There's an early Alan Garner story called "Feel Free" included in Susan Dickinson's anthology The Restless Ghost and Other Encounters and Experiences
(1970). I read it while I was at Intermediate School, but I've never seen it collected anywhere else.
I remember it surprised me quite a bit. It was too advanced and complex to be as satisfactory to me, then, as the other stories by the likes of Joan Aiken and Leon Garfield in the same collection. There was something very intriguing about it, though.
The story begins with a boy, Brian, who is copying a design from an old plate in a small provincial museum:
The dish stood alone in its case, a typed label on the glass: "Attic Krater, 5th Century BC, Artist Unknown. The scene depicts Charon, ferryman of the dead, conveying a soul across the river Acheron in the Underworld."
He persuades the curator to let him take it out for a moment:
Anthony Maitland: "Feel Free" illustration (c.1970)
"Tosh, look!" Brian nearly dropped the dish. On the base was a clear thumb print fired hard as the rest of the clay.
"There he is," whispered Brian.
The change from the case to the outside air had put a mist on the surface of the dish, and Brian set his own fingers against the other hand.
"Two thousand year, Tosh. That's nothing. Who was he?
"No, he'll not have a headache."
Brian stared at his own print and the fossilled clay. "Tosh," he said, 'they're the same. That thumb print and mine. What do you make of it?
Tosh, the curator, is at first disposed to scoff. Eventually he admits: "Very close, I'll allow, but see at yon line across the other feller's thumb. That's a scar. You haven't got one."
Brian is unconvinced: "But a scar's something that happens ... It's nothing to do with what you're born like. If he hadn't gashed his thumb, they'd be the same."
Later Brian meets his girlfriend Sandra for their date at the open day at the local holiday camp:
Hello! Hello! Hello! Feel free, friends! This is the Lay-Say-Far Holiday Camp, a totally new concept in Family Camping, adding a new dimension to leisure, where folk come to stay, play, make hay, or relax in the laze-away days that you find only at the Lay-Say-Fair Holiday Camp.
"Where shall we go on now?" asks Brian, after they've wandered around for a bit, and gone on most of the rides:
"There's the Tunnel of Love, if you're feeling romantic," said Sandra.
"You never know till you try, do you?" said Brian.
The tunnel is predictably cheesy, but a little macabre as well:
Beyond the gate was a grotto of plaster stalactites and stalagmites, and the channel rushed among them to to a black tunnel.
"Queer green light there, isn't it?" said Sandra. "Ever so eerie."
The heel of Sandra's shoe gets caught as she tries to climb in the boat, and he is unable to free it in time for her to join him:
She was swinging away from him, a tiny figure lost among stalactites. He stood, looking, looking and slowly lifted his hand off the nail that had worked loose at the edge of the stern. He had not felt its sharpness, but now the gash throbbed across the ball of his thumb. The boat danced towards the tunnel.
I guess what I like, still, so much about this story is the way in which it manages to introduce all the characteristic themes Alan Garner is known for in such a short compass of time.
There's the idea of artefacts carrying baggage with them from the past (like the patterned plates in The Owl Service
, or - even more so - the stone axe in Red Shift
). There's also the (implicit) comparison between a dignified, layered past of cottage industries and individual destinies and the mass-produced, plastic present.
There's something uncomfortably prescient in the passage where Brian and Sandra sit together in the Willow Pattern Garden:
"No. Look, said Brian, and leant backwards to gather a handful of earth from a rockery flower bed. "Soil isn't muck, it's ... well, I'll be ... Sandra? This here soil's plastic."
Smooth, clean granules rolled between his fingers.
"The whole blooming lot's plastic - grass, flowers, and all!"
"Now that's what I call sensible. It helps to keep the costs down," said Sandra. "And it doesn't kill bees."
As it turns out, there are no bees to kill. "They were each mounted on a quivering hair spring, the buzzer plugged in to a time switch."
In someone else's hands, this could be quite a heavy-handed story. But Garner leaves an air of mystery about almost every aspect of it. Does the fact that Brian has now acquired a scar to match the one left on the ancient plate mean that he is going to join its owner as his own boat moves towards the dark mouth of the tunnel? There's certainly something a bit ominous about the fact that the pattern of the plate shows Charon the ferryman carrying souls to the land of the dead.
And then there's the title, "Feel Free." The point appears to be that while Brian may feel
free, his actions are somehow predetermined by an inexorable, inescapable past. For all the wondrous patina on the artefacts in the old museum, they can exert an uncomfortable, even (possibly) an unhealthy influence on the present.
Brian and the other character's use of a few provincial turns of phrase also seemed pretty innovative to me when I read it first. Garner's characters move downwards in social level as his work progresses. Colin and Susan in his first two books talk standard English to the other characters' Cheshire dialect. The children in Elidor
are closer to the working classes, but they still use something resembling received pronunciation.
Class becomes an issue for the first time in The Owl Service
, but even there it's a more standard Middle-Class English / Working-Class Welsh contrast. After that, though, Garner's characters mostly speak in dialect, though there are always a few toffs around in the stories - reflecting their author's own divided identity, I guess.
The story, like the old Greek plate at its centre, is a small masterpiece: better than one has any right to expect in such a context. The museum, its curator, Brian himself, are sketched deftly, in a few strokes. Only the fun fair descends to caricature (Sandra, too, I fear: a typically unimaginative female who could have walked straight out of any story from the Angry Young Man era).
The focus really isn't on Sandra, though, it's on Brian: Brian whose sense of rightness and perfection in design has made him blind to the charms of the present, and predisposed him to flirtations with the dark past:
"Have you ever hidden anything to chance it being found again years and years later - perhaps long after you're dead?
"No," said Sandra.
"I have," said Brian. "I was a great one for filling screw-top bottles with junk and then burying them. I put notes inside, and pieces out of the newspaper. You're talking to someone you'll never meet, never know: but if they find the bottle they'll know you. There's bits of you in the bottle, waiting all this time, see, in the dark and as soon as the bottle's opened - time's nothing - and - and -"
"Eh up," said Sandra, "people are looking. You do get some ideas, Brian Walton!
It's not hard to see the analogies here between Brian and his creator: Brian Walton / Alan Garner. Writers, too, bury things in the dark, hide them inside the containers they make: "You're talking to someone you'll never meet, never know: but if they find the bottle they'll know you."
Terracotta Perfume Flask: Charon (c.340 BC)
Susan Dickinson, ed.: The Restless Ghost: Acknowledgements
That may be a lot of significance to lay on one short, uncollected story - dating from 1968, if we can trust the acknowledgments section above - but if anything is apparent in Garner's work in general, it's that he expects each page, each line, each word even to do a great deal of work. It's no accident that his books tend to be short. The weight of significance each one of then bears is disproportionate to the number of pages: in that he has far more in common with a poet than a more conventional prose writer.
His publications to date fall into several discrete groups. Before continuing any of these trains of thought, I think I'd better outline just what we're talking about. First of all, both chronologically and in popularity, there are those books which - despite their increasing subtlety and complexity - still have to be thought of as primarily for children:
- The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: A Tale of Alderley. 1960. London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1990.
- The Moon of Gomrath. 1963. An Armada Lion. London: Collins, 1974.
- Elidor. Illustrated by Charles Keeping. 1965. London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1971.
- The Owl Service. 1967. An Armada Lion. London: Collins, 1974.
- Red Shift. 1973. London: Collins, 1973.
- The Stone Book. The Stone Book Quartet. 1. 1976. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Fontana Lions. London: Collins, 1979.
- Tom Fobble’s Day. The Stone Book Quartet, 2. 1977. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Fontana Lions. London: Collins, 1979.
- Granny Reardun. The Stone Book Quartet, 3. 1977. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Fontana Lions. London: Collins, 1979.
- The Aimer Gate. The Stone Book Quartet, 4. 1978. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Fontana Lions. London: Collins, 1979.
These six books (I think one can describe the Stone Book Quartet
as a single work, despite its quite separate sections) range from the madcap magical adventurousness of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
to the terrifying intensities of The Owl Service
with no diminution of quality at any point. Garner is one of those rare writers who is content only with masterpieces, and who constantly racks up the pressure with each new work.
Alongside this very original sequence of imaginative works, though, there is a very different set of publications. I don't have all of these folktale anthologies and retellings, but this is most of them. They are quite exceptionally good of their kind, I would say, and I speak as one who has read more than his fair share of such books. The figure of the trickster appears to appeal particularly to Garner, and he writes of him brilliantly and (at times) quite disconcertingly:
- Garner, Alan, ed. A Book of Goblins. Illustrated by Krystyna Turska. 1969. Puffin Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
- Garner, Alan, ed. The Guizer: A Book of Fools. 1975. Fontana Lions. London: Collins, 1980.
- Alan Garner's Book of British Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Derek Collard. 1984. London: Collins, 1988.
- Garner, Alan, ed. A Bag of Moonshine. 1986. Lions. London: HarperCollins, 1992.
- Collected Folk Tales. London: HarperCollins Children's Books, 2011.
Which brings us to his novels for grown-ups. Or at least I suppose that's who they're for. They require such careful, attentive reading, that I guess they're for anyone prepared to invest in them fully.
The first, in particular, is another masterpiece. And while one can recognise many elements of the earlier Garner of the 'Weirdstone' books: the obsession with Alderley Edge, for instance, Strandloper
is really sui generis
as a novel. It is, among other things, the work of someone determined to reinvent himself wholly for each new project - a pretty terrifying prospect for other, more workaday writers.
- Strandloper. 1996. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.
- Thursbitch. 2003. London: Vintage, 2004.
- Boneland. Fourth Estate. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.
The last of these is the oddest and - to my mind - probably the least successful. It attempts to close off the 'Weirdstone' trilogy, fifty years after it was begun. And yet it's hard to see exactly who it was written for. Certainly not for the children who enjoyed those adventurous encounters with magicians and dwarves.
Neither is it really for admirers of his previous two novels, though it shares many features with them: allusiveness in place of direct utterance, absence of affect where one would most expect it, and intricate pattern-making of an almost Celtic, Book of Kells
Which brings us to the last set of books. His recent memoir and his book of essays:
- The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.
- Where Shall We Run To? A Memoir. London: Fourth Estate, 2018.
The picture these two books paint of their author is not an entirely positive one. The memoir concerns only his early childhood, before he went off to Grammar School, and contains little more compromising than the revelation that his 'scientific' curiosity about the effects of dock-leaves on nettle stings inspired him to push one of his friends, Harold, into a field of them at one point:
I'd not heard a boy scream before. It went on. It didn't stop. It wasn't Harold. I ran. I ran all the way home, up the stairs, fell on my bed, and yelled and yelled, still hearing the scream in my head, and cried and cried; but I hadn't got any dock-leaves.
The next day, Harold called me a daft beggar and a mucky pup.
The book is constructed in a curiously spiral manner. It concludes with a few late anecdotes (one about Harold), but the narrative proper ends with the author sitting the eleven-plus examination in Manchester. We've already heard the results of this at the end of chapter two, shortly after the nettling incident, however:
A letter came for me in the post some time after, and my mother was waiting for me at the end of School Lane when lessons were over. She told me I'd won a scholarship.
That evening, the gang were playing round the sand patch. It was Ticky-on-Wood. Harold's mother came out of the house. Her face was different. 'Well, Alan,' she said, 'you won't want to speak to us any more.'
I didn't understand. I felt something go and not come back.
In a sense, it's clear that everything Alan Garner has written since - all the novels, the essays, even the retellings of folktales - has been one long attempt to understand this moment when something went and did not come back.