Alan Garner: Why Gawain still walks in the Valley of the Demon

He lives in Toad Hall, next to Jodrell Bank. As Paul Binding discovers, place is everything to the novelist Alan Garner
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'Everything of mine has been written here," Alan Garner says, showing me into a book-filled room, at once modest-proportioned and substantial, "sitting on that chair, writing-pad and notebooks on my knees." I say: "By 'everything' you can't mean your very early books?" I'm thinking of his dazzling Opus One, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen which he wrote when he was only 22. Published four years later, in l960, it now can be seen as having heralded in that Golden Decade of children's literature of which Garner himself was the most celebrated and controversial luminary. "Including my first," Garner replies.

His history quickly became a famous one. Brilliant schoolboy at the prestigious Manchester Grammar School, cup-winning County athlete, "officer material" National Serviceman, classics student at Magdalen College, Oxford, he chose to leave university without a degree, not to "become a writer", but, more simply and ambitiously, to write. He found an isolated, ancient house only seven miles from where he'd grown up on Alderley Edge, Cheshire, and in this very room gave himself over to one of the mid-century's most seminal books for the young: a fantasy, yet atavistic, chthonic, Cheshire-generated, a long way from Lewis's Narnia and Tolkien's Middle Earth, which the young author disliked (as the older one still does).

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its direct sequel, The Moon of Gomrath (l963) were extremely successful: admired by critics, popular with children. A career had begun, and remarkably early, but as we stand there in this seasoned writing-room, it is of his house's pedigree rather than his own writerly one that he wants to talk. The name of his house is Toad Hall, no reference to The Wind in the Willows but a contraction of T'Owd Hall, "The Old Hall" in Cheshire dialect. Its body may date from the l300s but habitation of its site goes back far longer: has been continuous for 11,000 years. The room contains many artefacts found, then carefully arranged and docketed, by Garner himself: Stone and Bronze Age flints which he holds with care and admiration as befits the descendant of a centuries-long line of locally rooted craftsmen, who's constantly celebrated the demands and joys of "making", not least in his latest novel, Thursbitch.

My own imaginative development has owed so much to Alan Garner that, travelling up from my Shropshire home to his Cheshire one, I found it strange I'd never met nor even seen him before. His third and fourth books aroused such general grateful attention as to render them major landmarks in writing for the young - tempered, particularly in the latter case, by concern about their radical departure from conventions of both manner and matter. Elidor (l965) has a classic status in its artful invasions of urban decay and suburban sloth (Manchester and its environs) by domains of psychic terror and longing (the threatened land of Elidor). Owing something to Garner's immersion in Britten's War Requiem, the book was gratefully praised by the composer himself for both the "pleasure" and the "horror" it occasioned him. As for The Owl Service (l967), how keenly I remembered buying it on publication day itself, devouring it forthwith, and next day reading aloud its powerful opening chapters to a class of adolescents. Their rapt surrender to its mediumistic rendering of fellow adolescents baffled by the irruptions of the supra-natural and the sexual into a sequestered Welsh house was demonstrated by an audible silence that eventually changed into requests (demands) for loan of the book.

After this a new Garner was never to be missed: Red Shift (l973), juxtaposing an agonised love-story of contemporary Cheshire with rendezvous with the compulsive cruelties of the Romans in Britain (speaking so convincingly as GIs in Vietnam) and the God-inspired savageries of our Civil War; The Stone Book Quartet (l976-l978), Garner's loving if often disturbing act of homage to his craftsmen forebears, and, as it turned out, his farewell to fiction for children, and then, after a troublingly long interval, new and even more adventurous productions.

Any debate about a double literary identity (children's or adults' writer?) became redundant; Garner was Garner, irreducible, inimitable. The novel Strandloper (l996) was based on the experiences of a Cheshire man who, in the first decades of the l9th century, found himself leader of magic authority in an Australian Aborigine tribe. The Voice that Thunders (l997) collected profound and wide-ranging essays on writing and culture, that also plumbed recently visited depths of depression and angst with an honest fullness. And now Thursbitch, possibly stranger and more taxing even than its predecessors.

My journey brought continually to mind the works of the man still ahead of me. Here was Crewe's great busy station where Red Shift's young lovers have, every weekend, to say painful goodbyes to each other. Here now, after the Midlands plain, was the recognisably Northern landscape which has begotten the speech captured in vocabulary and rhythm by Garner throughout his oeuvre but never to more haunting effect than in Thursbitch where it rises to apostrophes of religious ecstasy and sinks to desperate attempts to address the dying. An accident on the railway line delayed my arrival at Goostrey; moments of alarm followed, then an unmistakable Alan Garner appeared with the car. Now fears could recede.

Born l934, he carries the strongest aura of youth. As in some set of Russian dolls I can discover beneath the present's surface the tough, ardent young man whose photo looked out from The Weirdstone - while his mellow, sensitive voice suggests the art of music to which his pared, intricately constructed fiction has often been compared. We drive to his medieval home, to which was added, in l972, by way of rescue, a piece-by-piece rebuild of a close-timbered neighbourhood house of l500. Against the bright sky the dish of Jodrell Bank telescope, only a mile away, glows white. I meet Garner's wife Griselda (with whom Garner has two children, in addition to three from an earlier marriage) and soon discussion can begin of Garner's work in general and Thursbitch in particular.

The new novel relates most obviously to Red Shift; it too presents experiences in more than one historical time, connected, though no protagonist realises it, by individuals' sensory receptions of the universal inspirited natural world around them. In the mid l8th century, a packman, Jack Turner - prime mover of a secret heterodox Cheshire sect dedicated to the Old Religion and worshipping Bull, Snake and Bee - loses his beloved wife through plague and temporarily descends into madness. In our own period, exploring the valley the earlier people perforce lived in, Ian, a Jesuit priest, and his loved friend Sal, a geologist, attempt to confront the accelerating deterioration of the latter's motor-neurone disease. Thursbitch, a real place (it means "Valley of the Demon" in Old English), holds both pairs together with its dark arcana. As I listen to Garner describing his first investigations of the enclosed area, begun as far back as l972, I understand the importance to his fiction of his erudite command of geology and archaeology: Garner is the novelist as empathic excavator.

In order to emphasise points he brings out notebooks recording in a beautiful hand his many years' wrestlings with the mysteries of the place and of the real-life Jack Turner who, as he says, "died when he shouldn't, not far from his own home, a man of experience who journeyed widely at a time when most people never went more than five miles from their birthplace. Yes, the night of his death on Christmas Eve, l735 was a snowy one, but he'd have known the hill-roads well, wouldn't he? So I began asking myself, 'What if...?' I think all my fiction has really come about through my what ifs."

As he elaborates, Garner seems to be seeing again Jack Turner's progress to his strange (but recorded) demise, so it isn't surprising to hear him observe: "For me, it's all a process of watching and listening to the people, making out what they're doing, and maybe at last understanding..."

The present for Garner is a territory of far wider extent than for most of us; he's pleased to think that the language his kin speak, both in distant and in more recent times, is essentially that of the Gawain poet, whose local topography Garner has, as scholar of his region, identified. And yet a truth about Garner surely also resides in the palpable proximity to his home of Jodrell Bank. His art reaches out from the society of ancestors not just to our riven, uncertain present, but to our future - with trepidation undoubtedly but also with a transforming, youthful hope.

'Thursbitch' is published by Harvill Press at £14.99, or £12.99 (+ £2.25 p&p per order) from Independent Books Direct (0870 800 1122).

Comments