Where Shall We Run To?: A Memoir

Alan Garner

4th Estate, £14.99

Review by Brian Morton

Almost exactly half way through Where Shall We Run To?, at the end of a chapter called “Widdershins”, there comes a voice from the earth. It happens at a place up on Alderley Edge called the Devil’s Gravestone. Run round it three times and the Devil will get you. Young Alan tries it while his father looks out at the view: “a screech came out of the ground beneath my feet, and screams and groans and cackling and moaning, and pebbles flirted from under the stone, and out of the trench, and sand and bits of twig, and there was a stamping sound in the cave and more screeches”. There you have it; not so much the Alan Garner of eldritch magic and daemonic power, but the Alan Garner who writes, thinks and, for 83 years has lived geologically, embedded in his native Cheshire, instinct with its landscape and its stones.

It matters not a bit that the “Devil” underground was the boy’s uncle, the diabolical invocation a practical joke worked up in the pub, and the father’s intense interest in a familiar view a way of keeping premature laughter at bay. The Garners belong intensely to a landscape that is riddled with caves, old workings and sudden collapses; the afternoon I read the “Widdershins” chapter, a sink-hole appeared in a street in Alderley Edge, taking a car with it. And when at the beginning of that chapter you come across a line like “My Hough grandad had helped his own grandad to build the wall”, you realise how profoundly this writer is rooted in his place, and why it matters to the young Alan that a forebear should have carved his name in “Real Writing” (i.e. cursive) on a rock, or carved faces onto apparently unclimbable stretches of cliff face.

This is a book very much about reading and writing, about the marks that we use to give life meaning, whether they are a tramp’s chalk-mark on a wall – three circles for “money may be given here” or an open rectangle for “spin them a tale” – or the comics and Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopaedia that allow young Alan to get past block capitals and closer to Real Writing. It is also a book written without a single scrap of hindsight, or rationalisation of the past. When Alan writes “My father joined the army to guard us against Hitler at Rhyl”, we don’t smirk at Mr Garner’s unheroic war service; we believe with his son that Hitler is expected momentarily and in person on the North Wales coast, and we feel the pride and the anxiety in due part. We see the childhood not through prisms of psychoanalysis or adult signification, but as the childhood saw it and sought to understand it. The grey pot bottle that might have been a wartime incendiary retains its explosive potential until PC Pessle “defuses” it and tells the boys how responsible they’ve been to bring it to his notice. We are guiltily aware every time a kindly old gentleman with white hair takes the boys into his confidence that we are waiting for an inappropriate hand on an inappropriate part of the body, and we are guiltily aware of a sigh of relief at the recognition that a form of innocence we have long since hidden behind “safeguarding” and Disclosures really did once exist, in some lives and places at least.

The language of the memoir lacks editorial intervention, too. Dialect words are lightly used: “strug”, “skrawked”, “mardy-arse”, “flirt”, as above, in the sense of flicking or squirting. The adult reader with even a modicum of classical education recognises that a storytelling grandma’s persona of Mrs E. Paminondas is a reference to Epaminondas, who saved Thebes from the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. The adult reader with no such learning is given the reference from the Children’s Encyclopaedia, exactly as young Alan finds it.

This, then, is a writer’s memoir. Though it makes no reference whatsoever to them, it provides the background to Garner’s first books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath; if you’ve read The Weirdstone, you’ll know the legend of the Devil’s Grave already and recognise the landscape described in Where Shall We Run To?. Garner later disowned both books as unsatisfactory, despite revisions, only completing a trilogy, begun in 1960, half a century later in 2012 with Boneland. This truly is geological writing. Garner might seem the embodiment of that much-overquoted line of Joan Didion’s from The White Album that “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image”. That might be used to describe Garner, except that none of her words really quite applies, and certainly not to this memoir. He lays no claim, remembers without obsession or trauma, does nothing to “wrench” Alderley Edge out of its natural place, and does less to shape and render the landscape than his stonecutting forebears did. That he loves it is obvious, but simply rather than radically, and with no desire to remake it. The miracle of Garner’s writing is that there is no “Garnerland”. His place is what it always was. The rocks are mineral, the plants and animals quicken and die in the natural way, the devils are all human and not so very devilish after all. It is surprising – though it shouldn’t be – how little magic, how little of the metaphysical, there is here. The narrative is thoroughly secular and humane. There are a couple of latter day entries, carefully dated, bringing names and faces from the past up to date. Still no hindsight, but they give the narrative a certain symmetry and, from the memory of a childhood prank or cruel experiment, deliver one devastating conclusion: “There is a dock for every nettle”.