In response to Josie at Sleep for the Weak’s excellent writing workshop prompt: Introduce us to a book that changed your life.
On the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin
You could say this book changed my life, but more than that it gave me a wonderful set of lasting happy memories at a time in my life when they were few and far between.
Bruce Chatwin wrote a beautiful and deeply moving story of a pair of twins living in Wales early in the last century. The twins were born to a refined mother who had eschewed her parents’ choices and married ‘beneath’ her. She married a farmer who bought a farm called ‘The Vision’ in the black hills.
The story followed her rather tragic and hard life, married to a rather emotionally inept man. But her great joy was her beautiful boys. She dies young and thereafter we follow the boys in their journey to become men in a very sheltered life on their hill. There is a modest cast of characters, all of whom generate a sense of sadness and despair but at times the descriptions can be light and even funny.
Suffice it to say, I adored this book. I read for my GCSE and became completely obsessed with it.
Those of you who follow my blog will know my father is an avid cyclist. He is also an avid explorer of the countryside. It didn’t take much to persuade him to help me find the Black Hill. We knew that Chatwin had based it on a real place the ‘Red Hill’.
So one weekend my father, my father’s cousin and my cousin all set off to find the place that had occupied my head for so long. The excitement I felt was immense. When you know the characters so well, and have lived their story (albeit fiction) with them the idea you might find anything connected to them is extraordinary.
We set off on our bikes; I seem to recall going on strike at one point since I hadn’t really appreciated the fact we were cycling in the black hills, and it was well hilly to say the least.
Once I got over myself, I got my sense of humour back and continued. I was most probably bribed with chocolate or a sticky bun (some things have been there all along).
My Dad and I couldn’t quite believe it when, whilst having a well earned drink at a local pub, we looked on the OS map and actually saw The Vision marked there. We were so near. In fact a quick wander around the graveyard in the hamlet we had arrived at showed us some of the names of some of the characters in the book. Could this really be where Chatwin had come and been inspired? Could he have sat in this very pub and pondered his first novel?
Jumping back on our bikes we cycled across a muddy field and came upon an elderly farmer. Being soft Southerners his accent was hard to grasp but it transpired he had a brother….not only that but he recalled meeting a ‘young blonde man’ who had talked to him about his farm and mentioned ‘something about a book’.
I still remember that feeling. To you it may not sound like much; finding an old farmer in a muddy field in Wales. But to my Dad and I it was perfect. Here he was. One half of the twins described so beautifully by Chatwin. We were standing on the land of The Vision. We were in the place we had looked for.
At the time I was sixteen or so. My mother was ill with cancer, my life was changing fast. My father and I have always been close, but this trip hopefully showed him that a sixteen year old girl normally more concerned about her friends and the latest band in the Hit Parade was still able to find true enjoyment and beauty in the things he loved too.
To this day I remember that trip with such fondness. The time my Dad and I became obsessed with a book to the point where we sought out it’s birthplace. I remember the laughs we had, the hills we climbed, the awe we felt.
I still love exploring the countryside on my bike, and soon when my second baby is old enough we’ll all be going out again discovering new places and seeking out old ones.
Sadly Bruce Chatwin died not long after he wrote that book, his first and only novel. I was very sad at the time. I’m sure he could have given the world some truly beautiful literature.