Wednesday, 27 October 2021

3 Wyrd Things: J.M. Walsh

J.M. Walsh of Broodcomb Press chooses his '3 Wyrd Things' for the Wyrd Britain blog.
For '3 Wyrd Things' I ask various creative people whose work I admire to tell us about three oddly, wonderfully, weirdly British things that have been an influence on them and their work - a book or author, a film or TV show and a song, album or musician.

This month: J.M. Walsh

Jamie Walsh is the owner / publisher of Broodcomb Press and under various guises the writer of books published under that banner. His works touch on many of the touchstones that we hold so dear here at Wyrd Britain such as Arthur Machen, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Algernon Blackwood exploring fictions hinterlands with an emphasis on the strange and the uncanny.

If you haven't already then we at Wyrd Britain heartily recommend that you dig into the dark delights of Broodcomb's catalogue at...


Neil M Gunn chosen by J.M. Walsh of Broodcomb Press as one of his '3 Wyrd Things' for the Wyrd Britain blog
Neil M. Gunn 

Neil Miller Gunn wrote numerous novels, and the best of them are astonishingly immersive experiences of worlds that – even when recognisable – remain elusive and undefined. 

Part of this is a curious reticence in his writing to naming the numinous, which lends his narratives a consuming hesitance towards the exploration of wonder. I intuit a little embarrassment in the books as speaking aloud would run counter to the grain of his Highland gruffness, yet also a defiance because, for Gunn, aspects of being human that reach out of the ordinary are the chief part of life. 

For all its relative opaqueness, his writing is remarkable because the effect is of a ‘pointing towards’ that which in nature and human experience is (in a non-religious sense) sacred or divine, without ever coming out and naming it (if that is ever possible). Reading his books over the years, I became convinced he was a figure of Highland Zen only to find in his autobiography, ‘The Atom of Delight’, that he actually was deeply taken with Eugen Herrigel’s ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’, finding much in it that resonated with his world view. 

The numinous is found in most of his novels, particularly ‘The Well at the World’s End’ and ‘The Other Landscape’, yet an early loose trilogy of novels creates worlds of the human sacred that are among the most engrossing I’ve ever read. ‘Sun Circle’ puts the reader in Dark Ages tribal Scotland, Christianity newly arrived but in great tension with the old religion, at the time of Viking raids. It recalls William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ and, in a more oblique way, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘The Corner That Held Them’, in the ability to see the world as the characters would have seen it. One character’s dawning realisation of what happens at the stones lives with me to this day as a moment of unfolding terror.

It is the second of the loose trilogy, ‘Butcher’s Broom’, that I return to. The novel is set in the Highland Clearances, but the heart of the book is less the historic and economic drivers than the effects on one community, which Gunn draws so carefully that the strangeness of how such communities worked becomes seductive, and the descriptions of the combined waulking and ceilidh feel familiar and deeply, deeply other at the same time – a human existence that is both within reach and lost forever. 

Even the novels that are resolutely of this world retain this sense of disquiet, as if the locations and events exist at least partly in myth. Plotwise, ‘The Lost Chart’ is a standard-for-its-time spy narrative… and yet the characters move in a twilight world that seems unconnected to our own. ‘The Drinking Well’ is about disgrace and change and the lure of politics and the modern… and yet the book begins and ends at a mythic source that makes all human concerns so much fluff. The scene where young Iain Cattanach is driving the sheep when the blizzard beds in is more dread-inspiring and consuming than any thriller. 

It’s doubtless overstating things, but Neil M. Gunn is a lost Nobel Laureate.

Ratcatcher chosen by J.M. Walsh of Broodcomb Press as one of his '3 Wyrd Things' for the Wyrd Britain blog

I bought this for next to nothing, and you can still pick up copies for a couple of pounds, which seems remarkable. If ever there was a film deserving of the full pomp of a Eureka Masters of Cinema release, it’s Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Ratcatcher’.

What’s most remarkable is that I’ve seen this film a number of times, and even now the details of it swim about in my memory as if I’m viewing it underwater. Whenever I think about the film, what comes to mind are not films that feel thematically similar but Tarkovsky films: ‘Stalker’ and ‘Mirror’. If pinned down to explain why, I don’t think I could give a coherent answer.

Part of it is the sense I have that – for all ‘Ratcatcher’s anchorage to a particular time and place (and politics) – the film becomes archetypal. Set in Glasgow in 1973 at a time of strikes, redevelopment and relocation, I’ve the feeling I’m watching a film that has deep bones that reach far into human experience. Made in 1999, the film looks back a quarter of a century but equally could be a document of a centuries-old way of life.

There are two scenes in particular that stand out as moments that are both resonant and weird. I won’t describe them in detail. The first concerns one of the adult characters, seen after an act of violence (and I suspect retributive violence) that points to a world the young protagonist will doubtless inherit. It is a moment of glimpsed dread that worked its way into my dreams when I first saw the film.

The second concerns the fate of Kenny, a mouse, who goes on a journey, footage of which (strangely and impossibly) exists—

Spoonfed Hybrid chosen by J.M. Walsh of Broodcomb Press as one of his '3 Wyrd Things' for the Wyrd Britain blog.
Spoonfed Hybrid

I bought this on vinyl when it came out, and although the vinyl was lost the album has remained one I never tire of listening to, and still sounds inventive and new. The wealth of ideas in Spoonfed Hybrid is remarkable considering they were a duo; the album sounds as though Pale Saints, a string quartet, a coldwave outfit and Jan ┼ávankmajer were in the same accident and they all walked away essentially unharmed—

I’ve never got to the bottom of the lyrics, and even today details are new. (In writing this, it’s only now (28 years later) that I’ve realised ‘Boys in Zinc’ must be a reference to the extraordinary book by Svetlana Alexievich about the experiences of Russian boys and men in Afghanistan.) The songs surprise me every time I listen to them: I’ve heard them so many times yet they always feel subtly different, new. I understand intellectually they haven’t changed in the meantime, but emotionally I’m not quite so certain—

‘A Pocketful of Dust’ is a case in point. I’ve no idea what it’s about, yet the tale the song tells is one I know at the level of my own lived experience. It’s a torch song, weird and committed, yet also a dark folk tale. ‘Boys in Zinc’ is beautiful, and the closing seconds spiral upwards. ‘Messrs. Hyde’ – only on the accompanying 7” – is (ironically considering the album was not released on 4AD) two minutes of disquieting piano-led anxiety that contains elements of ‘The Serpent’s Egg’-era Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil and Bauhaus. And I’m reasonably certain other admirers of the album would reject those entirely in favour of another three, perfectly-valid comparisons.

Strangely, the album did well in France, and I hear elements even today in bands like Audiac. If the record is referenced at all, however, it’s smoothed into ‘shoegazing’ or dismissed as ‘dreampop’. Spoonfed Hybrid is neither; it’s a beautiful and unsettlingly strange album that was never repeated.


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Sunday, 24 October 2021

The Danny Roberts Show

Wyrd Britain reviews 'The Danny Roberts Show' from Dramarama Spooky.
The ITV children's television series 'Dramarama' launched itself into a nations nightmares with it's inaugural 'Spooky' series of seven chillers including the fabulous Alan Garner scripted haunted house story 'The Keeper' and an episode, 'The Exorism of Amy'  which I must admit terrified a young me.  This episode, the series' third, subjects a deeply unpleasant late night radio DJ, played with smarmy abandon by Nicholas Ball (Hazell) to a series of phonecalls from quite literally the caller from Hell (Christopher Reich) while his harrassed and bullied producer, played by Gwyneth Strong (Nothing But The Night), remains oblivious to these calls assuming him to be simply cracking under the weight of his own ego and of course she may well be right.

Wyrd Britain reviews 'The Danny Roberts Show' from Dramarama Spooky.
There's some great soundwork here - and a groovy eighties pop soundtrack including Japan's 'Ghosts' over the end credits - and strong performances throughout including by Godfrey James, who had a great career in movies and TV beloved of us here including Witchfinder General, The Oblong BoxThe Blood on Satan's ClawThe Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth's Core and Doctor Who: Underworld, as the security guard Vernon and a tiny cameo from Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire) as the announcer.  Despite this the episode never really quite manages to elicit any real sense of trepidation which with it's confined setting it could have done so easily and as can be seen from some other episodes from the 'Spooky' series the producers had no real qualms about traumatising their young audience so a bit of a miss but still an engaging curio.


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Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Heaven's Hill

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Heaven's Hill' by R.B. Russell published by Zagava Books.
R.B. Russell

Ruth and Oliver grew up next door to each other on Heaven's Hill where, with the help of Oliver's invalid mother, they used to play a game of her invention called 'International Travel' that cast the pair as globe trotting adventurers.  Actual adulthood brought a more mundane reality as Ruth became a teacher and Oliver went off to work for - whisper it - GCHQ with an interest in number stations. Mundane that is until Ruth receives a visit from MI5 and learns that Oliver has gone missing following the receipt of some oddly specific messages that, impossibly, bear a striking resemblance to their childhood game.

What follows is a rollicking mash-up of all your favourite ITC shows such as 'The Champions', 'Jason King' and 'The Prisoner' alongside 'The Avengers' and a very healthy serving of 'Sapphire and Steel' through which Russell launches his characters on a mind bending journey through time that allows them to reinvent themselves as uber cool & hip super spies as they trace the source of the enigmatic messages.  

Lots of the comfortable old tropes are present and correct as Ruth and Oliver - at least in one reality - gallivant across countries in a sport car, display a fantastic array of remarkable skills, evade Russian and Chinese spies, come to the aid of a blackmailed air hostess and there's even mention of a dastardly criminal mastermind although, and I have mentioned this to Ray, I can't help but feel that he missed a trick by not including a criminal organisation with an unlikely acronym for a name in there somewhere.  

Don't be fooled though this is no mere pastiche but a love letter to a genre now pretty much consigned to history (and blogs like this one) but one written with an awareness of both it's absurdities and it's joie de vivre as the mundane, workaday Ruth, with her never ending piles of marking and lesson planning, and Oliver, with his slovenly lifestyle, not forgetting the grimy, black bag era spying of the MI5 agents is contrasted beautifully with the day glo adventuring of the 'International Travel' Ruth and Oliver.  

It's hugely good fun and, if like me (and Ray), you grew up intoxicated by the likes of Pertwee, Rigg, McGoohan and McCallum then 'Heaven's Hill' is going to transport you back to that spy-fi heyday of the late 60s and early 70s and leave you yearning for a cravat or cat suit of your very own as you drink martinis for breakfast whilst lighting your imported Turkish cigarettes with the laser lock pick hidden in the heel of your patent leather shoes.  

Available from the publisher at the link above.


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Sunday, 17 October 2021

The Witch's Bottle

Wyrd Britain reviews 'The Witch's Bottle' by Stewart Farrar from the ITV series 'Shadows'.

When Jill (Georgina Kean) and Steve Lancaster (Jasper Jacob) go to stay at their Uncle Mark's house Jill finds herself repulsed by the old oak tree in the garden and troubled by visions of flames.

This, the third episode of the mid 70s Thames Television series 'Shadows', is to my mind one of the gems of the entire run.  Written by Stewart Farrar, author of "What Witches Do" and perhaps the chief popularist of Wicca during the 1970s and 80s this is a light hearted and slightly frivolous tale of a, sort of, haunting and an old wrong remedied which showed that Farrar was willing to embrace the funny side of his obviously deeply held beliefs.

Director Vic Hughes made something of a career out of scaring kids with stints working on 'The Tomorrow People', 'Chocky' and the 'Spooky' first series of Dramarama and here he crafts a gentle spell punctuated by a seance scene that's guaranteed to put the wind up any watching young uns with a fine performance from Kean who would later be seen in kids fantasy programme 'King of the Castle'.  The cast is rounded out by two minor Doctor Who alumni ('The Ice Warriors' & 'The Time Monster' respectively) with a solid, if brief, appearence by Neville Barber (as Uncle Mark) and an enjoyably enigmatic performance from Wendy Gifford as the "herbalist" next door.

Buy it here - UK


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Monday, 11 October 2021


Wyrd Britain reviews Brian Catling's 'Hollow' published by Coronet Books.
Brian Catling

From the acclaimed author of the Vorrh Trilogy comes an epic odyssey following a group of mercenaries hired to escort a divine oracle on a long journey amidst a war between the living and the dead.

Taking it's cue from the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder Brian Catling's new novel following the completion of his Vorrh trilogy journeys across a Europe that is riven by religious turmoil into a land beset by fantastical 'Woebegots' and the forces of the Inquistion.

Barry Follett and his band of mercenaries are tasked with transporting a new oracle to the Das Kagel monastery in whose boundaries the battle depicted in Bruegel's 'The Triumph of Death' is being fought for all time and within whose walls the oracle must be confined.

The oracle is a distorted creature lost in it's own world as are Follett's men, several of whom are distinctly not of that time or place and the world itself feels trapped in a hellish descent that can only be curtailed by the arrival of the oracle at the monastery.

Here Catling has once again created a fascinating and expansive premise which he has, to a point, fashioned into an enjoyable read but in line with it's title 'Hollow' is a little empty.  In it's telling it feels more like a series of vignettes revolving around a vague core idea which I must admit was how I felt about the first Vorrh book too.  As such I came away from it having enjoyed the ride but also wondering about all the dangling threads that were left behind and a wish that Catling had spent a little more time interlacing, developing and, at least occasionally, resolving a few of them.

Buy it here - UK / US.


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Sunday, 3 October 2021

Come and Find Me

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Come and Find Me' from the BBC series 'Leap in the Dark'.
'Leap in the Dark' was a supernatural BBC series shown in the late 70s into 1980.  Over it's 4 seasons it morphed from documentaries to docudramas to, in it's 4th season, pure drama.  This episode is taken from that final season which included episodes written by Alan Garner, Fay Weldon, David Rudkin and, in this instance, Russell Hoban who is perhaps best known around these parts as the author of the post-apocalypse novel 'Riddley Walker'.

Hoban's story gives a writer, Quilling (Alan Dobie - also to be seen in the 1987 adaptation of Robert Aickman's 'The Hospice'), a comission from the producer of a series called, funnily enough 'A Leap in the Dark', to write about a supernatural experience of his own or one from their files., We're never sure which he chooses but presumably it's the latter as he's soon seen chatting with a widowed woman, Mrs Anders (Penelope Lee), haunted by her husband who talks about how it's the very bricks and clay of the house that holds the ghosts.  In line with this idea for Quilling a ghost is "It's what's left behind when you go away and you haven't the strength to take all of yourself with you." But it's left ambiguous here whether that 'leaving' is entirely connected to death as the widow seems as much haunted by the absence of her ... possibly ... still living daughter as she was by the husband and is by the spirits of the young girl and the roundhead soldier that she sees potentially with the aid of spirits of a differnent kind.

With it's very intrusive music, Hoban's purple prose and it's disjointed time hopping narrative 'Come and Find Me' makes for a bit of a frustrating watch and I was glad of it's concise run time but with it's echoes of Nigel Kneale's masterful 'The Stone Tape' and an effectively creepy atmosphere - brought on, at east in part, by the poor quality of the copy - makes it an intriguing one too.


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