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Bruce Chatwin: On the Black Hill

Chatwin travelled the world (and wrote very well about his travels). This book, however, is set in a small corner of Wales, with the main characters rarely far from their home. The two main characters are Benjamin and Lewis Jones, twins, born with the century, on a farm in Wales. Chatwin tells their story simply but so well, bringing out both the spirit of the place but also the spirit of the Jones brothers. We follow their story from the meeting of their parents and their birth up to their death. Along the way, we are introduced to two fairly ordinary men who have to work for what they get, who are twins – and are therefore not only so entirely devoted to one another that separation causes them pain – but who have their own quirks. Lewis, for example, is interested in air flight and keeps a scrapbook on flight, particularly air disasters and finally achieves his ambition of flying on his eightieth birthday. Benjamin is the book-keeper and keeps all the accounts (and, to Lewis’ annoyance, spends most of their profit on buying more land rather than agricultural equipment). Benjamin has no eye for girls but Lewis does and comes close to getting married and does have sex (almost unwittingly) on one occasion.

It is not just the two main characters that make this book so splendid but the whole host of other characters. Their parents – individuals both – shine through. The neighbouring family – the Watkins – with whom they are at virtual war in the early part of the book but then with whom some sort of accommodation is reached when Jim Watkins works on their fields and then acquires a host of eccentric people living on his farm. There is the German prisoner of war and the German woman who visits as well as other locals. One person who plays only a scant role is their sister, Rebecca, who disappears at an early age but her daughter and grandson appear later on and liven up the life of the brothers in their old age. But Chatwin’s gift – and our pleasure – is the creation of the two stalwart brothers, two men relatively immune from the twentieth century and its ills, dependent on each other but on no-one else but feeling, caring, decent human beings and very much part of their place if not their time.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Jonathan Cape