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Q&A with Tom BulloughToby Litt

Tom Bullough
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Tom Bullough is the author of four novels – most recently Addlands, a story of seventy years on a Radnorshire hill farm, which, among other plaudits, was the subject of a sermon in Westminster Abbey. At present, he is working on his fifth book, Sarn Helen - a study of Welsh history and the climate crisis - which will be published by Granta in 2022. He lives in the Brecon Beacons.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to write Sarn Helen? In one way, it’s a conventional travel book, with the reader following the writer on a long journey by foot. But in another way, it’s a powerful factual piece of non-fiction that sketches out the science of the climate crisis in full. Was this something you’d been thinking about for a while, or did the form emerge through the writing of it?
I am always surprised (on those occasions when they work) how books will determine themselves. The key, it seems to me, is the shape – finding the structure to hold the thoughts. Sarn Helen is a Roman road, which crosses our hill in the Brecon Beacons on its way from the far south to the far north of Wales. For years I have wanted to walk its course – in part, because I know no one else who has. When, in 2020, I finally set out, I had no intention of writing a book. But that is the way that writing can work. Just on that first day, I passed communities fighting to recover from Covid-19 and flooding brought by unprecedented rainfall – both, of course, symptoms of the climate and ecological emergency (CEE). I crossed mountains reduced to a virtual wasteland, but I also encountered endless reminders of the earliest days of Christianity: the Age of Saints, as it is known here, when the natural world inspired a divine awe. That is the tension that really grabbed me: that disjuncture between who we were and who we have become.
So, to answer your question, yes and yes. Like so many people, and so many writers, I have long been plagued by how to respond to the CEE. But it was only with Sarn Helen that I found the spine to hold its various aspects together – lightly, I hope, without forcing the point. In a sense, I suppose, you have only to observe: a point that would apply to any country you choose. You cannot write truthfully about the Welsh landscape without acknowledging that, because of the CEE, livestock farming will largely to have to end, probably within the next two or three decades. You cannot pass the village of Fairbourne without recognising that, in that same period, it is due to be abandoned to the rising sea.
Sarn Helen is very much about contemporary Wales and its landscape. There’s a strong sense of collapse but also of endurance. What were you hoping to convey about the particular ways the climate and ecological emergency is playing out in Wales?
Probably it goes without saying that Wales is far from the frontline in this crisis. It’s a developed country at a high latitude, its climate moderated by the Atlantic. As a place to live, it is relatively secure. That said, the transformation that Wales faces this century is like nothing that it has ever known, and while the Welsh government is more responsive to this fact than the government in Westminster, we remain essentially unprepared. On the one hand, it’s true, this is a book about Wales and some of its problems are quite specific. For example, with all of the hills, most of its major transport links follow the coasts and are therefore imperilled by the sea. But on the other hand, to write about the CEE, you have to find some way to narrow the focus. It is so hard to deal with the scale of the emergency; it is simply too great to hold in your mind. One reason, I think, that ‘the size of Wales’ is often used as a unit of measurement is that this country is small enough to be comprehensible. Gain some sense of the future of Wales and, perhaps, you gain some sense of the future of us all.
You end Sarn Helen with a court statement following your arrest. Could you tell us a bit more about that, and perhaps update us?
I’ve been arrested a couple of times with XR – both times for sitting in a street in London – but so far I have only gone to court once, in April 2021. It was important to me not to plead guilty, and to explain my actions to a magistrate. That was really my only ambition. I am hugely grateful to Writers Rebel for posting my defence statement on their blog. It seems to have been read quite widely, which led me to believe that, if you write with honesty, people will engage with this issue – that there is a useful role that writers can play. To be honest, before that, I had been uncertain.
In Sarn Helen, much of the CEE material comes in the form of interviews with scientists – from an ecologist to an expert in carbon capture and removal. But at a certain point I had to voice my own opinion, and there it made sense to include that statement, along with an account of the experience of trial. That, I hope, has some value as well. I know that, for some people, XR activists can seem like extremists, a separate breed. Myself, I am really just an ordinary parent deeply concerned for my children’s future. If my account helps anyone to understand our motives, well, then that has to be a start.
As for the future, it is difficult to say. XR tactics seem moderate now, compared to those of JSO or Insulate Britain, and generate less and less attention in the press. That the XR plan for April 2023 emphasises numbers over arrest seems to me to be a wise experiment, but I expect sometime to be arrested again. Apart from anything, I would like to read that whole chapter out in court.
What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
There’s a question. Well, if writers try to throw light on the human condition then they are simply going to have to keep on trying – having understood, as all of us must, that the CEE is the ultimate gauge of what being human means. Like many of my friends, I have long been obsessed with Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s 1980 masterpiece. In his post-apocalyptic community, he has a figure called the ‘connexion man’ whose role it is to interpret events and find the ‘connexions’ between them. This I take to be cognate with the writer but also, perhaps, with shamans and spirit mediums in some societies. I spent time with spirit mediums in Zimbabwe once, and remember their role being described to me as ‘putting into words things that people are thinking but have yet to express themselves’. In my view, this is something like the function of the writer. Writers, now more than ever, need to lead the conversation – and, above all, they must make us care.
What is the most powerful piece of writing you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?
So many pieces of writing come to mind, but today, thanks partly to the previous question, I would choose ‘The Anthropocene’ by Pascale Petit, from her collection Tiger Girl. This is a poem describing a Chinese bride in a dress and train made from three thousand peacock feathers, but it contains the world as it is today, its hurricanes and its dwindling forests. Petit is a writer of such precision and conviction. She has developed a remarkable technique of conflating forests and endangered animals with people, very often her parents – lending them an emotional charge that we tend to feel only for human characters. She makes us care about the CEE. I would recommend her work to anyone.
Could you tell us a bit about your involvement with Black Mountains College?
As it happens, Pascale Petit came to give a reading at our first course at BMC in September 2022: ‘Writing, Climate and the Living World’. It was a transporting experience. BMC was established in 2018 by the writers Ben Rawlence and Owen Sheers ‘as a response to the climate and ecological emergency’ and runs courses on everything from tree planting to sustainable economics. Its campus is a hill farm, Troed yr Harn, close to Talgarth in the Black Mountains. It has been my ambition for years to run a writing course there with my friend Jay Griffiths – a course, or perhaps more precisely a forum, a chance for writers to learn from one another about how we might address the CEE in our work. We have another short course due in September 2023 and much more ambitious plans in development.
More generally, BMC is a hub, a place where people of diverse disciplines can meet and talk and find common cause. The participants on my and Jay’s first course ranged from writers coming to terms with the science to scientists coming to terms with the need to communicate more generally. The result was an inspirational mixture of voices, food for us all in the subsequent months. It is my good fortune that BMC is barely an hour away on a bike.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
My vision, if you can call it that, is less about tangible, physical change, more about people’s basic understanding of how they relate to the natural world. One thing I have really come to appreciate is the extent to which people like me belong to a movement – what Jay Griffiths calls a ‘mosaic’, in which we can attend to our particular pieces in the knowledge that we are part of a much larger whole. This still means supporting XR actions and planting trees and all such things, but, in the end, the CEE is a symptom of a basic human dysfunctionality and this needs to be addressed as well.

On the final page of Sarn Helen, I found myself writing that ‘our future depends on a transformation without peacetime precedent: a reinvention of our society and economy around completely different principles’. It occurs to me now that for ‘principles’ I might equally have used the word ‘stories’. These, for me, are the contribution that literature can make.