[THIS INTERVIEW IS NOT AN EXTRACT FROM THE BOOK BUT OFFERS A GOOD INTRODUCTION TO ALAN’S WORK]
VALLEY OF THE LIVING DREAD
The stone is a mile from Thursbitch. A carved stone on the verge of a Cheshire lane, now perpendicular to the road but when Alan Garner first came across it -- bounding over the moor one Saturday in July, a little over 50 years ago -- it was flat against the bank, its back hidden. Garner saw:
HERE JOHN TUR
NER WAS CAST
AWAY IN A HEAVY
SNOW STORM IN
THE NIGHT IN OR
ABOUT THE YEAR
Poor John Turner, but not much more to it. Yet in clearing the grit to read the inscription, Garner realised that the back had been carved as well. As darkness began to fall, his arm hooked behind the stone, his fingers found another inscription:
THE PRINT OF A
WOMANS SHOE WAS
FOUND BY HIS SIDE
IN THE SNOW WERE
HE LAY DEAD
The "h" of "where", having been mistakenly left out by the carver, is neatly added below, as the mason would have been paid by the letter
John Turner was a local man, a "jagger" or packman, his business in his time to transport goods out of Cheshire and back again. He would have known the road and the weather: why would he have died so close to home? On a grey September morning, as I stood by the stone with Garner's wife, Griselda, this mystery that half a century ago sparked his new novel had lost none of its power. Why this death? Why so memorialised and yet the date uncertain? Only the single print of a woman's shoe? Stone and fiction rang against each other in the air.
Garner is not prolific. His last novel, Strandloper, was published in 1996, and that was 12 years in the making. The author of "children's" classics such as The Owl Service, Elidor and Red Shift, Garner said to me some years ago that he never considered himself a writer for children, and it is hard to disagree with him - though certainly, that's how he made his name. But he never watered his brew for the young: one might say that his books published for children have younger characters; Strandloper and now Thursbitch are published for adults and set in the world of adults.
Born in 1934 in Congleton, Cheshire, to a family of smiths and stonemasons, and raised in Alderley Edge, he began writing his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, at the age of 22. A star pupil at Manchester Grammar School, he went on to Oxford to read Classics; but left before he finished his degree. His true work, he discovered, was in his native county: "I'm like Antaeus," he said. "I put my arm on the earth and my strength returned."
His latest book is particularly strong stuff. Moving through the centuries - one strand is set in the present, one in John Turner's time - it forges a link between Turner's story and the valley of Thursbitch. The Turner of Garner's novel is a traveller and a trickster, dead as soon as the reader meets him and then resurrected. He is an intermediary between his native Cheshire and the wider world. A necessary intermediary: for not only walls - which came to this valley in the mid-18th century with the Acts of enclosure - but Christianity too are shouldering their way into the landscape of the novel, displacing an ancient, native religion that is conjured with disturbing power - a religion of bulls, of honey and sacrifice and stone. Garner sets a love story in this charged environment; one that goes some way towards showing why Turner should have perished so close to home. Garner then constructs a parallel in the modern day as Sal and Ian, one a geologist and the other her companion and friend, discover the truth of the valley for themselves and find that the scientific terminology is not adequate to what they find there. His language, equally honed in the modern and the historical period, though in two quite different registers, bridges the time between. Of the two stories, Garner says: "It was as if I was simultaneously walking on both sides of a Mobius strip, and I kept coming round to the same place but in another time. I realised I was wrong to think of linear time." As with his other works, this slim volume bears reading and rereading; but in it, too, is an emotional resonance never seen before. Garner is nearly 70; as he says with a half-smile: "It's not a young man's book." To give away too much of it would be wrong: it is a work of dread and beauty and mystery. Garner has always sung the landscape; but now, through Thursbitch, runs a haunting descant of human connection.
When I had read the novel and suggested a visit to Thursbitch, Garner's e-mail came back to me headed: A SPIFFING WHEEZE. Garner is never less than precise in his language, so one must, perhaps, assume a raised eyebrow as the typing was done. Thursbitch is a steep-sided, shuttered valley overlooked by a natural stone cave and containing a well, the ruins of a farmhouse and a peculiar collection - if that is the word - of monoliths, standing stones, some worked (with stone tools) and some not. Some have been brought within the compass of the walls that now snake over the land, some stand alone. Some are aligned so that they would have set a course true north - true north, that is, in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. It is five miles, as the crow flies, from this valley to Macclesfield, and from it, if the weather is clear - as it was when we stood within the valley's flanks - you can see the distant hills of the Lake District to the north, and to the west the apparition of Jodrell Bank, the radio telescope sited not so many yards from the Garners' home in Holmes Chapel, 18 miles away.
And yet this is by no means a civilised place, though it is close to civilisation. When, in the course of writing, Garner began to seek connections between this desolate spot and the man memorialised by the road, locals told him it was "no good place", "not right", "I wouldn't like to go up myself." And the peculiarity of its name is not merely that it strikes the modern ear as odd. In Old English, "þyrs" is a demon; "bæch" is a valley. It was a friend, Ralph Elliot, an authority on Old English, who first pointed out the meaning of the name to Garner. "I found a 14th-century reference to the place; in the 14th century people were not romantically inclined. To occur in the 14th century it must have been a valley where there was a þyrs."
Garner's method is as much archaeological as it is literary; and not just because he writes of stones. Sitting at a table in his Aga-warmed kitchen and leafing through the notebooks that make up the research and the manuscript of Thursbitch, it is possible to trace decades of work. There was the encounter with the stone in the 1950s; Elliott led him back in the 1970s. "I always need flint and tinder," Garner says. "Ralph's perception brought out the memory of running 20 years earlier, and I saw that the two places were within a mile of each other." He began to inquire about the valley: "They never should have buried that baby in Thursbitch," remarked one source. "The information I was getting was adding up to a dreadful story. I do mean dreadful, not horrific. There was no horror, there was a proper dread. Aweful."
That the Christian faith did not enter this place easily is not in doubt. Half a mile from Saltersford Hall, where the Turners lived, is Jenkin Chapel, on the site of another monolith, probably destroyed at the time of its construction in 1733. The Turners built the place - but for what it's not exactly clear. It is a squat, stone building: a small house with a belfry and a chancel slapped on. Yet the building was not consecrated for more than 60 years. "We do not know . . . what use the chapel was put to . . . we do not know whether any services were held there or not," wrote Walter Smith, a local historian, in 1932. In 1733 it had been dedicated to St John the Baptist - a saint often associated with the pre-Christian traditions that came before him. At its consecration the Bishops of Chester insisted that this be changed to St John the Evangelist: the modern sign outside the chapel fudges the issue - which "St John" isn't specified.
One might look at the photograph of Jenkin Chapel and think little of it. But I have been there, and it is an uncomfortable place. There is about it a sense of something shut off - or an attempt made to shut something off, a lid precariously attached to a pressure cooker. If it sounds strange to say this, it is only a stronger version of what most of us accept: that some places "feel" different from others. Jenkin Chapel is not a place of happiness, and nor is the valley of Thursbitch. Is there such a thing as "sentient landscape"? Archaeologists now explore why natural places such as caves, mountains, springs and rivers assumed a sacred character in European prehistory; if certain places affected our ancestors, why should they not affect us now? There is a sense of awe about these places, even if we cannot give it a specific name.
"I've always been attracted to trying to find an explanation of the sense of the religious," Garner says. "I take it straight from the Latin root, religio: a fear or sense of awe. What is due - to a place, or a concept or god. That is religio. And from a very early age I became aware that wherever I looked or read, there seemed to be no group in the world that didn't express this in some form. I didn't go along with the notion, simply, there is a God - but there's something. There's a line in Horace: 'I don't know what god there is in him, but there is a god'."
"What god?" is a good question where Thursbitch - book and place - is concerned. Also in the valley is a squat block of sandstone, about the size of a sheep. It is not native to the valley; it would have to have been transported, up and downhill, to this field. Garner and Griselda first spotted it in 1999. "At first I thought it was a sheep," he says. "I went across to look at it, and I saw that it had a shiny steel or iron ring hammered into it. I was intrigued by the fact that the ring wasn't rusty. The only thing that it said to me was that it was a bull-baiting stone. And then I photographed it." The photograph shows just what he describes. He mentioned the find to one of his local sources, remarking that it could be a rare survival, as bull-baiting was made illegal in 1835. "Well, I suppose it must have taken a while for the news to reach these parts," came the reply.
Garner, Griselda and I passed by this stone: and I saw what they had seen only three weeks after they had remarked on the ring. "The stone was there and the ring was not. And where the ring had been was completely unmarked lichen." So it is. You cannot pull an iron ring out of sandstone without causing the stone to fracture. There are dimples in the stone that show where a ring might have been, an echo of marks; but the stone is smooth and undamaged. Before I came to Thursbitch, I had seen the two photographs of the stone; but I had not seen the stone itself. What I saw is difficult to explain. It is perhaps worth noting that at the bottom of the field was found, some years ago, a cache of bulls' horns and a Middle Bronze Age sword.
That night, away from the valley, Garner and I sit by the fire as the day dies. The images of the novel, and of the extraordinary, disturbing place to which Garner took me, dance in the flames. "If I could see any purpose in life as to why I should go on existing - and I see this in everyone when they are working, when they are selfless in their selfishness - it is that they are trying to bring about the future. We all have different ways of doing it. We all have our tessera; like a mosaic. Some of us are lucky to have two. And perhaps we make a picture."
(from The Times, September 20, 2003)