Grave Goods – Justin Hopper.
Welcome to Grave Goods, a series of interviews in which the interviewee selects five items they’d like to accompany them to the afterlife.
On this outing, we’re very happy to receive Justin Hopper. Justin is an American writer who lives and works in the UK. His recent book (The Old Weird Albion) and album (Chanctonbury Rings with Sharron Kraus) are concerned with the intersection of landscape, memory & myth.
Tools of the Trade – a tool/implement without which you’d be lost, whether it’s a pen, trowel, notepad, bottle-opener or scanning electron microscope.
‘Recently, I read that every artist, writer, musician – I’d say ever reader, film-goer; every person, really – asks a single basic question, over and over again throughout their life. My question, whether I recognise it at the time or not, is ‘What does it mean to remember?’
Ironically, my own memory is occasionally corrupted – one reason I’m so obsessed with the subject. And whether it’s in everyday life or, even more importantly, if doing a piece of writing, there are two things I consider to be ‘as one’, and to be indispensable:
A reporter’s notebook – those slim, ruled, film-noir notepads that are wire-bound such that the pages flip satisfyingly over the top. Having spent five years as a journalist – writing about art and music, but also regularly covering radical political events – I became fluent in a homemade shorthand, and can very quickly make semi-useful notes that might as well be in code as far as others are concerned. As long as I’m standing still or moving very slowly, that is. For precision, and for taking notes on walks, I need an audio recorder.
A handheld digital audio recorder – something small, streamlined, with very few bells and whistles – is a must-have when I’m working on anything, and I’ll certainly want to write in the afterlife. (Much like today, nobody will ever see any of it, but that’s OK.) Making notes while you walk up a hill or as you quicken through a darkening field is a lot easier when you’re just talking into a handheld device, with the added bonus of always sounding like it’s the desperate last words of a disaster-prone adventurer. (Always panting, always whispered: ’I’m going to try to reach the top of the hill before sundown, despite the legends…’)
Memory’s a fickle li’l beast, and even the on-the-spot writings and recordings don’t always tell something that people might consider ‘truth’. But they get at something in the moment which can act as nourishment for the imagination of retrospect.’
Food for the Journey – a favourite portable snack, or a portion of something from your funeral feast.
‘In a similar vein to my noir reporter’s notebook, I genuinely hope that my burial or pyre suit has a flask of decent bourbon tucked into the breast pocket for warmth. The brand isn’t that important, but in case my loved ones read this, I’ll make a few specifications.
When I was coming of age (in this case, that’s a bit late in life: 20s, even into my 30s) the circles in which I moved in Pittsburgh spent a few years drinking Jim Beam – and I do mean, a few years; it wasn’t rare to spend a few days at a time just drinking Jim Beam, and possibly listening to a Bad Seeds or Tom Waits album. We stacked empty bottles in a designated corner, filling it several times a year. A band I played in bought ‘family-sized’ gallon jugs of it for gigs, sometimes sneaking them into the venue. We bought Biggie Cokes from Wendy’s, poured out half and added Beam so we could walk around town with them. Because of this, it holds a special place in my heart, but never on my tongue: please, oh please, do not send me to the afterlife with nothing but Beam.
For about a year, later in those formative times, I would hang around a bit with the brilliant writer and teacher Chuck Kinder, who sadly died earlier this year. Kinder’s house was in a dip in a road between two of Pittsburgh’s many hills, and he referred to it as the ‘Holler’, like it might’ve been in his West Virginia coalfields homelands. I’d sit there surrounded by luminous Pittsburgh lit and music figures and drink a cocktail he called the ‘Dickel Ditch’ – ‘You pour some George Dickel whisky into a glass, then ya ditch some ice into it, and ditch some water in.’ Kinder was an insightful and generous writer, more so than his famously un-prolific output would have it. (His student, Michael Chabon, famously memorialised him as Grady Tripp in the novel Wonder Boys – the mentor who never finished his many-thousand page novel.) I wasn’t part of his inner circle, and never took a class from him, but feel as though his Appalachian-beatnik influence suffused into my blood through those ditches. So I hope it’s George Dickel’s Tennessee Whisky in my flask – I’ll still call it bourbon – but good lord would I be fine with Maker’s Mark*.’
(*Note to relatives and executors: If $$/££ is a major consideration, I’ll take Old Crow or ‘Heaven & Hell’, aka Heaven Hill.)
‘I’m gonna make a bold declaration that, like my hazelnuts, I go into the next world with a complementary photograph of my son and my partner – perhaps a selfie together, she smiling proudly as he does one of his eyes-squeezed laughs.
In which case, I’d like to take an image of Chanctonbury Ring in West Sussex – not a photograph, necessarily; perhaps a woodcut like those made by Percy and Dennis West for Victor Neuburg’s books he printed as the Vine Press in the 1920s. But a large one that takes in a vantage either looking up from Wiston Pond, or looking down across the fields and villages to the north from the Ring.
The Ring has long had associations with the dead, and once I’m one of them, I’d like to help keep those associations going. But what’s more, it holds an especially meaningful place in my heart – and not just because it’s central to both my book and album. (Although it’d be nice to remember those magically enjoyable projects, too.) I grew up in a town in Upstate New York where many of my classmates had grandparents or even great-grandparents around the corner; the immigrant kids were often part of tight-knit communities, and to some extent the others were several generations in on their residency in the town. (Or both.) I was born in that town two weeks after my parents arrived – my next closest blood relatives were 600 miles away. Later on, I moved to a city – Pittsburgh – that became ‘home’, but which had an even more developed sense of identity, which took 15 years for me to adopt.
All that time, however, we went back time and again to Sussex, where my grandparents lived and where cousins of many different degrees were plentiful. And always to Chanctonbury Ring, which won my heart with its magic (quite literally) from the time I first saw it. I’ve never lived beneath the Ring, an Iron Age hill fort atop one of the highest points on the Sussex Downs. And yet it has always seemed like a lynchpin to my life; a steadying influence in its age and its legend.
Maybe, moving on to the next world, some of its memories can come with me – the connections and the disconnections; the roots and rootlessness that form that landscape’s subjective experience.’
Ex Libris – the book or text you are least likely to tire of reading.
‘I’ll take a collection of English translations of ‘essential’ masters of haiku and zen writing: Basho, Issa and Buson, but also poetry and prose from Dogen. That such a book exists I have no doubt; what it’s called or who translated and edited it, I’m … not allowed to tell you. The fact is, it’s a topic I’m interested in and exceedingly comforted by, which might be of use going into the strange world of the afterlife. What’s more, it’s like having a condensed version of every book you’ve ever read. There is a poem by Basho that renders irrelevant the entire genre of psychogeography that I love so dearly, and does so in three short (translated) lines:
Hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.
Likewise, most of the nature writing I adore; the philosophy that supports me in trying times; the religious or spiritual writing that gives voice to the tired and sore parts of a soul, it’s all there in shards you can read forever and never fully perceive.
And if such a book doesn’t exist, I’ll take a recording of the BBC radio adaptation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Which has a similar effect.’
Lucky Deposition – a bonus selection chosen by the guest – can include transport.
‘This would obviously be a turntable and record collection. Such a cheat – all my grave goods are cheats; sorry about that, afterlife. But, yeah, it’d have to be – not just any turntable, but a Numark PT-01 portable one. That’s a Madeleine in and of itself, to days and weeks spent in midwestern record shops listening to mostly unbearable scratched 45s, looking for those tiny masterpieces. I’d want that and at least a small selection of 45s and LPs – some standard albums like Astral Weeks and Rain Dogs and Music from Big Pink, plus a collection of prime, dusty northern soul, R&B and jazz 45s: Hot Bossa by Kenny Burrell, Catch That Teardrop by the Five Royales, Row My Boat by the Four Mints, Another Sundown in Watts by The Exits, Complete Opposites by Chuck Corby.’
This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world