Addlands – Tom Bullough

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Addlands is a novel set in the Welsh hills, somewhere in the Brecon Beacons, providing for me a familiar catalogue of place names – Llanbedr, Builth Wells, Hereford, Lanedw. These towns are surrounded by beautiful but bleak hills, which provide joyful hill walking if that’s what you like to do. They are the setting for several books I have read. Bruce Chatwin’s On Black Hill is set in this area, as is Owen Sheers’ Resistance and indeed his poetry anthology Skirrid Hill – see also The Farrier.

I always take some sort of vague interest in the place names when I read these books, as I have walked the hills so often. It’s a geography that seems to stamp its qualities on its inhabitants. They live hard lives and it turns them into hard people in one way or another.

Addlands tells the story of a family of hill farmers in a series of episodes, each set in a different year. The first takes place in 1941, the year that the main protagonist was born, and the last in 2011.  Some are set in years that mark memorable events in British life. So 1947 was the year of incredible snows and the long freeze, as was 1963. 1976 was the long hot summer of drought, and 2001 the year foot and mouth disease devastated farms. In these episodes Bullough weaves the narrative around the key historical events, giving the account a kind of documentary feel.

Other episodes are used to narrate the bare bones of the lives of the characters. There is Oliver, the main protagonist, and a cuckoo really. His mother married a local farmer when she was already pregnant in order to avoid the shame of having an illegitimate child. His mother, father and grandmother share the farm that he grows up on. Nearby lives an estranged uncle and in the background a contested will, disputed acres. At first I thought I was going to read some sort of tale of family feuding, but though this is a part, it’s not really the nub of the story.

Oliver is almost literally a cuckoo – too large for the nest he is growing up in. A dark and silent type, reminiscent of Heathcliff, it seems he can communicate physically, but not verbally. At times he erupts into violence. Oliver becomes a bit of a local legend as a fighter, and the writer shows us this in a series of vivid scenes set in local pubs and dance halls.  He never marries, despite some sexual liaisons, and stays on the farm. His love life is glossed over, but one relationship in particular becomes the pivot of his life. Naomi, the daughter of a London professor who has bought a local cottage, bears Oliver a child, extending the family saga into another generation.

Bullough is really looking at the passage of time in the Welsh hills, and emphasises this when the professor symbolically unearths a 2000 year old stone carved with Irish runes. The family has nine generations of history here, and the people are rooted in this valley, and in this farm, though the old ways of life are coming to an end as holiday cottages and bankruptcy intrude into farming life.

Addlands is also a story about family, and about love. Oliver finds it hard to express his feelings, lives a chaotic and undisciplined life of drinking, brawling and sexual freedom, fails as a father and partner, but in the end finds true meaning in family and continuity.

Addlands is beautifully written and detailed in its description and evocation of the Welsh countryside and the lives of the farming community. At times the detail was perhaps too much, and the use of dialect off putting – the book would benefit from a small glossary. Bullough also has a habit of beginning new chapters and sections without signalling the change of character, setting or event quite as clearly as he might, making the book quite hard work. But Addlands is a book that would certainly repay a second reading, and though in fact nothing much happens, it’s a book that I found quite compelling in the way it evokes the characters and places, makes you care about them.

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