Alan Garner, children's author extraordinary, turns his dark talents to a novel for adults
Sunday 24 March 1996
Rereading Garner's novels before I interviewed him, I wondered if, in fact, he should ever have been classified as a children's writer. His later books in particular (The Owl Service, The Stone Quartet, Red Shift) are complex and challenging enough for most grown-ups. But now, at last, we are about to be presented with a new, specifically "adult" book by Alan Garner: or at least, the first to be deemed so by his publishers.
Strandloper, which took 12 years to write, is the true story of a Cheshire man who was transported to Australia in 1803, where he became a holy man in a tribe of Aborigines. Filled with great chunks of dialect interspersed with almost hallucinatory descriptions of Aboriginal rituals and visions, the book is, like its author, a forbidding prospect. Yet for all its abstruseness, it is likely that fans of Garner's earlier work will persevere with Strandloper: several generations of children have already learned from him that difficult books (like difficult authors) can be exciting as well as scary.
A MEETING has been arranged at Garner's medieval longhouse in Cheshire, the appropriately named Black Den, which is to be found at the far end of a very bumpy private lane. Behind the house, at the bottom of the garden, run high-speed trains from Manchester to London; at the side of the house is a Tudor timber-framed building which Garner bought for a pound in 1970, and had moved, piece by piece, from 20 miles away; looming over the whole thing is the huge Jodrell Bank telescope. The conjunction of ancient and modern is a fitting reflection of his novels, where different worlds and times collide to startling effect. In fact, the setting for our meeting could not be more perfect: although in a Garner novel, a unicorn would canter past the house and leap over the railway line towards the telescope.
We have lunch in the stone-flagged kitchen, together with his wife Griselda.
"Where were you born?" I ask, thinking this an inoffensive place to start.
"Do you mean precisely?" he says, his blue eyes blazing.
"Oh come on darling, don't be difficult," says Griselda, her voice a mixture of nervousness and resignation.
"I can give you the latitude and longitude," continues Garner irritably, looking not unlike a white-haired schoolmaster ticking off an errant pupil. But then he relents. "I was born in Congleton, seven and a half miles from where we are now - but that was simply because my grandmother lived there, and my mother went to her mother to have the child. But I grew up in Alderley Edge, which is seven miles to the north of here. And when I moved the seven miles to here, my father never overcame the distress of my emigration - because here be dragons. He was born in the house where every member of my family had been born for over 200 years - and I have documentary evidence of a Garner living in the same half square mile in 1592. Peasants don't move around very much." (It might occur to anyone of a nervous disposition that Garner is not so much a peasant at large in the land of the dragons as a peasant's descendant turned into a dragon.)
All his writing (bar The Owl Service, which is set in rural Wales) is located in this small patch of Cheshire. But he is a very different man to the Garners who preceded him. "The Garners were all craftsmen," he says, in his classless, BBC English accent. "I was no good, because I couldn't use my hands. My grandfather, the blacksmith, used to say to me [he adopts a broad Cheshire accent], `what do they learn you? Whatever are we going to do with you?' "
Garner, who was born in 1934, was a sickly only child, who survived early bouts of diphtheria, pneumonia and meningitis - and then made it to Manchester Grammar School. Yet despite being so clever, "I felt totally worthless," he says. "And I was made to feel worthless - not deliberately, not out of cruelty, simply because there was incomprehension that anyone could exist with the name of Garner, and not know how to turn a screwdriver the right way."
After Manchester Grammar and National Service ("I was such an inept soldier that they realised I shouldn't go near anything that went bang - so I was sent to London"), he won a place to study Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford. "I was going to be a Professor of Greek," he says, half-joking. "That was all I ever wanted to be. Then after two and a half years at Oxford, I thought no, I'm going to be a writer. I told my tutor, who said it was the highest calling. He told me, `If you have this feeling, you have to go away and find out if you have a creative mind - and if you find that you do not, you can come back and devote yourself to the study of those who did.' "
So in 1955, at the age of 22, Garner returned home to Cheshire with his first wife, Anne, and bought the house he now lives in, with a loan of pounds 500. There he began writing his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (which prefigures his later work, with magic and the supernatural melding into the real world of Alderley Edge); a task which was conducted, presumably, by keeping at bay the closer real world - in the shape of his growing family. (His first child, Ellen, was born in 1957; followed by Adam in 1959, and Catherine in 1961.)
Some years later, in response to an unwitting interviewer who asked about the influence the writer's children had had on his work, Garner declared, somewhat alarmingly, "I wished them to hell".
"Did you really mean that?" I ask.
He says that his remark was taken out of context, but adds: "Children produce symptoms which are very hard to differentiate from psychopathic behaviour. Children running up and down screaming, when you're trying to work, is very hard - and it would not be acceptable if they were adults." Fortunately, though, "we were surrounded by hundreds of acres of open land - so they would automatically go outside and play."
Garner's marriage ended when his third child was one; his wife moved out, and Griselda moved in, and looked after the children (they later had two of their own). "When we first met, we rowed continuously," she tells me, while her husband is briefly out of the room. "Alan was not used to being contradicted."
Griselda appears to be a very patient woman. For example, when Garner tells me the dramatic story of the birth of Griselda's first child, his fourth, he places rather more emphasis on its effect on his work than on his family. "I was writing The Stone Book [the first in a powerful quartet], and Griselda was seven months pregnant with Elizabeth, and in the middle of writing very fluently, Catherine, my daughter, said, `Can you come a bit quickly?' " The rare boldness of her interruption was a sign of the severity of his wife's condition: "Griselda had haemorrhaged - and within 20 minutes, the ambulance had arrived from eight miles away. The doctor said to me, `Your wife will be all right, but I can't say anything about the child.'
"And the next thing I can consciously remember is sitting in the hospital ward, and I realised I was still writing. The manuscript of The Stone Book is remarkable, because my waters were broken, too. There's a scene in the manuscript which has bracketed inserts: two minutes 30 seconds, two minutes 40 seconds - and they were the contraction times."
Garner tells me about the genesis of Strandloper, which started when he rediscovered a newspaper cutting that he had filed away in 1977. "It was a report in the Congleton Chronicle, our local newspaper, which recorded the fact that someone from Congleton had been in Australia on holiday, and had seen a notice there which said that William Buckley, from Marton in Cheshire, had lived in this cave for several months. And as soon as I saw that, I thought, `Good grief, I'm pregnant!' I didn't know what the story was, but I knew that I was pregnant."
ALAN GARNER does not believe in coincidences. Everything is interconnected, he says, especially when it came to writing Strandloper. In his study, a low-ceilinged, spartan room, unheated apart from a smouldering wood fire, Garner folds his long limbs into an armchair and tells me more about William Buckley. In 1983, six years after finishing his last novel, The Stone Book Quartet, and still without any idea of his next, Garner visited Australia for a book conference. Afterwards, "an acquaintance invited me to stay at his farm, which was out in the bush. At the back of the farm, there was a medium-sized hill, of rather a strange shape, called Mount Moriac. I found myself drawn to the top of this hill every day. I would sit there and look out over the rolling hills, with 3,000 miles of desert beyond that - and I felt desolate, but every day I had to go back to the top."
This is the sort of thing that would happen to the hero of an Alan Garner story, with spooky consequences; and indeed, it transpired that Mount Moriac was the very place that William Buckley had sat 180 years earlier: "it was the spiritual centre for the aboriginal group that William Buckley was part of". Obviously, Garner did not know this at the time - he didn't know of Buckley's existence - but when he returned to Cheshire, he found that newspaper cutting and embarked on years of research into Buckley's life.
Perhaps because he did not finish his degree at Oxford - or perhaps to emphasise the seriousness of creating a fiction - Garner is at pains to describe the detailed work that went into his research. He scoured the parish records at the County Record Office to discover the record of Buckley's birth, then turned to some ancient Church records called the Bishop's Transcripts. "I ended up with a pile of vellum on my desk - loose sheets, and no date order to them," he says. "So I waded through them, and then, finally: 1782, March 31st, William, son of Eliza Buckley. And I yelled - `I've got you!' "
Once Garner was "pregnant" with William, "there was the period I really enjoy. I actually dislike writing - the business of grinding away - but I like the research." He read prodigiously; wrote bibliographies; made notes: was as thorough, in fact, in his craftsmanship as any of his ancestors were in theirs. "Each novel is a degree course," he says with enthusiasm, "but the materials are all from different disciplines. In this case, just a few were: attitudes towards literacy in Britain as a result of the French Revolution; the survival of Animism under the nose of the Church; Australian aboriginal philosophy..." In the latter, he was guided by an Australian anthropologist, Margaret King Boyes. "She is extraordinary," says Garner. "She can think and behave as an aborigine, and express herself as one - then she can go around the other side of the mirror, and run any fellow of All Souls into the ground."
Garner appears to have been deeply influenced by what he learnt of Aboriginal spirituality. "If you open up your receivers, you can not only receive, you can transmit. It works both ways. None of the hallucinatory passages in the book are invented ... But for heaven's sake, do not make me into a mystic." One thing Garner hates is anything to do with what he sees as New Age mystical pretensions: "There are no free lunches, and New Agers are free-loaders," he says, angrily.
He points out that not only has he immersed himself in the study of Aboriginal culture with an academic rigour - but also that he has "paid his dues". "Now it can be told," he says, dramatically. "For the first ten years of my life, I spent nearly three-quarters of that time paralysed, in a white bedroom, with cheese cloth over the windows. A paralysed body with a totally functioning mind in a white room is suffering sensory deprivation, and I had out-of-body experiences. For my sanity's sake, I made pictures on the rough plaster of the walls, and I made landscapes - and that is the land of `Elidor'." (He is referring to his third book, where three children slip from a Manchester urban wasteland into a sinister, colourless otherworld.)
"I had diphtheria at the age of two, pneumonia at eight - and I heard myself declared dead at the age of six, from meningitis. That's why I survived - it produced such anger inside when the doctor said it - I was raging at heaven." It also produced, if not mysticism, then a profoundly vivid imagination. "If you're an only child, isolated in a room for years, and for a lot of that time you can't move more than your eyes - then that's when you're paying your dues. I had to be able to move through space and time - because nothing else moved."
He grows fiercer by the minute during this declaration, and then switches off my tape recorder. He shows me an Aboriginal spear thrower and a shaman's stone (both described in Strandloper). In Garner's hands, they look magical.
"If you were an Aboriginal woman, you would be killed for seeing that stone," he says, with a faint air of menace. I put it down hastily. He comes up to me, very close, still holding the spear thrower. "Don't write anything untrue about me," he says in a low tone, his eyes even more piercing. "If you do, you'll have very bad dreams." Alan Garner is entirely convincing, as ever.
! `Strandloper' is published by Harvill Press (pounds 14.99) at the beginning of May
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