Review of Shadowlands by Matthew Green

In this book Matthew Green charts the decline and eventual abandonment of eight British settlements; a diverse selection ranging from the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, through several Medieval villages and cities and up to the twentieth century, to an area emptied of its inhabitants during the Second World War and a village that was abandoned when the valley it inhabited was flooded to create a reservoir – although in that case ‘abandoned’ is the wrong word, since that particular story is a harrowing tale of folk driven from their homes at the diktat of decision makers far away, not even of their own country.

In each chapter he tells the story of the decline of the settlement drawing upon written records for all but the oldest, Skara Brae, for which he relies upon archaeological evidence, and some of the more recent, for which he uses a mixture of eye-witness accounts and the testimonies of those who had heard their stories at first hand. Of all the stories here, that of Dunwich is probably the most famous, with its myths of bells from long-drowned churches being heard far out under the waves, although the popular description of Dunwich as a ‘drowned city’ is inaccurate, as it fell away into the sea as the cliffs beneath it were eroded away. But much is known of Dunwich, with many extant records and maps of the city, enabling Matthew to chart its decline and eventual end in some detail.

Hirta is the biggest island of the St Kilda archipelago and was occupied for at least two thousand years until 1930, when the final thirty six islanders voted to leave. By then, most of the families and younger residents had left for the mainland, and their traditional way of life had become unsustainable. Until a couple of hundred years ago the islanders were virtually cut off from the rest of Scotland, due to the distance and the difficulty of making a landing at the island. Existing almost exclusively on a diet of seabirds (remarkably, they were apparently lousy fishermen!), the islanders lived a remarkably difficult life and it is no surprise that as they were exposed more and more to the outside world, more and more of the islanders opted to leave for a better life.

I found I was drawn deep into these stories not just because I found them so fascinating, but also because of Matthew’s skilful and easy style. A very well researched and beautifully presented book, I’d definitely give it five stars out of five.

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.

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.