In the kitchen of his isolated and rambling fourteenth-century Cheshire home, where he has lived for the last 35 years, Alan Garner is worriedly fossicking for cups and saucers. He abandons the effort and asks his wife where they are kept. She herself is attending to an injured kitten but immediately comes to her husband’s aid. Minutes earlier Alan had announced with staggering precision that he had been a writer for 36 years and 31 minutes – about writing he is obsessively precise!
For Alan Garner the process of writing appears to be a fraught one; what others might call their muse he calls `The Bitch Goddess’.
`After 36 years I cannot come to terms with the act of writing. I dislike it; it is like an agony which is not pleasurable.
‘I don’t know why I am a writer; I have to write.’
It’s a wonder he’s lived to tell his tales. He was the only child of a working-class rural family, ‘that knew its place in the best sense’. By the age of eight he’d died three times. He’d had diptheria, meningitis, double pneumonia with pleurisy, and a bout of whooping cough and measles simultaneously. During the second illness he actually heard himself pronounced dead. As he ruefully says, ‘That makes every day seem like a benison’.
His formal primary education was obviously scant (he sees that as another benison!), but there was enough of it for a perceptive local school teacher to recognise his undoubted intellectual ability and suggest sitting the entrance exams for Manchester Grammar School. He duly passed and, through the process of studying Greek, Latin and French, came more and more to favour academia, finally becoming a classicist at Oxford after an enforced spell in National Service.
One of the results was an estrangement from his family. He had become a ‘creature that they could not relate to’ and, in his own eyes, a failure within their close clan of rural craftsmen, whose motto was that ‘every man must get aback of the man in front’. Such a deep and narrow family had no concept of academia. They could not cope with what had happened to their son. Grandfather Joseph however said nothing, for which Alan is still grateful. Their relationship is recorded through The Stone Book Quartet, more especially in Tom Fobble’s Day, the most autobiographical of all Garner’s works. The Quartet is an attempt ‘to come to terms with the price of Manchester Grammar School in that it enabled me with great precision to articulate the cost, but did not equip me to salve it until with The Stone Book Quartet. Only someone who had had a thorough grounding in Literature and intellectual gymnastics could cope when necessary with what the text had given. But the subject of the text I could only get from one place and that was grandfather.’
Grandfather was both a whitesmith and a blacksmith, a highly gifted craftsman who allowed his grandson to sit in the forge hour after hour, listening to the local gossip, watching the comings and goings and drinking his share of the ale from a tin mug, becoming part of forge life …
‘The fire receded. Grandad flicked the swage block clean with the end of his leather brat, and wiped his face. He sat with William by the forge and drew two cups of beer from the barrel he kept under his bench.’ (Tom Fobble’s Day)
The tools of Old Joseph on his workbench are in an orderly display in the Garner home along with the swage block, and Alan proudly draws attention to the letter punches used to stamp his clogs.
“‘Hold still,” he said, and he reached over to where his metal punches stood in their rack in order of the alphabet, and very deftly he took each as he needed it, placed the letter against the sole of William’s clog and tapped it. The punch left a clean print in the wood. And he dropped the punch back in the rack and took another.’ (Tom Fobble’s Day)
Grandfather showed the Manchester Grammar boy that he was really no different from the rest of the family, `merely ploughing another field’, and passed on to his grandson the two precepts that seem to guide the older Alan Garner:
`Always take as long as the job takes you because it’ll always be there when you’re not and you don’t want folk saying, “What fool made that codge?”‘
Alan Garner’s latest project has taken ten years so far. He describes the work as a pregnancy.
The earlier process of Red Shift he can chart with the precision of a total perfectionist.
In December 1965 a friend mentioned that her grandma, who lived on Mow Cop, said the folk roundabouts were swarthy because they were descended from Spanish slaves, who deserted and set up a colony there whilst being marched north by the Romans – the Ninth Spanish. Garner filed it away in his mind. He is always using the image of filing cabinets. In April 1966 he was waiting for a train at Alderley Edge when he spotted some lipsticked graffiti on the waiting room wall:
Alan Fisk = Janet Heathcote
NOT REALLY NOW NOT ANYMORE
Suddenly everything came into place. Garner rushed home, grabbed a camera, caught the next train back and photographed the wall. The next day the waiting room was re-painted!
During the next two years came the research phase. All possible areas of research were explored, in this instance beginning with the Romans. Because he enjoys this bit the most, he makes it last as long as possible. It takes him into all kinds of fields allowing him the academic luxury of analytical thought and analysis. He meticulously pored over Ordnance Survey maps for scrupulous accuracy. Historical accounts were acquired and studied, from which he learnt that there was a massacre on Mow Cop in the seventeenth century, hence the third strand in Red Shift; there were resonances with the Romans at Mow Cop. At this stage too began reflection into why he felt emotionally involved with these shreds of information and then later the thought occurred, ‘In a way it’s better to have it over and done with with one sword thrust… or is it? And in trying to answer that question the book emerges.’
But finally he could research no more and entered what he calls, with despair in his voice, `The Oh My God! Bit’ which is summed up by the anguished fact that `Oh my God, there isn’t a story. Oh my God I can’t write.’
This lasted from roughly 1968 until 1971 and during those three years, as with his other work, Garner repaired to his book-lined, low-ceilinged study, always at 6pm, and sat before the log fire, his mind empty, waiting. Nowadays he sometimes plays bad B-movie films (black and white only and preferably with the young Ronald Reagan in them), with the sound turned off. At other times he plays music.
In 1971 the Bitch Goddess came one night and in a jumble of words he wrote, as always, the last paragraph of the book. Red Shift had begun. In fact during the many seemingly empty nights of the `Oh My God! Bit’ the story was created sub-consciously so that, as with the others, it could be written intuitively in long-hand (‘the elbow is a great editor’) and barely needed any revision or redrafting. It can be akin to automatic writing; `Sometimes I look to the ceiling and say “hey, hold on I can’t get all this down”.’ He frequently refers to this stage as Purdah. The family of two teenagers and any form of distraction is kept away from him by his wife, upon whom he relies totally, and for whom he has the highest praise as a critic of his work; `She doesn’t tell me what to do, but where I’ve gone wrong.’
In 1973, eight years after the granny’s Mow Cop story, William Collins first published Red Shift, now in its twelfth impression. Alan Garner had taken as long as the job took him.
Grandfather Joseph’s second precept was:
‘If the other fellow can do it, let him.’ In other words find out what is uniquely yours.
In his very early twenties Alan Garner decided to be an artist. Really he was ambitious to be `a professional bum’. He couldn’t draw and had no formal training in music, so it had to be writing. He felt that he didn’t have enough experience to tell people twice his age how to run the world. `Therefore I wondered, if I wrote flat out to the fullest extent of my ability and experience and thought, whether people not twice my age but half my age might get something from it.’
After two days this felt too much like writing to order and inhibitive so he wrote then, as now, purely for himself with no specific audience in mind. On Tuesday, 4th September at three minutes past four, 1956, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was started and took two years to complete, with another two before it was published. He left Oxford without completing his degree and supported himself with a job teaching in a private school and then tried a spell of labouring. The other fantasies followed. He actually explored the caves himself as research for The Moon of Gomrath. The cottage in Elidor is the one where he lay in a whitewashed room with cheesecloth muslin at the windows as a sickly, once paralysed child. There were out-of-the-body experiences, brought on partly by sensory deprivation, where he drifted into the ceiling and here was the world he later re-created in characteristically vividly realised detail as Elidor.
‘Roland could never remember whether he saw it, or whether it was a picture in his mind, but as he strained to pierce the haze, his vision seemed to narrow and to draw the castle towards him. It shone as if the stones had soaked in light, as if the stone could be amber. People were moving on the walls: metal glinted. Then clouds drifted over. (Elidor)
In the pursuit of what is uniquely his, Alan Garner does not read novels or children’s books and seldom meets with other writers for fear that he might take an idea and submerge it. He will talk to no one about anything he is currently working on. He constantly subjects himself to analysis and exploration of his craft and expounds his thoughts with a vigour and passion reserved only for talking about writing:
‘…Words will not go where they are most needed. You cannot say what you deeply feel in words. The only thing that words will do to get you there will be to construct the images that will present you with the truth. Words won’t tell the truth; they prevaricate, they fudge and they blurr and they’re not precise enough. But it is possible to construct images in conjunction with each other in such a way that they’ve never been presented before, so that the readers says “Wow!”. .. if it works!’
Research finally leads to `a narrowing down to the point where all the poles of the tepee cross. That is the moment of creativity and, where they cross, the creativity exists concretely as the book, film or whatever. That for me is worth anything.
`The book is a time capsule and every reader’s interpretation is different …The creative act involves the reader. It is a great privilege for the writer to take the reader to somewhere they could not otherwise have gone.’
His widely acclaimed success for doing so well what the other fellow can’t do might be measured by noting the novels’ continued publication years after they were first written. Better evidence is in the letters he receives saying, `I didn’t know that there was anybody else who had that experience’; `Thank you for making clear what was driving me out of my mind. Now I can understand it and deal with it’; or those who affirm that Red Shift helped them to come to terms with their own thoughts of suicide or those of their friends and relatives.
His works have also found an audience in TV film versions, notably The Owl Service, for which he won the Carnegie Medal and Red Shift. He wrote the scripts for both of these but has left stage versions of his books to others, since he does not wish to cover again old ground.
He does however feel the need to bring the skills of his craft to the reworking of traditional tales. His recently re-published collection, A Bag of Moonshine, and the latest picture book, Jack and the Beanstalk, are his own response to the watering down of the tales over the years. He fears a prettifying of them so that they have lost the special, unique qualities of the storytellers down through the ages. Men like Grandfather Joseph. History fascinates him. Stones and fossils lie on his study windowsill, vicious-looking flint or stone weapons and tools are stored on shelves and skulls gaze hollow-eyed from a dresser. If he has any relaxation at all, it is when he’s researching the archaeology of the site on which he lives. Despite their landlessness he has traced the Garners back to 1592. He sometimes feels like an emigre in this place, which is only seven miles from where he was born. He has the need to return often to The Edge, where he `learnt his primary sensory alphabet’, where the majority of his books are set, including a recent original film script and the next book. From here this solitary, intense writer draws repeatedly as he ploughs his very own, very special kind of field, taking as long as it takes, and letting the other fella do it if he can do it better… There have been imitators but few have done it better.
Photographs by John Cocks.
Alan Garner’s books are published by Collins in hardback and by ions in paperback:
The Stone Book Quartet, 0 00 184289 7, £6.99
Tom Fobble’s Day, 0 00 184832 1, £4.95
Red Shift, 0 00 1842021, £4.95; 0 00 671000X, £2.50 pbk
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, 0 00 183104 6, £8.99; 0 00 671672 5, £3.50 pbk
The Moon of Gomrath, 0 00 184503 9, £5.95; 0 00 671673 3, £3.50 pbk
Elidor, 0 00 184202 1, £4.95; 0 00 671674 1, £3.50 pbk
The Owl Service, 0 00 184603 5, £5.95; 0 00 674294 7, £3.50 pbk
A Bag of Moonshine, ill. P J Lynch, 0 00 184403 2, £8.95; 0 00 674290 4, £3.50 pbk
Jack and the Beanstalk, ill. Julek Heller, 0 00 193456 2, £8.99