Online humour can be a fickle sort of business.
One day you’ve found a new Twitter account you’re convinced is the funniest thing ever, the next it seems to have worn thin very quickly. One of the most consistently rewarding sites of recent years, though, has been the Scarfolk blog. The fictional Scarfolk is described as ‘a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum’. Life in the town is conveyed via a series of exquisitely-realised vintage advertisements, images and public information posters which are at once instantly familiar and deeply, deeply wrong. For instance, they depict Action Man waterboarding accessories, a Penguin Guide to Practical Witchcraft, and a spotlight on the perils of going off with strange children.
Scarfolk is the creation of writer and graphic designer Richard Littler and, like most of the best things, it came about almost by accident. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Littler says: “A few years ago I created birthday cards for friends and family that imitated old Penguin and Pelican books and other 1970s artefacts. After I’d done a handful, my wife suggested I put them all in one place, so I created a blog. When a couple of those images unexpectedly went viral, I revisited a screenplay pitch that I had previously worked on and eventually the two things merged. From there the identity of Scarfolk Council, the town and its residents began to develop.”
Littler’s twin interests in design and writing make the Scarfolk blog a perfect fit for his talents.
“At the turn of the millennium I gave up my job as a graphic designer to focus on screenwriting, which I struggled at for the best part of a decade, even though I sold a few scripts. It was inevitable, albeit accidental, that my skills would eventually merge. I was only ever any good at art and English at school.”
Littler currently resides in Germany, but he grew up in the North West of England. He lived in Radcliffe near Bury until 1976 (when he was six) whereupon his family moved to Timperley, a small suburb south of Manchester. At various times Timperley has been home to Caroline Aherne, Chris Sievey (of Frank Sidebottom fame), and Ian Brown and John Squire of The Stone Roses. Littler admits that growing up there, as well as in Radcliffe, has made a direct impact on his work.
“Lots of memories from living in both places have found their way into Scarfolk, particularly because the project has always been a conscious exercise in dredging, and of course subsequently exaggerating, as many fragmented, almost-lost childhood recollections as possible. It’s amazing how much stuff comes back when you start digging. When I create Scarfolk posts I frequently have vivid images of 70s and 80s Timperley in my head – lost parades of suburban shops, Heyes Lane School. In fact, the very first Scarfolk post was partly triggered by the memory of a so-called witch’s house, which overlooked the infant’s playing field.”
The Scarfolk blog draws on a particularly late 20th Century aesthetic, one which Littler has grown to increasingly like during the time he’s been using it.
“I’ve come to appreciate that municipal/government aesthetic, including post-war architecture, more since I started Scarfolk. I like ephemeral artefacts, old branding, library music, public information campaigns that have been largely relegated to the cultural dustbin and didn’t have a life outside of their time, though I’m aware that people like me recycling them give them a new kind of life.”
Some observers have detected a kinship between Scarfolk and the musical genre of ‘hauntology’, as exemplified by the Ghost Box record label. It’s a link that Littler himself can understand. Indeed, he describes the unmade screenplay that he cannibalised for the blog as ‘hauntology-themed’.
He says: “I started creating Scarfolk graphics partially because I wanted to be able to visually capture the same kind of tone and evocative moods created by so-called ‘hauntology’ artists such as Boards of Canada, or indeed period audio from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, for example. Audio is for me the richest and quickest conduit to lost or partial memories of the past. I’ve even created some audio for Scarfolk.”
The humour of Scarfolk is often very dark indeed, and Littler has only occasionally balked at mining his youth for laughs.
“I haven’t satirised the Yewtree child abuse cases of the 1970s and Savile et al, though I have referenced the general subject indirectly in dark, surreal ways, such as the post about a demonic spider TV presenter called Charlie Barn. I’ve also avoided some of the more overtly sleazy, sexual aspects of the 1970s. Not because of prudery, I hasten to add, I’ve wanted to maintain a child’s perspective to some extent and young kids aren’t really aware of any of that. The nearest I’ve come to this area is a post about pornography for fans of Brutalist architecture and town planning.”
The blog has already spawned a successful book, Discovering Scarfolk, and Littler now has a TV version of Scarfolk at the development stage.
“Development is a slow process and can take a long long time. In the meantime, I’ve been working with Rook Films on a short animation called Dick & Stewart about two young friends who live in a dystopian town. Julian Barratt of Mighty Boosh fame has done the voice-over for us. It’s not Scarfolk, but it’s certainly in that nightmarish ballpark. It’s essentially finished, so we hope to be showing that very soon. I’ve also been toying with ideas for a sequel to Discovering Scarfolk.”
Recently, Littler has also been creating illustrations for the Open Rights Group. In a way, they’re a kind of more serious counterpoint to the message of Scarfolk.
“The Fougasse homage posters I have created for the Open Rights Group are also a way for me to compare and contrast historical and contemporary British values” he explains. “They are still satirical, so the work itself comes from the same part of my brain as Scarfolk. But of course, the intention is to highlight serious political issues and hopefully inspire support that will help bring about tangible change. It seems like lots of people have become more political in recent years, but then, do we have a choice?”
The Scarfolk blog itself is still very much active, though. Its popularity continues to grow, partly because the way in which it refracts the present through the prism of the past makes it very relevant to our troubled times. For many, we actually seem to be living in Scarfolk these days.
Littler says: “Though the prism/satire aspects had not been intentional at the start, they quickly became useful tools, and though I started to compare and contrast 1970s values with modern values in general, I hadn’t expected that Scarfolk would come to comment so directly on specific current affairs and in some cases even be somewhat predictive. If people are increasingly describing contemporary events as ‘Scarfolkian’, I think that’s probably more a reflection of how absurd the world has become than it is of my powers of augury.”
The book Discovering Scarfolk is available now from Ebury Press