Visionaries who shaped me – Alan Garner

I didn’t grow up with a theology. But I made one out of the insights gleaned from my adopted grandparents. Who didn’t know me. Who I never met. Yet who exerted such enormous influence over my sense of place, history, belonging and spiritual possibility at a young age, and whose worth evoked from me so much love, that I consider them the best sort of grandparents. Two writers, a man and a woman. Great writers, worthy of veneration.

I’ll start with Alan Garner.

I discovered him when I was about twelve with a book called The Owl Service. A short, strange book, mainly dialogue, it vividly sketched the Welsh landscape and the people caught by its animistic power. It was a story of wronged gods, a story that played itself out in each generation of people who lived there. I was gripped. Something in me woke then. Other books of his also had the same strong darkness and aliveness of places, but not ‘bad’ darkness, just power, creativity, implacability.

Later, after my own strange initiation, Garner’s work became vital to me. He wrote a book about his creative process called The Voice That Thunders, and I treated that library book in a shameless way – its words felt as if they seared my skin, and repeatedly I threw it from me as hard as I could, and curled up for a time and cried. Reading it now I can’t find what caused such a visceral reaction – because it was processed then, claimed, and transformed.

He wrote about being an artist with manic depression, which I have some experience of, he wrote of being an Indigenous person of Cheshire, then educated out of that, then reclaiming his lineage, brilliantly revealing the belonging/modern/post-modern journey many of us can relate to. And he wrote of how Australian Aboriginal philosophy helped him understand the oral history of his own family, passed down for hundreds of years in the place he was born to. He wrote of falling into a depression so intense that he barely moved for two years, then waking from that one day and spending the next twelve years writing a fiction book about a real man, whose family lived in his village, who was transported to Australia – Melbourne, in 1802, for the crime of committing pagan ceremony. That real man was William Buckley, who escaped and lived for 35 years with Kulin people. Garner’s book about him – Strandloper – is full of untranslated Cheshire dialect and Kulin languages – his work is about sound, word magic, words of power. It is extremely strange, and viciously powerful. I felt like I was read by the book, rather than the other way around, and when I got to the end, I realised he had done something almost impossible. He had heard, and transcribed, a Dreaming, a bridge from European to Australian animism, and he pulled the Dreaming through, making a link vital for this Country’s aliveness, via his madness, intensity, commitment.

He doesn’t, but I would, call him a shaman of high degree. His writing is almost pure spell. And while he doesn’t title himself, he tells his own story with full awareness of its mythic significance – of how he heard himself pronounced dead three times as a child from three different and brutal illnesses, and each time he fought off death and came back to life.

I hope to convert some of you to the cult of Garner. If you’re going to enter his world, I would suggest to start with The Stone Book Quartet, then The Owl Service, then read Strandloper and The Voice That Thunders together. Then maybe Thursbitch, or Red Shift. Then talk to me. Because he won’t. He’s 87, and still hasn’t replied to my letters. Ahh, unrequited love! (Of the grandfatherly type!)

If you’d like to learn more, here’s a wonderful series of appropriately strange documentaries made about, and with, him.


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