The Creeping Terror Of Childhood

An interview with Richard Littler, creator of Scarfolk

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: Where, when, why is Scarfolk?

Richard Littler: Scarfolk is a town stuck in a perpetual loop of the 1970s. It’s in the northwest of England, but it could be almost anywhere in Britain. I created it because I’m in interested in, amongst other things, memory and how it changes. Memories are relative; they give the illusion of objectivity, but of course they’re actually highly subjective, dynamically so, and are defined as much by the changing present as the past.

I initially wanted to preserve my earliest childhood memories before I lose them completely. I wanted to create an archive of sorts. But I’m also a bit like that Spanish woman who botched the Ecce Homo painting and created 'potato Jesus' – I fill in the inevitable gaps in memories and ultimately create something different to a ‘restoration’. But I don’t mind that I’m not objective or that my ‘gap-filling’ leans toward the grotesque because subjectivity is inevitable.

DA: Your work acerbically, surreally and almost lovingly resurrects long buried childhood memories of the netherworld that was the Seventies. It's like rooting around in an attic or the Freudian subconscious, finding stuff you might not want to find. Do you find a sense of beauty or just repulsion in the muted palettes, the extinct brands and peculiarities of seventies design?

RL: I do find beauty in the creases and tears and poor printing technologies. There’s a Japanese aesthetic, Wabi-sabi ,which focuses on impermanence and transience, which interests me, but I think it’s more than just being a ‘fan of decomposition’ per se; the aging of physical artifacts, such as books and even sound recordings, that you have lived with, are made more personal by their flaws. Aging personalizes them. There’s a jarring feeling when I see an edition of a book I own, but it’s someone else’s copy. Likewise with an LP: before digitisation I became so familiarized with the specific crackles and skips on my own record that hearing someone else’s with its own distinctive crackles didn’t sound quite right.

Nowadays, things don’t decay. Identical files are shared among thousands of people and don’t become personalized through aging.

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DA: How important is it for Scarfolk to appear as if it had existed?

RL: I think it’s crucial, otherwise readers can’t connect with it. There has to be an initial feeling of recognition: “Oh, I remember that!” quickly followed by “Actually, I’m not sure if I do remember it that way at all.” Clashing recognition and unfamiliarity produces confusion and receptiveness. While the reader is looking for answers and something to grasp on to, I pour in the invented histories.

DA: With nostalgia, we tend to forget the worse aspects of growing up or we try to find some cathartic point as to why they happened (it may us tougher). We forget or try to forget how dreadful it was at times, the mix of boredom and Lovecraftian creeping terror. What do you think went wrong in the 70s? Was their truth in the dystopian public information films of the time?

RL: I think of Scarfolk as ‘anti-nostalgia’ in the sense that nostalgia often suggests a fondness for the past, but Scarfolk doesn’t see the past through rose-tinted spectacles at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Scarfolk is not intended to make you forget the ‘creeping terror’ of childhood, I wanted to underline it. I don’t know what other peoples’ childhoods were like but I recall being profoundly uneasy quite a lot. I suffered from night terrors, so a surreal nightmarish pall was cast over everything and it was subsequently exacerbated by what we were subjected to: the public information films, for example.

What went wrong in the 70s is a big question. I think the historian Dominic Sandbrook calls the 70s the first true decade of modernism. Society decided to do away with the old and attempt something new, but it didn’t have any conception whatsoever of the potential consequences of its new ideas. It may have had good intentions (“we want kids to be safe”), but was misguided and made errors (“we’ll terrify them into submission”).

DA: What do you think of the idea that the past and memory itself are partialyl fiction, stories we tell ourselves?

RL: I completely agree, as I suggested earlier. Psychologically (and even culturally) we’re constantly writing and rewriting our own histories. Because of their subjectivity, two people can’t even agree on events they’ve both only just experienced, never mind a more distant event.

DA: How does this fit in with your method of working (finding and taking inspiration from relics from the archive)?

RL: I have to start with my own fragmented memories. I can’t begin to second guess what someone else's memories of the 70s might be, though I made the assumption that there must have been shared experiences: being sick at home from school with bottles of Lucozade; watching certain TV programmes (back when there were only 3 channels and everyone did watch the same TV programmes), etc. It’s also important that I choose fragments that have the greatest potential for memory gaps (so that I have more scope for fiction). I don’t go after more recognizable, obvious, or even cliched icons of the period: You probably won’t see ABBA, discos, the Bay City Rollers or funky fashions in Scarfolk. I try to revive that which is either forgettable or, better, that which you don’t want to remember, pharmaceutical packaging and school text books, for example.

DA: I read somewhere that certain apes smile as an act of submission, to prevent attack. There's a definite relationship between fear and humour in your Scarfolk project. It gets pretty dark yet it seems to get funnier as it does so. Are we creatures fuelled by schadenfreude?

RL: I was one of those kids who would try to make people laugh to avoid being bullied, and in those moments fear and humour are inextricably connected.

With Scarfolk, however, I didn’t aim to be funny as such. My prime goal was absurdity which is very flexible: nudge it one way and it’s funny, push it another and it’s nightmarish. If I can get the two playing off each other, then I’ve done my job properly. But I also don’t mind if a post falls definitively on either side of the fence: There’s as much a place in Scarfolk for the patently silly as there is for the horrific.

The effect is of course inextricably linked to Schadenfreude. It is one of the most fundamental building blocks of humour: the glee felt seeing someone fall over; the crying clown. Scarfolk tries to tread a more sinister path. If there is a laugh it's an uneasy one because you become aware of your own potential for darkness: laughing at Scarfolk’s horrendous attitudes towards women or minorities is intended to bring you right up close to the mirror. You ask yourself why you’re amused by it.

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DA: What real-life works from the 1970s would you see as precursors to Scarfolk?

RL: If you mean something that intentionally rewrites the past, I can’t think of anything that is a tangible 1970s precursor to Scarfolk. But there are of course influences from that period. Monty Python is in there somewhere: I recently saw the ‘architect sketch’ again after many years and I see an obvious lineage. But in terms of conscious surreal nostalgia, the first thing that comes to mind is The Beatles in 1967, the year they produced the Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums. It’s one of the first times, at least that I can think of, in mainstream culture that contemporary surrealism was attached to an intentional looking back. Many of the songs refer to the late Victorian and Edwardian eras of The Beatles’ parents and grandparents, and the wartime of their own childhoods. In the early 70s this surreal looking back continues, though in a different way, with works like Pennies from Heaven by Dennis Potter.

DA: Given we were immersed in the Seventies during the Seventies, we lacked a sense of perspective to see it for what it was. A lot of what occurred then seems thankfully to have been abolished by progress, for want of a better word. Yet in opposition to this idea of ever-upward progress is that fact that certain factors keep rearing their heads, almost in cycles, whether Fortean occurrences or economic austerity. Might we be currently residing in just a nice suburban area of Scarfolk right now? Do you ever think we will go back to full-blown Scarfolk or, dare I say it, worse? How much of the everyday is there in there?

RL: If you look at the 1970s from a historical point of view, it certainly seems like we’re currently revisiting some of the developments of that decade. Culture seems to work in cycles and negative ideas or developments always have the potential to become worse than their earlier incarnations, in part perhaps because of technological advancements. For example, the unsophisticated car bomb of the 1970s has the potential to be much bigger, dirtier and have a far greater reach in the 21st century. Of course, positive cultural attributes are affected by the same speed of development, so it’s swings and roundabouts. There are positive things about the modern world that I could reference but don’t, such as a wider acceptance of once societal fringes into the mainstream. 

That said, Scarfolk is intentionally cynical, and I think we are probably currently living in a Scarfolkian environment to a certain extent. There’s lots we should be concerned about and should keep an eye on, and I often try to incorporate contemporary events into the posts to draw a comparison with and reflect the past. Addressing the extent to which surveillance has infiltrated our daily lives, Orwell might be tempted to say ‘I told you so’; the recent illegal immigrant ‘Go Home’ vans and text messages would make Enoch Powell proud. The only thing we don’t know right now is if these signs are dying echoes of the past or the beginnings of something altogether more ominous.