Trunk Records! Everybody loves Trunk Records, surely? A label that offers such an overpoweringly direct link to the nostalgic ephemera of the British 1970s childhood; whether by collating the wistful folk music of vintage pre-school television on the sublime Fuzzy Felt Folk compilation; introducing a new generation to the unsettling radiophonic sounds of The Seasons (an album so redolent of its era’s school halls that the sleeve should really have come with a “scratch and sniff” whiff of parquet flooring), or reissuing the beautiful, melancholy soundtracks to Fingerbobs and Ivor The Engine.
And this obsession with the ‘between the cracks’ minutiae of the 1970s childhood experience barely scratches the surface of the Trunk oeuvre. Elsewhere, there are long-lost film soundtracks, vintage 1950s jazz and exotica, spoken word oddities, even an archly-voiced album of letters written by lonely (if imaginative) gentlemen to their favourite adult magazine and movie stars.
The latest Trunk project is a belter. A barnstormer. An project so bound up in this joyous love of the little, the lost and the forgotten that it’s deserves to become a keystone of the label’s already prodigious output. A new book, deliciously titled Wrappers Delight, showcases the highlights of a forty-year collection of British ephemera that filled an entire house (and accompanying caravan and summerhouse) in Stockport. We’re talking sweet wrappers here… and crisp packets, cigarette cards, cereal boxes, fizzy drinks cans; in fact, pretty much anything with a branded label that ever graced the shelves of Liptons or Presto or Fine Fare or – indeed – the little corner shop on the end of your street with an impressive selection of Mini Milks and Flash Gordon stickers.
The man behind the collection was John Townsend, and the man collating the book is Trunk Records’ irrepressible Jonny Trunk, who – in collaboration with Fuel Publishing – has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to get the project off the ground. Impressively, the target was met within 36 hours, but potential punters still have until 6th July to offer their backing, and claim any number of superb bonuses – including a Planet of the Apes bubblegum print, a striking Space Dust t-shirt, and a pink 7″ single of advertising jingles by British jazzman Kenny Graham. The link is here…
I spoke to Jonny Trunk for my BBC Tees Evening Show. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: Can you start me telling me a little bit about John Townsend himself?
Jonny: He was born in Surrey, and he was an orphan. And at the orphanage where he lived, post-war, he realised that every day when the milk arrived, the cardboard bottle tops were all different. So he thought “Oh, I’ll start collecting those…”
By the 1950s he’d amassed a huge collection of what’s called “cartophilia”… cigarette and tobacco cards, that kind of thing, and he became a legend within those circles. He knew all about advertising printed on silk, and anything to do with soap… he was quite a manic collector. I’ve never really seen anyone like him, with that broad scope of interests. For the rest of his life he collected, and then – when he retired – he became an advisor to companies like Lever Brothers, because he knew so much about Port Sunlight! He just couldn’t stop collecting everything. Anything to do with brands… club flyers, phone cards, first day covers, playing cards… honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life.
We’re talking about the kind of collection that takes over the entire house here, aren’t we? And the garage, and the shed, and the caravan…
Yeah, when he passed away in 2015, his son took over the house, and pretty much lived in the kitchen and a little bit of the sitting room. The rest of it was just full. I came across it by complete accident, really… I was going to see his son about some advertising flexi-discs, because John collected those as well. Because they were brand-based… anything to do with a brand, he got involved with, and wanted to collect. So Robin, his son, told me all about John… and when I got to the house, there were just these extraordinary piles of… everything. In a box, there’d be another box full of three different collections of cards from Typhoo Tea, from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, and from Sunblest Bread. And then, in another bag, there’d be labels from sweet rock going back to the 1950s… but there’d be two and half thousand of them. It was extraordinary.
Your eyes must have lit up…
A little bit, but I was also quite apprehensive. There was quite a strange energy in the house, because of the amount of effort in bringing a collection like that together, and then filing some of it, and not filing other bits… you’d open a box, then have to sit down and say “I just don’t understand this.” There’d be a wrapper from a chocolate bar you’d never heard of, a box full of football pennants from 1960s bubble gum, weird things about the American Civil War that were given away as stickers from a comic… but they’d all be together. You almost had to try and process it, in a very strange way. But luckily his sons were very helpful, and said “anything you want to do… have a go.” So Wrapper’s Delight is the end result.
I imagine it was quite a bittersweet experiences for John’s sons? This was their father’s life’s work…
I think so in some respects, but they’d lived with it… they were the ones who had to eat all the sweets when they were little! There might have been some dental issues going on!
How had John’s family coped with it over the years? Had they ever tried to talk him out of collecting?
No, from what I gather, John Townsend was a very focused man. He had to be focused to collect what he collected, on a level that I’ve never seen before. I mean, it’s extraordinary. He was very single-minded, very determined, hugely intelligent… and they knew he was doing it, and that was it. They had their own lives.
What made him do it, do you think?
I don’t know. I’ve no idea. I mean you could go back psychologically and ask whether it was him being an orphan, and wanting to grab onto something that’s a bit more permanent… who knows. But he was brilliant at it.
We should be thankful that he did do it, because this stuff is ephemeral, and most people would look at a lolly wrapper or crisp packet, and decide to throw it away…
…which is why collections like this have such nostalgic resonance, I guess. The scarcity of this stuff…
Yeah, but he would also write to companies…. say if you wanted Womble stickers, and had to collect six packets of Womble chocolate to get them, he’d just phone up the company and say “Hi… can I just have the stickers, because I’m a collector”. And they’d say “Yeah, sure!”
Have you been through the whole collection now?
Yeah… I sort of knew what areas of interest I had, which was the stuff I grew up with, or that rang a bell in my head. So I went through all the tin cans, crisp packets, lolly wrappers, bubble gum packets, cards, all sorts of stuff like that. The confectionary… I mean, the sweet cigarette collection. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was mindblowing.
You put a lovely Generation Game-style video together, with this stuff going past on a conveyer belt, and so much of it just transported me. Was there a Star Wars lolly wrapper on there?
I actually ate one of those when I first went to see Star Wars in 1978… my dad bought if for me during the interval, from a lady with a tray strapped around her neck… and I’ve never seen one since.
There’s quite a lot of that. And some of it’s not that obvious, it’s a little bit more obscure. So the book’s not full of Mars wrappers from 1972, it’s a bit weirder than that. There are things like Trebor Prehistoric Chews, do you remember those?
Did they have dinosaurs on, by any chance?
Yeah! And he’s not only got the wrappers, he’s got the cardboard box they were shipped in. We found, in the attic, two huge boxes full of flattened Weetabix boxes… which we didn’t realise were worth a huge amount of money, because they’ve got Doctor Who all over them. A cut-out TARDIS on the back of the box, that kind of thing.
So what form does Wrappers Delight actually take? Have you been doing a lot of scanning?
We’ve been photographing all the three-dimensional objects, like the Cresta can, and then anything that’s two-dimensional, like the flattened wrappers, have been professionally scanned. So we need the Kickstarter to produce a 240 page, full colour, magnificent beast of a book.
And you actually reached your Kickstarter target on… was it Day 1?
36 hours. I thought we were going to be pushed to do the whole thing, but I was overwhelmed by peoples’ enthusiasm and generosity. It’s been extraordinary.
It’s your first crowdfunded projecty, isn’t it? Were you nervous?
Yes, of course… you’re throwing yourself out there, and the way that this is crowdfunded, it’s all or nothing. You either get the funding and can do the book, or you don’t get the funding and you can’t do the book. It’s nerve-wracking, but strangely exciting. I think the Generation Game video helped a lot, and I think people saw the humour and the charm in it, and were seeing things that they’d never seen before. I’ve seen a lot of this stuff, and there were still things that I’d never seen before. It’s on such another level, it’s really interesting.
Great to see that Jarvis Cocker is writing the book’s introduction. I’m guessing this stuff struck a chord with him, too?
Yeah, we sent him over the video… we thought “He’s a pop star…” and you know, it’s all a bit pop, isn’t it? And he was up for it. And what’s interesting is that there was very much a sort of… well, I wouldn’t call it a North-South Divide, but there were certain brands that only really appeared in the North. What’s the one I was looking at today… GBs? That’s quite a weird one. A Scottish tinned mineral drink, a fizzy drink that only appeared up there. Bob’s, too… do you know Bob’s Lemonade? That’s quite an odd one.
I feel like I should, but I don’t…
Honestly, there are some really obscure ones that I’ve never seen before.
I’ve only discovered recently that quite a few brands were trailed in the North-East, before going fully national. Wispas, for example. And the one that I’ve really been trying to look into recently is Glee Bars, which I remember eating in the early 1980s. They were a bit rummy. In fact, I’ve seen rumours online that they were actually taken off the market due to their alcohol content.
They do sound highly questionable…
Yes, kids were getting fighting drunk on Glee Bars in the mean streets of Middlesbrough. The only people I can find that remember them are from Teesside, or at least the North-East.
I’m pretty sure there are some strange regional crisps as well. They’ll all be finally revealed as and when the book’s finally published, in October or November.
Can people still contribute to the Kickstarter?
Yes, we’ve got another three weeks. It’s great… the reason John’s family have been very generous with the collection, and said I that I can do what I want, is that they get a good percentage of the book. So the more we get, the more they get. And the more fun everybody will have.
And on a thoughtful note, it’s a lovely celebration of John’s life, too.
That’s whole point. And if this goes well, believe it or not there are probably two other books that could also appear. They’re not related to sweets or anything like that, they’re a bit stranger, but they’re still from his remarkable archive. It’s extraordinary what’s in there. Extraordinary. And it’s good fun, that’s the whole thing. It works on a pop level, on a strange nostalgic level, on a graphics level… it’s just brilliant.
Thanks for Jonny for the natter, and please have a rummage through the Kickstarter options on offer… there’s some great stuff available. And, on an entirely unrelated front, the next issue of the Fortean Times magazine (No 381, July 2019) has the latest printed Haunted Generation column, with thoughts on Jonathan Sharp’s album Divided Time; the new A Year In The Country compilation The Watchers; and Mark Brend’s creepy new novel Undercliff. It’s available on Thursday 20th June.