Stone Tape Listening Party

I listened to The Battersea Poltergeist, and I also read a novel in a similar mood. Since the grand finale of the former will happen tomorrow night (April 9th) I better get my opinions in now ahead of it.

First of all, although it is not stated explicitly anywhere in the surrounding media material, it is pretty clear that the story is a Ghostwatch-style fictional-ghost story-as-pseudodocumentary. In fact the only real update we have on the 1992 yarn about Pipes and his hauntings is that it’s now a multi-platform event and the viewers at home can get involved by tweeting theories etc.

I’ve always felt the Gold Standard of real-unreal broadcasting was the 1980s Radio 4 “investigative journalism” comedy Delve Special starring the young Stephen Fry just before he became a household name. I don’t doubt that if I heard it now it wouldn’t be so funny, but it did stick to the rules of being an entirely self-contained deception that never acknowledged it was simply a performance. The credits always said “Studio Production by Stephen Fry”; the promotional article in Radio Times kept straight-faced. I’ve never quite been able to buy into the idea that Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci were breaking the mould entirely with On The Hour a few years later because… well, if you’re admitting you’re not a real news programme then you’re not trying as hard as Delve Special, are you? The radio version of People Like Us got it right, creating a show that could at first casual listen pass for an example of what it was parodying. Morris, Coogan and Iannucci always had to overload and go a bit hysterical, sounding like they couldn’t trust the audience.

The Battersea Poltergeist is meeting this standard of unreality, in that it is not (yet) admitting to being phoney. Of course if the story were well-known it would already be well-known through popular sources on “the paranormal” such as the 1970s Usborne books, like Borley Rectory or the Enfield Poltergeist. The show does meet that issue early on by drawing in the Enfield story and reviewing it. There are some obvious dodges to make the story uncheckable – “63 Wycliffe Road” is declared to be no longer standing, for example. That detail is not absolutely impossible – quite a few bomb-damaged streets were truncated in the post-war reconstruction of blitzed London, although less likely for a property that supposedly existed until at least 1968. The reference to a TV show meeting with Cliff Michelmore is cleverly linked to a statement Cliff made in a later interview – again, it’s not implausible that an interview recorded in the mid 50s would not be preserved.

The dramatisations of events occurring in the 1950s suffer the usual modern defect of anachronistic language and phrasing (“I’m on it” and other clangers) but that’s authentic for drama made in 2021, no one is pretending these are contemporary tapes. Was Tizer available in cans in 1956, were “Green Room” and “Rorschach test” phrases to trip off the tongue so easily? – doesn’t matter. The fact that the amateur paranormal investigator easily veers off into a boring story of the ghost as the dead son of Louis XVI is depressingly likely. It’s quite tiresome to hear the term “hardcore sceptic” thumped around so much, and have so many lectures about the failure of science to consider alternative explanations, from voices who have no difficulty and no doubts about applying their own off-the-peg myth-theories.

There was already a TV version of the Enfield poltergeist, eerily called… The Enfield Poltergeist, but it is also one of the sources feeding in to the play/film Ghost Stories. My favourite recycling of that segment of modern British history is in The Indelicates’ album Juniverbrecher, which identifies the poltergeist as Jimmy Savile. That is of course the correct answer to the mystery.

Unfortunately the other supernatural thing I encountered this week turns out to be something everyone else knew about 6 months ago. I heard about it in January but I had a vague idea I wasn’t so very far behind the story.

The cover design of The Apparition Phase is jolly good, and does succeed in evoking the world of 70s paranormalising paperbacks – although the one it puts me most in mind of was actually about aliens, not poltergeists.

FUN FACT: Clive Harold went to the same school as Prince Charles, and he ended up losing all the money he made from sensational journalism and bestsellers, and so Charlie met him again in a homeless hostel he was visiting in the 1990s.

The Apparition Phase is set in the early 70s, and although of course it is presenting itself as a novel, it does otherwise aspire to the highest standards of incidental realism outside of the creaky floorboard devices. The Acknowledgements at the end state that some decent people such as Tim Worthington did some detail-checking, I’m sure they looked at the one thing I wondered might be definitely wrong, and also confirmed that, yes, actually Planet Of The Spiders was the Doctor Who story in progress on May 25th 1974. Some other points did make me wonder though: both 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange are cited as cinematic references that the mid-teenaged narrator was familiar with circa 1972 – but how could he have seen them, other than going to cinemas where he would not have been allowed in to the screenings? Would Malcolm Muggeridge have been talking to Germaine Greer so early in her career as a Controversial Figure? That seems more like the version of 70s TV we get in The Day Today and Brass Eye, where racist sitcoms play on BBC1/ITV in parallel with the biggest highbrows of the moment on BBC2 simultaneously – not actually what a typical night’s viewing would offer in 1973. The reference to the “Jef the Mongoose” story is slightly off: it was a big news story in the 1930s, not 40s. One aspect of it that the narrator would not have known is that that saga was influential on the young Nigel Kneale, growing up on the Isle Of Man at the time. Kneale wrote The Stone Tape, which is clearly signalled as a reference point in this text.

This novel is really 2 novels stuck together. On the one hand, we have a story about 70s teenagers playing with strange new ideas for a bit of fun and then getting in to serious troubles. On the other hand, we have a Paranormal Experiment In A Haunted House, which will also have to come to a sticky end. It couldn’t possibly end in a flat disappointment, not unless we were operating with an omniscient narrator who could give us observers a closing reveal about the supernatural element that was hidden in plain sight all along. This is not that story. The first story is also not quite the story of “rationalists” coming up against the reality of Things They Don’t Understand. That’s been a cliche of “serious” or “literary” fiction since about the 80s now. It’s so boring to know that the atheists are predestined to be wrong, can’t God ever have a bit of fun making it look like they’re correct about some appalling charlatan, for a change.

Tim and Abigail Smith are twins absorbed in their private world of weirdness and wonder. They have amassed a lot of lore about the supernatural, from trawling in bookshops (who pays for it? They don’t have jobs, and their parents aren’t indicated as being able to give them much pocket money). They are said to be unpopular and friendless at school, but we see little about this, until Tim become briefly entangled with bullies and a teenage gang. The bridge between the 2 stories of the book is that Tim’s psychologist introduces him to the investigation going on at the haunted house. The description of the psychologist is curious: he’s a long-haired hippy who has already settled down from his wandering days to become a respectable mind-doctor, which is fast work if he’s got himself set up by 1974 after being a drop-out no more than 5 years earlier. Young Tim judges him as a casualty of the folk-rock world – but how would he know about that? We’ve had no indication he listens to the cool new sounds or reads NME (it turns up at the house later, but Tim doesn’t seem too familiar), he never mentions going to any gigs with or without Abi.

The world of Tim and Abi is eerily familiar as it seems to have more in common with another 70s reference not cited here: Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, a story of the Lost Children growing up in the irreligious Garden Of Earthly Delights suggested in the 60s counterculture, and developing their own shocking secrets. McEwan himself drew in the paranormal and science fiction in his later novels The Child In Time and Black Dogs, which also pictured the children of the cultural liberation going on to find strange powers and mysteries, and evil forces, still waiting to be encountered out in the world. The film version of The Cement Garden grasped that the story wasn’t tied to the 70s, bringing in fashions and devices from the yuppie 80s, bringing out the dream-sense of the line

“It’s funny but I’ve lost all sense of time. Feels like it’s always been like this.”

That sensation is latent in another, special kind of fantasy: the world of the space-within-space, the hidden room that is only visible at certain moments or to selected observers. M.R.James used it in a few stories, but an underrated example is the wonderful second novel by fantasist David Lindsay, The Haunted Woman. Lindsay is most famous for the epic, and epically overcooked, metaphysical journey of A Voyage To Arcturus, but I think his most powerful work is just in the atmosphere of pure strangeness-in-the-familiar condensed in the line

“Are we dreaming now, or were we dreaming before?”

It is probably not a coincidence that The Haunted Woman is the only one of Lindsay’s novels to be edited and greatly shortened by someone else. Dream-time was also the time-world of J.W.Dunne’s “serial universe”, which Tim and Abi have read about. Some of his bedside scribblings in An Experiment In Time were more interesting than the theories he built around them; ever since I read it I have wanted to know what the detective Earheart was investigating.

The story of Abi and Tim does not go further into the possibilities of their relationship, or how they could have interacted with other kids of their age and the relationships they were having. We’ve got a haunted house to get to, and of course the story we’ve been told about it is baloney, I saw that one coming a mile off, though the reveal about the nature of the experiment is not quite what I expected. Did any cars have tape decks fitted in the mid 70s? I doubt it, but never mind. It’s not quite The Stone Tape-in reverse that I thought it might be. I admire the plucky youngsters, who are mostly public school caricatures, for getting around the house so bravely and easily by candlelight after the fusebox was smashed up.

Of course if we’re looking for hidden messages that are hidden in plain sight, don’t forget that The Stone Tape has a big theme running through it that modern viewers might not care about: the decline of British manufacturing. The reason so many research scientists have been sequestered in an old house is to brainstorm ideas for a company that is losing ground badly to Japanese competition. That’s why one of them does that racist impersonation at one point, which may be getting alluded to in The Apparition Phase when one of the youngsters also does a funny “oriental” voice. I can’t find the page that was on.

I can find the page of one other moment that I thought might be a faint allusion to something else: at the bottom of page 213:

“Is there appropriate weather for a seance?” said Neil.

which I wondered might be a very arch reference to this story of a girl being abducted: Seance On A Wet Afternoon. I did not make a note of the page when I thought about that, but when I had to check it just now the book inexplicably opened on just the page I was looking for.

The Uncanny, there. Page 213 is about halfway through the book, and hardback books tend to flop open at the middle, but never mind about that. “Rational explanation” is redundant, since all explanations are reason-giving, the subset dubbed “rational” just means “in terms of the familiar”, but even that allows for instability in familiar things. There’s more in this world than you can imagine, and there’s also less than you can imagine, and there’s dialeithical theories of truth that say contradictions are ok. Of course “rationalism” isn’t so terrible if your model is J.B.S.Haldane rather than Richard Dawkins. The picture at the start is a section from the famous “Ghost Monk Of Newby” photograph that Abi and Tim try to recreate. Not the scary bit, of course.

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