BLOG Nigel Jarrett

NWR Issue r36

War and Culture in the Olchon Valley

When I first walked the Olchon Valley north of Abergavenny, Bruce Chatwin had just published On the Black Hill, his novel about two farming brothers in that area where the hills of Wales cascade onto the quilted pastures of England.

The walk began at Longtown, and took me along the catback, the aptly named high traverse where you have to pick your way past rocks that stick out of the black earth like the vertebrae of a feline – well, those belonging to the sort of unpampered creature that once had to fend for itself in the farms round about.

I assume the richness of the soil is why they call it the Black Hill, though on the high beacons, the dark stuff is pretty much universally spread. Central to Chatwin’s book was a farm called The Vision. It’s still marked on the map, but I don't think it was the actual place used in the farmstead sequences of the film made from the book. The vision I had was of making a polite inquiry and being seen off by a frothing Rottweiler.

On the Black Hill is about how war comes to the most secluded place; or, rather, how some people in that place had to go and fight the war. Coincidentally or not, Resistance, the Owen Sheers novel (and subsequent film), is set in the Olchon and is also about war, except that the enemy appears literally on the doorstep and this time, thirty years later. Sheers imagines what might have happened if D-Day had failed and Britain had been invaded.

Sheers’ take on the consequences, however, is interesting. The male farmers have disappeared to join the guerilla counter-attack and the women remain to confront a small German military detachment charged with an odd mission: to find the Mappa Mundi, secreted in the hills and caves as other artworks were during the war.

As always, the film is not the same as the book, but Sheers had a hand in the screenplay, so he obviously endorsed the departures. Suffice to say that the German commander is not your blond ruffian stereotype with a Heidelberg fencing scar, and that what’s happening out of shot is as significant as what you see. Michael Sheen’s character is as ill-fated as Janet Leigh’s in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The Olchon… a far more durable place that survives death and destruction and… human frailties… that war forces to the surface like the cat’s backbone


The star of the show is the Olchon itself, a far more durable place that survives death and destruction and the human frailties – such as unenlightened self-interest – that war forces to the surface like the cat’s backbone. There’s a lot of lingering reflection in the film, not least on the countryside itself. Britain’s hills and vales are still emblematic of what would be at stake if ever we were threatened from without. In Monmouthshire and its borderlands, we have a fair number of them.

Cover_of_On_the_Black_Hill_by_Bruce_Chatwin


Films with Welsh locales are often premiered in Wales for patriotic reasons, though often because they might also fail to attract a cinemaful in Bigbury-on-Sea or the Isle of Eriskay. This was the case with On the Black Hill, which opens by panning across mountains and valleys labelled ‘Wales’, and right towards flat quilted pastures labelled ‘England’. As I recall, when I attended such a screening at Chapter arts centre, Cardiff, in 1987, there was mild tittering in the audience at what was clearly felt to be a wry distinction, not least between a hard life on the catback fells and a Tweed-jacketed one in the bountiful acres to the east. In Monmouthshire, I reminded myself, the crow flies from Abergavenny to Big Pit, Blaenafon, in a couple of hundred wingflaps, with the help of a following wind.


Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition, and in 2016, he won the inaugural Templar Shorts award. In 2019, Templar published his pamphlet of short stories, A Gloucester Trilogy. Jarrett’s Rhys Davies prizewinning story, ‘Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan’, is included in the Library of Wales anthology of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Welsh short fiction.

       


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