our everyday activities in 2019 are easier than ever to track and record…
We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy. I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug of war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Many companies (and the Government itself) sustain some of their activities via loopholes and/or with the hope that any wrongdoing hasn’t been detected, partially because it has not yet been clearly defined. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast, and even that it’s desirable.
The idea of Stewart being the last remnant of a dead friend really struck a chord with me… my childhood seemed to be filled with rumours and urban myths of children that had died in terrible ways, and their stories were often presented as a lesson or a warning… ‘do you want to end up like that little boy?’ and all that. Was it the same for you? Any stories that have stuck in your mind?
Yes, the 1970s were full of well-meaning but horrific cautionary tales that involved the maiming or killing of children: Public Information Films about the dangers of pylons, railways, canals, farms, fireworks, electricity. When I was in infant school, rumours spread in the playground that a fellow pupil had suddenly vanished because he had been taken by a witch. At the same time, Public Information Films warned children not to go with strangers, so I took this as tacit confirmation that witches abducted kids from suburban playgrounds. The pupil hadn’t disappeared, by the way, his parents had moved house. Well, that’s what they say; I’m pretty sure it was witches. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but it’s possible that Stewart came about because of the ubiquitous childhood warning, “Be careful or you’ll have your eye out with that!”
Julian Barratt’s narration is perfect… how did you get him on board? Was he someone that you always had in mind for this, and if so – what was it about his voice that made him so suitable?
I always knew that I wanted a soft “Ray Brooks type” narration, though for quite a while I was contemplating a female narrator. When I heard Julian’s narration, however, I knew that he was the perfect choice. He and Andy Starke, the producer, had worked together before, which made it easier. I’m very grateful that he did. I don’t recall that we discussed Ray Brooks specifically; I don’t think we needed to because Ray Brooks is such an icon in this field.
And needless to say, I love Chris Sharp‘s music… and he’s an artist that lots of readers will know from his work as Concretism. Do you go back a lomg way with Chris?
Chris was one of the first people to like Scarfolk so we’ve known other since then. I was an instant fan of his music and our respective creative projects come from the same well of early experiences. It captures the period perfectly and I’m so delighted that he let me loose on his album design. The Dick and Stewart soundtrack will be released soon, so people should look out for that.
This episode of Dick & Stewart is labelled as a ‘pilot’… are there further episodes in the works? What are your plans for it?
Five further episodes are already written and cover a range of contemporary topics including propaganda, civil defense, ‘fake news’, gaslighting and various forms of governmental corruption. Additionally, much of the artwork for the next two episodes is complete, but of course these things cost money and time and, ideally, the series would find a home on a platform other than YouTube.
Thanks to Richard for his time, as ever… and for providing the screengrabs in this feature. While we await further Dick & Stewart, it’s worth mentioning that Richard’s new Scarfolk Annual is released on 17th October, and is available for pre-order here…
As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 383, dated September 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“Being half asleep on the couch with German Measles, refusing to eat my Heinz Lentil Soup, with Crown Court on. Covered in calamine lotion. My mum had this old lady who came round to look after us, Mrs Wolf. She taught us how to make birdboxes in the cellar. Maybe Quentin’s obsession with birdboxes came from her?”
Listening to film-maker Sean Reynard‘s memories of his 1970s childhood is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness experience. It’s almost as woozily evocative as descending down the Youtube wormhole he has created; a channel devoted to Sean’s alter-ego “Quentin Smirhes”, a terrifyingly austere spoof 1970s television presenter with a predilection for elaborate birdboxes and antique crumhorns. I first became aware of Quentin in 2016, when I discovered Sean’s magnificent pastiche of the Picture Box titles, a “found footage” extension of the opening sequence to this disquieting 1970s daytime TV fixture. As the “picture box” itself gently rotates, the camera pans to reveal a hidden handle being cranked by the unsettlingly hirsute Quentin, sporting a disconcerting leer and a truly alarming pair of black underpants.
“It was all very reminiscent of Victorian austerity and secret rooms, and shadowy corners,” muses Sean, recalling the original Picture Box titles. “A sense of warm claustrophobia, slightly anesthetised, and then [presenter] Alan Rothwell, with his relentless, hooded eye contact. I’d always wanted to film a wider pan of those titles, and see the whole set-up…”
Since then, Sean has cultivated a cottage industry of gloriously strange viral films, all spoofing the dustiest corners of the 1970s regional TV archive; where puppet choirboys are taught the rudiments of medieval instrumentation, and where disembodied fingers poke from wooden Heath Robinson contraptions, accompanied by the wistful, wobbly strains of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1. Search for the ‘Quentin Smirhes’ channel on Youtube, or follow Sean on Twitter, where he’s @raghard.
Meanwhile, committed heliophobes may find respite from the unrelenting summer stickiness by immersing themselves in The Dark Is Rising, an imagined TV soundtrack to Susan Cooper’s classic childrens’ novel. This much-loved tale of ancient magic loosed upon a festive, snow-bound Buckinghamshire has cast its spell over Finland-based Teessider Rob Colling, aka Handspan. “I asked myself… what would the music sound like if the BBC had commissioned a mini-series when the book was published, in 1973?” he explains. “My answer was that they would have given it to Peter Howell or Roger Limb or Paddy Kingsland from the Radiophonic Workshop… and it would have absolutely scared the pants off everyone who heard it.”
The album is marvellously redolent of Kingsland’s work in particular, and the perfect musical realisation of a story steeped in traditional myth. “It brings together all kinds of English folklore, from Herne the Hunter to King Arthur,” muses Rob. “And it just caused melodies to start pouring into my brain. They felt like they were thousand-year-old folk melodies…” Combining swimmy, retro synths with “early” instrumentation (you have to admire the dedication of a man who can teach himself to play the Finnish kantele), the album is as crisply keen as the sweeping snowdrifts and slate-grey sky that lend the book such an air of forbidding, suffocating stillness. Following a limited – and quickly sold-out – release on cassette, The Dark Is Rising is now available as a digital download from handspanmusic.com.
Other musical gems that have caught my attention this month: the album Flora, by Polypores, is an ambient but melodic exploration of a tangled, fantastical woodland, released on the Castles In Space label with a cover that Roger Dean would be proud of; and Sizewell, composed by Robin Saville and Oliver Cherer, builds beautiful organic soundscapes from field recordings made in the natural environs surrounding Suffolk’s famous nuclear power stations. It’s available from the Modern Aviation label.
Those seeking oddness in more built-up areas, however, should investigate the latest publications from the Folk Horror Revival stable. Urban Wyrd, edited by FT contributor Andy Paciorek, comes in two volumes (Spirits of Time and Spirits of Place) and collects essays, reviews and interviews that celebrate – as Adam Scovell puts it in his introduction – “dark skulduggery and strangeness beyond the reasonable confines of what we consider part of city life.” Further contributors include such luminaries as Will Self and Iain Sinclair, with Paciorek himself providing his own share of quirkiness… his exploration of “wyrd Trumpton” tickled me, as did his ruminations on the haunted qualities of motorway service stations. Both books are available from folkhorrorrevival.com/tag/urban-wyrd, with all proceeds going to the Wildlife Trusts conservation charity.
The next Haunted Generation feature in the Fortean Times will be in Issue 385, on the shelves on 10th October.
Thanks to a meticulously-kept childhood diary, I can pinpoint exactly the moment when my friend Doug Simpson and I became convinced that dark forces were leading us to a hitherto undiscovered magical realm, in a secluded corner of our small, North-Eastern home town. It was Sunday 15th April 1984, we were eleven years old, and an aimless, post-beans-on-toast bicycle ride through the rural, cobbled streets of Yarm had led to the discovery of a winding, muddy track, meandering away from the pavement opposite the doctor’s surgery. It ambled beneath a canopy of rustling trees and into a small, deserted childrens’ playpark… complete with slide, roundabout and swings, as well as the ubiqituous DIY rope swing, tied to the branch of an overhanging tree, and known universally to all on Teesside as a “tarzie”.
By this stage, I’d lived in Yarm for seven years, and Doug had spent two lengthy spells in the town, but neither us had ever previously been aware of the existence of this mysterious, secluded idyll. With imaginations fuelled by the magical childrens’ novels and supernatural TV shows that provided us with a staple diet of early 1980s weirdness, we swayed gently on the swings, and jumped to the only rational conclusion available to us: that the track had never previously been there; that it had magically materialised from some no-place, and led us through a time portal into a liminal, Arthur Macken-esque parallel Yarm that clearly couldn’t exist amidst the ordinary, everyday mundanity of our familiar home town.
Similar childhood adventures through the undiscovered “edgelands” of his home town – and their accompanying, imaginative flights of fancy – provide the inspiration for Vic Mars‘ beautiful new album Inner Roads and Outer Paths, his third recording for the exquisitely-curated Clay Pipe Music label. Vic grew up in 1970s and 1980s Hereford, then spent many years teaching in Japan before moving back to the UK. The record – as the publicity notes evocatively state – “harks back to a period in Vic’s youth spent exploring the abandoned houses and factories on the fringes of his home town; the in-between places where nature either takes back, or loses its grip… it is a record of trails, roads and holloways, that lead you out along the river, through ruined arches and over railway lines, past crumbling stately homes and back into the centre of town.”
As such, it builds on the similarly nostalgic and bucolic themes that informed Vic’s 2015 album The Land and the Garden, also released on Clay Pipe…
Like its predecessor, Inner Roads and Outer Paths is a beautiful, elegant piece of work, with gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths reinforcing a strong, emotional connection to the Herefordshire countryside. I asked Vic a little more about his childhood experiences and explorations, and the specific locations that inspired the album…
Bob: The album is such a rich encapsulation of that spirit of childhood adventure. Can you paint a picture of where exactly you grew up?
Vic: Hereford is a city that sits right on the border of England and Wales. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, and easily accessible… just a five or ten minute cycle ride from where my parents live. The River Wye runs through the city too, and on a good day it’s quite picturesque. Growing up, there were always abandoned houses, ruined barns, bunkers, woods for camping and weird local legends.
Bulmers Cider comes from Hereford, and there was a cider festival, which was a big thing… not sure how often it took place though!
My memories of being a kid in the 1970s and 80s are of towns being a little more wild and ramshackle than they are now… I grew up in a rural town as well, and it was full of overgrown wasteland and abandoned buildings. And my and my friends all played in them, without anyone ever questioning it! Was it the same for you?
Definitely. CCTV was probably still quite expensive in those days, and the lack of security signs made exploring easy. Of course, the Public Information Films sometimes put us off the more dangerous pursuits… like climbing into electric substations for frisbees! I remember being more cautious of stray dogs, farmers, white dog poo and glue sniffers than anything else.
Any memories of specific buildings or areas that were particularly special for you?
The munitions factory was the big one for us. A huge hangar, blast walls, bunkers, all sorts of stuff. And overgrown paths, so it was easy to get a bit lost in there… it covered a big area. There’s also a church nearby, and we were told they took the hands off the clock to stop the Devil visiting at midnight. Weird stuff.
And when I moved to Japan, I started exploring abandoned theme parks. Kind of carrying on the hobby.
Was part of the fun of being a child discovering new areas of your home town? I remember, aged 11, finding a new trackway into a tiny park with a slide, and I’d never seen either before. And I’d lived in the same small town for seven years at that point! It felt like magical forces were at work…
Yes… usually out of town though, like an abandoned house, a lake or a rumour of something like an old factory. Although there was a short time when I had the fear of going into woods, due to The Bells of Astercote and the Black Death.
(NB… I’d forgotten all about The Bells of Astercote, but it was essentially a childrens’ version of the BBC’s traditional Ghost Story For Christmas, broadcast on BBC1 on 23rd December 1980. Based on a 1970 novel by Penelope Lively, it sees two modern children encountering what appears to be a 600-year-old plague victim in their local woods. Archive TV enthusiast Tim Worthington writes about it here, and the whole programme is on Youtube…)
I assume you no longer live in your childhood town – is there, therefore, an element of longing to the album? Both for your childhood, and – I assume – for places that no longer exist, as they’ve been built on or knocked down?
It’s not really a longing, more a fond memory. The Muppet Show and Doctor Who on a Saturday, and that low feeling when you heard the theme tune to Last Of the Summer Wine… when you knew you had school the next day. Although I left a quite a while ago, it was the real end of an era when my parents moved out of the house where I’d grown up. Quite a weird feeling.
Hereford looked like a great place years before I was born, but it seems the council allowed some beautiful architecture to be knocked down.
Can I ask specifically about some of the places namechecked in the song titles? There’s ‘Evacuees at Arrow House’, for a start…
Arrow House was a house my Dad lived in as a child, in a small town called Kington, outside of Hereford. Hergest Ridge is just up the road, Mike Oldfield fans! They took in evacuees during the War, and my Nan kept in touch with the evacuated children for a long time afterwards. Only recently, I saw some great photos of them enjoying “country life” in Kington, and some old letters too.
(NB For those keen to explore further, the BBC”s Peoples War archive has memories from Kington evacuees here…)
You’ve got to tell me about the “Bric-A-Brac Shop” as well, as referenced in the opening track! Was it real?
It’s not one shop in particular. My grandma was an antiques dealer, and she had a stall in a creaky old shop along with other sellers, where she claimed to have witnessed the ghost of a butcher walking past her. I think that’s partly the inspiration for the track.
There’s “The Last Days of the Great House”, too… was this inspired by any particular building?
There were two or three empty stately homes… not really in ruin, but they could well have gone that way. I was reading about England’s lost houses, and how many were knocked down due to cost, or used by the army, or destroyed, sold off or burnt down. A favorite, Witley Court, was destroyed by fire, sadly. It’s a massive place in Worcestershire, the neighbouring county.
I love “The Fair Arrives” as well… the arrival of the travelling funfair was – and still is – an annual event of huge importance in my home town. Any specific memories of your own childhood experiences at this particular fair?
The fair was – and still is – a big occasion in Hereford. It happens in the centre of the city, and the roads are closed off. I can vaguely remember one of the attractions… basically a man in a monster suit, in a cage. This must have been the mid-to-late 1970s. Then, along with the Mexican or Witch’s Hat, the bumper cars, and the ghost train, there was a freakshow tent that had various mutations in jars. This was right up until the 1990s! Legend has it that someone stole the two-headed cow, and put it on the bonnet of their car.
Musically, it’s a beautiful album – and there are hints of the school music room in there, recorders and glockenspiels! Was that a deliberate attempt to evoke the sounds of music lessons?
Thank you! Yes, I find that sort of sound appealing… slightly out of sync, and wobbly. Sadly, music lessons at my school were uninteresting and lacking in any available instruments. I wanted a drum kit, but they were too expensive. When I was teaching in a Japanese junior high school, I was amazed at the amount and variety of musical kit they had, which anyone could use, any time.
The album has an epic feel, too… passages reminded me of the great pastoral British composers, of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Were they in your mind at all when you were making this?
I would say always Vaughan Williams, but equally Gustav Holst. There is a statue of Elgar next to the cathedral in Hereford, and the Three Choirs Festival is not far away. I’ve read that Vaughan Williams and Holst went on walks around the area a bit, which kind of ties in… because when I see the Herefordshire countryside, I hear those two.
I wanted to ask about Alfred Watkins as well, who I know from his book The Old Straight Track, and his writings on ley-lines. And you mention him in the album’s publicity. Is he an important figure when it comes to documenting Herefordshire’s past? When – and how – did you become of his work?
Alfred Watkins is probably not as celebrated as he should be in Herefordshire. The Old Straight Track is a great book, and one that my Dad had for years. I came across that, and another book called The Folklore of Herefordshire by Mary Leather, at the same time. There’s some crazy stuff in the folklore book about local witchcraft and omens, and the author helped Vaughan Williams collect folk songs from the area.
Are you much of a ley-line believer yourself?
Ha! I want to believe.
This is your third release on Clay Pipe, and you and label owner Frances Castle seem to work really well together – her artwork compliments your music beautifully. Do you swap notes during the creative process?
Whatever Frances creates is always amazing, and it’s exciting when she sends over the artwork for the first time. Not sure how, but she seems to be able to capture the feel of the music every time. Not just the images, but the colour palette too. I know the artwork is in very safe hands, so I’ve more often asked about the music and what needs changing!
Inner Roads and Outer Paths is released on 4th October, but the limited vinyl edition is available for pre-order now, from…
Since 2014, Stephen Prince’s impressively comprehensive multi-media project A Year In The Country has exploring and documenting some of the lesser-trodden pathways between pastoral folk music and radiophonic electronica, as well as actively contributing to these genres with a succession of hugely enjoyable musical releases. The 2018 book Wandering Spectral Fields has hewn considerable dents in many a bank balance (including mine) with lovingly-written essays unravelling the tangled connections that bind an underappreciated welter of late 1960s/early 1970s acid-folk with the 21st century hauntology movement; via Kate Bush, Bagpuss, the films of Peter Strickland, Sapphire and Steel and the work of the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society. Eighteen months on, my Amazon Wishlist is still groaning under the weight of a myriad of Stephen’s heartfelt recommendations.
With a new book – Straying From The Pathways– in the offing, and a new album – Echoes and Reverberations – freshly released, it seemed like an apposite moment to speak with Stephen, and discuss the lifestyle changes that led to A Year In The Country‘s inception, the childhood memories that have fuelled his explorations, and some of the music, TV and film that he has found to be especially affecting and inspiring…
Bob:Can you tell me how you started the whole Year In The Country project, and what inspired you to do so?
Stephen: For a long time I’d been working in often very city-based, left-of-centre pop culture and also living in quite central urban areas. Without consciously realising it, after finishing a particularly big creative project, I found myself being drawn to more rural areas. Perhaps I found myself wanting a quieter pace of life, a sense of space and so on.
I listened to a friend’s copy of the compilation album Gather in the Mushrooms: The British Acid Folk Underground 1968-1974, compiled by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. I was wandering through a dimly-lit, post-industrial part of an inner city when I first heard Trader Horne’s “Morning Way” on the album, a song which begins with “Dreaming strands of nightmare are sticking to my feet” and I thought… this isn’t like any form of folk that I’ve heard before. I think it opened up something in my mind, and is part of what led me to start A Year In The Country in 2014, and its explorations of the flipsides of folk and pastoral culture.
Also, although again I’m not sure how conscious it was, I began to want to find some kind of catharsis for the shadows of Cold War dread that I’d been carrying around since childhood, something which for myself – because I was living in the countryside when I learnt more fully about the potential realities of the Cold War – was curiously linked with rural areas and ways of living.
Beyond Gather in the Mushrooms, I didn’t really know about what has come
to be known as hauntology, and the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture, when
I started thinking about and planning A
Year In The Country. Maybe there was something in the air, as looking back
it was a time when, unbeknownst to me, that culture seemed to start flourishing
and finding an audience. Part of A Year
In The Country has been about myself
exploring, documenting and discovering this loosely interconnected culture, and
the people who work in it.
In some ways I wanted to create
a website or project that I would want to visit. One that explored all of the
above and hopefully could help to draw lines of connection between them.
Did you always foresee it as
the multi-media experience that it has become, or – at the outset – did you
simply intend to do a bit of gentle blogging?
Ah, a bit of gentle blogging
may have been a bit easier!
From week one of A Year In The Country, I began releasing prints, badge sets and so on, and I always planned and hoped that I would put out music. Which I began to do in the first year.
Along with the more directly cultural sides of work, I’m very much interested in the practicalities of releasing things into the world. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing to me. For me, all the different areas of A Year In The Country – the website, the books, the music, the prints, the artwork, the making of the physical releases, the practical distribution aspects, the theoretical sides of things and so on – intertwine.
In terms of releasing books, I was particularly intrigued by the last chapter of Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, called “Toward the Unknown Region”. That chapter discusses the likes of Ghost Box Records and the outer fringes of pastoral/folk culture and, in part, seems to capture a particular spectral/hauntological atmosphere, the sense of parallel world creation that often occurs in hauntological and related folk work. It also linked together (or at least showed that they can sit side-by-side) certain aspects of hauntology and the fringes of folk culture, alongside discussing how some of folk/pastoral culture has changed and wandered off down new and sometimes surprising pathways.
I think I thought to myself, about that chapter, “I want some more of that!” and I hoped, although again maybe not all that consciously, that at some point I would put together a book that continued exploring the pathways that “Toward the Unknown Region” had begun to walk down, as well as bringing together some of the other cultural reference points that I’d found myself wandering amongst.
Again, basically, at heart I
wanted to put work out into the world that I would enjoy myself, and that I
found myself looking for.
Did the founding of A Year In The Countrybegin with a genuine lifestyle change… you actually moved into the countryside, didn’t you? How did you find this affected your state of mind?
Yes, I had moved to the
countryside before the founding of A Year
In The Country, and that’s when planning for it began in earnest.
Although things have changed in
terms of rural access to culture – due to internet connections, expanded mail
order, and so on – there is possibly still a sense that there’s more space for
your mind to wander, with fewer cultural distractions. Even something as simple
as there being fewer flyposters or advertising hoardings makes a difference.
There’s also just a different pace of life, a slower, potentially more
contemplative one. Although at this point, I think it would be good to point
out that I’m not trying to say that either the countryside or cities are good
or bad, there are positives and negatives with both.
I think looking back, I had a
sense that pop culture, even in its more leftfield and alternative aspects, had
become a very busy, crowded and heavily-harvested area of culture.
In contrast, and accompanying that literal sense of space, there also seemed to be more space within the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture and where they meet and intertwine with hauntology. At that point they hadn’t been all that intensively explored. They seemed to be at a remove from the spotlights of attention that pop culture is routinely subject to, and that accompanying sense of business or cultural hurly burly.
So, essentially, the countryside gave me and my mind space to rest and wander. The different character, rhythms and so on of folk and pastoral culture began to make more sense once I lived in the countryside, and I would often find myself reflecting on the differences between it and more urban culture as I was wandering across the fields.
Is the desire to revert to a
simpler, more bucolic lifestyle growing, do you think? A lot of people
(including me) seem to find 21st century life rather daunting and anxious…
There’s a sense that it may be
growing, although that’s based more on anecdotal observation than in-depth
Perhaps the way that people are drawn to it is an expression of wanting to find some respite from the modern world. If you look back to the 1970s, a time when some people were also drawn to bucolic and folk culture, that was a time when society in the UK was going through a period of uncertainty and turbulence, and bucolic ways of life may have offered an escape from that. Parallels could be drawn between then and now.
Although curiously and conversely, within hauntology and folk culture, being drawn to the bucolic often seems to be accompanied by exploring an unsettled flipside to it. Possibly due to a related and interconnected wish to, consciously or not, find a way of expressing and making sense of contemporary turbulent times and the connected sense of anxiety.
Connected to this, some of the
reasons for the current interest in wyrd folk, otherly pastoralism and
hauntology could be, as I mentioned above, that they give people the space to
create imagined parallel worlds or planes of existence, ones which variously
allow for a break from the contemporary anxieties, worries and day-to-day life.
It could also be because humans as a species seem to be fascinated by and have
a need to tell stories, spin yarns and create waking dreamscapes.
Related to 21st century life
being daunting and anxious, the level of input and output of culture today can
be potentially overwhelming. If I take myself as an example, I grew up in a
time when there was a scarcity of, and restricted access to, more leftfield culture
and some popular culture. You very much had to seek it out – which is almost
the polar opposite to today.
Back then, there were only
three – then four – television channels in the UK, one main weekly pop music
television show, three or so weekly alternative music magazines, and – until
the 1980s and the more widespread use of home video recorders – you couldn’t
easily watch a broad range of films at home. And the numbers and types of books
and albums you could read or listen to were quite limited by your personal
budget, and what could be found in the local library, or in book and record
Now there is an almost unlimited, constantly changing deluge of culture, available digitally and in other forms and often – particularly in the case of music – inexpensive via streaming services. I wonder if my brain, and those of others of my generation, is in some way still physically wired to times of cultural scarcity, and whether the way things are now can induce a sense of “not keeping up” – of there just literally, potentially, being too much input.
Also, growing up in a time of cultural scarcity can make you feel you have to pay attention to all and any culture when it does pop up. In my younger years, if I saw a rare and interesting single in a charity shop, I’d think that I would have to buy it and listen to it, as I might never see it again. That’s no longer the case, but perhaps some of that mentality lingers on in modern times. If that’s how you grew up, the ubiquity of access to nearly all culture can lead to a potential sense of being overwhelmed.
Accompanying which, there can be a daunting pace of change; there are theories that suggest that the development of human ideas, science, technology and creativity only really took off once there was a certain critical mass of people who weren’t living in small isolated groups anymore, meaning ideas could be more easily exchanged, passed around, developed and so on. To a degree, modern communication methods, travel, and information storage and retrieval may be supercharging that process, in a way that outpaces the human brain’s ability to process it. And so it can seem like the ground is constantly shifting under your feet, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to not being anxious.
There is also economic and
unemployment uncertainty, and the potentially related fast pace of change; that
idea of a trade for life, and knowing that how you make a living now will be
the same in a few years, let alone decades, has – to a large degree – disappeared.
That applies in wider life and also within creative work, where traditional
funding methods and routes have been largely swept away, and we live and work
in a constantly changing cultural and economic environment.
Of course, at the same time I’m
wary of just being “Bah, humbug, in my day it was all green fields, just three
TV channels and an easier way of life.” The world changes and moves on and, to
state the obvious, there are often pros and cons to all such changes.
Does the music, art and literature involved with the movement give you a connection to your childhood memories? Rather nebulous memories of being very young in the 1970s seem to be a huge part of all this…
I think it maybe did more so in
the earlier days of A Year In The Country,
which had the shadows and memories of Cold War dread as something of an
underlying theme. As hauntological work often draws from such things, and a
sense of unsettledness in 1970s culture, that provided a connection to my
There were science fiction television series that I only saw glimpses of in the 1970s, dystopian science fiction and horror novels and films that I was drawn to, but which I was maybe too young to fully understand… or that I just saw covers of, and created my own stories around them. All of that became a kind of personal dreamscape from which A Year In The Country partly draws – it’s not always the actual culture, but more a half-remembered or misremembered, sometimes never fully-known version of it from my childhood.
That feeling of a childhood tainted by the terror of nuclear war (or even just the general unease/melancholy of 1970s culture and society) has become such a potent one. Do you think there was something unique about that period that produced those feelings, and inspired the wave of artists and musicians that have mined it for inspiration?
That period has a number of
characteristics which may have made it such an inspiration for hauntological work:
although this is a broad generalisation, the late 1960s, tipping over into the
1970s, can be characterised as a point in UK/Western society when post-war and
hippie optimism began to crumble, and – throughout the 1970s and early 1980s – society
entered a period of economic and societal disturbance and uncertainty. There is
a sense that the late 1960s to late 1970s was “a time before the
fall”, and that – consciously or not – it represents a time when post-war
progressive intentions and futures were fought for and lost. That, and the
culture produced around that time, has become a source for, and come to
represent, a sense of hauntological melancholia.
At the same time, in the 1970s, there seemed to be areas of freedom within, for example, large-scale mainstream cultural institutions such as the BBC, which allowed for the creation of at times very exploratory and left-of-centre culture. Penda’s Fen, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and so on. To a degree that continued into the 1980s, although looking back, by that point, they seemed more like flashes of rearguard resistance.
Given that we were so uneasy
during our childhoods, why do you think we now often find comfort in those
That’s an interesting question.
Perhaps if you pull the monsters out from under the bed and shine a light on
them, it helps to – if not neuter them – then at least to weaken their power.
Although that sense of
unsettledness doesn’t just draw from
the Cold War, that particular conflict was a strange thing to live through: a
form of politics and foreign policy based on the complete destruction of global
civilisation, and the creation of weapons to do that. It could be seen as a
kind of collective madness in a way. To a degree, within mainstream society,
the reality of living through it and the potentially harmful psychological
effects aren’t really acknowledged, and that whole period has been sort of
swept under the carpet of history and become just another story from past
decades. Rather than something that directly affected people who are still
So perhaps the hauntological exploring
of those uneasy childhood memories acts as form of balm, a way of easing that
unsettledness by creating a space where they can be examined.
I’m intrigued by the new A Year In The Countrymusical release – Echoes and Reverberations. These are recordings inspired by film and TV locations, both real and imaginary. I actually went to two 1970s Doctor Who locations recently… Aldbourne, which doubled as “Devil’s End” in The Daemons, and East Hagbourne, transformed into “Devesham” for The Android Invasion. And I couldn’t look around either village without thinking of the terrible events that occurred there… but, of course, they didn’t. And the pub in Aldbourne has blurred reality further by placing a “Cloven Hoof” sign outside the front door… when, in actuality, it’s called The Blue Boar. Do TV and film locations almost almost become two places, one real and one fictional?
It sounds like you’ve been
doing some interesting wandering…
You could consider such places
to have two realities; a surface and an imaginary one, or a literal one and one
which exists in the mind.
That sense of places having an
alternate reality is one of the main themes of the Echoes And Reverberations album; it’s an exploration of the way
that places become layered with the stories and atmosphere of the films and
television programmes which were recorded there – with each track being by a
different contributor and focusing on a particular location and film or
Sometimes that layering may be
expressed overtly, if an area has become well-known as being a particular film
or TV location and a related tourist industry has built up around it, or it may
be more of a personal, private thing.
I wanted the album to explore how these places can become sources of personal and cultural inspiration, and also locations for a form of modern-day cultural pilgrimage. Partly as a marker of such pilgrimages, each track contains field recordings from such journeys.
The layering of different
realities and stories in a place is very much an abstract and, as I just said,
often a very personal thing. And so, as I wrote in the album’s accompanying
text, the tracks, their themes and the field recordings are a “seeking of
the spectral will-o’-the-wisps of locations imagined or often hidden
It is, in part, also an
exploration of the themes from these real and imaginary film and television
programmes, from “apocalyptic tales to never-were documentaries and
phantasmagorical government-commissioned instructional films via stories of
conflicting mystical forces of the past and present, scientific experiments
gone wrong and unleashed on the world, the discovery of buried ancient objects
and the reawakening of their malignant alien influence, progressive struggles
in a world of hidebound rural tradition and the once optimism of post-war new
More specifically, that takes in such hauntological and otherly-pastoral touchstones as Penda’s Fen and Quatermass, via Survivors, and onto the likes of 1991 science fiction series Chimera, and period drama Flambards.
And as you say, some of the tracks are inspired by imaginary film and television locations. For some people, places have become imbued with alternate realities and atmospheres related to stories that only exist in their own imaginations. In this sense the album also loosely interconnects with other work in hauntological areas/the undercurrents of folk, which also creates soundtracks to imaginary films and television, such as The Book of the Lost, Tales from the Black Meadow and The Equestrian Vortex, or the A Year In The Country-released The Shildam Hall Tapesand The Corn Mother.
Have you gone on similar
quests to find TV and film locations? How did they make you feel?
Sometimes I have more gone on
personal quests related to my own past experiences, rather than specifically to
a particular filming location.
For example, during the first year that I moved to the countryside I went out photographing a lot, taking the images I would use in the artwork, prints and albums in the first year of A Year In The Country. At the end of that year, to the day, I set off on a journey to take photographs in the small country village where, as a child, I first discovered and experienced Cold War dread, and dystopian science fiction, and saw glimpses of the children’s television drama series Noah’s Castle, which showed society collapsing due to hyperinflation. All of which fed into A Year In The Country.
Prior to that year, I hadn’t visited for a number of decades and it was a curious thing to wander amongst and revisit my own past via this literal landscape, one which had informed the mental landscape that created some of the roots that became A Year In The Country. As you suggested earlier, at such times it is almost as though places have more than one reality, and their different layers and realities intertwine.
Completely coincidentally, on the train route back, an arthouse cinema was showing Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tapeand an episode of Beasts. Not something you expect to see every day or even once a year at the cinema, and so I stopped off on the way home to watch them, which felt like something of a cinematic/cathode ray rounding of the circle of that first behind-the-scenes year of A Year In The Country.
More directly related to filming locations, the first time I visited Portmeirion, which as you probably know was the location where much of The Prisoner was shot, I could tell that the younger, subconscious me who first saw The Prisoner was thrilled to be there. It was strange seeing the place in full colour, and in such real-world high-definition… I had first seen The Prisoner on a black and white television, and I think that memory of it had lingered with me. I think I had expected it to be more like a film-set facade, but the buildings were functional and very three-dimensional.
However, it was not so much the actual village of Portmeirion that seemed to capture a sense of The Prisoner for me, but rather a deserted beach area next to it that I came upon by accident, and which summoned up endless visions of No. 6 trying to escape before being recaptured by the Rover.
Perhaps the beach and its more abstract connection to The Prisoner allowed my mind and imagination to wander more. Whereas the buildings and giant chessboard in Portmeirion village were great to see, they didn’t allow for that mental space so much, as they were a more literal representation of the series and my memories of it.
All of this feeds into the
new A Year In The Country book, too…
As with A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields, Straying from the Pathways explores the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture and where it meets and intertwines with the lost futures and parallel worlds of hauntology, including a fair few of the themes we’ve discussed above.
It includes writing about some
of the core culture from such things while, as I say in the introduction, I
also wanted to push back the boundaries and look elsewhere for where hauntological-esque
spectres, lost futures and re-imagined echoes of the past might be found.
To semi-quote from the cover,
it wanders amongst eerie landscapes, folk horror, the dysfunctional utopian
visions of Brutalist architects and hazily misremembered cultural memories,
taking in the likes of the faded modernity and “future ruins” of British road
travel, apocalyptic “empty city” films, dark fairy tales, the political
undercurrents of the 1980s and idyllic villages gone rogue.
My first published article in theFortean Timescame as the result of Worms, Witches and Boggarts, a radio documentary that I made for BBC Tees in 2014, investigating some of the stranger little corners of traditional North-Eastern folklore. A tweet ahead of the programme’s broadcast led to the magazine’s editor, David Sutton, inviting me to contribute an article about “hobs”, the mischievious, hobbit-like figures of the North York Moors, to the FT’s Forum section. Since then, the feature has been adapted into a talk, which I’ve been delighted to give at the Weird Weekend North conference, as well as Hartlepool Folk Festival, Whitby Musicport Festival, the Pint of Science festival, and ar a folklore season at Middlesbrough Central Library. I’m always happy to take it on the road, if anyone is in the market for a very real hairy, short-arsed Northern man talking enthusiastically about his more mystical ancestors.
From the Fortean Times issue 330, dated August 2015, here’s the article in full…
HOBNOBBING WITH THE HOBS
Bob Fischer wonders whether North Yorkshire is falling back in love with its mystical, moorland hobs…
I’ve spent pretty much my entire life wandering idly around the rugged idyll of the North York Moors, but had never heard of the legends of the local hobs until 2010. Which seems odd, as they’d been around for a long time by then. Possibly – as we’ll discover – over 1000 years. And, to boot, I was brought up in the 1970s, when it seemed almost compulsory for primary-school age children to be steeped in all manner of rustic oddness as part of their daily education. So how did I manage to read The Hobbit at the age of eight without anyone telling me that my favourite moorland walks were filled with their own breed of dwarf-like, mischievous, hairy-footed men with a tendency to lurk around simple farming communities?
It took the chance discovery of a distinctive marker stone on windswept Gisborough Moor (O.S. Ref. NZ 646 124, if you’re that way inclined) to bring these enigmatic creatures to my attention. Carved into the stone is the legend ‘Hob On The Hill’ and – on the other side – the date 1798. It was the beginning of my ongoing fascination with these mercurial beasties. Many of whom, as documented in Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson’s folklore bible The Lore of the Land, were as domesticated as their literary near-namesakes:
‘In Yorkshire, notable hob territory, they included spirits who “lived in” and did household chores… and some who, like the hobman of Marske-on-Sea, lived outside human society and safeguarded the community’.
Tales abound of hobs attaching themselves to remote Yorkshire farms, merrily threshing corn in barns overnight for no reward other than a bowl of milk, and becoming mortally offended – usually never returning – if farmers attempted to repay their efforts with labourers’ clothing to cover their customary nakedness. Although other hobs were more mischievous in their intent; indeed, one tale – referred to widely as the ‘Ay, we’re flitting’ story – tells of a household hob so disruptive that the family attempted to move house in order to escape him. It’s a story that Ryedale Folk Museum, an idyllic miniature village of pre-industrialised Yorkshire nestling in a nook of Farndale, has now claimed as its own, applying it to the dale’s resident hob, Elphi. The story is told in a pamphlet available in the museum…
‘The hens stopped laying. The milk turned sour. The butter wouldn’t churn no matter how long the wife turned it… the family decided they would have to leave and try their luck on another farm. They made all the arrangements and loaded their furniture and belongings onto the cart ready to go to their new home. By the gate, a neighbour passes and asked “Now then, is tha flitting?” Before the farmer could answer, a voice came from the depths of the cart. “Aye, we’re flitting”. They looked in horror, there was Elphi, the hob, going with them’.
So when did these tales begin to circulate? Clearly by 1798, belief in hobs was widespread enough for the stone on Gisborough Moor to bear their name. But it seems that their influence had been deeply felt in the region for many centuries before that. In his evocative 1891 book Forty Years in a Moorland Parish: Reminiscences and Researches in Danby in Cleveland, the Rev J.C. Atkinson recalls his visit to an elderly, female parishioner who regaled him with the couplet:
Gin Hob mun hoe nowght but a hardin’ hamp He’ll come nae mair, nowther to berry nor stamp.
Baffled? Don’t worry, so was Canon Atkinson, because – despite appearances – not all of this archaic dialect belongs to North Yorkshire folk-speech. It’s essentially another warning not to offend your resident hob by leaving him work clothes, but the words ‘berry’ (meaning to thresh) and ‘hamp’ (a peasant’s smock), reports Canon Atkinson, ‘had no actual meaning to the old dame who repeated the rhyme to me’, concluding that ‘the word (hamp) seems to be clearly Old Danish in form and origin’.
He was left in no doubt that his older parishioners, even on the cusp of the 20th century, firmly believed in the veracity of stories whose telling, he implies, had been equally relished by Scandinavian invaders over a thousand years earlier. ‘It was impossible to doubt for a moment her perfect good faith’, he writes. ‘She told all with the most utter simplicity, and the most evident conviction that what she was telling was matter of faith, and not at all the flimsy structure of fancy or of fable’.
In March 2015, Tees Archaeology‘s Peter Rowe met me in his Hartlepool office, and cited the descriptive nature of names like ‘Hob on the Hill’ as further evidence of a Danish influence. ‘The Anglo-Saxons, and the Scandinavians after them, were very keen on descriptive place names,’ he told me, ‘and you pick that up in a lot of local places. So “Hob on the Hill” is a hill, and it’s associated with the folklore of hobgoblins. There’s nowhere that you’ll see this written down in the history books, as these places weren’t really connected with settlements and nobody was taxing them, but I would say there’s a good chance that the hob place names are Anglo Scandinavian or Anglo Saxon. So we’re talking around 600-900 AD’.
If Peter and the good Canon Atkinson are correct, it appears that widespread belief in the North Yorkshire hobs persisted for at least a millennium. So when did their influence begin to wane? The turn of the 20th century, it seems, was something of a hob watershed, and by 1905, even the once-legendary Elphi was firmly residing in the where-are-they-now file. That year saw the publication of Gordon Home‘s The Evolution of an English Town (the town in question being Pickering), which reported – after discussions with local folklorist Richard Blakeborough, who’d done the legwork – that ‘after most careful enquiry during the last two years throughout the greater part of Farndale, only one person has been met with who remembered hearing of this once widely known dwarf’.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that by the time I’d started exploring the moors 70 years later, stories of the humble hob had ceased to seen as factual local history and had drifted into the fantasy realms of Tolkien and his ilk.
But are they making a comeback? I sense a whiff of a hob revival in the air. In 2010, two Teesside artists, AJ Garrett and Rebecca Little of the Peg Powler Art Collective, became so fascinated by these relatively obscure nuggets of folklore that they ran a ‘Mop Top Hob Shop’ in an empty shop unit in Stockton-on-Tees, encouraging local children to draw their own impressions of the local beasties. ‘We couldn’t find anything about them on the internet,’ Rebecca told me, ‘so we went to Middlesbrough Reference Library, and searched through books for hours.’
‘Kids take to it,’ chipped in AJ. ‘They say “So there are these little creatures in the middle of the countryside, and some of them are good and some of them are evil… OK!”, and they just go for it’. AJ and Rebecca still have many of the pictures drawn that day, showing an ingenious variety of hobs sporting horns, fangs, pointed ears and – in one impressive application of artistic licence – what appears to be a stetson.
Then there’s the small matter of Elphi’s second wind. Ryedale Folk Museum now plays host to ‘Elphi’s Trail’, a treasure hunt of hob-related artefacts designed to gently guide younger visitors around the attraction’s exhibits. The museum’s director, Jennifer Smith, followed the trail with me, and I couldn’t help but notice that one of the stopping points, ‘Elphi’s House’, was a tiny cottage whose roof had been constructed from an old hardback edition of Forty Years in a Moorland Parish. It seems Elphi, at least, remains as mischievous as his reputation suggests.
‘It’s a really lovely way to get children to engage with the museum’s collection and the area’s history,’ Jennifer told me. ‘I think museums have got more astute in realising that people are interested in things that you can’t see or touch, so they’re doing more about that intangible heritage, and sharing these stories in all manner of different ways. There is absolutely a resurgence of interest’.
Meanwhile, over on the North Yorkshire coast, professional storyteller Rose Rylands finds that the guests on her regular folklore walks are equally fascinated by tales of the coastal hobs dwelling in the region’s various caves and coves. I met Rose on the windswept beach of Runswick Bay, where a benevolent hob with the power to cure whooping cough lurks in a darkened recess of the cliff face; and we spent an idle afternoon wandering slowly up the coast to Boggle Hole, another renowned hob hotspot.
Rather strangely,’ Rose insisted, ‘I had an e-mail last spring from a gentleman who swore to me that, when he was a child, he was walking down this very stairwell when he saw a man-cum-creature… and he described, exactly, a hob. It ran across the path in front of him. It was there, and it was gone. I have to confess that I haven’t followed up this particular enquiry, but sometimes it’s good to leave a mystery right where it is’.
My childhood aversion to the very idea of “horror” bordered on the phobic; the very word was laden with associations that made me feel uncomfortable: blood, death, gore, and the thought of some unspecified “monster” that may inexplicably take against me during the night. To actually watch a horror film, I believed, would leave me somehow tainted; marked out, even, for special attention by the dark forces depicted therein, who – alerted to my presence – would use me as a conduit to infiltrate and destroy the cosy certainties of my comfortable early life… home, Mum and Dad, Gran’s bungalow, dogs and cats… all swept away by a seething mass of demons, spirits and merciless beasties. Even Carry On Screaming was a risk I wasn’t entirely prepared to take.
Which may explain why I was such a latecomer to The Wicker Man. My phobia had subsided slightly during a BBC2 season of late-night Saturday horror films broadcast throughout 1986; the likes of Zoltan – Hound Of Dracula, To The Devil A Daughter and The Masque of the Red Death proving surprisingly amiable entertainment for my now thirteen-year-old self, reluctantly unplugging my ZX Spectrum to join my Dad, freshly returned from the Cross Keys or the Green Tree, in watching movies that proved to be genial – and arch – enough for me to blot out their more outré moments. Good grief, To The Devil A Daughter even found a cameo role for Last of the Summer Wine‘s inimitable Foggy Dewhurst.
Still, it took a mid-1990s VHS release for me to finally succumb to the allure of The Wicker Man. Although I was a cynical old hand at horror cinema by this stage (I’d even chortled my way drunkenly through a late-night arts centre screening of The Exorcist… unthinkable even five years earlier), Robin Hardy’s 1973 masterpiece came with ready-made, disturbing baggage… rumours abounded of the film being cut, re-edited, banned, or even lost altogether, its negatives surreally encased in the concrete struts of the M4. But there it was, bright and breezy in my local Our Price, and I gallantly took the plunge.
I don’t really need to add to the welter of copy that has been written about The Wicker Man in the last 45 years, but I can at least transcribe my mental processes during the final five moments of the film, of which I had no prior knowledge. They went…
– Bloody hell, this is creepy. – Oh blimey, yes… he’s a virgin. I get it now. – This is nasty, but he’ll get out of it. – Oh for crying out loud, please… not the chickens. Or the pigs. Or the goats. Come on, there’s a reason I’ve turned vegetarian. – This is really weird, I just can’t see how he is going to get out of this. But he must, he’s Edward Woodward. – Fuck me.
For this first time, I felt like I had been tainted by a horror film, and – ironically – a horror film with no tangible supernatural element at all. The horror of The Wicker Man is the horror of people, of people manipulated to be brutal. And that really hurt me. And shocked me. And disturbed me. And though I absolutely appreciated the beauty and the artistry of the film-making and the performances, I didn’t watch it again for a very long time.
And the legacy of The Wicker Man didn’t just stay with those of us who watched the film. It even made a profound impression on the production’s primary locations – found not on a remote, windswept Hebridean island, but in the gentle countryside of Dumfries and Galloway. Composer, musician, radiophonic experimentalist and proud ‘sound archaeologist’ Drew Mulholland travelled there in 2002, and discovered that substantial parts of the Wicker Man prop itself still stood, concreted into on a coastal path on the Isle of Whithorn. He took photos and made field recordings, and brought back wooden slivers as keepsakes.
Two decades later, he has turned those field recordings – via some surprisingly physical manipulation – into The Wicker Tapes, two suites of darkly beautiful ambience, peppered with fleeting, percussive, folky motifs that evoke disturbing images of the film’s own climactic and merciless procession. A limited cassette release on The Dark Outside – each supplied with “a tiny fragment of weathered wood taken from the leg stumps of the Wicker Man in Burrowhead” – predictably sold out quickly, but the album is now available for download here:
“That these recordings exist at all is remarkable,” admit the sleeve notes. “Although the original sounds are long gone, they have been preserved on magnetic tape and altered not least by saturation in the actual ashes of the Man, and near destruction by looping around the fragments of wickerwood I collected all those years ago…”
I asked Drew about his personal history of appreciating The Wicker Man, and the process of making the album…
Can you remember when you first saw The Wicker Man?
It was at a friends house, late 1977, I think. The BBC had a late night movie series that also included Lindsay Anderson’s If…
And why do you think it’s enjoyed such an enduring appeal, and cultural impact?
I think it’s the unheimlich popping up again… it happened a lot on UK telly in the 1970s. The seemingly everyday landscape and behaviour, but the gradual realisation that there is something wrong… very wrong.
Can you talk us through some of the locations that you visited in order to make these recordings?
The Ellangowan Hotel, Anwoth, Burrowhead, St. Ninian’s Cave… spookily, it all looked exactly as it did in the film.
And how much of the Wicker Man itself was still standing when you visited?
There was still about five foot of each leg, both set into a concrete base with “WM 73” carved into it. All the pieces I collected had already broken off due to natural erosion.
Is there something about being used as a film location that gives a place almost an alternate identity? I went to Aldbourne and East Hagbourne recently, locations for the Doctor Who stories The Daemons and The Android Invasion. I couldn’t look around either village without thinking of the terrible events that occurred there… but, of course, they didn’t. Do they almost become two places, one real and one fictional?
Absolutely! And the gossamer lines between them shimmer, I remember someone telling me that they had read a novel where the heroine hides a letter in a well-known statue… one day he visited the statue and couldn’t resist slipping his hand around the back of it to see if “the envelope” was there. To his joy he pulled an envelope out, opened it, and read the note… it said, “Great story wasn’t it!”
Can you describe the raw field recordings you made? How did they sound? Were they recorded onto physical magnetic tape?
The raw tapes were simply an audio document of the trip. I wasn’t making records at that time so I had no plans to do anything with them. And yes, magnetic tape…
The sleeve notes mention the tapes being “altered by saturation in the actual ashes of the Man”, and their “near destruction”. Good grief Drew, what did you do to them?
Once I had decided which sections to use, I built a Heath Robinson device that allowed the tape essentially to be destroyed by an actual piece of the Wicker Man. After that I set the wood alight, and – when cooled – crushed it to ash and coated the near-destroyed tape with it.
I like your phrase “sonic archaeology”… can you expand a little on that, and describe the ethos and practice behind it?
I love that term, it comes from when I was lecturing on Hauntology and Microgeography and working on a couple of projects with the Archaeology Department at Glasgow University. The idea that something doesn’t appear to have a material aspect doesn’t negate it from being investigated, like The Wicker Tapes.
On the other hand, going back to your earlier question… say, for instance, you started digging up the village green in Aldbourne and found a U.N.I.T. button, you would have a material object of events that didn’t actually happen. It is entirely possible that the actors and crew mislaid materials that have found their way into the warp and weft of the village.
The fact it’s been twenty years since you made these recordings adds to that archaeological aspect… was that long gestation period deliberate?
No, not at all I’m afraid, The Wicker Tapes came about very quickly simply because of a chance comment on the internet, and the fantastic job done by Stuart at The Dark Outside.
And your next project seems to be a project inspired by the work of Dr John Dee, the 16th century scientist, philosopher and occultist. Can you tell us a little about it?
I was invited to a do at the Royal College of Physicians that was arranged to celebrate the life and work of the good Dr Dee, and they were planning to exhibit his scrying mirror, wax tablets, crystal balls, etc. Then, about a week before the opening, I received a call from the British Museum. They held Dee’s equipment, and were about to send it over to the Royal College. “Would you like to have a closer look before we parcel it up and send it across London?”
Back of the net! So I went down and bounced 432Hz & 440Hz from a Tibetan singing bowl off John Dee’s 2000-year-old obsidian mirror. The one he used to converse with angels.
And I’m intrigued by the fact that you seem to have embraced cassette releases with some enthusiasm. Do cassettes have a special place in your heart?
Yes, a very special place. I started making cassette loops when I was 12… and by cracky, I’ll keep making ‘em until the I hit the leader tape.
Thanks to Drew for his time, and contributions, and I recommend further reading on John Dee’s conversation with angels (in the angelic language of Enochian) here. The Dee-themed album is called Angels Speak By The Power of the Holy Ghost, and is scheduled for release in October.
We’d driven along the winding, narrow roads of Salisbury Plain for at least two miles; a convoy of civilian family cars packed with camping equipment, passing countless “Unexploded Military Debris” warning signs in troubled, late summer sunshine, all of us drawn to the cluster of grey concrete bunkers that perodically peered, surreptitiously, from behind a pockmarked horizon.
This was New Zealand Farm Camp, location for the latest extraordinary Delaware Road event, and – when not playing host to a prestigious assembly of artists sharing DNA based loosely in the electronic avant-garde – a site used by the Ministry of Defence to simulate urban combat, the clump of army boots and the rattle of live ammunition echoing around its muddy trackways and fordibbing, brutalist architecture.
“What’s the book?” asked the guard at the main gate, poking diligently through the travel bag on the back seat of my car.
“It’s Suggs’ autobiography,” I replied.
“Very nice. I’ve just started Kenneth Williams’ memoirs.”
Alison Cotton began proceedings, performing a beautifully ethereal and haunting suite to an attentive crowd in the Nissen Hut that housed the event’s main stage. Stephen ‘Polypores’ Buckley and Chris ‘Concretism’ Sharp were amongst the friendly faces I spotted in attendance, and warm greetings were exchanged at the end of the set before I followed them to Bunker B1, where Colin Morrison’s Castles in Space label – home to recent releases by both – had set up camp for the evening. Stephen performed a throbbing, mesmerising Polypores set of seamless, pulsing ambience to a bustling crowd, tightly packed into this shadowy, concrete hideaway. Including Portsmouth’s own psychedelic troubador Keith Seatman, who cheerfully introduced himself and gleefully briefed me on the history of the 19th century sea forts heavily featured in the 1972 Doctor Who adventure, The Sea Devils.
The evening became a blur of music, conversation, cider and the occasional occult ritual. I paid a visit to Frances Castle, whose Clay Pipe stall was ensconced in Bunker 3, and boasted tantalising first glimpses of the artwork for two forthcoming albums: Vic Mars‘ intriguing Edgelands-influenced project Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alison Cotton’s Halloween release The Girl I Left Behind Me, inspired by two Muriel Spark ghost stories, and originally composed for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show. I swapped genial greetings with Push and Neil from Electronic Sound magazine, dishing out freebies from a towering pile of stylish back issues in the basement of a building where, upstairs, the ever-welcoming Robin The Fog was warmly greeting interested snoopers in the midst of a Howlround soundcheck.
It was a delight to catch the professorial figure of Sarah Angliss performing live; her album Air Loom has been one of my highlights of 2019, and she makes for an extremely engaging live performer; funny and self-deprecating, but an expert in building beguiling symphonies from samples, theramin and an ancient clavicymbalum… a medieval precursor of the harpsichord, apparently; these disparate sounds all perfectly entwined around Sarah’s soaring, crystal-clear vocals. I then squashed back into the crowds of tiny B1 to catch Jez and Polly of The Twelve Hour Foundation present a magnificent. feelgood set of John Baker-inspired radiophonica; transporting a bunker filled with grinning fortysomethings back to childhoods soundtracked by the themes to long-forgotten Open University modules and John Craven’s Newsround.
Amongst their number was the effusive Alex Cargill, whose epic debut album as The Central Office of Information is set to become Castles In Space’s debut CD release. It was a delight to meet Alex, who repaid my insistence on playing his tracks on my BBC Tees show with another pint of cider from the impromptu stall outside the main hut. The evening was becoming slightly blurry…
I enjoyed Crass founder Penny Rimbaud‘s spoken word performance on the main stage, accompanied by a plaintive, mournful cello; then found myself caught in the midst of a procession to the woods, where a circle of bemused participants were anointed with oil to the lower lips and encouraged to worship “The Spirits of Place” with a spiralling chorus of animal howls. I imagined the noise my beloved border collie, Megan, would make when I returned home the following day, and threw myself into the maelstrom accordingly. The green-faced Chris Lambert – accomplished mummer and long-term resident of The Black Meadow – was a constant presence in the series of ritual events that sparked up throughout the evening; whenever, that is, he wasn’t leaning against a bunker wall and discussing the finer points of Krull with Stephen Buckley, the pair of them entirely oblivious to the extroardinary double rainbow forming outside, seemingly bestowing its radiant, benevolent blessing on the whole, strange shebang.
Howlround’s performance – in cahoots with audio-visual artist and Psyché Tropes supremo Merkaba Macabre – was typically hypnotic, and equally typically packed, the audience nestling shoulder-to-shoulder. I had to watch from the stairs, while a succcession of vintage washing powder and detergent advertisements flickered on the bare wall behind me. And then it was back to the Castles in Space hut, where Chris Sharp presented an hour-long Concretism set, a mesmeric evocation of delicious Cold War austerity, to another attentive gathering.
Back in May, Chris spoke live on my BBC Tees show to both myself and the show’s resident electronica wizard, Kev Oyston. This seems like an appropriate moment as any to transcribe it…
Tell us a little bit about your background… when did you start making music as Concretism?
It was around 2010. If I remember, about a year before, I’d discovered Boards of Canada, and they were a massive influence on me. I’d always written music, but I got bored and despondent with it. But I remember hearing Boards of Canada, and they absolutely blew me away, and I thought… I want to make music like that. What really fascinated me was how they can evoke and create the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s kind of how it started, but Concretism – when it began – was quite different to how it is now. It was more of a drone project, and it wasn’t as Cold War-influenced. For the first few years, it was more inspired by things like Public Information Films, and a lot of 1970s documentaries. But for the last few years it’s gone in that Cold War direction, which is only a good thing! As a kid, and then a teenager, in the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to permeate every aspect of my childhood, and the prospect of nuclear armageddon was something I thought about every single day. Was it the same for you?
Absolutely, yeah. I remember the Star Wars programme… that’s what I think made the 1980s such a scary time, with regards to nuclear confrontation; Reagan’s stance against the Sovet Union, with the Star Wars programme being a big part of that. And then obviously Chernobyl, in 1986… and although that wasn’t nuclear war, it was still nuclear. I used to watch the news as a kid, because I was a strange child, and I remember seeing all the Chernobyl stuff and thinking “Oh my God, that’s terrifying… what if the radiation gets over here?”
And the other thing… when I was about nine or ten, my dad took me to the cinema to see When The Wind Blows, which I’m sure is not a film you should really take a nine-year-old to see.
No! I can’t believe you saw it at the cinema!
I did, and I was so depressed and upset. And to this day, I haven’t seen it since. I’ve only seen it that once. Even as an adult, I refuse to watch When The Wind Blows. I will not watch that film. It upset me so much.
I bet your dad thought he was doing a really good thing… come on Chris, it’s by the same guy who made The Snowman!
Yeah! And it’s funny, I can watchThreads… I can watch Threads a million times. I never saw it as a kid, only as an adult. And I just think it’s quite a funny film…
Oh, come ON!
No! Because the characters in Threads are a bit two-dimensional, aren’t they? You don’t really care about the characters in Threads, whereas if you watch When The Wind Blows, you really care about this old couple.
I care about the characters in Threads so much that the last time I watched it, I got half an hour in, and the feeling of impending doom was so much I had to turn it off. I didn’t want to see Reece Dinsdale die! I like Reece Dinsdale!
We all like Reece Dinsdale, honestly! But no, I can watch Threads and it doesn’t bother me at all.
Did you have any sirens close to your house? Anything that might – for example – have been mistaken for the four-minute warning?
I live quite close to the Thames, in the south of Essex. I live in the house I grew up in, I bought it from my dad, and I’ve lived here forever. And we still, to this day, have flood sirens down on the Thames, which are basically just repurposed World War Two air raid sirens. And every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, they test them… they give them one blast for about thirty seconds. So quite often, if I’m working at home and I have the window open, I’ll hear “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm….” and it’s not rising or falling, it just rises then drops down again. But it’s pretty scary. Luckily I know what it is, but if anyone was in the town and didn’t know that they test the flood sirens every week… they would soil themselves, I think!
Have I seen somewhere that there are no nuclear sirens in the UK any more? They’ve all been decommissioned?
I think, during the Cold War, a lot of stuff was repurposed. So they just used air raid sirens that had been left over from World War Two, and also bunkers… generally, they didn’t really build a lot of nuclear bunkers, they just used old World War Two bunkers, and reclaimed spaces. So there must be some kind of attack warning now, but it’s probably a text message! They had that thing in Hawaii didn’t they, about a year ago? I think it would be that. Or a WhatsApp message. Or a tweet.
I saw you in 2017, performing at the Delaware Road event in Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, the underground facility that would have housed the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. What did you make of the place?
It was pretty cool. I didn’t actually get to see much of the bunker, because it took me about an hour to set my gear up, and then I did my gig and played for just over three hours, and then my mate – who is my roadie – had to catch an early flight in the morning. So as soon as I finished, I packed all my gear up, got in the car and left! But I briefly had a very quick look around the bunker, just after I soundchecked, and what I saw of it was really impressive, and really big. And creepy… I found it very creepy. There’s something very unsettling about it, even though it was never used for real. Not helped by the fact that there are mannequins and dummies all over it!
Talk us through your album, For Concrete And Country. There are some interesting references amidst the track titles… Microwave Relay was the one that really fascinated me. Can you explain that?
It’s a reference to the Microwave Tower Network, which was codenamed “Backbone” during the Cold War. They built a lot of these big wire mesh towers, and many of them are still standing now… and some of them are concrete, too. Part of the Backbone Network was the Post Office Tower. But again, I think a lot of it was repurposed, or even used at the same time for TV and radio broadcasts. So BBC Tees might well be using mouldy old Backbone masts!
It’s more than likely…
So Microwave Relay is a reference to that Backbone Network, which would have been resilient to nuclear attack… far more so than other systems.
There’s a track called Pye Green Tower on the album too, was that part of the same network?
That was one of the towers, yeah. That one was concrete, and it’s in Staffordshire. I’ve never been to the Pye Green Tower, but it looks pretty impressive!
Given that all of this stuff traumatised us so much as a kids, why are we looking back on it with a sense of almost rose-tinted nostalgia? We’re like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen…
I think it could be the fact that nuclear war never actually happened. There’s a sort of relief, isn’t there? We can look back at these horrific things like Threads and When The Wind Blows – well not me, obviously, because I won’t watch it – with a kind of relief, as adults, that the war never happened. It would have been absolutely horrific. And it could still happen, but I think what we need to worry about more in the 21st century, going forward, is Artificial Intelligence. Which I think a lot of people are saying is a bigger threat to the future of humanity than nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t have the same cool factor, does it…?
In twenty years time, when nothing has happened, the musicians that were teenagers in 2019 can make albums about that…
Yes, there’ll be a hauntology movement about Artificial Intelligence!
From midnight onwards, Ritual and Resistance took on increasingly surreal (well, more surreal) proportions… I watched Natalie Sharp, in her Lone Taxidermist persona, perform a disturbing but captivating set, accompanied by what appeared to be two suspended human spines. And then, outside the camp’s Water Tower, I bumped into Jez and Polly of the Twelve Hour Foundation for a final time, and we whiled away the early hours by discussing the alluring qualities of their home towns; Cleethorpes and Scarborough respectively. I then capped off the evening by dancing (alongside journalist and Modern Aviation owner Will Salmon, who has some sensational moves) to a pounding DJ set by former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, who had been an affable preseence throughout the day, and who spoke passionately to a small, assembled throng of us afterwards about his love of the Delaware Road project, and his lifelong passion for underground music and electronica.
It was 3.40am before I collapsed into my spider-infested tent beneath a rustling oak tree, but not before I’d grabbed the picture below…
As a wonderful addendum to an incredible evening… on the Sunday morning, as fragile heads were being soothed by gentle conversation and coffee, it became apparent that a fleet of vintage Routemaster buses were transporting campers to the nearby abandoned village of Imber, requisitioned by the MOD in 1943 for wartime training, and uninhabited ever since. With a long journey back to the North-East ahead of me, I uncharacteristically decided to forsake its haunted pleasures, and set off in the car… but, as three double-decker buses bobbed on the horizon ahead of me, I couldn’t resist. I followed them, and spent an hour poking around Imber’s deserted buildings and (surprisingly busy) 16th century village church, joined by blog-reader Richard – who records as Caveat Auditor – and ever-genial electronica and Early Music enthusiast Rolf, who I’d last seen in June, at 3am in Shoreditch High Street, at the climax of the State 51 Conspiracy/Ghost Box/Trunk Records Midsummer Night’s Happening.
As Steve Davis had emotionally proclaimed at the end of his wee-hours DJ set, “It’s like a big family, isn’t it?” He’s right, and I look forward – as ever – to the next gleefully dysfunctional reunion.
Thanks to Delaware Road and Buried Treasure supremo Alan Gubby for all his extraordinary efforts in making Ritual and Resistance such a memorable event… and to Alison Cotton, Colin Morrison and Andy Collins for their photos.