Monday 6 April 2020

'a dock for every nettle'

You might think that, in the circumstances, I'd be getting down to some serious reading now – as many, I believe, are. In fact, leaving aside my 'dipping into' activities, I have read only two volumes in recent weeks, both notably slim, both by Alan Garner. These are The Stone Book Quartet (four vignettes of moments in his family's life across four generations, each centred on a child) and the less well known memoir of his own early boyhood, Where Shall We Run To?
  The Stone Book stories are extraordinary pieces of writing, startlingly vivid, pared down to the bone (or the stone) and written, in short sentences, in a highly distinctive language, rich in Cheshire dialect words.  Much the same can be said of Where Shall We Run To?, a memoir written entirely from inside the young Alan's head: this is not a case of the adult Garner looking back on his boyhood, but rather re-entering his boyhood sensibility in an act of total immersion made possible only by his remarkably sharp and retentive memory. Reviewing it, Rowan Williams described it as 'a really astonishing re-creation of a child's sensibility in its depth and narrowness and almost unbearable vividness'. Which is exactly right, but the memoir is also skilfully and subtly crafted.
  As with the Stone Book stories, the sense of place, of being ensconced in a particular place, its past and present, its language and lore, is the strongest force at work. Garner deliberately cuts his own story off at the point where his young self gains a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, because that marks the end of a life embedded in the community of his home village (Alderley Edge, where his family has lived for centuries) and his departure for what is in effect another world. The disjunction is almost brutal, though young Alan doesn't realise it at first:

'... my mother was waiting for me as the end of School Lane when lessons were over. She told me I'd won a scholarship.
  That evening, the Gang were playing round the sand patch. It was Ticky-on-Wood. Harold's mother came out of the house. Her face was different. "Well, Alan," she said, "you won't want to speak to us any more."
   I didn't understand. I felt something go and not come back.'

But leaving junior school behind was also a liberation (in particular from a brutal teacher known as Twiggy). Where Shall We Run To? ends on a joyful note:

'... we went out of the door into the playground for the last time.
  Between the school gateposts there was a strip of brass let into the ground; and this was our plan.
  While we were on the playground side of the strip we were still at school. We would not have left until we had crossed it. We would cross; but Twiggy couldn't. He never could.
  John and I held hands and ran. We ran from the playground, jumped over the brass, and were out; out under the sky and the white fluffy clouds with the gold and the glint of the weathercock burning to the wind.'

That weathercock, atop the spire of St Philip's church in Alderley Edge, is a leitmotif of The Stone Book Quartet.
  Appended to Where Shall We Run To? are three short pieces, each returning to a theme from the body of the book: the finding of a bomb, the presence of evacuee children in the village, and an incident from early in the book, The Nettling of Harold. This describes an experiment conducted by the endlessly curious Alan on his hapless friend Harold.

'Next to the air-raid shelter there was a great clump of nettles, Roman nettles, purple-stemmed, the worst.
  I was standing by the clump with Harold, and I thought of the pain of one nettle. Here there were ever so many, hundreds. How much pain would that be? Would rubbing dock leaves on be enough to cure it? If one nettle made me cry, what would these do? It was a big question; a scientific question. I must find the answer.
  I moved behind Harold, put both hands between his shoulders, and pushed him in...'

  Fifty years later, quite out of the blue, Garner meets Harold again. He has followed a very different, non-academic, path in life, but has developed a passion for history and has a detailed, intimate knowledge of Alderley Edge, having never left it. Garner recommends him for a committee on which he is sitting, the Alderley Edge Landscape Project, and Harold drives the project forward vigorously, extending it beyond its initial remit. The Project's report was published in due course:

'On publication, the editor named Harold as a driving force of the Project. And at Harold's funeral, one of the academics thanked me for having urged his cause.
 There is a dock for every nettle.'

  These are two wonderful short books, but I feel it is time I tackled something big now, some chunky masterpiece I've never read before. To this end, I shall soon be embarking on Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, a novel I've been meaning to read for years. This might be a big mistake. We'll see...