Fan­tasy nov­el­ist em­bed­ded in his na­tive land­scape

Brian Morton hails a mem­oir that pro­vides the back­ground to Alan Garner’s first chil­dren’s books

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS - Alan Garner

AL­MOST ex­actly half way through Where Shall We Run To?, at the end of a chap­ter called Wid­der­shins, there comes a voice from the earth. It hap­pens at a place up on Alder­ley Edge called the Devil’s Grave­stone. Run round it three times and the Devil will get you. Young Alan tries it while his fa­ther looks out at the view: “a screech came out of the ground be­neath my feet, and screams and groans and cack­ling and moan­ing, and peb­bles flirted from un­der the stone, and out of the trench, and sand and bits of twig, and there was a stamp­ing sound in the cave and more screeches”. There you have it; not so much the Alan Garner of el­dritch magic and de­monic power, but the Alan Garner who writes, thinks and, for 83 years, has lived ge­o­log­i­cally, em­bed­ded in his na­tive Cheshire, in­stinct with its land­scape and its stones.

It mat­ters not a bit that the “Devil” un­der­ground was the boy’s un­cle, the di­a­bol­i­cal in­vo­ca­tion a prac­ti­cal joke worked up in the pub and the fa­ther’s in­tense in­ter­est in a fa­mil­iar view a way of keep­ing pre­ma­ture laugh­ter at bay. The Garn­ers be­long in­tensely to a land­scape that is rid­dled with caves, old work­ings and sud­den col­lapses; the af­ter­noon I read the Wid­der­shins chap­ter, a sink-hole ap­peared in a street in Alder­ley Edge, tak­ing a car with it. And when at the be­gin­ning of that chap­ter you come across a line like “My Hough grandad had helped his own grandad to build the wall”, you re­alise how pro­foundly this writer is rooted in his place, and why it mat­ters to the young Alan that a fore­bear should have carved his name in “Real Writ­ing” (that is, cur­sive) on a rock, or carved faces onto ap­par­ently un­climbable stretches of cliff face.

This is a book very much about read­ing and writ­ing, about the marks that we use to give life mean­ing, whether they are a tramp’s chalk-mark on a wall – three cir­cles for “money may be given here” or an open rec­tan­gle for “spin them a tale” – or the comics and Arthur Mee’s The Chil­dren’s En­cy­clopae­dia that al­low young Alan to get past block cap­i­tals and closer to Real Writ­ing. It is also a book writ­ten with­out a sin­gle scrap of hind­sight, or ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion of the past. When Garner writes “My fa­ther joined the army to guard us against Hitler at Rhyl”, we don’t smirk at Mr Garner’s un­heroic war ser­vice; we be­lieve with his son that Hitler is ex­pected mo­men­tar­ily and in per­son on the north Wales coast, and we feel the pride and the anx­i­ety in due part. We see the child­hood not through prisms of psy­cho­anal­y­sis or adult sig­ni­fi­ca­tion but as the child saw it and sought to un­der­stand it. The grey pot bot­tle that might have been a wartime in­cen­di­ary re­tains its ex­plo­sive po­ten­tial un­til PC Pessle “de­fuses” it and tells the boys how re­spon­si­ble they’ve been to bring it to his no­tice. We are guiltily aware ev­ery time a kindly old gentle­man with white hair takes the boys into his con­fi­dence that we are wait­ing for an in­ap­pro­pri­ate hand on an in­ap­pro­pri­ate part of the body, and we are guiltily aware of a sigh of re­lief at the recog­ni­tion that a form of in­no­cence we have long since hid­den be­hind “safe­guard­ing” and dis­clo­sures re­ally did once ex­ist, in some lives and places at least.

The lan­guage of the mem­oir lacks ed­i­to­rial in­ter­ven­tion, too. Di­alect words are lightly used: “strug”, “skrawked”, “mardy-arse”, “flirt”, as above, in the sense of flick­ing or squirt­ing. The adult reader with even a mod­icum of clas­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion recog­nises that a sto­ry­telling grandma’s per­sona of Mrs E Paminon­das is a ref­er­ence to Epaminon­das, who saved Thebes from the Spar­tans at the Bat­tle of Leuc­tra in 371BC. The adult reader with no such learn­ing is given the ref­er­ence from the Chil­dren’s En­cy­clopae­dia, ex­actly as young Alan finds it.

This, then, is a writer’s mem­oir. Though it makes no ref­er­ence what­so­ever to them, it pro­vides the back­ground to Garner’s first books, The Weird­stone of Brisinga­men and The Moon of Gom­rath; if you’ve read The Weird­stone, you’ll know the leg­end of the Devil’s Grave al­ready and recog­nise the land­scape de­scribed in Where Shall We Run To?. Garner later dis­owned both books as un­sat­is­fac­tory, de­spite re­vi­sions, only com­plet­ing a tril­ogy, be­gun in 1960, half a cen­tury later in 2012 with Boneland. This truly is ge­o­log­i­cal writ­ing. Garner might seem the em­bod­i­ment of that much-overquoted line of Joan Did­ion’s from The White Al­bum that “A place be­longs for­ever to who­ever claims it hard­est, re­mem­bers it most ob­ses­sively, wrenches it from it­self, shapes it, ren­ders it, loves it so rad­i­cally that he re­makes it in his own im­age”. That might be used to de­scribe Garner, except that none of her words re­ally quite ap­plies, and cer­tainly not to this mem­oir. He lays no claim, re­mem­bers with­out ob­ses­sion or trauma, does noth­ing to “wrench” Alder­ley Edge out of its nat­u­ral place,

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