My Top Books of 2022

Well, my favourite twelve, anyway. One a month, if you like, although that wasn’t how I read them. Or perhaps the twelve book reviews of Christmas – oops, no. Missed that one. Anyway…these are some of the books I read in 2022, not books that were first published this year. But I seem to have read so many good books in 2022, it’s difficult to make a choice and this has ended up being a little arbitrary.

Stranger in the Mask of a Deer by Richard Skelton. It has been a long time since I last read something new and immediately put it into my top ten reads, but this remarkable work is straight in there. A few weeks later I had to re-read it, captivated by its dream-like quality.

It is essentially a poetic narrative ranging between the present day and Palaeolithic Britain, told by humans both ancient and modern, and by non-human voices. Its essence is life and ritual, the connection between humans and animals, between humans and the land they occupy, and the elements surrounding them.

The remains of deer skulls complete with antlers, but with eye holes punched into the skull so they might be worn as masks, have been found at Star Carr in Yorkshire, dating to approximately eleven thousand years ago. It is presumed these masks would have been used in rituals…

Millstone Grit by Glyn Hughes. This very readable book was originally published in 1975, describing a fifty mile walk the author took through East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire; an exploration of the moorlands and villages alongside the industrial towns, all of them suffering in their own ways from the effects of the loss of traditional industries in that area. It is about Hughes’ attachment to this area he came to live in, the clash between human and non-human landscapes, and about working class history in these places, but above all else about some most remarkable people he meets along the way.

I re-read The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper. This is a book about tracing a mystery in his family’s past, beginning with a woman preparing to throw herself off Beachy Head, a notorious spot for suicides, but also about the effects the landscape of the South Downs has had upon people.

This is a book I reviewed on this blog when I first read it three years ago – the link is here – and I’ll just put an extract of that review here: ‘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’.’

Another re-read, this time of a book I first read some forty years ago. The Spire by William Golding is a novel set in medieval England, in an unspecified city somewhere in the south. It is a story essentially about pride and hubris, about the Dean of a church determined to have built a great spire on his church, despite warnings that the foundations will not be able to support such a colossal structure. The ending seems predictable and yet that is not really where the story is going, being more concerned with the characters inhabiting that space.

The setting is the church and environs, and it evokes the feel of the ecclesiastic medieval as successfully as The Name of the Rose does. One test of how good a novel set in historical times is, is whether it transports the reader easily to that setting. I certainly found it did.

I bought Hemisphere by Pete Green at an event where poets read excerpts from their work. It is effectively a poetic journey around the northern hemisphere, beginning in Scotland, the journey approximating to the latitude of the arctic circle. The writing conveys a tremendous sense of place and feels very right for the cold edgelands described.

Holloway by Robert MacFarlane and Dan Richards, with illustrations by Stanley Donwood is a short book, describing a journey MacFarlane, Donwood, and Richards made in Dorset, essentially a revisit of a trip MacFarlane made previously with Roger Deakin for an earlier book, exploring holloways. Holloways, often known as sunken tracks or paths, are old – frequently very old – paths made over the centuries by the passage of feet, both human and animal, and perhaps by the wheels of wagons and carts. It is a short journey – perhaps ‘experience’ would be a better word – describing wild camps and walking, cycling and visiting old buildings; in some ways, perhaps it is really no more than a short camping trip, undertaken by a group of men acting out a boyhood adventure. The writing, though, by both MacFarlane and Richards is exquisitely poetic and Donwood’s illustrations never less than beautiful.

Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard.

‘Luke Kennard recasts Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series of anarchic prose poems set in the same joyless house party.

A physicist explains dark matter in the kitchen. A crying man is consoled by a Sigmund Freud action figure. An out-of-hours doctor sells phials of dark red liquid from a briefcase. Someone takes out a guitar.

Wry, insolent and self-eviscerating, Notes on the Sonnets riddles the Bard with the anxieties of the modern age, bringing Kennard’s affectionate critique to subjects as various as love, marriage, God, metaphysics and a sad horse.’

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald had been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, but I finally got around to picking up a copy this year. On one level, this is a walking journey taken by the author along the Suffolk coast in the early 1990’s, describing both places and people he comes across, but really, it is much deeper than that and is a psychogeographical work par excellence. Throughout the journey, we are never quite certain whether events are happening to the author, or have happened in the past, or perhaps to someone else at some other time. He goes off in unexpected directions, literary, historical, and physical, exploring a wide and eclectic range of subjects yet throughout there is a cohesion to the narrative.

The Birthday Letters are a not-quite-series of poems Ted Hughes wrote to his wife the American poet Sylvia Plath after her death. Personally, I find them to be probably his most accessible poems and wonder whether that says something about me, although this isn’t the time to go into that. Theirs was a difficult relationship, and her suicide (as well as that of a later lover of his) frequently colours people’s opinions of Hughes. Inevitably, these are often extremely personal poems, so much so that at times I feel a slight discomfort reading them, as if I’d opened someone’s private correspondence by accident, but Hughes wrote them as an attempt to restore her to him, and published them almost for the public to read as his own account of her life and death.

Sadly, Roger Deakin only wrote three books, of which Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is compiled from diary entries he kept during the last six years of his life. In these notes, he recorded his day to day life on the farm, walks on nearby Mellis Common, the yearly cycle of the natural world all around him, and his thoughts on literature, the importance of nature, and musings on the past.

Our Place by Mark Cocker is an exploration of the history of environmental thought and politics in Great Britain and, especially, the way forward. It asks pertinent questions like who owns the land and why? And who benefits from green policies? Not afraid to be radical in its suggestions, it asks why there is such a disconnect between the British public’s sympathy for and championing of the countryside and the reality of its current condition.

Digging up Britain by Mike Pitts tells the story of Britain’s history and prehistory in ten astonishing excavations. As someone who has always had an interest in history and pre-history, I found this book a timely reminder of the huge strides taken forward in our understanding of the past over the last ten years or so, due to such important tools as DNA analysis as well as the painstaking work of those who excavate and interpret these sites. There are some remarkable tales in this book.

Chanctonbury Rings

This Tuesday evening just gone. Brighton. 7.30pm. I’m here with my friend Mark to see a gig for the first time since the Pandemic began, a gig I had planned to see last year for my birthday, but which was cancelled – due to the Pandemic, of course. Chanctonbury Rings is a collaboration between writer Justin Hopper, musician Sharron Kraus, and visual artist Wendy Pye, based on extracts from Justin’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion.

Chanctonbury Rings was released (on CD, vinyl and download) by Ghost Box in 2019, and is described on their website as ‘A spoken word and music project by writer Justin Hopper and folk musician Sharron Kraus. It also features Ghost Box’s own Belbury Poly. Based on live performances of Hopper’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, it’s a poetical, autobiographical and psychogeographical account of his experiences at Chanctonbury Ring…‘ It goes on to state: ‘The album is a blend of folk, electronic music, poetry, prose and environmental sound. Kraus’s electro-acoustic soundscapes and songs interweave with Hopper’s rich, intimate narration.’

I first learned of The Old Weird Albion a couple of years ago when I was emailed by a reporter writing a review of the book for the Caught By The River website (which I must post about sometime), who had come across one of my blog posts on Chanctonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort on Chanctonbury Hill, part of the Sussex South Downs. In conversation, he told me of both the book and the music project. Naturally, I ended up buying both. (My review of The Old Weird Albion is here if you wish to learn more about it. Of course you do.)

When I heard it was being performed live, I decided I would have to go to see it. Then the Pandemic intervened and it would be over a year before I had another chance.

So on Tuesday we are in the Brighton Spiegeltent, part of the Brighton Fringe, awaiting the show. Outside, pouring rain and a lot of rather drunken football-related chanting. (I believe there was a game on somewhere.)

Inside, though, Chanctonbury Rings. The piece is built around the section of the book where Justin visits Chanctonbury Ring one May Day, to watch both the sunrise and the Morris dancers celebrating Beltane, the ancient name for the festival held that day. It combines personal experience with myth and legend, Sharron’s music both punctuating and supporting the narrative, and Wendy’s visuals projected on a screen behind the performers.

Incidentally, Sharron is a musician I had not come across before hearing the album, but I have since been captivated by her own stunning albums. If you have any interest in folk, I’d recommend you give them a listen.

Wendy’s visuals were well-judged photographs and film of Chanctonbury Ring and the surrounding area, at times deliberately grainy and vague and at others lusher, although there was perhaps something ghostly about all of them, each choice inevitably suiting the mood of the narrative at that point.

The spoken words, the music and song, and those visuals weaved around each other and blended happily together, elegantly constructing the world as it appeared to one viewer that May Day morning and projecting the audience, for the duration of the performance, into that world too.

It was magical.

Sunday Supplement – 4

I’ve been playing this album for much of the last week. the first I had heard of Sharron Kraus was on Chanctonbury Ring, the album she worked on with Justin Hopper, based on Justin’s book The Old Weird Albion. Joy’s Reflection is Sorrow is filled with beautiful haunting songs in the folk tradition, with more than a touch of otherworldliness about them.

My world is full of paths that are too well trodden at the moment. I suppose everyone’s is, really. All the paths nearby on the common and through the woods are overflowing with dog walkers and families out for exercise and relaxation, and without going further afield it is difficult to find anywhere to walk in solitude. So a longer walk is demanded this week, out to fields and woods and rivers where I know I shall meet hardly a soul.

I think I shall resist posting progress reports on my writing in future, since I jump from project to project and no sooner do I say I’m doing a final edit of x, than I am working on y and have shelved x for the foreseeable future. I have, for example, found great difficulty in finishing A Good Place, revising the plot and the ending for the third time now…

It’s downright embarrassing, really.

I’m finding writing very difficult at present, though, which is one reason I’m not posting on here very often. Like everyone else, I just need to hang in there.

And I’m reading An Indifference of Birds by Robert Smyth.

This is another book about birds, but in this case it looks at how birds see us and how we affect them. And by extension, it looks at how we affect the whole of the natural world, and the enormous damage we are doing to it. But if that sounds horribly gloomy, the book is a delight to read – beautifully written, and filled with observation and information. Do buy it.

And look after yourselves.

On Windover Hill and The Oddness of Time

Yesterday, we joined a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington, on the South Downs in Sussex. The walk was led by composer Nathan James, and Justin Hopper, the author of The Old Weird Albion.

EPrcQenWoAQWbeb

The Long Man is a chalk figure etched through the grass into the hillside, below the summit of Windover Hill, revealing the chalk that lies beneath. When and why it was first cut is the subject of myth and speculation – and that brings us neatly to Nathan’s new composition.

P1060405a

On 7th March, Nathan will premier his fantastic new choral work On Windover Hill at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, Sussex. This has been inspired by the Long Man, its mythology, and the art that has arisen around it, as well as the written history and the geography of the surrounding land. It has a very English feel to it, in the tradition of Vaughan Williams or Holst.

Full details of the work and the performance can be found here. Tickets can also be bought by clicking ‘The Premier’ link in the sidebar there. We have ours, and it would be great to see it sold out!

This walk was by way of a taster for the concert, with a mixture of history and mythology imparted along the way, a poem from Peter Martin, read by himself, and extracts from stories read out by Justin, all of which referenced the Long Man. Also  Anna Tabbush sang two folk songs, one of which was the only song known about the Long Man, appropriately enough called The Long Man and written by the late Maria Cunningham.

P1060395a

I’m not sure How many people I expected to see, but we were around forty, with a surprisingly large number being artists of one sort or another.

The weather was so much better than we had a right to expect – the forecast had been for clouds and rain, but the clouds cleared during the morning, and we had plenty of sunshine as we ascended, although it rather lived up to its name at the top, with more than enough wind for everyone.

P1060404a

Here, the remains of prehistoric burial mounds sit overlooking the Long Man, and the rest of the surrounding countryside.

P1060403a

Some landscapes seem to muck around with your perception of time, and Downland seems especially prone to this. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, but suspect it is a combination of factors.

It is a very open landscape, and other than the contours of the land and a few trees, frequently the only features that stand out are prehistoric ones, such as barrows and chalk figures. Due to the uncertainty around their origins, these have a timelessness about them, a fluidity when it comes to grasping their history. We see the long view, which perhaps works on our sense of time as well as space. The more recent additions to the landscape are usually in the form of fences, which can easily seem invisible as we look around for something less ephemeral than the open sky to fix our eyes on.

The Downs are an ancient landscape, in any case. When human beings recolonised what is now Britain after the last Ice Age, at first they kept to the higher ground which gave less impediment to travel and settlement than the marshy and thickly wooded lowlands. Most standing stones and burial mounds from the Neolithic or earlier are found on these higher areas.

I do not get these feelings in more recent landscapes. At a medieval castle or manor house, it is easy to imagine the inhabitants baking bread or sweeping corridors; activities as natural to us today as they were then. I feel a comfortable mixture of the old and the new, a recognisable timeline connecting the past with me.

But barrows, standing stones and hillside figures have a purpose alien and unknown to us. Step on the ground near these remains and you can feel the presence of the unknown. No wonder the belief in the past in faeries and elves who inhabited the underground, and who lived essentially out of time.

They offend our carefully erected sense of order and belonging and, perhaps, still pose a barely acknowledged threat to us today.

I might be imagining it, of course, but listening to the extracts from On Windover Hill on the website, I think I recognise that feeling in places, an unexpected musical response to my own feelings. And then Nathan’s description of his creative process on the website echoes some of this too.

I’m hooked!

Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

download

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.