INTERVIEW: Owen Sheers
6th October, 2018
Palace Green Library
Interview by Rhiannon Morris
“This is one of the ugliest and brutal subjects you can have. It is about presenting it with beauty, not to guild, not as a euphemism. But as tribute. Part of the tribute is saying this is going to be framed through beauty.”
Owen Sheers is perhaps one of the most successful Welsh writers of the twenty-first century, with bestselling poetry and novels which are staples of exam boards across Wales. Having studied his poetry volume Skirrid Hill, I was very keen to hear him read and talk to him about what is perhaps his greatest work to date: the beautifully written verse drama The Green Hollow.
The Green Hollow is a ‘play for voices’ evocative of Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’ beloved radio play. It shares a similarly well-characterised and vivid depiction of a range of people found in a Welsh village, which – during his reading at Durham Book Festival – Sheers vocalised with precise understanding of the personalities and emotion of the characters (based on real people) he has tried to bring to life through language. In his reading, Sheers masterfully inhabited the multitude of voices he has created. In one verse, his light, almost non-existent Welsh accent deepened in tone and inflection to conjure that particular Welsh masculinity which constitutes a seemingly unshakeable certainty of oneself and the world. This was all the more moving, and chill-inducing, when the words spoken were drawn from the unprecedented horror of an event that looms large in national memory.
Unlike Thomas’ fundamentally fictitious and imaginative depiction, The Green Hollow is based on a tragedy. The 1966 Aberfan disaster is seared into Welsh cultural memory and history, and as Sheers pointed out in his talk, it holds a place in global consciousness as a moment frozen in time, of grief and disaster unfathomable to those who looked on. On 21st October 1966, coal slurry plummeted down the mountain of Aberfan and killed 116 children in Pantglas school, along with 28 adults.
I asked him whether there was any difficulty in moving from the free license of imagination to the artistic presentation of an objective experience. Whilst he said he found it a ‘release’, he admitted there was difficulty ‘in the negotiation of a shared ownership of a story. The writer’s place is to be a conduit for the voices of others. It gives you a different sense of purpose. I don’t want to say duty. I hope it’s in that Bardic tradition.’
He made it clear that he did not simply want to write an elegy for the disaster. Instead he wanted to draw a fuller picture of a village which has been overshadowed by death and disaster. ‘It’s not just about memorialising. We have a tendency in this age and country for selective heritage memory. Literature can poke around in that a bit.’ In doing so, Aberfan is a place of other things: life and fullness, character, flaws and possibilities, which move beyond what the tragedy it is known for.
His poetic verse speaks in the ‘voice of Aberfan’ before and after the disaster. It sounds more than anything like a conversation – engagingly simple, with some exact dialogue taken from Sheers’ interviews with witnesses. He avoids dousing the language with grandiose images of violence and terror. Instead, his simple conversational tone conveys a great emotional sincerity. He compounds these emotional accounts with rhyme and half-rhyme at the moments when it is needed, and no more, to add a profundity and pathos to feelings so powerful they highlight the ‘complete inadequacy of the language’.
The narrative is poignantly tinged with hindsight. The voice of the present and the past intermingle: victims and survivors, dead and living, young and old. The flow of the narrative feels like the restless tide of time, pulling you back into the ignorance of the past – ‘the luxury of easy time’ – and thrusting you forward to the present of regret and the pain of knowledge and memory combined. It is profoundly moving to read, and it was equally moving to listen to – especially the sections which deal with Aberfan’s children. He places them in their present: fresh lives, green and new, budding with possibility. PantGlas translates as Green Hollow, and it is the saddest irony, that the place in which young life was supposed to be nurtured, was instead smothered.
‘I was incandescent. I wept,’ Sheers said, as he spoke about his inability to keep an emotional distance when writing the voices, after reading the notorious reports which the people of Aberfan had written countless times to the national coal board warning them of the threat posed by the coal waste left on the mountain. He expanded: ‘I just think about the words and voices and in doing so, The Green Hollow becomes an article of resilience, a dialogue depicting the conversations an individual has with themselves and trauma. It brings to the forefront a choice that presents itself with grief. To speak and to remember, to unite the personal with the external landscape of one’s belonging.’
From the beginning, it is the opening of a wound, filled with decades-old pain and experience, in a remarkably frank and unabridged way. The voices of his verse are talking to us, the outside world, the voyeurs looking in, unable to understand but desperately feeling something. The tug of empathy we all share.
‘When the current community of Aberfan read this book, hopefully it feels like their story, it’s something they are holding, they’re meeting over. It’s shared territory.’
What one takes from Sheers’ work is not only the horror and grief, but the growth and recovery that “the green hollow” represents. The voices of survivors and families, all those affected, like new shoots in spring, push their way up from death and loss and bask in life and resurgence.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.