If radio, theatre and arts venues can do it, then I can do it too. I’ve been having a season. An Alan Garner season.
Unlike many of my friends I didn’t read much Garner in childhood, only Red Shift as a teenager. Even though I’m not sure I understood it all I remember it having a lasting and haunting effect. It was almost as if it had been written for just for me. Garner’s writing has been likened to an onion. It requires peeling back the layers in repeated readings. No expelliarmus here.
But I only came back to him when researching Shroom. ‘What?’, said a friend. ‘You haven’t read Thursbitch? It’s all about magic mushrooms.’
So first I re-read Thursbitch, and while fly-agaric mushrooms (corbel bread, recycled as piddlejuice) feature heavily in the plot, it’s about so much more. I realised quite how much I’d missed the first time. The story unpeeled another layer and the climax had me in tears.
Then I read The Stone Book Quartet, which as an autobiographical piece is the least overtly ‘magical’ of Garner’s ‘adult’ work (quite why he’s labelled as a children’s author is beyond me), but all the more extraordinary for it. In some ways it's my favourite precisely because it's the mundane that's magical. That-which-is-passed-on need not come wrapped in abracadabra. The act of kindness in the last of the four stories also had me in tears.
Next I read Strandloper, based on the, frankly incredible, true story of one William Buckley, who, transported to Australia on trumped up charges, managed to escape, ended up living with the aborigines for some thirty years, before being pardoned and allowed to return home. There are some breathtaking passages – not least about stained glass – but I found I was less able to silence my critic’s voice, particularly in regard to Garner’s treatment of aboriginal worldviews.
Finally I read The Voice That Thunders, a collection of essays that forms the key to unriddling Garner’s intricate lockwork. The last essay of the collection quite answered my doubts about Strandloper, and now I’m rereading it, allowing myself to be fully carried along with the story.
I realise now that my treatment of Garner in Shroom, while fair, was altogether too perfunctory, too thin, for Garner is undoubtedly a master-storyteller. It’s nothing but a pleasure to place yourself in his capable hands. Like all artists, novelists, songwriters and poets he has his themes – landscape, memory, myth, language and how they combine to create a sense of rootedness, one which modernity erodes – but he explores them with an effortless erudition that includes you the reader and draws you in. He manages to plug into the timeless and universal through the local and the particular, that is from the landscape in which he was born and lives and from the people that he shares it with. He is a master craftsman.
And more than that, Garner is, I suppose, an example of what Radio 4 used to call a ‘devout sceptic.’ Without ever compromising the rational he somehow finds space for the mythical, a none-too-easy task in this scientific age. A strandloper himself, he maintains a foot in both worlds. Like the magpie of aboriginal creation myth, he lifts the sky from the earth, propping it up on the pillars of his prodigious learning, but thereby creating a space in which the miraculous can occur.
If I may quote him, from his essay ‘Aback of Beyond’:
‘Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.
It is a paradox: yet one so important that I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.’
That’s it! The truth can’t be told but we have to try. Magic, craft and the importance of story. It’s the nearest thing to an artistic manifesto I’ve come across.