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Review: Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler March 5, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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scarfolkI wanted to like this more than I actually did. Not that I disliked it; my expectations were just off a bit.

Richard Littler’s fictional town of Scarfolk is a place where the 1970s never ended. It draws from British culture of the decade — book covers, educational programs, posters, anything else that has inspires nostalgia in British people of a certain age, I guess.

The thing is, that’s hardly unexplored territory. The Ghost Box record label has been mining that for several years now. Their album cover esthetic borrows from the look of 1970s UK books; their music is inspired by early electronic music, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, ’70s educational TV, and a bit of supernatural horror from Lovecraft and Machen through to the late 1960s TV version of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Their albums appear to come from the same universe as each other, but not necessarily this one. There are TV ident logotones on some of them. There’s a Belbury Parish blog. They present an image of a UK where the 1970s are still in effect.

And there’s Moon Wiring Club. Not so much 1970s, but there’s a unique and recognizable world that comes out of their albums, videos, and website, which features the fictional town of Clinkskell.

Scarfolk started as a blog about a fictional 1970s-bound town, presenting artifacts like posters and book covers, and clearly drawing from the same kinds of sources as its more hauntological predecessors. Some have accused Littler of swiping ideas, though apparently he claims not to have been aware of them when he started.

The thing is, he’s doing something rather different. There’s certainly some humour in Ghost Box and Moon Wiring Club, but it’s relatively subtle. Scarfolk is more overtly out for laughs:

Welcome to Scarfolk…

Imagine you and your family are held captive in a town that is forever locked in the 1970s.

If you cannot imagine it, just think what it would be like.*

*For more information please re-read.

That’s from the book’s back cover. I think the difference is that Scarfolk’s predecessors are presenting an alternate reality; Littler is doing the same but sending it up while he does it. He’s not going for believability or subtlety. So, with that kept in mind, the images and texts he creates for the blog, Facebook, etc, are definitely fun. And often funny.

So how about the book?

Discovering Scarfolk repackages a lot of the material from the website, but presents it as documentary evidence supporting an investigation of a missing family built on some notes by the father. Littler creates a plot structure for what otherwise would just be amusing ephemera. It didn’t work all that well for me, though; it’s a the perspective of an outsider on another outsider’s perspective of an odd place. It’s more distanced than a JG Ballard protagonist. But then, it’s common to present stories of old places through the eyes of outsiders — The Wicker Man, which is a touchstone for fans of ’70s UK strangeness, does that. So too do many of Ballard’s novels.

But the book keeps adding on more and more strangeness and absurdity. The art creates an odd and funny world; the book turns everything up to 11, belabouring everything a bit too much. The humour ranges from over the top silliness reminiscent of 1970s Monty Python books to quirky bits that reminded me of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers. Douglas Adams is probably in Scarfolk’s DNA as well.

The main problem with the book is that, although superficially it looks wonderful, the material from the website is reproduced from low resolution graphics. The small print in some posters is hard to read. This stuff is the heart of the book and it doesn’t look as good as it should.

If this seems too negative, well, I was hoping for something more subtle, I guess. I recommend anyone who’s intrigued at all check out the scarfolk.blogspot.ca website and consider giving the book a try. But you have to have at least some knowledge of or interest in 1970s Britain. Otherwise it won’t make much sense at all.