Matt Hopwood – book festival

Matt Hopwood was talking to Ryan Van Winkle at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 18 Aug 2018.

Another sold out event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Matt Hopwood has walked long distance collecting love stories as he goes. A former teacher and a musician, he has the appearance of a road-hippie (or ‘Jesus’ as some wee ruffians shouted at him somewhere in Scotland) with long hair in a top knot and a tawny beard. He described himself as “going on this amazing pilgrimage all groovy and pure” when he first started seven years ago. Author of A Human Love Story – Journeys to the Heart, his dad was a Methodist minister and he has discovered that his way is all about love.

When walking he prevails on strangers to accommodate and feed him, and in return he does an equally precious thing, he listens to their accounts of love. This book is testament to his prodigious listening skills and admirable in his aim of building shared experience and compassion by publishing them in book and virtual form. “I hope the reader might think, ‘Ah, there’s someone else that thinks like me.’ That’s when we know we’re not alone.”

On being asked why he walks instead of driving for example, he answers, “What I’ve found is that you enter communities very gently when you walk. Walking allows you to walk into that presence”, quoting Martin Palmer another ‘son of a preacher man’, “’into that sense of sacred drift’.”

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The chair of this event is Ryan Van Winkle who then asks what happens after he has amassed the narratives, “You’re the shepherd of these texts. What is that responsibility like?” “I listen to the recordings and the first thing I do is take myself out, then the people emerge. It’s not really anything to do with me.” Not all the stories are in the public eye: “55% are for them (the storytellers) only. My recordings are a gift, offering that reflection for them to hear their own voice.” An audience member asks about giving advice. “I want to help them” Hopwood admits, “but early on I learned that I don’t know anything. I’m just here to learn.”

Hopwood is eloquent with words, energy and gesture; he’s quietly amusing, self-deprecating, and he tells a good story himself. On Van Winkle’s urging he tells us his story, and romantic it certainly is. He sits upright at the front of his seat, touches his heart, squeezes his nose (diagnostic area for the heart in Chinese Medicine!); he opens his palms and moves them from the centre of his chest towards us – the body speaking clearly of his desire for openness and connection through sharing. “This amazing person just kept allowing me to be” he said of his wife in the early stage of their relationship, and when the time came he was ready to offer that to others.

Van Winkle, his knee popping out of his jeans, allows himself to be admirably vulnerable and says: “When I am alone, isolated and reflect, my nerves appear above my skin. Is that why you set out on your own?” Hopwood explains: “I try to be in my body and the now”.  At times he struggles a little, searching for the right vocabulary because this is akin to therapeutic talk and he knows some aren’t familiar and most find it pretty tricky to talk about such matters. “If I’m not”, he continues, “I don’t meet anyone. Nothing happens. But when I still myself, then everything happens, people just sit down beside me.”

“All of my work is really about the guest and the stranger” reveals Hopwood (maybe he refers here to Camus’ short stories with those titles; the bible (see Romans); and Saint-Expuéry (Hopwood read a passage from ‘Letter to a Hostage’)) . He doesn’t elaborate much, but he does speak about the power of the smile, telling a prisoner’s tale for whom the daily smile of his cell mate constitutes love. “That is a sort of a welcome to the stranger”, he says. “The smile says ‘I see you, I recognise your humanity’” and it removes the need to “leave any part of me behind” when you cross a threshold. Usually, he explains, when we go somewhere, cross someone’s threshold, we choose to take part of us and leave the rest behind, it’s what we believe society requires for acceptance. Hopwood, on the other hand, seeks to “open out” to whoever someone is, to welcome the whole of them: “When it’s allowing, it’s love” (the antipathy of rejection and criticism). “It’s all about connection. I can allow myself to be – that’s love manifest.”

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Book Review – A Human Heart by Matt Hopwood

A Human Story is a collection of first-hand recollections gathered by “storyteller and facilitator of sharing space” Matt Hopwood, with a brief foreword by Clare Balding. They are unified by the theme of love “made and given” – love for another, the land, a parent, child or the self. Simple and intimate, these monologues and conversations are touching and, at times, wonderful.

Setting out with only a few possessions and his beard, Matt walked 500 miles from Lindisfarne across the border into and around Scotland to Callanish, the home of the famous standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. “Scotland…where the hard lines dissolve a little and the beauty and spirit of the earth finds an essential space.” He trained in Applied Anthropology at Goldsmith’s, University of London, and is more of listener and transcriber than a writer, inviting his contributors to speak from the heart and not overwhelming their words with his.

This spacious book with its high quality paper and gently informal photos, is divided into 34 chapters, each with an account of love, varied in tone and often entertaining, and a brief piece by Hopwood himself. He describes listening as “an act of profound compassion.” As a reference to his profession there is a chapter on the art of listening.

Travel writing is on-trend, particularly accounts of treks taken on foot in the ancient tradition of the pilgrim or Camino traveller, and this book falls into that category. We walk alongside the author as he delights in the landscape, relying on local kindnesses for his accommodation, and seeking stories.

The book’s publishers, Birlinn, state that Hopwood “admits to having struggled to feel or express any emotions at all until he reached his 30s”, and many of the storytellers address this subject or recount events which demonstrate love without having to spell it out. There is the hospice worker who spent a final 15 hour day with someone, went home to bake a cake, and returned to leave it on the relative’s doorstep; the reluctant father’s intense feelings for his child who writes “It’s the first forever”; and in the last chapter, “When you connect to that other person’s essence,…you’re not alone anymore..”. This thoughtfully presented lexicon of love contains honest accounts from men and women of all ages and offers an antidote to a life where it can be surprisingly hard to say ‘I love you’.

Published by Birlinn.

To share your love story with Matt Hopwood, here is his email