Gary Raymond reflects on two new books, Tom Bullough’s Sarn Helen and Mike Parker’s All the Wide Border, that follow the journeys of men across Wales and finds overlapping concerns from very different characters.
It’s difficult to ignore the fact that two of the most important books about Wales currently doing the rounds are both written by middle aged men walking from one end of the country to the other. Indeed, with a good pair of binoculars, the two might have waved at each other at some point from one hilltop to the next. Mike Parker’s All the Wide Border takes that author up the marches, from Monmouthshire to Chester, weaving from one side of the border to the other contemplating questions of national identity that reach far back into myth, legend, and the shadow-casting of the Roman occupation. Tom Bullough (himself a border-man) walks from the Neath valley the length of the Roman way known as Sarn Helen, named after the fair princess of the Mabinogion who got all mixed up with King Macsen and that lot in the myths and legends committed to paper in the thirteenth century. Both Parker and Bullough write that they had their ideas for these walking books around ten years ago, and neither man thought the idea would come to much. Parker has said it was like many-a-good pub idea that would inevitably fade away to nothing. Bullough writes that he began trekking the route without any inclination to write about, rather it was just from a desire to explore part of the country that were not already familiar to him. But books were born. At some point a conversation will be had as to why it was these books at this time, and the answer will be rooted, no doubt, in lockdown.
But there is, of course, more to both books than the need of two writers to stretch their legs. Bullough is not digressing from his oeuvre of writing preoccupied with human connection to the land. His excellent 2016 novel, Addlands, is a Chatwin-esque exploration of a Welsh family rooted to their spot. It now feels like good prep for Sarn Helen, or at least they feel like they complement one another. Parker’s book, likewise, is a natural next step from his award-winning On the Red Hill (which has its own obvious Chatwin ingredients) which explores the landscape of mid-Wales through the story of the previous inhabitants of Mike Parker’s acquired home. The divergent point of All the Wide Border and Sarn Helen, though, is not just the geographical specifics of the routes being walked. All the Wide Border is an energetic, witty read, one that goes back into deep time, into cultural history, and tells familiar stories of the borders in fresh ways and tells unfamiliar stories with accessible verve. It is, though, a book about national identity. Parker ruminates on his own complicated biography in this respect in a way that gladly opens up the questions to the reader. The book is at its weakest when Parker indulges in Polemic. He seems to lose his charm a little, and if it’s not quite melting in the fire and brimstone, it is quietened by the pulpit politicking. When Parker asks questions of politics and national identity of the people he meets along his walk, they are often questions the questioned have not previously given serious thought.
Tom Bullough’s attitude is decidedly more condescending to the inhabitants of the land, but the truths are pretty much the same. Bullough, however, is much less interested in notions of identity. The subtitle of the book is A Journey through Wales, Past, Present and Future. Whereas Parker might have taken this temporal challenge and said Wales will be and independent nation by 2050, Bullough is more concerned as to whether Wales will be inhabitable by 2100. Sarn Helen is a climate change book, to give it its crudest marketing tag. Bullough himself is a member of Extinction Rebellion, the activistic group dividing radio phone in audiences for a few years now. The problem of the book in the reading of it lies somewhere in Bullough’s uninterest for the people he comes across and his passion for the saving of the natural world. In a discussion about the book recently on my radio show, writer and broadcaster Charles Williams astutely pointed out that Bullough’s only real human interest can be detected in his writing about the saints, and this makes sense, Charles said, because the XR lot see themselves as modern day saints, walking the land condemning lowly people for their transgressions against God/nature. My other guest on that show, author and academic Dr Michelle Deininger pointed out the privilege of a man able to unshackle himself from his childcare responsibilities during lockdown to go and undertake a project like this on a whim. At the outset Bullough comments on how four months of childcare was enough to drive him to the hills. There’s a lot to content with in Bullough’s book before you get to the very important and enlightening message at its core.
But Sarn Helen, ultimately, is far-reaching, urgently profound, and, the sometimes slightly grating company of the author aside, a vital read.
Sarn Helen by Tom Bullough is available now from Granta.
All the Wide Border by Mike Parker is available now from Harper North.