Alan Garner: ‘You don’t want to have a brilliant idea for a novel at the age of 87’

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Alan Garner has ever feared unexpectedly dying earlier helium finishes the publication he’s moving on. It means that this astir beloved of writers – whose works consciousness chiselled from the Cheshire scenery of his home, and whose devoted fans scope from Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman to Margaret Atwood – keeps joking that he’s written his past book.

He did it erstwhile Boneland, the haunting sequel to his children’s novels The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, was published successful 2012. He did it erstwhile his puerility memoir, Where Shall We Run To?, came retired successful 2018. “Given that it takes maine betwixt 5 and 9 years to constitute a novel,” helium said astatine the time, “the gag runs a spot sour erstwhile you’re successful your aboriginal 80s.” Three years later, having conscionable turned 87, Garner has written Treacle Walker, a portion of story and magic that lone helium could person produced, successful which a young boy, Joe Coppock, is drawn into the satellite of “glamourie” – which sits alongside and wrong his ain satellite – erstwhile a rag-and-bone antheral comes to his door.

“This lifelong fearfulness meant I did anserine things. In the days earlier computers, I carried the sole manuscript to The Owl Service astir with me, and there’s thing much unsafe than doing that,” says Garner, erstwhile his wife, Griselda, has sorted retired his Zoom. “But a friend, who’s precise cynical and precise helpful, said I conscionable person to travel to presumption with the information that determination volition beryllium thing near undone. It’s OK to beryllium frightened successful your 20s. But erstwhile you’re 87, and mean 9 years a publication …”

In Treacle Walker, a spare, uncanny book, Joe exchanges a brace of pyjamas and a lamb’s enarthrosis leaf for a near-empty jar of medicine and a donkey stone, a benignant of scouring block. Touching the remains of what’s near successful the jar to his oculus shifts the veil betwixt the mundane and the unusual – and helium sees a antheral beryllium up successful a bog to talk to him.

‘I carried the sole manuscript astir   with maine  – and there’s thing  much  unsafe  than that’ … Gillian Hills, Francis Wallis and Michael Holden successful  the 1969 TV adaptation of The Owl Service.
‘I carried the sole manuscript astir with maine – and there’s thing much unsafe than that’ … Gillian Hills, Francis Wallis and Michael Holden successful the 1969 TV adaptation of The Owl Service. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

The caller caller has its roots successful a speech Garner had successful 2012 with his person Bob Cywinski, a particle physicist. Cywinski had been quizzing Garner astir wherever helium got his ideas. “He’s dealing with questions arising from the observed universe, and I could not get crossed to him that I didn’t cognize wherever I got the ideas from, that they benignant of emerged, and that bothered him.”

The adjacent day, they were walking unneurotic crossed Castle Hill, an robust property elevation fort successful Huddersfield. “Just inconsequentially, Bob told maine astir a humanities character, a section tramp called Walter Helliwell, known arsenic Treacle Walker. He was a healer, claiming to beryllium capable to cure each things but jealousy. And I looked astatine Bob and said, ‘You retrieve past night? Well, conscionable marque a enactment that connected the day of Sunday 15 July 2012, you’ve fixed maine an idea, and you’ve fixed maine a book.”

What had snagged Garner’s attraction was the archetypal meaning of treacle: medicine. “But Walter Helliwell, a tramp, couldn’t person cognize that, and that was however I knew thing was there.”

The thought had to “brew nebulously” for immoderate time, derailed aft Garner’s enactment connected an oral past task with Manchester University prompted the fragmentary puerility memoir Where Shall We Run To?, elements from which look successful Treacle Walker. Garner’s publication to the oral enactment was his representation of his grandfather’s relationship of the fable of Alderley Edge, successful which a husbandman sells his achromatic mare to an aged antheral who turns retired to beryllium a wizard and leads him to a sleeping service of knights wrong the elevation – the ground for Weirdstone. “It was his truth, a portion of him, which helium passed on,” writes Garner. “Here is however helium told it. And it is the mode of the telling that is important.

“Doing the project, I recovered that talking to my contemporaries, we could each retrieve a fixed event, but erstwhile we compared notes, determination were arsenic galore versions of that representation arsenic determination were radical to retrieve it. And I realised that oral past was arsenic unreliable arsenic documentary history. At the extremity of the oral history, determination were truthful galore fragments lying astir that were valuable, and hadn’t got in, truthful I swept them into a benignant of intelligence file, and fto them gestate. Then I heard a dependable talking wrong my head. And it was me. It was a implicit reconstruction of childhood, and each I had to bash was constitute it down, honestly, but not interest astir the subjectivity of it all.”

‘Autobiography? Pretentious muck’ … Garner astatine  location  successful  Cheshire.
‘Autobiography? Pretentious muck’ … Garner astatine location successful Cheshire. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Garner says the “historian successful me” had ever stopped him from wanting to constitute an autobiography. “It’s perfectly pretentious muck, and anyway, it’s lone determination to beforehand egos. But I recovered a crushed for doing it, and truthful I conscionable listened to the voice.”

Treacle Walker, meanwhile, had been “on the backmost hob, stewing”. “Having immersed myself successful the puerility memories, and having talked to contemporaries of excavation for the oral archive, I’d reopened a long-closed lexicon, and the code rhythms were determination successful my caput from my childhood. That gave maine Where Shall We Run To? and past that gave maine – not consciously, I’m being omniscient aft the lawsuit – the format for Treacle Walker.”

Only aft he’d finished penning the caller did helium realise however overmuch it drew from his ain life, from the outcry of the rag-and-bone antheral to the bits astir Knockout comics. “A person work the manuscript and said, ‘You’ve done it again – you’ve written your autobiography.’ Bob Cywinski gave maine grief erstwhile I said, ‘I’m ne'er going to constitute an autobiography.’ He said: ‘That’s due to the fact that you’ve ne'er written thing else.’ Who needs enemies!”

Garner has agelong been preoccupied with time. As a child, helium suffered from 3 agelong illnesses – diptheria, meningitis and pneumonia – each bringing him adjacent to decease and confining him to furniture for agelong periods. The ceiling helium stared astatine became three-dimensional and clip became elastic. “The ceiling had showed maine that clip was not simply a clock,” helium writes successful his 1997 postulation of essays and talks, The Voice That Thunders. Treacle Walker opens with a punctuation from the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli: “time is ignorance.” Garner says: “Rovelli was putting into technological presumption what I person known each my life. It’s a child’s view.”

Garner is simply a meticulous researcher. He took the clip to larn Welsh portion penning the Carnegie medal-winning The Owl Service, based connected the mythical Welsh pistillate Blodeuwedd and adapted for a 1969 TV series. And he’s been chatting with Cywinski astir whether it is theoretically imaginable for clip to tally backwards. “What quantum physics does amusement you is that we are modelling our beingness successful bid to header with it,” helium says, “because there’s nary specified happening arsenic now. Because you’re looking astatine me, and I’m looking astatine you, and we’re ruled by the velocity of light, but that is besides finite. And truthful I’m looking astatine you and you’re looking astatine maine successful the past.”

Joe Coppock’s location successful Treacle Walker, and the chimney abstraction wherever helium and his tramp talk of important things, is simply a mentation of the Old Medicine House, a timber-framed gathering that was built astir 450 years agone successful Wrinehill successful Staffordshire, and saved from demolition by the Garners aft it fell into disrepair. They oversaw its disassembly and removal to Blackden successful Cheshire, 20 miles away, wherever it was rebuilt and present sits alongside the Garner location adjacent Alderley Edge, an country wherever Garners person lived since astatine slightest 1592 and wherever Alan and Griselda person been contentedly shielding during Covid times. “I person made it precise hard for the shields to beryllium removed,” says Garner.

Treacle Walker is dedicated to “MGS”, which is Manchester Grammar School, astatine which Garner won a spot by passing his 11-plus. It was an acquisition that would pb to Oxford (although helium near without completing his classics degree) and besides to alienation from his household and his community. “You go a pariah to your ain household and a impermanent man to society,” says Garner. “There’s a dreadful isolation it produces, successful the removal from a working-class inheritance into an world background. It leaves the idiosyncratic stranded.”

Without Manchester Grammar School, however, Garner feels it is improbable helium would person written immoderate of his novels, from Elidor and Red Shift to Thursbitch, Strandloper and Treacle Walker. “MGS is the constituent without which I would ne'er person been capable to write,” helium says. “Joseph Coppock is the maine I could person go if I’d not had the terrible world grooming that I did. Treacle Walker is what I could person go if I hadn’t jumped vessel astatine Oxford and got disconnected the roadworthy to academia.”

This clip round, helium has nary volition of saying this is his past book. “I’m feeling conscionable a flimsy queasiness,” helium says. “I don’t privation to person a superb thought astatine 87 – but I’m acrophobic there’s 1 tickling.”