FIONA MAHER spoke to David Southwell about the importance of place and how he brought a spooky and ‘forgotten’ English county back to life through Twitter...
FIONA MAHER explains how a spooky ‘forgotten’ British county was brought back to life through Twitter.
In 1980, as part of their ‘Strange England’ series, Phoenix Garages published their guidebook to Hookland. Six years later, as a victim of Margaret Thatcher’s redefinition of Britain’s county boundaries, Hookland vanished.
With its ‘corpse lanes’ and ‘cunning folk’, Hookland was a county that was often described as ‘liminal’ or ‘eerie,’ and has since slipped through the cracks in our collective memory. All that’s left to show that Hookland ever existed is ephemera such as The Phoenix Guide to Strange England... None of the above is true. Hookland snags the imagination with significant detail and fools the unwary. It is the conceit of writer David Southwell, and is as thoroughly tricksterish in nature as you might expect from someone who previously wrote non-fiction books about true crime and conspiracy theory. By 2012, Southwell was looking for a new direction. In a chance conversation with JG Ballard a decade earlier, he had been advised to concentrate on writing about place:
I wanted to do something that dealt with the ghost soil of Britain – all the folklore, all the high strangeness that grew and bloomed in the gloriously strange TV, film and books I grew up with as a child in the 1970s. I wanted to put the weirdness back. I strongly believe that re-enchantment is resistance and even back in 2012 you could see how the fight for the national narrative was going and how the ghost soil voice needed to be heard more strongly within it.
The idea of a county that never existed was born when Southwell created its map. That rough sketch, created in just a few minutes, suggested so many possibilities that he knew he had found something special. It suits the oddness of Southwell’s creation that he began revealing it on Twitter. Over the past five years, layers of history have accreted around the central idea and Hookland has been realised in 18,500 tweets. Many people began following @HooklandGuide after seeing Southwell’s contributions to #FolkloreThursday. Using Twitter means Southwell hasn’t the word count to explain his enigmatic posts. The result is a lightness of touch that makes Hookland especially compelling: because everything is suggested, it’s up to the reader to fill in the gaps. This deceptively simple device has garnered growing numbers of loyal fans. Anyone with an interest in folklore or English Eerie will find this co-creation deliciously addictive.
Southwell credits listening to the news as a child in the 1970s as a major influence:
The news was dystopian prophecy manifesting: oil crises, killing fields, three-day weeks – as if our time itself was being stolen – Black Septembers turning to Cold War winters of discontent. Yet the high strangeness of the times meant it would cover UFO sightings, poltergeists and cryptids with exactly the same editorial voice of serious calm. The news treated the weird as normal and horror as everyday… I wanted to write something where I could put back all of the weirdness that has been edited out of cultural dialogue.
Hookland in all its strangeness is warped even more by the blending of sci-fi into its landscape. The Children of the Hum are a cult of electricity pylon worshippers, whilst another cult, the Aetherians destroy pylons, believing they interfere with ley lines and are a cosmic magnet for UFOs bent on taking over the planet. Hookland was hit by a Midwich Cuckoo style event when, in 1969, children at a village school all began chanting: “Pavel Mikoyan is screaming on the Moon”. Within 48 hours, identical incidents were reported and all schools were temporarily closed: Pavel was seemingly a lost cosmonaut. It is weird, fortean strands like this that elevate Hookland from other folk horror revival material.
The county is peopled by an extraordinary cast. Where did Southwell find their unique voices:
The popular Detective Inspector, Roger ‘Cunning’ Callaghan, who investigates anything with a whiff of ritual or the occult is based on a senior ex-Vice and Drug Squad detective who was this wonderful mix of spiritual insight and a policing-with-your-fists 1970s copper. My pastiches of John Betjeman’s non-existent BBC TV series The English Alphabet even drew angry letters to the Beeb and to me from one American Betjeman scholar. However, some things are sacred to me, beyond pastiche, and Arthur Machen is one of those. I wanted a Machenlike voice in Hookland and so that led to the creation of CL Nolan, an Edwardian writer of strange stories.
The haunting tweets quoting CL Nolan are often accompanied by dramatic monochrome shots of bleak landscapes, tilted at expressionist angles. Nolan’s words are poetry:
I shunned the church with its brutal, fort-like tower for the sermon of blossom falling like soft rain.
Evocative images match almost every tweet, from cleverly manipulated book covers perfectly in keeping with the time they were allegedly written, to old British Rail posters, to album covers by Hookland bands. So why present it as a guidebook?
I have often said Hookland is partly a love-letter to Paul Nash and it really is. I chose to tell many of the stories of Hookland through a guidebook format not only because of a childhood love of guidebooks, but because it let people create their own joined-up narratives from small glimpses. However, that choice was also a direct tribute to Nash’s 1935 Shell Guide
“I believe that re-enchantment is resistance... the ghost soil voice needs to be heard”
to Dorset. Nash was this incredibly powerful artist who understood and captured the strangeness stored in the English landscape. He had this incredible ability in his paintings and photography to playfully connect the past and present through place, manifesting not just in folklore, but a sense that even distant dinosaur eras could still be felt in the stones: a sense that profound primitive mysteries could be glimpsed in dead trees and the plough-broken barrows. He directly inspired me to ensure that Hookland had a sense of personal mythology and ancient Albionic mystery manifesting through place, through an environment that everyone could recognise as their own. That ever-present sense that the land itself is in us, that we enjoy a constant relationship to it.
Southwell has created a Hookland ‘bible’ to keep track of the multiple characters, places and situations, and its scope is breathtaking. It lists the settlements of Hookland, down to the drifts, a local word for those tiny rows of two or three houses often seen on country roads. Everything has been considered, from the police authority to food. The county produces two cheeses, Stinking Tom and Burnt Bishop and a local delicacy is plate pudding and scrap, an elaborate toad-in-thehole. Thirty varieties of apple originated in Hookland and the locals have a preference for pork over any other meat.
This prosaic detail makes a perfect foil for the overlay of weirdness that Southwell creates. One tweet speaks of “doomed archæologist Copeland Blight”, the word doomed conjuring up every cursed artefact story you’ve ever read. He wrote this about Hookland’s canal network:
The cut has a malignant gravity that seems to pull unsettling stories to it. Drowned babies, eel-eaten corpses found floating, strange knocks on the underside of boats at night, all leading CL Nolan to say in a 1933 BBC radio talk: ‘The canals are veins furred with trauma”.
In the oddly but plausibly named village of Finchford Dignity, the Black Frog pub boasts a haunted grandfather clock of which Nolan writes:
There were souls trapped between the tick and the tock. Souls he could hear whisper just before the chime.
This enchanting observation of a clock ‘drawing breath’ before striking is supported upon foundations of compelling detail; the Hookland ‘bible’ adds that one Timothy Tidy bequeathed the clock to the pub in 1876:
Regulars will retell the clock’s tale and if a glass smashes, a shout goes around the bar of: “Careful Timothy!”
I’ve never heard this in an English pub, but it’s pitch-perfect; a typical local oddity no one pays much heed to anymore but which a visitor might ask about. Whilst almost everything is covered in Southwell’s comprehensive guide, there’s one obvious omission: Hookland’s exact location:
It is about 90 miles from [[REDACTED]], a journey that takes two hours and five minutes on the fastest train and about two and half hours in a fast car if the gods are with you.
Famous people have been there – Aleister Crowley and Sir John Betjeman among them – and you can go too, for Hookland is common land and open for anyone to enjoy. Southwell isn’t precious about his creation: you can borrow whatever parts of it suit you best. You can take what you wish and make of it what you will:
Making it open means people can use it in any way they want, which throws up such wonderful, unexpected directions. I didn’t expect people to write music inspired by it. I didn’t expect someone would have written a novel set in it even before I’d finished my own publications on the county. I’m gloriously delighted when someone asks if they can use a CL Nolan quote in a book or mention the county in a horror film they are making. I’m overjoyed when some asks for a visual guide because they want to do Hookland-inspired graffiti or paint portraits of cunning folk that previously only existed in their mind, but that they hadn’t realised it till they began walking in the county. I never expected to be interviewing people playing their own fictional creations that reside in Hookland before live audiences or selling hand-drawn maps of the county to people living in Hollywood. Hookland is one imaginary place where no one evicts you when you try to build a home there and where no-one ever tells you that there are planning regulations. The only decent imaginary places are those that escape from their creators and I’m pleased that Hookland is well on the way to that already.
If you reciprocate with the same openness and allow others to build upon your contribution, it will become canon and you will have made your own, lasting mark upon Hookland. The ‘bible’ runs to around 60,000 words; with all this material, I asked Southwell if he’d ever thought of getting it published. There will be at least two limited edition Hookland mini-books out this year featuring a mix of original fiction, essays and comics strips as well as a set of the Hookland Horror folklore of the county playing cards by Maxim Griffin and myself. There is an anthology of other authors’ tales set in Hookland in the works already, but the things I really hope to find a publisher for are the Bible and The Guide. Of course, if anyone wants to publish an 80,000word dialect dictionary from a county that doesn’t exist, they can have that as well...
I ‘found’ a guide to Hookland in a junk shop in Shrewsbury, and went there to research the infamous Mordant family; local aristocrats who had contact with the realm of Faerie long ago. I suffered satnav malfunction, became hopelessly lost and dropped my phone so it only took moody, monochrome photographs. At the time @ HooklandGuide retweeted my plight with the unsettling observation: I have a terrible feeling this will not end well.
I escaped, eventually, but Hookland left its mark.
David Southwell’s creation has a way of burrowing deep into your psyche and resonating with latent memories; setting up a tension that’s disturbing and comforting, like stroking an old scar. I doubt I’ll ever be free of Hookland. Then again, I don’t want to be.