In the current issue of the London Review of Books there is an article by John Lanchester in which – although he’s writing about Brexit – he makes an observation that seems to resonate with a novel I read recently: ‘England’, Lanchester writes, ‘is both a small country and a big one …there is a lot of Deep England out there.’
Tom Bullough’s Addlands is set in deepest Radnorshire, a story of hill farmers battling with the forces of nature in one of Britain’s wildest, poorest and least populated areas. Historically a Welsh county, culturally Radnorshire has been a law unto itself, its people declaring their identity as neither Welsh nor English, but Radnor folk, people of the Borders; and fiercely-contested borders between fields and farms form one of the threads in a novel that spans the decades from the 1940s to 2011.
I have to admit that I struggled with Addlands at first, with its unrelentingly bleak portrait of isolated individuals eking out harsh, impoverished lives which often erupts into brutality. At times, with its barroom brawls and feuds over boundaries and the land on which sheep and cattle could roam, it felt as if a western had been transported to Radnorshire. But, slowly, the book began to weave its spell, with moments of wild beauty and its slowly-evolving portrait of post-war social and economic changes that began to transform life in these remote valleys.
Addlands tells the story of Etty, who we first encounter in 1941 as a young woman who has borne a child out of wedlock rather than give up her child for adoption, and of Idris, a man 22 years her senior, who she marries, moving to the ‘Funnon’, his ‘unkind farm pushed back into the open hills’. Bullough’s portrayal of Idris has something of the the character of Iago Prytherch, ‘Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills/Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud’, in poems by RS Thomas:
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed even in death’s confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
Soon the novel has evolved to become the story of Etty’s son, Oliver, who grows up to be a ‘vast, grizzled man with his sovereign rings, his garish waistcoat peeping from his coat and a raven on his shoulder like some pagan sentinel’, a brawler seized at times by paroxysms of wild brutality; a man of huge strength, physically scarred from fighting and hard, relentless labour; but one who is also sensitive to the lives of his beasts and the natural world around him.
In his article for the LRB, John Lanchester makes another point that is relevant to Tom Bullough’s novel: he writes that ‘the primary reality of modern Britain is not so much class as geography. … Geography is destiny. And for much of the country, not a happy destiny.’ He continues:
To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy.
Bullough’s title, Addlands, reflects this idea of marginalisation, of being ‘left behind’; it is a Radnorshire dialect term meaning ‘the border of plough land which is ploughed last of all’. The land that Idris and Etty farm is known to locals as the Funnon, an Anglicisation of the Welsh word ffynnon, meaning ‘spring’ or ‘source’. Because of its situation – its inescapable geography – it is a place of horses, not machines; candles not electricity; bread baked in the farmhouse range, not bought in the supermarket. For much of the time-span covered by Bullough’s story, the farm does not belong to the modern world.
But, as Bullough writes on his website:
The Funnon is no island. … Mechanisation is becoming irresistible, and with mechanisation comes everything else: all of the various other technologies, rural depopulation, the demise of religion and local dialect, the changing roles of men and women, the changing relationship between people and the natural world.
The period after the Second World War saw the arrival of tractors, electricity and silage (which removed at a stroke the deep-seated fear of farmers that the hay might fail and their animals would not survive the winter. Deftly, and without labouring the point, Bullough portrays how the distant world of modernity slowly intrudes: telephones and television arrive in the valley, a ruined chapel is reborn as a desirable residential property in 2011; on the farm, plastic-wrapped silage bales replace haymaking; monstrous machines do the work of men who laboured from dawn to dusk and often into the night.
Alert to the impact of such changes, Bullough also gives us a vision of a place steeped in its own culture and history signified by the ancient holy spring from which the farm derives its name, and the mysterious stones carved with characters in Latin and Ogham (an ancient Irish and Welsh language) that Idris discovers up on Llanbedr Hill. In the first chapter, Idris is thrown from his horse and badly wounded when the plough he is drawing snags on a large stone in the soil:
Beneath the colouring clouds Idris stood propped against the nearest fence post, coughing, wheezing, wiping the tears from his face. There were ravens in the larches round the cottage at the Island, wethers out for Llyn y March Pool. The sunlight, in places, revealed old copps and reens: the work of the Denes, so his grandfather Idris had told him.
The stones reach back to the 4th and 5th centuries when Ogham characters were carved on stones across Ireland and parts of Wales. The ‘work of the Denes’ was the work of the Vikings.
The passage also highlights another distinctive feature of this book: I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which so many words are unfamiliar. For one of the ways in which Bullough seeks to define place and character is through his liberal use of Radnorshire dialect, a language of pre-mechanized hill farming that belongs entirely to its landscape. This might irritate some readers, but on the whole I found that it enriched my sense of the setting; in many cases it was possible to guess the meaning of a word from its context. Indeed, some of the Radnorshire words and idioms Bullough puts into his characters’ mouths weren’t at one time limited to that region: my mother hailed from a Derbyshire cottage remarkably similar to the farmhouse in Addlands (I remember vividly, on a visit when I was barely five, being appalled by the earth closet I had to use) and she often used to urge me to stop ‘moithering’ her, a long-gone term I was delighted to come across again here.
Oliver’s character is defined as much by his language as his actions: when he says ‘I doubt’ he means ‘no doubt’; when he asks someone to ‘rise’ him an implement, he means to get it; he calls his father ‘boss’ because that’s how the husband or master of a farm was addressed thereabouts. This concern with language and place – how regional geography intertwines with human activity and culture – recalls a book I wrote about last year, Dominick Tyler’s Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape, as well as Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. Helpfully, for those who want to know what all the words used in Addlands mean, Bullough provides a glossary on his website.
Oliver may be a larger than life character, but as the book progresses his mother Etty becomes ever more interesting. ‘Sometimes I think Addlands is a book about feminism’, Bullough writes on his website, and Etty’s personality is certainly an interesting contrast to that of Idris, her deeply conservative husband, a man who seems ‘ancient beyond human reckoning’. At first she appears a downtrodden, defeated woman worn down by an endless round of animal husbandry topped by washing and cleaning, churning and baking. Her only break from this cycle comes when she plays the organ at the local chapel. It is here, in one evocative passage, that we catch a glimpse of a different woman:
Over the past few years, Ethel had begun to depart from her organ scores. Idris had spoken to her about it, even made threats, but still, when the first verse of the first hymn was over, she allowed her right hand to trace out alternatives, her feet to draw phrases of such sudden complexity that he faltered, glancing at her upright back.
Despite his admonishments, Idris finds himself swept up in her improvisation: ‘he could not help listening, nor stifle his occasional replies… he met her harmonies with harmonies of his own’. Gradually, a picture emerges of Etty as a woman full of curiosity and open to new ideas. As she battles to keep the farm going, she traces in her atlas the places in Africa visited by her grandson. It is Etty, not her son, who begins the process of modernisation on the farm, keeping abreast of new technologies through a subscription to the Farmers’ Weekly. Slowly, she drags the farm ‘into some distant quarter of the twentieth century’.
So Addlands is about change as well as continuity; about loyalties and feuds; about belonging and outsiders. It is about the endurance of place, and an anthem to the changing countryside. As Melissa Harrison expressed it in a perceptive review for the FT, Addlands is ‘a quiet hymn to place, an exploration of the way in which our relationship to it makes us who we are.
Bullough’s concern with both change and continuity in the Radnorshire landscape is revealed in a scene set in 2001 after the Foot and Mouth epidemic has emptied the hills of sheep, and so their human influence. Oliver surveys the hills around the farm:
For months now there had been saplings on the abandoned hills, rising from the fern, the heather and the feg with leaves like flags – declaring their species while still not an inch in height. There were wittans and hawthorns, but there were ash trees too, and oaks and hazels. They might have been lurking since the days of the forest, waiting for the sheep at last to depart before, tentatively, they began to remake the wilderness. The television reported that farming was dying, that it had ceased to be an industry and had become instead a life support system, in which these Less Favoured Areas were an intolerable expense. For those who were looking for the root of things, well, here it was: these scrawny trees on Llanbedr Hill, riffling as far as Oliver could see, divesting the last of their withered leaves in their first successful autumn for five thousand years.
Oliver and his mother continue to farm their land. When a young student passing through the area speaks to him of post-pastoral poetry, he throws the words back at her: ‘Post-pastoral? We in’t done yet, girl.’
In acknowledgements at the end of the book, Tom Bullough notes that ‘Borderland’, a poem by Christopher Meredith was on his mind throughout the time he was writing Addlands:
Ffin is the Welsh for border. It occurs inside diffiniad which means definition, and in Capel y Ffin, a place in the Black Mountains.
You’ll find a ffin inside each definition.
We see what is when we see what it’s not:
edges are where meanings happen.
On the black whaleback of this mountain
earth curves away so sky can start
to show a ffin’s a kind of definition
where skylarks climb across earth’s turn
to air and pulsing muscle turns to an art-
ful song the edge that lets a meaning happen.
Live rock can yield to mortared stone,
a city to a castle, then a shepherd’s hut,
where ffin’s contained inside a definition,
where the lithic turns into the human.
Here’s where things fall together, not apart
at edges that let meanings happen.
And self here blurs into annihilation.
Larkfall, earthfall, skyfall, manfall each create
the ffin that is the place of definition
the edges where we see our meanings happen.