Twisted Roots: ‘The Seasons’ by Ronald Duncan and David Cain

In May 2018, Wyrd Harvest Press published Folk Horror Revival: Harvest Hymns, two excellent volumes of appreciation for music with a strong connection to landscape. For Volume 1: Twisted Roots, I wrote about my love for The Seasons, the 1969 album of poetry and Radiophonic music produced by Ronald Duncan and David Cain and released as part of the BBC’s Drama Workshop series. Thanks to Andy Paciorek of Folk Horror Revival for allowing me to reproduce it in full here:


(BBC Records, 1969; reissued by Trunk Records, 2012)

It was the 1970s; school was different back then.

This was the school of cold parquet floors on icy February mornings, mercilessly numbing tiny buttocks into frozen submission during morning prayers. The school of congealed dinners derived from government-issue pamphlets; of cabbage and carrots, and semolina and suet. The school of clanking radiators, and bearded teachers reeking of Old Holborn. The school of tepid milk and measles, and austere hymns in unsettling assemblies: “They left me there on a cross to die”… sang a legion of four-year-olds, pining for the safe familiarity of Mr Benn and Bagpuss and the warm, protective cuddles of their suddenly and inexplicably absent mothers.

Those wishing to take a Proustian journey back to this formative era of separation anxiety could do a lot worse than listen to The Seasons. Originally released in 1969, it was specifically intended to be played from crackling speakers in draughty halls as part of the BBC Schools Radio service’s Drama Workshop series; with primary school-age infants encouraged to express their reactions to what they heard via the medium of interpretive dance. And what they heard was a poetic depiction of the English seasonal cycle so explicitly raw that it bordered on the offensive; accompanied by an electronic soundscape so harshly metallic that even the Cybermen, if they’d caught a snatch of it at the school gates, might have paused warily and thought twice, retreating back to Telos to put a nice James Last LP on the cyber-turntable instead.

The music was produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s David Cain. The poetry was written by Ronald Duncan – a gifted playwright and a friend of T.S. Eliot – and narrated by the acknowledged voice of BBC Schools Radio, Derek Bowskill. Not an immediately obvious triumvirate to create a collection of musical mood pieces steeped in post-hippy Paganism and dark ritual practices, but by God (or whichever ancient deity takes your fancy) they succeeded. The album boasts seventeen short tracks; twelve of them dedicated to the months of the year, plus one for each season. And then a concluding instrumental piece entitled ‘The Year’ that sounds like Edward Elgar messing around with valve oscillators.

It’s earthy, macabre and sexual. Strength is drawn “from the earth’s thighs”, and May “teases with all the orchards of her eyes, and leans with apple, tempts with peach”. There are gaunt elms shuddering “within the groin of grief”, and those of us who had previously associated October with merely the advent of the conker season and the occasional dodgem were startled to be presented with somewhat darker imagery: “Like severed hands, the wet leaves lie flat on the deserted avenue”. Mr Benn this was not.

If it came within a country mile of a primary school in 2018, it would be surrounded by police marksmen and destroyed with a controlled explosion. But, back in the fuzzy, sepia-tinted haze of my early childhood, were my friends and I irrevocably traumatised by The Seasons? We were not. There were sections of it that we didn’t understand, verses that we considered very strange, and the occasional line that we thought was rather funny. But still we danced, uninhibited, in our pale C&A vests, with our fingers flexing towards the school dinner serving hatch, going “in impudent loveliness to meet the wind’s wantonness”. Or a tray filled with mince and dumplings, whichever came first.

I’m glad that I grew up in an era when school could be dark and weird and scary, because I think all of those feelings are important, and I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without them. And that fact that, almost forty years later, I’m sitting in my front room listening to The Seasons as a middle-aged man and finding it even more evocative and inspiring than I did when I was six years old is testament to the extraordinary work that Messrs Cain, Duncan and Bowskill put into it. I don’t feel the need to slip into a pale C&A vest any more, but I feel a giddy connection to the tiny, nervous young North-Eastern boy that did, and that’s to their eternal credit as well.   

‘The Earth’s a woman, time will take her’. Time has taken us all, but The Seasons has come with me on the journey.

The Seasons was reissued by Trunk Records in 2012, and is available here:

Folk Horror Revival: Harvest Hymns and other Wyrd Harvest Press publication are available here:

Interview with David Cain here: