The Scarfolk Annual, Richard Littler… and Merry Christmas!

Christmas morning! Without exception, the most exciting morning of the year. A head-spinning rush of excitable sleeplessness (In 1981, I stayed awake constantly from Christmas Eve morning until the early hours of Boxing Day – with a table football from Romer Parrish’s toyshop in the offing, sleep was impossible), giddy anticipation at the delights to come, and a wild, morning sugar rush on the only day of the year when it becomes socially acceptable to eat a Toblerone before 9am.

When I raced downstairs at six or (if my parents were lucky) seven o’clock, I would be greeted with a pile of brightly-wrapped presents stacked carefully below the branches of our silver Woolworths tree, its fragile plastic twigs groaning wearily beneath the weight of the entire Teesside tinsel reserve. After a few delaying tactic formalities (pot of tea, coal fire lit, curtains open to reveal drizzly twilight, local radio switched on because TV programmes didn’t start for another hour and a half), I would be allowed to “sort out” the presents into piles; individual stacks of oddly-shaped gifts for my Mum, my Dad, my Gran, my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose… and then a dizzily exciting mound of goodies for me, inevitably the largest of the lot. I was lucky, and I was spoiled, and with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, I can’t thank my parents enough for that. God knows, they must have worked themselves into the ground for our Christmases.

During this giddy sifting, it was – of course – essential to attempt to guess the nature of each present before the wrapping came off. And the easiest to identify by far were the annuals. A4, hardbacked, reassuringly solid… there’s something about the very distinct weight of them that still transports me back to childhood Christmases, whenever I lift one from the self in 2019. There would be Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee annuals, of course, but – as I grew older – also Doctor Who and Blue Peter, publications that combined the “Cor!” rush of fun comic strips with worthy, educational features and stories, and often rather disconcerting illustrations. They never could get Tom Baker quite right.

These publications have all provided the inspiration for the new Scarfolk annual, a devastatingly dark and unerringly accurate pastiche of the genre. Writer and artist Richard Littler, the genial self-proclaimed mayor of this fictional, dystopian, 1970s North-Western town, joined me to share some memories of his favourite childhood annuals, and to discuss the influences on his own rather wonderful book…

Bob: Congratulations on the Scarfolk annual… has it been a long time in the planning? When did you start thinking about this, and compiling material?

Richard: Thank you! I had the idea shortly after the release of the last book, but it took a while to collate the ideas for content because I was working on other projects. I was also still regularly creating Scarfolk blog posts, but an annual requires different content, so I decided to take a break from the blog in order to focus on this new Scarfolk direction. Throw a move to another country – and a few other issues – into the mix and suddenly a couple of years have zipped by.

It’s a brilliant homage to the annuals of our youth, always seemingly published by the mysterious World Distributors. Can you recall particular 1970s annuals that left a distinct impression on you as a kid? Any particular features, stories or comic strips you’d like to share?

When I was very small, I was fond of Playhour and Disney annuals. I suffered from night terrors, and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse. When I was a little older, my favourites were the 1968 TV Tornado annual, which contained strips of The Saint, Tarzan, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and others. Print technology changed a lot in the early 1970s, so it felt ancient with its rough paper and gaudy colours when I bought it from a school jumble sale, circa 1977. Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2, which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory, in a factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me.

I remember finding a certain ‘wrongness’ to 1970s annuals, too… the Doctor Who annuals, for examples, often had illustrations that bore little resemblance to the actors  in the series, and there would be educational articles too, unconnected to the show. Was that feeling something you remember, and kept in mind when working on the Scarfolk annual?

Yes, I recall that well. Buffering the true, series-based content, there were many pages in annuals only vaguely connected by theme, especially factual or puzzle content. The 1976 Doctor Who Annual, for example, contains a feature about the signs of the zodiac, and the 1978 annual has an educational piece about the Apollo mission crew emblems. They were quite lazy, really: anything to do with time or space went in. “Doctor Who is about time, and they called him grandfather, so let’s do a chapter about workmen who clean grandfather clocks”. I parodied the loose space theme in the Scarfolk Annual, as well as other nebulous fact pages… such as the page about the origin of “things”.

The strip artists also frequently used existing source material in their work. In the 1976 Doctor Who annual strip called “Neuronic Nightmare”, the character Skizos is actually a sight rejigging of Vincent Price from the film Madhouse (1974). In the story “The Mission”, the character called Tamrik is a reworked image of Charlton Heston. In honour of that kind of thing, there’s an illustration in the Scarfolk Annual that I based on an image from the 1922 Scandinavian horror film Häxan.

The annual itself is bitingly political in places – which I know has always been a part of Scarfolk, but have recent political events made Scarfolk seem closer to 21st century reality than it’s ever been? “Foreigner Identification Badges” actually seem terrifyingly plausible, as do government statements dissuading people from protesting…

I think it might be the other way around to some extent: the 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while. If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised. That said, Scarfolk isn’t a fixed artefact like a novel. Because it’s a blog, there is some leeway and it can more easily “interact” with the latest political and cultural developments as they occur.

Has that come as a sad surprise to you over the last few years? You launched Scarfolk in 2013, which now seems like a relatively stable era in hindsight… did you have any inkling back then, that Scarfolk would become so relevant to modern life?

I didn’t at all expect that it would become so relevant to modern life. Looking back, it was an almost an innocent time. Back in comparatively utopian 2013, Scarfolk’s dystopian aspects were quaintly surreal. Since 2016 particularly, real-world developments have become absurd and tribal, Trump being a perfect personification of this. A real step back. Every time I see or hear Trump I can almost feel the human race regressing.

I loved the comic strip “Waugh in the War”, with the insane, titular “hero” determined to kill everyone… including his own soldiers. I actually remember being a little unsure as a very small kid was to whether World War 2 was still being fought in the 1970s, because it still just seemed to be everywhere. Were we still fighting it in our heads, do you think?

The 1970s were only 30 years from the war, very much within living memory of two, maybe even three generations, so it was bound to feature prominently in culture as we tried, as a society, to define what it all meant. Children’s books were full of simple tales of war-time heroism and “beating the Jerries”… as featured in comics such as Commando, Warlord and Battle, not to mention the innumerable films. Sadly, I think a lot of people still hold onto this idea of the war, which almost defines “Britishness” for them. We even hear it in mainstream political discourse. It’s facile.

I laughed a lot at the feature about “IFOs” as well – “Identified Flying Objects” – which gives supernatural significance to ducks and aeroplanes. And the “Seance Poodle”, too! Do you remember the 1970s as an era when the paranormal became an unlikely element of mainstream society? Not just in the media, with reports of ghosts on Nationwide and the like, but also everyday life… universities were still conducting “psychic research”, and I suspect belief in things like the Loch Ness Monster would have been pretty widespread. It was a pretty credulous era.

The supernatural was very much presented as scientific, rather than pseudoscientific, in the 1970s. As you say, university departments had psychic laboratories and parapsychology departments. It was all taken very seriously; it wasn’t joked about, and TV presenters didn’t make light of it at all. In fact, the same broadcasters also presented the news and other factual programmes. Books about UFOs, ghosts, Nessie, spontaneous human combustion and ESP were always in the non-fiction section rather than being in the “religion, spirituality, and new age” type category, which is where I tend to see them now.

Also, I don’t know what it was like anywhere else in Britain, but in the north where I’m from, people still went to spiritualist churches and visited mediums. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. Despite the modernist and brutalist architecture springing up around them, and the dreams of utopian, technological futures, interest in the supernatural was very much present – in fact, it accelerated. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a reaction to the concrete, glass and steel (and increasingly godless) progress that alienated some people.

Is that credulity part of what makes the era so ripe for satire? An era when people believed information provided by the mainstream media, and the government, in a way that they maybe don’t in 2019…

A few years ago, I would have said yes, the 1970s was a ripe era for satire – and it was – but seeing what has occurred in the past handful of years, I would say that gullibility is still a huge concern. Many people have been deftly manipulated into believing untrue, flagrant absurdities. Arguably, it’s worse now: At least in the past, people had the excuse of “innocent” ignorance, in that there was less access to information and knowledge. Nowadays, information is at everyone’s fingertips and, arguably, it doesn’t take too long to discern whether or not a piece of information is factual, manipulated or fabricated. More than ever we can see confirmation bias at work and this is frequently exploited by controlling agencies such as governments, corporations and media sources (and often so-called ‘alternative’ media sources).

On a lighter note, with “Scar School” in mind… which of the Play School toys did you find the most unsettling, and why?

It has to be Hamble. She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be baby but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She’s to be avoided at all costs.

I also love your ear for little phrases that remind me of feeling scared at school. Reading the annual was the first time in 35 years that I’d come across the phrase “Middle C of the piano”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I felt like I was supposed to know, and that scared me. Any other phrases like that that haunt you?

There are so many, and I try wherever possible to include words and phrases that aren’t in use as much as they once were. Even something simple like “Hallo” or “hullo”, instead of “hello”, which I remember from reading Enid Blyton books as a kid. The phrase that unsettled me the most – “for more information…” – I adapted into Scarfolk’s slogan: “For More Information Please Re-read”. I panicked whenever I read official documents, whether at school or elsewhere. And if you reached that kind of phrase at the end of forms, and still didn’t understand, you were in trouble. Too frightened to ask for fear of looking stupid, or risk a clip round the earhole from a proudly abusive teacher, you’d just smile and pretend that you got it.

This is complete nosey parkery on my part, but a recurring theme in Scarfolk is the breakdown of trust (or the attempt to drive a wedge) between children and their parents.  The annual even has a feature called “Are You Parents Hurting You?”! Dare I ask… what’s your relationship with your own parents like, are you exorcising anything here?

Ha! My relationship with my parents is fine. Honestly (honestly!). Writing from the point-of-view of Scarfolk Council is really only like an actor playing an unsavoury character. “Method” blogging, if you will.

One central concept of the annual is about indoctrinating children – or anyone, I suppose – so I studied the brainwashing and coercive techniques of cults. One method is to break down the trust between a prospective cult member/victim and their closest family members and friends with the ultimate goal of pressuring the victim into cutting all ties so that they are under the full control of the cult. Once a cult has broken down the victim’s connection to the outside world, it starts eroding their concept of themselves as individuals. So, you know, I thought that would be a good idea for the basis of a children’s book. As you do.

Any future plans for Scarfolk that you could share with us? Could the annual become an, erm, annual occurrence?

It could only be an “annual annual” if I involved other artists and contributors, because of publisher and printer deadlines. The turnaround would be too tight for me on my own. Involving others was originally the plan for this book, but when I realised how much it might cost to commission so many contributors, I took on the onerous task of doing everything myself. I’m so cheap. I ended up having to teach myself to draw in the varied style of the old annuals. Thankfully, and very fortunately for me, the art in some of them is quite crude, but I still I had to improve myself enormously just to reach the dizzying heights of crudity!

Thanks so much to Richard for his time, and typically thoughtful and fascinating conversation. The Scarfolk Annual is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scarfolk-Annual-Richard-Littler/dp/0008307016

And thanks, from me, to everyone who has been part of this blog throughout 2019! It’s been a joy to put together, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has contributed and commented, or simply read and enjoyed these articles. Particular thanks go to David Sutton and all at the Fortean Times. Lots more to come in 2020, in the meantime… wishing you all a merry – and hopefully not too haunted – Christmas.


Bob x

Hattie Cooke, The Sleepers and Spun Out of Control

The 1970s felt like a very “ill” decade. Those of us who were children at the time were well aware of the impact of commonplace maladies, and we all share fond memories of gazing woozily at BBC Schools programmes while attempting to shake off the unpleasant effects of mumps, measles or chickenpox. Or, indeed, incorporating unspecified abdabs into our childhood games… it was an era when simple playground pursuits like “Tag” were rebranded as “Bugs”, or even “Fleas”, the sole object being to contaminate as many of our closest friends as possible with the lethal, imaginary infection of our choosing.

Then, of course, we could wallow in the welter of TV and film favourites that took a myriad of plagues and maladies as their starting point. There was Survivors, of course, but even Hollywood blockbusters had their moments: 1978’s Coma, directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a spate of unexplained brain-deaths in a Boston Hospital; and the lesser-known Patrick – from the same year – sees a troubled Susan Penhaligon despatched to care for a comatose young man who nevertheless seems to exhibit worrying telekinetic powers.

Good grief, there was even Only When I Laugh, an illness-based sitcom, with James Bolam, Peter Bowles and Christopher Strauli seemingly stranded indefinitely in a grim hospital ward with three non-specific, long-term lurgies.

All of these memories sprang to mind when I first listened to Hattie Cooke‘s excellent new album, The Sleepers. Released by the cassette-friendly Spun Out Of Control, it forms the soundtrack to an strikingly original narrative, an approach that has become the label’s intriguing trademark. The story is that of a worldwide sleeping sickness that baffles the scientific community, and the young woman – Maude – whose son becomes affected. When he is kidnapped by a violent sect who are determined to sacrifice the snoozing victims to achieve misguided absolution, she decides, in desperation, to infiltrate the cult’s membership. But unexpectedly finds herself falling for a fellow member…

It’s an album of beautiful, cinematic electronica, and I asked Hattie about its inspirations and evolution.

Bob: Your previous work has been as a more traditional singer-songwriter, although you’ve incorporated a few synths here and there. Had it always been in your mind to make a full-length instrumental album?

Hattie: I’ve always loved soundtracks, and classical music especially. When I was about 12 or 13 I started asking for soundtracks as Christmas and birthday presents. I was really into Amelie, and the Yann Tiersen soundtrack in particular, and I pretty much played it on repeat. I think it was around that time that I starting thinking “One day I want to compose music for films…” So I guess you could say I’ve always had the inclination to do it. But realistically I had no idea what that meant in principle or how it would sound, just that I wanted to be like all of the composers I admired. That feeling has never gone away, especially as I’ve gotten more into film as I’ve grown older.

The ideas behind The Sleepers are quite specific, and it has a set narrative… did you always intend it to be a musical work, or did it ever cross your mind to write it as a novel, a short story, or even a film?

The Sleepers actually started out as something else entirely. Technically it started out as a dance record about four years ago, but I scrapped it. And then last year I came back to the files and realised that there was some good stuff that I could develop into something new. At the same time, my friend Nick [as Nicholas Langley and Dark Half] was about to release a concept album called Rebel Convoy, on Spun Out Of Control, and he inspired me to try something cinematic myself. The music kept reminding me of a post-apocalypse, dystopian movie, and so I started to imagine a film in my mind, and began to re-write the music as a soundtrack.

Initially I was thinking along the ‘nuclear apocalypse’ line but, somewhere along the way, the music began to take on a life of its own. When the album was half-written, it had a much more dream-like quality. So I spent a few days coming up with a new plot. I came up with some pretty terrible ones but eventually I landed on the idea of the The Sleepers, which was partly inspired by the Oliver Sacks book, Awakenings. It was on my bedside table at the time.

I had wanted to release a short story along with the music, but ran out of time. In my wildest dreams somebody would turn it into a film and let me write the screenplay.

The idea of a worldwide sleeping sickness is so delightfully reminiscent of those blockbuster 1970s “disaster” books and films, and I guess the obvious comparison is something like Coma. Did you have that kind of thing in mind when you started thinking about The Sleepers? Is there a secret Michael Crichton fan in us all?

Gosh, I could talk for hours about 1970s films; Marathon Man, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, Two-Lane Blacktop, All the Presidents Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Deliverance, Papillon… the list goes on and on. But when I was making the album I kept thinking about 1970s science fiction, and dystopian films like Logan’s Run, Westworld (Hello, Michael Crichton) and THX 1138.

The scene in THX 1138 where Robert Duvall is climbing up that ladder trying to escape to the outside world, as those terrifying robot men call after him, kept playing around and around in my head. That’s why I titled one of the tracks ‘Ladders’, as a private nod to that film. 

How did you approach the album – did you have the whole story planned out, and then compose music for each plot point accordingly?

Sort of, but not quite. I definitely didn’t approach it as logically, or as constrained as that. It was a bit all over the place to begin with, but once the album was half done and I knew what the plot was going to be, I began to refine the whole thing. It became clear that I had a specific sound that I was trying to capture. I was going for a dream-like calmness that also had a sense of tension about it, like something ominous or dangerous was about to happen. I have no idea if I pulled it off!

Certainly, at points I’d think, “I have too many dreamy tracks, I need to write one that’s more upbeat, with more tension and energy” and so I would sit down and write until something good came out. But mostly I just tried to put myself into the various emotional states of the characters. I’d picture something happening to them in the film, and then write the musical version of their thoughts and feelings. It’s an abstract process that’s hard for me to get my own head around.

Can you talk us through any characters that you had in mind for The Sleepers? Tell us about Maude! And the cult member she falls for…

Maude! She’s so determined to get vengeance for the death of her son. She’s heartbroken. But the pain drives her. She becomes obsessed by the need to “do something”. She thinks that if she can join the cult, and rise up the ranks, that she might be able to take it down from the inside, so to speak. And then she meets this guy at one of the cult meetings, I never gave him a name, but we can call him Bob after you…

I’m honoured…

And so Bob is part of the cult too, but unlike the other members, there’s something familiar about him, something in him that she recognises but that she can’t put her finger on. And there’s this tension between them, sexual or emotional maybe, it’s hard to say. But Maude is beating herself up, because she’s really only wanting to focus on her plan. And more to the point, she doesn’t understand why she’s falling for this sociopath who seemingly thinks it’s acceptable to steal children from their beds and sacrifice them.

Eventually they discover that they’re both fake members. and Bob has his own vendetta against the cult. So they connect over their mutual hate and desire for revenge. It’s all very odd and backwards, romantically speaking, but then again I was going through a break-up when I wrote the album, so that might have something to do with it!

As a maker of electronic music, who are your inspirations and influences? I think I picked out hints of John Carpenter and even Mark Snow’s music for The X-Files, but I’m happy to be told that I’m wrong!

It’s funny, so many people – after they hear the music – say to me that I must like John Carpenter. Truth be told, I had no idea who he was at the time. Turns out I’ve seen a ton of his films, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to sing you one of his themes. I’ve always been into classical musical, especially minimalism and chamber music. I spent most of 2017 and 2018 listening to Arvo Part, Henryk Górecki, Erik Satie, Philip Glass, John Tavener… that sort of thing. I think that feeds into what I do.

Obviously I don’t have an entire orchestra to hand, and actually I can’t even read music. I just have an old iPad with GarageBand on it, so I take my influences and impose the dodgy built-in synth sounds on them, and it comes out sounding like John Carpenter or New Order or whatever. It’s a total accident. The music I make is really just a product of my own various limitations. I’d probably be writing for a 72 piece orchestra, or a string quartet, if I could. 

How did you link up with Spun Out Of Control? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

I wrote the album specifically with them in mind. After Nick showed me a preview of Rebel Convoy, I was really keen to release a concept album too. The artwork, the sound, the concept… it was all so exciting to me. And Spun Out of Control are a very cool label. So I spent a few months working on a demo version of the album and then I contacted Gavin [Stoker, label boss] via Twitter… pretty much just asking him to take a listen and let me know if he might be interested in releasing something with me.

I suppose it’s quite a lot of work to put in without any guarantees, but I think it helped knowing that Spun Out Of Control were supportive of my first album… plus Nick at Third Kind Records said he’d release it if nobody else wanted to, ha! But Gavin has been great, very helpful and very encouraging. This was my first attempt at a concept album/soundtrack so it was a great feeling to have him on board with it. He’s a man who knows his stuff! It’s also very exciting to be the first female artist on the label.

They’re on a sensational run of form with their covers… what was your first reaction when you saw the sleeve for The Sleepers?

The artwork, by Eric Adrian Lee, is always mind-blowing. It’s genuinely half the reason that I wanted to work with Spun Out Of Control, because he does the majority of the covers for them. It’s funny though, because I gave him very different suggestions for the artwork when we initially spoke, and then he got behind on another project… so it took a few months. The anticipation was ramping up. And then when I saw what he’d come up with, it was a bit of a shock. Not a bad shock, just not at all what I was expecting. He said he found the album very relaxing and wanted to convey that.

I thought that was very funny. I guess it’s impossible to know what other people are going to think of when they hear your music. The artwork looks fantastic though, very striking and iconic, the sort of thing that belongs on a full-size film poster. I’m a little concerned that the artwork is better than the music!

The revival of the cassette is an interesting phenomenon, too. Do they hold a lot of sentimental value for you?

The fact that I’ve released two albums on cassette is sort of an accident, to be honest… it turns out that the labels who like my music are the sort of people who also like to release stuff on cassettes. I’m OK with that, although I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t desperate to release something on vinyl. I don’t even own a cassette player… I did when I was a little kid, but I only used it because it had an FM/AM radio, and I liked tuning into AM and listening to strange French music.

It took me two and a half years to listen to my first album on its physical format. I was drunk on whiskey and wine, and when we tried to play the B-side the tape went all weird and warped. We wound it back using a pencil but it happened again so we stopped trying. I still haven’t listened to The Sleepers cassette yet. I have one by my beside and I’ve very proud of it, but I’ve always found it surreal and a little uncomfortable listening back to my own music.

Has it whetted your appetite for more scores, and instrumental albums? What will the next album be?

I’ve had another solo album in the pipeline for two years, but I haven’t had the guts to record it properly. It’s wrapped up in a lot of emotions and I guess I’ve been putting off “going there”. But certainly I’d like to write more scores, and I’d love to score for a real-life film, not just one that I’ve made up in my head!

Partly I was hoping somebody would hear The Sleepers and ask me to score a film for them. But since it came out I’ve been asked by Alex White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes to collaborate with him on a new album. He’s a wonderful songwriter, so hopefully that will happen at some point in the not too distant future. It would be nice to work with somebody else. I’m kind of a hermit when it comes to my work, but I think maybe it’s time to come out of my shell a little bit.

Thanks for Hattie for a fascinating chat, and The Sleepers is available here…

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/the-sleepers

Scarred For Life, Kev Oyston and Memories of 1970s TV

All hail Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence… the square-eyed Liverpudlian duo who, staggered that nobody had yet written a book about the welter of disturbing TV shows, films and – ahem – ice lollies that traumatised our collective 1970s childhoods, set out to fill the gap. The resulting doorstep-sized tome, Scarred For Life, has become a sales sensation, and a follow-up volume, detailing the Cold War-infused minutiae of their 1980s adolescence, is due in 2020.

And the book has now inspired a compilation album of original music, all influenced by those lingering memories of childhood disquiet. It includes new tracks by the likes of Vic Mars, The Home Current, Pulselovers, The Heartwood Institute and Polypores, and has been compiled by musician Kev Oyston, who – in his guise as The Soulless Party – also contributes the title track. It’s the start of a busy period for Kev, whose multi-media Black Meadow collaboration with writer Chris Lambert, detailing the dark folk stories of the North York Moors, also sparks back into life in early 2020.

But the Scarred For Life album, released this week by Castles In Space, comes first, with all proceeds heading to Cancer Research UK. It’s a beautiful collection of evocative music, and I asked Kev about the inspiration behind it…

Bob: Where did the idea for the Scarred For Life album come from? I assume you bought the book, and enjoyed it?

Kev: Yeah, I bought the book. It appealed massively to me straight away. Although I was born in 1975, a lot of the early to mid 1970s Public Information Films, schools programmes and children’s programmes were still being re-shown throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, so a lot of the content of the book rang a big bell with me. I’ve always been fascinated with the dark, weird and ambiguous output of 1970s TV.

Which TV programmes or films from the era really scared you?

My earliest memories are basically from Doctor Who and those Public Information films. Being rather mesmerised by Tom Baker, who himself was pretty scary. I actually remember the reveal of Scaroth at the end of the first episode of City of Death – that absolutely terrified me. I was four! The other Doctor Who cliffhanger that traumatised me was the end of the first episode of Logopolis, where the Master shrunk Aunt Vanessa and the policeman, and left them like lifeless dolls in the car.

The Public information Films that got to me were the ones with the drivers’ faces being smashed through the car windscreen in very weird slow motion. There was also one with a mother and her little boy, where he runs out into the road and she drops her eggs as he gets run over. I used the think the eggs were the contents of the boy’s head!

And the infamous Apaches, which warned of the dangers of playing on a farm, absolutely gave me nightmares… especially the shot of the boy sinking and drowning in the slurry pit. It was just so lifelike! But that was the idea wasn’t it? To scare you away from doing daft and silly things on roads, or swanning around near farming equipment.

Did other things get to you as well? I found it hilarious that the book’s writers, Stephen and Dave, were scared by “Dracula” ice lollies and “Horror Bags” crisps… 

I can remember this quite vividly, and it still gives me chills now… my parents used to threaten me with the rag and bone man, saying he was going to take me away if I didn’t behave. Honestly, that worked a treat because every time I heard him at the bottom of our street shouting, “RAGBONE!!” I’d be off like a shot! In fact I’d hide under my bed!

I think it was his voice, the way he shouted. It was quite snarly and bellowing. I really do still shudder thinking about it.

When, and how, did it strike you to make an accompanying album?

I hit it off with Stephen a long time ago, over our love of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we talked on and off for a while about different things. It wasn’t until we actually met, at their first Scarred For Life show in Eaglescliffe about a year ago, that we talked quite excitedly about the idea of doing a compilation album. I found the subject of the book to be really evocative, and thought it would carry the weight of a concept album quite well.   

At first we toyed with the idea of doing covers of old 1970s and 80s TV themes, fitting in with the Scarred For Life ethos. But after much pondering and research, I discovered that it would end up being a huge copyright headache, so we parked the idea for a bit. 

It wasn’t until I heard that the lads were working on a sequel to the original Scarred for Life book, this time covering the 1980s, that my interest in doing something was piqued again. So I spoke with Stephen and asked what he thought about a compilation album of music “inspired” by the TV and film output of the Scarred for Life era. He loved the idea, so I went away and rallied some artists.

Did you draw up a hit list of you wanted to approach? Are a lot of these artists people that you’ve known for a long time?

It all seems a bit of a blur now, but I think it was quite organic. The first person I approached, more for advice, was Colin Morrison from the Castles in Space label. I already had something on the boil with him, and thought it would be good to run this idea past him too. Before we knew it, he’d signed up to the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, and wanted to promote and push it all! I was absolutely bowled over.

A lot of the artists I approached, I’d known forever… Vic Mars, Monroeville Music Center, Pete Hackett – aka Cult of Wedge – Keith Seatman and Swimming Lesson. They all jumped at the chance to be on the album. I’d always admired the other acts too… The Twelve Hour Foundation, the achingly lovely Jonathan Sharp from The Heartwood Institute, Listening Centre, Rob from Handspan… in fact I admire everyone we have on there!

It was nice, because I proposed the idea to each of these artists, and immediately there was a mutual understanding of the premise, and the important cause that the album was for. Not only that, each individual who took part was just massively likeable, and easy to get along with. I had everyone in a Scarred for Life private group and we all just clicked. Honestly, it was really lovely. Most of the artists were already aware of Stephen and Dave’s wonderful book and were really keen to take part.

What was the remit you gave them all as a starting point for their tracks?

Because the Scarred For Life books are about to hit the 1980s, I gave them the remit of creating music that reminded them of that kind of “off kilter”, not quite right, TV shows or movies that they’d watched as kids in the 1970s and 80s. But not just the TV shows… other things besides.

Can you give us a little rundown the tracks themelves, and the inspirations behind them?

Well, I thought I’d let the artists speak for themselves! I managed to coax this out of them all the other day… here’s what some of them have to say on each of their pieces:

Vic Mars: The Time Menders

Vic Mars: The Time Menders was an early title for Sapphire and Steel, and I was aiming for a psychic paranormal investigator theme.

The Heartwood Institute: Women Against The Wire

Jonathan Sharp: The Heartwood Institute track is a direct reference to the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, and that’s also where the sample is from:  “We are women, we are strong…”

The Twelve Hour Foundation: Belmont

Jez Butler: Our track is named after the TV transmitter near my old home town in Linconshire. Rather than being based on a specific theme tune, it’s a more generic radiophonic-inspired thing, with the focus on the sudden start – in the style of a scary 70s kids’ drama intro – and the the cliff-hanger at the end. If that makes sense!

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless was inspired by the 1972 series Escape Into Night, and the book that inspired it, Marianne Dreams.  “Not the light!” 

Swimming Lesson: Superhighways

Darryl Wakelin: Mine was inspired by the excitement and dread – in equal measure – of what computing in the future would be like. A mix of Tomorrow’s World, and the machines that would destroy us, control us or be used for war. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Demon Seed, UFO, Space 1999, etc…  

The Home Current: Summer In Marstrand

Martin Jensen: Summer in Marstrand is inspired by growing up with the Moomins on Danish TV. I was part fascinated, and part scared senseless, every time an episode aired. Some of my childhood summer holidays were spent on the Swedish island of Marstrand, and apart from it being where I saw my very fist White-Tailed Eagle, I also remember thinking the Moomins could easily have come from there.

Handspan: Fear Follows Shortly

Rob Colling: Mine came mainly from the fact that I’d been listening to Clannad’s Legend, the soundtrack album from Robin of Sherwood, quite a lot in the weeks running up to this project. That’s why so many of the modular synth noises sound a bit like Celtic harps. It actually ended up in more of a Look And Read kind of place, somewhere between Dark Towers and The Boy From Space, hence the track title, but my initial idea was much more about forests and mist and standing stones. And terrifying early digital video effects.

Cult of Wedge: The Gamma Children

Pete Hackett: Originally I’d written an actual song, words and all, but I couldn’t sing it due to the stupid key, and time was running out, and everyone else’s tracks were instrumental… so I recorded a theme tune! It’s pretty much on a theme of The Tomorrow People, but has time travel / indigo / psychic children ideas going on. Hence the kid at the start seeing dead people…

Pulselovers: Nice View From Up Here

Mat Handley: Nice View From Up Here is my take on the theme tune for a sitcom starring Joe and Petunia from the Public Information Film series made between 1968 and 1973. I imagined a particularly un-PC studio comedy in the style of George and Mildred, but with a theme more inspired by the brilliant Ronnie Corbett vehicle, Sorry!

Monroeville Music Center: Hack and Slash

Craig Storm: I sat down trying to make an homage to Knightmare, and instead ended up with what seems like the end credit music to an educational programme’s Halloween episode, if it had spliced in eight-bit voice actor samples from a third-rate medieval adventure game. It’s no Knightmare, but it’s a show I’d like to watch.

The Central Office of Information: Puzzled

Alex Cargill: Puzzled is loosely based on the 1970s and 1980s BBC kids TV show Jigsaw, which featured the infamous character of Noseybonk. Genuinely disturbing for a young child. I tried to imitate the generally upbeat feel of the original, along with the childish sound effects. The laughter snippet is actually a sample of my late Grandad – it seemed to fit nicely and I thought it’d be nice to have him immortalised on a CD. It’s what he would’ve wanted. However, as is often the case, I couldn’t help myself from adding a little bit of acid squelch to the proceedings.

Quimper: The Runner

Johnny Vertigan: I think I was gleefully ripping off the slightly sinister library themes that would sometimes find their way onto Pages from CEEFAX. Or the kind of thing that would be used for either a forgotten, warped 1970s BBC drama, or perhaps a schools’ programme about maths. Same difference back then, I suppose.

Listening Center: Nowhere, Nowhere, We Should Have Known

David Mason: My offering is inspired by the multiple layers of uncanny-ness and the fractured parallel realities reflected in Sapphire and Steel. The title is borrowed from the final episode of the series, where (Spoiler Alert!) Sapphire and Steel find themselves trapped in a cafe, in the void, for eternity. 

Panamint Manse: Leadfield Intoxicants
 
WP Ulmer: I was channelling Harry Forbes watching The Finishing Line

The Bentley Emerald Learning Resource: Programmes For Sick Days

Benjamin Green: Programmes for Sick Days takes inspiration from “Programmes for Schools”, generally the only television available to watch for children who were too poorly to go to school that day. Quite dry programmes that perhaps seemed dead boring in a classroom would become extraordinarily fascinating and eerie in the cosy setting of the living room. My track tries to evoke the images and sounds of a morning of school programming, through the woozy haze of feeling unwell. Dosed up on children’s medicine, and safely bundled up within blankets and quilts to make a bed on the settee.

To temper the cosiness, I will add that while experiencing a proper bout of influenza for the first time as a child, I had a morbid thought during an episode of Zig Zag that I might end my days on the sofa, and these would be the last visuals and sounds I’d ever experience. And I’ve since often wondered if, for some poor souls, that may have been the case….

Polypores: Memorabilia

Stephen J Buckley: My track, as with most of my music, wasn’t really planned or thought out as such. It’s not really up to me what I write on any given day. I simply made myself available, open to suggestion, and coaxed it from the strange ether from which music comes. Basically, I was led down a Scarred for Life ether vortex, and the track just came out!

And Kev, your own theme music, the opening track to the album?

Yes, it was the main Scarred for Life theme that I tasked myself with, and I just wanted to encompass sounds and layers that echoed the likes of Denton and Cooke, and Peter Howell… with a cheeky nod to John Carpenter, too.

What’s your own background as a musician? Can you give us a little potted history, please?

I was massively into music from a very young age. I used to spend a lot of time round at my cousins’ house, and they were quite big into electronica, post-punk and ska. I was basically a sponge, and I loved everything they listened to. They had a loft conversion with lots of old synths in it, and wrote their own material as well as doing cover versions for a college band they were in. Again, I was hooked. By the age of 12 I had my first synthesizer, a Korg Poly 800. I also had a four-track tape recorder to lay down any ideas I had. I got a few more synths in my twenties, and chucked out a few demos of instrumental tracks to various people. One of whom told me that I’d be good for TV adverts or soundtrack work… however, being very young, idealistic and quite naive, I was quite put out by this! I went off to form a synth-pop band with my cousin, Rob.

I wrote all the tracks and did some of the vocals and we set out round London gigging on the – then – underground electronic music circuit for a few years. We had a nice little following, and released an album… which maybe ten people might have in their collection.

As the years progressed, I started getting into Ghost Box Records. Their output totally blew my mind and took me back to my childhood in very strange ways… to the classroom, or to a cornfield or a forest on a warm, hazy day. I just loved what I was hearing. That inspired me to go down a similar instrumental route, trying to come up with something that reminded people of the past. New music that sounded like vintage music. I think I achieved that with the Black Meadow project.

I was going to ask about the Black Meadow project. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

While I was trying to find that sound of the past, I wrote a track which I just randomly called Beyond the Moor. It ended up on the Tales from the Black Meadow album, but at the time I wrote it, I had no idea what it could be for… why did I call it Beyond the Moor? But the more tracks I wrote with a similar vibe, the more it organically fell into place. The concept came to me.

As a child, we used to drive regularly over the North York Moors to Pickering, to see relatives. We’d always pass the three huge, golf ball-like radomes that belonged to RAF Fylingdales, and – being a kid with his head in the clouds – I always imagined strange alien craft being housed there. Or something akin to Quatermass, that kind of thing. My imagination ran wild. I recalled all that as I wrote the music for the first Black Meadow album and it just gave me the impetus to keep going. I had an idea of a story, or of strange folklore, attached to this place called The Black Meadow, which was slap bang right next to RAF Fylingdales. It was to be a place of mysterious fog, creatures and a Brigadoon-type village that appeared only under certain atmospheric conditions. The village is full of weird monsters and people, and is just downright creepy.

My old partner in crime Chris Lambert took an interest in this project and my ideas, and basically wanted to put them all into proper folklore-style stories, and have them published along with the album. I got carried away with the idea, and pushed for something else to go alongside the music and the book, and that was… why don’t we “dig up” an old BBC Radio 4 documentary from 1978, all about the Black Meadow, and add it to the album? So we did.

The original Tales from the Black Meadow CD – with the music and the documentary – was released in 2013, along with the book. The book still sells well today, and sometimes I  re-release the album and it always seems to do OK. 

And there’s some new material coming in January 2020?

It’s taken a long time, but we’ve just completed the second Black Meadow project, The Black Meadow Archive: Vol 1. Again, it’s an album of music, this time on vinyl, again on the lovely Castles in Space label. And there’s also a new, jam-packed book too. We’re quite excited to release it to the world. We just hope everyone likes it! 

In the meantime, Scarred For Life is out this week, and all proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK… is it a cause that’s dear to your heart?

Absolutely. Sadly, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer in May and it’s been a very tough few months. Happily things are looking positive, as the treatment has done the job, and we’re hoping everything will be clear come the New Year.

Its funny how you can appreciate, yet still take for granted, some of the work these charities do. It’s not really until something affects you close to home that you start to really appreciate their work. Cancer Research UK are a hugely proactive concern… they’re a positive power for good in the search for a cure to cancer, and they provide fantastic support to those who may be suffering. They were the first charity I thought of when we were putting this album together, and it’s been brilliant to see people buying the album also getting behind the charity too.

Thanks to Kev for his time, and thoughtful replies… and to everyone else on the album for contributing, too. The Scarred For Life album is available here…

https://scarredforlife.bandcamp.com

…and it concludes on a poignant note; the closing track, Be Like A Child by Carl Matthews, is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose own life was cut tragically short by cancer. It’s a fitting conclusion to a wonderful collection of music.


I asked Jonathan Sharp, of The Heartwood Institute, about his memories of Carl. He replied…

“Carl is one of the great lost voices of UK synth. He started releasing cassettes from 1980 via the Mirage label – all very DIY – and continued up to 1991. You can find a big list of his output on Discogs. He was incredibly well-respected, but largely unknown. I got to know Carl around 2001 when he started making music again, and we became good friends. I encouraged him into making library, music at which he became very successful. More recently, there’d been a real interest in his old music, and he’d had Call For World Saviours released on CD and vinyl, and had appeared on several high-profile compilations too. He’d also started releasing new music via bandcamp. Sadly he died a few months ago, just as the Scarred For Life compilation was coming together. As soon as I knew it was raising money for Cancer Research UK, it seemed natural to have a track of his on the album. His family agreed, and it’s so lovely to have that track on there.”

A Year In The Country, Stephen Prince and Echoes & Reverberations

Since 2014, Stephen Prince’s impressively comprehensive multi-media project A Year In The Country has exploring and documenting some of the lesser-trodden pathways between pastoral folk music and radiophonic electronica, as well as actively contributing to these genres with a succession of hugely enjoyable musical releases. The 2018 book Wandering Spectral Fields has hewn considerable dents in many a bank balance (including mine) with lovingly-written essays unravelling the tangled connections that bind an underappreciated welter of late 1960s/early 1970s acid-folk with the 21st century hauntology movement; via Kate Bush, Bagpuss, the films of Peter Strickland, Sapphire and Steel and the work of the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society. Eighteen months on, my Amazon Wishlist is still groaning under the weight of a myriad of Stephen’s heartfelt recommendations.

With a new book – Straying From The Pathways – in the offing, and a new album – Echoes and Reverberations – freshly released, it seemed like an apposite moment to speak with Stephen, and discuss the lifestyle changes that led to A Year In The Country‘s inception, the childhood memories that have fuelled his explorations, and some of the music, TV and film that he has found to be especially affecting and inspiring…

Bob: Can you tell me how you started the whole Year In The Country project, and what inspired you to do so?

Stephen: For a long time I’d been working in often very city-based, left-of-centre pop culture and also living in quite central urban areas. Without consciously realising it, after finishing a particularly big creative project, I found myself being drawn to more rural areas. Perhaps I found myself wanting a quieter pace of life, a sense of space and so on.

I listened to a friend’s copy of the compilation album Gather in the Mushrooms: The British Acid Folk Underground 1968-1974, compiled by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. I was wandering through a dimly-lit, post-industrial part of an inner city when I first heard Trader Horne’s “Morning Way” on the album, a song which begins with “Dreaming strands of nightmare are sticking to my feet” and I thought… this isn’t like any form of folk that I’ve heard before. I think it opened up something in my mind, and is part of what led me to start A Year In The Country in 2014, and its explorations of the flipsides of folk and pastoral culture.

Also, although again I’m not sure how conscious it was, I began to want to find some kind of catharsis for the shadows of Cold War dread that I’d been carrying around since childhood, something which for myself – because I was living in the countryside when I learnt more fully about the potential realities of the Cold War – was curiously linked with rural areas and ways of living.

Beyond Gather in the Mushrooms, I didn’t really know about what has come to be known as hauntology, and the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture, when I started thinking about and planning A Year In The Country. Maybe there was something in the air, as looking back it was a time when, unbeknownst to me, that culture seemed to start flourishing and finding an audience. Part of A Year In The Country  has been about myself exploring, documenting and discovering this loosely interconnected culture, and the people who work in it.

Somehow or other, I wandered from Gather in the Mushrooms to the underground/left field folk band The Owl Service; hauntology, Ghost Box Records and in particular, initially, the Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age album and the time-out-of-joint of The Advisory Circle’s track “And The Cuckoo Comes“; Trunk Records and The Wicker Man soundtrack; the cosmic aquatic folklore of Jane Weaver Septième Soeur’s The Fallen By Watch Bird, which was in part inspired by the modern-day fairy tales of the Czech New Wave, which I also began to explore; and Rob Young’s Electric Eden book, which takes a wide-reaching look at the sometimes hidden landscapes of folk and pastoral music and culture. Some of those things I knew about already, but without realising that was what I was doing, I began to link these, at times, loosely connected things together… to form lines in the cultural landscape, as it were.

In some ways I wanted to create a website or project that I would want to visit. One that explored all of the above and hopefully could help to draw lines of connection between them.

Did you always foresee it as the multi-media experience that it has become, or – at the outset – did you simply intend to do a bit of gentle blogging?

Ah, a bit of gentle blogging may have been a bit easier!

From week one of A Year In The Country, I began releasing prints, badge sets and so on, and I always planned and hoped that I would put out music. Which I began to do in the first year.

Along with the more directly cultural sides of work, I’m very much interested in the practicalities of releasing things into the world. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing to me. For me, all the different areas of A Year In The Country – the website, the books, the music, the prints, the artwork, the making of the physical releases, the practical distribution aspects, the theoretical sides of things and so on – intertwine.

In terms of releasing books, I was particularly intrigued by the last chapter of Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, called “Toward the Unknown Region”. That chapter discusses the likes of Ghost Box Records and the outer fringes of pastoral/folk culture and, in part, seems to capture a particular spectral/hauntological atmosphere, the sense of parallel world creation that often occurs in hauntological and related folk work. It also linked together (or at least showed that they can sit side-by-side) certain aspects of hauntology and the fringes of folk culture, alongside discussing how some of folk/pastoral culture has changed and wandered off down new and sometimes surprising pathways.

I think I thought to myself, about that chapter, “I want some more of that!” and I hoped, although again maybe not all that consciously, that at some point I would put together a book that continued exploring the pathways that “Toward the Unknown Region” had begun to walk down, as well as bringing together some of the other cultural reference points that I’d found myself wandering amongst.

Again, basically, at heart I wanted to put work out into the world that I would enjoy myself, and that I found myself looking for.

Did the founding of A Year In The Country begin with a genuine lifestyle change… you actually moved into the countryside, didn’t you? How did you find this affected your state of mind?

Yes, I had moved to the countryside before the founding of A Year In The Country, and that’s when planning for it began in earnest.

Although things have changed in terms of rural access to culture – due to internet connections, expanded mail order, and so on – there is possibly still a sense that there’s more space for your mind to wander, with fewer cultural distractions. Even something as simple as there being fewer flyposters or advertising hoardings makes a difference. There’s also just a different pace of life, a slower, potentially more contemplative one. Although at this point, I think it would be good to point out that I’m not trying to say that either the countryside or cities are good or bad, there are positives and negatives with both.

I think looking back, I had a sense that pop culture, even in its more leftfield and alternative aspects, had become a very busy, crowded and heavily-harvested area of culture.

In contrast, and accompanying that literal sense of space, there also seemed to be more space within the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture and where they meet and intertwine with hauntology. At that point they hadn’t been all that intensively explored. They seemed to be at a remove from the spotlights of attention that pop culture is routinely subject to, and that accompanying sense of business or cultural hurly burly.

So, essentially, the countryside gave me and my mind space to rest and wander. The different character, rhythms and so on of folk and pastoral culture began to make more sense once I lived in the countryside, and I would often find myself reflecting on the differences between it and more urban culture as I was wandering across the fields.

Is the desire to revert to a simpler, more bucolic lifestyle growing, do you think? A lot of people (including me) seem to find 21st century life rather daunting and anxious…

There’s a sense that it may be growing, although that’s based more on anecdotal observation than in-depth study.

Perhaps the way that people are drawn to it is an expression of wanting to find some respite from the modern world. If you look back to the 1970s, a time when some people were also drawn to bucolic and folk culture, that was a time when society in the UK was going through a period of uncertainty and turbulence, and bucolic ways of life may have offered an escape from that. Parallels could be drawn between then and now.

Although curiously and conversely, within hauntology and folk culture, being drawn to the bucolic often seems to be accompanied by exploring an unsettled flipside to it. Possibly due to a related and interconnected wish to, consciously or not, find a way of expressing and making sense of contemporary turbulent times and the connected sense of anxiety.

Connected to this, some of the reasons for the current interest in wyrd folk, otherly pastoralism and hauntology could be, as I mentioned above, that they give people the space to create imagined parallel worlds or planes of existence, ones which variously allow for a break from the contemporary anxieties, worries and day-to-day life. It could also be because humans as a species seem to be fascinated by and have a need to tell stories, spin yarns and create waking dreamscapes.

Related to 21st century life being daunting and anxious, the level of input and output of culture today can be potentially overwhelming. If I take myself as an example, I grew up in a time when there was a scarcity of, and restricted access to, more leftfield culture and some popular culture. You very much had to seek it out – which is almost the polar opposite to today.

Back then, there were only three – then four – television channels in the UK, one main weekly pop music television show, three or so weekly alternative music magazines, and – until the 1980s and the more widespread use of home video recorders – you couldn’t easily watch a broad range of films at home. And the numbers and types of books and albums you could read or listen to were quite limited by your personal budget, and what could be found in the local library, or in book and record shops.

Now there is an almost unlimited, constantly changing deluge of culture, available digitally and in other forms and often – particularly in the case of music – inexpensive via streaming services. I wonder if my brain, and those of others of my generation, is in some way still physically wired to times of cultural scarcity, and whether the way things are now can induce a sense of “not keeping up” – of there just literally, potentially, being too much input.

Also, growing up in a time of cultural scarcity can make you feel you have to pay attention to all and any culture when it does pop up. In my younger years, if I saw a rare and interesting single in a charity shop, I’d think that I would have to buy it and listen to it, as I might never see it again. That’s no longer the case, but perhaps some of that mentality lingers on in modern times. If that’s how you grew up, the ubiquity of access to nearly all culture can lead to a potential sense of being overwhelmed.

Accompanying which, there can be a daunting pace of change; there are theories that suggest that the development of human ideas, science, technology and creativity only really took off once there was a certain critical mass of people who weren’t living in small isolated groups anymore, meaning ideas could be more easily exchanged, passed around, developed and so on. To a degree, modern communication methods, travel, and information storage and retrieval may be supercharging that process, in a way that outpaces the human brain’s ability to process it. And so it can seem like the ground is constantly shifting under your feet, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to not being anxious.

There is also economic and unemployment uncertainty, and the potentially related fast pace of change; that idea of a trade for life, and knowing that how you make a living now will be the same in a few years, let alone decades, has – to a large degree – disappeared. That applies in wider life and also within creative work, where traditional funding methods and routes have been largely swept away, and we live and work in a constantly changing cultural and economic environment.

Of course, at the same time I’m wary of just being “Bah, humbug, in my day it was all green fields, just three TV channels and an easier way of life.” The world changes and moves on and, to state the obvious, there are often pros and cons to all such changes.

Does the music, art and literature involved with the movement give you a connection to your childhood memories? Rather nebulous memories of being very young in the 1970s seem to be a huge part of all this…

I think it maybe did more so in the earlier days of A Year In The Country, which had the shadows and memories of Cold War dread as something of an underlying theme. As hauntological work often draws from such things, and a sense of unsettledness in 1970s culture, that provided a connection to my childhood.

There were science fiction television series that I only saw glimpses of in the 1970s, dystopian science fiction and horror novels and films that I was drawn to, but which I was maybe too young to fully understand… or that I just saw covers of, and created my own stories around them. All of that became a kind of personal dreamscape from which A Year In The Country partly draws – it’s not always the actual culture, but more a half-remembered or misremembered, sometimes never fully-known version of it from my childhood.

That feeling of a childhood tainted by the terror of nuclear war (or even just the general unease/melancholy of 1970s culture and society) has become such a potent one. Do you think there was something unique about that period that produced those feelings, and inspired the wave of artists and musicians that have mined it for inspiration?

That period has a number of characteristics which may have made it such an inspiration for hauntological work: although this is a broad generalisation, the late 1960s, tipping over into the 1970s, can be characterised as a point in UK/Western society when post-war and hippie optimism began to crumble, and – throughout the 1970s and early 1980s – society entered a period of economic and societal disturbance and uncertainty. There is a sense that the late 1960s to late 1970s was “a time before the fall”, and that – consciously or not – it represents a time when post-war progressive intentions and futures were fought for and lost. That, and the culture produced around that time, has become a source for, and come to represent, a sense of hauntological melancholia.

At the same time, in the 1970s, there seemed to be areas of freedom within, for example, large-scale mainstream cultural institutions such as the BBC, which allowed for the creation of at times very exploratory and left-of-centre culture. Penda’s Fen, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and so on. To a degree that continued into the 1980s, although looking back, by that point, they seemed more like flashes of rearguard resistance.

Given that we were so uneasy during our childhoods, why do you think we now often find comfort in those memories?

That’s an interesting question. Perhaps if you pull the monsters out from under the bed and shine a light on them, it helps to – if not neuter them – then at least to weaken their power.

Although that sense of unsettledness doesn’t just draw from the Cold War, that particular conflict was a strange thing to live through: a form of politics and foreign policy based on the complete destruction of global civilisation, and the creation of weapons to do that. It could be seen as a kind of collective madness in a way. To a degree, within mainstream society, the reality of living through it and the potentially harmful psychological effects aren’t really acknowledged, and that whole period has been sort of swept under the carpet of history and become just another story from past decades. Rather than something that directly affected people who are still alive.

So perhaps the hauntological exploring of those uneasy childhood memories acts as form of balm, a way of easing that unsettledness by creating a space where they can be examined.

I’m intrigued by the new A Year In The Country musical release – Echoes and Reverberations. These are recordings inspired by film and TV locations, both real and imaginary. I actually went to two 1970s Doctor Who locations recently… Aldbourne, which doubled as “Devil’s End” in The Daemons, and East Hagbourne, transformed into “Devesham” for The Android Invasion.  And I couldn’t look around either village without thinking of the terrible events that occurred there… but, of course, they didn’t. And the pub in Aldbourne has blurred reality further by placing a “Cloven Hoof” sign outside the front door… when, in actuality, it’s called The Blue Boar. Do TV and film locations almost almost become two places, one real and one fictional?

It sounds like you’ve been doing some interesting wandering…

You could consider such places to have two realities; a surface and an imaginary one, or a literal one and one which exists in the mind.

That sense of places having an alternate reality is one of the main themes of the Echoes And Reverberations album; it’s an exploration of the way that places become layered with the stories and atmosphere of the films and television programmes which were recorded there – with each track being by a different contributor and focusing on a particular location and film or television programme.

Sometimes that layering may be expressed overtly, if an area has become well-known as being a particular film or TV location and a related tourist industry has built up around it, or it may be more of a personal, private thing.

I wanted the album to explore how these places can become sources of personal and cultural inspiration, and also locations for a form of modern-day cultural pilgrimage. Partly as a marker of such pilgrimages, each track contains field recordings from such journeys.

The layering of different realities and stories in a place is very much an abstract and, as I just said, often a very personal thing. And so, as I wrote in the album’s accompanying text, the tracks, their themes and the field recordings are a “seeking of the spectral will-o’-the-wisps of locations imagined or often hidden flipsides.”

It is, in part, also an exploration of the themes from these real and imaginary film and television programmes, from “apocalyptic tales to never-were documentaries and phantasmagorical government-commissioned instructional films via stories of conflicting mystical forces of the past and present, scientific experiments gone wrong and unleashed on the world, the discovery of buried ancient objects and the reawakening of their malignant alien influence, progressive struggles in a world of hidebound rural tradition and the once optimism of post-war new town modernism.”

More specifically, that takes in such hauntological and otherly-pastoral touchstones as Penda’s Fen and Quatermass, via Survivors, and onto the likes of 1991 science fiction series Chimera, and period drama Flambards.

On the album there are 10 tracks and accompanying text by Grey Frequency, Pulselovers, Dom Cooper, Listening Center, Howlround, A Year In The Country, Sproatly Smith, Field Lines Cartographer, Depatterning and The Heartwood Institute. Musically, as with the majority of the themed A Year In The Country compilation albums, it takes in quite a wide range of musical styles, from radiophonic electronica to its more contemporary counterparts, shades of acid/psych folk, tape machine manipulation and so on… which could be seen as an example of the interweaving of the undercurrents of folk and hauntological work.

And as you say, some of the tracks are inspired by imaginary film and television locations. For some people, places have become imbued with alternate realities and atmospheres related to stories that only exist in their own imaginations. In this sense the album also loosely interconnects with other work in hauntological areas/the undercurrents of folk, which also creates soundtracks to imaginary films and television, such as The Book of the Lost, Tales from the Black Meadow and The Equestrian Vortex, or the A Year In The Country-released The Shildam Hall Tapes and The Corn Mother.

Have you gone on similar quests to find TV and film locations? How did they make you feel?

Sometimes I have more gone on personal quests related to my own past experiences, rather than specifically to a particular filming location.

For example, during the first year that I moved to the countryside I went out photographing a lot, taking the images I would use in the artwork, prints and albums in the first year of A Year In The Country. At the end of that year, to the day, I set off on a journey to take photographs in the small country village where, as a child, I first discovered and experienced Cold War dread, and dystopian science fiction, and saw glimpses of the children’s television drama series Noah’s Castle, which showed society collapsing due to hyperinflation. All of which fed into A Year In The Country.

Prior to that year, I hadn’t visited for a number of decades and it was a curious thing to wander amongst and revisit my own past via this literal landscape, one which had informed the mental landscape that created some of the roots that became A Year In The Country. As you suggested earlier, at such times it is almost as though places have more than one reality, and their different layers and realities intertwine.

Completely coincidentally, on the train route back, an arthouse cinema was showing Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape and an episode of Beasts. Not something you expect to see every day or even once a year at the cinema, and so I stopped off on the way home to watch them, which felt like something of a cinematic/cathode ray rounding of the circle of that first behind-the-scenes year of A Year In The Country.

More directly related to filming locations, the first time I visited Portmeirion, which as you probably know was the location where much of The Prisoner was shot, I could tell that the younger, subconscious me who first saw The Prisoner was thrilled to be there. It was strange seeing the place in full colour, and in such real-world high-definition… I had first seen The Prisoner on a black and white television, and I think that memory of it had lingered with me. I think I had expected it to be more like a film-set facade, but the buildings were functional and very three-dimensional.

However, it was not so much the actual village of Portmeirion that seemed to capture a sense of The Prisoner for me, but rather a deserted beach area next to it that I came upon by accident, and which summoned up endless visions of No. 6 trying to escape before being recaptured by the Rover.

Perhaps the beach and its more abstract connection to The Prisoner allowed my mind and imagination to wander more. Whereas the buildings and giant chessboard in Portmeirion village were great to see, they didn’t allow for that mental space so much, as they were a more literal representation of the series and my memories of it.

All of this feeds into the new A Year In The Country book, too…

Yes, A Year in the Country: Straying from the Pathways, which is released on 8th October 2019.

As with A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields, Straying from the Pathways explores the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture and where it meets and intertwines with the lost futures and parallel worlds of hauntology, including a fair few of the themes we’ve discussed above.

It includes writing about some of the core culture from such things while, as I say in the introduction, I also wanted to push back the boundaries and look elsewhere for where hauntological-esque spectres, lost futures and re-imagined echoes of the past might be found.

To semi-quote from the cover, it wanders amongst eerie landscapes, folk horror, the dysfunctional utopian visions of Brutalist architects and hazily misremembered cultural memories, taking in the likes of the faded modernity and “future ruins” of British road travel, apocalyptic “empty city” films, dark fairy tales, the political undercurrents of the 1980s and idyllic villages gone rogue.

So, in Straying from the Pathways you’ll find writing on film, television and books including John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, Halloween III, The Company of Wolves, Penda’s Fen, the Texte und Töne-published book The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, The Prisoner, GB84, Edge of Darkness, along with music that draws from and interconnects with hauntological spectres and re-imaginings of the past including synthwave, hypnagogic pop, The Ghost in the MP3, Howlround, Grey Frequency and Ghost Box Records… amongst others.

Thanks so much to Stephen for such a thoughtful and fascinating interview. And for all your Year In The Country requirements:

https://ayearinthecountry.co.uk

Ritual & Resistance, the Delaware Road, Concretism and Imber village

We’d driven along the winding, narrow roads of Salisbury Plain for at least two miles; a convoy of civilian family cars packed with camping equipment, passing countless “Unexploded Military Debris” warning signs in troubled, late summer sunshine, all of us drawn to the cluster of grey concrete bunkers that perodically peered, surreptitiously, from behind a pockmarked horizon.

This was New Zealand Farm Camp, location for the latest extraordinary Delaware Road event, and – when not playing host to a prestigious assembly of artists sharing DNA based loosely in the electronic avant-garde – a site used by the Ministry of Defence to simulate urban combat, the clump of army boots and the rattle of live ammunition echoing around its muddy trackways and fordibbing, brutalist architecture.

“What’s the book?” asked the guard at the main gate, poking diligently through the travel bag on the back seat of my car.

“It’s Suggs’ autobiography,” I replied.

“Very nice. I’ve just started Kenneth Williams’ memoirs.”

Alison Cotton began proceedings, performing a beautifully ethereal and haunting suite to an attentive crowd in the Nissen Hut that housed the event’s main stage. Stephen ‘Polypores’ Buckley and Chris ‘Concretism’ Sharp were amongst the friendly faces I spotted in attendance, and warm greetings were exchanged at the end of the set before I followed them to Bunker B1, where Colin Morrison’s Castles in Space label – home to recent releases by both – had set up camp for the evening. Stephen performed a throbbing, mesmerising Polypores set of seamless, pulsing ambience to a bustling crowd, tightly packed into this shadowy, concrete hideaway. Including Portsmouth’s own psychedelic troubador Keith Seatman, who cheerfully introduced himself and gleefully briefed me on the history of the 19th century sea forts heavily featured in the 1972 Doctor Who adventure, The Sea Devils.

The evening became a blur of music, conversation, cider and the occasional occult ritual. I paid a visit to Frances Castle, whose Clay Pipe stall was ensconced in Bunker 3, and boasted tantalising first glimpses of the artwork for two forthcoming albums: Vic Mars‘ intriguing Edgelands-influenced project Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alison Cotton’s Halloween release The Girl I Left Behind Me, inspired by two Muriel Spark ghost stories, and originally composed for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show. I swapped genial greetings with Push and Neil from Electronic Sound magazine, dishing out freebies from a towering pile of stylish back issues in the basement of a building where, upstairs, the ever-welcoming Robin The Fog was warmly greeting interested snoopers in the midst of a Howlround soundcheck.

It was a delight to catch the professorial figure of Sarah Angliss performing live; her album Air Loom has been one of my highlights of 2019, and she makes for an extremely engaging live performer; funny and self-deprecating, but an expert in building beguiling symphonies from samples, theramin and an ancient clavicymbalum… a medieval precursor of the harpsichord, apparently; these disparate sounds all perfectly entwined around Sarah’s soaring, crystal-clear vocals. I then squashed back into the crowds of tiny B1 to catch Jez and Polly of The Twelve Hour Foundation present a magnificent. feelgood set of John Baker-inspired radiophonica; transporting a bunker filled with grinning fortysomethings back to childhoods soundtracked by the themes to long-forgotten Open University modules and John Craven’s Newsround.

Amongst their number was the effusive Alex Cargill, whose epic debut album as The Central Office of Information is set to become Castles In Space’s debut CD release. It was a delight to meet Alex, who repaid my insistence on playing his tracks on my BBC Tees show with another pint of cider from the impromptu stall outside the main hut. The evening was becoming slightly blurry…

I enjoyed Crass founder Penny Rimbaud‘s spoken word performance on the main stage, accompanied by a plaintive, mournful cello; then found myself caught in the midst of a procession to the woods, where a circle of bemused participants were anointed with oil to the lower lips and encouraged to worship “The Spirits of Place” with a spiralling chorus of animal howls. I imagined the noise my beloved border collie, Megan, would make when I returned home the following day, and threw myself into the maelstrom accordingly. The green-faced Chris Lambert – accomplished mummer and long-term resident of The Black Meadow – was a constant presence in the series of ritual events that sparked up throughout the evening; whenever, that is, he wasn’t leaning against a bunker wall and discussing the finer points of Krull with Stephen Buckley, the pair of them entirely oblivious to the extroardinary double rainbow forming outside, seemingly bestowing its radiant, benevolent blessing on the whole, strange shebang.

Howlround’s performance – in cahoots with audio-visual artist and Psyché Tropes supremo Merkaba Macabre – was typically hypnotic, and equally typically packed, the audience nestling shoulder-to-shoulder. I had to watch from the stairs, while a succcession of vintage washing powder and detergent advertisements flickered on the bare wall behind me. And then it was back to the Castles in Space hut, where Chris Sharp presented an hour-long Concretism set, a mesmeric evocation of delicious Cold War austerity, to another attentive gathering.

Back in May, Chris spoke live on my BBC Tees show to both myself and the show’s resident electronica wizard, Kev Oyston. This seems like an appropriate moment as any to transcribe it…

Tell us a little bit about your background… when did you start making music as Concretism?  

It was around 2010. If I remember, about a year before, I’d discovered Boards of Canada, and they were a massive influence on me. I’d always written music, but I got bored and despondent with it. But I remember hearing Boards of Canada, and they absolutely blew me away, and I thought… I want to make music like that. What really fascinated me was how they can evoke and create the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s kind of how it started, but Concretism – when it began – was quite different to how it is now. It was more of a drone project, and it wasn’t as Cold War-influenced. For the first few years, it was more inspired by things like Public Information Films, and a lot of 1970s documentaries. But for the last few years it’s gone in that Cold War direction, which is only a good thing!

As a kid, and then a teenager, in the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to permeate every aspect of my childhood, and the prospect of nuclear armageddon was something I thought about every single day. Was it the same for you?
 

Absolutely, yeah. I remember the Star Wars programme… that’s what I think made the 1980s such a scary time, with regards to nuclear confrontation; Reagan’s stance against the Sovet Union, with the Star Wars programme being a big part of that. And then obviously Chernobyl, in 1986… and although that wasn’t nuclear war, it was still nuclear. I used to watch the news as a kid, because I was a strange child, and I remember seeing all the Chernobyl stuff and thinking “Oh my God, that’s terrifying… what if the radiation gets over here?”

And the other thing… when I was about nine or ten, my dad took me to the cinema to see When The Wind Blows, which I’m sure is not a film you should really take a nine-year-old to see.

No! I can’t believe you saw it at the cinema!

I did, and I was so depressed and upset. And to this day, I haven’t seen it since. I’ve only seen it that once. Even as an adult, I refuse to watch When The Wind Blows. I will not watch that film. It upset me so much.

I bet your dad thought he was doing a really good thing… come on Chris, it’s by the same guy who made The Snowman!

Yeah! And it’s funny, I can watch Threads… I can watch Threads a million times. I never saw it as a kid, only as an adult. And I just think it’s quite a funny film…

Oh, come ON!

No! Because the characters in Threads are a bit two-dimensional, aren’t they? You don’t really care about the characters in Threads, whereas if you watch When The Wind Blows, you really care about this old couple.

I care about the characters in Threads so much that the last time I watched it, I got half an hour in, and the feeling of impending doom was so much I had to turn it off. I didn’t want to see Reece Dinsdale die! I like Reece Dinsdale!

We all like Reece Dinsdale, honestly! But no, I can watch Threads and it doesn’t bother me at all.

Did you have any sirens close to your house? Anything that might – for example – have been mistaken for the four-minute warning? 

I live quite close to the Thames, in the south of Essex. I live in the house I grew up in, I bought it from my dad, and I’ve lived here forever. And we still, to this day, have flood sirens down on the Thames, which are basically just repurposed World War Two air raid sirens. And every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, they test them… they give them one blast for about thirty seconds. So quite often, if I’m working at home and I have the window open, I’ll hear “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm….” and it’s not rising or falling, it just rises then drops down again. But it’s pretty scary. Luckily I know what it is, but if anyone was in the town and didn’t know that they test the flood sirens every week… they would soil themselves, I think!

Have I seen somewhere that there are no nuclear sirens in the UK any more? They’ve all been decommissioned?

I think, during the Cold War, a lot of stuff was repurposed. So they just used air raid sirens that had been left over from World War Two, and also bunkers… generally, they didn’t really build a lot of nuclear bunkers, they just used old World War Two bunkers, and reclaimed spaces. So there must be some kind of attack warning now, but it’s probably a text message! They had that thing in Hawaii didn’t they, about a year ago? I think it would be that. Or a WhatsApp message. Or a tweet.

I saw you in 2017, performing at the Delaware Road event in Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, the underground facility that would have housed the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. What did you make of the place? 

It was pretty cool. I didn’t actually get to see much of the bunker, because it took me about an hour to set my gear up, and then I did my gig and played for just over three hours, and then my mate – who is my roadie – had to catch an early flight in the morning. So as soon as I finished, I packed all my gear up, got in the car and left! But I briefly had a very quick look around the bunker, just after I soundchecked, and what I saw of it was really impressive, and really big. And creepy… I found it very creepy. There’s something very unsettling about it, even though it was never used for real. Not helped by the fact that there are mannequins and dummies all over it!

Talk us through your album, For Concrete And Country. There are some interesting references amidst the track titles… Microwave Relay was the one that really fascinated me. Can you explain that?  

It’s a reference to the Microwave Tower Network, which was codenamed “Backbone” during the Cold War. They built a lot of these big wire mesh towers, and many of them are still standing now… and some of them are concrete, too. Part of the Backbone Network was the Post Office Tower. But again, I think a lot of it was repurposed, or even used at the same time for TV and radio broadcasts. So BBC Tees might well be using mouldy old Backbone masts!

It’s more than likely…

So Microwave Relay is a reference to that Backbone Network, which would have been resilient to nuclear attack… far more so than other systems.

There’s a track called Pye Green Tower on the album too, was that part of the same network?

That was one of the towers, yeah. That one was concrete, and it’s in Staffordshire. I’ve never been to the Pye Green Tower, but it looks pretty impressive!

Given that all of this stuff traumatised us so much as a kids, why are we looking back on it with a sense of almost rose-tinted nostalgia? We’re like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen…

I think it could be the fact that nuclear war never actually happened. There’s a sort of relief, isn’t there? We can look back at these horrific things like Threads and When The Wind Blows – well not me, obviously, because I won’t watch it – with a kind of relief, as adults, that the war never happened. It would have been absolutely horrific. And it could still happen, but I think what we need to worry about more in the 21st century, going forward, is Artificial Intelligence. Which I think a lot of people are saying is a bigger threat to the future of humanity than nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t have the same cool factor, does it…?

In twenty years time, when nothing has happened, the musicians that were teenagers in 2019 can make albums about that…

Yes, there’ll be a hauntology movement about Artificial Intelligence!

From midnight onwards, Ritual and Resistance took on increasingly surreal (well, more surreal) proportions… I watched Natalie Sharp, in her Lone Taxidermist persona, perform a disturbing but captivating set, accompanied by what appeared to be two suspended human spines. And then, outside the camp’s Water Tower, I bumped into Jez and Polly of the Twelve Hour Foundation for a final time, and we whiled away the early hours by discussing the alluring qualities of their home towns; Cleethorpes and Scarborough respectively. I then capped off the evening by dancing (alongside journalist and Modern Aviation owner Will Salmon, who has some sensational moves) to a pounding DJ set by former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, who had been an affable preseence throughout the day, and who spoke passionately to a small, assembled throng of us afterwards about his love of the Delaware Road project, and his lifelong passion for underground music and electronica.

It was 3.40am before I collapsed into my spider-infested tent beneath a rustling oak tree, but not before I’d grabbed the picture below…

As a wonderful addendum to an incredible evening… on the Sunday morning, as fragile heads were being soothed by gentle conversation and coffee, it became apparent that a fleet of vintage Routemaster buses were transporting campers to the nearby abandoned village of Imber, requisitioned by the MOD in 1943 for wartime training, and uninhabited ever since. With a long journey back to the North-East ahead of me, I uncharacteristically decided to forsake its haunted pleasures, and set off in the car… but, as three double-decker buses bobbed on the horizon ahead of me, I couldn’t resist. I followed them, and spent an hour poking around Imber’s deserted buildings and (surprisingly busy) 16th century village church, joined by blog-reader Richard – who records as Caveat Auditor – and ever-genial electronica and Early Music enthusiast Rolf, who I’d last seen in June, at 3am in Shoreditch High Street, at the climax of the State 51 Conspiracy/Ghost Box/Trunk Records Midsummer Night’s Happening.

As Steve Davis had emotionally proclaimed at the end of his wee-hours DJ set, “It’s like a big family, isn’t it?” He’s right, and I look forward – as ever – to the next gleefully dysfunctional reunion.

Thanks to Delaware Road and Buried Treasure supremo Alan Gubby for all his extraordinary efforts in making Ritual and Resistance such a memorable event… and to Alison Cotton, Colin Morrison and Andy Collins for their photos.

The Dark Is Rising, Handspan and Rob Colling’s kantele

There is something incredibly evocative and magical about a childrens’ novel set during a harsh, snow-bound winter… The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has inspired many an inquisitive child to tap excitedly on the back of their parents’ wardrobe in search of Narnian pine trees and the distant glow of a flickering lamp-post, and The Box of Delights introduces the mysteries of medieval magic into a very traditional 1930s Christmas; a riot of snowy scrobblings and festive skulduggery.

Susan Cooper’s 1973 novel The Dark Is Rising continues this tradition, bringing sinister folkloric forces into the household of an ordinary 1970s family, snowed into their home in an idyllical Buckinghamshire village. As youngest child Will Stanton celebrates his 11th birthday on Midwinter’s Eve, with Christmas excitement mounting, he unexpectedly inherits his destiny as an “Old One”, a guardian of The Light, charged with a quest to vanquish the burgeoning powers of The Dark, whose presence threatens to bury the Thames Valley in both Arctic snow drifts and ancient malevolence.

The book is the second instalment of Cooper’s acclaimed, five-book Dark Is Rising saga, but seems to have acquired its own independent status and associated fanbase, perhaps specifically because of its association with childhood Christmases and the heart-bursting, magical minutae of a harsh winter… the crunch of morning wellies in deep, overnight snow; the slate-grey afternoon skies and finger-biting winds that foretell the storms to come. Certainly those qualities have driven musician Rob Cooper – originally from my native Teesside, but now living in Finland – to create an album of beautiful, vintage-sounding folktronica inspired by the moods of the book.

Simply called The Dark Is Rising, the album was released on cassette by The Dark Outside label in 2018, but is now available to download. I spoke to Rob, live from his remote Finland home, for my BBC Tees Evening Show. This is how the conversation went…

Bob: I’m going to start be asking you the most British question imaginable… what’s the weather like in Finland?

Rob: The weather is absolutely beautiful! There’s no wind, very few clouds, and it’s just about getting to the time of year when we get an hour or two of darkness again, after a couple of months of having no dark at all. So it’s a weird time to be releasing The Dark Is Rising when there’s no flipping dark around!

It’s a very snow-bound book, too… are you also going to tell me there’s no snow on the ground at this time of year?

Not in July, no. It’s generally about 20-30 degrees all the time, so I’m sitting here going… oh god, The Light Is Rising!

You should have waited six months and put the album out in December…

I did think about that, but as you probably know, it came out on cassette on Midwinter’s Eve 2018, six months ago, and that was the perfect match, as Midwinter’s Eve is the day when the story starts in the book. But I had to wait until we’d finished selling the cassette version before releasing the download. And I didn’t really want to wait a full year until Midwinter’s Eve rolled around again. So I thought I’d release it on Midsummer’s Eve!

The book is all about the dark and the light, and the conflict between the two. For some periods of history the dark is winning, and through other periods the light is winning, so I thought OK… this is the ying-and-yang. We can do the cassette album when it’s darkest, and the digital album when it’s lightest. And it matched the whole theme of the cassette as well, as the actual cassette shell was half black and half white. I don’t know, it’s easy to get carried away with these things…

The book itself came out in 1973, and I’d assumed that it was a big childhood favourite of yours, but that’s not the case, is it? Did you discover it later in life?

Yes, as I believe you did as well?

Yes, I was about forty when I first read it.


Well, it was one of those books that some of the kids around me read, and I seem to remember a teacher or two recommending it… and I saw it sometimes in the library and thought it looked interesting, but I just never got round to it. I don’t know why, as it seemed right up my street… but when I was that age there was a lot of good fiction around, and I was reading and reading, and I just never got to that one. It never reached the top of the list.

So time passed, and I’d forgotten about it, but we were here in Finland, and I was looking for books for my daughter. I guess at the time she would have been about eight or nine, so I was looking in the kids’ section of the library here in Joensuu In Finland… and it’s enormous. It’s nearly the size of the whole of Gateshead Library, where I used to go! And they have an English language section, so I was looking through that, and I picked up The Dark is Rising and thought… “Oooh, actually, that looks good.” And I read the first few pages, and it was… “Wooah, this is really good!” So we did it as a bedtime story, and every time I read any of it, there was always music happening in my mind. And I thought… I’d better do something with this.

Can we talk about the plot a little? It’s a book set in a small village in Buckinghamshire, and the main character is an 11-year-old boy called Will Stanton, who discovers that he’s an “Old One”, put on this earth to fight the powers of darkness. And this all takes place at Christmas amidst a very frozen, snowy landscape, created by the powers of darkness themselves…

Yes, although we don’t find that out to begin with! To ordinary people,  who aren’t mixed up in this conflict between light and dark that’s going on behind the scenes, it just seems like a really nasty winter. Which we had a couple of in the 1970s… I remember being sent home from school because of various strikes, and things being shut down. We had a hideous winter in 1976, when the whole country just ground to a halt. And to an ordinary person, that’s what it looks like… but, as we find out in the book, it’s actually down to the age-old forces of light and darkness, going since time immemorial! And it’s a wonderful story that ties in everything from ancient British customs, to Stonehenge and Merlin. Herne the Hunter is in there, too… it’s like a meta version of every English folk myth there’s ever been.

And all of this spoke to you?

It did. It isn’t orcs and elves and goblins, it doesn’t feel like it’s a million miles away. It feels like it’s rooted in the super old pathways and roads of England; it feels real and domestic. But also it’s contrasted with ordinary household life… an ordinary Christmas that an ordinary famly is having. And I remember all of that, as well. The wooden windowframes letting in a bit of a draft, and stamping your snow off your wellies by the back door.

And I think it’s the fact that those two things are juxtaposed so closely in the book – you’ll go from a situation where Will’s in a bright, beautiful kitchen with the log fire burning and the whole family making fun of each other, then he’ll walk out into the back yard and find that the rooks have all gone nuts, because an agent of the Dark is walking by – it’s just very real, somehow. It feels like a kind of magic and fantasy that’s not too far from the surface.

And how did you transpose those feelings into a musical context? I’ve seen you say you that you imagined a 1973 BBC adaptation, and the soundtrack that it might have had…

Yeah, exactly. It’s a little bit before my time, but I’m very into that period of music. I collect old electronic instruments, and I’m really into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I just remember so many series from when I was a kid, things like The Box of Delights, Day of the Triffids, Doctor Who… even Robin of Sherwood. They would come along and you’d sit down in a normal, bright living room, and have the pants scared off you. And it would partly be these cheap and nasty video effects that they would use, but partly this sense of weirdness… and because it was all on analogue film, there’d be a kind of knotty heart of it that you couldn’t quite see. There was a certain, dreamlike “What if…”? feeling.

But a big part of it was the music, as well. So I just imagined that the BBC had made a series of it – which they never actually did – and that they’d given it to the Radiophonic Workshop to do the music. So I thought – what would they have done at the time? And I looked around me and thought… well, I’ve got a lot of the instruments that they would have used, modular synthesizers that you plug in like a telephone exchange, and they seemed to create just the right atmosphere. I don’t ever remember consciously thinking “What sort of music would this be…?” I just thought these melodies sounded like they belonged on a modular synth, or a folk instrument paired with something on a big old synthesizer. That was the sound that felt right when I started putting it together.

You learned to play some new instruments specifically for this project, didn’t you? Including the Finnish kantele?

Yeah, there are three or four instruments on it that I learned to play. I play a few instruments anyway, so when you hear things like a bass guitar on there, that’s just me. But yeah, I thought some of the melodies that were coming into my head were folk melodies. Really old-sounding folk melodies, that had been floating around in the cosmos for 2000 years waiting for my head to come along! You can’t play all of those on the synthesizer, so I thought “OK… let’s play some folk instuments.” And I don’t play any folk instruments, so I had to sit down and learn a few of them.

So there’s some accordion on there, some cahon, a wind instrument called a xaphoon that’s halfway between a clarinet and a recorder, and there’s a Turkish instrument called a cura that I found in a backstreet shop in Istanbul, it’s a bit like a mandolin. But yeah, the kantele is Finnish. At its most basic, it’s just a thing with tuning pegs hammered into it, and cutting wire on it. it’s a very basic instument that’s lasted for thousands of years. And they have this whole tradition here in Finland of “Song Poety”… they recite poetry in a  semi-song form, with the kantele as your musical accompaniment. It’s very limited, there are no frets or anything… whatever the strings are tuned to, that’s the noise that comes out!

The obvious question to ask amidst of all this… is how did you end up living in Finland in the first place?

That’s a valid question, isn’t it? My wife got a job here… she works in publications, and got a job with the European Forest Institute, which is based out here in Joensuu. We were both freelancing, based at home, a bit fed up with it… and we thought “Let’s just find a job somewhere else”. So we had a bit of a race to see who could apply for the most jobs around Europe, and we made a deal and said whoever got one first… we’d go there! And this is the one that came up, in a place called Joensuu in Eastern Finland. We’d never heard of it, we had to get out a map when they offered her an interview and say “Where the hell is this…” and it turns out it’s the most beautiful place. There are so few people here, but thousands of lakes – it’s got the greatest density of lakes anywhere in Europe, and just a staggering amount of forest.

Do you live out in the woods, then?

Kind of! We’re only four or five kilometres out of town, but you can forget that there’s anything nearby for long periods of time. We have a back garden… and then forest. And you can go off and wander around the forest… any time I was short of imspriation for the album, I’d just go and take a stroll. And I’d immediately feel like I was in the book, in those very snowy forests from the novel.

It sounds idyllic...

It wasn’t hard to get inspired! And then in winter, it gets down to about -35 degrees, and we get a metre and a half of snow. So that side of things was quite easy to imagine, too! I was writing songs based around the winter, and all I had to do was go outside the front door and crunch around a bit in this waist-high snow, and think.. yeah, this what it would feel like to be snowed in by The Dark!

Thanks to Rob a fascinating chat, and for the photos of his local woodland – the two wonderful pictures above are Rob’s own. His album, The Dark Is Rising, is available now from…

https://handspan.bandcamp.com

And a little tip that the next printed version of The Haunted Generation column will be in the Fortean Times magazine, issue 383… on the shelves on Thursday 15th August.



Polypores, Flora and Sam Spade’s Gigantic Garden

The alluring power of the “wild wood” seemed a constant throughout the typical 1970s childhood, even for youngsters with the most urban of upbringings. The great writers of the era, the Alan Garners and Susan Coopers, used tangled, mystical woodland as the playground for the re-emergent elements of British folklore that dominated their books; a place where dark, ancient forces bled through into the present day. Doctor Who‘s jungles were alien and impenetrable, places where marooned scientific expeditions battled spiky, otherworldly beasties; and Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are updated the surreal wilderness of the nursery rhyme and brought it, tangible and touchable, into every terrified child’s bedroom.

For those of us lucky enough to have local woodland within walking distance of our homes, these tales settled like mist onto every innocuous copse, every “deadman’s creek” on the fringes of a new, suburban housing estate. Even when we stayed within sight of reassuring modernity – railway lines, twine-bound haystacks, Ford Cortinas in lay-bys of dubious repute – the surrounding trees played host to ghosts, goblins, and stranded Daleks alike. And, in the 1980s, a new wave of “swords and sorcery” fiction, spearheaded by Robin of Sherwood and the Fighting Fantasy books, claimed Britain’s woodlands as their own, and another generation of youngsters were entranced; venturing both literally and figuratively into the trees, searching for Herne the Hunter with a twenty-sided dice to hand.

All of these feelings bubble tantalisingly through the textures of Lancashire-based composer Stephen James Buckley’s new album, Flora. Stephen is so infused with the spirit of his local woodland that he even named his recording project – Polypores – after the genus of common fungi that grow around unsuspecting tree roots and trunks, and the album itself is a densely ambient evocation of a fantastical journey through a freakishly overgrown forest, where trees and flowers grow to outlandish, almost alien proportions. The music weaves organic, pulsating synth lines into field recordings of trickling water, rustling foliage and birdsong, and captures perfectly the still, almost claustrophobic power of the woods. I asked Stephen about the album’s origins, in the stiflingly hot summer of 2018…

Bob: That summer was incredible… almost surreally hot and claustrophobic. Did the feel of that hot weather seep into the ambience of the music? I sometimes think really hot days have a kind of hallucinogenic quality to them…

Stephen: Yes, I think the heat definitely did have some kind of impact. The way I write nowadays, it’s very much a subconscious thing, as opposed to something planned or carefully thought out… which was how I used to work for older Polypores releases. So there aren’t necessarily many specifics (“this track is about this kind of fungus growing on this kind of tree”), it’s more a general feeling I’m channeling.

And I say “channeling” because that’s very much what I was doing. I spent time in certain environments, in a certain state of mind, and then went home and the music just came. It was hot, and that can make you feel a bit weird. And I think a sort of trippy heat is apparent on this record. A phantasmagoric humidity. Although the forests I explored were English, they could just as easily be a jungle. If I had unlimited time and resources, then I’d definitely visit a jungle or two.

A lot the inspiration seems to have come from walking in your local woods… can you describe them a little?

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the woods I go to every week, because I’d prefer to keep them a secret. If people from Preston read this then they might start going there, then it’d no longer be quiet and peaceful, and I’d have to look further afield. But I can say that some of the places which inspired – and provided sounds for – Flora were The Fairy Glen near Wigan, Beacon Fell, Brockholes Nature Reserve, and the woods around Roeburndale.

I think the most important forest for me is Great Corby Woods, between Great Corby and Wetherall, in Cumbria. I lived in Great Corby as a child for a while, and my parents would regularly take me out into the woods. That’s when I developed my interest in fungi. My dad would tell me about all the different kinds of trees and plants, and my mum would explain why it was bad to drop litter.

There was a valley in the middle that the River Eden flowed though… which you can see, if you take the train from Carlisle to Newcastle. A little old man lived at the bottom of the valley. He carved things out of wood, and once made me a moneybox, which he hand-painted. The valley seemed huge and steep, and I was terrified of it. I’d have constant nightmares about falling down it. We were once attacked by a nest of wasps, which our dog decided to dig up. I think this forest, and the time I spent in it, informed a lot of who I am today, and I’m forever grateful to my parents for that experience.

Do you still try to vanish to the woods as as possible? Can you describe the appeal?

I try to get into some form of countryside every weekend. Preferably woods, but I can’t always be picky. Although I did it a lot as a child, I think it fell by the wayside in my teenage years and twenties, as I was too busy focusing on crap that didn’t matter. But as I got into my thirties I started yearning for it again. And when I started meditating – which I do every day, as it’s very good for the mind – I think it changed the way my brain worked. I started to appreciate things with a sense of wonder again. I revisited a lot of the things that interested me when I was young – space, nature, monsters etc – and found joy in them once again.

Can you create music in your head while you’re actually out walking?

I don’t compose in my head whilst walking. I tend to try and focus on what’s around me in the moment, taking it all in, rather than thinking about music. I’m absorbing it all for later. Although I’m also often talking to my girlfriend about frogs and birds and stuff.

As you suggested, you made a lot of field recordings for Flora, didn’t you? What kind of sounds were you looking for?

Yes, there were a lot of field recordings… these were often how the tracks started. I’d get some ambience that I’d recorded, put it into a loop pedal, mess around with it so it made some kind of odd rhythm, then work on top of that. Other times, I’d layer in recordings of birds, just subtly underneath a track, to give it a bit of texture.

I basically wanted to create an environment in which these tracks lived. But the field recordings were often heavily manipulated with various effects pedals to give them an otherworldly vibe. I’m well aware that adding field recordings to synthesizer music isn’t a particularly novel thing to do, but the important thing is that I really enjoyed it, and I thought it sounded great, so that’s all I’m really concerned with.

I was interested to read that you started to imagine a “giant” forest when you were making the album… which, for me, brought all kinds of childhood images to mind. Lots of nursery rhymes, but also Where The Wild Things Are, Doctor Who and its various alien jungles, the Old Forest from Lord of the Rings… even the Fighting Fantasy book, The Forest of Doom! Is that idea of the “wild wood” one that you find especially evocative?

Oh, I loved the Fighting Fantasy books! Deathtrap Dungeon was my favourite, but I do remember The Forest Of Doom. There was a bit with a scarecrow that really creeped me out. And yes, the huge forest is something that came subconsciously… like everything tends to with me. The feeling of being overwhelmed by nature, when everything is lush and growing, the smell of the plants and flowers – it’s just all-encompassing if you go in far enough. And that perhaps translated into these massive plants and trees.

Also, one of my favourite books as a child was called Sam Spade’s Gigantic Garden. It was about a spade called Sam Spade, who used some magic water that he got from HG Well – who was a well with a face – to water his garden. The plants all grew to enormous sizes. It was completely out of control. Something of that size can be both beautiful and alien… and eventually frightening. I think the album has all of those ingredients, somehow. Again, not my intention, but that’s what I channeled, so that’s what came out. I should have thanked Sam Spade in the credits, really.

The idea of unnaturally large flora intrigued me. On the off chance, I’ll ask… when I was a kid, especially when I was tired, I used to get quite confused over the size of things… the bedroom would feel massive, and I would feel tiny… or vice versa. I’ve since discovered this is called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, and it’s quite common! Did you ever experience it yourself?

I’ve never experienced that, and am sort of jealous that you have. I wonder if there’s any way it can be induced? I’ll look into it.

How did you go about converting the woodland themes of the album into actual music? Is there a synth sound that’s especially “forest-y”?

Again, I didn’t really think too much about it. I just do it intuitively. I think there are certain synth sounds, particularly triangle waves, which can sound a bit like a flute. And flute melodies can often sound pastoral. I’m not sure why… I guess we make that association from their use in the nature documentaries we saw as children. I do like creating babbling brook-type sounds, using fast random filter cut-off. And I have a lot of elements which are out of time with one another, rather than rigidly sequenced. I guess that sounds a bit more natural.

I didn’t do that intentionally, but thinking about it, that’s probably why it appealed to me, and why it therefore ended up on the record. I also quite like having high-pitched, twinkly sounds which just sit above the rest of the sounds, and come in and out… like birds singing. If I went back and analyzed everything, I’m sure there would be a lot more. But I’m very much navigating by feel rather than with an instruction manual.

The closing track, Sky Man, is quite joyous… is this about the experience of seeing the sky again, once you leave the dense woodland behind?

Sky Man was the last track I wrote for the album, I think. It really had a feeling of emerging from something, of rising out of something. A feeling of transcendence and relief. Once that was placed at the end of the album, the whole thing suddenly made sense as a kind of narrative. Almost like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The idea of going though something – something vast, beautiful, even scary at times – then emerging from the other side into the light. With the ability to fly! I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds, but that’s what makes sense to me, so I must embrace that.

I remember around that time I was reading The Vorrh Trilogy by Brian Catling. That’s very much based on an archetypal, mythical forest. I think that perhaps inspired how the album was finalized, in some way.

The album sleeve is utterly gorgeous, and reminiscent of so much 1970s fantasy artwork… including Roger Dean’s legendary prog-rock sleeves. Who did it? Did you have any input into it?

The album art is incredible. I’ve had it for months and was so excited to share it with everyone. It was done by Nick Taylor, who has done a few previous record covers for me. I think I gave him a loose brief involving magical forests, massive plants/fungus, natural history museums, and old sci-fi books. The look of the film Fantastic Planet was also a reference I gave him. He came back a few weeks later with this absolute gem. Nick is very good at interpreting my ideas. I’m pretty sure he used some kind of forbidden alchemy to ransmutate them into gold.

There’s more of his work on the inside sleeve too, which is another reason to buy a physical copy!

Speaking of which, Flora has been released on Colin Morrison’s wonderful Castles in Space label, who put out some gorgeous music… how did you link up with Colin?

I’m not entirely sure how Castles In Space found me. Most of the labels I’ve been released on seem to have a mutual appreciation of each other’s releases, and support each other, and that’s really nice to be a part of. They kind of feed into one another. My first release, via Joe McLaren’s Concréte Tapes, led to me being heard by other labels like Polytechnic Youth and A Year In The Country. These led to me being heard by Front & Follow. They are all listening to each other and supporting each other, so it just kind of grows from there. It’s like a little ecosystem which is great to be part of.

There are also the radio shows like Gated Canal Community, You The Night And The Music, and Soundtracking The Void, which are all linked in with that. I’m grateful to everyone who’s put out my stuff because it always leads to more people hearing me, and wanting to put out more stuff. And I’ll hopefully do more with all these labels in the future. They are all great to work with.

Colin from Castles In Space actually got me on at the Delaware Road event in Salisbury this August, which is going to be amazing. All kinds of music, art, spoken word – in a military bunker! I can’t wait for that, and I’m proud to be representing Castles In Space on their stage there.

The beautiful, vinyl edition of Flora, by Polypores, is still available from…

https://polypores.bandcamp.com/album/flora-4

And Stephen can be found on Twitter or on Facebook. Thanks to Stephen for such a thoughtful and interesting chat, and for sending over some of his own personal woodland photographs. And belated gratitude goes to Sam Spade and his Gigantic Garden.