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.

The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.

Southern India (1)

Southern India differs from the north in several respects. The first difference that the visitor tends to notice, once they have got away from the typical Indian maelstrom of airport, traffic, city centre, etc, is that with the less densely concentrated population comes a somewhat more laid-back atmosphere and attitude than in the north. The hassles and pressures, the touts, are still there, but seem somehow less intense.

The second real difference is in the culture. Southern India was never really assimilated into the Mogul empire, and only ever partly conquered, so there is a huge wealth of Hindu architecture and a proportional lack of Islamic, with next to no Buddhist remains and no continuing tradition of Buddhism at all. At times, it seems as though the visitor has entered a different country, but India has a way of reasserting itself on the senses…

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Stall outside Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu State. All over India, amongst the heat, dust and drabness that pervades the majority of the population’s day to day life, one finds colour.

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Garland seller outside Rock Fort Temple complex, Trichy. The garlands will be used to decorate statues of gods during pujas (ceremonies) conducted in the Temples.

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Rock Fort temple, Trichy.  A view of the main temple from the pathway that leads to the tiny temple at the top of the rock. Non Hindus are not allowed into the main temple, dedicated to Shiva, or the temple at the top dedicated to Ganesh…although for a small donation, the priest is willing to waive this rule…

From my journal:

‘The trip is not particularly uncomfortable. It is a typical five hour trip through India – dust, buffaloes, half a dozen schoolchildren stuffed into an autorickshaw, wait-till-the-other-guy-blinks over-taking, temples large, medium and small, huge dry river beds, The Cauvery full of water, trees, strange crops, broken down trucks, train lines stretching arrow-straight into the distance, rows and rows of stalls with neat piles of fruit and vegetables, rows of hanging water bottles from the roof, biscuits, samozas, cigarettes and crisps, a child squatting in the dirt, mum feeding the family beneath the tree, Tiffin Ready signs, smart petrol stations, mud huts, cement buildings, palm shacks, huge residences surrounded by high walls – all concrete, police traffic blocks (ignored), it all blurs into one.’

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Part of Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple complex. This is the largest of all temple complexes in India, covering a staggering 60 hectares, and is dedicated to Vishnu. The Gopuram (tower) on the left is painted white, as a symbol of purity, and is one of the buildings that non-hindus are not permitted to enter.

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The White gopuram, in all its glory.

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Pillar in Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, liberally decorated with coloured powders and with offerings of incense, rice and flowers. Devotees of the god concerned will conduct their own personal pujas to ensure health and prosperity, or perhaps for some more specific purpose, such as to request the birth of a son or success in a particular undertaking. Although this temple is dedicated to Vishnu, other gods are represented there and prayed to.

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Another, nearby, pillar in the same temple. Although in the same temple and close to the pillar in the previous picture, this shrine will be to another, different, god. Its use, however, will be the same.

India – my first time (1)

Just a few photos this time, taken on my first proper trip to India. On the only previous visit, in 1988, I had spent a manic 18 hours in Delhi, and then taken a long bus journey to Nepal. That was a journey that really should be the subject of a blog itself, sometime.

On the following year, then, I returned to India, intending to spend rather longer there this time. As it turned out, I had to return to England after a few weeks, but the short time that I was in India whetted my appetite for more. It is said that western visitors to India tend to fall into one or the other of two categories. Either they fall in love with the country, and return whenever they can, or they swear never to go within a thousand miles of it ever again.

I’ve been back about ten times.

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The Red Fort (1989)

I arrived in Delhi with a copy of Lonely Planet’s ‘West Asia on a Shoestring’. In those days, the Lonely Planet tomes really were aimed at backpacking budget travellers, with their recommendations for rooms tending to be dormitories and really cheap hotels. My flight arrived in the late afternoon, so that not only was I weary from the long journey, but the light was already fading when I walked out of the airport. In the chaotic maelstrom outside of passengers and taxi drivers fighting over them, I managed to remain calm enough to locate the corner where the buses of the Ex-Servicemen’s Air Link Transport Services waited. I think they are still in operation today (I’m sure someone will tell me), with their yellow (I think) buses providing a cheap link into the centre of Delhi where I was heading.

I was dropped off near the hotel I had decided to use, the Ashok Yatri Niwas, which stood at the junction of Janpath and Ashoka Road. It has long gone, now; a great concrete monster of a place with cement beds and lifts that seemed to take half a day to do the full journey up to the top floor. I don’t think that many people mourn its going, but I was reasonably comfortable there for a couple of nights. It was where I had stayed the previous year for the one night I was in Delhi. There was hot water in the bathroom, as long as you rose early enough, and I remember the cafeteria being fairly basic, but adequate. For someone on a tight budget, it was fine. Back then, it was a case of turn up and hope there was a room, especially if you had just arrived in the country. There was no email in those days. But it was pretty big, and there was room for me.

Unlike my previous flying visit, I now had time to wander about and savour everything around me. And for the first time, it really did seem an alien and exotic society. I had enjoyed browsing in the souks (bazaars) when I had lived in Oman, and also out in the little villages there, but my first taste of India seemed to me to be as exciting and exotic as it got. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by the noise of traffic and the odours of exhaust fumes. But the traffic was different; the buses appeared to be almost falling to pieces, loud and fierce, with people hanging off the outside as well as being crammed inside behind open, barred, windows. I saw tuk-tuks everywhere; the little three-wheeled taxis that buzzed like wasps through the traffic, squeezing through every available gap. Amongst this impatient, petulant, hooting traffic, carts pulled by horses or buffaloes plodded. Motorbike riders forced their way through, and cyclists cautiously weaved their way along. Everywhere, pedestrians took their lives in their hands to cross the roads, but the traffic all swerved out of the way for the cattle that wandered imperiously through the streets, ignoring it all.

Incredibly, through the traffic pollution so thick that you could grab handfuls of it out of the air, there were dozens of other smells assailing me everywhere I went. I was tempted every few steps by cooking foods, and then I might pass a doorway and a strong smell of incense would waft out. Seconds later, I would suddenly wrinkle my nose as I passed a pool of sewage on the sidewalk, but then immediately I might pass a fragrant flower stall.

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Delhi Gate, in the old city near Chandni Chowk. (1989)

There were temples everywhere, and a shrine of some description every few steps. Here and there were green and white mosques, stalls of old sacking and weathered boards set up outside gleaming new metal, glass and concrete shops. There were holy men jostling office workers, great hump-backed cattle and pariah dogs in corners or in the middle of the footway, beggars, shoe shiners, touts and hustlers, people in a hurry and idlers passing the time of day. I was urged to discretely change money, buy drugs, see pornographic videos, have a massage, change hotels, visit ‘my brother’s’ shop or book a trip to another part of India.

It was dirty, colourful, loud, exciting, and different and I loved it.

I walked everywhere I could, not just because I was on a tight budget, but it is always how I have got to know a place. I went to the Red Fort, on my first full day there, enjoying the relative peace and quiet inside, and it was here that I discovered Mogul architecture: The beautiful soft red stone and the marble, the carvings and inlay, the arches and columns…the only time I’d seen architecture that beautiful, before, was in Grenada, in Spain.

And now, looking at the photos I took, I am struck by an odd discrepancy. In my memory, one of the defining things about Delhi when I arrived was the incredible press of traffic. In my photos, though, there are comparatively few people, and even less traffic. Is my memory at fault? Is it just that there were obviously far fewer people in India 30 years ago? Perhaps it is chance alone.

But I think I’ll return to the architecture at a later date.