Monthly Archives: February 2013

One of the most unfairly neglected British novelists


There are a couple of reasons why I wince just a bit when I read, or hear, effusive praise of J.K.Rowling. It’s undeniable that she has sold a large number of books, and, mostly, they are decently written, if sometimes self-indulgently long.  However, nobody seems to acknowledge that she has enjoyed a benefit accorded to no other writer in history before her: that her books were being written and sold at the same time as they were being converted into cinema films of the most expensive and most well-publicised kind.  My other objection is that some of Rowling’s respected predecessors in the tradition of British fantasy literature, the genre which brought her to this successful place,  have been overlooked, and most notably Alan Garner.

Not only were Garner’s fantasy novels critically praised and highly popular during the 1960s and 1970s, they also received similar adulation from the visual media. The Owl Service, which won the 1967 Carnegie Medal, became a TV drama series shortly afterwards. Red Shift and Elidor were both dramatised by the BBC, the former in an adult evening slot rather than at children’s tea-time, in the days when that constituted a rare and real accreditation.

Admittedly, the present-day ignorance of Garner’s achievement is partly due to the facts that his output is relatively small, and that he has never sought media attention.   The reference he received  in the 2008 BBC4 documentary The Worlds of Fantasy was a rarity.

My own first acquaintance of Garner was Elidor, his third novel. Although its theme is a familiar one (and even more so now)  of ordinary children entangled within alternative magical kingdoms, it is a brilliant reworking. Four children stumble into the alternative world of Elidor via a ruined church in a derelict area of Manchester. They are entrusted to protect four treasures of Elidor, but the enemy forces pursue them back to their own world, and the crucial battle is fought, in the same derelict site where the story opened, on a frosty New Year’s Eve. Elidor evokes the rich dense flavour of legend (Garner freely acknowledges his borrowings from folk ballads) alongside its vivid contemporary and urban detail.

Not only did The Owl Service win the Carnegie Medal; in 2007, it was chosen as one of the ten best Carnegie Medal winners in the 70 year history of the prize. It too centres on the interrelation between real and magical worlds, but in this case the supernatural has been absorbed into the real world, so that it irrevocably influences its past and present.  The Welsh legend of the Mabinogion –  about  the wizard Gwynion, about Bloudewedd, the bride he makes out of flowers, and her two lovers, Lleu and Gronw – is re-enacted in the present day through three young people, and its powerful new form draws on the new tensions and passions now simmering : between parents and children, between Welsh and English, between the established rural and the encroaching urban communities.

Red Shift was a further step forward. Here the usual elements of fantasy, in the sense of things inexplicable and supernatural, have been discarded. But the magic which remains is still very real in Garner’s eyes: namely, the immeasurable but palpable energy which can be stored in a patch of ground, energy generated by those who have lived, worked and fought on that earth over the centuries, and which remains to nourish those who occupy the same earth in later ages.

Around a hill in Cheshire, three stories unfold simultaneously but in different centuries. The grim guerrilla war being waged by a squad of Roman legionnaries, the siege of a village church by Royalist forces during the English Civil War, the stormy relationship of two modern lovers. Even before the reader tries to clarify the connections between each narrative, Garner’s evocations of the first and seventeenth centuries are exceptionally vivid and atmospheric, conjuring up all the dirt, discomfort, violence and honest simplicity.

The hero of each story is shy and vulnerable and temperamental, a visionary prone to violence, and, in each story, the same stone axe-head is found and affects the finder in a profound way.  Macey is haunted by the massacre of his village as a child; perhaps this wound is “inherited” by Thomas who passes it on; the strife Tom wages with his parents may well be derived from the similar family conflicts experienced by his 17th century namesake.

The BBC dramatisation of Red Shift is currently on You Tube. First screened on BBC1 in 1978 in its “Play for Today” slot, its opening credit is “a film by Alan Garner and John Mackenzie”.   The late John Mackenzie directed a number of TV dramas in the 70s, including several stories of urban working-class Scottish life written by Peter McDougall, and then moved on during the ’80s to feature films starring the likes of Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Pierce Brosnan. In retrospect, he would surely have seemed an unlikely match for Garner, but it was a fruitful partnership for the viewer. Apart from a slightly distracting Doctor Who-esque opening,  Red Shift comes across now both as a faithful adaptation and a challenging and absorbing TV drama. 

Red Shift has been to date the culmination of Garner’s exploration into the dark quasi-world of myth, magic and history. Shortly afterwards, he published four short novels which comprise The Stone Book Quartet. In many ways, radically different from his previous work – they are not fantasies, but stories of the real world with real people, and they lack some of the excitement and energy of the three aforementioned ones –  the quartet has several characteristics which recall the earlier novels. One of its main themes is the influence which the geography and history of a place can exert over the people who live there, and this time it is a direct influence, because the characters are all craftsmen in a Cheshire village, whose livelihood depends on the area and their fellow townsfolk.

Each novel concentrates on a different generation of the same family.  We learn about stone and stone-cutting, about working in metal, about harvesting corn, about the distinctive skills of the professional soldier. Still stronger links throughout the decades are provided by various household objects. For example, the  weaving-loom from The Stone Book becomes the wood which makes a child’s  sledge in Tom Fobble’s Day, while the remains of a house demolished in Granny Reardun is recycled a generation later in The Aimer Gate. Even in the smallest ways, the rural community is self-perpetuating, in a way which, although not fantastical, can still inspire awe.

As mentioned earlier, Garner’s output is not huge.  In the 30 years since The Stone Book Quartet, he has written only three more original novels, Strandloper, Thursbitch and the recent Boneland.  The second and third appear to be broadly within what one could describe as Garner’s fantasy territory. I haven’t read any, but they have all been warmly welcomed by aficionados, of whom I have discovered many on the internet while writing this, notably the self-styled unofficial  Alan Garner web-site.

So, although it is perhaps an exaggeration to consider Alan Garner as an entirely neglected writer, would it not still be a fairer world if even a small percentage of the adults who read J.K.Rowling and Philip Pullman during the first decade of this century borrowed or bought one or two of his brilliantly-written books?


References :

Crouch, Marcus (1972)   The Nesbit Tradition : The Children’s Novel 1945-1970   London : Ernest Benn

Meek, Margaret / Warlow, Aidan / Barton, Griselda  (eds) (1977)    The Cool Web : The Pattern of Children’s Reading  London : Bodley Head


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The flourish of the Catalan magician


Watching again the Antonioni film The Passenger, I was surprised to see some scenes in Barcelona, especially one of Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider in the Antoni Gaudi-designed former apartment block La Pedrera. I had remembered that the film opens in Africa, but forgotten that the narrative of Nicholson’s character adopting the identity of an arms dealer involved scenes in other parts of Europe.

Few other well-known films show scenes in Gaudi’s Barcelona buildings. Even Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, which features a character who is studying Gaudi, includes only a few snippets of Parc Guell and La Sagrada Familia.  So the middle of a UK winter is perhaps an appropriate time to sample the weird and wonderful shapes and colours  of the Catalan magician.



The facade of Gaudi’s apartment block La Pedrera, built between 1906 and 1912.



Another view of La Pedrera.



The roof of La Pedrera, with its giant chimney pots.



La Sagrada Familia, the huge Gaudi church, whose construction first began in 1882 and which may be completed for the centenary of Gaudi’s death in 2026. This photograph was taken in 2002.



The Nativity Facade of La Sagrada Familia.



The Passion Facade of La Sagrada Familia.



The terrace of Parc Guell, built between 1900 and 1914, and originally planned as part of a housing development.



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Glasgow revealed


One of my favourite websites is Hidden Glasgow. Unfortunately I can’t identify it as such on the right hand side because it was designed ten years ago in an earlier website era, and modern technology precludes. Although its appearance is now a bit old-fashioned, it still contains large amounts of fascinating information, photographs and discussion on Glasgow architecture and history. Its proprietors are hoping  to update it this year.

How the old working-class areas of British cities have been changed, and have often vanished, through modernisation and gentrification is a familiar theme  of  our 20th century history, and Hidden Glasgow contributes  just as significantly as do Spitalfields Life and The Secret History of Our Streets.


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Recreating your own late-night musical mood


If there is one single thing which, for me,  has justified the existence of the internet  over the past decade, it is the opportunity to listen again to radio programmes which you have missed earlier, alongside playlists to check what you are listening to : first available on  RealPlayer and nowadays on iPlayer.

Radio programmes which play diverse or unconventional music  have always been banished until late at night, from Sounds of the Seventies to  Mixing It. Thanks to iPlayer, you can recreate the reflective, dream-like, late-night mood at any time of the day.

One radio programme I have listened to most frequently through this method is BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction. From memory, it was started around the time of the BBC executive decision to transfer the world music remit (championed particularly by Andy Kershaw) from Radio 1 to Radio 3, and sounds from Africa, Latin America and the Far East still make up a large chunk of its playlist. A lot of folk and traditional music is played too, plus stuff from mavericks from the rock world like Robert Wyatt or Brian Eno,  or  their contemporary musical cousins like  Tunng or Richard Dawson. Curiously,  since we’re on Radio 3, it is the classical chamber and vocal music which I feel is sometimes marginalised and might be included more often.

Long-time presenters Verity Sharp and Fiona Talkington, once described as “mellow-voiced sirens” , have latterly been joined by the wry Max Reinhardt.  It’s probably true that all music presenters everywhere are at least a bit prone to the tendency of thinking themselves more individual than they actually are (which weakness may not be helped when university academics like this one write about you!) but this trio, and their choices of music, are educational and engaging.


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Of music journalism, especially Steve Peacock


An often-repeated question : is the internet (or more specifically the world wide web) the modern equivalent of a great library, full of erudite learning on dozens of subjects? Or is it more akin to a newsagent, stacked with up-to-date titles, catering superficially for the narrowest of niche tastes? Or is it  perhaps a cavernous second-hand bookshop, reaching  all parts of the reading public, like the former railway station in Alnwick  or the several multi-roomed castles in Wigtown?

You can decide for yourself which category best suits articles from now defunct music publications.

Like many, especially male readers, I have spent a certain amount of time listening to various types of pop, rock, folk and jazz music and also reading newspapers and magazines associated with these. One music paper I bought regularly for a time in the 1970s was Sounds, and I can still recall the names of some of the journalists who wrote for it, and even to what extent their tastes accorded with my own.

One name which  I recall was Steve Peacock. Peacock appeared to have a taste in rock music which seemed particularly cool (since this adjective has continued in vogue unchanged in meaning into the 21st century, I can’t immediately think of a better one):  Van Morrison, Captain Beefheart, Little Feat, the jazz-influenced experimenters like Soft Machine, certain members of the folk-rock school like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, reggae. He seemed to share many of the tastes of the late John Peel who was at that time a columnist and occasional singles reviewer with the paper.

In the later 70s, Peacock left Sounds along with a number of colleagues and joined another, short-lived, publication,  Streets Ahead, which appeared to cover other arts, current affairs and sport as well as popular music. After that, I never saw his by-line again.

Until thirty years after that, when the internet had arrived, and, one day, I came across the web-site of one Steve Peacock, a journalist and broadcaster who appeared to specialise in agricultural and countryside matters. The web-site suggested  that he had spent some youthful years in music journalism, so it did seem to be the same man. However, it appeared that, in contrast with some of his contemporaries who had continued their coverage of  popular music into the glossy magazine world of the 1980s and 1990s, or on radio or TV,  music had been only a temporary part of Peacock’s professional career.  For the subsequent  thirty years he ploughed (to use an obvious and lazy pun) an entirely different furrow.

Some of Peacock’s pieces on such  luminaries as King Crimson and Roxy Music feature elsewhere on the internet, but this story serves for me as a reminder that something that seems important and long-lasting when you are young, may become, if you are lucky enough to live longer, only one short adventure among many.

In the light of Peacock’s range of expertise, it is probably appropriate that one particular snippet of his music journalism which sticks in my mind has  a wider resonance. When Bad Company, whose members had enjoyed success with other bands,  released their first album in 1974,  Peacock felt that it was a bit predictable. “It is a manifesto, a policy statement,” he wrote, “and, like all such things, it tends to state the obvious and let the finer points slide.”  I thought then that it was a clever thing to say, and, ever since, it has seemed an observation which has remained very relevant and applicable to manifestos compiled by other people.


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The season of carnevale


We’re coming into the season of Mardi Gras.  Celebrations and parades before and on Shrove Tuesday are very popular in parts of North and South America, like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, but they belong most fittingly to Venice.

The Venetian  carnevale  seems thoroughly commercialised by now  but  the capes and masks moving along those narrow canal-side alleyways is still one of this romantic city’s great romantic images.   As Jeff Cotton says, the essence of fictional Venice is “dampness, shadows, and melancholy decay… deception…and masked intrigue”.

These 1994 photos were taken in the spring sun-light, but perhaps a bit of monochrome sleight-of-hand creates some of the appropriate effect.








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