Interview: Alan Garner

Boneland by Alan Garner
Boneland by Alan Garner
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Alan Garner bends time and space in a novel that loops back to the start of his career. He explains it all to Susan Mansfield

SPEND a while in Alan Garner’s world and something strange starts to happen to time. It becomes collapsible, porous. Standing in a 15th-century house on the site of a Bronze Age burial ground, looking out of the window at the gleaming white dish of a radio telescope can do funny things to a person’s sense of chronology.

Garner has lived on this spot near the village of Blackden in Cheshire for 55 years. A few miles away is Alderley Edge, the imposing wooded ridge rank with history and myth which was his childhood playground. And just across the fields is Jodrell Bank Observatory, its eye trained on the edge of the known universe. Almost all of his books take place within sight of this spot, and all of them bend and weave time as easily as if it were ribbon.

In his study, Garner keeps an Acheulean hand axe, the earliest example of human (or pre-human) tool-making. It was turned up in a potato field a few miles away. “It’s entirely logical for me,” he says, “to sit in the room where I’ve always written, in this house which is built on a Bronze Age burial mound, holding the first act of intelligence in my left hand, and looking out of the window at the telescope.” Thus time meshes on a daily basis.

For many people, the name of Alan Garner is half-remembered from the libraries of childhood. His first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), about two children, Colin and Susan, holidaying near Alderley Edge, who become caught up in an ancient adventure, won immediate popular and critical acclaim. Further bestselling novels followed, including Elidor, the brilliantly unsettling The Owl Service, which won the Carnegie Medal, and the clever, tricky, time-shifting novel Red Shift, which began to move him away from the children’s market. In fact, he was writing crossover fiction 30 years before the term was invented.

His more recent adult novels, Strandloper and Thursbitch, have divided readers, but two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of The Weirdstone, writers from Neil Gaiman to AS Byatt queued up to praise him. Philip Pullman called him “the most important British writer of fantasy since Tolkien, and in many respects better than Tolkien, deeper and more truthful… Any country except Britain would have long ago recognised his importance.” Michel Faber said The Weirdstone was “a new kind of fantasy adventure, bewildering and unsentimental… He gave kids looking for hobbits a taste of Beckett.”

Garner is a complex man. I could say that he’s shy, but with a hint of imperious, that he laughs easily, but fights melancholy (he battled depression for years and was belatedly diagnosed bipolar). All this would be true, but it wouldn’t tell the whole story. Age (he’s now 77) has brought a tremor to his hand but none to his mercurial mind. He has a lucid, polymath intelligence which extends from phonetics (he can place a local accent to within a few miles), to archaeology (he has run his own operation at Blackden for more than 50 years, cataloguing and storing what he finds), and astronomy (he is a keen follower of what goes on at Jodrell Bank).

Several years ago, he and his wife Griselda created the Blackden Trust, to safeguard the future of the house, run workshops for adults and young people on everything from creative writing to 16th-century herbal medicine, and create a “Blackden fellowship” of cross-disciplinary experts. Garner lights up when he talks about them, how they spark off one another (the paleontologist is now learning Middle English). His new novel, Boneland, is dedicated to three of them, the aforementioned paleontologist, an archaeologist and a particle physicist who works at Cern. “I’ve got to live another life now,” he says, almost wistfully. “It’s an extraordinary period of life”

Before we talk about Boneland, he takes me to visit Jodrell Bank where the main character, Colin Whisterfield, works. On the way into the visitor centre, he stops me next to a panoramic photograph of stars in a black sky. “The edge of the known universe,” he says. “Each of these is a galaxy, they are 14 billion light years away.” We stand there for a moment and let the numbers sink in. “Keeps your mind off things like ingrown toenails, doesn’t it?”

As we walk around the circumference of the dish – the Lovell, named after Sir Bernard Lovell, who founded the Observatory – he tells me about it, how it’s almost the size of Trafalgar Square and weighs 3,000 tons. It was being built when he arrived at Blackden. His children went to a village school almost entirely populated by the children of farm labourers and radio astronomers. As the first of its kind in the world, it was built with a great deal of ingenuity and improvisation, the scientists themselves helping with the 
labouring. “Downstairs, it looks like a meccano frame with fairy lights on – and some of them are fairy lights,” he laughs. “They work! It’s Britishness at its best.” When the Observatory was threatened with closure in 2008, Garner decided to get political, and the local campaign was instrumental in saving it.

Meanwhile, nearby some children are playing at a pair of Whispering Dishes – parabolic dishes which will carry the sound of a whisper despite being 100ft apart. “They aren’t doing it properly,” says Garner. “You go over there and wait, and I’ll go over here and exude menace.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, we soon we both have a dish of our own, and I hear Garner’s resonant voice whispering, “Hello, Susan” right into my ear, although he’s half a field away.

“And now we’re going to show you something really psychotic,” he says, gleefully, bidding me stand directly between the two dishes while he and Griselda take a dish each. Incredibly, I can hear both voices clearly, but as if they were coming from somewhere inside my head. It is properly unsettling, and of course, a gift for anyone writing about mental disturbance, as Garner does in Boneland.

Nicholas Lake, Garner’s editor at HarperCollins, has called the new book “a masterpiece, his crowning achievement”. Nominally, it completes the trilogy he began with his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, picking up the story 50 years on, though it also works as a stand-alone novel. Colin, the child of the original story, is now middle-aged, a brilliant but troubled astrophysicist, unable to come to terms with the disappearance of his twin sister when they were 12. His story converges with that of the Watcher, a tribesman from the paleolithic era, alone, like Colin, in a wild landscape, struggling for a kind of survival.

“You see, life isn’t cosy, and hindsight is very dangerous,” Garner says, now seated at the end of a long sofa by the central open fireplace in the apothecary’s house he had moved brick by brick from Staffordshire to Blackden to save it from demolition. “I can look back and see a pattern, but I wasn’t aware of the pattern at the time it was being made.” At first, he had intended a third book, but quickly lost patience with Colin and Susan. “The thought of spending any more years in the company of those dreadful zombies was something I could not face. They hadn’t moved on, and I had.”

But by the time Strandloper, his book about William Buckley, a Cheshire bricklayer transported to Australia who lived among Aboriginal people as a holy man, was published in 1996, something extraordinary was happening. “I was meeting people in their thirties who had read The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath as children, they were now in positions of authority and were successful, and they were telling me over and over again, ‘I would not be doing what I’m doing now were it not for those two books’. I found that remarkable. The other thing they said was that the power and frustration of The Moon of Gomrath was that there should have been another book. And I thought, ‘Dear me, how do they know that?’”

But at that time, he was beginning Thursbitch, and it would be almost a decade before he returned to the question of “I wonder what happened to Colin?” “I hadn’t an idea in my head, I never have, the subjective impression I have is that the books come looking for me. This wouldn’t go away. So I thought, what would happen? And of course it would be natural for Colin to be so disturbed that he would become reclusive, eccentric, depressive, and also obsessed, perhaps for a reason he didn’t fully understand, by astronomy. And lo and behold, I’ve been living next to a radio telescope for half a century!”

Any Garner book begins with an intense period of research. “I love research so much that I do an enormous amount, it helps put off the moment of starting to write the story.” He learned Welsh, for example, before he wrote The Owl Service “in order not to use it”. For Boneland, he read up on Jungian psychotherapy, disorders of the memory, medieval myth, cosmology, quantum physics and much else. Garner novels are taut, logical affairs. Even the apparent leaps of imagination are much more likely to be small steps based on logical deduction. “Oh, I never claim to invent,” he says airily. “I steal, and I build on.”

If you start to unpick Boneland, its beautiful mix of the psychological and the not-quite-explained, you will find a lattice of interwoven myths: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Tempest. Not that he wants you to unpick it. “Don’t get too intellectual over it, please,” he says, plaintively. “It’s meant to be a piece of entertainment. I hate dissection! Having built up these intricate layers into a simplicity, I don’t like looking for the trick.”

Much about the book surprised him: characters announcing themselves, for example, like Colin’s feisty psychotherapist, Meg, and her mysterious taxi driver, Bert. “The thing that I was brought up to prize above everything else is the intellect. There is no problem that the intellect cannot solve, but it never had an original thought. Originality is the realm of the unconscious. I’ve thought it for a long time, and now with Boneland I know it to be so. In a few years times, I will probably be able to give a completely normal explanation for Meg, but at the moment she is just herself, and I am not responsible for her.”

The Watcher surprised him too, with his cave paintings and rituals to keep the seasons turning. But he, too, has a basis in research. His place is Ludchurch, a dramatic rock chasm not far from here, thought to be the site of a much larger cavern now inaccessible due to shifting rock underground. “I came across a manuscript account from the late 18th century about a miner going down there with a length of rope and seven pounds of candles. He was gone for several hours, and said he had seen ‘druidical remains’ and ‘sights no Christian should see’. I thought, my God, rock art! Now, at that time, people said: ‘There isn’t any rock art in Britian, go away!’ And then nearly ten years ago, Creswell Crags, 30 miles due East, provided Upper Paleolithic rock art.”

It’s rather like discovering the games you’ve always played with time have a plausible basis in particle physics. “I realised that nothing outlandish I could invent was as outlandish as the stuff they were taking seriously – parallel universes, simultaneous universes – and this fitted in with my fascination with multiple times. One day, I asked my friend the particle physicist whether it is possible, in theory, that time could run backwards. And he said he’d seen it happen. They check my facts and say,  ‘That’s alright Alan, but you’re not going far enough.’ The imagination of a writer is sometimes far outstripped by the reality of the researcher in the field of science.”

Garner often recounts two pieces of advice given to him at his grandfather’s forge: “Always take as long as the job tells you,” and “If the other feller can do it, let him.” He has lived by both of them. He won’t be hurried. When, nine years into Strandloper, he came under pressure to drop the book and write a sequel to one of his earlier hits, he ditched both his publisher and his agent and took 12 years to finish the book. “I can’t write to order. As far as the world was concerned, from 1979 to 1996, I didn’t publish any original material, it just wasn’t there.”

Similarly, he has passed up opportunities because “the other feller could do it”. A gifted athlete, he quit when a national coach told him he could be the first British sprinter to make an Olympic semi-final. And he dropped out of Oxford after two years, abandoning his dream of becoming a professor of Greek, to write The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Griselda later tells me, with a wry smile, this principle means she bears the burden for the day-to-day running of the Trust: “If the other feller can do it, let him: I’m the other feller.”

At the age of 20, Garner had an epiphany looking at a drystone wall his great-great-grandfather had built. The Garners were craftsmen, the challenge of each generation was “to get aback of” the one before, to outshine him, in the same craft, or in a different one. At 77, has he “got aback of” the Garners? “In the original sense that I used it, which was where the craftsmen of each generation had to get aback of the generation before, to do other as well as to do better than, in that sense, yes.”

But there is also the small matter of getting aback of yourself. “It’s like rock climbing, going up a pitch and thinking, ‘oh lord, I can’t do it’, and you can, and you get your breath back, and you look up and there’s another pitch. And then you see the next pitch after that, and then comes the overhang. That has developed into great satisfaction,” he half-smiles. “I’ll never satisfy myself.”

• Boneland by Alan Garner is published by Fourth Estate, £16.99 For the Blackden Trust, see theblackdentrust.org.uk