Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Questions, answers & mysteries with Hookland's David Southwell (Part 1)

David Southwell photo. See original tweet from October 2, 2015.

OK, readers, I have a big treat for Fortnight of Mild Fear — an interview with author and Hookland creator David Southwell.

Today and tomorrow, you can learn all about the strange (yet ... familiar) place that is Hookland County. It is not, perhaps, a place you can stumble upon by specifically seeking it out. Sometimes, Hookland County finds you when you aren't even looking for it.1 For me, it was an unexpected, but not unwelcome, stranger that popped into my Twitter feed (perhaps on a "psychogeography" search) over the summer. Thus intrigued, I became hooked by Hookland.

Southwell, at 44 the same age as me, first introduced haunting Hookland County to readers in Leigh Wright's Wyrd Daze, a "multimedia zine of speculative fiction + experimental music, art, and writing," two years ago. He is its primary creator, the architect of the land's history and mythos and photography.2 But, already, other authors and artists are tapping into Hookland as a "playground" for their own creations, much to Southwell's delight.

Even though we were raised on opposite sides of The Pond, Southwell and I (and many, many others now in their 40s) grew up in the similar, strange culture of the 1970s and early 1980s. That's part of what he's tapping back into with Hookland.

"Hookland is in huge part a response to the weird, the paranormal content in culture when we were growing up," Southwell writes. "In many ways I look at Hookland as an act of re-enchantment, a putting back all the weirdness edited out by the modern world. We grew up caught between space-age dreams and the fag-end (in English terms, the end of the cigarette) of hippy culture. A point in time before the blooming of right-wing Christianity. I grew up with the main BBC news moving from reports of IRA bombs to reports of UFOs or poltergeists. Where documentaries about ancient aliens (if you've seen me on that awful bloody TV show Ancient Aliens you'll know how dismissive I am of that genre), UFOs or witchcraft were shown on prime-time without sneering. The 70s were a high-water mark for weirdness. A strange, febrile time to be a child exposed to the psychic chaff of the mass media."

Southwell very graciously took the time to answer more than a dozen questions about Hookland that I sent his way earlier this month. Here is Part 1 of those questions and answers, along with some images from the @HooklandGuide twitter feed.

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I suspect that the Hookland County project had a long incubation period before you first published anything online. How long had you been thinking about it, and what compelled you to finally launch it?

In many ways Hookland had an apparently short gestation period. Leigh Wright asked me to contribute something to Wyrd Daze that was not only about place, but about the things I used to write bad books about — conspiracy, true crime. Within 24 hours I had drawn a map of the county with 200 place names, each representing a story from the landscape that I wanted to tell, and gone back to Leigh saying I think I had something interesting to contribute if he was up for my idea of attempting to explore the psychogeography of a place that didn't exist. The core concept of using a travel guide as a format to tackle landscape, memory, folklore and the rest of territory I wanted to cover, most of the nomenclature, it all came out in an intense 16-hour burst of work.

Of course, the actual gestation period is several years of wanting to make a haunted space anyone could play in. Several years of wanting to create a fictional landscape that you could not only walk inside in terms of words, but would manifest in photographs and other objects. Several years of wanting to write a fiction based on what I knew to be the fiction of my own memory of a 1970s English childhood. A replication of deliberate inaccuracies within what was already a blur of fact and fiction, history and myth. Several years of wanting to graft half-memory of actual places onto a non-space, to make a book that felt as if it was an artifact that had fallen through from a parallel universe.

Writers tend to carry ideas in the neglected pockets of their mind for years, if not decades. We walk along, pick up shiny pebbles of fact, glinting impressions of where we have been — stuff them into those pockets where they jostle and tumble with our imagination and then pull out these mad concepts. Writers in the end are word spivs. We are trying to sell our readers the inside of our heads, to translate the electrical storms of our thoughts. We pull stuff from those pockets and try to polish it up enough to convince you to take interest. Hookland had been in the pocket for years — especially the element of wanting to put back all the cultural weirdness from my childhood that has been edited out of modern life.

The Hookland project has so many facets — a Twitter account, a website, The Phoenix Guide to Strange England, C.L. Nolan. Did you know from the start that all of these things would be part of the journey and discovery?

The core of Hookland always has been and always will be The Phoenix Guide To Strange England County By County: Hookland. I envisaged it as a guide book of the sort that they used to give away as petrol stations in the 1970s in the weeks when it wasn't tumblers, commemorative medals or Smurfs. Wyrd Daze gave me a chance to serialise the work as I wrote it. I hoped that at the end of the process there would be at the very least The Phoenix Guide to Hookland in a form that could eventually exist as a book in itself. I hoped that, if nothing else, that book could act as a gateway for others to enter the space I'd created and play with it themselves.

C.L. Nolan was always a voice I knew would be in the guide. I was happy to pastiche John Betjeman, Charles Fort, et al, as writers who had traveled through the county and left words about it behind, but I did not want to pastiche Arthur Machen. Therefore I needed a suitable substitute and that was Nolan — who pretty much shook himself out of my head fully formed as a friend and contemporary of Machen with his own fully developed backstory.

Twitter came six months into the project and was a way of adding extra layers of narrative to Hookland and trying to create maps in 140 characters and pictures that people to could project their own stories onto. It was also a chance to let people see the fiction in an unfinished state, to give an X-ray of the creative process. I was hoping that by taking it onto to Twitter, the shared universe aspect would begin to blossom and I've been overjoyed that it has. The responses to Hookland on Twitter have really brought the project alive.

There is a blog, but to be honest it is not much more than a place-marker at the moment. I'm something of an incompetent when it comes to HTLM — like C.L. Nolan, I have an Edwardian soul — and I'm a little stalled on how to take it forward. The blog, like other facets of Hookland I'd like to develop, will probably go forward at a point when I've written more of the guide.

How would you describe Hookland County, in a couple of sentences, to someone who knows nothing of it?

I'm not sure I can even explain it to myself in a couple of sentences. However, I often say Hookland is the psychogeography of a place that doesn't exist. It is a project that attempts to restore mystery to our sense of place and promote a sense of the uncanny when engaging with landscape. It's also an attempt to reconnect the reader to a sense of cultural weirdness edited out of most of our memories of the past.

You grew up in England in the 1970s. What part of the country? What childhood memories and experiences still resonate with you today, especially when it comes to your interest in Hookland County and its history and folklore?

My father deserted our family when I was 4 and so when my mother became ill later on, my brother and I were often nomadic. We were sent out to friends or relative in different parts of the country for months on end, a pass-the-parcel existence. The bulk of my childhood was spent in Essex, but we also had significant periods in London, Kent, Cornwall and Hampshire. Even a terrible spell in Norfolk. While the Essex estuaries of Blackwater, Roach, Colne and Thames carved maps of tidal mud and salt kisses onto my bones, the landscape of other counties bled into me.

When I am talking about Hookland before a live audience I often joke that I grew up in peak English seaside weirdness. The closest town to me in my earliest years had a row of properties owned by the Kray twins, abandoned when they were sentenced to life imprisonment; the mystery of dolphins disappearing from the local casino3; a torture waxworks which advertised on the seafront by mechanical tableaux of Spanish Inquisition laceration; the world's longest pleasure pier, which had been cursed by a gypsy and was always burning down or having oil tankers crash through it, a sunken wartime ship that was exposed at each low tide which contained enough rotting explosives to smash windows more than 30 miles away in London, UFO reports ... and a mystery from the 1920s when nine people had apparently vanished in plain sight while walking down a street. A constant paranoia about IRA terrorists targeting nearby oil refineries. This was just in the small seaside near to me. It was a ridiculously febrile place for a child's imagination to be inspired by and project onto. In retrospect, I don't think Southend was egregious in terms of strangeness for the time.

The suburbs village I spent most of my childhood in was home to rich ghost soil. When the Witchfinder General came to it in the 17th century on his campaign of terror, the locals were so fond of their witches and cunning men that they stoned him out of the village. We had ghosts, corpse lanes, shucks and people you were warned against offending on the basis of their moon gardening and herbalism, [which] had them marked out as being of the cunning ilk. I grew up in this whole cycle of folklore linked to the landscape of the castle ruins, the woods, the alley behind the grand houses.

When we traveled just a few miles down the road, that cycle would be completely different. Still all this rich folklore and story linked to landscape, but with their own specifics of site. Everywhere had its store of stories. In the Internet age, a lot of this localism of story has been eroded. Something like the black-eyed children legend spreads everywhere. A ghost story contagion that often seems to overide the sense of local lore by its conforming universality. In a way, Hookland is an echo of that folklore environment where the universal themes and archetypes of mythic culture would manifest in very specific ways in the landscape around you. It is also reflecting that pre-Net age where information was acquired through reading books, library research and sending out letters. A pre-cut-and-paste sense of the weird and uncanny. Slender Man is all fine and dandy as a bogeyman, but the creepypasta nature of it means that whether a story happens in Texas or Volgograd, there no real sense of place — something I demand from my fictions.

The other big aspect of my childhood is that I grew up in an England, where the cultural static was full of weirdness. The BBC news would move from reports of IRA bombing in London to footage of a UFO sighting without missing a beat — both stories treated with the same level of seriousness. Our nightly news magazine shows would happily devote 15 minutes to a poltergeist investigation or a look at modern witchcraft. National treasures such as Sir David Attenborough would present documentaries about monsters. The strange had currency, had acceptance in the popular culture of 1970s — not just at the level of the TV shows and films it inspired, but in terms of the way it was treated by journalism. Hookland is inspired by that period and is, on its own terms, an attempt to put back into our dialogue with that time all of the weirdness that has been edited out.

Part of Hookland is based on my own personal experiences of the weird. In that febrile landscape of the 1970s, a few times I witnessed things that I still cannot provide easy answers to and that leaks into the stories. I hope there is also a sense of the cultural paranoia that was part of my childhood background. When I was 10, the four-minute warning was accidentally given when the sirens in the local woods misfired. I remember teachers screaming, puking, crying. Running out of the school. The adult world reduced to panic. You never fully escaped the fear of nuclear apocalypse after something like that, but even at that age, I found the way newspapers didn't cover the panic, the way adults didn't want to talk about it as profoundly significant. That sense was only heightened by my curiosity about a strange tower in the woods. Years later it would be revealed as a microwave relay station, part of Backbone — the secret military communication network planned for a post-nuclear war — but growing up it was a source of mystery. No adult, not a single teacher, librarian or politician had a clue what it was and as a child I observed how they were able to gloss over its existence, not engage with this black metal spire that grew taller than the trees. I could see how adults didn't want to engage with anything that they felt was somehow related to the military, to the "secrets that keep us safe."

Aside from the sense of the uncanny that was so much part of my 1970s, Hookland is also an attempt to journey into the both the sense of awe and the dark dread which were intrinsic to my childhood through the prospect of places you could actually visit. Aside from Paul Nash, another inspiration for the travel guide format was the ritual of, before being sent out to relatives we didn't know or going on holiday, looking up the area in a travel guide. The visit to the library, that sense of looking in a book and whatever you found being true, pre-Wikipedia, that was not only an intense pleasure, for me as a child it gave a small sense of control through that power of believed knowledge. That element of pure autobiography is in The Guide.

We still seemingly know very little about C.L. Nolan. What is your personal sense of him? What are the mysteries from his life that you'd most like to unravel?

When writing I work from a obsessive level of internal, imagined detail. I tend to know everything about the places and people I am creating. You tend never to show it in what you write, but I like to know everything from a character's favourite meal to when they first had their heart broken. When the voice of C.L. Nolan began speaking in my work, it came with almost everything about him. I know when he was born and when he died. I knew his views on writing, what had forged his love of folklore. When and why he had run away to sea, his friendships with other existing authors, his period of ether addiction and his fascination in later in life for motoring. It took me a year to find and then own an image of him that looked exactly as he did in my head, but finding it was a glorious moment. Even to me, he felt real in that instant.

My constant sense of him is not only as an Edwardian writer of strange stories, but as a man engaged with the landscape of Hookland, feeling the stories stored in place coursing through him as he walks the county. If I focus on him at different points in his life, the sense changes. The later years, harrowed by loss and old age, slowly losing his sight and his ability to work with words in harsh contrast to his swagger and momentum in youth. I'm currently working out a chronology of his life to share with another author so they can make use of him in a story they want to write, so that sense is being turned into hard, scratched facts on the page. I felt emotional when sharing the names of his children, the dates they died. While Nolan is often a substitute for Arthur Machen and also at times my own voice within Hookland, he has become a creation that goes way beyond those practical concerns of an author.

As Nolan himself would say: "I believe as a writer and as a man, it is often better to dance with mystery rather than to dissect it," so I am not entirely convinced people want the mysteries of Nolan's life solved. However, I would like to channel some of his short stories and essays. I'd also like explore some key elements in his life — whether they are his days at the Ether Club, his family picnics ... or being one of the first people to drive an automobile in Hookland.

Related question: What is your favorite C.L. Nolan quote?

My favourite Nolan quote is probably: "Folklore is psychic shrapnel embedded in the landscape."

Everyone seems to have their own definition of psychogeography. How do you define it?

I like to keep things simple. To me psychogeography is: "How place makes you feel."

And then there's "landscape punk." Is that different? What is meant by that?

Landscape punk is my and others' like Garry Budden's reaction against the way psychogeography has become almost a literary commodity. The way it has become an academic subject. You don't need fancy intellectual words and concepts by dead French theorists to engage with place. Landscape punk is a DIY, screw-the-over-intellectualism and just heed the call-response nature of landscape. My career-changing moment as a writer came in a BBC car travelling with J.G. Ballard through west London. He told me: "Concentrate on place. Nothing without a sense of it is ever any good." That's the moment I stopped writing bad books for money and began to focus on place in my writing. Landscape punk is my way of expressing that focus without having to dress it up in academic theory or a faux-occult ironic language which excludes those who don't use it.

Read Part 2

1. Discovering Hookland is similar, perhaps, to finding Ultima in the old Choose Your Own Adventure book Inside UFO 54-40.
2. Regarding his wonderful photos, Southwell adds: "All the photos are taken by me on a broken iPhone 4. My deep worry is that the phone is going to die, I won't be able to afford to replace it and the photos will stop. A lot of the filters on the photos are very low-tec — coloured boiled sweet wrappers pulled across the lens to polarise the clouds et al."
3. I didn't follow up on this. Southwell might be referring to the Peacock Theatre in Westminster. According to Wikipedia:
"The Peacock Theatre is most noted as the home of one of the West End's most unusual ghosts, a dolphin commonly known as 'Flipper.' An urban myth has grown up that, during one of Paul Raymond's revues at the theatre in the 1970s, a dolphin was kept in a tank beneath the stage, where it lived permanently and later died from neglect. In fact, this is not true. Two dolphins called 'Pennie' and 'Pixie' were indeed kept in a tank at the theatre for three months for a show called 'The Royalty Folies,' which was later renamed 'The Great International Nude Show.' However, neither of these animals died while at the theatre and at the close of the show the animals were moved to a dolphinarium in the far east. The remnants of the tank and its lifting equipment still remain below the stage and numerous visitors to the theatre claim to have heard in the vicinity a spectral squeaking, not unlike a crying baby. One possible explanation is that the London Underground passes very close to the sub-stage areas of the theatre and it is noise from the tunnels that creates the sound."

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