We’d driven along the winding, narrow roads of Salisbury Plain for at least two miles; a convoy of civilian family cars packed with camping equipment, passing countless “Unexploded Military Debris” warning signs in troubled, late summer sunshine, all of us drawn to the cluster of grey concrete bunkers that perodically peered, surreptitiously, from behind a pockmarked horizon.
This was New Zealand Farm Camp, location for the latest extraordinary Delaware Road event, and – when not playing host to a prestigious assembly of artists sharing DNA based loosely in the electronic avant-garde – a site used by the Ministry of Defence to simulate urban combat, the clump of army boots and the rattle of live ammunition echoing around its muddy trackways and fordibbing, brutalist architecture.
“What’s the book?” asked the guard at the main gate, poking diligently through the travel bag on the back seat of my car.
“It’s Suggs’ autobiography,” I replied.
“Very nice. I’ve just started Kenneth Williams’ memoirs.”
Alison Cotton began proceedings, performing a beautifully ethereal and haunting suite to an attentive crowd in the Nissen Hut that housed the event’s main stage. Stephen ‘Polypores’ Buckley and Chris ‘Concretism’ Sharp were amongst the friendly faces I spotted in attendance, and warm greetings were exchanged at the end of the set before I followed them to Bunker B1, where Colin Morrison’s Castles in Space label – home to recent releases by both – had set up camp for the evening. Stephen performed a throbbing, mesmerising Polypores set of seamless, pulsing ambience to a bustling crowd, tightly packed into this shadowy, concrete hideaway. Including Portsmouth’s own psychedelic troubador Keith Seatman, who cheerfully introduced himself and gleefully briefed me on the history of the 19th century sea forts heavily featured in the 1972 Doctor Who adventure, The Sea Devils.
The evening became a blur of music, conversation, cider and the occasional occult ritual. I paid a visit to Frances Castle, whose Clay Pipe stall was ensconced in Bunker 3, and boasted tantalising first glimpses of the artwork for two forthcoming albums: Vic Mars‘ intriguing Edgelands-influenced project Inner Roads and Outer Paths, and Alison Cotton’s Halloween release The Girl I Left Behind Me, inspired by two Muriel Spark ghost stories, and originally composed for Gideon Coe’s BBC 6 Music show. I swapped genial greetings with Push and Neil from Electronic Sound magazine, dishing out freebies from a towering pile of stylish back issues in the basement of a building where, upstairs, the ever-welcoming Robin The Fog was warmly greeting interested snoopers in the midst of a Howlround soundcheck.
It was a delight to catch the professorial figure of Sarah Angliss performing live; her album Air Loom has been one of my highlights of 2019, and she makes for an extremely engaging live performer; funny and self-deprecating, but an expert in building beguiling symphonies from samples, theramin and an ancient clavicymbalum… a medieval precursor of the harpsichord, apparently; these disparate sounds all perfectly entwined around Sarah’s soaring, crystal-clear vocals. I then squashed back into the crowds of tiny B1 to catch Jez and Polly of The Twelve Hour Foundation present a magnificent. feelgood set of John Baker-inspired radiophonica; transporting a bunker filled with grinning fortysomethings back to childhoods soundtracked by the themes to long-forgotten Open University modules and John Craven’s Newsround.
Amongst their number was the effusive Alex Cargill, whose epic debut album as The Central Office of Information is set to become Castles In Space’s debut CD release. It was a delight to meet Alex, who repaid my insistence on playing his tracks on my BBC Tees show with another pint of cider from the impromptu stall outside the main hut. The evening was becoming slightly blurry…
I enjoyed Crass founder Penny Rimbaud‘s spoken word performance on the main stage, accompanied by a plaintive, mournful cello; then found myself caught in the midst of a procession to the woods, where a circle of bemused participants were anointed with oil to the lower lips and encouraged to worship “The Spirits of Place” with a spiralling chorus of animal howls. I imagined the noise my beloved border collie, Megan, would make when I returned home the following day, and threw myself into the maelstrom accordingly. The green-faced Chris Lambert – accomplished mummer and long-term resident of The Black Meadow – was a constant presence in the series of ritual events that sparked up throughout the evening; whenever, that is, he wasn’t leaning against a bunker wall and discussing the finer points of Krull with Stephen Buckley, the pair of them entirely oblivious to the extroardinary double rainbow forming outside, seemingly bestowing its radiant, benevolent blessing on the whole, strange shebang.
Howlround’s performance – in cahoots with audio-visual artist and Psyché Tropes supremo Merkaba Macabre – was typically hypnotic, and equally typically packed, the audience nestling shoulder-to-shoulder. I had to watch from the stairs, while a succcession of vintage washing powder and detergent advertisements flickered on the bare wall behind me. And then it was back to the Castles in Space hut, where Chris Sharp presented an hour-long Concretism set, a mesmeric evocation of delicious Cold War austerity, to another attentive gathering.
Back in May, Chris spoke live on my BBC Tees show to both myself and the show’s resident electronica wizard, Kev Oyston. This seems like an appropriate moment as any to transcribe it…
Tell us a little bit about your background… when did you start making music as Concretism?
It was around 2010. If I remember, about a year before, I’d discovered Boards of Canada, and they were a massive influence on me. I’d always written music, but I got bored and despondent with it. But I remember hearing Boards of Canada, and they absolutely blew me away, and I thought… I want to make music like that. What really fascinated me was how they can evoke and create the feeling that you’ve gone back in time. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s kind of how it started, but Concretism – when it began – was quite different to how it is now. It was more of a drone project, and it wasn’t as Cold War-influenced. For the first few years, it was more inspired by things like Public Information Films, and a lot of 1970s documentaries. But for the last few years it’s gone in that Cold War direction, which is only a good thing! As a kid, and then a teenager, in the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to permeate every aspect of my childhood, and the prospect of nuclear armageddon was something I thought about every single day. Was it the same for you?
Absolutely, yeah. I remember the Star Wars programme… that’s what I think made the 1980s such a scary time, with regards to nuclear confrontation; Reagan’s stance against the Sovet Union, with the Star Wars programme being a big part of that. And then obviously Chernobyl, in 1986… and although that wasn’t nuclear war, it was still nuclear. I used to watch the news as a kid, because I was a strange child, and I remember seeing all the Chernobyl stuff and thinking “Oh my God, that’s terrifying… what if the radiation gets over here?”
And the other thing… when I was about nine or ten, my dad took me to the cinema to see When The Wind Blows, which I’m sure is not a film you should really take a nine-year-old to see.
No! I can’t believe you saw it at the cinema!
I did, and I was so depressed and upset. And to this day, I haven’t seen it since. I’ve only seen it that once. Even as an adult, I refuse to watch When The Wind Blows. I will not watch that film. It upset me so much.
I bet your dad thought he was doing a really good thing… come on Chris, it’s by the same guy who made The Snowman!
Yeah! And it’s funny, I can watchThreads… I can watch Threads a million times. I never saw it as a kid, only as an adult. And I just think it’s quite a funny film…
Oh, come ON!
No! Because the characters in Threads are a bit two-dimensional, aren’t they? You don’t really care about the characters in Threads, whereas if you watch When The Wind Blows, you really care about this old couple.
I care about the characters in Threads so much that the last time I watched it, I got half an hour in, and the feeling of impending doom was so much I had to turn it off. I didn’t want to see Reece Dinsdale die! I like Reece Dinsdale!
We all like Reece Dinsdale, honestly! But no, I can watch Threads and it doesn’t bother me at all.
Did you have any sirens close to your house? Anything that might – for example – have been mistaken for the four-minute warning?
I live quite close to the Thames, in the south of Essex. I live in the house I grew up in, I bought it from my dad, and I’ve lived here forever. And we still, to this day, have flood sirens down on the Thames, which are basically just repurposed World War Two air raid sirens. And every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, they test them… they give them one blast for about thirty seconds. So quite often, if I’m working at home and I have the window open, I’ll hear “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm….” and it’s not rising or falling, it just rises then drops down again. But it’s pretty scary. Luckily I know what it is, but if anyone was in the town and didn’t know that they test the flood sirens every week… they would soil themselves, I think!
Have I seen somewhere that there are no nuclear sirens in the UK any more? They’ve all been decommissioned?
I think, during the Cold War, a lot of stuff was repurposed. So they just used air raid sirens that had been left over from World War Two, and also bunkers… generally, they didn’t really build a lot of nuclear bunkers, they just used old World War Two bunkers, and reclaimed spaces. So there must be some kind of attack warning now, but it’s probably a text message! They had that thing in Hawaii didn’t they, about a year ago? I think it would be that. Or a WhatsApp message. Or a tweet.
I saw you in 2017, performing at the Delaware Road event in Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, the underground facility that would have housed the British government in the event of a nuclear attack. What did you make of the place?
It was pretty cool. I didn’t actually get to see much of the bunker, because it took me about an hour to set my gear up, and then I did my gig and played for just over three hours, and then my mate – who is my roadie – had to catch an early flight in the morning. So as soon as I finished, I packed all my gear up, got in the car and left! But I briefly had a very quick look around the bunker, just after I soundchecked, and what I saw of it was really impressive, and really big. And creepy… I found it very creepy. There’s something very unsettling about it, even though it was never used for real. Not helped by the fact that there are mannequins and dummies all over it!
Talk us through your album, For Concrete And Country. There are some interesting references amidst the track titles… Microwave Relay was the one that really fascinated me. Can you explain that?
It’s a reference to the Microwave Tower Network, which was codenamed “Backbone” during the Cold War. They built a lot of these big wire mesh towers, and many of them are still standing now… and some of them are concrete, too. Part of the Backbone Network was the Post Office Tower. But again, I think a lot of it was repurposed, or even used at the same time for TV and radio broadcasts. So BBC Tees might well be using mouldy old Backbone masts!
It’s more than likely…
So Microwave Relay is a reference to that Backbone Network, which would have been resilient to nuclear attack… far more so than other systems.
There’s a track called Pye Green Tower on the album too, was that part of the same network?
That was one of the towers, yeah. That one was concrete, and it’s in Staffordshire. I’ve never been to the Pye Green Tower, but it looks pretty impressive!
Given that all of this stuff traumatised us so much as a kids, why are we looking back on it with a sense of almost rose-tinted nostalgia? We’re like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen…
I think it could be the fact that nuclear war never actually happened. There’s a sort of relief, isn’t there? We can look back at these horrific things like Threads and When The Wind Blows – well not me, obviously, because I won’t watch it – with a kind of relief, as adults, that the war never happened. It would have been absolutely horrific. And it could still happen, but I think what we need to worry about more in the 21st century, going forward, is Artificial Intelligence. Which I think a lot of people are saying is a bigger threat to the future of humanity than nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t have the same cool factor, does it…?
In twenty years time, when nothing has happened, the musicians that were teenagers in 2019 can make albums about that…
Yes, there’ll be a hauntology movement about Artificial Intelligence!
From midnight onwards, Ritual and Resistance took on increasingly surreal (well, more surreal) proportions… I watched Natalie Sharp, in her Lone Taxidermist persona, perform a disturbing but captivating set, accompanied by what appeared to be two suspended human spines. And then, outside the camp’s Water Tower, I bumped into Jez and Polly of the Twelve Hour Foundation for a final time, and we whiled away the early hours by discussing the alluring qualities of their home towns; Cleethorpes and Scarborough respectively. I then capped off the evening by dancing (alongside journalist and Modern Aviation owner Will Salmon, who has some sensational moves) to a pounding DJ set by former World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, who had been an affable preseence throughout the day, and who spoke passionately to a small, assembled throng of us afterwards about his love of the Delaware Road project, and his lifelong passion for underground music and electronica.
It was 3.40am before I collapsed into my spider-infested tent beneath a rustling oak tree, but not before I’d grabbed the picture below…
As a wonderful addendum to an incredible evening… on the Sunday morning, as fragile heads were being soothed by gentle conversation and coffee, it became apparent that a fleet of vintage Routemaster buses were transporting campers to the nearby abandoned village of Imber, requisitioned by the MOD in 1943 for wartime training, and uninhabited ever since. With a long journey back to the North-East ahead of me, I uncharacteristically decided to forsake its haunted pleasures, and set off in the car… but, as three double-decker buses bobbed on the horizon ahead of me, I couldn’t resist. I followed them, and spent an hour poking around Imber’s deserted buildings and (surprisingly busy) 16th century village church, joined by blog-reader Richard – who records as Caveat Auditor – and ever-genial electronica and Early Music enthusiast Rolf, who I’d last seen in June, at 3am in Shoreditch High Street, at the climax of the State 51 Conspiracy/Ghost Box/Trunk Records Midsummer Night’s Happening.
As Steve Davis had emotionally proclaimed at the end of his wee-hours DJ set, “It’s like a big family, isn’t it?” He’s right, and I look forward – as ever – to the next gleefully dysfunctional reunion.
Thanks to Delaware Road and Buried Treasure supremo Alan Gubby for all his extraordinary efforts in making Ritual and Resistance such a memorable event… and to Alison Cotton, Colin Morrison and Andy Collins for their photos.
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…
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 Planetwas 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…
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.
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 Maleis 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.
I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but soon there were tell-tale signs: a woman with a Trunk Records tote bag slung nonchalently over one shoulder, striding purposefully along Shoreditch High Street; a brace of bearded blokes buying Wispa bars from Sainsburys, both of whom I vaguely recognised from long-ago Doctor Who conventions; and – ultimately – the mysterious gates of the state51 Conspiracy factory on Rhoda Street, sporadically and tantalisingly swinging open to allow access to the enticing “Midsummer Nights’ Happening” beyond. It was 6.30pm, Friday 21st June, and the air lay heavy with the scent of sunscreen and free-flowing beer, combined with the first opening salvo of vintage electronica from the turntables concealed within. Once inside, I was greeted cheerily in the courtyard by Ghost Box Records‘ Jim Jupp, resplendent in canvas cap, and he wasted no time in introducing me to the genial Martin Jenkins – Pye Corner Audio, to Ghost Box devotees – and his friend Darren, instructing us to help ourselves to the free bar.
Yes, that’s right, the free bar. Oh dear… this could get messy.
The hidden HQ of the delightfully clandestine state51 Conspiracy had been decorated with impeccable attention to period detail. In the “utopian glade” of Pan’s Garden, pot-bellied effigies peered knowingly from clusters of rustling foliage, the floor crackling with the crunch of unseasonal dead leaves. A rustic wooden signpost (with a font to warm the cockles of Patrick McGoohan’s incarcerated heart) directed me to the TV Chamber, where fleeting glimpses of Jack Hargreaves and Arthur C. Clarke flickered across the screens of ancient, wooden-bodied televisions. In the opposite direction, the extravagantly bearded Dan was pressing bespoke event t-shirts with what appeared to be an elaborate mangle.
In a space of a few fleeting, giddy minutes, I exchanged greetings with cheery figures who – previously – had only been known to me from e-mails, tweets, phone conversations… or even, simply, the credits on albums that I’d bought, played, loved, and treasured. Julian House, Frances Castle, Jonny Trunk, Robin The Fog and Vic Mars. João Branco Kyron from Beautify Junkyards. Colin from Castles in Space, Gavin from Spun Out of Control, Stewart from the brilliant Concrete Islands website. There was Haunted Generation reader Eamonn and his wife, who’d travelled all the way from Northern Ireland, and Rolf from Southport, who’d bought a copy of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ from me online a week earlier, and was keen to say hello. And the always ebullient Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records, who I’d last chatted to in 2017 at the concealed entrance to Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker in Essex, after the climax of his most recent, most extraordinary Delaware Road event. He was delighted to discover that the Delia Derbyshire badge that he’d given me that evening had been pinned to the lapel of my jacket ever since.
It was a delirious, surreal, gathering of the haunted clans: a cavalcade of eclectic live performance, inventive DJ sets, and magnificently fevered conversation that continued long into Saturday morning. And it conicided conveniently with the release of the latest Ghost Box Records LP, Chanctonbury Rings, a collaboration between US writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus, and Jim Jupp himself, in his customary guise as synth-prog overlord Belbury Poly. The album combines Justin’s thoughtful, beguiling spoken accounts of mystical experiences on this ancient Sussex landmark with a swirling malestrom of musical textures: gently-strummed autoharp, wistful recorders, Sharron’s floating, graceful vocals, and Ghost Box’s trademark woozy, analogue synths.
As the first live act to the take to the stage at A Midsummer Nights’ Happening, they performed Chanctonbury Rings immaculately, in its entirety, to a hugely appreciative audience. Two days earlier, I’d spoken to them both on my BBC Tees Evening show about the albums’ inspiration, and the creative process involved. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: How did the collaboration between the two of you come about? I saw you performing separately at the Folk Horror Revival event in Wakefield in 2017. That wasn’t the genesis of this, was it?
Justin: No, we’d met before that, and I think we’d even discussed
Sharron: Yes, we were already plotting by that point. I
don’t think we’d started work, but Justin had asked me if I was interested in
doing some music for some of his texts.
Justin: Yeah, the project comes from one chapter of my book, The Old Weird Albion… and your listeners will tell from the way I talk that I’m not from Middlesbrough, but in fact from Pittsburgh – the Middlesbrough of America! But I’ve written a book about my encounters on the South Downs.
So were you contemplating doing some readings from the book, and thought that a bit of accompanying music would be handy?
Justin: Yeah, me reading for fifteen or twenty minutes is not a very exciting proposition. So Sharron threw herself onto that funeral pyre, and was willing to write some music.
Sharron: It was quite the opposite, because Justin sent the text over to me, and it immediately conjured up all sorts of images. So I sat down and spent an afternoon just creating lots of musical sketches, and I was loving the things I was coming up with in response to his work. So to me, it was exciting.
I did wonder how the
collaboration had worked on a practical level, whether Justin had sent you
readings of his work for you to compose the accompanying music, or whether
you’d sent Justin music for him to fit his readings around… or a little of
Sharron: Yeah, a bit of both. He just sent me a Word
document, and I created segments of music that I thought would fit with
different bits of the text. And then, when we had the first couple of shows, I
came down to Essex and we spent the day
fitting the bits together. At that point we didn’t know if they were going to fit very well together…
but they seemed to.
Justin: And obviously there’s a little bit of goat sacrifice,
and such. We read the entrails and figure out the chord changes.
A bit of goat
sacrifice is surely an important element of any creative process…
Sharron: Related to that, but on a more serious note… we did, last Mayday, before we performed the first gig that we’d ever done, go up to Chanctonbury and perform a very stripped-down, acoustic, ritualised version of it, with some other friends reading poetry, some Morris Dancers dancing… so that was really magical, and kind of cemented the project as something that was more than jut a one-off gig.
I was going to ask a
little about Chanctonbury itself, a place I’ve never visited… can you tell us a
little bit about the site itself, is it a Bronze Age settlement?
Justin: It’s genuinely every
age. It’s certainly been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and it is a genuinely
strange place. It’s just above the village where my grandparents lived, in Sussex, so I
used to go there during my childhood. And I know some fairly serious
occultist-type people, who’ve essentially been unable to spend the night on
Chanctonbury. Because of the strange things that they hear, and indeed see.
Levitation is quite a common occurrence up there… allegedly. I’ve barely seen
that. Not with the living.
But it’s an interesting and strange place. Like I said it’s
been inhabited throughout the ages, and it’s been a worship site… it was a
Druidic site, and a Roman site, and Pagan site and a Saxon site… it’s been
I read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, in which he attempts to spend the night there, and has a very strange and scary experience.
Justin: He’s quite terrified up there, and he’s done a lot of things. It’s a fairly well-known
spot for that kind of action, and indeed for artistic response as well. It’s
been written about for hundreds of years, so I like to think we’re part of a
Sharron, was it a place
that you’d visited before starting work on this project?
Sharron: No it wasn’t, and the thing that was really interesting for me was that I was deliberately not Googling it, and not looking at photographs… I was trying to just work from Justin’s text, and to just respond to his version of the place and create this fictional musical world. And I was really interested to see, when I went there, whether it would feel like it was the same place, or if I was way off the mark. But it just… I drove through Sussex to meet Justin there, and as I was getting closer, along the Downs, I was getting this sense of familiarity, and when we actually went up Chanctonbury in the morning, it was wonderfully close to what I had imagined. That was really special for me.
Justin, there is a
fascinating part of the narrative where you suggest you saw a vision of your
late grandmother up on Chanctonbury Ring… was this based on a real experience?
Justin: Yeah… its quite funny to say in front of a bunch of people I’ve never met – your listeners – that I see my dead grandmother most times that I go up to Chanctonbury, and yet I genuinely don’t think I’m crazy or anything. But you know… there’s this experience that I think everyone has where you see these things, you encounter these things out of the corner of your eyes. You’re trying to look at them, and they’re not quite there, or not quite in focus, or not quite what you thought. And the fact that you can’t touch these things, can’t take a photograph of them or even maintain them within your field of view for more than a fraction of a second… I don’t think that makes them any less real. Memory is a haunting thing, and I think that’s what all this is about in many ways. Both haunting and belonging.
Was Chanctonbury a
place that held a deep connection for your grandmother as well, then?
Justin: Yeah, she would have gone there every week for at
least 25 or 30 years. And she took the rest of us whenever we were there.
I wanted to ask about Ghost Box Records, a label I’ve fallen in love with, and they deal with feelings that transport many of us back to our childhoods years in the 1970s, and evoke strange, disquieting memories of that era. But I don’t think they’ve really done anything like Chanctonbury Rings before, a spoken word album… how did the link to Ghost Box come about?
Justin: I met Jim Jupp when I first moved to this country – and I literally can’t remember how – but I met him and we became friends quite quickly. He worked on a project that I did called Ley Line, which was a piece I recorded with the folk singer Shirley Collins, and some artists from Pittsburgh, where I’m from. And that piece needed something extra, some production, and he worked on that.
And in a way this is like a big, grown-up, professional version
of what we started with that. We’ve got a real musician actually composing music! Instead of me saying “I think it
sould go “Woooooooooo”
Sharron: You get me going “Wooooooooo” instead!
Justin: I didn’t grow up in this country, so Sharron… was
that haunted 1970s and 80s lifestyle that Ghost Box is about part of your
Sharron: Yeah, it really was. Once of the things I’m
interested in is how there are so many haunted elements of life in this
country. Something happened in the 1970s that was more extreme, I guess we
would all say… and Ghost Box tap into that, and give us the nostalgia, but also
something richer than just harking back. They’ve created a world that certain
projects seem to fit into.
Ghost Box are like a
parallel universe version of our 1970s childhoods, filling in the bits that
we’ve forgotten, or that are missing…
Justin: It’s as though they’re fitting in the bits that you
think you’ve forgotten, but actually… they never happened! One of the things
that I would say we’ve very subtly done with this record, including with the
artwork… we talked a lot with Jim and Julian House, the designer, about having the
feel of these BBC Poetry For Schools albums from the 1960s and 70s, they’re
really interested in those, and the Topic Records compilations that came out in
the early 1970s. But my Spoken Word origins are in those Jack Kerouac and Steve
Allen albums, or Ken Nordine albums… I think of them as very Mid Western
American albums… a sort of Psychedelic Midwest. And they’ve done a really cool
job of putting those things together, so the back cover really has this beatnik
jazz poetry album feel to it, while also maintaining that psychedelic folk
I love Ken Nordine’s work. I once actually played Ken Nordine’s Colors album in its entirety on the radio, all 36 tracks over 36 consecutive shows. When I first heard Chanctonbury Rings, I thought there was a little whiff of Ken about it…
Justin: It’s all part of that surrealist Midrwestern thing…
that William Burroughs and Ken Nordine upbringing of mine. That’s lovely,
The other comparison that struck me was that of Ronald Duncan and David Cain’s notorious 1969 BBC album, The Seasons. Was that an album that you had in mind?
Sharron: For me, it wasn’t something that I’d heard when I was making the music. But it was a touchstone for Jim… he referenced that album when thinking about what we could do with the project, in terms of artwork and ideas. Had you heard it before?
Justin: I’d only barely heard it, and only through Jim. I knew it was essentially why Ghost Box thought it might be OK to put out a spoken word album. So it’s been a touchstone in terms of the production parts that Jim did… the Introduction for example, which is a Belbury Poly composition, that’s definitely of the David Cain school of music. So yeah, it was an important part of the music’s upbringing.
There are some lovely
analogue synths on there, Sharron…
Sharron: Yes, my little Korg! It does all sorts…
Justin: We’re proud of the sounds, and it’s also a beautiful slab of vinyl packaging. So even if you don’t like what you’ve hard, buy one and just put it on your wall!
Justin and Sharron’s performance at A Midsummer Night’s Happening was barely the beginning of an extraordinary evening. At 9.34pm, I texted my radio cohort Uncle Harry with the astute observation: “I’m drunk in Shoreditch, and I’m watching Jonny Trunk and Wisbey perform slow jazz versions of the themes from Bergerac and Match of the Day“. Which is pretty much what’s happening in the photograph above. Then, silhoutted before a bespoke, head-swimming film collage created by Julian House, The Soundcarriers performed an immersive set of semi-improvised psychedelia, with tantalising excerpts of their album Entropicalia – a long-standing Ghost Box favourite of mine – bleeding through. Jonny Trunk and Robin the Fog joined forces to play previously unheard recordings made by sound pioneer Basil Kirchin, with live piano accompaniment from Steve Beresford. Martin Jenkins pounded Pye Corner beats from within an all-pervading fug of dry ice and Julian and Frances and João all took to the decks, although I’m embarrassed to report that I missed Jim Jupps’ airing of The Rah Band’s 1977 classic synth-pop single The Crunch because I was outside in the balmy night air, possibly rambling a little too long (and a little too incoherently) to the admirably patient Edd Gibson from Friendly Fires about my love of his collaboration with the enigmatic Jon Brooks’ on the Pattern Forms album, Peel Away The Ivy.
As Friday became Saturday, and as indoors performance became outdoors mingling, the night air was filled with the promise of newly-forged alliances (“Let’s do something together! What’s your number?”) and enthused reminsicing. My last recollection is getting a little too noisily excited about the work of the 1960s Barrow Poets with Jim, and – as he pulled out his phone to find a Youtube clip – noticing it was 2.47am. Rolf and I left together and wandered into the night, looking for taxis in opposite directions. Shoreditch High Street was still awash with light and noise, but nowhere in any of the surrounding bars did I see flickering footage of Pan’s People or hear the lilting refrain of the theme from Bergerac. A unique and captivating happening indeed.
Thanks to the state51 Conspiracy, Ghost Box Records, Trunk Records and everyone involved for a truly special event… and to Justin and Sharron for the radio chat. ‘Happening’ photos of Pan, Justin and Sharron, Jonny Trunk and Wisbey, and Julian House are all by Lois Gray. The Haunted Generation blog would like to clarify that it does not, in reality, endorse goat sacrifice as part of the creative process.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the inaugural column, from issue 379, dated May 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
Are you craving the oddly warm reassurance of 1980s Cold War paranoia? Is it impossible for you to walk past an electrical substation without recalling crackly Public Information Films, and 16-year-old Jimmy’s stray frisbee wedged into a tower of humming transformers? Do you still feel mild disquiet at the sight of the faceless Edwardian children in the opening titles of Bagpuss? Chances are, you’re one of the ‘Haunted Generation’. The article that I wrote for the FT in 2017 (FT 354:30-37) resulted in an overwhelming reaction from readers keen to share their own recollections of growing up in the “creepy” era; that loose 1965-85 sprawl of inappropriate childrens’ television, radiophonic music, and the vague disquiet of an older, grottier Britain. So I’m delighted to have this opportunity to provide updates on the work of some of the artists, writers and musicians who contributed to that feature, and others whose creativity has been similarly fuelled by the potency of their childhood memories.
Frances Castle, whose evocative artwork adorns the covers of releases on her own Clay Pipe Music label, has just completed the first instalment of her debut graphic novel Stagdale. Set in 1975, it sees 12-year-old Kathy and her recently divorced mother beginning a new life in the titular village, where the discovery of a 1938 diary written by Max, a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, puts Kathy on the trail of long-lost Saxon treasure. “It’s a little bit inspired by programmes like Children of the Stones,” says Frances, doubtless striking a chord with many who recall this creepy 1977 HTV series, and Stagdale certainly boasts a similar ambience of muted, rustic disquiet. The novel can be ordered from claypipemusic.com, and is accompanied by a wistful EP from Frances’ musical alter ego, The Hardy Tree.
Fans of vintage electronica have cause to be excited too, as a new interpretation of a lost work by Delia Derbyshire sees the light of day, on the Buried Treasure label. Delia is rightly revered for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including her pioneering 1963 arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. By the 1990s, she had become somewhat reclusive, but still befriended musician Drew Mulholland (aka Mount Vernon Arts Lab, whose 2001 album The Séance At Hobs Lane is a Quatermass-inspired riot of gothic radiophonica) and presented him with a late 1960s score of original, unrecorded music, giving her blessing to a new interpretation. The result, Three Antennas In A Quarry, is a 12-track collection of dark, ambient soundscapes. The album is available to download from https://buriedtreasure.bandcamp.com/album/three-antennas-in-a-quarry
And those keen to combine their retro electronica with a journey into one of the stranger corners of the English countryside should head to Wiltshire on 17th August, where Buried Treasure overlord Alan Gubby is staging Delaware Road: Ritual and Resistance… ten hours of music, theatre and film inside a secret military base, close to Stonehenge. He has previous form in this department: in 2017, I attended a similar shindig, held deep underground at the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex. Here, artists including Concretism and the Twelve Hour Foundation provided live soundtracks to a surreal evening of Cold War disquiet and rather intense mummery. This year’s celebration is headlined by the founder of Crass (and, indeed, the 1972 Stonehenge Free Festival) Penny Rimbaud, and tickets are available from www.thedelawareroad.com.
It could be quite a summer for mass, organised hauntedness, as I’m also hearing whispers of an exciting event to accompany the next release from Ghost Box Records. The Chanctonbury Rings album, out in June, sees writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus and Ghost Box’s own Jim Jupp (aka Belbury Poly) teaming up to take musical inspiration from Justin’s excellent 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, a psychogeographical ramble through the South Downs. It’s a project that Jim tantalisingly promises will be “reminiscent of a 1960s or 1970s music and poetry for schools LP”, and the record will be launched at a Ghost Box event in Shoreditch. Details should be “available by the time you read this”, says Jim, wryly! www.ghostbox.co.uk is the place to keep checking.
(NB Since this article was published, the event has sold out… but look out for a full report on the blog at the end of June…)
To finish off, those intrigued by the recent news that one of artist Richard Littler’s spoof Scarfolk posters (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly alongside genuine Goverment posters from the last 100 years (FT 377:8), will be delighted to learn that a Scarfolk annual is on the way… and is available to pre-order now. Richard’s online evocation of a dystopian North-Western town, all pagan rituals and pylons, provides an immaculately distilled essence of 1970s childhood unsettlement, and encapsulates perfectly those vague, murky feelings of being warned about deadly contagions in your primary school hall.
Issue 380 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 381, available from 20th June.
I’m six years old, it’s a breezy summers afternoon in 1979, and I’m walking through the long, scratchy grass of a slippery North Yorkshire riverbank when my dad, ever the amateur historian (well, he has a O Level) spies an outcrop of pale, rectangular concrete, jutting at an unlikely angle from a nearby hillside.
“See that little building? Do you know what that is?”
“Yes…” (I’m lying, of course, but no self-respecting six-year-old wants to demonstrate weakness in the face of his dad’s omniscience)
“Stop fibbing… it’s a pillbox. It’s where we waited during the war for the German soldiers to come…”
My dad, born in 1939, may have been somewhat embellishing his own experiences of wartime service (and the prospect of a land invasion of Yarm), but he was nevertheless right about this evocative relic of civil defence. The concrete wartime pillbox, scarred and overgrown, was a direct and tangible link to an era of history that, in 1970s Britain, still felt remarkably raw. So pervasive was the spectre of “the war” during my childhood that – as a very small boy – I remember being vaguely unsure as to whether it was still being fought. The comic racks in Mr Murray’s newsagents were filled with titles like Victor and Commando; still-youthful relatives would talk of wartime memories that felt disconcertingly fresh (my Mum, only 37 in 1979, recalls tanks rumbling through Middlesbrough town centre) and my enthusiastic schoolfriends honed their artistic talents incorporating divebombing Spitfires into felt-tip recreations of the battle scenes from Star Wars.
Our local landscape bore the scars of war, too… tangled woods concealed the remains of moss-covered gun emplacements; rolling moors were pockmarked with the craters of German bombs that hadn’t quite made it to their targets amidst the industrial heartland of Teesside; and those musty pillboxes were dotted around the fringes of my home town like vigilant, concrete sentinels.
The lingering impact of the Second World War on the childhood experience of the 1970s forms an integral part of Frances Castle’s beautiful new graphic novel Stagdale. Set during the stifling summer of 1975, it sees timid, 12-year-old Kathy and her recently-divorced mother making a fresh start in the titular village, a vaguely unsettling rural outpost stuck in a disqueting torpor. It’s a community that boasts a Norman church, an annual medieval hunting ritual, and an ancient, chalk stag carved into the looming hillside, dominating the nestling huddle of tumbledown cottages below. The book captures perfectly the insularity of the textbook “creepy village”, redolent of so much classic childrens’ television of the era… as well as the suffocating stillness and silence of a 1970s school holiday. “Stagdale folk don’t tend to travel far,” admits Kathy’s new friend Joe, as the duo tramp aimlessly through a sun-dappled churchyard bristling with familiar village surnames. It’s a languid, leisurely tale, liberally dotted with totems of the era: toy Wombles, racks of Texan bars, scary, violent summer thunderstorms and a tiny museum of corn dollies and Bellarmine witch-bottles… a location in which Kathy learns for the first time the wartime story that drives the book towards a tantalising twist: the discovery of a 1938 diary behind the skirting board of her new bedroom.
I spoke to Frances Castle about Stagdale, and her record label Clay Pipe, for my evening radio show on BBC Tees. This is the conversation…
Bob: Congratulations on Stagdale… it’s a beautiful piece of work, and clearly a labour of love. How long has it taken you?
Frances: I’ve probably been working on it for about seven years. It’s taken many different forms over that period, and it finally came together around the end of last year. It started initially as a couple of short, graphic stories that were seen by a childrens’ publisher, and they were interested in me coming up with an idea for a book. They came up with a story that involved a diary being found in an attic, and then I went away and came back with the basic story of Stagdale. Which they seemed to like… but they wanted the main character to be an American boy.
So that’s how it started, and I came up with a few spreads and some ideas, but nothing came of it really, and they kind of lost interest. And then I thought “Well, I’m going to carry on with this… but I’m going to change it in way that appeals to me.”
Was it a nice thing to have it come back into your control?
Completely. Suddenly the main character became a character that I could relate to, and had more experience of, and it became something that was more personal. I then became so busy with other illustration jobs that I couldn’t do anything with it for a long time… but if I ever had a little bit of spare time, I worked on it. And then I went through a period last year of not being very busy, so I just picked it up, and ended up getting as far as I’ve got… which is the first part of the story.
Yes, this is very much Part One of Stagdale… how many parts will there be?
Probably four or five, I think.
The main character in the book is a 12-year-old girl called Kathy… and you said that she was a character you could relate to. So was she based in any way on yourself, at that age?
Possibly… (laughs!) It could be! The original publishers wanted a boy, because girls will read stories about boys, but a lot of boys won’t read stories about girls. And they wanted him to be American so – if they sold the book to America – American readers could relate to it. So that wasn’t so easy to relate to for me, but bringing a girl into it… as soon as I made that decision, it made things a lot easier. And I felt a lot more at home with the story.
It’s got a similarly creepy atmosphere to so many classic childrens’ TV series of the 1970s… and we’ve chatted over e-mails about programmes like Children of the Stones. Was it that kind of feel that you had in mind when you were working on Stagdale?
Very, very much so. At that point, a lot of those 1970s shows had been re-released on DVD, so they were quite easy to watch again. And obviously I remember watching them on TV as a child, but watching them again as an adult… well, they couldn’t help but be an influence, really.
There’s something about the TV of that era that’s incredibly evocative, isn’t there? Sometimes I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what…
I know, and I wanted to bring that into the story. The eeriness, the slight strangeness… I wanted that to be part of it.
There’s one frame in there that really transported me, and it’s a silly little thing… but there’s a scene in the village shop, with a depiction of the sweet racks, and there are Marathon and Texan bars for sale!
I know! There’s going to throw some younger people, isn’t it? They’re not going to understand…
So tell us a little bit about where the story goes… it’s about a girl called Kathy, who comes to live in the slightly creepy village of Stagdale, and discovers something intriguing…
Yes, Kathy finds an old tin with a diary in it, and the diary has been written by a boy who lived in the same house during the Second World War. Basically, he’s a Jewish boy who has come over from Germany just before the war, on the Kindertransport. So these two children have a similar experience of the village, in that they’re both outsiders. And then there’s a jewel that’s goes missing, and the German boy is accused of taking it… and it’s become almost part of the folklore of the village that it was stolen by him during the war. But that isn’t really what happened, and finding out what did happen is the main part of the story.
So there’s a connection between Kathy and the German boy, across forty years of history?
Yes. It’s one of those classic stories of an outsider going into a very rural, small-minded place, where the villagers are slightly odd and creepy. And they both have that similar experience, over different times.
I wanted to ask a little bit about Clay Pipe Music, too. This is your record label, and you’re releasing Stagdale through it… tell us a little bit about the label. When was it founded?
The label started at the end of 2011. I’d made music over the years, but I hadn’t done anything for a long time. But I made a record [The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath, by Frances’ musical alter-ego, The Hardy Tree] and thought “I wonder what I’ll do… I’ll maybe put it out myself”. I’d had music out on other labels way back, but that was pre-internet, and pre-MP3 downloads. So I thought I’d do it myself this time, and that’s how I started. I did a CD and, being an illustrator, thought I would use it as an excuse for some hand-made stuff…and so I hand-printed all the covers. I think it started off quite slow… and then Jarvis Cocker played it on his 6 Music show, and sales went through the roof!
That helped, and I thought “Oooh… I’d like to do something else”‘. So the next record I put out was by Michael Tanner, called Thalassing, and that also did well… and things slowly started building up. And around about the time of the first Jon Brooks album Shapwick – which initially came out on CD – I swapped over to doing vinyl. I’d reached a point with the CDs where I was hand-making them all, and I could do about 200 at a time, but they were selling out so quickly that I really needed to be able to make more. And vinyl seemed to be the best way for me to do that, and that was the right decision to make. Totally.
Clay Pipe is very much about music and art going hand in hand, and I guess there’s not a lot you can do with a small CD sleeve… but with a vinyl sleeve, my word. You’ve made some beautiful packages.
Exactly, it’s just the perfect size and format to design for, and people pay attention to it, too… they’ll sit and look at it, and listen to the music. It’s just a perfect vehicle for illustration and design.
One of the things I love about Clay Pipe is that the artwork can be as evocative as the music itself… do you work hand-in-hand with the musicians, and consult on any ideas that they might have for the packaging?
Yes, exactly. It’s very much a collaborative thing. Although it varies… some people are happy to let me get on with it, some people come with their own ideas, and some people don’t like my initial ideas! But it’s always worked out, every time.
And is there an ethos to Clay Pipe? Landscape and place seems very important to you…
Yes, pretty much… I don’t just put out collections of random songs, the album has to work as a whole, and there has to be some sort of theme to it, some sort of connection… and yes, landscape has played a big part in it, and place. I think I’m just naturally attracted to music that has that anyway, so that’s always been part of the label, and I think it’ll continue to be.
Hello… my name is Bob Fischer, and my 1970s childhood was imbued with an odd sense of melancholy and a vague, unsettling disquiet. Hoorah! These were feelings that I vainly attempted to describe, evoke and recapture for decades, until I realised that a generation of musicians, artists and writers were already – rather conveniently – doing the job for me. If you’re reading this, then it’s likely you’re familiar with the world of “hauntology” – of Ghost Box Records and Scarfolk Council and Boards of Canada – but if not, then that’s fine. I’d be delighted for this blog to act as a gentle introduction.
In 2017, after years of blissful immersion in the whole movement, I wrote a heartfelt feature about my experiences for the Fortean Times magazine, an article simply entitled “The Haunted Generation”. It had a lovely reception, and I was delighted when the magazine’s editor, David Sutton, offered me the opportunity to update readers on this ever-expanding scene on a bi-monthly basis. The first regular “Haunted Generation” column appeared in issue No. 379, dated May 2019.
I’ve decided to launch this blog as an accompaniment to the column… to expand on some of the printed articles, as well as providing additional material in its own right. So welcome along! I’d be delighted to swap thoughts and memories with anyone who finds this whole movement similarly beguiling.
To start us off, here’s the original “Haunted Generation” article, as published in the Fortean Times No. 354, dated June 2017.
Bob Fischer discovers how the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water has inspired a generation to creativity, and ponders the future of popular hauntology…
There are four of them, blank-faced children in old-fashioned pinafores, standing at the end of the street, staring back at me. They could be Edwardian; it’s difficult to tell. Time is standing still here. The world has suddenly become fuzzy, vague, and sepia-tinted, and I’m filled with an overwhelming and inexplicable feeling of strange, melancholy disquiet.
They are, of course, the four children in the opening titles to Bagpuss. It’s 1977, I’m four years old, and I’m watching Oliver Postgate’s immortal childrens’ television programme in our shadowy, brown front room, clutching a mug of warm milk before the dancing flames of a roaring coal fire. At the time, I find it hard to put my feelings into words. Four decades on, I can try: the programme makes me feel both simultaneously reassured and unsettled. It’s filled with old things, lost things, tatty puppets and sadness; folk tales, ships in bottles, abandoned toys and long-ago kings. It’s like television made by the ghosts of those Edwardian children themselves. It makes me feel, for want of a better word, haunted.
This wasn’t just a feeling that I got from Bagpuss; it seemed to pervade much of my 1970s childhood. And it’s a feeling that I tried to describe, emulate and recapture for over twenty years, without success. Until, in the late 1990s, I heard a piece of music that so transported me back to that formative era of cosy wrongness that my 25-year-old self sat down in my childhood bedroom and gently wept. It was an instrumental track called Roygbiv on the 1998 album Music Has The Rights To Children, the debut release by Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada. I’m listening to it again as I write this, and it still makes me shiver. Woozy, vintage synths pick out a melody straight from some long-lost BBC Programmes for Schools and Colleges module, while the spectral voice of a child repeats some indistinct playground holler, possibly played backwards on a loop. I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t really matter – the effect on me was profound. At last, I thought. Somebody understands my haunted, 1970s childhood. Somebody else has experienced those same feelings of lost, hazy disquiet; of watching Children of the Stones on listless February afternoons and worrying about the ghosts that live in my Grandma’s bedroom.
I wasn’t alone. Writer and graphic designer Richard Littler heard the call, too. “We’re like the guy in Close Encounters…” he tells me. “You think that no-one can understand what you’re talking about, but then you find all of these people that have had the same vision. My first feeling came from Boards of Canada too, and I remember when I first heard Music Has The Rights To Children, I couldn’t believe that they’d caught a mood that was so specific”.
“At that point they seemed like a one-off”, says music journalist and author Simon Reynolds. “There was another artist at that time that I loved called Position Normal, but I never really connected the two in my mind, it was only later that I thought, actually… these are the ancestors of Ghost Box. They both had the same effect on me, which was this almost involuntary feeling of being transported through time and assailed by these images; my mind being flooded with images of the past.”
And Ghost Box? In 2005, musicians Jim Jupp and Julian House founded Ghost Box Records; not merely a label dedicated to the musical expression of these fuzzy, disquieted memories, but also, effectively, a support group for the now middle-aged children still affected by them. Ghost Box is – according to the label’s own website – home to “a group of artists exploring the musical history of a parallel world”, and that parallel world is Belbury, an eerie English village straight out of a John Wyndham novel, seemingly stuck in a perpetually unsettling 1970s of analogue synths, otherworldly children and unspeakable Pagan rituals conducted in the shadows of pylons. From this fictional outpost of oddness, Jupp makes music as spooky prog-tinged outfit Belbury Poly; House presents evocative psychedelic sound collages as The Focus Group; and early recruit Jon Brooks – recording as The Advisory Circle – has created entire albums inspired by the terrifying, authoritarian feel of vintage Public Information Films.
“Television from that era is the big touchstone for us,” Jim tells me, “and those eerie moments, for me, came largely through Programmes for School and Colleges. As a kid, I spent a lot of time off school because I had pollen-related asthma. So I would sit around indoors watching Programmes For Schools and Colleges, and loving the ident music between the programmes. There was also something in the look of television from that era… the touchstone film for us would be Penda’s Fen. It’s the way that the landscape has that grainy, 1970s TV look… it was there in all the location stuff on Play For Today. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there’s something in the television images of that period that’s just not right. It’s kind of otherworldly.”
Sharing an ethos (and the occasional artist) with Ghost Box is the newer label Clay Pipe, founded in 2011 by artist and musician Frances Castle, whose taste in vintage television is strikingly similar. “Penda’s Fan is the ultimate,” she says. “That, to me, is very evocative of that time, and of childhood. It’s very pastoral, and very eerie.” Frances too cites the fuzzy, grainy look of archive TV presentation as a major contributory factor to this sense of childhood disquiet: “Everything was seen or heard through a slight hiss; the TV would go in and out of focus, and that added to it. We’re so used now to everything being crystal clear, but in those days it just wasn’t. And obviously there were the programmes, too… The Tomorrow People I loved, The Changes I loved, all those sorts of things. They created an atmosphere, and a sense of unease.”
Long seen as a lost, holy grail for lovers of archive weirdness, Penda’s Fen was produced by the BBC as a 1974 Play For Today, telling the story of tormented gay teenager Stephen Franklin, whose emerging sexuality is at odds with his rigidly unswerving – and largely self-imposed – Christian and political beliefs. His internal torment manifests itself as a series of supernatural visitations amidst the rolling hills of Worcestershire; he is set upon by angels and demons, by the ghost of Edward Elgar, and by King Penda himself; the 7th Century King of Mercia, and the last of Britain’s great Pagan warrior-kings. It’s a long way from Bagpuss, but the range of disquieting television cited as influences by this “haunted generation” of the 1970s comfortably spans the gamut from pre-school whimsy to full-on adult weirdness. Jim Jupp claims the opening titles of Granada TV’s schools’ programme Picture Box, with their gently rotating jewellery casket and discordant waltz, as “the central image we had in mind when we came up with the name and the mood of the label.” And somewhere in-between lies Frances’ beloved The Changes, broadcast by the BBC in 1975, depicting the post-apocalyptic rural nightmare of a Britain that has inexplicably and involuntarily smashed up every single item of technology and machinery, at the behest of a mysterious, all-pervading klaxon.
Another kindred spirit – and occasional Ghost Box collaborator – is archivist and fellow record label-owner Jonny Trunk, whose Trunk Records was founded in the mid-1990s, with the long-lost soundtrack to seminal 1971 British horror film The Wicker Man amongst its earliest releases. While the Ghost Box and Clay Pipe rosters have thrown themselves into creating new sounds, Trunk has concentrated more on the unearthing of original, lost audio artefacts from the original “haunted” era. The label’s catalogue of reissues is a treasure trove of vintage strangeness, encompassing the gentle soundtracks to Ivor the Engine and Fingerbobs; the disquieting electronica of Doctor Who and Hammer Horror composer Tristram Cary, and the extraordinary Classroom Projects, a collection of – frankly – disturbing, avant-garde music recorded by school orchestras and choirs throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
But it’s Trunk’s reissue of 1969 album The Seasons that has provided discerning listeners with perhaps the seminal audio example of school-age wrongness from this era; marrying the poetry of Ronald Duncan to the abrasively harsh electronic soundscapes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s David Cain. The imagery is vivid, stark and frequently unsettling…
Like severed hands the wet leaves lie Flat on the deserted avenue; Houses like skulls stare through uncurtained windows
…and anyone born much later than 1980 may find it incomprehensible that this resolutely leftfield concoction was initially released on BBC Records as part of the BBC Schools Radio service’s Drama Workshop series, intended to be played in primary school halls to inspire tiny children to creative dancing. “The Seasons is very much me, in a hall with a kind of parquet wooden floor and a big speaker,” says Jonny Trunk, “with a bunch of kids wearing non-marking plimsolls, listening to it and following the instructions. Music, Movement and Mime.
“It’s almost bordering on the offensive. But if you’re young, and you’re told to improvise, and think about the music and the words, and dance and act along to them, then it sounds completely normal. It’s like a hardcore childrens’ education LP. It’s hard. And that was the norm. It’s definitely a touchstone for a lot of people, that record.”
This institutionalised presentation of the utterly otherworldly to impressionable children, was – according to Trunk – an important contributory factor to our collective haunted childhoods. “It was good to have a bit of avant-garde in your life, as well as some of these controversial subject matters,” he says. “What we have now is oddly vanilla; what you’re allowed to see and what you’re allowed to hear is governed and over-thought. There wasn’t any of that in the 1970s.”
“I guess people were far less squeamish about these things,” agrees Ghost Box’s Jim Jupp. “When I was a kid, I remember having a Puffin anthology of horror stories called The House of the Nightmare, which I read when I was seven or eight. It was given to me as a Christmas present. And it was terrifying… it had old stories by M.R. James and Saki, as well as contemporary tales from the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t a problem for kids to have that stuff. It did leave a lasting impression on me… obviously! Things weren’t so mediated and categorised.”
Also left with a lasting impression was writer and graphic designer Richard Littler, whose “Scarfolk” project began life as an online blog, but – in 2014 – was picked up by publishers Ebury Press and turned into an acclaimed book, Discovering Scarfolk. Like the musical releases of Ghost Box, Scarfolk takes place in a fictional, parallel universe: the grim, North-Western town of the title. But its vision of the 1970s is considerably darker; with Littler’s unerringly accurate spoof book covers and mock government-issue pamphlets evoking the dystopia of an utterly unfeeling, authoritarian society. Scarfolk is the home of Pelican Science Books’ informative title How To Wash A Child’s Brain, the popular instruction manual Practical Witchcraft Today – How To Hurt People, SG Games’ Junior Taxidermy Kit, and SBC Cassettes’ 1973 best-seller Illicit Recordings of You and Your Neighbours.
“When I was a kid, I suffered from really bad night terrors,” admits Richard, “and they cast an almost trippy haze over my normal life; because when you’re three, four and five years old, you just don’t know the difference. And the most mundane things could trigger it; I remember the Ladybird book The Gingerbread Man scaring the life out me, because people were chasing him to eat him. Things like that were just horrific.
“I think I was a big baby, actually. Everything terrified me. And because of this strange, dreamy way that I had of seeing the world, things became blurred. And it didn’t help that I was being shown videos about being burned by fireworks, and that my parents were buying me books about horror… it was the 1970s, so I had Dracula and Frankenstein books. And I think it all just somehow merged. Very literally with something like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water Public Information Film, where you have Death standing on the riverbank, drowning children.”
This 90-second film, produced in 1973 by the gloriously Orwellian-sounding Central Office of Information, has become an iconic symbol of this generation’s lingering trauma. A hooded Grim Reaper figure, his face unseen in monastical robe and cowl, drifts along the periphery of litter-filled pools and flooded building sites, claiming the souls of drowned children, their flared jeans and hooded anoraks sinking beneath the surfaces of brown, poisoned water: “This branch is weak, rotten… it’ll never take his weight,” it hisses gleefully, in the unmistakeable tones of Donald Pleasence. And Richard is far from alone in seeing this amalgamation of the everyday and the terrifyingly supernatural as a defining characteristic of the decade. The 1970s has always struck me as a deliciously credulous era, when reported hauntings would be treated as semi-serious news items on regional TV programmes, when the works of Erich Von Daniken would be slotted onto suburban bookshelves alongside the latest Jilly Cooper, and when documentary series like Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World would wantonly traumatise a generation of primetime ITV viewers.
“From Ghost Box’s point of view, this is what really interests us in that period,” says Jim Jupp. “We don’t have a firm belief in anything… it’s a Fortean standpoint! But what’s interesting about that period is that you could believe in this stuff, and that that belief was less open to question. Especially as a kid, it seemed almost like… ‘well, it’s probably a fact that there are UFOs in the sky… or that there are ghosts.’ A fairly sensible newspaper might cover a ghost story… or something like the Loch Ness Monster, which would flare up every few years. It wouldn’t seem that unusual, it would seem just like news.”
So is this loose collection of musicians, writers and artists a bona fide aesthetic movement? Well, in the last decade, it has drawn in an substantial number of contributors and followers, and – since 2006 – has had a widely recognised name: hauntology. Appropriated from the writings of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who coined it in 1993 to describe the spectre of Marxism looming over post-Cold War Europe, its use in the context of the retro-spooky movement seems to have come largely from journalist Simon Reynolds. “I think a bunch of us started using the word”, he tells me. “Mark Fisher was one of the other main writers, in his blog k-punk and in pieces for various magazines… so it was kind of a joint project. I think I might have proposed it as a genre name on my blog…‘We’ve got to call this something!’
“It has all these associations with Jacques Derrida, which are interesting, and I read his book about hauntology… but it doesn’t really apply here. I just like the word, because ‘haunt’ obviously deals with ghosts and the idea that memories linger and creep into your thoughts without you having any control over them. And ‘-ology’ has this idea of science and lab coats and people experimenting. There was a sort of faux-scientific aura about some of the stuff that Ghost Box was doing; the imagery was to do with science and planning and technocratic, bureaucratic order. So the combination of the ‘-ology’ and the ‘ghosts’… I like that clash of the two things.”
Richard Littler, however, does see a vague lineage stretching back to Derrida’s work. “Obviously popular hauntology doesn’t have much to do with Derrida’s idea about the ghost of communism haunting the present. But I think certain aspects of that are reflected in it. Particularly the idea of the ‘dream of the future’, where we were all going to be living in houses that looked like they were designed by [James Bond set designer] Ken Adam, and we’d all be heading to the moon. That dream of the perfect, utopian future that we were all aiming for… well, it never happened. When we were kids, there were so many books on how we would be living in the year 2000. But have you seen any recent books or TV programmes predicting a utopian future? They don’t exist any more. Basically, we’ve realised that it’s foolish to try and guess how good the future is going to be… because it’s going to be shit!”
But it isn’t all supernatural trauma and failed utopias. Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe label releases albums and artwork with a more bucolic feel; redolent of a 1970s childhood inspired more by The Famous Five than The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, but still with an undercurrent of lost, haunted melancholy. Early releases included the beautiful Tyneham House, an anonymously-created concept album whose folky, flute-infused passages are a wistful tribute to the titular Dorset village, requisitioned by the War Office in 1943 and deserted ever since. “I think it’s influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation, that album,” Frances tells me. “It’s a brilliant record.”
So too are Shapwick and 52, a brace of evocative ambient albums recorded for Clay Pipe by Ghost Box regular Jon Brooks. “52 is very much an album about his childhood, in quite an abstract way,” says Frances. “When I first spoke to him about it, he was trying to create the sound of lichen in his grandmother’s garden pond! And when I heard it, I thought ‘Yes, that’s it… that sounds like lichen!’ So I think it’s quite a personal album, but he’s so good at what he does, that it’s something everything can relate to.”
Shapwick, meanwhile, tells the story of an epiphanic car journey undertaken by Brooks one autumnal evening in 2011, veering away from a gridlocked motorway to find unexpected inspiration amongst the twilit country lanes of Somerset. “We headed through several miles of unlit roads, with nothing but gnarled trees and woodland either side, the car headlights suggesting the twists and turns ahead,” Brooks himself wrote in the album’s press release. “I felt a certain energy around the place…” Recorded on hissing analogue cassettes, the album’s elegiac piano pieces, woozy synths and tinkling music boxes create a dreamlike atmosphere of almost overpowering melancholy.
This gentler, more rural school of disquiet has also brought Jonny Trunk under its mystical spell, and Trunk Records’ 2006 compilation Fuzzy Felt Folk collected 15 long-forgotten recordings of vaguely eerie, but utterly entrancing, childrens’ folk songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of them intended for use in school hall Music and Movement lessons. Between softly plucked guitars and hooting ocarinas, we hear the Barbara Moore Singers harmonising softly around the more whimsical end of British folklore (“Down amongst the daises in the glen, lives a little elf called John…”) and Irish actor Christopher Casson issuing dire warnings amidst a sea of folky wrongness; ‘My mother said that I never should, play with the gypsies in the wood. If I did, she would say, naughty girl to disobey…” (he chants, in a rich, male baritone)
“The whole Fuzzy Felt Folk thing is very much harking back to things like Play School,” Jonny tells me. “It wasn’t normal, that telly. You had these weird rag dolls, and Toni Arthur… this woman who was quite spooky, making albums around the same time called Hearken to the Witches Rune!”
So when did this all start? Was there a distinct beginning and an end for the “haunted” era? “For me,” says Richard Littler, “if we want to talk about hauntology and that kind of odd, underlying unease, I think it starts with The Beatles. In 1967, you had Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, both of which were about that particular generation harking back to the generation of their parents and grandparents. So there was a lot of Victoriana… Sgt Pepper is a Music Hall act, essentially. What they did was to look back, and – in the same way that myself and Ghost Box have done with the 1970s – mix it with a modern sensibility. Which at that point, was psychedelia, so you have all of this history clashing together in the same artistic artefacts. And if you’re harking back to Victoriana, it’s inevitable that you’re going to hit the Spiritualist Movement, so you’re going to have séances and ectoplasm, and that filtered through… to things like The Ghosts of Motley Halland Rentaghost.
“And it goes to Threads, in about 1984-ish. After that, the culture turns to money.”
Jonny Trunk, however, thinks the origins of the era go back further: “I think you can see it earlier,” he says. “In Quatermass, and in a lot of early science-fiction, in late 1950s and early 1960s British experimental film-making. And the more you dig around, the weirder it gets. There were a of lot avant-garde music-makers around the UK in the late 1950s, and their music would have been creeping into radio broadcasts in the 1960s”.
Frances Castle also takes inspiration from a pre-psychedelic generation of British artists. Clay Pipe Music’s releases are accompanied by Castle’s own distinctive artwork, and although the imagery is frequently redolent of Richard Littler’s feared Ladybird Books, a mainstay of every primary school’s library, Frances herself cites earlier influences: “The stuff that I’ve been inspired by was pre-1970s, and I’ve looked at a lot of print-makers from an earlier generation,” she says. “But a lot of those books were still around during our childhoods… those school book covers, printed with very limited colour palettes. British artists of an earlier generation had that weird atmosphere to their paintings and pictures. People like [early 20th century artist] Eric Ravilious had a hauntedness to their work”. She does, however, concur with Richard Littler’s pinpointing of the end of the ‘haunted’ era: “I think it goes away when the digital age arrives, and everything becomes very crisp and clean. So I guess the early to mid 1980s.”
One curious aspect of the phenomenon is that not everyone gets it. Throughout the decades that I spent attempting to articulate these memories to my contemporaries, I was frequently met with bafflement, and for the majority of 1970s children, the decade seems to be remembered as an era of boundless fun, of endless summers spent bouncing on Space Hoppers while listening to the Bay City Rollers. I have these memories too, but when I ramble about the sense of ill-defined ‘wrongness’ I got from watching Bagpuss, I am sometimes accused of adult revisionism, of retrospectively applying haunted qualities to experiences that I found perfectly normal at the time. But I maintain that I absolutely remember experiencing these feelings as a child, and I asked Jonny Trunk if he thought it possibly took a certain type of youngster to appreciate them. “Totally,” he replied. “If it affected everybody, we’d all be millionaires. Because everyone would say ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to have every single record, because it reminds me of all the spooky stuff!’ You were either open to it, or you didn’t take any notice of it.
“I think there probably is a certain type of child,” agrees Richard Littler, “I’ve a feeling that if I asked my sister, who is only two years younger than me, whether she responds to these things in the same way… I don’t think she would. I meet people who grew up in the 1970s, and they remember Abba. But I remember Top Trumps Decapitation Cards. The Horror Cards, every single one was a decapitation! I remember Abba as well, but they were cast in the light of all this horror.”
I’ve used words like “fuzzy”, “vague” and “nebulous” repeatedly throughout this article, and it’s hard not to speculate whether the generation that grew up before the technological watershed of the 1980s might be amongst the last to remember their childhoods in this fractured, dreamlike fashion… simply because we were the last “analogue” generation, reaching adulthood before the era when our everyday lives – and the popular culture we consume – were able to be constantly, digitally recorded and archived. I’d estimate that, during the first sixteen years of my life, fewer than 100 clear photographs were taken of me; many of them now faded and orange-tinted, stored in musty albums in a battered, brown suitcase in the loft. No moving footage of me exists from before 1990, when I was seventeen years old. And many of the most profoundly affecting television experiences of my childhood were viewed once, forty years ago, in an era when I had no means of recording them, and no expectation that I would ever see them again.
Much of popular hauntology has a yearning quality, and I wondered whether the movement was, at least partially, an attempt to rationalise (and fill in the blanks of) a collective childhood that has become a delicious, jumbled mish-mash of fleeting memories; inaccessible and unverifiable. And whether the modern childhood; where everything is recorded and accessible in pristine quality; where a thousand school bus journeys are documented on Facebook every day; and where every single TV programme is available for repeated, on-demand viewing; would result in a generation of 21st century youngsters for whom childhood nostalgia will be a much more clinical experience, bereft of that feeling of longing for lost things…
“Yeah, everything they want, they can have and see,” says Jonny Trunk. “It’s where the word ‘haunt’ comes from – we’ve got these memories that do haunt us, and we can’t get back there. I once put on [Youtube channel] Trunk TV a thirty-minute edit of thirty-second TV title sequences, because when I saw them I thought… everything in this thirty minutes is what I love about British TV, and my youth, and growing up. They were exciting and weird, and I hadn’t seen them until I started doing some research into a TV project and I managed to blag a load of DVDs of these things. And I thought ‘Sod it, I’ve got to put them online’, because there was stuff there that you never, ever see. To me, it was a thrill getting them… because I wasn’t allowed them. They’re not available. And you’re right, part of what you’re talking about is the fact that we can’t get back to what we had, and we can’t see it again…. but the memories are very vivid. And the fact that you can’t get them is almost a good thing. Because that frustration results in creativity.”
“What makes nostalgia work is information that’s missing,” agrees Richard Littler. “You have to have enormous gaps in your memory to create that strange mood. And if it’s available to you online, in High Definition, then you lose that sense of dreaminess and that feeling of ‘Did I imagine it?’. The more we have completely exhaustive databases of information and media, the less chance we have of forming these completely odd disconnections.
“Before I started Scarfolk, I spent years having these
single, bizarre memories… almost like a whiff on the air. ‘I recognise that!’
And that’s one of the reasons I chose the 1970s for Scarfolk… it means I can
give people a slight hint of a memory. The way the brain works is that, if you
give it a piece of information, it will then try to extrapolate that to a full
piece, to decide what something actually is.
That’s why I choose visual images that most people will have forgotten. I
wouldn’t choose things that are still relevant, like Abba or lava lamps or
disco… I have to choose things like a Programmes
for Schools and Colleges test card, something that people might have a vague memory of… but there are gaps. And
you fill the gaps with absurd fiction.”
For Jim Jupp, this essence of “lostness” is a pivotal part of the Ghost Box aesthetic, and a chief factor in rooting the label’s releases in the fictional, parallel world of Belbury. “What became interesting for us was the idea of keeping a world where that sense of mystery – that ‘what the hell was that piece of music?’ feeling – was still there,” he says. “Because that feeling is impossible in the internet age, and we’re keenly aware of that. So our focus became keeping that sense of mystery… but making it up! So the label had, from the outset, a fictional setting, where our images and sounds were familiar, but you couldn’t look up the answers on the internet. We had to kind of drag this stuff into a fictional realm where it couldn’t be cross-referenced, and there would still be questions marks about the artists, the images and the sounds.”
Ghost Box celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2015 with a In A Moment, a lovingly-compiled anthology of its most representative work, and a timely reminder that – amidst the theorising and psycho-sociological pondering – what really matters is the art. And what fabulous art it is, too; the product of a uniquely fun and evocative movement, where The Focus Group’s Hey Let Loose Your Love evokes daydreams of Pan-worshipped maidens dancing naked around a gaily-coloured maypole, where Belbury Poly’s Owls and Flowers attempts to navigate the hitherto uncharted passage between Alan Garner and Ultravox; and where – oddly enough – original synth pioneer John Foxx teams up with both Jupp and Jon Brooks for Almost There, a requiem for – I assume – a lost (or even ghostly) lover, but with a lyric that could just as easily be an elegy for our own receding, collective childhood experiences: “I see you walking past the waters, I glimpse you floating on the air…”
Speaking to Jim Jupp, I get the impression that In A Moment actually marks the beginning of a new era for Ghost Box, and he tells me that he’s keen to consider the possibility of younger musicians mining hauntological feelings from eras much later than those typically referenced by the movement. “There’s only so much you can explore within those few years of popular culture, so we’re working with some younger artists, and pushing that world out to incorporate peoples’ experiences of the 1980s and even the 1990s. It’s good to have a fresh take on this idea of the misremembered and the undocumented past.
“One of our artists is about ten years younger than us, he’s a guy called Martin Jenkins, and he records as Pye Corner Audio. A lot of his take on this stuff comes from the early 1980s, particularly VHS horror films, and John Carpenter videos. And even though it’s outside of our initial period, it’s still firmly in our territory. And when I think back to the 1980s, when I was a teenager, the medium of VHS in particular had a kind of haunted feel. There was a lot of distortion and degradation, tapes would change hands and you weren’t sure where they came from, and there were rumours of things being illegal. It was still that era of mystery and strangeness on TV.”
Associated artists like Moon Wiring Club, the prolific musical project of archive TV buff Ian Hodgson, have already begun to nudge the movement gently into the world of 1980s analogue computer gaming, with the track Console Yourself – on the splendidly-named 2014 album A Fondness For Fancy Hats – drawing heavily on the distinctive loading sounds made by a vintage ZX Spectrum. And Simon Reynolds, too, is hopeful that younger generations will keep the hauntological flame burning: “Every age will have its substrata of things you don’t consciously register at the time, that you only register in retrospect; like the production or format qualities of the media you’re consuming. You don’t notice it at the time, but you can now look at a 1990s film and say ‘Oh, that that is a period’. And even early 2000s movies can seem a bit clunky and dated. So maybe people will feel nostalgic towards the early days of pop music with autotune, and you can imagine a fetish for clunky early digital music, or early sampling. Maybe that will come to seem nostalgia-inducing in time. For old ravers, those things already do impart nostalgia…”
Like Richard Littler and Frances Castle, my own personal “haunted era” began to dwindle in the mid-1980s, when the rustic, folky vagueness of my early childhood surrendered to the addictive advance of console games and the march of digital music before – ultimately – being killed off by the mystique-eroding power of the internet. And, if I’m honest, by my own adulthood itself; even when exposed directly to the music, TV and film of later eras, I find it virtually impossible to experience a frisson of genuine nostalgia for anything that happened beyond the mid-1990s. But I’m thrilled to discover that younger generations – despite the hindrance of growing up in a multi-media, information-soaked age – are still finding hauntedness in the most unlikely of places: Richard Littler tells me of a young friend who recently claimed to be so traumatised by a half-forgotten childhood experience that they were unsure as to whether they’d imagined it or not. On further investigation, it transpired to be the Judderman television advert for the Bacardi-related alcopop Metz, first screened on British television in the year 2000.
As Jim Jupp says, “Maybe the future of it is the fact that childhood itself is a bit weird, and there’s stuff lodged in people’s memories that troubles them, that they can’t quite explain… even in an era when they can look stuff up. Hopefully not all of the answers are there, and there’s still some mystery and a sense of wonder.”