When I was a child, the fantasy books in the local library’s children’s section almost all had maps in the front, but only one of those maps – the ones for Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – had a postcode. The day my dad learnt to drive, I made him take us to Alderley Edge, so I could walk “from Seven Firs to Stormy Point by Goldenstone and Saddle Bole” to look for the rock that guarded the cave where – according to Garner – King Arthur and his knights were sleeping. I stood before it, willing it to open, caught in the liminal space between Camelot and Congleton.
Garner’s work mostly orbits the Edge and the scattering of town around it. Yet the house in which Garner has lived most of his adult life nestles under the dish of the Lovell Telescope. His work may have a postcode but its ear is cocked to the far end of the universe.
I’ve often read memoirs in which the authors followed their family histories into the ancestral past, but Garner’s is the first I’ve read that is attuned to the passing of geological time. As a boy, he notices the one place on the Edge to have white clay. The only glimmer here of the future writer is the moment at the end when as a young man he identifies and excavates the Goldenstone of the story – a huge lump of grey sandstone, which, he notices, is utterly out of place on the Edge.
The landscape holds memories – in the great stone brought there from someone far away, in the mine workings, the paths and hollow ways through the woods. Garner’s great gift has always been to awaken these memories. So it’s not surprising that this book of his own memories is so vivid and fresh. There’s no attempt here to meditate on the significance of his childhood, no searching for patterns. It’s written from the child’s point of view but there’s no gimmicky moocow coming down the road to meet a nicens boy, as James Joyce put it.
The prose is so clear that it feels less like writing and more like a surrendering to memory itself. The recollections are innocent of all knowledge of what is to come, following each other in a sequence as unpredictable as time. Moments of death and loss jostle for space with anecdotes about getting stuck in the outside toilet. A charming picture of some amiable American soldiers who include the boy Alan in their drill screeches to a halt on a single, gut-wrenching sentence.
Garner has an unexpected flair for comedy, too. When he was excavating the Goldenstone, he found – to his horror – an unexploded shell, and rushed off to inform the local policeman, who just yanked it out of the earth and tossed it into the back of his car saying, “Eh, Alan, you do find ‘em.” The stories of how Mrs Noon was blown off her toilet, or how Mrs Benison got stuck in the entrance to the air raid shelter, will surely be anthologised for years. War casts its shadow over these pages, sometimes in images of soaring beauty – as when the Garners stand on the Edge to watch the lights of Manchester being relit at the end of the blackout, and see the incredible stars disappear as a consequence; sometimes in sentences that hit with the brutal dismissiveness of childhood: “David’s father came back from Burma and wouldn’t eat rice.”
I read this in tandem with an advance copy of Tracey Thorn’s wonderful Another Planet – her memoir of the sublime boredom of growing up in new suburbia. It’s far closer to my own experience. Thorn describes the kind of development that was steamrolling over the life and the landscape that Garner is describing. Houses were built of aspiration. Their bedrooms were the crucible in which pop culture was formed. They flowed out of the brief wave of social mobility that children from ordinary backgrounds were able to surf when there was still room at the top. Garner was at the beginning of that wave. Demographically, the answer to the question in the title – Where Shall We Run To? – should have been London or Hollywood or academia. It turns out to be “down Moss Lane”.
The last chapter of the book shows him reunited with his best friend from primary school. He’s stayed, as Yeats puts it, rooted in one dear perpetual place. But Garner’s work is all about breaking the patterns. A heroic sacrifice will short-circuit some ancient evil that will come back this time not as owls but as flowers. In mid-life we often lament the passing of childhood. In old age childhood memories become vivid again and it’s the present that disappears behind a confusion of vivid fragments. In this book, Garner, now old, has faced that pattern and in place of the bewildering, wonky memory of old age, produced something precise and fresh as flowers. He has become – as we’re told we must – as a little child. He’s also produced one of the best things he’s ever written.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. His latest book is “Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth” (Macmillan)
Where Shall We Run To?: A Memoir
4th Estate, 208pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 15 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad