And this, my friends, is where it all started – well, more or less! Actually, the true inspiration came from the plot of land next door, to the left – and not shown on this photograph: A farm, in West Wales, roughly half way between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth, where, in January 1979, my boyfriend and I fetched up months before our finals.
Tanllan was the name of the farm – and we fell in love with it the moment we saw it. I had just turned twenty-one; Nigel would catch up with me in the Spring. We thought we were so grown-up, ancient even. We also had this immense feeling of relief: While the vast majority of our student friends were renting rooms in various dives in Aberystwyth itself, we had found, and moved into, half a farmhouse some miles away from the university.
We ended up living there until August 1981. During those years, we met some amazing local people, had loads of adventures – and, in my case, fell enduringly in love with the wild and, in many ways, inhospitable landscape. Oh, it was beautiful, without a doubt, but this was not flat, chocolate-box, easy loveliness; it was harsh and flinty, marshy and sibilant, dangerous and seductive.
During my third – and desperately unhappy – year as an English teacher, and involved in a toxic relationship (though I was not able to face that at the time), I suddenly ‘heard’ the words, ‘The mountains unclouded. They were purple, sharp-pointed. Rain bristled,’ singing loudly in my mind, and my whole being catapulted back into the Tanllan era.
And so began the novel which became ‘Heneghan’.
Yesterday, I started re-reading and editing it – and felt a huge lump in my throat as I did so, for it is a lyrical love song to that part of Wales; it is that which I do best – the evocation of atmosphere and exploration of the way humans interact with the dominant landscape. But it is more than that, and I only saw this fully yesterday. It paints a dark picture of an abusive relationship between the man and woman at the centre of the story, and shows an understanding of this which, now, seems both chilling and uncanny in that I knew, at a very deep level, and did not want to know.
I was twenty-six at the time. The novel won an award that year, 1984: First Prize in a South West Arts Writers in Progress Award. £200, as I recall – which, in those days, was enormous wealth and, to me, still is.
I have tried, over the years, to publish ‘Heneghan‘ and could not understand what it was about the novel that was holding me back, creating innumerable excuses and delays. When, in 2015, I self-published the other books, this one did not see the light of day.
I berated myself regularly for this cowardice and laziness, but, every time I started reading it, panic and despair would set in and I would have to stop.
Now, away from the corner of the South West I inhabited for so long, clarity has returned – and I can see that I sensed something amiss right from the start and, unconsciously, tried to pin it down, and explore it, in fiction. That I chose to work with physical abuse is, in retrospect, both interesting and telling: In my mind, that was the only type of abuse, and so I was able to tell myself that anything which did not involve violent physical contact was a normal relationship.
But re-reading it forced me to realise that I understood, even then, far more than I was willing to face – and this may explain why I have been unable to bring this book back to life, for all that it captures my love of Wales so evocatively.
Now I have understood the deeper waters, it does not seem threatening any more, just very very sad. It is, in many ways, a stark book emotionally. I can remember my father saying that it was beautifully written, but that he hated most of the characters, that thy lacked warmth and humanity. Probably true. I was hidden beneath layers of ice back then.
This time, I shall finish and publish it. It is not actually about my relationships per se, and yet, of course, it is – and the deep undercurrent shows a knowledge of wrongness and of levels of mistreatment I would not bring to mind then.
Is it possible to fall in love with a place? Oh yes, most certainly, for that is precisely what I did!
Is it possible to weave darkness into literature? Oh, God, yes. Many do. I have. And yet – I couldn’t quite keep out the light, even back then…