Justin Hopper and the power of landscape in The Old Weird Albion

Sandra Partanen
Posted on October 08, 2018, 3:07 pm
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Justin Hopper takes the reader on a tour of the English South, carefully pointing out what we have not been able to see before; that our past is present, alive even, all around us. That magic might be found if one knows where to look, and that memories can fuel more than you think.

Justin Hopper grew up in North America, but frequently visited his grandmother in South Downs, UK, as a child. Years later, he returns to the UK for good, and as his son is born, a new desire arises: to understand the country to which he feels so connected, and that his son will be calling his home. When speaking to him, his passion for landscape and its myths, history and family is tangible; it makes sense that someone like Hopper would be able to write something as elaborate and careful as The Old Weird Albion.

The Old Weird Albion provides a breath of fresh air in the pool of psychogeographical literature, as the author traces down from Winchester to Beachy head, looking for answers in the landscape and its people. Through looking for crop circles and dunking his head into a stream that is supposed to make you forget everything you’ve known after the age of 20, the reader is always tickled by the notion that there is something hovering just in the corner of our eye, that there is something more. On his excursions, Hopper follows Doris, long dead distant relative, like a whisper in the wind — or maybe she follows him?

The Old Weird Albion was released at the end of last year from Penned in the Margins. How was the experience for you?

It’s been interesting; putting out that book was a strangely personal thing. I didn’t quite think of it that way until I actually held a copy of it in my hand. I guess The Old Weird Albion is something that I had thought about in a variety of ways for a very long time. It became incredibly important to me when two things happened: when I moved to the UK and when my son was born. It became a way of reifying a relationship to the place where I now find myself embedded. Albeit South Downs is not where I live, it is probably the part of the country I still think of more as home than any other.

However, even though it was a different experience, it has been lovely nonetheless. It did something that I hadn’t quite imagined — there has been a response that has been equally personal, which I didn’t expect. I’ve made new friendships, new networks and communities based out of that. In other words, it’s been a very positive experience, but not in ways that I had expected. That is the magic of landscape. It is as Tim Ingold said, ”the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit its places and journey along the paths that connect them.” That’s what it’s all about, it’s a place that we create in our minds and connect to one another. The book is about that, and it’s actually done that. It’s pretty amazing.

Absolutely. Congratulations! Even though it’s been a while now…

Yes, thank you! It’s weird, it doesn’t feel like it’s been a year, but I stopped editing around this time last year, last week or something. That’s weird.

You state at the very beginning of the book that this is the result of several walks over several years time – when did you, and what made you, sit down and write it?

I’ve been walking the Downs since I was a kid. When I started doing those walks, it was actually with the intention of writing a book, albeit, to me, a very different book. Which meant traveling the same landscapes, but in search of something much less personal, much more what I would think of as ’slightly academic psychogeography’. It’s a funny genre, a funny style, because in many ways it’s all about the writer. It is when it’s done right, but most of the time it’s not actually about anything deeply personal or emotive; it’s about some kind of cold, academic vision of the world.

So that was what you were setting out to produce when you started?

That’s what I was initially going to do. But then I recognized this other thing in it, when I moved over here and I had my kid, which was this profound need to understand a little bit more about how we connect to places and how we remember things through places.

What prompted you to actually sit down?

I don’t really know, I just did, to some extent. I’d written some sections and did a reading with Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins, and he told me that if I ever wanna actually write this book to let him know. I did let him know.

That must have felt great!

Yeah, I mean it was really nice. It’s vastly different from in the states where I came from, which is somewhat removed from anything to do with the media world. It is very unlikely for you to meet someone who is a publisher and who likes and understands what you’re doing, there. Being in the Greater London nexus made a huge difference.

Do you think the fact that you did not grow up in the South of England was important to the writing of The Old Weird Albion? That the perspective as an ”outsider” is crucial to this text?
Absolutely. I don’t think it would have been as important to me as it is if I grew up here, it wouldn’t mean the same thing. And I hope it wouldn’t have the same meaning to the people who read it, either, because there’s something different about an outsider’s point of view. If I had grown up in Sussex I wouldn’t see Peacehaven as this centre of magic in the world.

One of the inspirations for the book was actually that, we talk in America all the time about ’your background’, and being someone with ’being english’ as your background was not actually a very cool thing. Not in the 80s when half of America is Irish and English soldiers are shooting everybody up. It didn’t have a great cultural meaning, but to me, it meant something really, really exciting.

The landscape around South Downs is a posh area, it’s well to do, and it’s a bit conservative. It wasn’t until I started discovering these people that it changed. Liam Butler Yeats and Victor Nordberg. I don’t know if he really comes up in the book very much, but there was going to be an entire chapter about Victor _____. These people had lived literally half a block away from my grandmother’s house that I went to almost every summer. They were strange people, very strange people. If you or I believed in the sort of things that they believed in, or acted the way they sometimes acted, we wouldn’t really be welcome in polite society. Discovering these people was a real eye opener.

The most prominent feeling I had while reading The Old Weird Albion was that there was always something lingering just out of my sight. That ’something more’. And does that perhaps have something to do with the marginalia the book features? I saw them almost as visual sounds.

I’m not suggesting you do, but if you read earlier twentieth century British topographical writing, or in fact lots of different kinds of non fiction written in that time, there would often be these marginalia that allude to what’s going on in that section, in a kind of logistical way. They’re there so that you can flit trough and find the part about this place or about that thing. We wanted to do that in a way that was a bit more poetic. It didn’t necessarily directly mean anything, but was rather an indirect poetic reference to something.

This folk singer, Shirley Collins, talks about these folksongs often being about these things that are just in the corner of your eye. If you looked straight at them, you wouldn’t see them. Tangentially, but similarly, she talks about when she sings these songs feeling, and almost being able to see, the the generations of singers that came before her or standing behind her and helping her to sing. That is one of those things I hope runs through that book, the idea that these ghosts are just layered so thickly on top of one another in this country.

Bob and Doris Hopper

In an article with Penned in the Margins, you said that real histories are inscribed in the landscape and that solace is out there, waiting for us, everywhere. Would you say that this is a kind of beckoning to the reader, a suggestion to find that unconnectedness and start to mend it?

Everybody’s got one of these stories. They don’t have this one, but they have their own one, and it’s probably very similar. And everybody has an experience of place that is very particular to them and very special to them. Coming back to that Tim Ingold quote I use all the time, ”the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit its places and journey along the paths that connect them.” When we share this multitude of experience of place, when we surface these ghosts that haunt these locations so deeply, we repopulate the world in a way that simultaneously connects us to one another while establishing and praising the beauty of a personal identity.

I think if anything it’s a beckoning to the memories that reside in these places, and an acknowledgement of that people we won’t ever know about lived rich, beautiful lives within these places. For example my grandfather’s first wife, Doris Hopper, who pops up throughout that book. What is says in there is virtually the entirety of what anyone will ever know, factually, about her. Through walking these paths, we can take a person like that and haunt that place with her, and honor her memory. Provide some glimpse into that rich inner life that she undoubtedly possessed, but of which we will never know anything.

Do you think you would have written this book if it wasn’t for Doris?

Yeah, definitely. This sounds really crass, but something else would have come up! If she hadn’t been, there would have been someone else. It’s not in any way to tone down her importance to the book, which would have been something completely different if I’d never known about her. Which was a very real possibility in my life – very little would have had to change about my life and my fathers life for me to never ever have heard of her. To never have found her name. My father didn’t know her name.

How did you actually come to know her name?

Through a lot of genealogical research. She was a confusing person, because she had a stepfather and took his name, which was not nearly as common 100 years ago as it is now. It was very confusing to discover that there was this marriage record, but it was for a person whose name didn’t exist on record before that. There’s this moment in the book when I found out her name, and I mentioned it to my father, and he suddenly realized he’d known Doris’s mother. I think Doris is the key to that book, but there’s a key to anybody’s book that anybody wants to write. It’s out there, you’ve got it. Everybody’s family’s fucked up.

Justin Hopper recommends:

Spirit of the Downs by Arthur Beckett 
A visionary contribution to the canon of early-20th-century English topographical writing, Spirit of the Downs is an ideal example of tea-and-crumpets mysticism: a journey across the Downs in search of communion with the landscape, taking in folktales and tall tales (both old and entirely made up) as well as the normal historical and observational writings.

Where Witchcraft Lives by Doreen Valiente
One of the most famous tomes of the 20th-century revival of interest in Britain’s ‘old religion’, Where Witchcraft Lives is a book of almost impossible significance and somewhat implausible veracity. Correct or not, this examination of Sussex witchcraft stands as a highly influential book combining belief with academia.

The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc
A strange piece of writing, written from the points of view of four different aspects of Belloc’s personality on a walk across Sussex, The Four Men is something of a triumph of early ‘creative nonfiction’ – a key precursor to Sebald’s Rings of Saturn or early-21st Century psychogeography.

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