Tuesday, 19 July 2022
Well, dear friends and subscribers, after six months of feeling rotten and getting very little done, I seem to have turned a corner. So I was able to fulfil my commitment to give a talk to the Keble College/University of Oxford conference organised by Diane Purkiss last week. The title of the talk was "All that he owned": Alan Garner and the Sentient Landscape. Many of you will know of my longterm interest in this great writer, so I imagine there will be some overlap here. If anyone wants the whole thing, let me know, but here is a section I thought might be of interest.
In Garner’s novel The Owl Service, set in a claustrophobic Welsh valley that is haunted by the ghosts of the past and the pent-up energy of a myth that must be reinacted and relived by each generation, he uses the word "own" in an intense scene between the adolescent Gwyn and the man he does not yet know is his father, the gardener Huw Halfbacon. Gwyn says abruptly, “You don’t own the place, man.” Huw’s reply is:
“’Don’t I?’ . . . ‘Oh, their name is on the books of the law, but I own the ground, the mountain, the valley: I own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries: the dark cave is mine!’” 
And this passage echoes through Garner’s most recent novel, Treacle Walker, in which the boy Joseph Coppock follows the call of a cuckoo into an alder bog where he meets Thin Amren, a bog body who is a kind of ancestral keeper of the land. Thin Amren has been woken by the cuckoo’s call, and later in the book Joseph must stake his body back into the bog in which Thin Amren “dreams all that is and is not”.  If he does not do this, “Then cuckoo shall rule over nothingness.” .This magical cuckoo has been summoned into being by Joseph playing its song on a flute made from the shin-bone of an unnamed “man that sang”.  He plays the flute in the sacred space of the central chimney of the Old Medicine House at Blackden, the Axis mundi, “the heart of all that is”. 
After Joseph has a moment of deep visionary connection with that landscape.”He went back down, by Little Sand Field and Big Sand Field, Well Meadow, over the plank bridge into Rough Meadow to Common Dean, along the path between the marl pits’ black and flat waters without life.” [93-4]
Thin Amren’s alder bog also features in Garner’s story-cum-memoir, “The Common Dean”, in the collection of woodland writing Arboreal, edited by Adrian Cooper. For it is the alder bog on Garner’s property Blackden, which is now the Blackden Trust, and that property is also the house where Joseph Coppock lives and the land he “owns”. Here is Alan Garner, writing of himself in the third person, coming back from the “black water and black mud”  of the alder bog:
“Then, he left the coppice and went along the valley of the Common Dean, following the brook upstream by the old road through the tunnel under the railway, its arch curtained with a drape of ivy, to the trees of the marl pits.
Here the world was different. There was no guzzling bog, but a green causeway reclaimed by bramble and alder; sycamore, hazel, ash, and strays seeded by birds, with space and light to grow; and celandine in season, and the wild garlic smell.
And on either side of the causeway lay the pools of the pits, eyes of black water dug to get marl, the lime-rich clay beneath the silt, to fetch life to the hungry sands of the field.” 
This subtlety of observed detail is crucial to a writer whose storytelling is quickened to life by landscape. Indeed in his earliest books, the landscape is almost more compelling and vivid than the characters. It is significant, I think, that in Garner’s first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, published in 1960, the first thing the reader encounters is not a descriptive sentence or a character, but a map—a map of the Edge, Alderley Edge, Garner’s spiritual home, and the surrounding countryside in which and below which the children in the book experience their thrilling adventures.