lure of sussex

Thurston Hopkins became famous in the forties and fifties as a photographer on the Picture Post. But I can confirm that before this in 1928 he was the author of a small guide book to Sussex. It has to be said that he was better at taking pictures than writing.

But he is good if slightly irritating company in this book describing his travels around Sussex. The nineteen twenties were the only time a book like this could have been written. The car and the railways enabled him to get to most of the county easily enough but they weren’t yet advanced enough for Sussex to become London’s backyard. Sussex would soon become first an extension of Bloomsbury and then a dormitory which it is still today. But it was still a largely rural environment at the time this book was written.

Even when the book was written Austen Chamberlain had a place in Mayfield that gets a chapter. Hopkins doesn’t get to meet the great man, but luckily runs into a local who happens to know all about it. (This sort of thing happens a lot to him, which must have made writing the book a lot easier.) Other celebrities are name-checked in chapter headings – Hillaire Belloc and John Galsworthy. But again the author doesn’t actually talk to them. In the case of Galsworthy a big chunk of a newspaper interview is simply cut and pasted. No doubt literally using scissors and a pot of paste given that this book was published in the twenties.

The Sussex of this book is not particularly recognisable to a modern inhabitant. The place names haven’t changed but most other things have. In particular the eccentric and colourful, while surprisingly well informed, country folk that Hopkins meets are now almost impossible to find. Speaking as someone whose family actually were farm workers in Sussex at the time Hopkins was writing I have to say that what few stories have come down to me aren’t quite that romantic. They all seemed perfectly normal human beings to me – they just happened to do jobs like looking after sheep and driving carts.

Hopkins lived to 101 and only died in 2014 but his attitude seems like something from another age. In fact I found it both unrealistic and patronising. The Sussex characters he describes must be largely fantasy and I wonder if he actually ever met any. Farm labourers might well have had some traditions that were quite old – but what of that? They were basically just one type of unskilled and low paid worker. The idea that shepherds could no longer be persuaded to work their flocks for such long hours because they were too distracted by the newly arrived picture houses beggars belief. Technology was changing things decade by then just as it always had before and will continue to do into the future.

On the whole, this is a silly and shallow book. As an inhabitant of the county in question I found a few references to how things used to be in the twenties interesting, but hardly revelations. It’s a shame because the history of a county can be a fascinating thing. In particular the Sussex iron industry was in many ways a dry run for the Industrial Revolution. In some ways Sussex is the most modern part of the UK, having already managed de-industrialisation. An intelligent and perceptive observer might well have discovered all sorts of interesting data that was soon to be lost. Unfortunately, this particular one was too distracted on the one hand by celebrities and on the other by seeking out the twee and the quaint.

But I am of course being very unfair to the author. It is unfair to judge him by the standards I apply to historical sources. If you look at this book in its historical context it makes perfect sense. For all its dwelling on the past this book is very much a book of its time. Its size is a first clue of what it is all about. This is a pocket book in the sense of a book that is intended to go in the pocket. When it was written, the railways had become a form of mass transport cheap enough to be used for entertainment. And when you were off on your trip to the seaside or the country, what better way to keep yourself entertained on the train journey than a small guide book that could fit in your jacket pocket.

The entrepreneur who took advantage of this new opportunity was the founder of W.H.Smiths. He did pretty well out of it – in fact well enough to use his new found wealth to pursue a career in politics. He is the man who was being parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in the song about the man whose ability to polish doorknobs efficiently led to his appointment as the captain of the Queen’s navy.

So what we have here is an artefact from a bygone era, much like the windmills and the sheep bells that get a chapter a piece in the book. If I were take on the style of the chapter on smuggling, I could describe the author in romantic terms as a writer out to heroically line his pockets at the expense of his readers. Here he is, artfully pulling together articles obviously written for other purposes or flagrantly pinched from the leaflets available at the sites he visits. The last chapter in particular looks like it was originally written to be a self standing magazine article – and may well have actually been published as one. So basically a hack job put together for a particular market, no doubt by the light of the moon in a country pub near Hassocks.

This book is needless to say out of print. Local history is a very popular subject and I have a feeling that it might do quite well if it were released now. But I think the real reason for reading it is not to find out about the history of Sussex, but to get a feel for what the world was really like in the nineteen twenties.

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