Brutalgie - what's wrong with Scarfolk & this vogue for 1970s aesthetics?

Scarfolk and all that

Recently, there's been quite a bit of publicity and discussion of the book Discovering Scarfolk by the designer and screenwriter Richard Littler, compiled from his blog 

As its blurb says:
Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever. "Visit Scarfolk today. Our number one priority is keeping rabies at bay...."

Now the first thing that anyone who's got some idea about alternative music and 'hauntology' (I dislike the term) will think is: 'This is like Ghost Box, but taking the pee'. And yes, that's what I think. And I suppose I should lighten up, and appreciate it for what it is - comedy. An amusing book to have on the toilet shelf which reminds you of the 1970s and early 80s, with its heavily municipal theme and echoes of The Wickerman and the League of Gentlemen. The Telegraph, Independent, and other broadsheets have lapped it up.

I presume most people who haven't followed the admittedly obscure Ghost Box label and the imagery and films of Julian House won't immediately think, 'Well, The Belbury Poly magazine did this years ago'.
o.k. I know I sound like a music snob...

But this is why I'm uneasy about Scarfolk and its concept:

1. It's all a bit obvious and too deliberately silly.

The mocked up information leaflets are clever and well done, with an appropriate 'archive' feel such as a pinkish tinge at the edge of 35mm film, or the creases and folds on the leaflets, to make them look like they were kept in a drawer in the telephone table in the hallway. The use of familiar items from that era - the Radio Times, the Penguin covers, the blood donor cards, does make the reader/viewer think twice. I could imagine picking up a copy of 'Children and Hallucinogens' on that stall that sells old Penguins on a Soho street or in a dusty bookshop, and the mocked up cover is perhaps the one most likely to look like it's real. (compare the actual real cover of a book about comprehensive schools that I discussed in an earlier post):

But the running themes of rabies, crazy children, horrible death and state surveillance are so obviously stated that for me they're not funny. 

In one respect, I shouldn't compare these with the aesthetic of Ghost Box, as the two have completely different purposes and are two different art forms. But Scarfolk obviously owes so much to it, while only scraping its surface.

Julian House is so much more subtle and more genuine to the aesthetics and more surreal and psychedelic remnants of that era that his films and images are in fact more scary and disturbing than those in Scarfolk. I went to an ICA showing of House's short films this time last year, where Bob Stanley held a Q & A with him. House was very open about his choice of references and images from a specific set of years - not before, nor after - (alas I've forgotten what the date range was - 1973-8???). And no, hauntology wasn't mentioned. Rather, House expressed a genuine desire to try to capture the essence of that era, but not the brutalism but rather the edgelands - much of his imagery is natural: a swaying branch in the wind on a railway siding; a winter sun shining over an overgrown playing field, descending into abstract kaleidoscopic shapes.

I like the surrealism and psychedelic elements of House's approach, as with the music of the Advisory Circle, Belbury Poly and the other artists on Ghost Box. It is multi-layered, there to be explored, subtle and therefore also disturbing.

I think I became first interested in these aesthetics because they recall a book I was given at primary school, Multiworlds, a proper 1970s piece of experimental education as part of something called the 'Nelson Language Stimulus Program'. The headteacher cleared out these remnants of a more freethinking form of education to make room in the storecupboard for all the new regimented textbooks required by the newly instigated National Curriculum. 

Multiworlds: a weird 1970s children's textbook

He offered me the book, perhaps thinking I would appreciate its alternative approach to creative writing and thinking. And so I did. I became fascinated by its weird images and collages, which I hope to upload on this blog soon. 

Whereas Scarfolk is all a bit 'crap towns' really.
Again in the same way that the Crap Towns series is far removed from the actual appreciation of the aesthetics of council estates and motorways and ordinary working-class life as expressed in the art of George Shaw or even the photographs of Martin Parr.

2. Where's the politics?

Though the blog/book plays around with themes of the nuclear war threat, fear of immigrants, and government surveillance, I wonder whether it is symptomatic of a more general trend, ostalgie (Brutalgie?) without the politics.  

There seems to be a proliferation of tumblrs and blogs that celebrate the aesthetics of the 1960s and 70s, and particularly its concrete, its greyness, its Helvetica public information leaflets, its brownness, its rain. If you follow one on twitter, then you end up following them all, and then your twitter feed ends up a long litany of bits of crumbling concrete and artily shot greyness, or everything looking like a fight in an imaginary Instagram factory.

For example,

As is the problem with Tumblr, it's purely a visual collage. There is no context, no explanation, no real discussion of the aesthetics and their meaning, especially for the people who lived those lives in those concrete surroundings shown in the faded photos, postcards and leaflets.

I must make the distinction here between Modernism and  Brutalism. Both are of course connected, and appreciants of both blur into each other. There are some cracking blogs and studies of Modernism and modernist architecture around, which do place their appreciations within a wider historical and political context.

(I don't know if it's indicative of anything, but Manchester Modernist Society - who produce a wonderful periodical and are currently campaigning against the gating of Library Walk - produce two badges. One is 'modernist'; the other 'brutalist'. And it's the brutalist one that has sold out...)

But I think the current vogue for Brutalism is something slightly different. Leaving aside Owen Hatherley's constant interrogation of the Brutal (which he does well and with the right historical/political references), (and definitely leaving even further aside Jonathan Meade's provocative defence of the Brutal as necessary) it all seems to me, dare I say it, hipsterish, in the sense of appropriating the aesthetics, pretending the ugliness of the era is beautiful in a semi-ironic way, only to discard it later when the next trend comes along.

At least Hatherley, in his regular trips to the former Soviet relics of Poland, acknowledges his appreciation for socialism, and you can either like or reject his views on that basis. But for these other adherents, it's all about the aesthetics.

Let's take an image retweeted a bit last week, which is also included in the all of a tremble tumblr.

brochure for Rochdale bus station, built 1976.
This is a GMT brochure for the new bus station in Rochdale, which opened in 1976. This image appears in the tumblrs, retweeted by the various modernists, and yes it's fun and evocative of that time, but it also doesn't represent what the actual place meant to the people who stood in the queue to the council office or waiting for a bus.

Unlike the campaign to save Preston bus station, no one has mourned the demolition of Rochdale Bus Station and 'The Black Box' council offices in 2014 (link to the excellent 'Mainstream Modern' website). I do like the sense of foreboding in the nuclear-pink sky on the front cover. And, as a child in the 1980s, the elevated covered bridge linking the council office to M & S seemed quite futuristic to me. But having accumulated hundreds of hours waiting for buses in that drafty and piss-soaked bus station (even with the Bruce Springsteen impersonator to entertain us, day after day, year after year), I, and I suspect the majority of Rochdalians, shed no tears for its demolition.

Scarfolk is set on the eve of Thatcherism, at the precipice before the very municipal socialism/surveillance of many councils was destroyed. These made up public information leaflets and posters echo a state that the left tried to defend and the right destroyed, for better or for worse. The originals which they caricature (but don't satirise) represent an era of when the local council and the NHS did attempt to have a far reach in everyone's lives, for the benefit of the many. It was also an era of class solidarity as well as division. It was an era of a real pervading fear of nuclear war caused by the Big Powers.
But the blog/book covers these in a superficial way, as a quick joke rather than making a point.

A simulacre, a surface aesthetic, that is all.

And what does it say about today? A lazy parallel with state surveillance or an obsession with immigration, maybe, but little else. o.k. o.k. I know it's just comedy, but I wish it could be more than that.

Anyway, I'll still keep going with my interest in modernism - hey not least because I walk past this beauty every day: while I hope for the awful concrete former post office depot opposite to be demolished soon.

And I'll keep following all the Modernist and Brutalist twitters and blogs. Here are some of them:


Blogs & websites:

John Grindrod:

Manchester Modernist Society:

Mainstream Modern:

Ghostbox Records:

Jamie Sexton, 'Weird Britain in Exile: Ghost Box, Hauntology and Alternative Heritage', Popular Music and Society (2012)


Recommended Twitter accounts:



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