Novelist Tom Bullough on his XR arrest – and what Welsh saints can teach us about the climate crisis

The writer is passionate about the environment, and Wales, and has fed that passion into a book that attends to ancient lives alongside our own

It is a filthy wet day, rivulets of water streaming down necks as well as hills, yet Tom Bullough is striding up the slippery incline of Fan Frynych, completely unpuffed, while speaking urgently about the challenge of the climate emergency – to writing, to Wales and to life itself.

“How do you make people care about the climate crisis? You have to turn to those things that you care about yourself,” he says, disappearing into a grey veil of rain. “You can’t really choose where you are as a writer, where your heart lies, and it happens that I love Wales and I’m from Wales and therefore my writing about Wales is invested with a passion which I just can’t confect.”

Bullough is best known for Addlands, a novel set over 70 years on a Welsh farm. His new, non-fiction book tells of his south-to-north walk along the line of Sarn Helen, a Roman road which spans the country and gives the book its title. With the pacing and economy of a novelist, Bullough conjures up a history of Wales both intimate and epic, encompassing the lives of the saints, Welsh language, coal mining and cultural myths, alongside the vivid present day. Here he finds dystopia – a people-less village where robot mowers prowl – and moments of wonder such as the “tenderness” of a late-afternoon view in mid-Wales from Snowdonia to the Brecon Beacons. “It is like watching somebody you love in sleep,” he writes.

Sarn Helen also turns an unsparing gaze towards the future. Bullough’s trek is interspersed with interviews with scientists about how Wales – and all of us – must adapt to the climate crisis.

Bullough grew up on a Welsh hill farm; his childhood was “farming and books”. Eighties kids’ TV staples such as The Dukes of Hazzard were banned in his household; instead, his mother read to her sons – the Lord of the Rings, twice. This reading must have been formative: Bullough’s brother, Oliver, is also a writer, of acclaimed non-fiction.

Author Tom Bullough photographed in the Brecon Beacons

Tom Bullough turned to non-fiction because he felt he must do more to address the climate crisis. He joined Extinction Rebellion (XR) – and was arrested, held in prison for a night and fined – but feared that he couldn’t write climate fiction without “being at serious risk” of making his characters ciphers. “I don’t like the idea of going into writing fiction with an agenda. You can’t go into it knowing what you mean to say.”

What Bullough has to say is compelling. We reach a ridge on our walk – Bullough still talking intensely without losing his breath – and descend into an idyllic green valley and a track that curves gracefully with the contours: Sarn Helen.

The Roman road might be Wales’s first piece of “national” infrastructure but, as Bullough observes, like most subsequent infrastructure it was also “extractive”: built to discover wealth and carry it elsewhere. Much English writing about Wales has also been extractive. Bullough writes how the Welsh farmers featured in literature and poetry – in the poems of (English-speaking Welshman) RS Thomas and (English) Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill for instance – don’t resemble the real thing. Literature’s Welsh farmers may be noble but they are not bequeathed much agency or an interior world. “It’s a Romantic tradition stretching back to earlier writers like John Leland, coming in and dealing with the Welsh as primitives. Thomas plays into that tradition; Chatwin was working the same vein,” says Bullough. “When I started writing, I was as well. It took quite a while to understand that what I was writing was somebody else’s notion of what was going on here rather than what was actually going on.”

Sarn Helen is “an attempt to depict what is actually here, who these people are, but also the situation we exist in environmentally. This,” Bullough gestures to the sheep pasture and non-native conifer plantation that surrounds us, “is what we think of as our heritage, we think that this is nature, this is how it should be. It can be very beautiful but it’s a skeletal landscape ultimately.”

Apart from sheep and one red kite – feasting on the carcass of a sodden dead sheep on the track – there is little natural life on our walk. The author recognises he is complicit: his father was an innovator who introduced silage into his region, something that played a part in the postwar intensification of farming that robbed Britain of the wildlife depicted in Jackie Morris’s illustrations throughout Bullough’s book.

“I’m a great admirer of George Monbiot and I also understand how he’s managed to upset so many people with his hatred of sheep,” says Bullough. “I share his feelings in lots of ways, and I grew up on a bloody hill-farm. The smell of sheep is home. So I can really feel what people feel they are losing, which is their soul, their identity. You try and take that stuff away – what are we?”

Part of the Welsh hostility to rewilding, believes Bullough, is a defensive “fear of annihilation” at the heart of its culture. Welsh language may be reviving (29% of the population speak it, increasing each year since 2010) but traditional farming (88% of Wales is devoted to agriculture) looks doomed. His conversations with scientists leave him certain that livestock farming must be drastically reduced in a net zero world. One scientist, Judith Thornton, talks plainly of land-use in a low-carbon world: instead of sheep, uplands will be dedicated to carbon storage and biodiversity; marginal farmland will become productive forestry and lowlands must be intensively farmed for (mostly vegetarian) food.

Bullough is reluctant to firmly declare his position on this and the other big debates in Sarn Helen – including whether Wales should stop farming sheep. “In a sense my feelings are neither here nor there. What I want first and foremost is for us to have this conversation explicitly, and now,” he says. “The crucial point Judith articulates is we have to make everything we currently make from fossil fuels out of that land, as well as grow food. Realistically that doesn’t leave very much space for livestock. We also have to be realistic about what [net zero in] 2050 means.” The transformation of landscapes and our society “is a revolution beyond anything that anyone in this part of world has ever experienced,” he says. “What happened in the second world war was nothing compared to this.”

Sarn Helen also reflects on Bullough’s activism. He reproduces the moving address he delivered to magistrates during his day in court. While his writer friend Jay Griffiths was sentenced by a judge who graciously praised the movement, Bullough was greeted with “blank faces” and a £772 fine. “This is the reality of what we’re up against. This is an immovable object. That’s how it felt on that day; pretty bloody despondent,” he says.

Bullough is still participating in legal climate protests but is honest about XR’s decline. One local group he joined promptly shut itself down because people branded them “terrorists”. Limiting global warming to 1.5C has gone, he says, and there’s little honest media conversation about that. Capitalism appears endlessly able to absorb and nullify protest, even as it is needled by the direct action of Just Stop Oil and others. But he is less disconsolate than he was. “We felt protest might bring about change, and to an extent it has – it has brought the conversation much more mainstream, it’s brought the 2050 target, it has changed the narrative and it continues to change the narrative, and you have to draw some strength from that.”

We reach the end of our walk – Llanilltud church, an oval of “haggard pines” surrounding the ruins of a church dedicated to Illtyd, a Welsh saint from the Celtic Christian epoch and a recurring character in Sarn Helen. Llanilltud was almost certainly a pre-Christian religious site, and for Bullough it is a regular haunt, a place of peace and solace. He is not religious but he writes persuasively about the role of the saints in shaping patterns of settlement in Welsh culture and, most unexpectedly, how they might help us cope with global heating.

Bullough is convinced that adapting to the climate crisis depends not simply on technical fixes but on new stories and principles for how to live better with the natural world. Christianity took hold in Wales so strongly, he argues, because it fitted its values and places of worship into pre-existing religious systems. In an era of climate crisis, “we can’t just conjure these stories up out of nowhere and expect them to take hold. If we are to remake ourselves, we have to do it around indigenous stories and traditions,” he says. “To a large extent, we’re talking about adopting a new moral code. What precedent do we have for that but the transition between different religions?”

Despite the lack of serious action on climate adaptation so far, and his own experiences as an activist butting against the immovable object that is the capitalist establishment, Bullough “finds it hard to be despairing because it’s just a fascinating time to be alive.” He half-laughs. “What a bloody challenge and within it we get to see what humans are. Can we be more than what we’ve shown ourselves to be so far?”

• Sarn Helen: A Journey Through Wales, Past, Present and Future is published by Granta (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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