Chanctonbury Rings is a new spoken word and music project on Ghost Box Records by the poet and writer Justin Hopper and folk musician Sharron Kraus, and featuring Ghost Box’s own Belbury Poly. The album is based on live performances of Hopper’s book The Old Weird Albion (Penned in the Margins, 2017), a poetic and autobiographical and account of his experiences at Chanctonbury Ring on the West Sussex Downs, delving deep into the themes commonly found in landscape writing, but in a refreshingly original way.
The album blends folk, electronic music, poetry, prose, and environmental sound, with Kraus’s electro-acoustic soundscapes and songs interweaving with Hopper’s narration. Belbury Poly produces the recording in the inimitable Ghost Box style, while also contributing to the music including a memorable theme tune that bookends the piece. I met Justin in King’s Cross to talk about the record.
GB: How did the record come about?
JH: I asked Sharron to write ten minutes of music for a reading, because I don’t feel anyone should have to just listen to me read. So, for the launch [of The Old Weird Albion] she was supposed to do just ten minutes, but she wound up writing music for a whole chapter from the book. We started doing some more performances and it started to come together. We performed in London, and Jim from Ghost Box came, and then we performed in Steyning on the first of May last year  and Jim came along to that too – he lives in Sussex – and the project started from there.
GB: So it was quite an organic process?
JH: Yeah, and it feels like quite a Ghost Box-y thing, though I didn’t feel that initially at first. Jim started sending me stuff, saying ‘listen to this 1969 BBC poetry album’. I’ve done audio stuff for years, a lot more than written work, and when he was feeding me these things I suddenly realised some of my biggest influences were audio rather than written texts… I’m thinking of things like the BBC audio adaptations of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Lord of the Rings… and stuff like The Goon Show, which is pretty Dadaist. Jim made me realise that this project was a Ghost Box thing, even though they’ve never done a record like this before.
GB: It was a Ghost Box thing even though they’d never done it before? How does that work?
JH: They’d never done a spoken word record before. Even though they’re obsessed with all those ’60, ’70s, ’80s BBC drama and radio plays – mostly from a library music and sound effects point of view. We just added in the obvious next step, and hopefully have made something that stays true to the concept of the book but is able to evoke that feeling Ghost Box records create. It’s a feeling that makes you go, ‘Oh my god, this is exactly like… what? What is like? I can’t quite figure it out.’ You remember this thing you’ve never heard before.
Americans see time as horizontal. The British see time as either vertical or circular…
GB: Your family are from the area around Chanctonbury in Sussex, and obviously you live in the UK, but are very much a native of Pittsburgh, USA. Do you see this record as operating in a very British genre, or is it something more universal? There’s a concept of what we might call deep time, or maybe ‘deep history’ in the record, going back over the thousands of years of occupation of the area.
JH: Americans see time as horizontal. The British see time as either vertical or circular – in the grand scheme of things, at least. The whole piece, for me, is about being inside and outside – of time, of place, of a sense of belonging. Constantly moving from inside the ring to outside the ring.
I was born two weeks after my parents first set foot in the town I was born in. I was born into to a place they did not know at all and at that point had no connection to. We moved to Pittsburgh, which I consider home, but we had no connection to that place before I built my roots there. And I’ve moved over here now – I live in Dedham Vale – but the only place that I have always gone back to is Sussex. Most people would say I have no connection to it, I never lived there beyond living in Lewes for eighteen months.
The piece, more than the book even, is about tradition, and joining in with tradition and the impossibility of joining in with tradition, about being part of a place and the impossibility of being a part of a place. That constant feeling, that Proustian urge, to go back to this thing that you don’t have. That’s what Ghost Box does.
GB: It makes you familiar with something you’ve never actually experienced?
JH: Something you haven’t exactly experienced, and that never exactly existed. There’s a whole mythology with Ghost Box that feels just a fraction, just a step to the left, of the real world.
GB: Does this mean there’s an element of the fantastic to the work? I was listening to the album again and there is definitely a hint of the supernatural, or perhaps more accurately the spiritual. The idea that certain geographic spaces act as points for people to interact with their deceased ancestors comes across strongly. How much of that do you believe in a literal sense, as opposed to a poetic sense?
JH: There’s a line in the record that says, ‘This must be what it’s like to believe something’ – I can almost understand what it must be like to believe in things. But I almost don’t want to answer your question as to whether I believe these things literally, because really I don’t know. A lot of the time I don’t, but sometimes I do. I have seen my grandmother at Chanctonbury Ring, and she is dead. In that way that you see things, in the speed it takes to blink.
If magic is making people see the world differently – albeit in some people’s minds, literally – then that’s what art does.
GB: That always interested me; the idea that something does happen, even if it’s only within your own head.
JH: Exactly. It’s not real but, but what does it mean for something to be real?
GB: So how do we explore these ideas without succumbing to a kind of woolly New Age spirituality?
JH: I feel that good art and good literature is a way of dealing with those same anxieties and concepts. Poetry is a much better way to deal with things than crystals. Folk song, for example, is a way to experience, in a much more ‘real’ manner, that kind of solace and healing, that otherworldly experience of a place. Parts of The Old Weird Albion are about the fact that poetry is actually at the root of a lot of those New Age type concepts; there’s something there but it’s been taken in a route that I don’t get much out of. If magic is making people see the world differently – albeit in some people’s minds, literally – then that’s what art does.
GB: I wouldn’t call this a folk album or a spoken-word album – what is it exactly?
JH: I like to think of it as the poetic or poetry version of something like a 1981 BBC Radio documentary about the possibilities of folk music. It’s multiple steps removed from the subject – it wants to be this thing, but to be about it, we have to come at it from different angles.
There’s a deceased Sussex folk singer called Pop Maynard and if you listen to a recording of him, that’s it, you’re there, you don’t need anything else. We can’t do that. We live in a post-post-post-modern world; we have to talk around the subject. Sharron is playing around folk music – she’s versed in it and knowledgeable enough about folk music that she can do that. She can do these things that are like Shirley and Dolly Collins but removed by several layers.
There’s no point in me trying to work out a relationship with the Sussex landscape by performing pre-industrial Sussex songs. I suppose, if I think about it, I have ancestors who would have worked in the landscape, but it doesn’t have any real relevance to my experience of the place. But since Sharron and I love that stuff, we can be all the way around it, outside of the ring, and then we can step inside and then outside again and it gives us, I hope, a different perspective on the subject. We’re being retro – partly because it’s fun – in terms of our references but we’re not trying to recreate those influences.
GB: What other influences were there beyond English folk and those BBC audio pieces?
JH: I’m very British, culturally. But when I got interested in writing when I was about eighteen, I was into the Beats, and not the Beats on page: it was William S Burroughs records, and Jack Kerouac’s Blues and Haikus and his records with Steve Allen, Kenneth Patchen who collaborated with John Cage on these bizarre radio plays, and Bukowski reading – though I don’t want to sound like I’m a Bukowski fan anymore…
Humans are creatures of habit – we stake these sites out.
GB: The record has an idea of ‘thin places’. A sense that some spots are inherently more spiritual or even holy? It’s made clear that Chanctonbury was used for religious purposes by Neolithic peoples, Celts, Roman, pagan Saxons and Christians, and it’s also mentioned that it is or was a meeting point for witches. Is it the place inherently that has the significance, or is it the accumulation of the human use of the place that creates that feeling?
JH: Think about the Brick Lane mosque, which was once a synagogue and before that a Huguenot protestant church. At some point, someone decided ‘this is going to be our spiritual centre’ and who knows what the reason was. Maybe there was no reason, but somebody chose to start something there. Humans are creatures of habit – we stake these sites out. We don’t map places by ‘that’s where the Tesco is’ but ‘Oh, that’s where I tripped when I was walking down the street with Lucy’ or ‘That’s where Jim had that fight’.
GB: We add biographical detail to the map.
JH: Yeah, we map narratively. On a practical level, Chanctonbury is one of the highest points in the downs, so it was always going to be important. In the Iron Age, all of the settlements were at the top of the downs; today they’re at the bottom. Chanctonbury will probably still be there when Brighton and Shoreham are under the ocean.
But beyond that, I do think that there are thin places. It’s a special place. I didn’t know anything about it the first time I went up there, and I have truly visceral memories of that first moment. I’ve never slept up there, but everyone I know who has has said they wouldn’t do it again. If you go up there, you can feel that there’s something special – and we can’t say exactly what it is.
It’s a little prosaic to say but, in a way, this album is saying: there are some fucking amazing places out there that you can get a lot out of, just by being there and associating yourself with.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I don’t believe that there are many people in the Anglo-American world that can actually have a direct connection to those old folk traditions anymore.
GB: It’s difficult isn’t it, because it requires a family line to stay in the same place for generations upon generations. Which would be unusual now?
JH: I think people think they do, but I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s just my perception, coming from a very unrooted background.
GB: Well there might be something in that – you talk about watching the Morris Men at Chanctonbury Ring, and almost nothing is known about the tradition in England prior to the mid-17th century, and there have been several dips and revivals of the tradition. So contemporary Morris traditions are most likely not as old as people think they are, and the idea that it connects directly back to an unbroken English tradition is not true. I never had a problem with that, but I think we almost have to get rid of this idea of ‘authenticity’ based on the age of something alone.
JH: Absolutely. At some point our culture got hung up on the idea of authenticity. That’s why the book is called The Old Weird Albion, after The Old Weird America by Greil Marcus. That book has these ideas in it, that actually authenticity isn’t real, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t authentic things in the world. I know two things simultaneously – there is no such thing as these folk traditions, and also, these folk traditions exist and they are vital. Vital in the sense they are living, breathing, exciting things, and vital in the sense that they are important – they are a reminder that things are not the way they have always been, and that they will change again. That’s what is authentic about human experience: change.
Chanctonbury Rings – Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus with The Belbury Poly – is released 21st June on Ghost Box Records.
Read Harriet Thompson’s review of Justin Hopper’s The Old Weird Albion on The Learned Pig.