Suzi Feay: Happy birthday to the Magus of Macclesfield

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The Independent Culture

I can sympathise with Anthony Bonanza's valiant struggles with confused customers. Here on the books desk we get the strangest reader queries.

Here on the books desk we get the strangest reader queries. A typical call might run: "Hello. You reviewed a book about six months ago. I can't remember anything about it, except it had a lady on the cover." I have become adept at tracking a title on the slenderest of evidence, but one recent caller took every ounce of my patience. "I want to find a book you've reviewed in the last couple of weeks." Mmm, a clue perhaps? Do you remember the name... the author? "No," he said testily. Or the subject matter? "Look, just go through the books you've reviewed recently. It'll come back to me." Well, I sighed, there's The Red Queen, Margaret Drabble's new novel... "No, no, no!" he spluttered. "Not fiction! I don't read fiction!" I persevered. Bingo! "The Exiled Collector, that's the one. Thank you." Don't you want to know the author and publisher, I enquired. And if you'd like to buy it at a reduced price, you can order it through our ... "I don't want to buy it," he said, as though I was an imbecile. "I'm an old age pensioner!" Click. I'm longing for the day when I can go round the shops with this as my catchphrase.

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Here's an old age pensioner with a prickly reputation. Alan Garner, celebrating his 70th birthday with a lecture at Magdalen College, Oxford, could not have been more sublime. "The Valley of the Demon" was perfect Hallowe'en fare, the phrase being the literal translation of Thursbitch (the title of his latest novel). It's a terrific read: a heady brew of standing stones, pagan worship, mysterious death, time-shifts, sacred springs and revenants: vintage Garner.

What I hadn't realised before the lecture was how securely the novel is based in fact. Not only does Thursbitch exist, it is every inch the landscape of the macabre, replete with taciturn farmers, "electrical magic" and things that walk by night. There are strange alignments of stones, and natural outcrops of suggestive shape and positioning.

Garner's fascination with this bleak terrain began in 1952, when he discovered a stone slab detailing the death of a packman in the 18th century. Slipping his hand down the back of the stone, he uncovered a hidden message. The story haunted Garner for almost a half-century before he was able to pen his gripping supernatural tale, filled with local lore and the sort of dialect I can remember my grandparents using. (Northern kids are always skriking.) "I've saved the most frightening thing till last," twinkled Garner, ending with a mind-bending story about a boulder which seemingly changed form between two visits: his photographs beggar belief.

It was a relief to adjourn to a drinks party for Garner in an eccentric new members' club-cum-bookshop called QI (apparently it stands for "quite interesting"). But all too soon, I had to get to the station to catch my train. Garner was talking to some bloke in the corner, so I interrupted him to ask if he'd sign my copy of Thursbitch. That bloke he was talking to... "Are you Philip Pullman?" I gasped. Yes, the Magus of Macclesfield was conferring with the Wizard of Oxford. Quite interesting? I'll say.

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