Owen Sheers on a landscape to die for

The writer and poet stays true to his inspiration – the valleys of Wales

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When I think of home, I think of a divided view; of climbing to the summit of the Skirrid or walking Offa’s Dyke along the Hatteral Ridge and seeing the world split into hills and fields, darkness and light, boundaries and open spaces. 

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To my east, hedged farmland undulates towards England, held in place by villages and roads. To my west, the land buckles into the Black Mountains with their ploughshare escarpments, dark ridges and bare, windswept plateaus. 

What I’m looking at when I see this view is the physical, if not always actual, border between England and Wales. This was where I was brought up, in the borders, the Marches, and as a child this was the territory of my early imagination.

I always, however, ended up looking west more than east. West was where the drama seemed to lie; the threat, the possibility of wilderness. The stories. 

Some of my first poems were about those hills. There was something in their bleak beauty, in their managed yet untamed landscape, that attracted me. Perhaps because they evoked a feeling I didn’t understand, something amorphous yet fundamental that I attempted, often without success, to pin to the page with words.

In my adult writing life it was to be a different landscape that would fertilise my first book of prose. The Dust Diaries is set in the veldt and towns of Zimbabwe. 

The writing of that book, though, was to send me back to the Black Mountains in search of stories once again. The experience of having to re-imagine the Zimbabwean landscape at my desk in Wales left me wanting to write my next book out of a landscape I already knew intimately, deep in the bone. 

I think I already knew that if I did I’d be writing with some kind of a head start; that the metaphors, symbolism and rhythms inlaid in all landscapes would make themselves known that bit sooner, and that bit more clearly. 

This was why, in the early genesis of my novel Resistance, I returned to the valleys of the Black Mountains and particularly to the most easterly, the Olchon. 

This was in 2003, when I’d recently become interested in the stories beginning to emerge about an organisation called the Auxiliary Units, a secret civilian insurgency that would have, in the event of a German invasion during the Second World War, formed the British Resistance. 

I wanted to write a novel set in a Britain where this happened, where questions of survival, occupation and collaboration were brought into sharp focus, not at the centres of power, in London or Cardiff, but in a rural, isolated farming community.

At first, this was all I expected from the Black Mountains; a setting, a backdrop against which I could play out the arcs of my characters’ lives. But very soon the landscape was to have a more immediate influence upon my book – even, at times, actually shaping it. 

The more I learnt about the historical patterns of the area – of a succession of people and groups who had been led to believe they could live in a different way in those isolated valleys, that the topography invited both dislocation and freedom – the more this pattern became grafted on to my own story. 

I was living in London when I started writing Resistance, but on several occasions I travelled back to the Olchon valley, just to watch it and listen to it at different times of year, in different It was mostly because of this creative relationship with the area that I was adamant the film of Resistance (in cinemas from Friday 25 November) should be shot in the real valleys of the novel. 

When I first took Amit Gupta, the film’s director, to the Olchon, he immediately agreed. We hoped the cast and crew would be as affected by the unique atmosphere of the place as we were. I think it worked. 

Landscapes have accents, unseen histories that are nonetheless felt, and the actors soon became attuned to those accents in the Llanthony, Grwyne Fawr and Olchon valleys. 

The mists were home-grown, the stones of the houses true and the winds, well, to quote Edward Thomas, “When the gods were young, this wind was old.” There were, of course, challenges to filming in these isolated locations. 

Trailers broke, cars got stuck, everything became muddied and the producer had to spend a couple of nights alone in a semi-derelict mountain farmhouse with no heat or light. 

But now, at the end of the process, everyone agrees that the benefits of staying true to the locality of the story have outweighed any problems it may have caused.

The film is visually stunning and bold, which is exactly how I like my adaptations. And yet, when I first saw it, I was struck by how faithful it is to the tone of the original novel. 

That faithfulness is, I believe, down to the landscape they share, which is also the reason why the film manages to evoke so well those same amorphous, fundamental feelings I’d first tried to define in words when I began writing about the Black Mountains 20 years ago.

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Resistance is in cinemas now