'I saw how the roads joined and made one big road, and I could ride from our house anywhere, to my great-grandad at Tamworth, if I wanted, and all the way to the sea.' (After being given a cyclists' map, in 'Bike', p 149)
In many respects this post is something of a footnote to the one I wrote in June (see First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner).
However that may not give an altogether fair impression of the importance (and quality) of this latest title. Alan Garner, now well into his 80s, has not published an original new book since 2012*. Until now that is. So the arrival of Where Shall We Run To? has to be remarkable, another milestone in the career of an author who changed radically our understanding of what children's literature can be, and who changed it incalculably for the richer. He is a writer who forged much of what children's fiction has since become in the furnace of his remarkable imagination, his intelligent insight, and his deeply grounded awareness of heritage. So even though he has not written anything that could remotely be called a children's book for more than forty years now, any new book of his still has to be a remarkable event. And such it is.
What Where Shall We Run To? is not, is a new masterpiece - at least not on the level of earlier, stronger contenders for this particular accolade. But that does not prevent its being a sparkling little gem, and a most welcome addition to his oeuvre. Perhaps, in this respect, it is something of a footnote too, albeit far from an inconsequential one.
Childhood on The Edge
The book itself recalls a number of episodes and incidents from Alan Garner's childhood, before, during and just after WWII. At the end are also a small number of further 'updates'. Told with superficial simplicity and directness these anecdotes are not presented in strictly chronological order, but together build a picture of his life, temperament, personality and preoccupations over the period until he leaves what we would now call 'primary' school, having passed a scholarship to Manchester Grammar.
What these vignettes are, more than anything is, compellingly vivid. This is primarily because, Alan Garner does not appear to be reflecting in retrospect, but rather captures the voice and mind of the child he was. He see again through his own much younger eyes, he understands only as he understood then, he notices only what he noticed at the time. He relives each moment of school, home, hospital, air raid practices, excursions, simple joys and minor traumas as the boy he was then. So we relive each moment with him.
Of course, being Alan Garner, such simplicity is deceptive and the skilled hand of a great author still guides the writing. Carefully, cleverly he builds his mosaic of incidents into a complex picture of being, belonging and becoming.
At heart, the importance of this little book is not so much the particular incidents it recalls - but in what lies behind and beneath them Through everything, runs Alan Garner's iterative theme of family and place, and of the inextricable link between the two. That his predecessors have lived in and around Alderley Edge for generations , that they know it's landscape and have indeed helped form it. They not only tell its stories but live them. All of this is integral to who Alan Garner is and what he writes. It coloured his first book, it colours this one, and it has coloured almost everything in between.
In one story, Alan and his father: 'climbed onto the Rock** . . . People had skrawked their initials in big letters in the soft part, dozens and dozens and dozens of them. But my father said my grandad. . . cut his whole name in Real Writing, the only Real Writing anywhere on the Edge. . . My father didn't know where it was, but he knew it was there. One day, I found it and showed him, and he was that pleased he took his cap off.' (p 111)
In essence, this little memoir can perhaps best be looked on as a post-script to the Stone Book Quartet***, now extending that saga of the author's Alderly-dwelling family through to himself, to his own childhood.
And for any who doubt that this was at least part of his intention, there is unmistakable reference back to Mary riding the weathercock in The Stone Book:
'The weathercock was bright gold because my father had gilded it fresh after the war ended. The steeplejacks had lowered it down for him, and I sat on its back. I hadn't thought it was that big.' (p 166)
Ultimately his book brings an end to Alan Garner's past, and opens up a future which is nevertheless built, inescapably and invaluably, upon the foundations of that past. Alan leaves his 'artisan' heritage by going on to Grammar School. But of course we know that he was to remain an artisan at heart; he just grew up to make in the medium of words.
He closes the main body of his memoir:
'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.' (p 178)
His title for this book says much of the rest. It is an ending which heralds a beginning, whilst still celebrating a continuity. Like all Alan Garner's writing it is unfettered possibility grounded in long belonging. Roots are not chains; they nurture new leaves.
That Alan Garner grew to be an outstanding runner is well attested in First Light. This new little memoir is a book that every admirer of his writing will want to read, and come to see as not so little as it seemed.
Although not specifically a work for children, I think many will be fascinated by his evocative stories. It is also a book that teachers will find useful if their class is studying the UK in WWII. Some of the vividly written vignettes will certainly help to bring to life something of the experience of children living through those dark days.
*His 2016 collaboration with Mark Edmonds, The Beauty Things, is fascinating and illuminating reading, but is based on conversations between the two, conducted over a number of years, and cannot really be considered an original Alan Garner book as such.
**Castle Rock, part of The Edge itself.
***In my view, this quartet really is a strong contender for being considered his masterpiece.