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History of violence: Ali Smith on Alan Garner

By conjuring mythic landscapes, the novelist and children’s fantasy writer Alan Garner unleashed his fury at the injustices of postwar Britain.

I will have been seven, eight at the most. I was looking at the word and wondering how on Earth did you say it? Brising, with the “i” as in brimming, or since there was only one “s”, was the “i” like the “i” in brine, and what was Brisingamen? Was it a place or a person or was it maybe an entity or a concept like honesty or loyalty? Did it have the word amen at the end of it because it was a kind of prayer? I knew what weird meant, and what stone meant, but what did they mean together and how was it that putting those two words together like that made something somehow bigger than just the sum of what the two words meant separately?

I’d taken The Weirdstone of Brisingamen off the school library shelves because one of my elder sisters had started reading over and over again another book by this writer, about some kind of church service involving owls, and I’d noticed two other books by the same name on the library shelves. Both the titles of these other books were strange, though I had flicked to the end of the book with the unicorn on the cover and discovered a word I knew really well, “Findhorn”, the name of a place just up the coast from where we lived, where there was a very good golden beach; the hippies had a commune there where they talked to their vegetables and flowers to get them to grow bigger.

But in this book, Findhorn was the name of the unicorn on the front cover. There was a particularly fascinating bit quite far into the book where a scribble of what looked like a word – in someone’s handwriting rather than in the same print as the rest of the words in the book – actually turned, before your eyes, into the shape of a horse, or a unicorn. Several classmates, knowing how much I loved horses, had shown me the pages where this happened.

This word-drawing was definitely different from an ordinary book illustration. It suggested that written words could change into something else, something that could have the properties, say, of both real horse and legend. Words could be more than themselves. Words, even words you thought you knew, could shift out of recognition into a different recognition.

At home, my sister was on the couch, reading over and over that other book, which wasn’t about a church service, I discovered, when I filched it when she went up town with friends; it was about a mysterious dinner service. Ah, okay – like in fairy tales. Such strangeness we were used to, from stories like Gulliver’s Travels, like lots of the books on those school library shelves.

But the strangeness in the language in this writer’s books was another thing altogether and the compulsion I sensed in my much older sister’s revisiting of that dinner plate story in the owl book signalled a magnetism that was different from the usual.

Then The Owl Service came on TV. Our whole family watched it, week to week, and what I remember of the atmosphere of those afternoons was that we were, as a family, part of a story that tapped deep into some kind of unease, had a mystery that wasn’t easily answered, unmasked, reduced or dismissed, that it all had something to do with things that couldn’t be said easily, things that were pent-up – and that the release of such things involved a powerful kind of anger, the kind we didn’t much hear in stories or see much on TV.

I was growing up in a family where our father had nightmares about his time in a bombed ship in the war. He’d come down to breakfast dark round the eyes, his forehead heavy and hunted-looking. Our mother would tell us to leave him alone, he’d had another bad dream. He’d seen a doctor after the war who’d helped him with his temper. We knew about pent-up anger and things that weren’t to be said.

There was also a girl in the story called both Ali and Alison. I got called both, too, except I liked being called it and she didn’t. I read the book. I didn’t understand it. Owls, flowers, a girl, a hole in a stone, through which time melts. It was like a poem. Could a novel be a poem?

I read it again. I went back to his other books, the ones in the school library.

More than 40 years on, I’ve just read them again. The opening of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (I’m still asking myself how you say it) is a consciously double-structured thing. First, as a kind of preface, there’s an old, old story, the kind you’d expect, about a farmer, a market, a white horse, a disguised wizard, an offer of sale, a refusal, a denouement, an underground cavern full of knights and white steeds. It has a glorious opening phrase: “At dawn one still October day in the long ago of the world”. Then in a clash of legend and litter, a parallel and much more literal and contemporary story opens. A couple of children on a train, surrounded by their own very modern travellers’ mess (“apple cores, orange peel, food wrappings, magazines”), are in a state of almost-arrival, “caught, like every traveller before or since, in that limbo of journey’s end . . . Those last miles were the longest of all.” They’re on the way to the Edge, where land that seems flat suddenly drops away from itself into steep cliff-fall.

The edge of things is the natural habitat of the story. Alan Garner famously grew up on an edge, Alderley Edge, “a Beauty Spot in summer and at weekends, but its long history and prehistory make it unsafe at all times. It is physically and emotionally dangerous,” he said in a talk he gave in 1983. I remember what to me was the most terrifying moment of edge-crossing in The Weirdstone, set in the Edge: quite early in the story a strange woman tries to persuade the children to get into her car. They almost do – they wake from a trance just in time to foil her from driving away with them to God knows where.

For the child me and still for the adult me the true moments of thrilling danger in Garner’s work weren’t the gallivantings in caves with dwarves or miniature Vikings, or the encounters and adventures with the lords of good or evil, but those boundary moments, crossing places between the “real” and the “imagined” worlds, times and stories, the places where the very ordinary and the very unordinary coexist, leach into each other: the strangeness in the known, the familiar in the strange.

Elidor was by far my preferred read and I remember vividly in particular the opening, four children playing with the Manchester street map, choosing where they’ll go at random by spinning its wheel. I loved and still love its revelation of what was below or behind the surface – the slum at the back of the smart shopping streets, then the mythical world couched behind the slum, through the old church in mid-demolition. I can see now that what I loved was the way that it demolished realism without ever losing sight of what we call reality.

The children in Elidor move out of suburbia into a semi-rural village. But in their new take on map-reading, they’ve stumbled on a power that has made them much more meaningful than they are in everyday “reality”. This power follows them, electric. It interferes with their electricity, so much so that the family can’t watch TV, the car in the garage ignites its own engine, the mixer and the washing machine turn themselves on when all the power’s switched off and an unplugged razor in its cover vibrates on a table by itself, turning “like the head of a tortoise”. The scene in which the electrical items go mad was another of my favourites, perhaps because my father was an electrician, and I wonder if there’s something equally personally attributable for every reader somewhere in a Garner work – his worlds are peculiarly personally alive.

“Man is an animal that tests boundaries,” he wrote in 1975, “. . . a mearcstapa, ‘boundary-strider’, and the nature of myth is to help him understand the boundaries, to cross them and to comprehend the new; so that whenever Man reaches out, it is myth that supports him with a truth that is constant, although names and shapes may change.” Unforgettable, to me anyway, the children in Elidor carrying from old house to new house salvaged bits of junk that are really mythically charged symbols and “Treasures” – or are they carrying “Treasures” that are really just a pile of junk?

Electrical charge and potency play back and forth, ever adjusting along not just every realism we take for granted, but also every unexpected imaginative leap of faith. That’s truly thrilling and terrifying. “Wasteland and boundaries: places that are neither one thing nor the other, neither here nor there – these are the gates of Elidor.” They’re the gates of the imagination, and the cue for a physical shift of focus.

“You know how at the pictures,” a character in The Owl Service says on his first brush with a pile of old plates in a loft that are charged with an unexpected energy, “it sometimes goes out of focus on the screen and then comes back? It was like that: only when I could see straight again, it was different somehow. Something had changed.”

For the child reader I was, all sorts of things changed because of Garner. Language could be powered and strange – and could also be found in all sorts of unexpected places, places where there was, strictly speaking, no language. Stones had a language – of stone. Dogs had a language in the bark. Owls could understand English. In any case, English itself was much more interesting and spiky than everyone pretended.

His 1960s books, I can see now, are always in dialogue with dialogue itself, in an argument between received pronunciation, dialect and idiolect, and also between English as the dominant language of the United Kingdom and the different languages of the different countries held in that bordered whole. This was almost never said out loud back then, and it went deep, made dimensional sense to me. In Inverness, where I grew up, there was always an invisible question as an undercurrent to the English we all spoke – an unarticulated question about the so-called gone language, Gaelic. We knew without knowing that this question was there beneath everything we said. The Owl Service, I see on reading it more than 40 years later, is furious about the relegating of Welsh, and adept at making English richer and stranger by influence of otherness.

It’s also pretty clear on an adult reread how angry the book is about the historical and, you might say, very realist relegation of people via the power hierarchies we call class. Class hostility through history is one of its taproot themes. It asks: in whose service, exactly, are we? What a piece of fury it is, aimed at all the postwar and pre-war realisms. How it understands hurt, the self-hurt history causes in its people when abuses are repressed and the violence, too, in the surfacing of what’s been repressed.

In the 1980s Garner talked about how daily life, when he was growing up through the Second World War, “was lived on a mythic plane of absolute Good against absolute Evil”, and of the “need . . . to be tempered in whatever furnace was required”. His memory of sneaking into the cinema as a boy and seeing the footage from Belsen concentration camp, not once but four times, “the bulldozer ploughing its graceful hideous choreography into the mass grave”, put the world in very real perspective and made him “violently wise”.

I know that sewn into the lining of my own postwar-lucky imagination there are the following things: watching my sister, 17, ten years older than me, unable to stop reading a book; a run of dark winter Sunday afternoons with the whole family, my brothers, my sisters, my parents and me, at all our ages, all round the screen, watching a story whose strangeness was both relief and taboo; an image of three children so mesmerised by the artifice of a dangling apple blossom branch made of silver and mercury that they lose their personalities and are lucky to be saved. That’s one of the creepiest of Garner’s images, one of the toughest of his questions about the relationship between artifice and beauty. His revelations, inevitably, are always tough-tempered.

In there, too, properly shining, are the strangeness and starkness I’ve just refound in a reread of the very end of Elidor, with its four children, after everything fades, standing in the postwar rubble. “The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.”

But even though the story had faded, now we knew. We’d seen. Nothing and nobody and nowhere was dismissible. What powerful vision his fiction gave us all.

First Light: A celebration of Alan Garner, with contributions from Ali Smith, Rowan Williams, Stephen Fry and others, is edited by Erica Wagner and published by Unbound

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

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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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