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.
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 381, dated July 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“I think that ‘fuzziness’ contributes to the nostalgia factor,” says musician Jonathan Sharp, founder and guiding light of The Heartwood Institute. “Honestly, it’s like looking through a slightly oblique window onto a different world. And really, it was a completely different world in so many ways…”
We’re talking about the faded quality of the 1970s family photographs recently discovered by Jonathan amongst his mother’s belongings. The photos are touching snapshots of a childhood spent primarily amongst the woods, hills and languid seaside towns of his native Cumbria, and have yielded the inspiration for the new Heartwood Institute album, Divided Time. It’s a wistful evocation of blissfully indolent days passed amongst occasionally mystical landmarks… “The opening track is inspired by a really early photo from 1970 of me looking at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a place I just keep going back to,” muses Jonathan. “I actually have no memory of that photo, so I was surprised to find I’d been there as such a small child. Maybe that’s where my obsession with the place started…
The album is a beautiful collection of elegiac piano and synth-led pieces, with hints of glockenspiel that occasionally conjure up daydreams of long-ago school music lessons. It harks back to an “analogue” childhood still shaped by family traditions: “Cherry Woods…” ponders Jonathan, referring to the album’s mid-point track, and its accompanying picture of his childhood self, framed in silhouette amidst twilit trees. “It’s a wood close to where I grew up. It’s not on any map under that name, that’s just what we called it… and how it had always been known to my parents’ generation. But obviously in the world of Google Maps, it doesn’t exist under that name. Which says a lot about how digitalisation has reshaped our lives…
Divided Time will be available on limited edition vinyl, and via download, from the Castles In Space label. The label’s other recent releases have included the Visage Pale album Holistic Love, a moving collection of gentle, electro-pop songs, performed in both French and English by Lausanne-based Lars-Martin Isler; and Civilian Leatherby The Home Current, which evokes memories of Factory Records’ earliest dabblings with post-punk electronica. Visit castlesinspace.bandcamp.com.
Pondering Jonathan’s beloved Cherry Woods led me neatly onto enjoying a new collection of music from Stephen Prince’s ongoing project A Year In The Country, a multi-media exploration of “otherly pastoralism; the flipside of bucolic dreams.” The Watchers is a compendium of tracks by eleven different artists, all reflecting on the nature of our native trees as, effectively, time travellers. Britain boasts over 3,000 trees that date back at least 400 years, and over 100 that can claim to be have rooted in our soil for 1,000 years or thereabouts. All the while, quietly observing the passage of time… of (as Stephen puts it) “invasions by wooden ships, sword and arrow, the passing of the old ways and the times of witchcraft and magic, the coming of the industrial revolution and the dawning of the digital age.”
Individual trees provide very personal inspiration for some of the artists participating… Vic Mars takes Hertfordshire’s 900-year-old Eardisley Oak as the muse for his gentle, pastoral instrumental The Test of Time, and The Winter Dream of Novel’s Oak, by Howlround, is created from field recordings of an 800-year-old tree in Tilford, Surrey. It’s a warm, touching tribute to the receding wild woodlands of the British countryside, and – for maximum listening pleasure – perfect for an early summers’ evening constitutional through the copse or thicket of your choice. It’s available from ayearinthecountry.co.uk.
And any of the above recordings might provide the ideal soundtrack to reading a new novel by journalist and occasional Ghost Box Records collaborator Mark Brend.Undercliff tells the story of divorced writer Martyn Hope, who – in the summer of 1972 – finds himself alone in London, and drawn into the increasingly sinister cult of The Olive Grove, a religious community steeped in that distinctly 1970s combination of born-again Christianity and post-hippy New Ageism. When his girlfriend Amelia vanishes, he suspects answers are to be found at the cult’s ramshackle retreat Undercliff, a rambling country home on the very edge of Devon’s crumbling coastline. It’s a languid, leisurely tale, rich in character and period detail, and the darkness creeps in almost imperceptibly. I enjoyed it enormously, and – in my mind – have already cast Robert Powell and Anouska Hempel in the lead roles, with Pentangle providing the music for the Olive Grove’s in-house folk-rock group, The Flock. Mark is at minutebook.co.uk.
Issue 382 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 383, available from 15th August.
As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the inaugural column, from issue 379, dated May 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
Are you craving the oddly warm reassurance of 1980s Cold War paranoia? Is it impossible for you to walk past an electrical substation without recalling crackly Public Information Films, and 16-year-old Jimmy’s stray frisbee wedged into a tower of humming transformers? Do you still feel mild disquiet at the sight of the faceless Edwardian children in the opening titles of Bagpuss? Chances are, you’re one of the ‘Haunted Generation’. The article that I wrote for the FT in 2017 (FT 354:30-37) resulted in an overwhelming reaction from readers keen to share their own recollections of growing up in the “creepy” era; that loose 1965-85 sprawl of inappropriate childrens’ television, radiophonic music, and the vague disquiet of an older, grottier Britain. So I’m delighted to have this opportunity to provide updates on the work of some of the artists, writers and musicians who contributed to that feature, and others whose creativity has been similarly fuelled by the potency of their childhood memories.
Frances Castle, whose evocative artwork adorns the covers of releases on her own Clay Pipe Music label, has just completed the first instalment of her debut graphic novel Stagdale. Set in 1975, it sees 12-year-old Kathy and her recently divorced mother beginning a new life in the titular village, where the discovery of a 1938 diary written by Max, a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, puts Kathy on the trail of long-lost Saxon treasure. “It’s a little bit inspired by programmes like Children of the Stones,” says Frances, doubtless striking a chord with many who recall this creepy 1977 HTV series, and Stagdale certainly boasts a similar ambience of muted, rustic disquiet. The novel can be ordered from claypipemusic.com, and is accompanied by a wistful EP from Frances’ musical alter ego, The Hardy Tree.
Fans of vintage electronica have cause to be excited too, as a new interpretation of a lost work by Delia Derbyshire sees the light of day, on the Buried Treasure label. Delia is rightly revered for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including her pioneering 1963 arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. By the 1990s, she had become somewhat reclusive, but still befriended musician Drew Mulholland (aka Mount Vernon Arts Lab, whose 2001 album The Séance At Hobs Lane is a Quatermass-inspired riot of gothic radiophonica) and presented him with a late 1960s score of original, unrecorded music, giving her blessing to a new interpretation. The result, Three Antennas In A Quarry, is a 12-track collection of dark, ambient soundscapes. The album is available to download from https://buriedtreasure.bandcamp.com/album/three-antennas-in-a-quarry
And those keen to combine their retro electronica with a journey into one of the stranger corners of the English countryside should head to Wiltshire on 17th August, where Buried Treasure overlord Alan Gubby is staging Delaware Road: Ritual and Resistance… ten hours of music, theatre and film inside a secret military base, close to Stonehenge. He has previous form in this department: in 2017, I attended a similar shindig, held deep underground at the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex. Here, artists including Concretism and the Twelve Hour Foundation provided live soundtracks to a surreal evening of Cold War disquiet and rather intense mummery. This year’s celebration is headlined by the founder of Crass (and, indeed, the 1972 Stonehenge Free Festival) Penny Rimbaud, and tickets are available from www.thedelawareroad.com.
It could be quite a summer for mass, organised hauntedness, as I’m also hearing whispers of an exciting event to accompany the next release from Ghost Box Records. The Chanctonbury Rings album, out in June, sees writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus and Ghost Box’s own Jim Jupp (aka Belbury Poly) teaming up to take musical inspiration from Justin’s excellent 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, a psychogeographical ramble through the South Downs. It’s a project that Jim tantalisingly promises will be “reminiscent of a 1960s or 1970s music and poetry for schools LP”, and the record will be launched at a Ghost Box event in Shoreditch. Details should be “available by the time you read this”, says Jim, wryly! www.ghostbox.co.uk is the place to keep checking.
(NB Since this article was published, the event has sold out… but look out for a full report on the blog at the end of June…)
To finish off, those intrigued by the recent news that one of artist Richard Littler’s spoof Scarfolk posters (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly alongside genuine Goverment posters from the last 100 years (FT 377:8), will be delighted to learn that a Scarfolk annual is on the way… and is available to pre-order now. Richard’s online evocation of a dystopian North-Western town, all pagan rituals and pylons, provides an immaculately distilled essence of 1970s childhood unsettlement, and encapsulates perfectly those vague, murky feelings of being warned about deadly contagions in your primary school hall.
Issue 380 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 381, available from 20th June.
HERE JOHN TURNER WAS CAST AWAY IN A HEAVY SNOW STORM IN THE NIGHT IN OR ABOUT THE YEAR 1755 THE PRINT OF A WOMAN’S SHOE WAS FOUND BY HIS SIDE IN THE SNOW WHERE HE LAY DEAD
The stone is not especially conspicuous, but it’s not inconspicous, either. It’s just there. We spotted it easily enough from the car window, as we trundled merrily towards the A537. The distilled essence of a 300-year-old mystery, surrounded by tufts of long grass at the side of a dry stone wall in Cheshire, barely ten minutes drive from the nearest 24-hour Tesco and a drive-through McDonalds.
The enigmatic inscription on the stone provided the inspiration for Alan Garner’s moving 2003 novel Thursbitch, a book in which this intertwining of the ancient and modern is a powerful driving force. John Turner is a jagger, a packman, trading salt and malt between Cheshire and Derbyshire, the only member of his tiny community to have experienced an existance outside of Thursbitch valley itself, where a paganistic, hallucinogenic bull-worshipping religion inextricably connects the local farmers to the dark, unforgiving landscape that surrounds them. That connection is threatened when one of Turner’s excursions brings Christianity – and, ultimately, the founding of the still-extant Jenkin Chapel – to the valley, and the echoes of these tumultuous events resound into the 21st century, becoming entangled with the lives of Ian and Sal, a modern-day couple (of sorts) whose regular walking trips around the stones and ruins of Thursbitch lead to the unwitting forging of a symbiotic link between their own touching plight and those of its 18th century inhabitants.
I visited Thursbitch on May Bank Holiday Monday, with my friends Nathan and Natalie. Unlike Ian and Sal, we didn’t appear to drift backwards in time… although the hailstones that engulfed us in the ruins of the valley’s most remote farmhouse certainly belonged to an entirely different season. Like John Turner, we tracked an inquisitive hare as it lollopped from stone to stone, and we stopped for a rest amongst the weather-worn headstones of Jenkin Chapel itself. “This place has had enough of us,” quipped Nathan, quoting Sal from the book, as we lost our bearings amidst a zig-zag of faded tracks.
In the evening, we went to the Old Medicine House. This timber-framed 16th century apothecary was, in the early 1970s, on the verge of demolition before Alan Garner and his wife Griselda transported it seventeen miles across the Cheshire countryside to be rebuilt alongside their existing family home. It now forms the hub of their charitable foundation, The Blackden Trust, an organisation that encourages visitors to uncover the secrets of the surrounding landscape through a delightful cavalcade of workshops, lectures, schools programmes and arts events. Those familiar with the locations of Alan’s books will find the setting oddly evocative… as we approached the house, the supine dish of Jodrell Bank observatory was peeping incongrously through the trees, and the occasional hum and rattle of express trains to Crewe never fail to remind me of the lovelorn Tom, the intense 1970s teenager whose tortured love for his more pragmatic girlfriend Jan forms an integral part of the haunting Red Shift. By the fireside of the Old Medicine House, Nathan, Natalie and I watched acclaimed folk musicians James Patterson and John Dipper perform a gentle, good-humoured set of exquisitely-played traditional songs; the latest of many Blackden Trust events that we’ve attended together. As Griselda joyously commented to us afterwards, their events have become a community in their own right, and it’s an extremely warm and welcoming community.
I could ramble endlessly about the influence that Alan Garner’s books have exerted upon the last 35 years of my life… and I suspect that I frequently have. When I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingman and The Moon of Gomrath at the end of my time at primary school, I transplanted their captivating, mystical storylines into the setting of my native North York Moors, the only comparable countryside that I’d experienced in my short lifetime. Those books gave me a connection with, and an appreciation of, my own locality and landscape that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. As the years roll by, I find increasing solace in losing myself amidst the rolling moors of my childhood, submerged by their stories, their folklore, their people, their ancient stones and valleys, their sheer power. Alan Garner gave me that, and I’ll always, always be grateful.
I’ve tried to tell him in person, but his presence renders me incapable (well, more incapable) of coherent speech.
In 2015, on my first visit to the Blackden Trust, I discovered that writer and editor Erica Wagner was compiling a compendium of appreciation of Alan’s work, entitled First Light, with contributors that included Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood. I interviewed Erica for the Fortean Times, and the following feature appeared in Issue 336, dated January 2016. It’s a love letter to First Light, which is an inspiring and hugely entertaining collection of tributes, reflections and memories, but also to Alan’s body of work, and the influence it has exerted upon us both…
THE WIZARD OF THE EDGE
Bob Fischer looks forward to a new anthology of appreciation for the work of Alan Garner, whose novels of folklore, myth and magic have enthralled generations of readers.
“At dawn one still October day in the long ago of the world, across the hill of Alderley, a farmer from Moberley was riding to Macclesfield fair.”
It’s a drizzly, autumnal afternoon, sometime in October or November 1983, and a softly-spoken primary school teacher, all drooping moustache and bifocals, grips a battered paperback and begins reading the above passage aloud to a whispering gaggle of ten-year-old children. Some are restless, most are entranced; at least one is entirely unaware of the profound impact the book is to have upon his life. And yet, as a sheet of rain dissipates against the library window, and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen plunges swiftly into a murky world of lost magic, dark forces and twisted folklore, I gradually begin to realise that I have found my Favourite Writer In The World.
It might be 32 years since the inspirational Mr Millward read Alan Garner’s debut novel to me and my snotty-nosed classmates, but – in the intervening three decades – my opinion has never faltered. Ever since that fateful afternoon, Garner’s books have been a constant in my life, not just shoved onto a shelf or piled upon a bedside table, but almost woven into the very fabric of my being; whether as a dreamy schoolboy excitedly searching for Svarts and Mara in the tangled woodland of my native North York Moors; or as a beardy fortysomething, keen to research the long-lost folk tales of the very same windswept landscapes.
Garner’s work is primal, hypnotic and essential. I can’t imagine life without it, any more than I can imagine life without oxygen, water or Chocolate Hobnobs. And I really like Chocolate Hobnobs. When I read books like Weirdstone and its soulful, feminine sequel, The Moon of Gomrath; when I revisit the suburban weirdness of Elidor and the simmering, sensual myth cycle of The Owl Service; they occupy my thoughts to the virtual exclusion of everything else around me. Mundane existence feels pale and grey; Garner’s books are thrillingly alive.
And then there are the later works: Strandloper, Thursbitch and Boneland; the latter of which, published in 2012, unexpectedly completed the Weirdstone trilogy five decades after the saga had begun. Infused with complex themes of loss, grief and fractured time, these books have proved as profoundly affecting to adult readers as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was to those of us whose childhoods it illuminated. Garner’s readers have, in every imaginable sense, grown up alongside him.
Alan turned eighty last year, and – to celebrate – a new anthology of appreciation for his work has been compiled by writer and journalist Erica Wagner. Entitled First Light, it collects together essays, poems and similarly creative tributes from the likes of Stephen Fry, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper and David Almond.
“Alan Garner is really a unique literary figure,” Erica tells me, on yet another drizzly, autumnal afternoon. “And one thing that’s worth saying is how many different kinds of people – writers, historians and scientists – have been drawn to his work over the years. So it wasn’t hard to come up with a list of people that we might approach to contribute. And somehow I was not surprised when, really, everyone that we thought to ask agreed to do it. And that’s a sign of how important Alan Garner has been; not just to them, but to a broader reading and literary culture.”
Curiously, unlike most of her contributors, Erica’s childhood was completely untouched by Garner’s work, and she offers up the entirely reasonable excuse of having been born and raised in Manhattan.
“I came to Britain as a late teenager, so I didn’t grow up with Alan’s books,” she says. “I discovered his work as an adult, and I can only imagine what their effect would have been on me if I’d read them when I was ten or eleven. The first book of his that I read was a reissue of The Stone Book Quartet, in the late 1990s. At the time, I was editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and – of course – every book that was ever published came across my desk at one time or another. Thinking that I was a terribly well-educated person, I found myself asking ‘Gosh, what is this book that’s being called a classic? I’ve never heard of this book, I’ve never heard of this author… what’s going on?’. So I started to read… and that was it. My life changed.
“Maybe the reason I came to Britain is that I wanted access to another world. I was interested in folklore and mythology, and I felt it was much closer to the surface in Britain. Much more available. So when I discovered Alan’s work, it just spoke to me as the thing that I’d been looking for.”
Originally published between 1976 and 1978, The Stone Book Quartet comprises four short novels – The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate – and is arguably the most overt manifestation of the roots of Garner’s work; grounded as it is in the landscape and architecture of his native Alderley Edge; and infused with a sense of his own family history.
“Alan comes from a very interesting and unusual place in modern culture,” says Erica. “He comes from a family of craftsmen. Always rooted in one place, living a kind of ancient life, up until the early 20th century. And then Alan went to Manchester Grammar School, he went to Oxford to study Classics… so he has two kinds of knowledge in his head: the ancient knowledge of where he and his family come from; but then he also has book knowledge. And I think there is, in his books, a kind of fissure; a bridge that always has to be crossed. And I think that’s expressive of that balance. There are always two worlds in Alan’s books. And how those two worlds interact with each other is different every time.”
Even as a ten-year-old in 1983, sitting at Mr Millward’s feet in Levendale Primary School library, I found that this sense of duality was the major contributory factor in drawing me inexorably into Garner’s world. In the early books, that “bridge” is the crossing point from the humdrum to the fantastical; it’s the unassuming rock that conceals the magical gates of Fundindelve; it’s the derelict church in a Manchester slum that provides the portal to the nightmarish realm of Elidor. But more than that; it’s the Weirdstone‘s anorak-sporting hikers, wandering idly through the Cheshire countryside; transpiring – as we discover – to be warlocks steeped in ancient, dark magic. It’s a unicorn loose in an alleyway by a railway line, a Welsh myth cycle manifested in a sabotaged motorbike, a vengeful Celtic spirit unleashed by the excavation of a pub car park. Like the ancient folklore from which he so often takes his inspiration, Garner’s fantasy is not “elsewhere”, in some fictional land… it’s here, and now, and living with us. Beneath every stone, within every hollow tree trunk, lurking in the corner of the attic, behind the water tank.
Within a year of my epiphany on that rainy autumnal weekday, I’d read the first five of Garner’s novels, up to and including Red Shift; a personal literary journey that straddled the terrifying transfer from the warm enclaves of my primary school to the stark, alien bleakness of secondary education. And, looking back, I see the complex passage from childhood to adolescence as another recurring theme in these older books; perhaps a further explanation for my all-encompassing obsession with them at the time. There are echoes of it in Susan’s painful longing for womanhood in The Moon of Gomrath; it’s a driving force behind Elidor‘s textbook “youngest child” Rowland, desperately craving to be taken seriously by his elder siblings; and it positively boils over in the fractious teenage tensions of The Owl Service.
“Yes,” agrees Erica, “the other two worlds are the worlds of childhood and adulthood. It’s frightening. And we don’t talk much about that; we talk about practical things; sexuality, doing your GCSEs, what happens when you go on a date. But my son is fifteen. And I remember being fifteen, dimly, and it’s really scary. And I think a lot of what Alan does is a metaphor for how scary that is.
“Stephen Fry says in First Light that, when he first read Alan Garner, he felt trusted by the books. And I think that’s a very interesting point… one thing that Alan Garner never does is talk down to his readers. His books, which deal in most cases with pretty dark, dangerous and scary stuff, know that these are things that young people think about, and are able to deal with. Need to deal with, indeed. You feel like you’re in a serious partnership with Alan Garner when you’re reading his books. You and the author are on a really important journey together. And I think that’s something that all of these pieces have in common; they’re all describing a partnership with an author.”
Those of us who have had our lives transformed by Garner’s work know that it’s a partnership that lasts a lifetime.
First Light was published in May 2017, and is widely available – and highly recommended. And for more information on the Blackden Trust and its events, visit…
And, as a curious postscript, I’m proud to report that the link between my native Teesside and North Yorkshire landscapes and the books of Alan Garner – forged in my head as a ten-year-old – has become oddly tangible in recent years, with the discovery that the Garner family dinner service that inspired the The Owl Service, with its mysterious, abstract pattern of flower petals and owl faces, was designed by the emiment Victorian aesthete Christopher Dresser, a large collection of whose work is held in the Dorman Museum in my birthplace, Middlesbrough. As part of the the 50th anniversary celebrations of the book’s publication, Alan and Griselda kindly donated a plate from the service to the Dorman… and your shambling correspondant was charged with the responsibility of transporting it across the Pennines. I’ve never driven so carefully in my life, and we kept a constant guard on the car during a toilet-stop at Birch Services on the M62.
If you’re passing through the North-East, please pop into the Dorman Museum and pay your respects, but I accept no responsibility for the compulsive construction of origami owls in the days to follow.
Meanwhile, Alan Garner’s latest book Where Shall We Run To? was published in 2018, and is a touching and evocative memoir of his formative years in 1930s and 1940s Cheshire, written primarily – and ingeniously – from the perspective of his childhood self, and dotted with revelations that shed revelatory autobiographical light on the events and iconography of his subsequent novels. The revelation of his personal involvement in the uncovery of Alderley Edge’s “Goldenstone” left me reeling, and oh… the tale of Bunty the budgie will rend the flintiest of hearts.
I’m six years old, it’s a breezy summers afternoon in 1979, and I’m walking through the long, scratchy grass of a slippery North Yorkshire riverbank when my dad, ever the amateur historian (well, he has a O Level) spies an outcrop of pale, rectangular concrete, jutting at an unlikely angle from a nearby hillside.
“See that little building? Do you know what that is?”
“Yes…” (I’m lying, of course, but no self-respecting six-year-old wants to demonstrate weakness in the face of his dad’s omniscience)
“Stop fibbing… it’s a pillbox. It’s where we waited during the war for the German soldiers to come…”
My dad, born in 1939, may have been somewhat embellishing his own experiences of wartime service (and the prospect of a land invasion of Yarm), but he was nevertheless right about this evocative relic of civil defence. The concrete wartime pillbox, scarred and overgrown, was a direct and tangible link to an era of history that, in 1970s Britain, still felt remarkably raw. So pervasive was the spectre of “the war” during my childhood that – as a very small boy – I remember being vaguely unsure as to whether it was still being fought. The comic racks in Mr Murray’s newsagents were filled with titles like Victor and Commando; still-youthful relatives would talk of wartime memories that felt disconcertingly fresh (my Mum, only 37 in 1979, recalls tanks rumbling through Middlesbrough town centre) and my enthusiastic schoolfriends honed their artistic talents incorporating divebombing Spitfires into felt-tip recreations of the battle scenes from Star Wars.
Our local landscape bore the scars of war, too… tangled woods concealed the remains of moss-covered gun emplacements; rolling moors were pockmarked with the craters of German bombs that hadn’t quite made it to their targets amidst the industrial heartland of Teesside; and those musty pillboxes were dotted around the fringes of my home town like vigilant, concrete sentinels.
The lingering impact of the Second World War on the childhood experience of the 1970s forms an integral part of Frances Castle’s beautiful new graphic novel Stagdale. Set during the stifling summer of 1975, it sees timid, 12-year-old Kathy and her recently-divorced mother making a fresh start in the titular village, a vaguely unsettling rural outpost stuck in a disqueting torpor. It’s a community that boasts a Norman church, an annual medieval hunting ritual, and an ancient, chalk stag carved into the looming hillside, dominating the nestling huddle of tumbledown cottages below. The book captures perfectly the insularity of the textbook “creepy village”, redolent of so much classic childrens’ television of the era… as well as the suffocating stillness and silence of a 1970s school holiday. “Stagdale folk don’t tend to travel far,” admits Kathy’s new friend Joe, as the duo tramp aimlessly through a sun-dappled churchyard bristling with familiar village surnames. It’s a languid, leisurely tale, liberally dotted with totems of the era: toy Wombles, racks of Texan bars, scary, violent summer thunderstorms and a tiny museum of corn dollies and Bellarmine witch-bottles… a location in which Kathy learns for the first time the wartime story that drives the book towards a tantalising twist: the discovery of a 1938 diary behind the skirting board of her new bedroom.
I spoke to Frances Castle about Stagdale, and her record label Clay Pipe, for my evening radio show on BBC Tees. This is the conversation…
Bob: Congratulations on Stagdale… it’s a beautiful piece of work, and clearly a labour of love. How long has it taken you?
Frances: I’ve probably been working on it for about seven years. It’s taken many different forms over that period, and it finally came together around the end of last year. It started initially as a couple of short, graphic stories that were seen by a childrens’ publisher, and they were interested in me coming up with an idea for a book. They came up with a story that involved a diary being found in an attic, and then I went away and came back with the basic story of Stagdale. Which they seemed to like… but they wanted the main character to be an American boy.
So that’s how it started, and I came up with a few spreads and some ideas, but nothing came of it really, and they kind of lost interest. And then I thought “Well, I’m going to carry on with this… but I’m going to change it in way that appeals to me.”
Was it a nice thing to have it come back into your control?
Completely. Suddenly the main character became a character that I could relate to, and had more experience of, and it became something that was more personal. I then became so busy with other illustration jobs that I couldn’t do anything with it for a long time… but if I ever had a little bit of spare time, I worked on it. And then I went through a period last year of not being very busy, so I just picked it up, and ended up getting as far as I’ve got… which is the first part of the story.
Yes, this is very much Part One of Stagdale… how many parts will there be?
Probably four or five, I think.
The main character in the book is a 12-year-old girl called Kathy… and you said that she was a character you could relate to. So was she based in any way on yourself, at that age?
Possibly… (laughs!) It could be! The original publishers wanted a boy, because girls will read stories about boys, but a lot of boys won’t read stories about girls. And they wanted him to be American so – if they sold the book to America – American readers could relate to it. So that wasn’t so easy to relate to for me, but bringing a girl into it… as soon as I made that decision, it made things a lot easier. And I felt a lot more at home with the story.
It’s got a similarly creepy atmosphere to so many classic childrens’ TV series of the 1970s… and we’ve chatted over e-mails about programmes like Children of the Stones. Was it that kind of feel that you had in mind when you were working on Stagdale?
Very, very much so. At that point, a lot of those 1970s shows had been re-released on DVD, so they were quite easy to watch again. And obviously I remember watching them on TV as a child, but watching them again as an adult… well, they couldn’t help but be an influence, really.
There’s something about the TV of that era that’s incredibly evocative, isn’t there? Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what…
I know, and I wanted to bring that into the story. The eeriness, the slight strangeness… I wanted that to be part of it.
There’s one frame in there that really transported me, and it’s a silly little thing… but there’s a scene in the village shop, with a depiction of the sweet racks, and there are Marathon and Texan bars for sale!
I know! There’s going to throw some younger people, isn’t it? They’re not going to understand…
So tell us a little bit about where the story goes… it’s about a girl called Kathy, who comes to live in the slightly creepy village of Stagdale, and discovers something intriguing…
Yes, Kathy finds an old tin with a diary in it, and the diary has been written by a boy who lived in the same house during the Second World War. Basically, he’s a Jewish boy who has come over from Germany just before the war, on the Kindertransport. So these two children have a similar experience of the village, in that they’re both outsiders. And then there’s a jewel that’s goes missing, and the German boy is accused of taking it… and it’s become almost part of the folklore of the village that it was stolen by him during the war. But that isn’t really what happened, and finding out what did happen is the main part of the story.
So there’s a connection between Kathy and the German boy, across forty years of history?
Yes. It’s one of those classic stories of an outsider going into a very rural, small-minded place, where the villagers are slightly odd and creepy. And they both have that similar experience, over different times.
I wanted to ask a little bit about Clay Pipe Music, too. This is your record label, and you’re releasing Stagdale through it… tell us a little bit about the label. When was it founded?
The label started at the end of 2011. I’d made music over the years, but I hadn’t done anything for a long time. But I made a record [The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, by Frances’ musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree] and thought “I wonder what I’ll do… I’ll maybe put it out myself”. I’d had music out on other labels way back, but that was pre-internet, and pre-MP3 downloads. So I thought I’d do it myself this time, and that’s how I started. I did a CD and, being an illustrator, thought I would use it as an excuse for some hand-made stuff…and so I hand-printed all the covers. I think it started off quite slow… and then Jarvis Cocker played it on his 6 Music show, and sales went through the roof!
That helped, and I thought “Oooh… I’d like to do something else”‘. So the next record I put out was by Michael Tanner, called Thalassing, and that also did well… and things slowly started building up. And around about the time of the first Jon Brooks album Shapwick – which initially came out on CD – I swapped over to doing vinyl. I’d reached a point with the CDs where I was hand-making them all, and I could do about 200 at a time, but they were selling out so quickly that I really needed to be able to make more. And vinyl seemed to be the best way for me to do that, and that was the right decision to make. Totally.
Clay Pipe is very much about music and art going hand in hand, and I guess there’s not a lot you can do with a small CD sleeve… but with a vinyl sleeve, my word. You’ve made some beautiful packages.
Exactly, it’s just the perfect size and format to design for, and people pay attention to it, too… they’ll sit and look at it, and listen to the music. It’s just a perfect vehicle for illustration and design.
One of the things I love about Clay Pipe is that the artwork can be as evocative as the music itself… do you work hand-in-hand with the musicians, and consult on any ideas that they might have for the packaging?
Yes, exactly. It’s very much a collaborative thing. Although it varies… some people are happy to let me get on with it, some people come with their own ideas, and some people don’t like my initial ideas! But it’s always worked out, every time.
And is there an ethos to Clay Pipe? Landscape and place seems very important to you…
Yes, pretty much… I don’t just put out collections of random songs, the album has to work as a whole, and there has to be some sort of theme to it, some sort of connection… and yes, landscape has played a big part in it, and place. I think I’m just naturally attracted to music that has that anyway, so that’s always been part of the label, and I think it’ll continue to be.
Hello… my name is Bob Fischer, and my 1970s childhood was imbued with an odd sense of melancholy and a vague, unsettling disquiet. Hoorah! These were feelings that I vainly attempted to describe, evoke and recapture for decades, until I realised that a generation of musicians, artists and writers were already – rather conveniently – doing the job for me. If you’re reading this, then it’s likely you’re familiar with the world of “hauntology” – of Ghost Box Records and Scarfolk Council and Boards of Canada – but if not, then that’s fine. I’d be delighted for this blog to act as a gentle introduction.
In 2017, after years of blissful immersion in the whole movement, I wrote a heartfelt feature about my experiences for the Fortean Times magazine, an article simply entitled “The Haunted Generation”. It had a lovely reception, and I was delighted when the magazine’s editor, David Sutton, offered me the opportunity to update readers on this ever-expanding scene on a bi-monthly basis. The first regular “Haunted Generation” column appeared in issue No. 379, dated May 2019.
I’ve decided to launch this blog as an accompaniment to the column… to expand on some of the printed articles, as well as providing additional material in its own right. So welcome along! I’d be delighted to swap thoughts and memories with anyone who finds this whole movement similarly beguiling.
To start us off, here’s the original “Haunted Generation” article, as published in the Fortean Times No. 354, dated June 2017.
Bob Fischer discovers how the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water has inspired a generation to creativity, and ponders the future of popular hauntology…
There are four of them, blank-faced children in old-fashioned pinafores, standing at the end of the street, staring back at me. They could be Edwardian; it’s difficult to tell. Time is standing still here. The world has suddenly become fuzzy, vague, and sepia-tinted, and I’m filled with an overwhelming and inexplicable feeling of strange, melancholy disquiet.
They are, of course, the four children in the opening titles to Bagpuss. It’s 1977, I’m four years old, and I’m watching Oliver Postgate’s immortal childrens’ television programme in our shadowy, brown front room, clutching a mug of warm milk before the dancing flames of a roaring coal fire. At the time, I find it hard to put my feelings into words. Four decades on, I can try: the programme makes me feel both simultaneously reassured and unsettled. It’s filled with old things, lost things, tatty puppets and sadness; folk tales, ships in bottles, abandoned toys and long-ago kings. It’s like television made by the ghosts of those Edwardian children themselves. It makes me feel, for want of a better word, haunted.
This wasn’t just a feeling that I got from Bagpuss; it seemed to pervade much of my 1970s childhood. And it’s a feeling that I tried to describe, emulate and recapture for over twenty years, without success. Until, in the late 1990s, I heard a piece of music that so transported me back to that formative era of cosy wrongness that my 25-year-old self sat down in my childhood bedroom and gently wept. It was an instrumental track called Roygbiv on the 1998 album Music Has The Rights To Children, the debut release by Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada. I’m listening to it again as I write this, and it still makes me shiver. Woozy, vintage synths pick out a melody straight from some long-lost BBC Programmes for Schools and Colleges module, while the spectral voice of a child repeats some indistinct playground holler, possibly played backwards on a loop. I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t really matter – the effect on me was profound. At last, I thought. Somebody understands my haunted, 1970s childhood. Somebody else has experienced those same feelings of lost, hazy disquiet; of watching Children of the Stones on listless February afternoons and worrying about the ghosts that live in my Grandma’s bedroom.
I wasn’t alone. Writer and graphic designer Richard Littler heard the call, too. “We’re like the guy in Close Encounters…” he tells me. “You think that no-one can understand what you’re talking about, but then you find all of these people that have had the same vision. My first feeling came from Boards of Canada too, and I remember when I first heard Music Has The Rights To Children, I couldn’t believe that they’d caught a mood that was so specific”.
“At that point they seemed like a one-off”, says music journalist and author Simon Reynolds. “There was another artist at that time that I loved called Position Normal, but I never really connected the two in my mind, it was only later that I thought, actually… these are the ancestors of Ghost Box. They both had the same effect on me, which was this almost involuntary feeling of being transported through time and assailed by these images; my mind being flooded with images of the past.”
And Ghost Box? In 2005, musicians Jim Jupp and Julian House founded Ghost Box Records; not merely a label dedicated to the musical expression of these fuzzy, disquieted memories, but also, effectively, a support group for the now middle-aged children still affected by them. Ghost Box is – according to the label’s own website – home to “a group of artists exploring the musical history of a parallel world”, and that parallel world is Belbury, an eerie English village straight out of a John Wyndham novel, seemingly stuck in a perpetually unsettling 1970s of analogue synths, otherworldly children and unspeakable Pagan rituals conducted in the shadows of pylons. From this fictional outpost of oddness, Jupp makes music as spooky prog-tinged outfit Belbury Poly; House presents evocative psychedelic sound collages as The Focus Group; and early recruit Jon Brooks – recording as The Advisory Circle – has created entire albums inspired by the terrifying, authoritarian feel of vintage Public Information Films.
“Television from that era is the big touchstone for us,” Jim tells me, “and those eerie moments, for me, came largely through Programmes for School and Colleges. As a kid, I spent a lot of time off school because I had pollen-related asthma. So I would sit around indoors watching Programmes For Schools and Colleges, and loving the ident music between the programmes. There was also something in the look of television from that era… the touchstone film for us would be Penda’s Fen. It’s the way that the landscape has that grainy, 1970s TV look… it was there in all the location stuff on Play For Today. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there’s something in the television images of that period that’s just not right. It’s kind of otherworldly.”
Sharing an ethos (and the occasional artist) with Ghost Box is the newer label Clay Pipe, founded in 2011 by artist and musician Frances Castle, whose taste in vintage television is strikingly similar. “Penda’s Fan is the ultimate,” she says. “That, to me, is very evocative of that time, and of childhood. It’s very pastoral, and very eerie.” Frances too cites the fuzzy, grainy look of archive TV presentation as a major contributory factor to this sense of childhood disquiet: “Everything was seen or heard through a slight hiss; the TV would go in and out of focus, and that added to it. We’re so used now to everything being crystal clear, but in those days it just wasn’t. And obviously there were the programmes, too… The Tomorrow People I loved, The Changes I loved, all those sorts of things. They created an atmosphere, and a sense of unease.”
Long seen as a lost, holy grail for lovers of archive weirdness, Penda’s Fen was produced by the BBC as a 1974 Play For Today, telling the story of tormented gay teenager Stephen Franklin, whose emerging sexuality is at odds with his rigidly unswerving – and largely self-imposed – Christian and political beliefs. His internal torment manifests itself as a series of supernatural visitations amidst the rolling hills of Worcestershire; he is set upon by angels and demons, by the ghost of Edward Elgar, and by King Penda himself; the 7th Century King of Mercia, and the last of Britain’s great Pagan warrior-kings. It’s a long way from Bagpuss, but the range of disquieting television cited as influences by this “haunted generation” of the 1970s comfortably spans the gamut from pre-school whimsy to full-on adult weirdness. Jim Jupp claims the opening titles of Granada TV’s schools’ programme Picture Box, with their gently rotating jewellery casket and discordant waltz, as “the central image we had in mind when we came up with the name and the mood of the label.” And somewhere in-between lies Frances’ beloved The Changes, broadcast by the BBC in 1975, depicting the post-apocalyptic rural nightmare of a Britain that has inexplicably and involuntarily smashed up every single item of technology and machinery, at the behest of a mysterious, all-pervading klaxon.
Another kindred spirit – and occasional Ghost Box collaborator – is archivist and fellow record label-owner Jonny Trunk, whose Trunk Records was founded in the mid-1990s, with the long-lost soundtrack to seminal 1971 British horror film The Wicker Man amongst its earliest releases. While the Ghost Box and Clay Pipe rosters have thrown themselves into creating new sounds, Trunk has concentrated more on the unearthing of original, lost audio artefacts from the original “haunted” era. The label’s catalogue of reissues is a treasure trove of vintage strangeness, encompassing the gentle soundtracks to Ivor the Engine and Fingerbobs; the disquieting electronica of Doctor Who and Hammer Horror composer Tristram Cary, and the extraordinary Classroom Projects, a collection of – frankly – disturbing, avant-garde music recorded by school orchestras and choirs throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
But it’s Trunk’s reissue of 1969 album The Seasons that has provided discerning listeners with perhaps the seminal audio example of school-age wrongness from this era; marrying the poetry of Ronald Duncan to the abrasively harsh electronic soundscapes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s David Cain. The imagery is vivid, stark and frequently unsettling…
Like severed hands the wet leaves lie Flat on the deserted avenue; Houses like skulls stare through uncurtained windows
…and anyone born much later than 1980 may find it incomprehensible that this resolutely leftfield concoction was initially released on BBC Records as part of the BBC Schools Radio service’s Drama Workshop series, intended to be played in primary school halls to inspire tiny children to creative dancing. “The Seasons is very much me, in a hall with a kind of parquet wooden floor and a big speaker,” says Jonny Trunk, “with a bunch of kids wearing non-marking plimsolls, listening to it and following the instructions. Music, Movement and Mime.
“It’s almost bordering on the offensive. But if you’re young, and you’re told to improvise, and think about the music and the words, and dance and act along to them, then it sounds completely normal. It’s like a hardcore childrens’ education LP. It’s hard. And that was the norm. It’s definitely a touchstone for a lot of people, that record.”
This institutionalised presentation of the utterly otherworldly to impressionable children, was – according to Trunk – an important contributory factor to our collective haunted childhoods. “It was good to have a bit of avant-garde in your life, as well as some of these controversial subject matters,” he says. “What we have now is oddly vanilla; what you’re allowed to see and what you’re allowed to hear is governed and over-thought. There wasn’t any of that in the 1970s.”
“I guess people were far less squeamish about these things,” agrees Ghost Box’s Jim Jupp. “When I was a kid, I remember having a Puffin anthology of horror stories called The House of the Nightmare, which I read when I was seven or eight. It was given to me as a Christmas present. And it was terrifying… it had old stories by M.R. James and Saki, as well as contemporary tales from the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t a problem for kids to have that stuff. It did leave a lasting impression on me… obviously! Things weren’t so mediated and categorised.”
Also left with a lasting impression was writer and graphic designer Richard Littler, whose “Scarfolk” project began life as an online blog, but – in 2014 – was picked up by publishers Ebury Press and turned into an acclaimed book, Discovering Scarfolk. Like the musical releases of Ghost Box, Scarfolk takes place in a fictional, parallel universe: the grim, North-Western town of the title. But its vision of the 1970s is considerably darker; with Littler’s unerringly accurate spoof book covers and mock government-issue pamphlets evoking the dystopia of an utterly unfeeling, authoritarian society. Scarfolk is the home of Pelican Science Books’ informative title How To Wash A Child’s Brain, the popular instruction manual Practical Witchcraft Today – How To Hurt People, SG Games’ Junior Taxidermy Kit, and SBC Cassettes’ 1973 best-seller Illicit Recordings of You and Your Neighbours.
“When I was a kid, I suffered from really bad night terrors,” admits Richard, “and they cast an almost trippy haze over my normal life; because when you’re three, four and five years old, you just don’t know the difference. And the most mundane things could trigger it; I remember the Ladybird book The Gingerbread Man scaring the life out me, because people were chasing him to eat him. Things like that were just horrific.
“I think I was a big baby, actually. Everything terrified me. And because of this strange, dreamy way that I had of seeing the world, things became blurred. And it didn’t help that I was being shown videos about being burned by fireworks, and that my parents were buying me books about horror… it was the 1970s, so I had Dracula and Frankenstein books. And I think it all just somehow merged. Very literally with something like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water Public Information Film, where you have Death standing on the riverbank, drowning children.”
This 90-second film, produced in 1973 by the gloriously Orwellian-sounding Central Office of Information, has become an iconic symbol of this generation’s lingering trauma. A hooded Grim Reaper figure, his face unseen in monastical robe and cowl, drifts along the periphery of litter-filled pools and flooded building sites, claiming the souls of drowned children, their flared jeans and hooded anoraks sinking beneath the surfaces of brown, poisoned water: “This branch is weak, rotten… it’ll never take his weight,” it hisses gleefully, in the unmistakeable tones of Donald Pleasence. And Richard is far from alone in seeing this amalgamation of the everyday and the terrifyingly supernatural as a defining characteristic of the decade. The 1970s has always struck me as a deliciously credulous era, when reported hauntings would be treated as semi-serious news items on regional TV programmes, when the works of Erich Von Daniken would be slotted onto suburban bookshelves alongside the latest Jilly Cooper, and when documentary series like Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World would wantonly traumatise a generation of primetime ITV viewers.
“From Ghost Box’s point of view, this is what really interests us in that period,” says Jim Jupp. “We don’t have a firm belief in anything… it’s a Fortean standpoint! But what’s interesting about that period is that you could believe in this stuff, and that that belief was less open to question. Especially as a kid, it seemed almost like… ‘well, it’s probably a fact that there are UFOs in the sky… or that there are ghosts.’ A fairly sensible newspaper might cover a ghost story… or something like the Loch Ness Monster, which would flare up every few years. It wouldn’t seem that unusual, it would seem just like news.”
So is this loose collection of musicians, writers and artists a bona fide aesthetic movement? Well, in the last decade, it has drawn in an substantial number of contributors and followers, and – since 2006 – has had a widely recognised name: hauntology. Appropriated from the writings of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who coined it in 1993 to describe the spectre of Marxism looming over post-Cold War Europe, its use in the context of the retro-spooky movement seems to have come largely from journalist Simon Reynolds. “I think a bunch of us started using the word”, he tells me. “Mark Fisher was one of the other main writers, in his blog k-punk and in pieces for various magazines… so it was kind of a joint project. I think I might have proposed it as a genre name on my blog…‘We’ve got to call this something!’
“It has all these associations with Jacques Derrida, which are interesting, and I read his book about hauntology… but it doesn’t really apply here. I just like the word, because ‘haunt’ obviously deals with ghosts and the idea that memories linger and creep into your thoughts without you having any control over them. And ‘-ology’ has this idea of science and lab coats and people experimenting. There was a sort of faux-scientific aura about some of the stuff that Ghost Box was doing; the imagery was to do with science and planning and technocratic, bureaucratic order. So the combination of the ‘-ology’ and the ‘ghosts’… I like that clash of the two things.”
Richard Littler, however, does see a vague lineage stretching back to Derrida’s work. “Obviously popular hauntology doesn’t have much to do with Derrida’s idea about the ghost of communism haunting the present. But I think certain aspects of that are reflected in it. Particularly the idea of the ‘dream of the future’, where we were all going to be living in houses that looked like they were designed by [James Bond set designer] Ken Adam, and we’d all be heading to the moon. That dream of the perfect, utopian future that we were all aiming for… well, it never happened. When we were kids, there were so many books on how we would be living in the year 2000. But have you seen any recent books or TV programmes predicting a utopian future? They don’t exist any more. Basically, we’ve realised that it’s foolish to try and guess how good the future is going to be… because it’s going to be shit!”
But it isn’t all supernatural trauma and failed utopias. Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe label releases albums and artwork with a more bucolic feel; redolent of a 1970s childhood inspired more by The Famous Five than The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, but still with an undercurrent of lost, haunted melancholy. Early releases included the beautiful Tyneham House, an anonymously-created concept album whose folky, flute-infused passages are a wistful tribute to the titular Dorset village, requisitioned by the War Office in 1943 and deserted ever since. “I think it’s influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation, that album,” Frances tells me. “It’s a brilliant record.”
So too are Shapwick and 52, a brace of evocative ambient albums recorded for Clay Pipe by Ghost Box regular Jon Brooks. “52 is very much an album about his childhood, in quite an abstract way,” says Frances. “When I first spoke to him about it, he was trying to create the sound of lichen in his grandmother’s garden pond! And when I heard it, I thought ‘Yes, that’s it… that sounds like lichen!’ So I think it’s quite a personal album, but he’s so good at what he does, that it’s something everything can relate to.”
Shapwick, meanwhile, tells the story of an epiphanic car journey undertaken by Brooks one autumnal evening in 2011, veering away from a gridlocked motorway to find unexpected inspiration amongst the twilit country lanes of Somerset. “We headed through several miles of unlit roads, with nothing but gnarled trees and woodland either side, the car headlights suggesting the twists and turns ahead,” Brooks himself wrote in the album’s press release. “I felt a certain energy around the place…” Recorded on hissing analogue cassettes, the album’s elegiac piano pieces, woozy synths and tinkling music boxes create a dreamlike atmosphere of almost overpowering melancholy.
This gentler, more rural school of disquiet has also brought Jonny Trunk under its mystical spell, and Trunk Records’ 2006 compilation Fuzzy Felt Folk collected 15 long-forgotten recordings of vaguely eerie, but utterly entrancing, childrens’ folk songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of them intended for use in school hall Music and Movement lessons. Between softly plucked guitars and hooting ocarinas, we hear the Barbara Moore Singers harmonising softly around the more whimsical end of British folklore (“Down amongst the daises in the glen, lives a little elf called John…”) and Irish actor Christopher Casson issuing dire warnings amidst a sea of folky wrongness; ‘My mother said that I never should, play with the gypsies in the wood. If I did, she would say, naughty girl to disobey…” (he chants, in a rich, male baritone)
“The whole Fuzzy Felt Folk thing is very much harking back to things like Play School,” Jonny tells me. “It wasn’t normal, that telly. You had these weird rag dolls, and Toni Arthur… this woman who was quite spooky, making albums around the same time called Hearken to the Witches Rune!”
So when did this all start? Was there a distinct beginning and an end for the “haunted” era? “For me,” says Richard Littler, “if we want to talk about hauntology and that kind of odd, underlying unease, I think it starts with The Beatles. In 1967, you had Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, both of which were about that particular generation harking back to the generation of their parents and grandparents. So there was a lot of Victoriana… Sgt Pepper is a Music Hall act, essentially. What they did was to look back, and – in the same way that myself and Ghost Box have done with the 1970s – mix it with a modern sensibility. Which at that point, was psychedelia, so you have all of this history clashing together in the same artistic artefacts. And if you’re harking back to Victoriana, it’s inevitable that you’re going to hit the Spiritualist Movement, so you’re going to have séances and ectoplasm, and that filtered through… to things like The Ghosts of Motley Halland Rentaghost.
“And it goes to Threads, in about 1984-ish. After that, the culture turns to money.”
Jonny Trunk, however, thinks the origins of the era go back further: “I think you can see it earlier,” he says. “In Quatermass, and in a lot of early science-fiction, in late 1950s and early 1960s British experimental film-making. And the more you dig around, the weirder it gets. There were a of lot avant-garde music-makers around the UK in the late 1950s, and their music would have been creeping into radio broadcasts in the 1960s”.
Frances Castle also takes inspiration from a pre-psychedelic generation of British artists. Clay Pipe Music’s releases are accompanied by Castle’s own distinctive artwork, and although the imagery is frequently redolent of Richard Littler’s feared Ladybird Books, a mainstay of every primary school’s library, Frances herself cites earlier influences: “The stuff that I’ve been inspired by was pre-1970s, and I’ve looked at a lot of print-makers from an earlier generation,” she says. “But a lot of those books were still around during our childhoods… those school book covers, printed with very limited colour palettes. British artists of an earlier generation had that weird atmosphere to their paintings and pictures. People like [early 20th century artist] Eric Ravilious had a hauntedness to their work”. She does, however, concur with Richard Littler’s pinpointing of the end of the ‘haunted’ era: “I think it goes away when the digital age arrives, and everything becomes very crisp and clean. So I guess the early to mid 1980s.”
One curious aspect of the phenomenon is that not everyone gets it. Throughout the decades that I spent attempting to articulate these memories to my contemporaries, I was frequently met with bafflement, and for the majority of 1970s children, the decade seems to be remembered as an era of boundless fun, of endless summers spent bouncing on Space Hoppers while listening to the Bay City Rollers. I have these memories too, but when I ramble about the sense of ill-defined ‘wrongness’ I got from watching Bagpuss, I am sometimes accused of adult revisionism, of retrospectively applying haunted qualities to experiences that I found perfectly normal at the time. But I maintain that I absolutely remember experiencing these feelings as a child, and I asked Jonny Trunk if he thought it possibly took a certain type of youngster to appreciate them. “Totally,” he replied. “If it affected everybody, we’d all be millionaires. Because everyone would say ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to have every single record, because it reminds me of all the spooky stuff!’ You were either open to it, or you didn’t take any notice of it.
“I think there probably is a certain type of child,” agrees Richard Littler, “I’ve a feeling that if I asked my sister, who is only two years younger than me, whether she responds to these things in the same way… I don’t think she would. I meet people who grew up in the 1970s, and they remember Abba. But I remember Top Trumps Decapitation Cards. The Horror Cards, every single one was a decapitation! I remember Abba as well, but they were cast in the light of all this horror.”
I’ve used words like “fuzzy”, “vague” and “nebulous” repeatedly throughout this article, and it’s hard not to speculate whether the generation that grew up before the technological watershed of the 1980s might be amongst the last to remember their childhoods in this fractured, dreamlike fashion… simply because we were the last “analogue” generation, reaching adulthood before the era when our everyday lives – and the popular culture we consume – were able to be constantly, digitally recorded and archived. I’d estimate that, during the first sixteen years of my life, fewer than 100 clear photographs were taken of me; many of them now faded and orange-tinted, stored in musty albums in a battered, brown suitcase in the loft. No moving footage of me exists from before 1990, when I was seventeen years old. And many of the most profoundly affecting television experiences of my childhood were viewed once, forty years ago, in an era when I had no means of recording them, and no expectation that I would ever see them again.
Much of popular hauntology has a yearning quality, and I wondered whether the movement was, at least partially, an attempt to rationalise (and fill in the blanks of) a collective childhood that has become a delicious, jumbled mish-mash of fleeting memories; inaccessible and unverifiable. And whether the modern childhood; where everything is recorded and accessible in pristine quality; where a thousand school bus journeys are documented on Facebook every day; and where every single TV programme is available for repeated, on-demand viewing; would result in a generation of 21st century youngsters for whom childhood nostalgia will be a much more clinical experience, bereft of that feeling of longing for lost things…
“Yeah, everything they want, they can have and see,” says Jonny Trunk. “It’s where the word ‘haunt’ comes from – we’ve got these memories that do haunt us, and we can’t get back there. I once put on [Youtube channel] Trunk TV a thirty-minute edit of thirty-second TV title sequences, because when I saw them I thought… everything in this thirty minutes is what I love about British TV, and my youth, and growing up. They were exciting and weird, and I hadn’t seen them until I started doing some research into a TV project and I managed to blag a load of DVDs of these things. And I thought ‘Sod it, I’ve got to put them online’, because there was stuff there that you never, ever see. To me, it was a thrill getting them… because I wasn’t allowed them. They’re not available. And you’re right, part of what you’re talking about is the fact that we can’t get back to what we had, and we can’t see it again…. but the memories are very vivid. And the fact that you can’t get them is almost a good thing. Because that frustration results in creativity.”
“What makes nostalgia work is information that’s missing,” agrees Richard Littler. “You have to have enormous gaps in your memory to create that strange mood. And if it’s available to you online, in High Definition, then you lose that sense of dreaminess and that feeling of ‘Did I imagine it?’. The more we have completely exhaustive databases of information and media, the less chance we have of forming these completely odd disconnections.
“Before I started Scarfolk, I spent years having these
single, bizarre memories… almost like a whiff on the air. ‘I recognise that!’
And that’s one of the reasons I chose the 1970s for Scarfolk… it means I can
give people a slight hint of a memory. The way the brain works is that, if you
give it a piece of information, it will then try to extrapolate that to a full
piece, to decide what something actually is.
That’s why I choose visual images that most people will have forgotten. I
wouldn’t choose things that are still relevant, like Abba or lava lamps or
disco… I have to choose things like a Programmes
for Schools and Colleges test card, something that people might have a vague memory of… but there are gaps. And
you fill the gaps with absurd fiction.”
For Jim Jupp, this essence of “lostness” is a pivotal part of the Ghost Box aesthetic, and a chief factor in rooting the label’s releases in the fictional, parallel world of Belbury. “What became interesting for us was the idea of keeping a world where that sense of mystery – that ‘what the hell was that piece of music?’ feeling – was still there,” he says. “Because that feeling is impossible in the internet age, and we’re keenly aware of that. So our focus became keeping that sense of mystery… but making it up! So the label had, from the outset, a fictional setting, where our images and sounds were familiar, but you couldn’t look up the answers on the internet. We had to kind of drag this stuff into a fictional realm where it couldn’t be cross-referenced, and there would still be questions marks about the artists, the images and the sounds.”
Ghost Box celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2015 with a In A Moment, a lovingly-compiled anthology of its most representative work, and a timely reminder that – amidst the theorising and psycho-sociological pondering – what really matters is the art. And what fabulous art it is, too; the product of a uniquely fun and evocative movement, where The Focus Group’s Hey Let Loose Your Love evokes daydreams of Pan-worshipped maidens dancing naked around a gaily-coloured maypole, where Belbury Poly’s Owls and Flowers attempts to navigate the hitherto uncharted passage between Alan Garner and Ultravox; and where – oddly enough – original synth pioneer John Foxx teams up with both Jupp and Jon Brooks for Almost There, a requiem for – I assume – a lost (or even ghostly) lover, but with a lyric that could just as easily be an elegy for our own receding, collective childhood experiences: “I see you walking past the waters, I glimpse you floating on the air…”
Speaking to Jim Jupp, I get the impression that In A Moment actually marks the beginning of a new era for Ghost Box, and he tells me that he’s keen to consider the possibility of younger musicians mining hauntological feelings from eras much later than those typically referenced by the movement. “There’s only so much you can explore within those few years of popular culture, so we’re working with some younger artists, and pushing that world out to incorporate peoples’ experiences of the 1980s and even the 1990s. It’s good to have a fresh take on this idea of the misremembered and the undocumented past.
“One of our artists is about ten years younger than us, he’s a guy called Martin Jenkins, and he records as Pye Corner Audio. A lot of his take on this stuff comes from the early 1980s, particularly VHS horror films, and John Carpenter videos. And even though it’s outside of our initial period, it’s still firmly in our territory. And when I think back to the 1980s, when I was a teenager, the medium of VHS in particular had a kind of haunted feel. There was a lot of distortion and degradation, tapes would change hands and you weren’t sure where they came from, and there were rumours of things being illegal. It was still that era of mystery and strangeness on TV.”
Associated artists like Moon Wiring Club, the prolific musical project of archive TV buff Ian Hodgson, have already begun to nudge the movement gently into the world of 1980s analogue computer gaming, with the track Console Yourself – on the splendidly-named 2014 album A Fondness For Fancy Hats – drawing heavily on the distinctive loading sounds made by a vintage ZX Spectrum. And Simon Reynolds, too, is hopeful that younger generations will keep the hauntological flame burning: “Every age will have its substrata of things you don’t consciously register at the time, that you only register in retrospect; like the production or format qualities of the media you’re consuming. You don’t notice it at the time, but you can now look at a 1990s film and say ‘Oh, that that is a period’. And even early 2000s movies can seem a bit clunky and dated. So maybe people will feel nostalgic towards the early days of pop music with autotune, and you can imagine a fetish for clunky early digital music, or early sampling. Maybe that will come to seem nostalgia-inducing in time. For old ravers, those things already do impart nostalgia…”
Like Richard Littler and Frances Castle, my own personal “haunted era” began to dwindle in the mid-1980s, when the rustic, folky vagueness of my early childhood surrendered to the addictive advance of console games and the march of digital music before – ultimately – being killed off by the mystique-eroding power of the internet. And, if I’m honest, by my own adulthood itself; even when exposed directly to the music, TV and film of later eras, I find it virtually impossible to experience a frisson of genuine nostalgia for anything that happened beyond the mid-1990s. But I’m thrilled to discover that younger generations – despite the hindrance of growing up in a multi-media, information-soaked age – are still finding hauntedness in the most unlikely of places: Richard Littler tells me of a young friend who recently claimed to be so traumatised by a half-forgotten childhood experience that they were unsure as to whether they’d imagined it or not. On further investigation, it transpired to be the Judderman television advert for the Bacardi-related alcopop Metz, first screened on British television in the year 2000.
As Jim Jupp says, “Maybe the future of it is the fact that childhood itself is a bit weird, and there’s stuff lodged in people’s memories that troubles them, that they can’t quite explain… even in an era when they can look stuff up. Hopefully not all of the answers are there, and there’s still some mystery and a sense of wonder.”