Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

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The viewer sees a painting that appears to be composed of watercolour and charcoal, of a winding road or track, possibly even a river, leading towards a line of downland hills, the whole created entirely in black and shades of grey, with the title and author scrawled into the picture in brilliant white, as though it were a prehistoric figure etched into the Downs themselves.

And that’s just the cover.

This is a book quite unlike any I have read before, in that it is a book about the south of England, especially the South Downs of Sussex, but it is far more than geography and the associated disciplines such as geology and biology, rural history and architecture, and folklore. Psycho-geography was not a term I had come across before, but there is an aptness to it that becomes apparent as you read.

The book opens at Beachy Head, a beautiful piece of Sussex with a dark reputation for suicide, as a woman throws herself off the edge. Quickly, we learn that this woman was the first wife of the grandfather of the author, Justin Hopper. And we learn that this book is in part a chronicle of his efforts to discover this person and learn something of her life and, consequently, her motives for such an act.

In so doing, he needs to revisit parts of his earlier time in Sussex and examine his own relationship to the area as well as the relationship of other players, not just his grandfather and other members of their family.

He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

A strength of this book is its intensity, and I feel impelled to look at the pictures it references and read the books it quotes. So much so that upon finishing the book, I spent some time tracking down an old copy of one of those books, which I am now reading, and which holds my interest in just the way Justin implied it would.

On a personal level, this book came just at the right time for me, in that I am reacquainting myself with the geography and history, and the plants and animals, of the South of England, where I grew up and which formed my love of the natural world, and the book has encouraged me to look at this in a new way.

It is most certainly a five star book for me.

10 thoughts on “Review of The Old Weird Albion

  1. Sounds so interesting Mick, especially as it’s about part of the world that I really know. I guess that what can give it a real connection and hook you in to begin with. Any book that prompts you to locate other publications that it has referenced has to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent write-up. This sounds fascinating, and especially because the effect of our surroundings on our minds has always been interesting to me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the term “psycho-geography,” either, but certainly architects, urban planners, artists, and nature lovers talk about analogous concepts – whether they call it feng shui, atmosphere, architectural or environmental psychology, etc. Even Olmstead’s “becomingness” when he designed his parks, is more than just aesthetics. Although it sounds like Hopper is more interested in the mystical side of things than I usually delve into, it sounds really intriguing, Mick.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Robert. Certainly, as someone whose mood is very much influenced by his surroundings, I think that resonates especially with me. I tend to subscribe to the holistic, all things are connected school, and everything from the weather and the immediate geography to the level of conversation in the background influence my feelings. Although I always think this must be true of everyone.

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  3. Sounds like an intense book – I was reminded on a walk through Muir Woods – an ancient redwood forest north of where I live – how the shapes of nature in a dark forest can inspire imaginations to the weird and magical.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! Mick a terrific review and your passion for it is contagious. The concept of the book is fascinating and I’m taken with the many layers within it which you describe so eloquently. I’m turning to more unusual books this year and this will be top of the list for me to read soon. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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