I could spend the whole day watching sun and shadow play on those hills and not think it wasted
I’ve loved Alan Garner’s books ever since I first read The Owl Service – and then wolfed down – Elidor, The Wierdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath. When Red Shift was published – in the Autumn of 1973 – I bought it in hardback – a rare event in those days – and read it at a sitting.
I remember shutting the book finally (carefully) at about 3.00 in the morning; getting out of bed and making my way to the bathroom across the landing – with the uneasy feeling that shadows were slipping off the wall behind me and that a false step might take me out of my safe home in Evesham into the strangeness that was always hovering – you now knew – at the edge of vision.
(If anyone is interested there is a great discussion about Red Shift on the brilliant Backlisted Podcast)
It was the podcast that put me on to The Voice That Thunders – a collection of Garner’s Essays and Lectures – which are just as rich and fierce and individual as the fiction itself.
This, for example, describes more clearly than anything I have read before, what, in my heart, I am always hoping to find in every book I read. Garner writes:
I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not for instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, “literature” is: words that provoke response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is but an option.
Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.
It is a paradox: yet one so important that I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.
Garner adds – unnecessarily to my mind – that he is:
…using the word “myth” not as meaning “fiction” or “unhistorical”, but as a complex of story that, for various reasons, human beings see as demonstrations of the inner cause of the universe and of human life. Myth is quite different from philosophy in the sense of abstract concepts. The form of myth is concrete always, yet it holds those qualities that demand of the human mind that it recognise a revelation of the function behind the world.
Of course he is. You can find the Voice That Thunders here.
Afterthought – Garner’s story of his own childhood – Where Shall We Run To? – about growing up in the shadow of war, illness and Alderley Edge – is marvellous too. Seek it out!
Lovely piece about The Swift in the LRB:
“Weighing less than a hen’s egg, with wings like a scythe and a tail like a fork, they eat and sleep on the wing. They gather nesting material only from what’s in the air, which means that there have been accounts of still-flapping butterflies wedged in among the leaves and twigs. They mate in brief mid-sky collisions, the only birds in the world to do so, and to wash they hunt down clouds and fly through gentle rain, slowly, wings outstretched.“
I remember, at university, mobs of Swifts lapping the central courtyard of the halls of residence. The screeching and screaming echoed on those warm spring evenings distracting me from my revision.
We’ve seen them every year high above our back garden until recently. They always seemed a sort of confirmation – of the natural order of things I suppose – of spring and summer, of distances safely travelled, of continuity.
I don’t remember seeing any last year; this spring only two birds circled and didn’t screech. But, as the piece notes, populations dropped by 57% between 1995 and 2016 apparently – so I guess we should be grateful that two have been spared, for another year at least.
The terrible emptying of our world of any creature other than ourselves makes a lament for the loss of just one species seem almost superficial. But Swifts are such marvels! Their arrangements for sleeping, for example:
Most remarkable of all is their night. Swifts can find a state of unihemispheric sleep; they shut off one half of their brain at a time, while the other remains functioning, alert to changes in the wind, so that the bird wakes in exactly the same place where it fell asleep; or, if migrating, on the precise course it set itself. The left side closes first, then the right, so that it sways a little in the air as it sleeps. Chaucer knew it long before we did: in the Canterbury Tales he wrote about small birds who ‘slepen al the nyght with open ye’. And a French pilot during the First World War, flying by the light of a full moon on a reconnaissance mission near Vosges, saw a ghostly cloud of them, apparently hovering entirely still in the air: ‘As we came to about ten thousand feet … we suddenly found ourselves among a strange flight of birds which seemed to be motionless, or at least showed no noticeable reaction. They were widely scattered and only a few yards below the aircraft, showing up against a white sea of cloud underneath. None was visible above us. We were soon in the middle of the flock.’ Nobody believed him, at the time: it seemed impossible, because swifts do seem impossible.
Worth reading in full (it’s not very long) and it’s a wonderful homage to this marvellous bird: