There was a jigsaw we had when I was five, a map of Britain with illustrations of the places that matter. Two of these lodged in my imagination: the limestone wonder of the Cheddar Gorge, and the great dish of the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank. ‘We know the people who live next to Jodrell Bank,’ my mum told me, and this seemed a magical proposition. It was.
By the time I started piecing together the jigsaw, our families were just about in Christmas card contact, but for a while in the early seventies, my mum had been a regular guest at Toad Hall. Her friendship with the Garners began on a children’s ward in Manchester, where she was nursing one of Alan’s daughters. Later, their hospitality became a place to turn in a dark moment of her life. The pieces of that story have come out slowly over the years, but from the way she spoke, I had the sense that these people and this place had shown her a great kindness. And when I finally found my own way up the bumpy track to Blackden, by which time I must have been about the age she was when she found refuge there, I knew that I was arriving at a place of sanctuary.
Before that, there were the books. The Weirdstone, read for the first time on a rainy holiday in Swaledale, then racing on to the end of The Moon of Gomrath where the afternote was a first clue to the thoroughness behind the momentum of the telling. (‘The spells are genuine,’ Alan noted, ‘though incomplete: just in case.’) Like so many others, I was hooked, waiting for the arrival of the later books, returning to their pages and always finding more. There is something here that feeds a hunger in us, a hunger that is hard to name in the words our culture has to offer.
There are no favourites, but one book stands out because I find it hard to know who I would be if it hadn’t turned up when it did. The Voice That Thunders was published the summer I was about to go up to Oxford and I carried it like a secret through the next three years. Under the bombardments of the graduate recruitment brigade, I would find shelter in Joseph Garner’s quietly brutal careers advice: ‘Always take as long as the job tells you’ and ‘If the other feller can do it, let him!’ (There was another spell, only this time with no safety catch, no words left out.) The effect of reading that book that summer was to awaken a sense of loss that was also a coming alive. As if a grief that had been a background greyness, taken for reality itself, was lifted into focus, could now be felt, honoured, lived through.
For a bewildered young man from the north of England, entering the unforgiving world of Oxford, this was a kind of armour. It didn’t matter that I was unable to explain to my tutors or my peers why Alan’s work mattered so much. My explanations would have been too personal, unintelligible within the language we were being taught to use. When I suggested to Craig Raine that I write on Garner for the 20th century paper in Mods, he said it was a touching thought, but I should really focus on authors of the first rank, which revealed his ignorance and saved us both a deal of pain. (Though another tutor, the great Shakespearean A.D. Nuttall, gleamed when I mentioned Alan’s name.)
A first-rate academic education often resembles a half-complete shamanic initiation. The initiate’s body of beliefs is cut to pieces, the head severed from the heart. She is taught to analyse or deconstruct anyone’s way of making sense of the world, including her own. Yet the institution overseeing this operation scarcely recognises the reconstruction that must follow, if the young person passing through its care is to emerge whole.
In the depths of that initiation, little of what had come with me to Oxford still made sense, but these books did. They offered a refuge of meaning that I knew was not escapism. That their author had proven himself in the tutorial room and then chosen to walk away from this world was part of their power. What followed, in the journey from The Weirdstone to The Stone Book, was evidence that the severing need not be final, that head and heart could be brought back together, within our culture, even if the cost of this was indeed “total war, by which I mean total life, on the divisive forces within the individual and within society.”
Later, by the fireplace at Toad Hall, Alan told me about the meeting with his tutor when he had made the decision to leave Oxford and try to write. ‘Do it,’ the tutor said, ‘and if you find that you don’t have what it takes, then come back next year, and no one will think the less of you. But if you find that you do, then you will have to create a Magdalen of your own.’
That was what he had done, I thought — he and Griselda — in the net of fellowship that gathers around their kitchen table and stretches to the corners of the world. I was drawn into the net after a talk that Alan gave at the Temenos Academy in London. I had asked a question that caught his attention, then stayed behind to pass on greetings from my mum to Griselda. When she recovered from bouncing with excitement and discovered that I was working on something called the School of Everything, Griselda decided that I must be enlisted to assist the Blackden Trust.
So I found myself bumping up that track to the house in the middle of a field, the telescope looming like a great white Grail behind it. As we walked from room to room, Alan told the stories of the place and handed me objects that I knew without ever having seen: the stone book, the little whizzler, the Bunty. Just as awe was in danger of taking over, the thought struck that this shy, funny, brilliant man was also still the boy in the wartime photograph, that he was sharing these treasures just the way a small child will make friends by sharing his toys.
On the visits that followed, I got to know the Trust in action. It is a school in the truest sense: a place that offers the leisure to slow down, to deepen your attention, to notice the unexpected and to draw out its implications with rigour. Young people learn to look hard, to ask a question and follow where it leads, to test ideas and always to pursue the anomaly. They do so in the company of experts of the highest standing who are unafraid to display the limits of their knowledge or to explore their disagreements with good humour.
I have sat in its grounds as we knapped flint, under the guidance of a professor of archaeology, listening as the conversation gave way to silence, as the rhythm of our tapping fell into unison and the realisation spread among the group that this sound was being heard on this spot for the first time in ten thousand years. Another time, when Ronald Hutton led a seminar on the Civil War and one of our group was moved to tears, I understood that it was possible to carry out the work of the historian, with all academic diligence, and at the same time to perform an older and more universal task: to honour the dead in such a way as to give meaning to the living.
Ivan Illich once described the climate which he had sought to foster in the meeting places he had helped to create, and it is a description that makes me think of Blackden: ‘Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.’
Around that table, you never know what field the conversation will enter next, and it was on one of those evenings that I first heard talk of ‘cryptic northern refugia’. Once upon a time, a species like the oak was thought to have survived the last Ice Age only at the southern edges of Europe, from where it marched out again across the continent in waves, over centuries, to reseed the warming landscape. Now we know how fast that warming came — seven degrees in a decade, at the end of the Younger Dryas — and the palaeoecologists keep finding traces of plants and animals in times and places where they should not have been. So the old model has given way to a new hypothesis: in certain places, pockets of leafy woodland endured, protected by their own microclimates, harbouring isolated communities of creatures which would otherwise only have survived far to the south. These northern refugia were cryptic, so small as to barely leave a trace in the record, but the sites identified lie in steep-sided valleys, where high and low ground meet. Places such as Cheddar Gorge, or Ludchurch.
There is a path that leads from here to Boneland, but I want to turn back instead to The Voice That Thunders and a glint of that vein of creative anger that runs through Alan’s work: an anger, by his own description, ‘at once personal, social, political, philosophical and linguistic.’ Addressing an audience of headteachers, invited to speak on ‘The Development of the Spiritual’, he issues a warning against the rise of a materialism which can see the world only through the lens of accountancy, which turns all to commodity, which appropriates competence in all fields of human affairs, from the classroom to the publishing house, and which, if unresisted, will usher in ‘a spiritual Ice Age’.
Twenty years on, the ice has spread further across the social landscape, and few institutions are untouched. ‘The new world economic order,’ as John Berger terms it, is a totalisation of the process of enclosure which the land man brought to Thursbitch. What is the shape of hope in such a landscape? ‘The shape of a pocket,’ Berger answers. ‘A small pocket of resistance.’ The image is borrowed from Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas. Its smallness reflects the distance both men have travelled from the grand historical expectations of revolution, their Marxism tempered by the experience of the peasants of the Haute Savoie or the indigenous people of Chiapas. Perhaps because Berger writes in the same book about the cave art of the Palaeolithic, I hear a rhyme between the political and the prehistoric. If there is hope left, in this Ice Age, it is in the hidden pockets, the refugia too small to seem significant.
‘Resistance is growing,’ Alan tells the headteachers. ‘Especially amongst artists.’ The enclosure is never quite total; the hills will outlast the walls. That which is supposed to be lost often turns out only to be dormant, marginalised, walking the edges, or gone underground. In the darkest hour, that which is meant to be obsolete may yet make all the difference. The Trickster spirit will always get aback of those who only see the things that can be measured, counted and priced.
And in the meantime, there are always the pockets, the hidden corners of conviviality, the cryptic northern refugia, the places that matter. If that long-inhabited patch of ground across the railway tracks from the telescope at Jodrell Bank is such a place, the same is true of the pages of the magical books that have been written there.
Published in First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, edited by Erica Wagner (Unbound, 2016)