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I firmly believe that the best way to learn about writing is to hear writers talk. You never know what you’re going to learn but you will always come away with something. If they’re writers whose books made a huge impact on you at an early age, so much the better. So when a pal suggested we go to hear Alan Garner a few weeks ago, I agreed instantly. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is one of those books I cherish. Though he wasn’t talking about that, not directly, but about The Stone Book Quartet, now out in paperback. The talk was extremely discursive so I shan’t attempt to cover a tenth of it here. If you ever get a chance to hear him, I urge you to go.

He introduced the hour as a meander through time and space, notably a great deal of time in a very small space, notably the part of Cheshire around Alderley Edge where he and his family have lived for generations. There’s a local phrase, specifically referring back to his grandfather; ‘that was new when Joe Garner was a lad’. Historical photos exist, like the one of the nineteenth-century Temperance Band, where Alan Garner knows he’s related to fifteen out of the twenty four members. (Incidentally, I did like the detail that the Temperance Band would play solemnly in chapel on Sundays – and then be “The Fizzers” for the rest of the week, going around the farms and playing for beer money.) The family line traces back to a William Garner de Hough who died in 1592 and doubtless goes back beyond that.

When Alan Garner’s own child was born prematurely, quite by chance he met a cousin who worked at the hospital at the time, who gave him an old family photograph. The Stone Book Quartet grew out of Alan Garner’s determination that the people in that picture must not die by being forgotten. He explained how this story ultimately arrived in his imagination like something precipitating out of a supersaturated solution. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better way of putting that moment when half-developed ideas, seemingly unrelated thoughts and things a writer didn’t even realise he or she knew, come together.

More eerily, when his father read the book, the old man asked how Alan had known about certain family secrets and even family skeletons. Alan hadn’t, as far as he was aware. Incidents his father cited were where he’d been using his novelist’s imagination, like giving of a great-uncle dying in the trenches of World War One a few last thoughts of home. Only one of the lad’s companions had come to visit the family and that turned out to be what they’d been talking about, in the instant before the bullet killed him.

Alan talked of childhood visits to his grandfather; of the way silence was as much a part of conversations as words, and how he absorbed knowledge of local family, history and legend by osmosis. How for him, family became something between linear time and a time beyond history, a universality. As he grew older, he realised that local stories attributed to a stone-cutting great-great grandfather couldn’t possibly be quite true. Later, he learned that this is a feature of folk-myth, where significant local features and stories are successively tied to real figures on the upper limit of local living memory. So to question the truth of such a story is to completely miss the point.

Which brings us to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the myth that lies as the heart of that book. It’s that old legend, told in so many places, of sleepers under a hill, in this case knights in armour with their horses, waiting for England’s hour of greatest need. Only they are one horse short and on a fateful night a farmer coming home from market is offered untold wealth by a wizard, as payment for his milk-white mare.

As he grew older, Alan Garner began to wonder about anomalies in the Cheshire version, notably the very specific route always given to the entrance to the hidden cave. Which makes very little sense for anyone local trying to get there quickly from the road. Years later, he discovered that the route traces ancient parish boundaries that are in turn tied to older earthworks and megaliths. Recent archaeology has confirmed Alan Garner’s belief that this local legend reaches back to prehistory. These places have been identified as significant elements of the Bronze Age mines of Alderley Edge, reckoned to be the earliest in Europe.

Then there’s the milk-white mare. He’d always wondered how whoever had organised this elaborate set-up made the obvious logistical cock-up of being one horse short. And why a mare? He’d learned that mares were simply not taken into battle. Then he read Giraldus Cambrensis’ story of pagan kingship ceremonies where the claimant engaged in ritual sex with a white mare which would then be sacrificed. The boiled meat would be served to the king and his chosen companions and he would bathe in the broth. Again, archaeology has turned up rock art in Scandinavia indicating just such a ritual. So just as Alan Garner’s DNA has come down through his family line, so the stories he heard from his forebears have carried timeless fragments through oral tradition.

So I’ve had my belief strengthened that the boundaries between myth, history and fantasy are largely illusory. As someone who’s moved around a great deal and thus has no sense of roots anywhere, I’ve gained unlooked-for insight into what it means to have such long-established ties to a place that is both timeless and yet always changing. I can already see how this, and much else that Alan Garner said, is going to enrich my vision as a writer.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
1st Nov, 2006 11:57 (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this: I was so disappointed when Alan Garner had to cancel an appearance up here, a year or so back - I'm glad he was able to give this one, and that you were able to be there and pass it on.
1st Nov, 2006 12:46 (UTC)
Thanks, Jules, this is fab. I met Alan, oh, thirty years ago in Oxford; it doesn't sound as though he or his impact have diminished in the least.
(Deleted comment)
1st Nov, 2006 20:32 (UTC)
We saw Alan Garner as the Edinburgh Literary Festival a couple of years back, and he was mesmerising. Even now I'm not sure whether he is sane north by north west, or just playing it.

Most of the audience had come to sit at the feet of Muriel Spark, who was on next, and I'm not convinced they got the message. He'd probably have preferred the kids who'd just trooped out of Darren Shan's show.

Breathtaking man and artist.
2nd Nov, 2006 16:49 (UTC)
It was a good talk, wasn't it ? I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, since he doesn't appear to do such talks very often - and he's no longer very young !!
2nd Nov, 2006 21:38 (UTC)
He's always an interesting speaker. Loved the Temperance Band story.

He was my first pash (all the other girls had posters of Donny Osmond or David Cassidy, I had a picture of a middle aged author on my wall) which had something to do with being called Susan and living 10 miles from The Edge. I now live 13 miles away.

Glad to know he's still doing the rounds, he used to come to my school to give talks on a fairly regular basis, he was our local celeb in the 70's.

I've got a very interesting portfolio by Griselda Greaves, it has clippings and school reports and even a facsimile page from his note book with stream of conciousness ideas for The Weirdstone from 1960. She planned to do a series of these about authors but kind of got caught up on Alan and ended up as his second wife. I've also got a great book written by Adam, Ellen and Kathleen, his kids from his first marrage who went on location with the Granada TV crew who were filming The Owl Service in Wales.

FF, still a Garner groupie, evidently
19th Apr, 2013 22:05 (UTC)
Your mention of that portfolio takes me back, FF; I still have that red folder. In 1976 I came back to England on holiday. As I was already a big fan of his books (and almost obsessed at the time with "Red Shift"), I was curious to see if I could get a photo of Toad Hall to take back home. I got off the train and walked along the tracks, the Jodrell Bank telescope looming above a herd of cows on the other side. Finally when I thought I was close, I climbed across the ditch and through the scrub, finding myself on the drive up to the house. At that very moment, a car pulled up and the driver rolled her window down to ask if she could be of any help. I told her my name and explained that I was a fan of Mr. Garner, hoping to see Cheshire and the Alderley Edge area close-up. She told me that her name was Griselda and that Alan Garner was her husband; and would I like a cup of tea? When I spluttered my thanks, she turned to her children in the car and said, "This man has come all the way from Canada after reading Daddy's books!" She was lovely, FF. She showed me the house & "barn" and how it was built and some of the artifacts that Garner had unearthed around the tumulus on which the house was built. She told me, "You're in luck; Alan isn’t home, or you wouldn't be able to see all this. He's very private and doesn't really like to have visitors."
In all I must've spent a memorable three-quarters of an hour there, discussing his books, while having a nice cuppa. I told her how reading "Red Shift" was a remarkable thing for me and that at one point I felt as though he was actually writing about me - weird as that sounds. She said that "…oddly enough, the period of writing Red Shift was a particularly difficult time for Alan."; and asked if I'd happened to decode Tom's note. When I told her I had she smiled and I remember feeling very pleased with myself. As I thanked her and made ready to leave she pressed that portfolio on me. I still have it. And your mention of it took me back nearly 40 years!
Many thanks for triggering those memories, Frostfox,

Edited at 2013-04-19 22:07 (UTC)
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