Layla’s walking up the hill again, up to the top of the Mountains that ‘flaunt themselves in patchwork, fashioned by flora and weather. Green, brown, purple with the heather. Red with the dying sun, white in the heat of the day. Only when the rain clouds slink over the Bluff do they turn dark as blankets. But still they call them black.’
This is an extract from one of my stories, currently featured in the online edition of ‘The Lonely Crowd’ magazine (thelonelycrowd.org). It’s great seeing it up there, and I’m particularly pleased because it’s set in one of my favourite places – the Black Mountains, the hills in the eastern part of mid-Wales, sheltering the small town of Talgarth, where we used to live. I always felt that both the mountains and the town suffered from lying in the shadow of more famous neighbours – the Brecon Beacons; and Hay-on-Wye, the town of books, kings and emperors, and the greatest literature festival in the world. Talgarth was always being declared - by estate-agents, anyway - ‘up and coming’, and it’s well on the way now, with its highly-regarded mill/café venture (as seen on TV!), and fashionable residents, such as Owen Sheers and the guitarist from ‘Blur’. But I loved it even back then, when it was in struggling small-town mode (closing facilities, boarded-up houses)– and I especially loved the mountains that rose above it.
Perhaps that’s why they feature so much in my writing. The main character of half my dual-narrative novel lives in a secluded house in the middle of them. My collection of what I call ‘folk’ tales is set in various locations in and around them. And now there’s ‘Queen’ – or as it was originally titled ‘Queen of the Black Mountains’.
In it, Layla turns out to be a figment of the narrator’s imagination – just as both these characters, and their ‘stories’ are figments of mine. But the hill Layla climbs is real enough, leading from Talgarth, past the gates of what used to be the psychiatric hospital, and on, up to the heights. And there are plenty of other images, still perfectly clear in my mind, insinuating their way onto the page. The Mace was the focal point of the Square, with a crowd of gossiping old women a permanent fixture outside. The Balloon Man wandered about, and Nike cap girl. And I remember looking out of our bedroom window soon after we moved and seeing the purple mountains, and thinking ‘they’re not black, at all’. I’ve used this image here, and repeated it in several stories, just as I’ve done with the freedom ‘Layla’ feels up on the mountain tops – something I myself always experienced, the kind of emotion that only ‘being there’ might reveal.
Writing about the topic of setting in ‘The Guardian’ recently, David Nicholls talked about whether ‘being’ in a location was necessary for a writer, in these days of virtual mapping on Google. His own preference is for first-hand experience, but he quotes many examples of fine novels, with perfectly-drawn, evocative settings, where it is well-documented that the author never visited.
For me, place, whether in fiction or real life, is to do with those emotional reactions, - connections, one might say - which have the ability to colour our perception of our surroundings and so influence our response to them.
I never really liked Northamptonshire, or Buckinghamshire, where we also lived, although I appreciated their ‘green and pleasant’ countryside, and their chocolate-box villages. But I loved North Wiltshire, and, in particular, its ‘mythical/mystical’ elements – Avebury Stone circle and all the other megaliths strewn about the area; Silbury Hill; the barrows; the white horses; the crop-circles (it never seemed to matter whether they were man-made or not - walking into one of them, the woman in front turned to me, with an ecstatic look on her face, saying ‘Can you feel the vibration!? Can you feel it!?’ Well, I couldn’t, but I still shared her wonder). Avebury is the setting of my Young Adult novel – a key aspect of which is how the three teen characters view this mysterious environment. And I hope my own ‘connection’ will be conveyed to my teenage readers, and allow them to share in its magic.
|Avebury Stones (photo courtesy of dp-multimedia ©)|
As a writer, setting is a way of keeping the place with me, long after we’ve departed, as it has been with those Black Mountains, left even longer ago.
I haven’t set anything in Pembrokeshire yet, but I’m sure I will – that empathy for the landscape certainly exists here. How could it not, when I am surrounded by its spectacular, ever-changing coastline, amazing wild-life, and its own sprinkling of magical stones? I’ve got a few ideas, idling in the back of my mind, waiting to come to the fore. Waiting for the right moment. But not waiting for us to go from here, this time. Home – another sense of place altogether. And perhaps the best one of all.