On the Black Hill. By Bruce Chatwin. For more visit http://tinyurl.com/mgzx66z

We love a good death and Bruce Chatwin does them so well. As soon as Old Sam “had complained of ‘gatherings’ down his left side” we knew he was not long for this world. The old man puts on his best suit and patent leather pumps and after going outside into the farmyard to see the “high windy sky” for the last time goes up to his bedroom and after playing a final jig on his fiddle lies down on his quilt and dies.

Chatwin’s poetry for Old Sam’s demise (a character we admire) is in contrast to the description of grumpy, nasty and violent old git Amos’s death. But still, neatly done. The belligerent farmer and father of the twins whose story is the theme of the novel gets in the way of the horses. Merlin Evans shouts: “ ‘Watch it yer old fool!’ It was too late. Olwen had kicked. The hoof caught him under the chin, and the sparrows went on chattering.”

On the Black Hill cartoon 001

His economy of language and ability to neatly hop from one narrative to the next using deaths, births and sudden comings and goings as turning points takes the story of the twins Lewis and Benjamin from Victorian times to the appearance in the pub of Space Invaders in the 1980s. There’s no formal plot as such apart from the twins’ relationship and their relationships with the villagers, strangers and fellow farmers over the decades. This was the one factor missing from the novel which has so many diversions and sub-stories concerning the lives of those who live in the countryside of the Welsh-English borders. Only when a story such as the appearance of their niece Mrs Redpath or Lewis leaving home after losing his virginity or the turf war with the neighbouring farmer do the pages turn at speed. For the rest of the novel it was a leisurely wander through the Radnorshire countryside taking in the story of Kevin, Theo, Nancy and a host of others where death is just around the corner but where farmers might only have sex once in their lives.

The novel’s strength is its style. During a recruiting drive for the First World War the Colonel offers volunteers a ride in his car with his beautiful daughter. Jim the Rock jumps at the chance and as Chatwin notes this was how Jim the Rock went to war: “…for the sake of leaving home, and for a lady with moist red lips and moist hazel-coloured eyes.”

It’s other power is Chatwin’s use of the landscape, the seasons and nature to act as an ever present character, baring witness to the comings and goings, births and deaths and the march of progress in a world where change is slow. And of course the lyrical relationship between the brothers from the birth to their declining years – all charted in the landscape dominated by the black hill.

Harry Mottram

On The Black Hill is published by Picador in paperback. First published by Jonathan Cape in 1982.