As well as this weekly blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 387, dated Christmas 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
“I suffered from night terrors,” explains Richard Littler, “and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse…”
We’re discussing the inspirations behind the new Scarfolk Annual. Since 2013, Littler has been the self-appointed “Mayor of Scarfolk“, the grim, North-Western town that has provided the setting for a cavalcade of spoof information posters, book covers and magazine advertisements; one of which (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was even mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly as part of a 100-year celebration of bona fide Goverment posters (see FT 377:8). This new publication sees him turning his genius for pastiching the clunky, washed-out design and authoritarian tones of 1970s information culture into a magnificently dark homage to the hardbacked World Distributors annuals of his childhood.
“Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2,” he continues. “Which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory. A factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me…”
This 1970s predilection for providing primary school-age children with laughably inappropriate reading material is sent up with unerring accuracy in the Scarfolk Annual. The gung-ho Commando-style comic strip ‘Waugh in War’ sees unhinged army officer Ben “War” Waugh determined to execute his own soldiers; elsewhere there are illustrated guides to identifying “Council Surveillance Agents”, and advice on “How to Survive a Nuclear Thing”, reassuringly explaining that “national security terminology typically employed to describe the stages of a nuclear threat will be replaced by pleasant, friendly words. If you hear ‘Flopsy Bunny’ you should expect catastrophic, irreversible annihilation.”
“The 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while,” laments Richard. “If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised.”
And on a lighter note, the scariest member of the troupe of Play School toys, as parodied in the grisly ‘Scar School’?
“Hamble,” he replies, instantly. “She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be a baby, but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch, or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.”
The Scarfolk Annual (“Does NOT contain the original toxic inks”) is out now, published by William Collins.
It’s been a bumper few weeks for fans of Littler’s unique brand of dystopian satire, as October also saw the release of the pilot episode of his animated series Dick & Stewart. A disturbing twelve minutes of lovingly-crafted paranoia, it uses to great effect the gentle pace and limited colour palettes of such teatime favourites as Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge to lampoon the rise of 21st century surveillance culture. Narrated – in gentle homage to 1970s voiceover king Ray Brooks – by The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barrett, it follows the adventures of innocent schoolboy Dick and the sentient eyeball Stewart; all that remains of Dick’s former best friend after a mysterious playground accident. Together, they are ensnared by a sinister “man” who encourages them to play “a special game of I-Spy… all you have to do is watch and listen to everything your Mummy and Daddy do and say, and write it all down for me.”
“I loved the cartoons you mention,” says Richard. “I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss etc. The slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. Compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me…”
A woozy, analogue synth soundtrack is provided by Chris Sharp, in his guise as Concretism, further consolidating the atmosphere of 1970s unsettlement, although – again – Littler is adamant that his creations are very much concerned with contemporary, 21st century issues, particularly those of control and surveillance. “We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy,” he says. “I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug-of-war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast.”
And indeed, as the cartoon Dick is confined to bed, a camera emerges from his mouth, microphones from his ears, and a transmission aerial sprouts from the top of his head. The pilot episode can be found on the newly-founded Dick & Stewart Youtube channel.
Meanwhile, those seeking a more rural brand of wrongness will be delighted to hear of further developments on the Black Meadow. This bleak, secluded area of the North York Moors, in the shadow of the iconic RAF Fylingdales early warning station, has long since provided the inspiration for a multi-media exploration of dark folklore and Cold War disquiet, helmed by writer Chris Lambert and musician Kev Oyston. “For centuries the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings,” claims Chris. “The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high…”
A visit to the Black Meadow website at blackmeadowtales.blogspot.com will confirm that both Lambert and Oyston are masters at blurring the lines between genuine folk tales (both ancient and modern) and outright invention. Did folklore investigator Professor Roger Mullins, of York University, really vanish on the moor in 1972, and become the subject of a lost Radio 4 documentary? Make your own judgements: Lambert coyly describes himself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. His new book, The Black Meadow Archive, will be available in early January, and is a beautiful collection of surreal and grisly folk talks; where ‘the Blackberry Ghost’ meets ‘the Ticking Policeman’. And a new collection of similarly-titled music by Oyston – recording as The Soulless Party – will be released at the same time.
Oyston has also been busy compiling an LP of original music inspired by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s Scarred For Life book. The book, published in 2017, is an exhaustive compendium of the 1970s TV programmes that traumatised their respective childhoods, and the album invites veterans of the haunted movement to contribute music inspired by their own memories of the era; either alternate themes for existing programmes, or invented title music for fictional shows. The results are tremendous fun: The Heartwood Institute‘s ‘Women Against The Wire’ sounds like the opening to some hard-hitting BBC2 investigation into the Greenham Common peace camps; The Home Current‘s ‘Summer In Marstrand’ is pure half-term Scandinavian animation (think Moomins, but intent on evil); and Keith Seatman‘s ‘Words from the Wireless’ recreates the terror once instilled in him by the (literally) dream-like 1972 series Escape Into Night.
The album concludes on a poignant note: ‘Be Like A Child’ by Carl Matthews is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose life was cut tragically short by cancer; and all proceeds from the album are going to Cancer Research UK. It’s available now, on the Castles In Space label.
Elsewhere, it’s always a delight to welcome new material from Jon Brooks; often to be found recording for Ghost Box Records in his guise as The Advisory Circle, but new album Emotional Freedom Techniques is freshly available to download on his own Cafe Kaput label. A beautifully soothing and meditative collection of ambient electronica, it both evokes and creates a perfect sense of stillness and stasis. It’s available from cafekaput.bandcamp.com. I can also recommend Hattie Cooke‘s albumThe Sleepers, an evocative synth-heavy concept album detailing the consequences of a mysterious, worldwide sleeping sickness; and the self-titled debut album by The Central Office of Information, a beautifully-packed collection of entrancing melodic radiophonica and ambient disquiet, all produced by Kent-based artist Alex Cargill.
And what better way to round off the year than with a brace of releases from… well, A Year In The Country? Stephen Prince’s ongoing quest to explore the shimmering connections between folk music, electronica and a sense of lost pastoralism has borne fruit in the shape of a new book, Straying from the Pathways, a typically comprehensive collection of essays on some of the movement’s more esoteric influences, from Detectorists to Edge of Darkness. And a charming new album, The Quietened Journey, invites contributors including The Heartwood Institute and Howlround to create music inspired by memories of abandoned railway lines, stations and roads. Anyone looking for a dose of bucolic calm amidst the frenzy of the festive season would be well advised to use it as the soundtrack for an icy ramble amongst their favourite overgrown sidings.
Christmas morning! Without exception, the most exciting morning of the year. A head-spinning rush of excitable sleeplessness (In 1981, I stayed awake constantly from Christmas Eve morning until the early hours of Boxing Day – with a table football from Romer Parrish’s toyshop in the offing, sleep was impossible), giddy anticipation at the delights to come, and a wild, morning sugar rush on the only day of the year when it becomes socially acceptable to eat a Toblerone before 9am.
When I raced downstairs at six or (if my parents were lucky) seven o’clock, I would be greeted with a pile of brightly-wrapped presents stacked carefully below the branches of our silver Woolworths tree, its fragile plastic twigs groaning wearily beneath the weight of the entire Teesside tinsel reserve. After a few delaying tactic formalities (pot of tea, coal fire lit, curtains open to reveal drizzly twilight, local radio switched on because TV programmes didn’t start for another hour and a half), I would be allowed to “sort out” the presents into piles; individual stacks of oddly-shaped gifts for my Mum, my Dad, my Gran, my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose… and then a dizzily exciting mound of goodies for me, inevitably the largest of the lot. I was lucky, and I was spoiled, and with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, I can’t thank my parents enough for that. God knows, they must have worked themselves into the ground for our Christmases.
During this giddy sifting, it was – of course – essential to attempt to guess the nature of each present before the wrapping came off. And the easiest to identify by far were the annuals. A4, hardbacked, reassuringly solid… there’s something about the very distinct weight of them that still transports me back to childhood Christmases, whenever I lift one from the self in 2019. There would be Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee annuals, of course, but – as I grew older – also Doctor Who and Blue Peter, publications that combined the “Cor!” rush of fun comic strips with worthy, educational features and stories, and often rather disconcerting illustrations. They never could get Tom Baker quite right.
These publications have all provided the inspiration for the new Scarfolk annual, a devastatingly dark and unerringly accurate pastiche of the genre. Writer and artist Richard Littler, the genial self-proclaimed mayor of this fictional, dystopian, 1970s North-Western town, joined me to share some memories of his favourite childhood annuals, and to discuss the influences on his own rather wonderful book…
Bob: Congratulations on the Scarfolk annual… has it been a long time in the planning? When did you start thinking about this, and compiling material?
Richard: Thank you! I had the idea shortly after the release of the last book, but it took a while to collate the ideas for content because I was working on other projects. I was also still regularly creating Scarfolk blog posts, but an annual requires different content, so I decided to take a break from the blog in order to focus on this new Scarfolk direction. Throw a move to another country – and a few other issues – into the mix and suddenly a couple of years have zipped by.
It’s a brilliant homage to the annuals of our youth, always seemingly published by the mysterious World Distributors. Can you recall particular 1970s annuals that left a distinct impression on you as a kid? Any particular features, stories or comic strips you’d like to share?
When I was very small, I was fond of Playhour and Disney annuals. I suffered from night terrors, and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse. When I was a little older, my favourites were the 1968 TV Tornado annual, which contained strips of The Saint, Tarzan, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and others. Print technology changed a lot in the early 1970s, so it felt ancient with its rough paper and gaudy colours when I bought it from a school jumble sale, circa 1977. Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2, which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory, in a factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me.
I remember finding a certain ‘wrongness’ to 1970s annuals, too… the Doctor Who annuals, for examples, often had illustrations that bore little resemblance to the actors in the series, and there would be educational articles too, unconnected to the show. Was that feeling something you remember, and kept in mind when working on the Scarfolk annual?
Yes, I recall that well. Buffering the true, series-based content, there were many pages in annuals only vaguely connected by theme, especially factual or puzzle content. The 1976 Doctor Who Annual, for example, contains a feature about the signs of the zodiac, and the 1978 annual has an educational piece about the Apollo mission crew emblems. They were quite lazy, really: anything to do with time or space went in. “Doctor Who is about time, and they called him grandfather, so let’s do a chapter about workmen who clean grandfather clocks”. I parodied the loose space theme in the Scarfolk Annual, as well as other nebulous fact pages… such as the page about the origin of “things”.
The strip artists also frequently used existing source material in their work. In the 1976 Doctor Who annual strip called “Neuronic Nightmare”, the character Skizos is actually a sight rejigging of Vincent Price from the film Madhouse (1974). In the story “The Mission”, the character called Tamrik is a reworked image of Charlton Heston. In honour of that kind of thing, there’s an illustration in the Scarfolk Annual that I based on an image from the 1922 Scandinavian horror film Häxan.
The annual itself is bitingly political in places – which I know has always been a part of Scarfolk, but have recent political events made Scarfolk seem closer to 21st century reality than it’s ever been? “Foreigner Identification Badges” actually seem terrifyingly plausible, as do government statements dissuading people from protesting…
I think it might be the other way around to some extent: the 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while. If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised. That said, Scarfolk isn’t a fixed artefact like a novel. Because it’s a blog, there is some leeway and it can more easily “interact” with the latest political and cultural developments as they occur.
Has that come as a sad surprise to you over the last few years? You launched Scarfolk in 2013, which now seems like a relatively stable era in hindsight… did you have any inkling back then, that Scarfolk would become so relevant to modern life?
I didn’t at all expect that it would become so relevant to modern life. Looking back, it was an almost an innocent time. Back in comparatively utopian 2013, Scarfolk’s dystopian aspects were quaintly surreal. Since 2016 particularly, real-world developments have become absurd and tribal, Trump being a perfect personification of this. A real step back. Every time I see or hear Trump I can almost feel the human race regressing.
I loved the comic strip “Waugh in the War”, with the insane, titular “hero” determined to kill everyone… including his own soldiers. I actually remember being a little unsure as a very small kid was to whether World War 2 was still being fought in the 1970s, because it still just seemed to be everywhere. Were we still fighting it in our heads, do you think?
The 1970s were only 30 years from the war, very much within living memory of two, maybe even three generations, so it was bound to feature prominently in culture as we tried, as a society, to define what it all meant. Children’s books were full of simple tales of war-time heroism and “beating the Jerries”… as featured in comics such as Commando, Warlord and Battle, not to mention the innumerable films. Sadly, I think a lot of people still hold onto this idea of the war, which almost defines “Britishness” for them. We even hear it in mainstream political discourse. It’s facile.
Ilaughed a lot at the feature about “IFOs” as well – “Identified Flying Objects” – which gives supernatural significance to ducks and aeroplanes. And the “Seance Poodle”, too! Do you remember the 1970s as an era when the paranormal became an unlikely element of mainstream society? Not just in the media, with reports of ghosts on Nationwide and the like, but also everyday life… universities were still conducting “psychic research”, and I suspect belief in things like the Loch Ness Monster would have been pretty widespread. It was a pretty credulous era.
The supernatural was very much presented as scientific, rather than pseudoscientific, in the 1970s. As you say, university departments had psychic laboratories and parapsychology departments. It was all taken very seriously; it wasn’t joked about, and TV presenters didn’t make light of it at all. In fact, the same broadcasters also presented the news and other factual programmes. Books about UFOs, ghosts, Nessie, spontaneous human combustion and ESP were always in the non-fiction section rather than being in the “religion, spirituality, and new age” type category, which is where I tend to see them now.
Also, I don’t know what it was like anywhere else in Britain, but in the north where I’m from, people still went to spiritualist churches and visited mediums. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. Despite the modernist and brutalist architecture springing up around them, and the dreams of utopian, technological futures, interest in the supernatural was very much present – in fact, it accelerated. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a reaction to the concrete, glass and steel (and increasingly godless) progress that alienated some people.
Is that credulity part of what makes the era so ripe for satire? An era when people believed information provided by the mainstream media, and the government, in a way that they maybe don’t in 2019…
A few years ago, I would have said yes, the 1970s was a ripe era for satire – and it was – but seeing what has occurred in the past handful of years, I would say that gullibility is still a huge concern. Many people have been deftly manipulated into believing untrue, flagrant absurdities. Arguably, it’s worse now: At least in the past, people had the excuse of “innocent” ignorance, in that there was less access to information and knowledge. Nowadays, information is at everyone’s fingertips and, arguably, it doesn’t take too long to discern whether or not a piece of information is factual, manipulated or fabricated. More than ever we can see confirmation bias at work and this is frequently exploited by controlling agencies such as governments, corporations and media sources (and often so-called ‘alternative’ media sources).
On a lighter note, with “Scar School” in mind… which of the Play School toys did you find the most unsettling, and why?
It has to be Hamble. She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be baby but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She’s to be avoided at all costs.
I also love your ear for little phrases that remind me of feeling scared at school. Reading the annual was the first time in 35 years that I’d come across the phrase “Middle C of the piano”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I felt like I was supposed to know, and that scared me. Any other phrases like that that haunt you?
There are so many, and I try wherever possible to include words and phrases that aren’t in use as much as they once were. Even something simple like “Hallo” or “hullo”, instead of “hello”, which I remember from reading Enid Blyton books as a kid. The phrase that unsettled me the most – “for more information…” – I adapted into Scarfolk’s slogan: “For More Information Please Re-read”. I panicked whenever I read official documents, whether at school or elsewhere. And if you reached that kind of phrase at the end of forms, and still didn’t understand, you were in trouble. Too frightened to ask for fear of looking stupid, or risk a clip round the earhole from a proudly abusive teacher, you’d just smile and pretend that you got it.
This is complete nosey parkery on my part, but a recurring theme in Scarfolk is the breakdown of trust (or the attempt to drive a wedge) between children and their parents. The annual even has a feature called “Are You Parents Hurting You?”! Dare I ask… what’s your relationship with your own parents like, are you exorcising anything here?
Ha! My relationship with my parents is fine. Honestly (honestly!). Writing from the point-of-view of Scarfolk Council is really only like an actor playing an unsavoury character. “Method” blogging, if you will.
One central concept of the annual is about indoctrinating children – or anyone, I suppose – so I studied the brainwashing and coercive techniques of cults. One method is to break down the trust between a prospective cult member/victim and their closest family members and friends with the ultimate goal of pressuring the victim into cutting all ties so that they are under the full control of the cult. Once a cult has broken down the victim’s connection to the outside world, it starts eroding their concept of themselves as individuals. So, you know, I thought that would be a good idea for the basis of a children’s book. As you do.
Any future plans for Scarfolk that you could share with us? Could the annual become an, erm, annual occurrence?
It could only be an “annual annual” if I involved other artists and contributors, because of publisher and printer deadlines. The turnaround would be too tight for me on my own. Involving others was originally the plan for this book, but when I realised how much it might cost to commission so many contributors, I took on the onerous task of doing everything myself. I’m so cheap. I ended up having to teach myself to draw in the varied style of the old annuals. Thankfully, and very fortunately for me, the art in some of them is quite crude, but I still I had to improve myself enormously just to reach the dizzying heights of crudity!
Thanks so much to Richard for his time, and typically thoughtful and fascinating conversation. The Scarfolk Annual is available here…
And thanks, from me, to everyone who has been part of this blog throughout 2019! It’s been a joy to put together, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has contributed and commented, or simply read and enjoyed these articles. Particular thanks go to David Sutton and all at the Fortean Times. Lots more to come in 2020, in the meantime… wishing you all a merry – and hopefully not too haunted – Christmas.
The crackly, rustic theme tunes; the muted colour palettes; the crude but charming animated styles, the gently-clipped narrations by honey-voiced character actors, their fruity tones steeped in sugary tea and the pallid smoke of untipped cigarettes. The short cartoons of our 1970s childhoods – from Mr Benn to The Magic Ball, from Bod to Mary, Mungo and Midge – had a very distinctive style, and a very special place in our hearts; broadcast ‘for our younger viewers’ in the five-minute run-up to Pebble Mill at One, or sandwiched between Blue Peter and the unsettling headlines of the 5.40pm news. One final, daily hurrah of childhood innocence before Kenneth Kendall or Richard Whitmore arrived, and our cosy front rooms were once again subsumed by news of international arms races and imminent industrial action.
Richard Littler – who, since 2013, has been the benevolent overlord of Scarfolk, the dysfunctional North-Western town trapped in a perennial, authoritarian late 1970s nightmare – has combined many of these evocative factors to create Dick and Stewart. While re-creating perfectly the gentle trappings of those teatime institutions, it’s actually a nightmarish, satirical look at 21st century surveillance culture, seen through the eyes of a very 1970s schoolboy – the trusting, innocent Dick – and the living eyeball that he carries everywhere; the last, living remnant of his friend Stewart, who – we learn – has died in a playground accident.
Narrated by Julian Barratt, of The Mighty Boosh and Flowers fame, it’s a disturbing but beautifully-made piece of animation, with the pilot episode – I Spy With My Little Eye – available to watch, in full, on Youtube…
I asked Richard about the process of making Dick and Stewart, and the inspirations behind it…
Bob: Congratulations on Dick and Stewart… it’s wonderful. Can you tell us a bit about the process of getting it made, and how difficult that might have been?
Richard: Thanks a lot. I was flying blind a bit because, although I’ve worked in motion graphics before, I hadn’t done any kind of character or narrative-based animation. It took me a while to find my feet and develop my own process. I ended up creating Dick and Stewart with a mix of open source software and Adobe After Effects, which I don’t think is typically used for this kind of production. There weren’t any deadlines so I just took my time. On my own, it took months to complete.
As a graphic designer, had you always harboured ambitions to try your hand at animation?
In addition to Disney, Warner Bros and Tex Avery – which was my favourite – I was also brought up on Terry Gilliam’s Python animated inserts. It was seeing his rudimentary style that first made me think that animation may be possible even for someone like me. Gilliam didn’t need a studio of Disney animators, nor did he care about the kind of slick refinement you’d see in a film like Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty. He just did it all in his bedroom, even when he was making it for the BBC. Gonzo or punk animation. Low-budget, daytime kids’ animations were also similarly simplistic.
Yes, it’s clearly very much inspired by the 1970s animations that we all saw as children… the likes of Mr Benn and Mary, Mungo and Midge. Can you talk us through your memories of watching these, and other shows of the same ilk, and how they made you feel as a child? Which of them were your favourites?
I loved the cartoons you mention. I also liked The Magic Ball and anything by Smallfilms… Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss etc. Looking back at the cartoons before I started Dick and Stewart, I was surprised how technically crude – albeit charming – some of them are. You can frequently see pencil marks, rubbings out and felt-tip pen strokes. Rostrum cameras were also used extensively, so thirty seconds might go by and the audience would only see a zoom or pan of a static illustration.
This slower pace gave many of the animations a dreamlike quality, which I responded to. I wasn’t as much a fan of noisier cartoons like Roobarb – as much as I love Richard Briers – or American cartoons like the Hanna Barbera stuff. I also preferred hypnotic narrators such as Ray Brooks and Oliver Postgate, the co-owner of Smallfilms.
The trance-like quality was compounded for me because I was always off sick with colds, flu or fevers, which cast a surreal and sometimes dark shadow over the programmes. I still remember that, during one fever, the weird, unblinking eyes of the background characters in Mr Benn unsettled me.
Interesting that you mention dreamlike qualities, as we’ve spoken before about your childhood inability to distinguish between reality and the horrible nightmares you suffered from… does that remain a motivating factor in your work?
I don’t think it’s a conscious factor, but I have always preferred art, music and books with dreamlike, or rather unexpected or out-of-place elements and qualities, though my interpretation of whether something is dreamlike or not is probably subjective, rather than the intention of the artist in question.
People often talk of the 1970s as being a decade of bright, clashing colours, but my memories are of everything being rather washed out and pale. And the colours of Dick and Stewart really capture that… was the colour palette something you thought about carefully?
You’re right, 1970s cartoons were quite washed out. Or all our TVs were on the blink! The colours were very important, so I spent some time extracting colour palettes from programmes such as Mary, Mungo & Midge, The Magic Ball, Mr Benn, Bod and Joe. The latter of which I’d never seen before, but I liked the thick, black, rough lines and distinctive period colours.
(Curiously, I’d never heard of Joe either, but it was broadcast on BBC1 throughout the early 1970s, with the second series – from which this episode comes – being narrated by Colin Jeavons…)
The themes of surveillance and authoritarianism are terrifying… is this a reflection of how you feel about the 1970s, with its powerful state, or more how you feel about the present day?
Although I loved the black-domed, in-store surveillance CCTV cameras in the 1970s, which resembled Dalek heads or the torture droid in Star Wars (I still want one!), the surveillance in Dick and Stewart is inspired by contemporary issues. Brits sometimes appear quite complacent about encroaching surveillance, more so than in other countries I’ve lived – Germany, for example. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s bulk interception of data was against human rights. It’s an issue we need to… well, keep an eye on to ensure that civil liberties are not impinged upon, or worse. I’ve also completed similarly-themed design work for organisations such as the Open Rights Group. For example, a while back, I created a series of surveillance images parodying Fougasse’s wartime propaganda posters.
The normalisation of control is the most disturbing element of Dick and Stewart for me – as epitomised in the song, with its “watching is normal and healthy” refrain! Is this a road we’re being nudged down, do you think? Our everyday activities in 2019 are easier than ever to track and record…
We’re frequently at risk of signing away our privacy. I don’t think law has caught up with technological advancements yet, so there’s a constant tug of war between what is legal and what isn’t or shouldn’t be. Many companies (and the Government itself) sustain some of their activities via loopholes and/or with the hope that any wrongdoing hasn’t been detected, partially because it has not yet been clearly defined. Reality TV and phone cams have also normalised the idea of constantly being filmed and broadcast, and even that it’s desirable.
The idea of Stewart being the last remnant of a dead friend really struck a chord with me… my childhood seemed to be filled with rumours and urban myths of children that had died in terrible ways, and their stories were often presented as a lesson or a warning… ‘do you want to end up like that little boy?’ and all that. Was it the same for you? Any stories that have stuck in your mind?
Yes, the 1970s were full of well-meaning but horrific cautionary tales that involved the maiming or killing of children: Public Information Films about the dangers of pylons, railways, canals, farms, fireworks, electricity. When I was in infant school, rumours spread in the playground that a fellow pupil had suddenly vanished because he had been taken by a witch. At the same time, Public Information Films warned children not to go with strangers, so I took this as tacit confirmation that witches abducted kids from suburban playgrounds. The pupil hadn’t disappeared, by the way, his parents had moved house. Well, that’s what they say; I’m pretty sure it was witches. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but it’s possible that Stewart came about because of the ubiquitous childhood warning, “Be careful or you’ll have your eye out with that!”
Julian Barratt’s narration is perfect… how did you get him on board? Was he someone that you always had in mind for this, and if so – what was it about his voice that made him so suitable?
I always knew that I wanted a soft “Ray Brooks type” narration, though for quite a while I was contemplating a female narrator. When I heard Julian’s narration, however, I knew that he was the perfect choice. He and Andy Starke, the producer, had worked together before, which made it easier. I’m very grateful that he did. I don’t recall that we discussed Ray Brooks specifically; I don’t think we needed to because Ray Brooks is such an icon in this field.
And needless to say, I love Chris Sharp‘s music… and he’s an artist that lots of readers will know from his work as Concretism. Do you go back a lomg way with Chris?
Chris was one of the first people to like Scarfolk so we’ve known other since then. I was an instant fan of his music and our respective creative projects come from the same well of early experiences. It captures the period perfectly and I’m so delighted that he let me loose on his album design. The Dick and Stewart soundtrack will be released soon, so people should look out for that.
This episode of Dick & Stewart is labelled as a ‘pilot’… are there further episodes in the works? What are your plans for it?
Five further episodes are already written and cover a range of contemporary topics including propaganda, civil defense, ‘fake news’, gaslighting and various forms of governmental corruption. Additionally, much of the artwork for the next two episodes is complete, but of course these things cost money and time and, ideally, the series would find a home on a platform other than YouTube.
Thanks to Richard for his time, as ever… and for providing the screengrabs in this feature. While we await further Dick & Stewart, it’s worth mentioning that Richard’s new Scarfolk Annual is released on 17th October, and is available for pre-order here…
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.
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.”