I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but soon there were tell-tale signs: a woman with a Trunk Records tote bag slung nonchalently over one shoulder, striding purposefully along Shoreditch High Street; a brace of bearded blokes buying Wispa bars from Sainsburys, both of whom I vaguely recognised from long-ago Doctor Who conventions; and – ultimately – the mysterious gates of the state51 Conspiracy factory on Rhoda Street, sporadically and tantalisingly swinging open to allow access to the enticing “Midsummer Nights’ Happening” beyond. It was 6.30pm, Friday 21st June, and the air lay heavy with the scent of sunscreen and free-flowing beer, combined with the first opening salvo of vintage electronica from the turntables concealed within. Once inside, I was greeted cheerily in the courtyard by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, resplendent in canvas cap, and he wasted no time in introducing me to the genial Martin Jenkins – Pye Corner Audio, to Ghost Box devotees – and his friend Darren, instructing us to help ourselves to the free bar.
Yes, that’s right, the free bar. Oh dear… this could get messy.
The hidden HQ of the delightfully clandestine state51 Conspiracy had been decorated with impeccable attention to period detail. In the “utopian glade” of Pan’s Garden, pot-bellied effigies peered knowingly from clusters of rustling foliage, the floor crackling with the crunch of unseasonal dead leaves. A rustic wooden signpost (with a font to warm the cockles of Patrick McGoohan’s incarcerated heart) directed me to the TV Chamber, where fleeting glimpses of Jack Hargreaves and Arthur C. Clarke flickered across the screens of ancient, wooden-bodied televisions. In the opposite direction, the extravagantly bearded Dan was pressing bespoke event t-shirts with what appeared to be an elaborate mangle.
In a space of a few fleeting, giddy minutes, I exchanged greetings with cheery figures who – previously – had only been known to me from e-mails, tweets, phone conversations… or even, simply, the credits on albums that I’d bought, played, loved, and treasured. Julian House, Frances Castle, Jonny Trunk, Robin The Fog and Vic Mars. João Branco Kyron from Beautify Junkyards. Colin from Castles in Space, Gavin from Spun Out of Control, Stewart from the brilliant Concrete Islands website. There was Haunted Generation reader Eamonn and his wife, who’d travelled all the way from Northern Ireland, and Rolf from Southport, who’d bought a copy of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ from me online a week earlier, and was keen to say hello. And the always ebullient Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records, who I’d last chatted to in 2017 at the concealed entrance to Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, after the climax of his most recent, most extraordinary Delaware Road event. He was delighted to discover that the Delia Derbyshire badge that he’d given me that evening had been pinned to the lapel of my jacket ever since.
It was a delirious, surreal, gathering of the haunted clans: a cavalcade of eclectic live performance, inventive DJ sets, and magnificently fevered conversation that continued long into Saturday morning. And it conicided conveniently with the release of the latest Ghost Box Records LP, Chanctonbury Rings, a collaboration between US writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus, and Jim Jupp himself, in his customary guise as synth-prog overlord Belbury Poly. The album combines Justin’s thoughtful, beguiling spoken accounts of mystical experiences on this ancient Sussex landmark with a swirling malestrom of musical textures: gently-strummed autoharp, wistful recorders, Sharron’s floating, graceful vocals, and Ghost Box’s trademark woozy, analogue synths.
As the first live act to the take to the stage at A Midsummer Nights’ Happening, they performed Chanctonbury Rings immaculately, in its entirety, to a hugely appreciative audience. Two days earlier, I’d spoken to them both on my BBC Tees Evening show about the albums’ inspiration, and the creative process involved. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: How did the collaboration between the two of you come about? I saw you performing separately at the Folk Horror Revival event in Wakefield in 2017. That wasn’t the genesis of this, was it?
Justin: No, we’d met before that, and I think we’d even discussed
Sharron: Yes, we were already plotting by that point. I
don’t think we’d started work, but Justin had asked me if I was interested in
doing some music for some of his texts.
Justin: Yeah, the project comes from one chapter of my book, The Old Weird Albion… and your listeners will tell from the way I talk that I’m not from Middlesbrough, but in fact from Pittsburgh – the Middlesbrough of America! But I’ve written a book about my encounters on the South Downs.
So were you contemplating doing some readings from the book, and thought that a bit of accompanying music would be handy?
Justin: Yeah, me reading for fifteen or twenty minutes is not a very exciting proposition. So Sharron threw herself onto that funeral pyre, and was willing to write some music.
Sharron: It was quite the opposite, because Justin sent the text over to me, and it immediately conjured up all sorts of images. So I sat down and spent an afternoon just creating lots of musical sketches, and I was loving the things I was coming up with in response to his work. So to me, it was exciting.
I did wonder how the
collaboration had worked on a practical level, whether Justin had sent you
readings of his work for you to compose the accompanying music, or whether
you’d sent Justin music for him to fit his readings around… or a little of
Sharron: Yeah, a bit of both. He just sent me a Word
document, and I created segments of music that I thought would fit with
different bits of the text. And then, when we had the first couple of shows, I
came down to Essex and we spent the day
fitting the bits together. At that point we didn’t know if they were going to fit very well together…
but they seemed to.
Justin: And obviously there’s a little bit of goat sacrifice,
and such. We read the entrails and figure out the chord changes.
A bit of goat
sacrifice is surely an important element of any creative process…
Sharron: Related to that, but on a more serious note… we did, last Mayday, before we performed the first gig that we’d ever done, go up to Chanctonbury and perform a very stripped-down, acoustic, ritualised version of it, with some other friends reading poetry, some Morris Dancers dancing… so that was really magical, and kind of cemented the project as something that was more than jut a one-off gig.
I was going to ask a
little about Chanctonbury itself, a place I’ve never visited… can you tell us a
little bit about the site itself, is it a Bronze Age settlement?
Justin: It’s genuinely every
age. It’s certainly been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and it is a genuinely
strange place. It’s just above the village where my grandparents lived, in Sussex, so I
used to go there during my childhood. And I know some fairly serious
occultist-type people, who’ve essentially been unable to spend the night on
Chanctonbury. Because of the strange things that they hear, and indeed see.
Levitation is quite a common occurrence up there… allegedly. I’ve barely seen
that. Not with the living.
But it’s an interesting and strange place. Like I said it’s
been inhabited throughout the ages, and it’s been a worship site… it was a
Druidic site, and a Roman site, and Pagan site and a Saxon site… it’s been
I read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, in which he attempts to spend the night there, and has a very strange and scary experience.
Justin: He’s quite terrified up there, and he’s done a lot of things. It’s a fairly well-known
spot for that kind of action, and indeed for artistic response as well. It’s
been written about for hundreds of years, so I like to think we’re part of a
Sharron, was it a place
that you’d visited before starting work on this project?
Sharron: No it wasn’t, and the thing that was really interesting for me was that I was deliberately not Googling it, and not looking at photographs… I was trying to just work from Justin’s text, and to just respond to his version of the place and create this fictional musical world. And I was really interested to see, when I went there, whether it would feel like it was the same place, or if I was way off the mark. But it just… I drove through Sussex to meet Justin there, and as I was getting closer, along the Downs, I was getting this sense of familiarity, and when we actually went up Chanctonbury in the morning, it was wonderfully close to what I had imagined. That was really special for me.
Justin, there is a
fascinating part of the narrative where you suggest you saw a vision of your
late grandmother up on Chanctonbury Ring… was this based on a real experience?
Justin: Yeah… its quite funny to say in front of a bunch of people I’ve never met – your listeners – that I see my dead grandmother most times that I go up to Chanctonbury, and yet I genuinely don’t think I’m crazy or anything. But you know… there’s this experience that I think everyone has where you see these things, you encounter these things out of the corner of your eyes. You’re trying to look at them, and they’re not quite there, or not quite in focus, or not quite what you thought. And the fact that you can’t touch these things, can’t take a photograph of them or even maintain them within your field of view for more than a fraction of a second… I don’t think that makes them any less real. Memory is a haunting thing, and I think that’s what all this is about in many ways. Both haunting and belonging.
Was Chanctonbury a
place that held a deep connection for your grandmother as well, then?
Justin: Yeah, she would have gone there every week for at
least 25 or 30 years. And she took the rest of us whenever we were there.
I wanted to ask about Ghost Box Records, a label I’ve fallen in love with, and they deal with feelings that transport many of us back to our childhoods years in the 1970s, and evoke strange, disquieting memories of that era. But I don’t think they’ve really done anything like Chanctonbury Rings before, a spoken word album… how did the link to Ghost Box come about?
Justin: I met Jim Jupp when I first moved to this country – and I literally can’t remember how – but I met him and we became friends quite quickly. He worked on a project that I did called Ley Line, which was a piece I recorded with the folk singer Shirley Collins, and some artists from Pittsburgh, where I’m from. And that piece needed something extra, some production, and he worked on that.
And in a way this is like a big, grown-up, professional version
of what we started with that. We’ve got a real musician actually composing music! Instead of me saying “I think it
sould go “Woooooooooo”
Sharron: You get me going “Wooooooooo” instead!
Justin: I didn’t grow up in this country, so Sharron… was
that haunted 1970s and 80s lifestyle that Ghost Box is about part of your
Sharron: Yeah, it really was. Once of the things I’m
interested in is how there are so many haunted elements of life in this
country. Something happened in the 1970s that was more extreme, I guess we
would all say… and Ghost Box tap into that, and give us the nostalgia, but also
something richer than just harking back. They’ve created a world that certain
projects seem to fit into.
Ghost Box are like a
parallel universe version of our 1970s childhoods, filling in the bits that
we’ve forgotten, or that are missing…
Justin: It’s as though they’re fitting in the bits that you
think you’ve forgotten, but actually… they never happened! One of the things
that I would say we’ve very subtly done with this record, including with the
artwork… we talked a lot with Jim and Julian House, the designer, about having the
feel of these BBC Poetry For Schools albums from the 1960s and 70s, they’re
really interested in those, and the Topic Records compilations that came out in
the early 1970s. But my Spoken Word origins are in those Jack Kerouac and Steve
Allen albums, or Ken Nordine albums… I think of them as very Mid Western
American albums… a sort of Psychedelic Midwest. And they’ve done a really cool
job of putting those things together, so the back cover really has this beatnik
jazz poetry album feel to it, while also maintaining that psychedelic folk
I love Ken Nordine’s work. I once actually played Ken Nordine’s Colors album in its entirety on the radio, all 36 tracks over 36 consecutive shows. When I first heard Chanctonbury Rings, I thought there was a little whiff of Ken about it…
Justin: It’s all part of that surrealist Midrwestern thing…
that William Burroughs and Ken Nordine upbringing of mine. That’s lovely,
The other comparison that struck me was that of Ronald Duncan and David Cain’s notorious 1969 BBC album, The Seasons. Was that an album that you had in mind?
Sharron: For me, it wasn’t something that I’d heard when I was making the music. But it was a touchstone for Jim… he referenced that album when thinking about what we could do with the project, in terms of artwork and ideas. Had you heard it before?
Justin: I’d only barely heard it, and only through Jim. I knew it was essentially why Ghost Box thought it might be OK to put out a spoken word album. So it’s been a touchstone in terms of the production parts that Jim did… the Introduction for example, which is a Belbury Poly composition, that’s definitely of the David Cain school of music. So yeah, it was an important part of the music’s upbringing.
There are some lovely
analogue synths on there, Sharron…
Sharron: Yes, my little Korg! It does all sorts…
Justin: We’re proud of the sounds, and it’s also a beautiful slab of vinyl packaging. So even if you don’t like what you’ve hard, buy one and just put it on your wall!
Justin and Sharron’s performance at A Midsummer Night’s Happening was barely the beginning of an extraordinary evening. At 9.34pm, I texted my radio cohort Uncle Harry with the astute observation: “I’m drunk in Shoreditch, and I’m watching Jonny Trunk and Wisbey perform slow jazz versions of the themes from Bergerac and Match of the Day“. Which is pretty much what’s happening in the photograph above. Then, silhoutted before a bespoke, head-swimming film collage created by Julian House, The Soundcarriers performed an immersive set of semi-improvised psychedelia, with tantalising excerpts of their album Entropicalia – a long-standing Ghost Box favourite of mine – bleeding through. Jonny Trunk and Robin the Fog joined forces to play previously unheard recordings made by sound pioneer Basil Kirchin, with live piano accompaniment from Steve Beresford. Martin Jenkins pounded Pye Corner beats from within an all-pervading fug of dry ice and Julian and Frances and João all took to the decks, although I’m embarrassed to report that I missed Jim Jupps’ airing of The Rah Band’s 1977 classic synth-pop single The Crunch because I was outside in the balmy night air, possibly rambling a little too long (and a little too incoherently) to the admirably patient Edd Gibson from Friendly Fires about my love of his collaboration with the enigmatic Jon Brooks’ on the Pattern Forms album, Peel Away The Ivy.
As Friday became Saturday, and as indoors performance became outdoors mingling, the night air was filled with the promise of newly-forged alliances (“Let’s do something together! What’s your number?”) and enthused reminsicing. My last recollection is getting a little too noisily excited about the work of the 1960s Barrow Poets with Jim, and – as he pulled out his phone to find a Youtube clip – noticing it was 2.47am. Rolf and I left together and wandered into the night, looking for taxis in opposite directions. Shoreditch High Street was still awash with light and noise, but nowhere in any of the surrounding bars did I see flickering footage of Pan’s People or hear the lilting refrain of the theme from Bergerac. A unique and captivating happening indeed.
Thanks to the state51 Conspiracy, Ghost Box Records, Trunk Records and everyone involved for a truly special event… and to Justin and Sharron for the radio chat. ‘Happening’ photos of Pan, Justin and Sharron, Jonny Trunk and Wisbey, and Julian House are all by Lois Gray. The Haunted Generation blog would like to clarify that it does not, in reality, endorse goat sacrifice as part of the creative process.
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.”