Alan Garner Q&A: “As we ran, Alan Turing asked me whether AI was possible”

The author talks Alcibiadesk, his portraits, and lifelong advice from his grandad.

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Alan Garner was born in Cheshire in 1934. A childhood interest in local folklore inspired a suite of fantasy novels and fairy tales, including the Weirdstone trilogy. He lives near the Jodrell Bank radio telescope.

What’s your earliest memory? 

Choosing a blue and white soap dish for my mother at Woolworths. I was with three teenage girls, Eileen, Margaret and Sheila, who regularly took me out. They lifted me up above the slippery wood of the counter so that I could see. I was 15 months old; early for a memory to be retained. But the relationship did not last. While out for a walk I fell into a disused cesspit. The girls wouldn’t touch me and I had to walk downwind of them all the way home.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. I was always Tarzan, because no one else could do his war cry. But I was too scared to climb anything, so the baddies went up the trees.

I met Alan Turing when on training runs. We were both athletes at a time before joggers clogged the roads, so to see anyone out running was unusual. We were friends from 1951 to 1953. He once asked for my opinion as a classicist on whether artificial intelligence was theoretically possible. It was merely one of the wild thoughts we bandied about as we ran; and I was silent for two miles before I said: no, it wasn’t. He didn’t argue. Then the police ordered me not to associate with him. I was in the army when he killed himself, and the sense of guilt stayed with me until I read Andrew Hodge’s Alan Turing: the Enigma, and realised that there was nothing I could have done to prevent what happened.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Jay Appleton’s The Experience of Landscape interacting with An Archaeology of Natural Places by Richard Bradley.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?  

Alcibiades.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I know too little of any one subject.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?  

May I take my dentist and doctor with me?

Who would paint your portrait?

Andrew Tift already has. It hangs in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. Tift is a figurative realist and the result is both sympathetic and ruthless. There are also photographic portraits by Sefton Samuels and Mariana Cook. 

What’s your theme tune?

“Show Me the Way to Go Home”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

“If the other feller can do it, let him.” This was from my grandad, a smith, and I’ve followed it since the age of seven. He also said, “Always take as long as the job tells you. It’ll be there when you’re not, and you don’t want folk asking ‘What fool made that codge?’”

What single thing would make your life better?

Respite from persons from Porlock.

When were you happiest?

Happiness is in the present, not the past.

In another life what job might you have chosen?

My first ambition, at the age of four, was to be “a man that works down drains”. Psychiatry would be a natural progression.

Are we all doomed?

The only certainty is death.

“Where Shall We Run To? A Memoir” by Alan Garner is published by 4th Estate

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State