:: Article

A Raven’s Eye View

By James Tookey.


Tom Bullough, Addlands (Granta, 2016)

There’s always a doubt in the back of my mind when I pick up a novel which spans the twentieth century. I often find them to be characterised by a keen eye for the blindingly obvious in historical trends, and usually involving a character who happens to be right there at the right time with unerring accuracy: holidaying in Berlin in 1933; strolling the streets of Dallas on November 22 1963; smoking a joint in Chelsea with Let It Bleed spinning on the turntable; holidaying in Berlin in 1989. Whilst there is a (solitary, I think) joint in Addlands, it is smoked in 1976 next to a wash-pool once used for sheep before shearing. That gives just about the measure of how this book processes the last century.

Addlands takes place over 70 years of life on a farm in the Edw Valley in Radnorshire, on the borderlands between England and Wales. The book opens in 1941, with Idris Hamer and his horse Buster ploughing his fields for the ‘War Ag’ (War Agricultural Committee), and ends in 2011. The first thing to note is that Radnorshire no longer exists as a legal area, having been incorporated into the county of Powys in 1974. It is, instead, an indefinite area, an imagined place. Bullough draws its boundaries accordingly. The book never really leaves the valley, apart from one strange section, and that scene is gone before you know it. One of the (many) beautiful things about Addlands is how Bullough keeps the world of the book separate from the world beyond the valley, and yet of course totally, if tardily, influenced by it. For this is how the two main male characters in the book exist in Funnon Farm: the end of the first chapter sees Idris, in his forties when we first meet him and a veteran of The Great War, standing in his fields ‘legs parted, a hand to his eyes as if surveying his kingdom’. His heir, Oliver, is similarly presented as a king in his hills: huge, ancient, ‘some peat-soaked relic of the settlers of this forgotten valley’. Both men know the animals and plants, that they share the valley with, intimately. Both are also separate from the world beyond the hills. Oliver sees the sea twice in his life, ‘and that as a glint through the trees round a motorway’. The two are kings of their land, but also prisoners.

There isn’t a chapter set between 1963 (the year of The Beatles’ first LP) and 1970 – the sixties as we paint them in our collage of the 20th century simply doesn’t happen on the farm. But there’s almost a delayed action, as it does slowly seep into their lives. The 20th century happens to Funnon Farm, whether it likes it or not. But the narrative of the century as we know it is reframed. For example, when foot and mouth disease strikes, we see the effects – ‘In the back of the lorry his herd was reduced to a lumpish mass – Charolais cream and Hereford red beneath a polythene sheet’ – but the endemic, a huge news story across the country, is barely mentioned, only once in a newspaper that has slipped onto the floor. We see the effects, but the cause is not discussed; it’s over there, over the hill. The army who come to cull the animals are presented as a sort of invading force from the outside. It reminds one of the first chapter, where Idris ploughs for the War Ag because he has to, but the war itself isn’t discussed at all.

The changes in social attitudes and technology, both of which have hugely shifted in the last 70 years, imperceptibly take place over the book, never made a fuss of by Bullough. Rather he delicately weaves in references to period-specific details, or uses the character’s internal landscapes to show changes. To this end, it is Etty who is the centre of the book. Oliver’s mother, and Idris’ wife, it’s in her character that we find Bullough’s themes most elegantly teased out. If Oliver is the structural core of the book, Etty is the intellectual and emotional core. She is eighteen when the book opens, and we first meet her as labour strikes.

Pain encircled her back and her belly like a noose. An urge came upon her simply to run – even in this sack of a dress, with nowhere to go and the night coming ion – but her body held her as completely as the house.

Again we find the characters stuck fast to the valley. But the difference between Etty and the men is that, at the beginning of the book at least, she wants to run. She is, throughout, pulling away from the ‘unkind farm’ as she terms it in the first chapter, and yet also keeping it running, dragging first her husband, and then her son, into the twentieth century. It is she who gets the subscription to Farmer’s Weekly, she who patiently insists on making silage to keep the animals fed through winter, she who does the books at Funnon Farm. There is another female character, Naomi, who appears on the farm and is a clearer, more obvious representation of the feminism of the second half of the 20th century – but it is Etty who demonstrates the unheralded role women have played in history.

Etty plays the organ at the local service, and in one particularly moving and evocative passage, we see the dual nature of her character, both committed to her way of life and constantly changing her world, moving it forward:

Incidentally, 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 Idris’ threats, he 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’. This is Etty’s quiet rebellion, borne of invention, which is an irresistible force that sweeps along the men in her life. As an old woman, a tiny warrior still battling around the farm, she traces the coast line of Africa on the kitchen wall map. She is relentlessly curious, expansive in her thinking in a way her husband and son are not. They are giants within the valley, but remain firmly in the valley. When she asks her grandson to tell her a story about his travels around the world, he replies ‘Do you know? Dad has still not asked me anything since I got back. Not one single thing’. To Oliver, his son’s worldliness is an embarrassment, and his tales fall upon him ‘like pummelling hail’. Whereas Etty drinks it in, reciting the place names on the map in her mind: ‘Xai-xai, Chimanimani, the Skeleton Coast’. This is immediately reminiscent of Idris, two-hundred pages earlier, listing farms in the area, many of which he has never seen, in order to keep track of their stock: ‘Llangodee. Black house. Gwarallt. Gilfach. Bleanow…. This was the knowledge that allowed you to survive, not the doddle you were told in a classroom’.

It is links such as this that give the book such a cumulative power. The small setting allows Bullough to overlay images upon one another. Oliver is seen often a raven, named Maureen, sitting on his shoulder, or circling the sky above his head. Of course, ravens do not live for over 60 years, but Maureen is ever-present, different birds gathered under a single name. So much in the book is contained with this image: when I now think of the novel, in its totality, I see the farm from a raven’s eye view. I see the many characters superimposed upon the landscape, and tractors and horses and land rovers furrowing tracks on the same land. The overall impression I was left with was of Funnon Farm as a ghostly intersection, with new technologies marshalling old ideas. In the first passage of the book, which I just reread and I now can see is a battleground for the multiplicity of themes which unfurl throughout Addlands, Idris’ plough is halted by a large stone in the soil, throwing him forward and wounding him badly. Bullough continues, ‘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’. A consultation of the glossary on Bullough’s website (the book is full of dialect, which is a joy) tells me that ‘copps and reens’ are furrows and ridges in ploughland. The denes are of course the Viking settlers that made the borderlands their home in the eleventh century. This is ground that has been worked for centuries, and through the reference to Idris’ grandfather Idris in the same sentence, Bullough pulls together the history of the land and of the people upon it. By the time we end the book, in the back of a Nissan Navara crossing these same fields, the world has irrevocably changed. But the copps and reens will still be where great-grandfather Idris pointed them out. This is a character study of a place and time, and how the people moving through it leave their strange marks on its surface.


James Tookey lives in London and works in publishing. He is a pwntrel but means well.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 11th, 2016.