The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane (Penguin Books, 2013)
The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper (Penned In The Margins,2017)

Screen shot 2019-12-02 at 21.59.29If Robert MacFarlane were to say “I’m just poppng out for a walk”, chances are you wouldn’t see him again for days, weeks, even months. Not for him a gentle stroll in the park. We’re talking serious trekking here. He tells us nothing about the equipment or supplies he takes with him, but it’s plain that he sets off prepared to sleep rough and scavenge for food if necessary.

Being fully immersed in the natural world is what drives him and gives him sustenance. In ‘The Old Ways’ the writer wanders around England and Scotland and also roams abroad (Palestine,Spain and Tibet). Some of these adventures border on the reckless as he challenges himself against the elements or strikes out onto what he knows full well to be inhospitable terrain. MacFarlane regards “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape”. In other words, it’s a serious business and not just a gentle recreational pursuit.

MacFarlane’s collection of essays is subtitled ‘ A journey on foot’ even though one trip is actually undertaken by boat. He justifies this alternative means of transportation by stating that “sea roads are dissolving paths” and he is not a man I would wish a debate with over questions of linguistic accuracy. His range of vocabulary is vast and frequently places great demands on the reader. A glossary helps a little but not completely. How many would know, for example, that the pin or pillar at the centre of a sundial is called a ‘gnomon’. On the seaward journey with a companion he writes: “Only now and then, when satisfied we were making the best possible speed, would he tuck his hands into his salopettes and settle briefly on a thwart”. To make sense of this sentence you need to know that ‘Salopettes’ is a French word for dungarees and that ‘Thwart’ is a noun which refers to a seat across a boat on which the oarsman sits. McFarlarlane is probably ace at Scrabble but it has to be said that his focus on using the precise terminology borders on the obsessive.

In more transparent terms, he at one point talks of the desire for “shaping memories” which is exactly what gets Justin Hopper off the couch and into the great outdoors. Hopper describes his own book as “a series of impressions that describe ways of relating to the landscape that rely on and empower memory as an instrument of comfort”.

Despite this ambitious remit, his walks are far less intrepid than MacFarlane’s. They take us on a relatively modest journey “into the heart of the English South” across the South Downs of Hampshire and Sussex. As an American living in England he is initially drawn to this region by the need to find out what fate befell his grandfather’s first wife, Doris. Ultimately, this quest turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog story but it provides a convenient narrative tool for linking themes of myths, memories and ghostly tales.

The title of the book itself is knowing reference to ‘The Old, Weird America’ , an influential essay by the music critic Greil Marcus which explores the manner in which Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music helped define perceptions of U.S. folklore.

Screen shot 2019-12-02 at 22.06.25Indeed, music, not literature was how I first came across the author’s name. Hopper’s eloquent spoken word prose-poetry is at the heart of a majestic LP called ‘Chanctonbury Rings’ which was released in June of this year. This album, released on Ghost Box, features instrumental backing from The Belbury Poly and the ethieral voice of Sharron Krauss. It fits well with UK record label’s catalogue which specializes in exploring “the misremembered musical history of a parallel world”.

In the course of his travels, Hopper also writes of taking musical inspiration from a 2010 record entitled ‘1 Inch: ½ Mile’ by Grasscut , a Brighton based duo . A more recent release of this pair (Andrew Phillips & Marcus O’Dair) , ‘Everyone Was A Bird’ (2015), just so happens to feature liner notes by none other than Robert Macfarlane.

On refection, this is not such a surprising coincidence. Although Hopper and Macfarlane trace different paths, these two books are intrinsically linked by the way both authors revive histories of people and places to give them a present day significance.