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Alan Garner: Revelations from a life of storytelling

At the inaugural Garner Lecture, the writer and storyteller reflected on a lifetime in tales – and vowed to keep taking risks.

I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: “I’d be a damn’ fool if I didn’t!”

I wish I’d written that, but it was Dylan Thomas in his introduction to Collected Poems 1934-52. I want to say something about creativity and art – their nature, their power – drawing on what I’ve learned over a life spent engaged with words and story. The experience has shown me that nothing is new; and what we call “creativity” is the bringing together of pre-existing entities that have not been seen to connect before.

Here’s an example. While rummaging through a dustbin in 1956 I came upon a newspaper article. Two lovers had quarrel­led in a pub. He threw a tape at her and left. A week later he killed himself. Only then did she think to play the tape. It was a complete apology; but he said that if she didn’t care enough to listen within the week he would know that he had ruined everything. I kept the article; and forgot it.

Nine years later, in 1965, a friend told me a story she’d heard from her grandmother. She said that “long ago” a group of “Spanish slaves” who were being marched north “to build a wall” had escaped and settled on Mow Cop, on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border.

The disappearance of Legio Nona Hispana, the Ninth “Spanish” Legion, at about the time of the building of Hadrian’s Wall, is an unresolved enigma in the Roman occupation of Britain.

Below Mow Cop, in the village of Barthomley, on Christmas Eve 1643, the parish church was the scene of one of the grimmest acts in the grimmest conflict on English soil: the 17th-century civil wars. A troop of royalists attacked the village unprovoked. The population – men, women and children – took refuge in the church.

Lord John Byron, the royalist commander, reported: “[W]ee presently beat them forth of it, and put them all to the sword, which I find to be the best way to proceed with their kind of people, for mercy to them is cruelty.”

In 1966, four months after hearing about the Spanish slaves on Mow Cop, I was reading graffiti in the waiting room at Alderley Edge Station. One, done in chalk, was: “Janet Heathcoat = Alan Flask. It is true.” Somebody had added, in silver lipstick, without punctuation or a capital letter: “not really now not any more”. And the sky fell on me. The result was the novel Red Shift, six years’ work, finished in 1972.

not really now not any more. Why should those words at once bring into my mind the forgotten newspaper report, the Spanish Legion and the massacre of Barthomley? It’s how novels arrive. I don’t go looking for them. They come looking for me. Yet I don’t think it’s mysterious.

Our thought structures are based on logic, on cause and effect. Without them, all would be a shambles and we should not be intelligent. Intelligence, however, takes more than one form. There is the linear, which enables us to deal with the material world; and there is the intuitive, over which we have no conscious control. It is this latter intelligence that is the source of creativity.

Creativity is visual, not informed thought. Creativity is not polite. It barges in uninvited, unannounced – confusing, chaotic, demanding, deaf to reason or to common sense – and leaves the intellect to clear up the mess. Above all else, creativity is risk; heedful risk, but risk entire. Without risk we have the ability only to keep things ticking over the way they are.

How does creativity work? I’ll try to explain, by using moments that have shaped me beyond their moment: events that became linked in the unconscious; just as the newspaper, the graffito, Mow Cop and Barthomley were warp and weft on a loom – a loom of story. They are fragments that show how creativity makes connections between entities that have not been seen to connect before: what my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Garner, a weaver, would have called powsels and thrums. Powsels and thrums are the oddments of thread that were kept and woven for personal use, their hues forming new patterns; the oldest of scraps, made into other garb; the oldest of stories made into other tales.

Story does not instruct. It shows an open palm, not a pointing finger.

 

****

 

Dylan Thomas continues:

These poems, with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.

I was lying on my army bed when Graeme came in, his boots clumping on the floorboards, and said, “Dylan Thomas is dead.” Thamus, an Egyptian sailor in the reign of Tiberius, heard a voice call to him across the water: “Thamus, are you there? When you reach Palodes, tell them the great god Pan is dead.” I looked at the barrack-room ceiling. The great god Pan was dead.

Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the age of 39. A woman that had known Thomas at primary school told me that he was unpopular, obscene, mean-spirited, sly, a liar and a cheat. His daughter, Aeronwy, in our only but long conversation, described the family atmosphere as “demonic”. When I was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, the tales of him there were still fresh. He had mentally seduced the wife of the historian A J P Taylor to allow Thomas to take over their college house. He was a figure to be avoided, as he sought to cadge booze money from undergraduates, dons and staff alike.

In Thomas, you have the cartoon of creativity: someone that sweats through the night with an overflowing ashtray and a dwindling bottle. But Aeronwy insisted that her father wrote sober. It was when he had finished that the brakes came off.

Where, then, was the love of Man and the praise of God? Thomas shows in the extreme the difference between the work and the artist. Creativity does not determine the nature of the artist, who can be as scrimshanking, duplicitous and destructive as anyone, however honest and enhancing the work. Artists can be as flawed in their lives as any other human. Yet in their work they are driven and ruthless.

I once watched a master builder laying bricks. When he’d finished, he stood back, looked at what he’d done; and then tore down the lot and began again. I asked him what was wrong. He said that the bottom course, which was several courses underground, was a quarter of a brick out. I said it had no effect on the structure and would never be seen. He said: “But I’d know.”

That, for me, epitomised the artist. Creativity is not an occupation. It is service to something beyond the self. In this broad sense, it partakes of the religious.

 

****

 

As a boy, I had no desire to be initiated into the Church of England. But the church needed to maintain its rota of servers at Holy Communion. And it was decreed that I be prepared for the Anglican puberty rite of Confirmation. The vicar was Mr Leaman: kind, warm, gentle, a good priest, not seeking trouble. But I gave him trouble, disputing his every doctrinal instruction. Mr Leaman was no more prepared for this than I was for Confirmation.

And that’s how I came to drink sour wine on an empty stomach on Sundays at eight o’clock in the morning.

There was one noteworthy incident.

In the 19th century the merchants of Manchester moved from the city to build their villas on Alderley Edge. The Anglicans erected a church, with steeple; and the Methodists their chapel, with a steeple taller than the church’s, housing a clock, which my grandfather wound and fettled for 57 years. I still have his oil bottle.

The Anglicans dismantled their steeple and built another, with gilded weathercock, to be taller than the chapel. The result was a Neo-Gothic needle that couldn’t hold bells. A loudspeaker system had been installed, linked to a gramophone in the vestry, playing
recordings of peals at 78 scratchy revolutions a minute. Harry Smith, the verger, was in charge, but his hearing was not of the best.

On the noteworthy day I set out to prepare the altar. Communicants were making their way to church. In the vestry, Harry switched on the gramophone. And Danny Kaye crooned out across the parish:

Madame, I like your crêpe Suzette.

I think your crêpe Suzette is wonderful.

But, for the moment, let’s forget

All about your crêpe Suzette.

When the record ended, Harry began it again. I was hyperventilating. The people on the road gibbered. The vicar, timid Mr Leaman, conducted the ceremony unflustered.

And then something happened.

The congregation became still. My hands, which had struggled to hold the taper to the candles, were calm when I presented the water and the wine. The “comfortable”
words of the Book of Common Prayer, through their being spoken, restored balance. This is the moment, in my memory, when I understood their potency. Through Danny Kaye I found language.

 

****

 

An international businessman from an ancient culture told me that he could not abide California. The reason was that, for him, modern California is two-dimensional. It has no surviving past. He said: “Even the light is a Hockney painting.” He had put his finger on the power of art. California now reflected David Hockney: not the other way round. The creative mind makes the subject personal through the intensity of the vision. Art makes people feel.

At the giant redwood park of Muir Woods, near San Francisco, there is a redwood that fell in 1930. A section from it was cut and its rings were marked with historical events. The tree dates from 906, 160 years before the Battle of Hastings. I watched as modern Americans went by. They were of several ethnic origins, each having lost its language and culture. All that concerned them were the recent rings in the sapwood. They had earlier histories, but those histories had been lopped. The Americans were rootless. Then a party of Japanese arrived; and they pointed to all the dates, back to the heart, relating them to their own past. And I had to get home.

“Home” does not simply mean the physical structure. In Russian the word is rodina – the land, our life force. If we were to be taken from it we should know only the dead slab of the fallen tree.

Hockney is not alone. Through the intensity of creative vision, artists magnify the land for others to see. William Wordsworth “discovered” the Lake District. Thomas Hardy turned his rodina into “Wessex”. J R R Tolkien drew on his youth for The Lord of the Rings without identifying his sources. But the intensity remained and is now a boost to New Zealand’s travel industry. Tourists throng to walk where the cinematic Frodo trod, urged by the tagline “Discover your inner Hobbit”.

Association can be grotesque. The Times Literary Supplement carries an advert for the renting of a “Writer’s Retreat”: a house in a village where Virginia Woolf allegedly began her first novel. She didn’t live there. No claim is made for the house other than that it is in the village. The rental includes wifi and a supply of paper. This is not vision intensified. This is sympathetic magic: peddling hope of creativity by contagion.

 

****

 

For the past 58 years I’ve lived and worked in a medieval house that sits on a burial mound four thousand years old. And the site has been occupied since the end of the latest Ice Age, ten thousand years ago. When I came to live on the mound, I coincided with the completion, three fields away, of the Lovell radio telescope. We began together.

One day I was sitting in the room where a lifetime’s words have crept across paper, and holding a black pebble. Half a million years ago, thereabouts, a hominin forerunner took the pebble and struck flakes from it with another rock, shaping it to sit in the hand, with one edge and a point sharpened to cut meat.

Through the window I saw that the telescope was active; and I logged on to Jodrell to see what it was watching. At the moment I held the pebble, the telescope was recording signals from a quasar, which had been travelling at the speed of light, 300,000 kilometres per second, for nearly thirteen thousand million years. When the advanced ape
chipped the pebble, the signals had covered more than 97 per cent of the distance from the quasar to the telescope.

The hand axe was the step we made towards the telescope. Without the axe, Jodrell would not be here. Both are functional, both works of art; and between those two moments of creation the signals from the quasar completed the last 3 per cent of their travels.

Having lived next to the telescope since 1957, I knew its every move. But to understand its aesthetic power I had to understand its sounds and textures. I wrote to Sir Bernard Lovell. An appointment was made. I arrived and was shown to his office. Sir Bernard asked how he could help me and I said that I could not explain my need. Rather than blather, I would like to show him something that was, as the telescope, both function and art. And I took out of my briefcase a polished stone axe from the Early Bronze Age and put it on his desk. Sir Bernard looked at the axe, ran his hands over its surfaces – and gave me a pass to Jodrell.

Later, I heard his account of the meeting. “He came in,” said Sir Bernard, “and put this thing on my desk. I thought it was a bomb.” Which, in a way, it was. Although I didn’t know at the time, it was the start for me of Operation Melting Snow, of which Jodrell must now be considered the exemplar.

Operation Melting Snow is a recent coining by the physicist Professor Robert Cywinski to close a false cleft in our culture. C P Snow, the scientist and novelist, warned in 1956 that science and the humanities had drifted so far apart that they could no longer speak to each other. The result was that Snow was branded as message, not messenger, and father of the Two Culture Society, which became a received truth.

Jodrell has given Operation Melting Snow a base from which to repudiate and refute the schism. Naively, I had not seen that Sir Bernard Lovell was ahead of me when I put the bomb on his desk. Sir Bernard was a cosmologist and artist – and Christian. He was the organist at his parish church. He played at my father’s funeral. When he found that his creation, the telescope, was being subverted to political and military ends he considered entering the priesthood – until a bishop told him he would do more good by staying where he was, since, he said, creativity is prayer.

Creativity is prayer. Is that what Thomas was saying, too? “These poems are written for the love of Man and in praise of God.”

Philosophy persuades me that religion and atheism are not open to proof; while anthropology shows that no human society is known to have existed without a sense of the numinous, in the form of ancestors, spirits, gods, God. Why?

Psychologically, prayer may be seen as dialogue with the numinous, and in order to speak to it we may need to give the numinous form, whether as a bearded old man, a rock, a cave, a bone, or, as one rector of Barthomley told me he saw Christ, a vertical blue laser. Yet how, in a mechanistic Darwinian world, can the numinous have an evolutionary application?

Consider this. Is there anybody who has not felt, at some time, immediately and without reason, that a particular spot, be it landscape or building, is a “good” place, and conversely that another is “bad”? Where I live, where I knew on sight I had to live, fulfils the criteria for a “good” place; and gives one explanation of why it has been occupied for ten thousand years.

In 1975 the geographer Professor Jay Appleton published his prospect-refuge theory, which had a simple premise – that aesthetics is based on senses that evolved for the survival of bipedal savannah apes: which we still are. We need to see and to be not-seen. We need to feel safe. Places with a clear view give prospect; places to hide offer refuge.

Some two million years ago, the forerunner of Homo sapiens sapiens, on emerging from the Rift Valley, was faced with savan­nah: grassland that contained prey and predator, dotted with trees and provided with water. In order to survive, Homo had to stand up. This freed the hands for making and carrying tools. Other animals have tools. Chimpanzees use stones for cracking nuts; birds use them for breaking shells. But they, having got their food, drop the stone, and the next time they have to find another. Homo, with hands free, can keep the stone, use it again – and improve it. That, over two million years, is the difference that has resulted in the chimpanzee still with the stone and us with the telescope.

Yet the savannah has remained a part of our being. In the Age of Reason, landscape was Capability Browned into parkland, where, from prospect of the terrace, with refuge of the mansion, Enlightenment Man could take pleasure in his command of Nature. And the gardens of modern suburbia are each a savannah, kept by a clever ape, who mows the grass against predation, dots the middle distance with vegetation and instals pools, adorned with ersatz gnomes and ducks, surrogates of gods and prey.

 

****

 

Groucho Marx said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” This has brought Professor John Barrow to apply what he calls “the Groucho Marx effect” to cosmology, where, he claims:
“A universe simple enough to understand is too simple to produce a mind capable of understanding it.” That’s a corrective to dogma; but I think Professor Barrow’s paradox may have been swerved by the gravitational field of Groucho’s wit. Benign agnosticism could be a more creative approach.

It is possible that we have not evolved to the level where we can understand all that our ape’s brain finds. It may be ever so. The Quest is our signature, the spur and threat to our survival. It is savannah for the soul; drawing us ever towards what lies beyond. We may never “know”; which is why those that insist they do – the fundamentalists of any kind – block progress. They are defensive and entrenched. They shut down creativity. They are atrophy. They have stopped.

It’s been said before.

Lord Vishnu sat on the top of Mount Chomolungma and wept. Along comes Hanuman, the monkey god, and says, “What are you crying for? And what are all those ants down there on the earth so excited about?” “They’re not ants,” says Vishnu. “They’re people. I was holding the Jewel of Absolute Wisdom; and I dropped it; and it fell into the World and broke. Everybody has a splinter; but they each think they’ve got the whole thing, and they’re all running around and shouting and telling each other; but no one is listening.”

Can art have a Darwinian function? This ape says it could. Art is a medium whereby we may glimpse some of the truth that we have been clever enough to discover and to feel, yet are not clever enough to understand. But we can learn. We can grow. Art complements science. They feed each other.

So I sit in the house on the mound and watch the telescope; pick, pluck, tease and weave the powsels and the thrums; and tell the stories; and take the risks. I’d be a damn’ fool if I didn’t.

This is an edited version of the inaugural Garner Lecture, given at the opening of the Wolfson Auditorium at Jodrell Bank in Macclesfield on 25 March. “First Light”, a celebration of Garner’s work, is currently being crowdfunded: unbound.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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