Archive for February, 2016

Are sinister forces at work behind the scenes of local music festival?

festival stage

The origins of ‘The Old Duddy Music Festival’ are shrouded in mystery, some claim secrecy, yet it has been an important date in the Lethmachen calendar for generations. Most likely it commemorates some significant event in local history long since forgotten, its true meaning assimilated into a generic celebration. But that does not mean that the festival has been without its controversies over the years, in fact until recently there was a fair amount of organised, vocal opposition to its annual staging. At odds with most of our home-grown events, the ‘Old Duddy Festival’ actually drew people from outside the area, and a central concern of its detractors was that, as a free festival, it attracted the ‘wrong types’ to Lethmachen. There was usually some trouble with the police, complaints about traffic congestion and lack of proper facilities, besides which these ‘outsiders’ didn’t seem to dress or to think like us. Impromptu ‘all night raves’ would inevitably follow the official festivities, and the music heard drifting or reverberating across the town and fields would be unfamiliar to most ears, seeming to hail from another planet, or at least another country.

But those were different times. Five years ago, local business entrepreneur Sol Baron purchased ‘Pleasant Farm’ and its sprawling acres of land from the ailing Idle family, who were struggling under heavy debts (most Lethmachen residents will have known the farm as ‘Idle Farm’ or ‘Idol Farm’). By scaling down staff and streamlining output, Mr Baron soon engineered an upswing in the farm’s fortunes and one of his first, most profitable initiatives was securing the rights to both the name and the staging of ‘The Old Duddy Music Festival’. Traditionally the festival had been located in The Parish Hall and was a rather small-scale, some would insist ‘underground’ or ‘subversive’ event, featuring a cosmopolitan line-up lured by word of mouth. However, by manipulating the methods of crop rotation on his lands, Mr Baron was able to make available a sea of fields in which to re-settle the festival. Through this means he was able to dramatically expand the festival, whilst simultaneously attracting more investment through increased advertising and alliances with big business. The result has been an unprecedented success. ‘The Old Duddy Festival’ has rapidly become a beloved, household name and attracts thousands of consumers every summer. In contrast to the old days, the line-ups now boast the most expensive stars in the industry and the on-site stalls are operated by big name brands rather than unknown amateurs. Naturally all this activity has led to a huge hike in ticket prices, but this does not seem to have affected its popularity in the slightest. “It’s all about re-branding” Mr Baron explained to The Lethmachen Echo “When I was growing up, even people in this town didn’t really know what ‘The Old Duddy Festival’ was. I certainly never went. Most of us thought of it as this scary gathering of weird people from strange places who liked arty, obscure things. But I recognised there was an opportunity there. All the name needed was a bit of polishing, a cleansing of its undesirable elements, so to speak. Of course promotion is important too, it is vital for the investors, but also for your potential market. With a bit of television coverage, a bit of radio, you can sell the idea to the ordinary punter. Once they are reassured that attending a festival is not a frightening thing, once they see that the people next door are doing it, then they don’t want to miss out on the experience. And of course you don’t have to be a business mastermind to realise there is no profit in a free festival. People are too savvy nowadays; they know that if something is free then it is not worth having. No, they would rather pay for something and get a decent, professional product. That said, nobody could claim that the ‘Old Duddy Festival’ has become safe and boring; believe me it’s still a bit of a walk on the wild side! Those fields can get really muddy you know!”

There are, as always, dissenters to such accepted opinion. Some claim that Mr Baron is in fact offering a bastardised, diluted product – that he has betrayed the very essence of the original festival whilst profiting from the historical associations of its name. Unsigned musicians without industry backing claim that slots on the bill are no longer available to them. Independent traders are finding that they have been priced out of their pitches by the likes of Starbucks and Subway. Simmering just beneath the surface there are other controversies, other conflicts, that could perhaps have even more serious implications. The statistics are alarming: the last three years have seen a small but consistent rise in the number of ‘missing persons’ cases linked to the ‘Old Duddy Festival’. It is possible that this trend could be traced back further yet, due to the nomadic or anti-establishment lifestyles led by many festival-goers in the past, this has not been documented. However, those who have disappeared over recent years are all affluent professionals or students from upper middle class backgrounds – the type of people whose absence will be reported. At the time of writing, as another summer, another festival season approaches, these cases remain unresolved. Indeed, there is no firm evidence that any of the individuals concerned even reached the ‘Old Duddy Festival’ as intended. Yet an apparent eye witness to one such disappearance has recently come forward with his own version of events. True, the student himself confesses to being ‘under the influence’ of various substances throughout the weekend, nevertheless this does not mean we should dismiss his entire story as without merit:

“We had wandered away from the main stage. For some reason they had booked one of those hip-hop or grime artists – you know, the kind of music that nobody here wants. We ended up somewhere round the back in this big, empty field – just me and Jezzer and Izzy. You could hear the sounds of the festival in the distance but they were fading fast, being overtaken by the natural silence of the night. We were all pretty wasted and I remember that, just before it started, Izzy had said ‘‘Amazing! Look at all the stars!’’ We all stood quiet and contemplated for a moment, and that was when we first became aware of this faint, unearthly music. Although we immediately tried to categorize it, to put it into some historical context, none of us could find the words or pinpoint exactly where it was coming from. Perhaps we were all hearing something slightly different because I remember Jezzer said he could hear singing along with the instrumentation – “a voice that sounds really old, even older than the voice James Bay uses”. At times it seemed like the music was everywhere, all around us, yet the three of us instinctively, unconsciously took the same path across the fields. I don’t know, perhaps we had all been hypnotised…sort of compelled. Personally, I think I was following some weird strain of pipe music. It was nothing like the indie music I would usually listen to, instead it had a sort of dark, foreign air, like something I had heard whilst travelling. Oh and there were smells too, scents that seemed to be rising from the earth…exotic, enticing aromas of cooking; spices and herbs that we all failed to identify, although we enjoy good food. “The music…it’s coming from underground!” whispered Jezzer. “Yes…yes…there are cracks in the earth…I can see lights…I can hear voices” agreed Izzy enthusiastically. My friends were a few feet ahead of me. I must have tripped on a tussock…fallen…passed out. Like I said, I was pretty out of it that night. But before it all went black I’m sure I caught a final glimpse of Jezzer and Izzy descending into one of those glowing fissures in the ground. Either lowering themselves or being pulled down, I can’t say for certain. Only when I came to in the dawn there was no music, no subterranean gullies, and no Jezzer and Izzy. I was cold and alone – lying on my back in this barren, dew soaked field in a kind of ring of weathered grass”.


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Did controversial local psychic predict an unsolved murder?


Perhaps this is all a hoax. That is not for us to judge, that is for the reader to decide. However, what our writers can confirm is that a murder did indeed take place, and in circumstances that remain unexplained. The body of retired farm labourer Brian Quinn was discovered in a perimeter field, pinned to the earth by his own pitchfork. We can also verify some supporting evidence. The psychic who calls herself ‘La Llorna’ most certainly exists, although the true extent of her precognitive powers is open to debate. Our local broadcaster, Radio Wan, corroborates that she appeared as a guest on their ‘New Year’s Eve Show’, although that is all they will corroborate. In fact, when we contacted the studio we were brusquely informed that the recording of that particular show had been ‘accidentally wiped’. Last week, in the wake of Quinn’s murder, the following handwritten letter was found slipped beneath the door of what passes for our office (the location of which is supposedly secret to all but the handful of lost souls who work here). Heartfelt confession or heartless hoax? Read on and make up your own mind….

“It was on the stroke of midnight that I heard my name spoken. I think it was only said once, although I cannot be certain, and that is what has been troubling me. It’s not as if I can ask anyone else. They would think me crazy and, besides, I doubt that many were listening. Not at that time, not on New Year’s Eve. Judging from the carnivalesque clamour I heard rising outside my window, most people were celebrating with friends at swarming bars or enjoying intimate house parties. Whilst those too jaded or insecure to leave the house were no doubt comforting themselves in front of the television, perhaps watching the ‘Annual Hootenanny’ presented by that semi-cultured froglet of a man. Not me, however. I was listening to our local radio station, Radio Wan. I never miss a show by Glory Allan, she hosts the late show and she’s my favourite. Sometimes I like to turn off all the lights in the flat and listen to her in the dark. She has a beautiful, melodic voice – rich with empathy, with understanding, with kindness. She’s not like the others, not like those Jo Whiley’s or Edith Bowman’s, who make you feel nauseous and depressed as soon as they open their ignorant, artless mouths. I saw Glory Allan in Sainsbury’s once. She made sensible selections from every aisle, nothing pretentious or fattening, and all in single portions. She lives in that new complex on the corner of Keepers Close. I’ve passed by a few times. It seems quiet, even during the daytime. Sorry for rambling. This is all simply background material, setting the scene. So now you understand why I was one of the few listening to the names that night.

That woman who calls herself ‘La Llorna’ is a regular guest on Glory’s show. I don’t like her very much. She co-hosts ‘The Obituary Hour’, celebrating the lives of local residents who have recently died, and also reads the Tarot and makes predictions for the few regulars who call in to the show. Of course it is all nonsense. There is no magic to ‘La Llorna’, she cannot see into the future. She just guesses and lies like we all do. I was outside her house one night when she wasn’t on the radio. I could see her beneath the light of a solitary lamp in a downstairs window. She was hunched over a little desk, restlessly rearranging whatever lay before her. Perhaps it was her cards, perhaps it was her books, I don’t know. But there were tears streaming down her cheeks (I caught them glistening in the wan light) and she tore anxiously at the stray strands of hair that hung loose from the scarf wrapped around her head. In her heart, I think ‘La Llorna’ knows that she has no special gift, no power to control fate. And when she is alone, when she thinks nobody is looking, this terrifies her even more than it terrifies the rest of us. This is what I believed; I was so sure. Then came New Year’s Eve, when she read out my name, and I grew anxious, uncertain. Was it possible that ‘La Lorna’ could read the stars after all? Maybe we all could, yet only for a moment, if we happened to glance up at the right time?

Certainly she did not seem herself. Her voice sounded different, as if it came from somewhere, or someone, else. Initially I was offended – ‘La Llorna’ had rudely interrupted her host without warning, just as Glory was wishing the listener a ‘Happy New Year’ in those warm, liquid tones that so suggested a personal intimacy. Yet almost immediately both Glory and I fell silent, in perfect synchronicity, as we understood that, for once, ‘La Llorna’ had something grave and profound to communicate. The medium was sobbing uncontrollably into the microphone, yet at the same time audibly struggling to master those tears, to find her voice. Slowly, painfully choking back the grief, ‘La Llorna’ began to recite a list of names…and, amongst them, I heard my own. There was no explanation, no emphasis; the intonation was flat and leaden and the names were evenly, precisely spaced. I do not even recall whether the medium specifically announced that this list represented a roll-call of all those in the parish destined to die within the next calendar year – I just knew this to be the case. For one night only, ‘La Llorna’ could see into the future. After a couple of minutes the control room obviously came to their senses: there was some vague clutter of confusion off-microphone, a brief whine of feedback, and the programme segued into a jingle (endlessly repeated). It was all over, and I knew I had heard my name. But once, twice? I could not be certain and, as I explained, this has lately begun to trouble me. Yet at that moment I barely even considered this issue. A more pressing concern was that in 2016 I was doomed to die and there was nothing I could do about it. Or was there?

Convinced that I was about to die, my sleep was disturbed by terrible nightmares. One bad dream in particular plagued me, in fact the return of a recurrent nightmare I had suffered as a child. Always there was a dark shadow following me, stalking me down pavements and around neighbourhoods where I had once felt at home. Although I seldom glimpsed it, no matter how swiftly I doubled back, I constantly felt this presence over my shoulder. In my dream it could be the height of summer, front gardens and tree lined streets in full bloom, yet by contrast the mood, the perimeters were always dark. No matter how many times I prayed it would leave me, the shadow stayed in pursuit, gradually gaining ground. Then one bright morning, a few days after New Year, I remembered how I had managed to dismiss that nightmare as a child. By focusing my thoughts, I had succeeded in summoning an acquaintance from another school into my dream. It was some boy I had pretended to like, we had crossed paths at a few after-school events, but in secret I never really cared for him. So you can imagine how pleased I was to see him when he appeared in my dream that night, looking slightly disorientated and confused on a summer street. I turned my back on him and made a wish: that from now on the shadow would follow him instead of me. I never had the nightmare again. This instantly gave me an idea on how to deal with my current problem. There were five other people who shared my name in the local phone book. If I could dispose of just one of them I would be safe…for another year at least. To select my victim all that was required was a bit of research, a bit of watching and waiting. Often I walked slow and unnoticed: like a shadow. Four were easily discounted: amongst that number were two children and a local boxer. But the final name on the list seemed ideal.

He was already in his twilight years: retired, frail, a widower. ‘Welligramps’ the local children nicknamed him, because of the muddy wellington boots he wore on his daily walks across the outlying fields. Yes, it was all made so simple. He even had a routine – stuck to it like clockwork. Visited his wife’s grave after lunch, then walked three times round the churchyard and up onto Lethmachen Hill. And of course, there are some lonely stretches up there, away from prying eyes. Later, afterwards, was the first time I had felt safe for some weeks. But then I began to doubt myself – had I heard my name spoken just the once, or twice? Or was it even about to be repeated a third or fourth time, only for ‘La Llorna’ to be taken off air?”

We were naturally inclined to view this ‘confession’ with some scepticism, to view it as a hoax akin to the ‘Jack The Ripper’ letters sent to contemporary newspapers. Perhaps understandably, all those going by the name ‘Brian Quinn’ that we contacted in the local area (or their families) were either reluctant to get involved or were openly hostile. ‘La Llorna’ also, uncharacteristically, refused an interview. In all likelihood what we have printed above is simply a story – a rushed, confused, rather morally dubious piece of fiction written to cash in on a real life tragedy. The answer, perhaps, is written in the stars?



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A countryside alliance gathering against local residents?


There are few people working the fields these days. Things were different when I was young. Back then Lethmachen was still the rural community it had been for generations and farming the land was still the way that most of us earned a living. Of course that was before all these big office buildings and business types started taking over the town, with their computers and their wine bars and restaurants. If my parents were still alive I doubt they would even recognise Lethmachen today. It’s not the place they grew up in, it’s been changed into somewhere else, and I don’t care what anyone says but the people are different too. For one thing, those of us that remain farmers are finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet; nobody seems to care about local produce anymore. That’s why we have no choice but to sell off our land to these property developers. I’ll never understand why we need so many houses, swallowing up the countryside until there’s nothing left. But it’s the truth that people never realise what they’ve lost until it’s gone.

All the folk from the neighbouring farms have signed petitions and gone on protest marches and attended meetings, but I reckon it never does any good. All the Council are interested in these days is money – I suppose what with all the cuts that is to be expected. But it is sad to think that the people in charge of running this town don’t even care about its history, about its roots. When I was growing up the local countryside was not just a place where a few scattered families lived and worked – it was the very heart of the community. Town dwellers would actually make a point of visiting the woods and fields out here. They would come for walking holidays, or for picnics at weekends, or just for a night’s drinking at The Bloated Sow. Its years ago now, but I remember hearing how the whole town was buzzing with excitement over the upcoming barn dance, or the fireworks display, or one of the summer festivals. As children we would spend hours exploring the forgotten pathways that run through the woods. Me and my friends would collect objects on nature trails, or play hide and seek amongst the trees. Sometimes we would even sneak out at night to go ghost hunting! But you never see anyone in the woods nowadays.

Which brings me to the point I am trying to make. Or rather, this seems the right place for me to repeat what other people have been saying. I have gathered, from certain small articles I have read in The Lethmachen Echo, that even folk who live in the centre of town have, over recent weeks, started thinking a lot about our countryside. Although none of these stories have been very specific, they do no more than hint at the details, I have filled in the gaps from local gossip I have picked up when travelling in to the shops. So, if I may be so bold to state the matter in plain words, the fear is that certain ‘things’ are coming down from the woods at night and lurking around the town. Nobody seems able to describe exactly what these ‘things’ look like; those who claim to have seen them could not even say whether they are human or animal or something else. However, all the eyewitnesses agree on a few points – the ‘things’ they saw were “dark and shadowy” (after all, it was always at night) and they moved in a strange, slow manner, as if they are feeling their way along unfamiliar streets and alleys (“like harvestmen moving through long grass”). From what I could learn, there is actually no evidence that these creatures are creeping down from Lethmachen Hill but, typical of town dwellers, everyone seems convinced that the countryside is in some way to blame. The main reason for this makes no sense – eyewitnesses have apparently reported that on the nights following their encounters they have all dreamed about the hill, and in particular that old stretch of trees those who live nearby call ‘The Petrified Wood’.

Of course these days I am too old for such children’s tales. Yet some of my neighbours reminded me that this is not the first time something of this kind has occurred. There were similar rumours back in 1969. I remember that was the year there was the outbreak of Dutch Elm disease, because Lethmachen Hill had been out of bounds all summer, and everyone used that as an excuse not to investigate any further. Anyway, eventually the stories died out. But then came the spring of 1976, when little Linda Snowbed disappeared, and it all began again. Linda was amongst a group of youngsters who had dared each other into exploring ‘The Petrified Wood’, even though they knew it was wrong. If you don’t already know, dead centre in ‘The Petrified Wood’ lies this dense copse, hidden away like it is either very shy or has something to hide. No sunlight is allowed in there, all the branches and hedgerows grow tangled and deep, and hereabouts people whisper of it as ‘The Wood Knot’. I went there myself, just the once, but not the same afternoon as Linda and her friends. Well, somehow the kids got separated during a game, and Linda did not return with the others at dusk. Blanche, her baby sister, had been with her. But when the adults questioned Blanche all they could get out of her was “It was the Ink-Sect! It was the Ink-Sect!” and some garbled story about a tall, thin creature, camouflaged in shadow, that peeled itself off a tree trunk and grabbed hold of her sister. Linda never came home, and once again the hill was out of bounds. Long afterwards, Mrs Snowbed recalled how one of their relatives had kept stick insects as pets, and Blanche had always called them ‘Ink-sects’. More to the point, what followed was a second summer of sightings – of dark ‘things’ creeping through the fields towards the town. Many of the older folk believed it to be Linda’s restless spirit, roaming from ‘The Wood Knot’. In fact, one of my last memories of my grandmother is of her, hunched over in her seat by the fire, shrugging her shoulders and saying sadly “Perhaps she’s alive. Perhaps she’s dead. Either way I suppose she just wants someone to play with”.

Being reminded of these old stories got me thinking about what they had in common. For a start, I realised that on both occasions mentioned above, the sightings of the ‘dark things’ occurred during a summer when the hill was strictly out of bounds. Whole areas were cordoned off – nobody went there; nobody spoke of doing so. This must surely be more than a coincidence, I reckoned with myself, if not the key to the whole mystery. Then I wondered if it could all be connected to what I was discussing earlier. Perhaps the woods are as sensitive as people. Once upon a time they were the centre of attention, they captured all our imagination, they were the first refuge of lovers. The woods were lived in, explored, even worshipped. Perhaps they were even proud of the fear that some people felt for them and the wild tales that followed? But what if people lost interest? What if nobody came to see them anymore, if they were no longer spoken of, nor written about in stories? Would they feel neglected, forgotten, spurned? Over time, would they grow jealous and bitter in the shade, like a jilted lover? Perhaps in their anger the trees and the shadows would breed dark things? And perhaps at nightfall these dark things would leave the woods and go hunting for an audience, gathering them by force? Such things are not unheard of around here, or at least they are half remembered in old folk legends – talk of ‘The Briar Folk’ or ‘The Stickmen’ or ‘The Deciduous People’ – whatever you prefer to call them. Not that I ever paid much attention to such old wives’ tales.

Yet once again it is true that the woods are empty. Just the other day, I barely saw a soul. Modern folk seem content to remain rooted in their homes, staring at their computers or their wide screen televisions. Rarely does anyone venture out into the street, let alone explore their local environment. For some strange reason, people would rather take a holiday abroad than spend a week in Lethmachen. Yes, today there are no children playing on the pavements or out in the woods. I assume the idea is that they will be safer in their own back gardens? Yet the trees hate us if we turn our backs. Rumour has it that ‘The Briar Folk’ are growing more fearless, more reckless. They can camouflage themselves almost anywhere.

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