One of my earliest memories is of dabbling in the waterbutt at the back of my great uncle’s house in Whickamford. He grew plums and his orchard seemed to begin right outside his veranda in a clutter of hosepipes, baskets and tools. His waterbutt was an old steel drum, full sized and black as pitch. It was all surface glitter and reflection above an unknown, unexplorable depth.
Water has always fascinated me. Mum called me a waterbaby – happy and absorbed, splashing and pouring, up to my elbows in sinks and bowls.
Later swimming became my thing – especially underwater. I was inspired by Hans and Lottie Haas to practice holding my breath in the bath. It was a constant grievance that flippers – let alone snorkels – were strictly forbidden at the local ‘bathers’ – although I still went everyday that they were open in the summer.
I was disproportionately proud of swimming a whole length underwater. In my defence it was almost the sole sporting achievement of my boyhood.
All of these memories came flooding back this summer when I installed a waterbutt in my own garden and found myself – not much changed in truth – gazing into its depths, still drawn to – well, I still had no words for what it was that drew me – until I came across this poem of Seamus Heaney’s, and there seemed nothing more to say.
Personal Helicon for Michael Longley
As a child, they could not keep me from wells And old pumps with buckets and windlasses. I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top. I savoured the rich crash when a bucket Plummeted down at the end of a rope. So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch Fructified like any aquarium. When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call With a clean new music in it. And one Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Reading Geoff Dyer’s essay about Camus (filled with so much wisdom and beauty) and came across this passage. Dyer is in Algiers on a sort of tribute tour of the places that helped form Camus’ world. Walking one day he passes a group of boys playing football and writes:
‘As I continue walking the sun bursts out again, making the bank of cloud smoulder green-black, luminous over the sea. Perched between the road and the sea, between sun and cloud, some boys are playing football in a prairie blaze of light. The pitch glows the colour of rust. The ball is kicked high and all the potential of these young lives is concentrated on it. As the ball hangs there, moon-white against the wall of cloud, everything in the world seems briefly up for grabs and I am seized by two contradictory feelings:
there is so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment.‘
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!
I’m guessing everyone knows this – but I only found it today, and it seemed like something I needed to read:
Think of those that marched this road before
And those that will march here in years to come
The road in shadow and the road in the sun
The road before us and the road all done
History is watching us and what will we become
There is power and strength in optimism
To have faith and to stay true to you
Because if you can look in the mirror
And have belief and promise you
Will share wonder in living things
Beauty, dreams, books and art
Love your neighbour and be kind
And have an open heart
Then you’re already winning at living
You speak up, you show up and stand tall
It’s silence that is complicit
It’s apathy that hurts us all
Pessimism is for lightweights
There is no straight white line
It’s the bumps and curves and obstacles
That make this time yours and mine
Pessimism is for lightweights
Pessimism is for lightweights
This road is never easy and straight
And living is all about living alive and lively
And love will conquer hate