Posts Tagged ‘Alan Garner’

Where Shall We Run To? by Alan Garner. Published  2018, Impress Books/4th Estate.

This, the most recent book by Alan Garner, writer of novels, and gatherer and refashioner of tales, is a collection of autobiographical writings.

They chart his life in the tiny village of Alderley Edge, outside Manchester, from his earliest memories, up to the end of World War 2, when his life changed forever.
He had passed his 11 Plus exam and was to leave the small village environs that marked his world, and go out into the bigger world of higher education. Not only that, but instead of going to the local grammar school, he had gained scholarship funding, and was to attend the greatly more prestigious innercity Manchester Grammar School.
My conveyor belt, he wrote, ‘took me to Oxford.’

Alan Garner was born in 1934. His young life was greatly taken up by the War years, its privations, and mysterious otherworld-like qualities of night raids, disrupted daytimes. One of the memoir here is of children, Vaccies, taken out of dangerous environments, cities, places likely to be bombed in air raids. He encountered several groups of these from very different areas of the country at his local school. The most surprising Vaccies, and the ones who made a big impression were from the Channel Islands, Guernsey in particular.

The collection of memoir also backlights Alan Garner’s great concern with the dichotomy between reality and imagination, the roles they play in a person’s life. This was a source of escalating tension in his first five books, climaxing in 1972’s Red Shift. The dichotomy fissured his sensibilities; he could not easily give each its due, but one had to take precedence. In consequence the other had to be relegated; the tension was unresolved, and so continued.

In this new book we see it in the almost iconic images of those earlier books; we see them here as everyday objects. In Elidor the cottage porch became the doorway to another world. In Red Shift, the bunty, the budgerigar Jan valued – both are revealed here to be his own tiny home cottage porchway, and Bunty, the name of his own pet bird, he had to leave unattended through an air raid, and was found dead afterwards.

The cottage is still there in Alderley Edge.
Alderley Edge itself became a dormitory town for wealthy Manchester businesspeople. In consequence the cottage, now no longer squalid, has become a Grade II listed building, and worth nearly £400,000. Such are the ways of Estate Agents/Real Estate.

We also see, in The Stone Book, one of his middle novels, the weather-vane cockerel in real life, much smaller than imagined once brought down from the church to be re-coated. It is the young Alan Garner sits astride it, and whilst on the ground – not the Mary of the story, nor on the church steeple.
I have argued elsewhere that this particular book is written in perfect chiasmic form, and is also literally a cock-and-bull story, as each image in turn plays a major part in the depth reading of the storyline in each half of the chiasmic form of the story.
In reality the icons from the books are less impressive, but solid, durable in their own right.

In The Voice That Thunders, 1997, his earlier collection of essays, he relates how the many periods of early childhood illness allowed him both to read voraciously outside the narrow school curriculum, but also to compensate for being confined to bed for long periods, by travelling and adventuring imaginatively, dreaming vividly. Awareness of the discrepancy between what was immediately outside his window, and inside his imagination, was exercised and elaborated upon.

There have been several stylistic changes in his writing, throughout his writing career. The first two books are more full of their own juiciness, so much so sometimes the style nearly swamps the storytelling. The Moon of Gomrath, 1963, evinces a greater, stricter stylistic control. The language is sparer, the images sharper. We feel less manipulated into psychological events: the tunnel escape from the Edge mines enacting primal birthing experiences etc.

Elidor, 1965 – I feel it wobbles a little: The Lay of the Starved Minstrel? Even I found that a bit too contrived. It gains by its setting. The novel sets out the battle ground for the war between imagination and reality that has dogged the writer so long.

The Owl Service is just great, the writing taut and spare, nothing is wasted.
Red Shift takes this even further. It ends in a kind of defeat: seek help, psychological help, Jan says to Tom. The time fissures become unbridgeable chasms, like a mind disintegrating. The copper mines beneath Alderley Edge that played such a large part in the first book, imaged the psychic fissures.

Then the language simplified, the images cleared of unwanted baggage. The Stone Book Quartet was four short books based firmly on fact and known family memories. They carried identifiable and accessible images.

The later books from Strandloper, 1996, onwards, increasingly explore the same psychic fissures as the first books, but more and more in psychological terms. The latest book, Boneland, 2012, depends almost wholly on psychology to unravel the ascendance at the end of The Moon of Gomrath.  The language of these books is difficult, employing greater amounts of colloquialism, and, especially in Strandloper, subjective monologue unanchored to easily identifiable events.
There is a lot of astronomical calculation in Boneland; I was lost there.

The Wiki page on him

describes his genre as ‘low fantasy’ – this is to contrast with high fantasy, which is whole-world-building fantasy. This is important. His nearest to world building was in Elidor, but he firmly shut that door. His strength was not in world-building; he recognised this in time.
In The Voice That Thunders he writes how he chose real life over the fantasy realms. And so he later launched into craft and skills-heavy terminology, astronomical calculations; to archeological graft and careful uncovering, over discovering.
I sometimes wonder if, when one manipulates reality for one’s own ends, does that not weigh on a person, and cumulatively?

The memoirs do show how much interpretation and bias has gone into presentation of material, fact, however.
I remember a public talk he gave as he geared up for the writing of Thursbitch. Not is all as he made out. The mundane becomes totemic.

Throughout the present book he is careful to present himself as a weak child, prone to many illnesses that we assume his peers were not. He enumerates the times he was frequently reduced to tears.
In his younger years he became a prodigious runner, running great distances over hill and moor. It was on one of these runs he discovered his great grandfather’s roadside stone carving that forms part of the kernal of Thursbitch. I have also seen this stone and it is a great many miles out and off any main route.
Running: was he punishing his body for having been weak, whilst ensuring it would not let him down again? Such distance running not only builds body strength, stamina, but also develops will-power and concentration.
I once worked with a man who, once his MS had subsided, also took to such distance running feats, the greater the challenge the better. He’d work laying roads by day, and run in the evenings.

And so, there is clearly some strategy at work in his choice of depiction. Is it just to foist on us the dialect speech: ‘Mardy arse.’?

What did his friends wear, besides clogs for school? What were their meals (beside the odd slug, and drain mould – then he wondered why he was sickly!)? What was breakfast, and how important was it deemed to be? What were their general thoughts, concerns, hopes, worries?
The language of the book is direct, and without depth-charges. He takes pains to be authentic: he mentions Lyle’s syrup, then launches into a lengthy description of the tin and its From strength came forth sweetness, marketing slogan. There are many such examples. His authenticising runs to depcting the narrow , shallow, states of mind of children of the age he was. The big concerns puzzle; his own worries are inexpressible.


His conveyor belt took him to Oxford, and the prestigious Grammar School experience and the Oxford mentality, have stayed with him ever after: the commanding manner, cultured voice, and expectation, that demands and receives of others in return.
But he did leave Oxford before taking his Finals; he did return to the small local world, a life and house without sanitation and modern conveniences.
Then he could begin.

He was to learn from scratch how to walk the line between parochial and provincial, to use P J Kavannagh’s terms.

See also:


The Blackden Trust has been set up to promote and facilitate education, history and culture. The Trust is based around the life, work and experience of the writer Alan Garner.

The site consists of two joined houses, in their own grounds, set well away from the village, and other houses, farms. The site itself abuts a railway line; on the other side of which and a mile or so to the north is The Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope and grounds.

The first house has been kept as the Garner family home, and is ruefully known as T’Owd Hall (The Old Hall). The other is an old reconstructed timber-frame building, known as The Medicine House. This house dates back to possibly the 15th Century. It was bought very cheaply from part of a road-widening demolition scheme, taken apart piece by piece, and three wagon loads then brought to the new site, and the whole house rebuilt.
That was in 1970; by 1972 the house had been reconstructed and was once again a livable space. There were a number of alterations to the structure, but the overall layout has been kept, and original timbers used wherever possible.


Griselda Garner and her team of volunteers take visiting parties around The Medicine House, and allow free access to most of the grounds. A semi-permanent marquee is erected at the back of the site for visitors (and to keep the hens company).

Alan Garner and family have enhanced the site with brought-in objects from nearby finds. The houses contain cabinets of objects dug up on site, nearby, or from further afield; these are neatly time-lined, and date from neolithic arrow heads, flint tools, a medieval seal, to pottery, Civil War musket shot, and much later objects. The Owl Service table-ware is on display here as well.
One of these brought-in objects is a stone obelisk, now sited in the garden: a carved monolith, like a standing stone, and is supposedly a boundary marker.


Indoors, in the joining passageway is another carved  object: a 10th century stone head.

The grounds have been planted out with many different varieties of apple trees and gooseberry bushes, a pear tree, and a damson tree. Not forgetting a small green-house bursting and festooned with bunches of small, sweet grapes.

When the timbers from the old Medicine House were stored for reconstruction on the front lawn, they left behind herb seeds. Since then many varieties of herbs have grown. These have been arranged into beds, and all labeled.

Alan Garner has been active in the restoration of many old properties in the area.

Griselda Garner showed us many interesting aspects and secrets of The Medicine House. It was once two houses, but now has been combined into one. The fireplace is the where the two join. Now that closed fireplace is an open fire area in the middle of the house, with the chimney open to the roof cowl.

Griselda told of objects found in a window space. They were owner-objects, a declaration of the house as space belonging to its owners. The house has also been provided with protective symbols in its most sensitive areas: doors, windows etc.

The most important of these found objects was a small squashed lead bottle. It had contained holy water, and was decorated with two interlocking V’s on one side, and on the other a daisy wheel.
The bottle was from the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. It would have contained water from the shrine.
This symbol of two interlocking V’s. spelling out the W for Walsingham (also Vivat?), when reversed also gives M, for Mary mother of Christ.

In post-Reformation, newly Protestant times, the house had been made safe by these hidden symbols on the beams. They are very hard to read among all the wear and tear and time’s ravages. Also, the beams were plastered over for some period.

Griselda showed how each corner of the main bedroom was marked on the beams with the scratched protective Walsingham initial. This is the only room to be marked out like this.
She suggested it may refer to a protective charm, with a spell attached. We have something like it still, in form of a Bedtime Prayer:

Matthew, Mark, Luke & John
Bless the bed I lay on.
Four corners around my bed
Four angels around my head.
1 to watch
1 to pray
2 to take my soul away.

There are older versions of this prayer, she said. One is Jewish:

In the name of Adonai the God of Israel;
May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael…
and above my head the Sh’khinah.

This one is particularly interesting.
I was thinking further on this. She mentioned the four corners of the room marked for protection, and with the ways of superstition and magic being to make use of everything from everywhere, this Jewish canopy-prayer could well be pertinent.
Visually it provides us with a square-based pyramid of protection in this room, connecting above with the Almighty, Sh’khinah, keeping watch

.A lot depends on whether there is a protective mark also, on the ceiling’s centre beam.

You can take this still further.
This pyramid symbol, is it also the alchemical symbol for fire? It may just be possible to imagine an invocation here of the archangel associated with fire (Michael), to protect the timber-framed house. This use of fire to protect from fire, is very much an example of what is termed ‘magical thinking.’

And yet, the symbol for fire is the tetrahedron: all triangles, base as well. The one in the house is a symbol that moves from square, that is, earth, to air and fire: it is a symbol of solidity plus power – Strength.

But then, why just this room? Why not the whole timber-framed house? It was once two houses, but is now combined at the fire section, providing an open central hearth and chimney. Even this is not a clean half-and-half division; neither was a four-square house.

Is it to protect the owners during sleep, childbirth, death even: all the most vulnerable times of one’s life?

I have to admit I became very fond of Griselda in the short time we were there. She is very generous with her time, and has boundless energy. Lovely woman.


And here below is the Trust’s own labyrinth, based on the site’s existing well. The alignment of the diagonal has some connection with the constellation of Orion. Maybe the angle of the belt?


For further on the writing of Alan Garner, see the chapter on The Stone Book, in my GIFTS OF RINGS AND GOLD, Amazon kindle, 2016.
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