In praise of Alan Garner: First Light

IMG_1960 (2)This beautiful volume is an anthology of tributes and personal responses to the work of Alan Garner, crowdfunded and published by Unbound, with contributions from writers, artists, historians, scientists and storytellers including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, to name but a few. It’s full of illuminating things – read on for quotes that got me turning over page corners – and is exactly the right kind of book to dip into when you can’t sleep, or need taking out of yourself.

I got my copy of First Light at an event at Oxford Literary Festival (it was super-Oxfordy – held in the beautiful Divinity Hall). The event was chaired by Erica Wagner, who compiled and edited the book, in conversation with two of the contributors, Richard Ovenden and Neel Mukherjee. Alan Garner was sitting in the front row next to Rowan Williams – no pressure!

  • Find out more about The Blackden Trust – the educational charity set up by Alan and Griselda Garner that First Light will help fund

Margaret Atwood on the perils of the Full Moon Mall

‘“You have been trying on our skins,’ growled the raccoon, ‘and turn about is fair play. So now I will try on yours.”’

Bob Cywinski on the parallel between science and fiction

‘Both author and physicist seek to create an internally consistent model universe that can be poked and prodded with questions of “what if?”, and if our literary and scientific model universes respond in a way that is externally consistent with our observations of the real universe, we claim success.’

[I once gave a presentation on how to write a novel to a couple of software developers who made a similar point: it was, as a process, not all that different to what they did.]

Helen Dunmore on The Owl Service

‘Long before the phrase “post-traumatic stress” was common currency, Alan Garner explored in The Owl Service the way that intense, tragic events affect generations because they go on recurring in flashback, unresolved and invincible… The past must become truly the past, and it can only do so if there is a redemptive alteration of destructive patterns.’

[A true and also practical point, this. I remember being told that every cell in the human body regenerates every seven years or so. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an encouraging thought. Exposure to certain toxins can indelibly rewrite your genetic code, but – as far as I understand it – even that is a revision of potential and predisposition: it isn’t fate.]

Stephen Fry on being trusted

‘I believe that the first feeling that overwhelmed me was one of being trusted. At no stage did the writer of this story explain to me what I was supposed to feel, or what was the meaning of the story I was reading.’

Neil Gaiman on books that change you

‘There are moments without which we literally would not exist, we would not be ourselves: we would be other people, who would look the same, but with a different inner landscape, with different dreams and hopes and, most importantly, different ways of looking at the world… Reading Elidor was one of those moments for me.’

‘The freight of fantasy is the freight of the unrevealed. When it is at its most powerful, it shows us the world we know through another’s eyes, in a way that we can never unsee.’

Elizabeth Garner on being born alongside a book

‘The first evidence of my existence is not the usual photograph of mother and baby, cocooned in a hospital bed. Instead it is a series of numbers in the margins of a manuscript. My mother’s contraction times, set beside the emerging words of my father’s novel The Stone Book. I was on the page before I was in the world. But that’s just the start of the story.’

Joseph Garner on Othering

‘The internal conflict of Othering comes from the fear of being severed from our roots. Thus to come through the experience of Othering with a new sense of self, we have to go back to our roots and find a way to make peace, and to reconnect our new selves.’

Andrew Hodges on Alan Garner and Alan Turing

‘The meeting of the two Alans arose in 1951, simply as fellow amateur runners, rare in those days, spotting each other on the road… they found a meeting point in equal distances and speed over the Cheshire lanes.’

Bel Mooney on contradiction

‘He knows that Death is the electric current that animates all things.’

Neel Mukherjee on roots, anchoring and land

‘Here is something that I would come to recognise retrospectively as one of the great lessons of writing: there is nothing more universal than the particular, that the local is the world.’

Philip Pullman on Alan Garner on craftsmanship

‘There are traditions in every craft, by which the knowledge gained by our forebears is passed on – knowledge not just of how to hold a plane or sharpen a saw, but of how to evaluate the work and give it the attention it deserves. Garner’s grandfather, for example, a whitesmith, passed on that kind of wisdom to the young Alan.

He uttered two precepts. They are absolutes. The first was: “Always take as long as the job tells you, because it’ll be here when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying, ‘What fool made this codge?’”

The second was worse: “If the other feller can do it, let him.” That is: seek until you find that within you that is your unique quality, and, having found it, pursue it to the exclusion of all else and without thought of cost.¹’

[¹Alan Garner, ‘Aback of Beyond’, in The Voice That Thunders. Daunting and rigorous, yes, but as good and fundamental advice for a writer as any you’ll find.]

Ali Smith on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Alderley Edge

‘The edge of things is the natural habitat of the story.’

More about books, reading and writing

Patrick Gale and Polly Samson: seduction, loss, land and longing

A short list of books to turn to when you’re stressed

The writer as psychic: on twins and Sisterland

Benjamin Britten and three lessons in creativity