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.

Undercliff, Mark Brend and the Olive Grove cult

In February 1971, Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, fragile and exhausted, left his hotel bedroom in Los Angeles, intending to browse a nearby bookshop before performing with his band at the Whisky A Go Go club that same evening. On the way, he met a man called Apollos, who apparently convinced him – on the spot – to join the freshly-formed religious group, The Children Of God. The gig was cancelled, it was days before Spencer was located, and – after steadfastly refusing to return – he remains affiliated to the organisation (now rebranded as “The Family International”) to this day.

It was an era when an interest in such “new” religious movements seemed to exist almost as a an adjunct to the prevailing pop culture ot the time: the Beatles were famous early adopters of the Transcendental Meditation movement, decamping to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rishikesh retreat in early 1968 alongside Donovan, Mia Farrow and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love; The Who’s Pete Townshend became a devout believer in the teachings of self-declared “Avatar” Meher Baba. Disillusioned creative types the world over sought solace, reassurance and inspiration amidst the spiritual free-for-all that flourished in the wake of the hippy revolution.

Mark Brend’s debut novel Undercliff offers a very English take on the phenomenon. Its tired, dispirited creative comes in the shape of listless, recently-divorced writer Martyn Hope, who – alone in London in 1972 – finds himself drawn into the world of the Olive Grove, a tiny cult with a weekly meet-up in a disused bingo hall in Nunhead. Initially finding comfort and company in the cloistered environment of the group’s meetings – and indeed romance with fellow worshipper Amelia – he finds himself feeling increasingly fraught and powerless when his new girlfriend disappears, and beings to suspect the motives of cult leaders Simon and Magnus – known to all as “The Two”, and with an alarming propensity for speaking in perfect unison.

I enjoyed the book enormously: I found it rich in both character and period detail (as a fun distraction, try imagining the 1970s band with the sound closest to the Olive Grove’s in-house folk-rock group, The Flock. My money goes on Pentangle, but I imagine them looking more like Pickettywitch) and with an encroaching sense of dark foreboding that bleeds almost imperceptibly into the story, before enveloping events completely. The bleak environs of early 1970 London provide an ideal background for the book’s early stages, before events lead us inexorably to the Olive Grove’s retreat on the Devon coastline, and the rambling country house that gives the book its title.

I spoke to Mark Brend about Undercliff‘s origins and inspirations:

Bob: Can I ask a little about the background to writing Undercliff? Was there a single spark of inspiration that made you want to start work on it?

Mark: There wasn’t a single spark, no. Looking back on my first notes I see that the location was there from the start, and I also had a good idea of the ending (which I won’t reveal here). The idea of evil being disguised as good so effectively that it is hard to tell the difference took root early on. There’s a quote from Matthew’s Gospel at the beginning pointing to that notion. Much of the plot and the detail of the characters developed as I wrote, though. 

(“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the ver elect”)

More than anything the inspiration was a desire to write a particular type of book. One with a strong sense of location, and an essentially good, if flawed, lead character who gets caught up in things that he struggles to control. Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male is an archetype, I suppose.

That sense of location, particularly the Devon coastline, plays a large part in the books’ events… what’s your connection to the area?

I grew up in Devon, and moved back 13 years ago after many years away, first in Manchester, then London. I actually live about 15 miles from the coastline where much of the book is set. It’s an area I’ve often visited throughout my life, and with which I’m very familiar.

Was it important to you that the book had that very specific, “real” location?

Yes, it was – though in my case the notion of “real” requires some qualification.  I think characters can come alive if the location is plausible and real. Or at least, a location that seems real. Real towns, pubs, beaches and so on do feature in Undercliff, but many are adapted to some extent to suit my purposes. The village of Kingcombe Vale, where the titular house is located, isn’t a real place. It started out as Salcombe Regis, which is a small village near Sidmouth, but I changed it so much as the book progressed that by the end it didn’t seem so much like Salcombe Regis anymore, so I thought it needed its own identity.

It’s interesting how unreliable memory is. There’s one scene in the book where Martyn, the lead character, looks down on Branscombe beach from his caravan. The beach is real and it does have a caravan and chalet park near it, which in my memory overlooked a particular part of the beach. I’ve been there dozens of times, but when I was there the other day I stood where I imagined Martyn’s caravan to be and realised he wouldn’t have been able to see the part of the beach I describe, but another part entirely. 

The book is set during 1972 and 1973… is that an era with which you feel a particular affinity? Why did that era lend itself so readily to the events and characters of Undercliff?

I wouldn’t say I feel a particular affinity with the era. I was about 10 then, so I remember it, but any sense I have of it as an era is derived retrospectively. It suited my story because in the late 60s the hippie movement challenged all sorts of orthodoxies – political, social and religious. If you hear standard-bearers from that time speaking about how things were – people like David Crosby – they really did think they were making a new world. By the early 1970s, reality had set in and the dream had turned sour, but a lot of the cultural trappings – communes and so on – remained. So it seemed like the right time. I imagine it as a post-Utopian dream era – though that’s my retrospective labelling of it. Whether it actually felt like that to live through I can’t say. At the time I was occupied with Airfix kits and Commando comics.

I also chose it because my lead character, Martyn, is just a little too old for the social revolution that started with rock’n’roll in the 1950s and then into the hippie/free love era of the 60s. He’s 36 in 1972, meaning he was 20 when Elvis had his first UK hit. He did national service. He was already in his thirties in the Summer of Love. So he is somebody just outside of that culture – close, but not quite fitting in. 

Ever had any experiences yourself with groups like the Olive Grove?

No personal experience. I did a little desk research.

What’s your background as a writer? I know you’ve written a lot about electronic music…

I’ve written several non-fiction books about music, and have worked – intermittently – as a music journalist for more than 20 years. Writing wise, my main interests are US singer songwriters from the 60s (Tim Hardin, David Ackles, Phil Ochs etc) and very early electronic music. By very early I mean pre-synth. I tend to drift off a bit by the 1970s. My most recent music book is Sound of Tomorrow, about early commercial electronic music (film soundtracks, TV adverts – that sort of thing). When it was published I did an associated Radio 4 documentary with Stewart Lee about early British electronic music. Undercliff is my first novel.

And what have you worked on as a musician?

I’ve been active since the 1980s, with various bands including the Palace of Light, Mabel Joy and Fariña, recording for lots of indie labels (in the old, real sense of the term) including Bam Caruso, Second Language, and Static Caravan. For a while I recorded as Ghostwriter, which was a loose association of collaborators helmed by me, making mainly instrumental music, with archive spoken word collages. Under that name I collaborated with Jim Jupp, of Ghost Box, on an EP called Dimensions, which was released on Chaffinch Records a few years back. I’ve collaborated with a few other people over the years, too – including Michael Weston King and Darren Hayman.

Fariña was originally active in the late 90s and early 00s, in which time we released two albums on Picked Egg. We reformed last year, and our first release is an EP of incidental music for Undercliff, which will be released by Hanky Panky, a Spanish label, later this year. The label has previously reissued my 80s and 90s bands, Palace of Light and Mabel Joy.

Whenever I read a novel, I can never resist casting it in my head… and I went for Robert Powell as Martyn, and Anouska Hempel as Amelia. Do you ever do this when you’re writing? Am I anywhere near your mental images of the lead characters, or am I way off the mark?

I can’t say I do cast people when writing, no, but several readers have proposed actors for various characters in the book. Miles Jupp as the vicar, George Parsons, is a favourite. Robert Powell? Yes, maybe, in the sense that I think of him as the definitive British actor of the 1970s. He might be a bit too dashing and handsome for Martyn, though – who I think of as a sort of humdrum everyman. Anouska Hempel? Yes, with a short haircut.

I found a blog post today where you wax lyrical about the influence of a writer called Phyllis Paul on your work… and I’m totally unfamiliar with her! Can you tell us a little about Phyllis’s work, and why it means so much to you?

Most people are totally unfamiliar with her. I am, too, almost. The little I know of her comes from the Wormwoodiana blog and the writing of the literary critic Glen Cavaliero. I’ve only actually read two of her 11 novels, and seen a copy of one other in a National Trust house in the Cotswolds. Her books are incredibly hard to track down. She was English, and published from the 1930s to the 1960s. She died in a road traffic accident in the early 1970s. All of her books were published by mainstream publishing houses, and some were published in the US too, so she must have had some kind of profile, but they couldn’t have sold well because you just don’t see them around now.

Cavaliero considers her to be similar to Charles Williams, the autodidact Christian mystic writer and Inkling, who was much admired by CS Lewis, TS Eliot and WH Auden. I like his novels, though find his other writing (poetry and theology mainly) pretty impenetrable. He and Paul wrote what you might class as literary supernatural thrillers – if an Amazon-style category is required (though to my mind Paul is more ‘literary’ than Williams). What I like about Paul’s books – or at least the two I’ve read – is an atmosphere of ambiguity: something is probably not right here, but exactly what is hard to say.

In a sense I think I like the idea of her as much as her books (because I’ve read so little of her work). It’s the perpetual fascination with the obscure genius working on alone – a story that always appeals, whether it’s a writer or a musician. The second Ghostwriter album, Morrow, which I made with Michael Paine, included several pieces inspired by her, which borrowed the titles of some of her novels. There’s also a piece on it called the Death of Phyllis Paul, which is an attempt to musically recreate this description of her death, by Cavaliero in The Supernatural and English Fiction (OUP, 1995):

“Phyllis Paul died on 30 Aug. 1973, in Hastings [England], as a result of being struck by a motor cycle while crossing the road. The account at the inquests suggests that she was not known locally as a writer, being only identified by the Cash name tag on her handkerchief. A neighbour commented that ‘Miss Paul kept herself to herself. When she walked she had a habit of looking quickly to one side and then the other, and then she would look down again.’ A witness to the accident was more graphic still, remarking that what he saw was ‘an old lady going across the road like a sheet of newspaper.’

Thanks to Mark Brend for his time… he’s @MinuteBook on Twitter, and his website is here.

Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper & Sharron Kraus, and A Midsummer Nights Happening

I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but soon there were tell-tale signs: a woman with a Trunk Records tote bag slung nonchalently over one shoulder, striding purposefully along Shoreditch High Street; a brace of bearded blokes buying Wispa bars from Sainsburys, both of whom I vaguely recognised from long-ago Doctor Who conventions; and – ultimately – the mysterious gates of the state51 Conspiracy factory on Rhoda Street, sporadically and tantalisingly swinging open to allow access to the enticing “Midsummer Nights’ Happening” beyond. It was 6.30pm, Friday 21st June, and the air lay heavy with the scent of sunscreen and free-flowing beer, combined with the first opening salvo of vintage electronica from the turntables concealed within. Once inside, I was greeted cheerily in the courtyard by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, resplendent in canvas cap, and he wasted no time in introducing me to the genial Martin Jenkins – Pye Corner Audio, to Ghost Box devotees – and his friend Darren, instructing us to help ourselves to the free bar.

Yes, that’s right, the free bar. Oh dear… this could get messy.

The hidden HQ of the delightfully clandestine state51 Conspiracy had been decorated with impeccable attention to period detail. In the “utopian glade” of Pan’s Garden, pot-bellied effigies peered knowingly from clusters of rustling foliage, the floor crackling with the crunch of unseasonal dead leaves. A rustic wooden signpost (with a font to warm the cockles of Patrick McGoohan’s incarcerated heart) directed me to the TV Chamber, where fleeting glimpses of Jack Hargreaves and Arthur C. Clarke flickered across the screens of ancient, wooden-bodied televisions. In the opposite direction, the extravagantly bearded Dan was pressing bespoke event t-shirts with what appeared to be an elaborate mangle.

In a space of a few fleeting, giddy minutes, I exchanged greetings with cheery figures who – previously – had only been known to me from e-mails, tweets, phone conversations… or even, simply, the credits on albums that I’d bought, played, loved, and treasured. Julian House, Frances Castle, Jonny Trunk, Robin The Fog and Vic Mars. João Branco Kyron from Beautify Junkyards. Colin from Castles in Space, Gavin from Spun Out of Control, Stewart from the brilliant Concrete Islands website. There was Haunted Generation reader Eamonn and his wife, who’d travelled all the way from Northern Ireland, and Rolf from Southport, who’d bought a copy of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ from me online a week earlier, and was keen to say hello. And the always ebullient Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records, who I’d last chatted to in 2017 at the concealed entrance to Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, after the climax of his most recent, most extraordinary Delaware Road event. He was delighted to discover that the Delia Derbyshire badge that he’d given me that evening had been pinned to the lapel of my jacket ever since.

It was a delirious, surreal, gathering of the haunted clans: a cavalcade of eclectic live performance, inventive DJ sets, and magnificently fevered conversation that continued long into Saturday morning. And it conicided conveniently with the release of the latest Ghost Box Records LP, Chanctonbury Rings, a collaboration between US writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus, and Jim Jupp himself, in his customary guise as synth-prog overlord Belbury Poly. The album combines Justin’s thoughtful, beguiling spoken accounts of mystical experiences on this ancient Sussex landmark with a swirling malestrom of musical textures: gently-strummed autoharp, wistful recorders, Sharron’s floating, graceful vocals, and Ghost Box’s trademark woozy, analogue synths.

As the first live act to the take to the stage at A Midsummer Nights’ Happening, they performed Chanctonbury Rings immaculately, in its entirety, to a hugely appreciative audience. Two days earlier, I’d spoken to them both on my BBC Tees Evening show about the albums’ inspiration, and the creative process involved. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: How did the collaboration between the two of you come about? I saw you performing separately at the Folk Horror Revival event in Wakefield in 2017. That wasn’t the genesis of this, was it?

Justin: No, we’d met before that, and I think we’d even discussed this…

Sharron: Yes, we were already plotting by that point. I don’t think we’d started work, but Justin had asked me if I was interested in doing some music for some of his texts.

Justin: Yeah, the project comes from one chapter of my book, The Old Weird Albion… and your listeners will tell from the way I talk that I’m not from Middlesbrough, but in fact from Pittsburgh – the Middlesbrough of America! But I’ve written a book about my encounters on the South Downs.

So were you contemplating doing some readings from the book, and thought that a bit of accompanying music would be handy?

Justin: Yeah, me reading for fifteen or twenty minutes is not a very exciting proposition. So Sharron threw herself onto that funeral pyre, and was willing to write some music.

Sharron: It was quite the opposite, because Justin sent the text over to me, and it immediately conjured up all sorts of images. So I sat down and spent an afternoon just creating lots of musical sketches, and I was loving the things I was coming up with in response to his work. So to me, it was exciting.

I did wonder how the collaboration had worked on a practical level, whether Justin had sent you readings of his work for you to compose the accompanying music, or whether you’d sent Justin music for him to fit his readings around… or a little of both?

Sharron: Yeah, a bit of both. He just sent me a Word document, and I created segments of music that I thought would fit with different bits of the text. And then, when we had the first couple of shows, I came down to Essex and we spent the day fitting the bits together. At that point we didn’t know if they were going to fit very well together… but they seemed to.

Justin: And obviously there’s a little bit of goat sacrifice, and such. We read the entrails and figure out the chord changes.

A bit of goat sacrifice is surely an important element of any creative process…

Sharron: Related to that, but on a more serious note… we did, last Mayday, before we performed the first gig that we’d ever done, go up to Chanctonbury and perform a very stripped-down, acoustic, ritualised version of it, with some other friends reading poetry, some Morris Dancers dancing… so that was really magical, and kind of cemented the project as something that was more than jut a one-off gig.

I was going to ask a little about Chanctonbury itself, a place I’ve never visited… can you tell us a little bit about the site itself, is it a Bronze Age settlement?

Justin: It’s genuinely every age. It’s certainly been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and it is a genuinely strange place. It’s just above the village where my grandparents lived, in Sussex, so I used to go there during my childhood. And I know some fairly serious occultist-type people, who’ve essentially been unable to spend the night on Chanctonbury. Because of the strange things that they hear, and indeed see. Levitation is quite a common occurrence up there… allegedly. I’ve barely seen that. Not with the living.

But it’s an interesting and strange place. Like I said it’s been inhabited throughout the ages, and it’s been a worship site… it was a Druidic site, and a Roman site, and Pagan site and a Saxon site… it’s been everything.

I read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, in which he attempts to spend the night there, and has a very strange and scary experience.

Justin: He’s quite terrified up there, and he’s done a lot of things. It’s a fairly well-known spot for that kind of action, and indeed for artistic response as well. It’s been written about for hundreds of years, so I like to think we’re part of a continuum.

Sharron, was it a place that you’d visited before starting work on this project?

Sharron: No it wasn’t, and the thing that was really interesting for me was that I was deliberately not Googling it, and not looking at photographs… I was trying to just work from Justin’s text, and to just respond to his version of the place and create this fictional musical world. And I was really interested to see, when I went there, whether it would feel like it was the same place, or if I was way off the mark. But it just… I drove through Sussex to meet Justin there, and as I was getting closer, along the Downs, I was getting this sense of familiarity, and when we actually went up Chanctonbury in the morning, it was wonderfully close to what I had imagined. That was really special for me.

Justin, there is a fascinating part of the narrative where you suggest you saw a vision of your late grandmother up on Chanctonbury Ring… was this based on a real experience?

Justin: Yeah… its quite funny to say in front of a bunch of people I’ve never met – your listeners – that I see my dead grandmother most times that I go up to Chanctonbury, and yet I genuinely don’t think I’m crazy or anything. But you know… there’s this experience that I think everyone has where you see these things, you encounter these things out of the corner of your eyes. You’re trying to look at them, and they’re not quite there, or not quite in focus, or not quite what you thought. And the fact that you can’t touch these things, can’t take a photograph of them or even maintain them within your field of view for more than a fraction of a second… I don’t think that makes them any less real. Memory is a haunting thing, and I think that’s what all this is about in many ways. Both haunting and belonging.

Was Chanctonbury a place that held a deep connection for your grandmother as well, then?

Justin: Yeah, she would have gone there every week for at least 25 or 30 years. And she took the rest of us whenever we were there.

I wanted to ask about Ghost Box Records, a label I’ve fallen in love with, and they deal with feelings that transport many of us back to our childhoods years in the 1970s, and evoke strange, disquieting memories of that era. But I don’t think they’ve really done anything like Chanctonbury Rings before, a spoken word album… how did the link to Ghost Box come about?

Justin: I met Jim Jupp when I first moved to this country – and I literally can’t remember how – but I met him and we became friends quite quickly. He worked on a project that I did called Ley Line, which was a piece I recorded with the folk singer Shirley Collins, and some artists from Pittsburgh, where I’m from. And that piece needed something extra, some production, and he worked on that.

And in a way this is like a big, grown-up, professional version of what we started with that. We’ve got a real musician actually composing music! Instead of me saying “I think it sould go “Woooooooooo”

Sharron: You get me going “Wooooooooo” instead!

Justin: I didn’t grow up in this country, so Sharron… was that haunted 1970s and 80s lifestyle that Ghost Box is about part of your childhood?

Sharron: Yeah, it really was. Once of the things I’m interested in is how there are so many haunted elements of life in this country. Something happened in the 1970s that was more extreme, I guess we would all say… and Ghost Box tap into that, and give us the nostalgia, but also something richer than just harking back. They’ve created a world that certain projects seem to fit into.

Ghost Box are like a parallel universe version of our 1970s childhoods, filling in the bits that we’ve forgotten, or that are missing…

Justin: It’s as though they’re fitting in the bits that you think you’ve forgotten, but actually… they never happened! One of the things that I would say we’ve very subtly done with this record, including with the artwork… we talked a lot with Jim and Julian House, the designer, about having the feel of these BBC Poetry For Schools albums from the 1960s and 70s, they’re really interested in those, and the Topic Records compilations that came out in the early 1970s. But my Spoken Word origins are in those Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen albums, or Ken Nordine albums… I think of them as very Mid Western American albums… a sort of Psychedelic Midwest. And they’ve done a really cool job of putting those things together, so the back cover really has this beatnik jazz poetry album feel to it, while also maintaining that psychedelic folk aspect.

I love Ken Nordine’s work. I once actually played Ken Nordine’s Colors album in its entirety on the radio, all 36 tracks over 36 consecutive shows. When I first heard Chanctonbury Rings, I thought there was a little whiff of Ken about it…

Justin: It’s all part of that surrealist Midrwestern thing… that William Burroughs and Ken Nordine upbringing of mine. That’s lovely, thankyou.

The other comparison that struck me was that of Ronald Duncan and David Cain’s notorious 1969 BBC album, The Seasons. Was that an album that you had in mind?

Sharron: For me, it wasn’t something that I’d heard when I was making the music. But it was a touchstone for Jim… he referenced that album when thinking about what we could do with the project, in terms of artwork and ideas. Had you heard it before?

Justin: I’d only barely heard it, and only through Jim. I knew it was essentially why Ghost Box thought it might be OK to put out a spoken word album. So it’s been a touchstone in terms of the production parts that Jim did… the Introduction for example, which is a Belbury Poly composition, that’s definitely of the David Cain school of music. So yeah, it was an important part of the music’s upbringing.

There are some lovely analogue synths on there, Sharron…

Sharron: Yes, my little Korg! It does all sorts…

Justin: We’re proud of the sounds, and it’s also a beautiful slab of vinyl packaging. So even if you don’t like what you’ve hard, buy one and just put it on your wall! 

Justin and Sharron’s performance at A Midsummer Night’s Happening was barely the beginning of an extraordinary evening. At 9.34pm, I texted my radio cohort Uncle Harry with the astute observation: “I’m drunk in Shoreditch, and I’m watching Jonny Trunk and Wisbey perform slow jazz versions of the themes from Bergerac and Match of the Day“. Which is pretty much what’s happening in the photograph above. Then, silhoutted before a bespoke, head-swimming film collage created by Julian House, The Soundcarriers performed an immersive set of semi-improvised psychedelia, with tantalising excerpts of their album Entropicalia – a long-standing Ghost Box favourite of mine – bleeding through. Jonny Trunk and Robin the Fog joined forces to play previously unheard recordings made by sound pioneer Basil Kirchin, with live piano accompaniment from Steve Beresford. Martin Jenkins pounded Pye Corner beats from within an all-pervading fug of dry ice and Julian and Frances and João all took to the decks, although I’m embarrassed to report that I missed Jim Jupps’ airing of The Rah Band’s 1977 classic synth-pop single The Crunch because I was outside in the balmy night air, possibly rambling a little too long (and a little too incoherently) to the admirably patient Edd Gibson from Friendly Fires about my love of his collaboration with the enigmatic Jon Brooks’ on the Pattern Forms album, Peel Away The Ivy.

As Friday became Saturday, and as indoors performance became outdoors mingling, the night air was filled with the promise of newly-forged alliances (“Let’s do something together! What’s your number?”) and enthused reminsicing. My last recollection is getting a little too noisily excited about the work of the 1960s Barrow Poets with Jim, and – as he pulled out his phone to find a Youtube clip – noticing it was 2.47am. Rolf and I left together and wandered into the night, looking for taxis in opposite directions. Shoreditch High Street was still awash with light and noise, but nowhere in any of the surrounding bars did I see flickering footage of Pan’s People or hear the lilting refrain of the theme from Bergerac. A unique and captivating happening indeed.

Thanks to the state51 Conspiracy, Ghost Box Records, Trunk Records and everyone involved for a truly special event… and to Justin and Sharron for the radio chat. ‘Happening’ photos of Pan, Justin and Sharron, Jonny Trunk and Wisbey, and Julian House are all by Lois Gray. The Haunted Generation blog would like to clarify that it does not, in reality, endorse goat sacrifice as part of the creative process.

Divided Time, Jonathan Sharp and faded Polaroids

I think it’s the scarcity of my childhood photographs that gives them such potency. I’d estimate that, during the first eighteen years of my life, fewer than 100 photographs were taken of me… and the family camera was seen almost as a sacred object: brought out of its leather case for daytrips or family occasions, but otherwise kept hidden in a musty nook of the sideboard, nestling between unopened bottles of Campari and Warninks Advocaat, all gathering dust and – like me – counting down the interminable, slow-moving days until Christmas.

The process of developing photos was slow and laborious, too… there was the endless wait to “finish the film” before it was packed into an envelope and sent away – with an accompanying cheque – to Truprint or Turners: mysterious-sounding companies in secret laboratories that my fevered imagination transformed into the photographic equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Weeks would then pass before we could finally discover whether that picture of my Grandma feeding the giraffes at Flamingo Land had actually “come out”, or whether my clumsy thumbs had decapitated the entire family once again.

Photographs became forgotten objects, rarely shared… filed away in gaudy envelopes with their accompanying negatives in a secret pouch, or stuck carefully into musty, brown-card albums and relegated to bedroom cupboards. They physically faded, too… stark monochrome images became fuzzy grey shadows, and vibrant 1970s colours melded into the uniform orange and brown wash that has come to epitomise my memories of the decade. And yet this paucity, and this degradation, has lent our surviving childhood photos such extroardinary power. Fragments of frozen moments and long-lost loved ones, preserved in attics and chests of drawers, may be frequently unseen… but they are never unloved.

These feelings have inspired the new album from Jonathan Sharp, founder of The Heartwood Institute, and purveyor of “Hauntronica from the Heart of the English Lake District”. Previous Heartwood Institute releases – including the superb Secret Rites – have taken inspiration from the stories and landscape of his native Cumbria, but the new album Divided Time, released under Jonathan’s own name, does so in a way that feels more intensely personal, inspired directly by an album of evocative childhood photographs discovered amongst his mother’s belongings.

The album is a beautiful collection of elegaic piano-led pieces, each taking direct inspiration from individual photographs of Jonathan and his family taken in a period spanning 1970-1977; largely capturing the lakes, hills and seaside towns of his native county, but also peppered with intriguing detours to cosmopolitian Kensington and Battersea, and excursions to Hyde Park. There are woozy synths and plaintive glockenspiels that occasionally – for this listener, at least – conjure up memories of school music lessons. I asked Jonathan about the stories behind Divided Time, and his memories of the photographs that influenced the music…

Bob: How and where did you find the photos? Had they been hidden away for a long time?

Jonathan: I found them about twelve months ago. I knew my mother had lots of albums and I was really curious to go digging and see what was there. So they weren’t hidden… more like forgotten.

Do you have specific memories of any of them actually being taken?

It’s a long time ago, but some of them… yes, I clearly remember them being taken. With others, not so much – it’s more of a case of remembering the place, if not the time. Or they’ll bring back related memories.

“Carlisle to Euston Train, 1974”

I imagine they evoked particularly special memories of your parents…

Lots and lots of very happy memories. I had a very happy childhood.

They brought back memories of how different the world was back then… of trains having compartments. I clearly remember the flat in Drayson Mews, Kensington like it was yesterday, and it’s the same for the photos of the Steam Gathering in Kendal.

But sure, lots of memories of my parents too – my father died some time ago, and my mother isn’t in the best of health right now. The photo of Silloth, that’s me with my grandmother and her sister. So I’ve tried to include as much of my family as possible, that seemed really important to the whole project.

“Silloth, Promenade 1975”

There’s a lovely sense of place to some of these photos, particularly the pictures taken in Cumbria. Were visits to places like Bassenthwaite and Silloth a big part of your childhood? Can you talk us through some of the locations that inspired the album?

Sure… the opening track is inspired by a really early photo from 1970 of me looking at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a place that I’ve just kept going back to over the years. I actually have no memory of that photo, so I was surprised to find I’d been there as such a small child. Maybe that’s where my obsession with the place started.

Silloth… oh yes, the place to be as a kid. It’s an Edwardian seaside retreat that hasn’t aged well, but as a kid there was a penny arcade and donkey rides… imagine a scaled-down Morecambe or Blackpool and you’re there. Going to Silloth was a real treat. Bassenthwaite too, that was somewhere we went often, just to walk around… it’s the closest Lake. That particular photo brings back memories of an incredibly bitter winter when the lake actually froze over.

And there’s a whole batch of photos from London in 1974 and 1975, some of which I actually took myself. Those will be the wonky out of focus ones!

“Castlerigg 1970”

Where’s Cherry Woods? That’s a very evocative name.

It’s a wood close to where I grew up in Cumbria, but it’s not on any map under that name. I think that’s just what we called it… or how it had always been known to my parents’ generation. But obviously, in the world of Google Maps, it doesn’t exist under that name. Which says a lot about how digitalisation has reshaped our lives.

“Cherry Woods 1975”

For a kid growing up in Cumbria, you seemed to spend a lot of time in London in the mid-1970s. Did you have family there?

Well, I should explain… my father lived and worked in London, and my mother lived in Cumbria. So for most of our holidays we’d go to London. So yes, I spent quite a bit of time there in the 1970s, and then again in the 1980s. We’d go where he was working, so I also spent some time in New York in the late 1970s… but that’s for the next album!

For someone from a very rural background, London was just an incredible, eye-opening experience. I think I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to such a vibrant, multi-cultural experience at such a young age. There was certainly a sense of wonder… even at something as simple as a black cab or a steakhouse, these things just didn’t exist in Cumbria back then. It may sound mind-boggling, but… pizza! Pizza just was not something you could get in Cumbria, and I clearly remember thinking that I was being so exotic and grown-up, eating my first pizza in London.

It’s funny, but my other abiding memory of London is the security. This was prime IRA bombing time, and I clearly remember being searched when I was going into museums and theatres. That, and the sheer number of Hare Krishnas in robes! It’s funny what sticks in your mind.

“Hyde Park 1975”

A huge element of my childhood nostalgia is that so little of my childhood was “recorded”… I reckon there are fewer than 100 photos of me from the first 18 years of my life, and there’s no moving footage at all. Do you have similar feelings? Does this give nostalgia from the “pre-digital” era a real sense of yearning?

It’s absolutely the same for me. Maybe there are more than a hundred photos of me, as both my parents were into photography, but there are no moving images of me from that period. It’s the nature of the format as well… Polaroids, and photos that have degraded over time. I think that “fuzziness” contributes to the nostalgia factor too. Honestly, it’s like looking through a slightly oblique window into a different world. And really, it was a completely different world in so many ways.

How did you go about emulating the feel of the photos with the music on the album? Were there specific sounds, musical textures, even instruments that seemed to capture the feel of different photos? There seems to be a bit of glockenspiel on there, which reminded me of school music lessons!

Ha, school music lessons… you know, I think there was a certain element of that, at a subconscious level. I was certainly exposed to music at a very young age, I started piano lessons at about six or seven, and I also remember those “Music and Movement” sessions at junior school. I always liked the ones where the instruments came out… things like glocks and mini xylophone.

Probably 90% of these tracks started out as piano sketches, so there are a lot of different kinds of pianos deployed, from jazzy electric Rhodes and classical piano through to Hauschka influences… broken and prepared pianos. I find piano a very expressive instrument. And then the images themselves tended to suggest a tonal palette… be it synths, orchestral elements or more glitchy abstract sounds.

I’ve had a few people comment on how sad the overall feel is, which is a surprise to me as that’s not the vibe I was going for, I was aiming for more a kind of warm, fuzzy, slightly degraded vibe. A personal hauntology, if you like!

Divided Time is released on 21st June on limited edition vinyl, and via download, from the excellent, and prolific, Castles In Space label. It can already be pre-ordered here…

https://jonathansharp-cis.bandcamp.com/album/divided-time

Jonathan Sharp is @Doctorninesharp on Twitter, and you can follow The Heartwood Insitute @Heartwood9. Castles in Space is @CastlesInSpace. Thanks to Jonathan and to Colin Morrison from Castles in Space… and Divided Time will also be featured in the next Haunted Generation column to be included in the Fortean Times magazine, available on 20th June.