Shaun Cooper

A Gleam of Sussex

I had a rather lonely childhood. I grew up in an isolated old farmhouse in a valley high up in the South Downs in West Sussex, and when I was nine I got bronchial pneumonia which nearly killed me. It took me about 4 years to recover, during which time I wasn’t at school much and thus missed all of the lessons about how to do handwriting. While I was ill I would often make up stories about pretend friends to pass the time while my siblings were at school, and these stories would help me through the night. Eventually I began writing them out. My interest in folklore began when The Folklore of Sussex came into our school library. I was reading such fantasy novels as The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lud in the Mist and Keith Roberts’ Anita at the time and was surprised to learn that there had been fairies and witches in Sussex. It was also the first time that I became aware of Sussex as a defined and delineated area…before then it had just been a word in our address.

Then, in the 1980s, Virago re-published two of the novels by the Sussex writer Sheila Kaye-Smith and after reading them I went on to look for more of her books. I had been trying to write a novel set in Ireland, but I had never been there; so I eventually abandoned that project and decided I would become a Sussex writer. Between that time and the publication of my first book, I wrote nine novels, all set in Sussex, mostly involving fantasy or folklore elements in their themes. But, as it has turned out, I’m best known now for my non-fiction Sussex work, especially in biography and folklore.

My first book, British Witch Legends of Sussex was published in 2016, and I later expanded this into A Sussex Book of Witch Legends (2020) – the first comparative study of British witch legends. I followed these with The Crew that Never Rests – England’s Local Legends of the Fairies.

My other main book is my biography of Sheila Kaye-Smith, The Shining Cord. However, I have also written short biographical articles of a number of other Sussex writers, for the Petworth Society Magazine, and the introduction for a re-publication of a Richard Marsh novel. The articles I wrote during my run with the Petworth, which started in 2014, were about such writers as Mabel Constanduros, Arthur F. Bell, George Aitchison, Mrs. Paddick (Lilian Fairbrother Ramsey), Lilian E. Brown, Rhoda Leigh, Eleanor Boniface, Rose & Agnes Russell Weekes, Jeffrey Farnol, Marjorie Hessell Tiltman, and A. E. Knox, and about Charles Dalmon, and Helen C. Roberts, as well as articles about smuggling, wassailing,  Gog Magog, and the Sussex phenomenon known as foxes brewings.

My first biographical article of a Sussex writer though was in the Book & Magazine Collector (BMC) magazine in 2007: ‘A Gleam of Platnix’ about Sheila Kaye-Smith. This was not only a big hit with members of The Sheila Kaye-Smith Society, but – with its vast array of quotes – it also influenced the way subsequent articles, about other authors, appeared in BMC magazine.

I’m quite good at being a literature detective (for want of a better description), and have deciphered a number of fictitious place names and even pseudonyms, and my accomplishments in this field include discovering the full real name of the writer known as Rhoda Leigh, and doing the same with the writer known as Eleanor Boniface, and for discovering the identity of the Wraffhurst witch.

The other main part of my life has been to do with music. In the ‘80s I was a DJ and promoter, playing post-punk records and organising gigs for local bands, and I also played a part in the beginnings of the jungle (drum ‘n’ bass) scene in Brighton in the mid-90s. My most recent novel, which will probably never get published, is all about the rise of jungle in Brighton – but the title is too controversial to put here.

Currently I’m working on a collection of the Sussex writing of Eleanor Boniface.

Shaun Cooper at Bignor Hill