'There is a light at the end of the tunnel': Why novelist Alan Garner's reality is tinged with mysticism
Fifty years on from his first novel and it's still unclear whether Alan Garner is in touch with an alternative reality or just the 'dream-maker' he claims. Here, he explains how he died three times and why spending two years in the foetal position is not the best career move
Sunday 26 September 2010
His second death, Alan Garner explains, is the one that he really remembers. "When I was six," the writer says, "I contracted whooping cough and measles, which developed into meningitis. There were two doctors by my bed. I was in that delirious state where things drift in and out of focus, and yet I could hear their conversation clearly. The first one said: 'He's gone.' But the really terrifying bit came next, when the other doctor replied: 'I concur.' A word which – precocious infant that I was – I understood."
At that point, recalls Garner, who is 75, "I exploded emotionally. I screamed but made no sound. I couldn't communicate or give a signal. I remember the anger; I remember the fury. At which point I must have had an adrenaline surge. And that is why I lived – because I was too angry to die."
He was pronounced dead on three separate occasions before he was 10.
"I have been in the tunnel," he says. "There is light at the end. It revolves. You are running. I have been in the tunnel more than once."
If rage hadn't rescued him on that day in 1941, we would have lost one of the most extraordinary writers in the language. Initially acclaimed as a children's author (the date of 10.10.10 will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of his first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen), his voice was distinctive from the start, for its innate capacity to resonate with, and never patronise, his readership.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is set in and around Alderley Edge, the Cheshire village which, on account of its popularity with Premier League footballers, has become a kind of synonym for New Money. The Garners have lived here, as farm labourers, miners and craftsmen, for at least five centuries. "I don't think I am going to get further back than William Garner, sepultus [buried in] 1592," the writer tells me. "Peasants were not recorded earlier than that."
Since 1957, his own home has been a few miles away at Blackden, in the 15th-century timber-framed house he calls "Toad Hall". Even though it's very close to Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the Hall (whose name derives from the local pronunciation of "the old") is, to the delight of this very private man, almost impossible to find. I tell him I'll come with a local cab driver.
"You'll still get lost," Garner says, and he's right. Neither the patience of the driver, the satnav, the map, or the author's sheet of directions are of any help. We pull up at the dead end of a dirt track and phone him for help. Arriving at Blackden feels like crossing a fault line into some other world – a recurring theme in his fiction.
In 1970, noticing, as you do, that a 16th-century apothecary's house was about to be demolished in Staffordshire, Garner had it moved, piece by piece, and joined to the Hall. And it's here, in "The Medicine House", at two seats inside the large central chimney, that he suggests we sit down to talk. The chimney has something of the feel – and, Garner believes, the effect – of the confessional.
"Things are said here," he tells me, "that would not be said elsewhere."
The silence is such that, when a train goes by, I find myself mentioning William Wordsworth's letters, whingeing about how the English countryside was being desecrated by the railways.
"Oh, I like the trains," Garner says. "When they stopped running, while were relaying the track a while ago, I missed them."
"Because they emphasise tranquillity."
He could not, friends say, write anywhere else. The notion of an intimate connection between an artist and his native landscape is one that DH Lawrence intellectualised at some length, once he'd abandoned Nottinghamshire for the less- punishing ambience of Bloomsbury, Capri and New Mexico. For Garner, the ideal has been a reality.
In 1965, a reporter came here and observed: "You can imagine this man waiting behind the door with a plate of custard, or shaving off his beard and posting it to a friend." Alan Garner, she continued, "can be painfully shy". Of these three assessments, it's the last that seems to retain its relevance.
Which isn't to say he lacks humour. Garner's generous laugh comes easily, and he's considerate and friendly, but his transparently acute intelligence and intensity of manner can be unnerving. ("That one went badly," his wife Griselda will tell him later, speaking of one of his other occasional interviews, "because you frightened her.")
This isn't actually the first time we've met. When I was about 11, I tell him, he came to talk to my class in my first year at secondary school. By that time he had published The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor and The Owl Service. (The last of these books, inspired by a Welsh medieval text, The Mabinogion, ' manages the not insignificant achievement of creating a deeply disturbing story about a haunted dinner-service. The Owl Service has won two Carnegie medals: one following its publication in 1967, another three years ago, as one of the 10 most important children's books of the past 70 years.) His public profile back then was such that Nova magazine wrote of Griselda, a former teacher: "She goes to the shops – just like an ordinary woman."
"I can remember," I say, "even at that age, thinking: this person is very unusual, even disturbing. As I recall you were dressed all in black. You told us how you would sometimes spend several hours gazing at a stone, on Alderley Edge."
Garner laughs, but doesn't deny that this has been one of his recreations.
"We of the craft are all crazy," Lord Byron once said. "Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched."
A long-term sufferer from bipolar disorder, Alan Garner has described his experience of the condition in a brilliant collection of essays, The Voice That Thunders, originally published in 1997 and reissued last month. Confused and occasionally incapacitated by his mood swings, he was relieved to be diagnosed, in 1989, with what was then termed manic depression.
"That diagnosis came very late," Garner says, "but it was still the best news I ever had." He took part in a clinical study organised by the American academic Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Touched with Fire (1993), the definitive history of the relationship between art and mental illness.
Alan Garner has avoided some of the symptoms suffered by other writers mentioned by Jamison, such as inappropriate use of firearms (Paul Verlaine), manic promiscuity (Byron) or stripping off and mounting equestrian statues in Argentina (the poet Robert Lowell). If there's one characteristic that radiates from this author, it's a sense of wanting to Do the Right Thing.
His Blackden estate has become a charitable trust; at certain periods, visitors attend courses on writing, music and archaeology at the property.
That last noun, he says, "is a word I dislike. This land has been occupied for 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age. I could not be so arrogant as to say that I 'owned' it."
Alan Garner's most recent ancestors were metalworkers. He was the first of his family to receive a serious formal education, through scholarships to Manchester Grammar School and Oxford, where he read classics. But when he was working here, on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, in his early twenties, he recalls: "I didn't have much. It helped that I'd done National Service, because I'd learnt how to live on things like nettles." He pauses, then adds, "And hedgehogs."
"Are you joking?"
His first wife, Ann Cook, mother of his first three children Ellen, Adam and Katharine, found this regime too much. The strain of producing that first book, Garner says, destroyed their marriage. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which tells the story of two schoolchildren stalked by forces of evil that inhabit the disused copper mines under the Edge, was an immediate success. Based on "The Legend of Alderley", one of many folk tales describing an army of knights sleeping under the hillside, his first novel has lost none of its power to enthral a young reader, as I discovered when I tried it out on a nine-year-old before coming here. Like his other fiction, it has never been out of print.
"Did you and Ann separate because your focus on the writing was obsessive?"
"Yes. It is a relationship that has remained amicable," Garner says, instinctively dodging the familiarity of a less cumbersome phrase such as: "We're still friends."
For a man who is no stranger to foraging in hedgerows, he can sound pretty posh.
"My primary tongue, I would call North-West Mercian." (His grandfather could understand Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the middle-English text written in Cheshire dialect, without footnotes.) "My secondary tongue is standard English, a dialect of the seat of power, London."
With visitors he sticks to the second register, which he articulates with precision. He uses fewer contractions – "isn't" or "can't" – than anyone I've ever met. You can still hear the voice of the Oxford Professor of Classics he once wanted to be.
Alan Garner's writing is notoriously tricky to categorise. His work typically involves reinventing a legend or folk tale, usually from this immediate area, so creating a mystical reality, into which stumble characters from the modern world. If his early books were primarily for young readers, his unique voice is even more compelling in his later novels, whose complexities stretch the most attentive adult reader. Thursbitch, his most recent work, which appeared in 2004, has a poetic sensibility that bears comparison with Samuel Beckett.
Garner was once described by this newspaper as, "The most important author working in the UK." Reading his work, AS Byatt once remarked, with reference to the more orthodox output of JK Rowling, "We are put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures – from whom we thought we had learnt our sense of good and evil – inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled."
Why is it, then, that when you go to the Alan Garner appreciation page on Facebook (which begins with a basic biography of the English author) every post from visitors is in the vein of this, the first listed comment: "ALAN GARNER: 'Nobody's gonna fuck on you! I'm on your side! I hate Godzilla! I hate him too! He destroys cities! Please! This is not your fault! I'll get you some pants!'"
How, in other words, has the name of one of our greatest living writers been usurped by Zach Galifianakis, a portly comic from North Carolina who, playing a character called "Alan Garner", delivers the above lines to a nude Japanese hitman in The Hangover, Todd Phillips's 2009 comedy about a stag party in Las Vegas?
It is a combination of factors. Networking is not his strong point. Networking involves quite a few of the things he least enjoys, such as going out. And in an industry where, these days, even some writers for eight-year-olds are tireless public raconteurs on the subject of their own work, self-effacement is a less useful attribute than it was 40 years ago, when Garner was already calling publishing "a narcissistic and masturbatory industry".
"I loathe crowds," he says. "I especially don't like cities. A city involves biomass. And biomass gets to me."
Then there is his rhythm of working. Some popular authors, especially writers associated with a youth market, maintain the speed of output that Ernie Wise used to boast about in his role as playwright. If there's one adjective you'd struggle to apply to Garner, it's "prolific". He spent seven years writing Red Shift, a magnificent book for young adults, whose events, which span 1,000 years, are recounted through three intersecting narratives. Red Shift, when it appeared in 1973, irrevocably lifted him out of the category of children's writer.
In the past 27 years he has produced two novels. Strandloper, widely considered to be his masterpiece, is the story of William Buckley, a local man transported to Australia ' in the early 19th century. Published in 1995, and written, as he is proud to tell you, at a rate of 0.5875 words an hour, it took 12 years to finish. Thursbitch took 10.
His rate of output has always been inextricably connected to his state of mind. "In April 1980, I was listening to Benjamin Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor and Horn'. Suddenly I heard, behind the music, a compulsion to die. All I could hear was death. I remember thinking: 'Get out,' and so I ran. In the next flash of memory I have, I'm back in the kitchen, looking out over the lowland valley, holding the guts of a music box. I turned the handle and I just couldn't stop. I was doing that for I don't know how long. It could have been four or five hours. Until somebody came home. I was just..." Garner's extensive vocabulary fails him momentarily. "...Gone."
He spent the next two years "lying on the settle" (a high-backed wooden bench) mostly in the foetal position, for 12 hours a day.
He and Griselda have two children: Joseph and Elizabeth (now an outstanding author in her own right). "It was an enormous strain on Griselda and the children," he says. "The only thing I felt communicating was tactile. Our children would have been seven and eight. They would instinctively stroke the back of my neck. That was wonderful."
"What was going on in your mind?"
"Did they give you lithium then?"
"No. I wasn't diagnosed. Later they did, but I decided that I would rather not take it, and endure the lows for the sake of the highs." Back in 1980, he says, "they gave me antidepressants. They didn't work. Then all of a sudden, it lifted, two years later, and I went into a kind of hypomanic [emotionally elevated] state, which coincided with my beginning Strandloper. I learnt that I must never finish a book with nothing else to do."
Since then, he has achieved a kind of equilibrium; that said, in the course of my writing this article, he sends me an email saying that the "black dog" has been close to his door for three days, and that he "has to be careful".
Alan Garner was born, with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck, on 17 October 1934. One of his earliest memories is of being led screaming out of a cinema by his mother, who had taken him to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Afterwards, "She thrashed me, for making her look a fool."
"How old were you?"
He recalls his father (Colin), a painter and decorator, as "warm and generous" and his mother (Marjorie), a tailor, as "complex and domineering".
"I was an only son. She had her own failed ambitions to deal with. When I was 18, rummaging in a drawer at home, I came across Approach to Latin Part I in mint condition."
"This was a book you'd used at school?"
"Yes. She had been trying to keep up with me. You cannot teach yourself Latin from that book."
When he first had to leave home to make the daily trip to Manchester Grammar school, says Garner, "I had great difficulty coping. The best view of the Edge is from the railway, between here and Manchester. I remember looking up at it as I left for the first time, thinking, I am letting you down. Until one day I was in the art hall, the highest room in the school. I looked out, and there was the Edge."
"You've described Alderley Edge as a place that is 'physically and emotionally dangerous'. [The most dramatic point is Castle Rock, a precipice with vertiginous views across the valley 400ft below.] There was a widely held belief in Manchester, where I grew up, that Alderley Edge would not be a place you'd want to be at night. People said no bird would sing there."
"The thing about birds is not strictly true, but it is something I grew up with. There is not a lot of birdsong there, considering the number of trees." In 1843, adds Garner, "The Honourable Dorothy S Stanley wrote that locals report seeing 'many wondrous sights' on the Edge. And hearing the sound of music under the ground."
He recalls how, in 1996, his cousin Eric told him that, as a boy, he and two friends had sat on the Edge and heard bagpipes playing, underground.
Garner is a leading authority on the geology, archaeology and every other aspect of the area. In the mid-1990s, he instigated a full-scale scientific survey of Alderley Edge.
"I am proud of that; it is an objective fact that, because of what I did, the Bronze Age was established on Alderley Edge, and it was recognised to be the earliest dated metal- working site in England."
As for the bagpipes, he offers a rational explanation, involving air pressure. "Eric and his friends were sitting on a burial mound, 4,000 years old. He said that the bagpipes came from the right, and travelled under the ground, in front of them. Being a good journalist, I asked, calmly, "What did you do?" Eric said: 'Do? We ran like buggery.'"
His English and drama teacher at Manchester Grammar, Bert Parnaby, laid the foundations of a department that would nurture performers such as Alan Garner's close friend Robert Powell (who was married here at the local church), Powell's classmate Krishna Bhanji (now Sir Ben Kingsley), the late opera director Steven Pimlott, and the producer Sir Nicholas Hytner, among others.
The qualities the school seems to have encouraged in him include an irreverent sense of humour, fearlessness in the face of authority and, in terms of his writing, perfectionism: this last quality was one his family had long valued as craftsmen. "My grandfather Joe [a smith] used to say: 'Always take as long as the job tells you, because it'll be here when you're not. And you don't want folk asking what fool made that codge?'"
Which makes it all the more surprising that Alan Garner should have left Magdalen College, Oxford, in his second year, without a degree.
"My tutor said I would have to find a position in life where the only way out was to succeed. He knew me very well."
"I imagine that, when The Weirdstone of Brisingamen appeared, with its wizard and its army of dark elves, people who didn't know 'The Legend of Alderley' claimed that you'd copied The Lord of the Rings."
"Which showed that they hadn't read any middle or old English. Tolkien and I ripped off the same sources. He did it for his reasons. I did it because, at a simple level, I hated made-up names. If I'd used a name that was familiar [in ' connection with "The Legend of Alderley"] considerable baggage would have come with it."
"A name like King Arthur?"
"Yes. When my archive was given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford six years ago, I heard from somebody connected with the film of The Lord of the Rings. He said that one of the Tolkien family had given him JRR Tolkien's annotated copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. And apparently his notes are just vitriolic."
"What bothered him?"
"'Trivial use of language.' I would love to see that book."
It's hard to imagine two more different writers, or individuals, than Garner and Tolkien. Where the Oxford academic sought to create a self-contained universe of pure fantasy, Alan Garner's hallmark has been the collision between such mythical landscapes and characters rooted in everyday life. Garner is a man with "absolutely no interest in politics". Tolkien, to quote his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, "did not believe in the rule of the people, but opposed democracy because he believed in the end his fellow-men would not benefit from it".
Alan Garner can't be said to be the first writer to have produced books where working-class children were the norm, by contrast with the public-school characters of Enid Blyton, Anthony Buckeridge or, come to that, JK Rowling. On this side of the Atlantic alone, Eve Garnett, Silas Hocking and Arthur Morrison, among others, might dispute that title. But while Garner may not have been the first, in Britain, as those three comparatively obscure names might suggest, he has surely been the greatest. In Elidor, his 1965 story based on the Northern ballad "Childe Roland and Bard Ellen", his juvenile heroes enter a bleak parallel reality via a disused church off the Oldham Road, in central Manchester.
The inspiration for the dead land of Elidor, Garner says, came from the weeks he spent on his sick bed as a child, staring at the ceiling. "I lived in the ceiling. It was natural, for me."
Recalling this period in The Voice That Thunders, he writes: "I never ate or drank in the ceiling. Food was the rule for the other world. There was no wind, no climate, no heat, no cold, no time... everything was white. I met people I knew, including my parents, and some who were only of the ceiling. The people I knew in both states of waking had no knowledge of the ceiling when I asked them. I soon stopped asking."
There are innumerable kinds of writers, I suggest to Garner, but it's probably fair to identify two distinct types: novelists who have a keen sense of the market, and others, like himself, who simply write what they write.
"My feeling is that writing is, for me, a pathological condition. That could sound like a mystical experience, and it may be a mystical experience, but I have learnt just to go with it."
He can spend years pondering and researching a subject before he begins to write. "Then I get it down, and revise it. And then," Garner adds, "another turd comes through. I know the pattern. I don't want to be mysterious about it. It's the unconscious mind delivering to my conscious mind. A little comes. Then there's a space. As time goes on, the spaces get shorter and the amounts get greater."
Perhaps the strangest thing that has ever happened to Alan Garner – no trivial phrase in the context of his life – was the sequence of events that led to him beginning Strandloper, in 1983.
"I'd had a letter from Ralph Elliott, a leading Australian academic," he recalls. "He organised a literary festival and asked me to go over. I didn't want to, but I did. I stayed a month. For part of the time – over Easter – I stayed with a critic, close to Geelong, which is outside Melbourne, towards the bush. I started to get this cold feeling. I thought, please don't let me get a depression. Not here.
"Then," he continues, "I was drawn to a feature in the landscape, half an hour's walk away. It was called Mount Moriac. I just felt drawn to go up there, so I did, each day of the holiday. I didn't get a depression. Within 10 days, I was home."
Back at Toad Hall, Garner says, "I felt exhausted. So I decided to clear out my cuttings box. I came across this local newspaper clipping about 'The Wild Man Of Marton'. Marton is five miles from here."
The article told the story of William Buckley, and his deportation. In Australia, Buckley spent 32 years outside Geelong, with Aborigines who considered him a shaman. "Mount Moriac turned out to have been the spiritual centre of Buckley and his clan. I had had the whole of Australia to pick somewhere to sit, and that's where I..." Garner pauses, reluctant to underline the improbability. "Anyhow. That started it."
He discovered Arthur Buckley, William's closest surviving relative, living locally. "He said, 'I know more about the Garners than you do.' As a result of that meeting, I have a photograph of the Alderley Hough Silver Band, which consists almost entirely of Garners, and this one Buckley. There comes a point where you stop wasting time asking questions, and say, 'Thank you.'"
There's a line in Elidor where a character says: "Coincidence? That's all you can say? Coincidence? You make me sick." How does Garner explain this combination of events?
"Australia," he concedes, "is a very big place. And Marton is a very small one."
"How do you rationalise this?"
"I don't want to talk about that. You and I have a similar background and education. But there is a whole numinous [divine] other that, because it is amorphous, we were both led to assume we should shun. I have lived long enough to find that it would be very foolish to do that, for me."
"So what force is at work? Telepathy? God?"
"I find myself avoiding that question because what I write sometimes attracts people who are not... entirely in balance. And to speak publicly about inner spiritual forces could be dangerous. There was a time when I was bombarded by people who saw me as some sort of John the Baptist figure; a sage. It would be hubris on my part if I were to encourage that, and very dangerous for others."
(Among the many letters he has received that might be filed under "Handy if True" was one giving him a formula for making interstellar fuel from seawater.)
If there has been one significant change in Alan Garner's writing, it is an intensification of a feeling it has always had: that its author is somehow in touch with another reality. His most recent, most challenging, novel, Thursbitch, was inspired after he came across a memorial stone on a Pennine track, not far from his home.
One side read: "Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snow storm in the night in or about the year 1755." On the reverse, Garner found the words: "The print of a woman's shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead."
In Thursbitch, Turner is a packman, transporting salt and silk. Though he travelled great distances, he perished mysteriously close to home. Garner imagines the impact of his death rippling across time and afflicting the lives of two 21st-century hikers, Ian and Sal. The writing is, as almost every reviewer observed, stunning, even if the full meaning of the book does not give itself up easily.
Thursbitch is, as its author once wrote of another story, "less of a text than a state of mind".
Alan Garner once observed that writing, for him, was "close to prayer". I get the sense, I tell him, that the best of his work comes from a semi-hypnotic state.
"If you were to put me into a corner, I would say that my attitude is... animistic," Garner says, referring to the belief that soul or spirit may be incarnated in animal, plant or even mineral form. "One thing that I've noticed over time is that – because of my nature, and because of this particular place, here – Blackden has become a kind of safe house for people. A lot of them are responsible to others in other religions. I have had priests of various kinds say to me: 'You are clearly so deeply religious; why aren't you one of us?' They have trouble when I say that I feel, intuitively, that my use is to stand to one side. They all come up with the same image, and ask: 'How can you bear the cold?'"
'I can't wait for the next book,' I tell him.
"Oh, that's a shame. Because you'll have to."
He began the groundwork on his current novel in 2004, and has been writing it for 14 months.
"It has reached 14,758 words, according to my computer, and the latest 3,000-odd have come in the past month. I realise that I have to take as long to write a book as the book takes to write me. I am almost 76. Strandloper took 12 years. Thursbitch took 10. So, er... it's time to concentrate again."
"But not to hurry."
"No. I have always been aware that I am balancing composition against decomposition. And now, it's like an egg-and-spoon race. I can see the finishing line. But when is the egg-and-spoon race lost? When you do the last three steps too quickly."
"I am only a writer," he once said. "A maker of dreams. You can dismiss me, and no harm is done."
When Alan Garner dies, he tells me, Toad Hall and the Medicine Hall will be bequeathed not to his family but to the Blackden Trust. He feels able to speak about this, as he says, "without any morbidity. I am not afraid of being dead. That doesn't bother me at all. I could get squeamish about getting there."
He talks quite a bit about the long-term future of Blackden, without ever mentioning where he wants to be buried, or what he might choose as an epitaph.
If he wants a phrase that would reflect his humility, his private nature, and his unique relationship with this landscape, he could do worse than a line he has used more than once, both in his writing and in our conversation: "I know my place."
'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' (the 50th anniversary edition) is published by HarperCollins, priced £5.99. 'The Voice That Thunders' is published by Harvill, priced £9.99
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