Rediscovering Alderley Edge’s Old Magic

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen & The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner

After going to see a lecture given by Alan Garner, reported here, I naturally wanted to read more by him, and especially to (re)read the Weirdstone Trilogy. In this post, I will look at my re-reading of the first two books, I’ll deal with the third another day.

Brisingamen 1Gomrath 1The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Garner’s first novel, published in 1960, followed in 1963 by The Moon of Gomrath.

I read them in as Puffin paperbacks in the late 1960s and can well remember the covers pictured, although my own copies are gone.

Both concern the adventures of Colin and Susan, ten-year-old twins, who have been sent to live with their mother’s old nurse while their parents are away working abroad. Bess and Gowther Mossock live on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, a large hill which is the scene of local myths and legends.

Garner starts The Weirdstone of Brisingame with an account of the legend of Alderley Edge, in which a farmer taking his white mare to sell at market sold it to a wizard who appeared on the path over the edge. The wizard took him through iron gates into a cave where sleeping knights and their white steeds lay waiting to be called in the hour of need, but were one horse short. The farmer was allowed to cram his pockets full of treasure, but of course was never to find the cave entrance again.

Susan has a bracelet with a ‘tear’ jewel on it, which had come to her as an heirloom, and unbeknownst to her – it is the missing Weirdstone stolen centuries before. When her bracelet comes to the attention of the local witch Selina Place, the children find themselves hunted by the minions of the evil Nasrond, who had been banished centuries ago.  They find all this out from Cadellin – the Wizard of the legend and his friends the dwarves, who rescue them. Cadellin is then forced to let Colin and Susan be part of the action to rid the Edge of Nasrond and his ilk once again and restore the weirdstone to Fundindelve where the sleeping knights lie.

In The Moon of Gomrath, Colin and Susan are set to have another adventure when the elves borrow Susan’s replacement bracelet.  This is a powerful amulet given to her by Angharad Goldenhand the Lady of the Lake at the end of the first book. Being without the bracelet’s protection, Susan is possessed by an evil spirit, the Brochallan, which had been released when well-workings outside the pub set it free. Colin, with the aid of the dwarves has to seek the mythical Mothan, which only flowers at moonrise on the Old Straight Track – a path of the Old Magic to cure Susan.  More Old Magic is later set free by Colin and Susan when they light a fire to keep warm on the beacon on what happens to be the night of the Moon of Gomrath. This awakens ‘The Wild Hunt’ – the mythical wild horsemen and hounds of legend. To pile on the agony, Colin is abducted by the evil Morrigan and its goblin folk. A pitched battle ensues, primarily between the elves and the Morrigan, and Colin is rescued, but the Old Magic must still be set free.

'Druid's_Circle'_The_Edge,_Alderley_Edge_-_geograph.org.uk_-_43508Garner lives and breathes the landscape, mythology and history of Alderley Edge. All the places named in the book exist – like the Druid’s Circle, (which he claims was created by one of his forebears – a mason), and the Wizard pub.  It was rich mining area for metals, so the hills are dotted with tunnels. Now run by the National Trust, you can walk the trails and see magnificent views from the top of the escarpment.

Traditional Celtic folklore provides the basis of all the fantasy elements of the novels, and after the MoG, Garner explains where some of this comes from and gives some references including The White Goddess by Robert Graves. The spells are all from real texts – but are incomplete, he adds – just in case.

Around all the mythology is woven the adventures of Colin and Susan, a plucky twosome whose idea of fun is to go out roaming and exploring the edge all day every day.  They were obviously fit and healthy and thought nothing of walking or running miles at a time. Gowther and Bess give them this total freedom, with just little admonitions to come home for supper, or don’t go roaming on the Edge without a torch in the dark. Gowther and Bess understand the power of the place.

Reading these two books as an adult, it’s the mythological content I concentrated on, but as a child – they were such great adventures; grittier and more real than the world of Narnia. By letting the old worlds of magic and the modern age collide, the peril is much greater – there is no option of going back through the wardrobe.

Of the two, The Moon of Gomrath is the more accomplished and, the need for scene-setting over, there is more space for fantasy. The Elves, or lios-alfar, are particularly tricky folk – Albanac, a human who dwells with the Wizard Cadellin explains:

Remember, too, that no elf has a natural love of men; for it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar to the trackless places and the broken lands. You should see the smoke-sickness in the elves of Talebolion and Sinadon. You should hear it in their lungs. That is what men have done.

What price progress, eh?  Cadellin, a couple of pages on, explains more about how the worlds of humans and magic have diverged:

“Why do you think men know us only in legend?” said Cadellin. “We do not have to avoid you for our safety, as elves must, but rather for your own. It has not always been so. Once we were close; but some little time before the elves were driven away, a change came over you. You found the world easier to master by hands alone: things became more than thoughts with you, and  you called it an Age of Reason.

“Now with us, the opposite holds true, so that in our affairs you are the weakest where you should be strong, and there is danger for you not only from evil, but from other matters  we touch upon. These may not be evil, but they are wild forces, which could destroy one not well acquainted with such things.

“For these reasons we withdrew from mankind, and became a memory, and, with the years, a superstition, ghosts and terrors for a winter’s night, and later a mockery and a disbelief” .

I like Garner’s explanation very much – and wish it were so in a way. The rationalist in me can’t believe in magical worlds, but I do love to let my imagination soar by reading books where magic is allowed to live in our world.

* * * * *
Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, Harper Collins paperback, 288 pages.
The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner, Harper Collins paperback, 224 pages.
Boneland (Weirdstone Trilogy 3) by Alan Garner, pub 2013, Fourth estate paperback, 160 pages.
The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves, Faber paperback.

Advertisements

More adding to those wishlists …

Stuff I’ve Been Reading by Nick Hornby

A few weeks ago I read Nick Hornby’s book The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, his collection of Stuff I’ve been Reading columns for The Believer mag. I loved it and added loads of books to my wishlist, (see my review here).

I coyly ended that post saying I hoped for a second book, knowing that there was indeed such a volume coming out in November.  I was very lucky to receive a proof copy of Stuff I’ve Been Reading. It was strictly embargoed until just before publication – so phew! I can now tell you that it:

  • Hornby Stuffwas just as good as The CPS,
  • had little of the running gag about the Spree staff that the last collection was full of. Whilst funny once, it would be wearing a second time;
  • takes us from summer 2006 where the last volume ended up to the end of 2011;
  • still lists ‘Books bought’ and ‘Books read’;
  • would be a wonderful Christmas present for anyone who loves books about books and/or is looking for recommendations to read;
  • has added a lot more titles to my wishlist!

I’ll share a few of my highlights …

Firstly, remembering what he said in the previous volume that he was writing about the books that he had mostly read for pleasure – this tickled me…

The annoying thing about reading is that you can never get the job done. The other day I was in a bookstore flicking through a book called something like ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’ (and, without naming names, you should be aware that the task set by the title is by definition impossible, because at least 400 of the books suggested would kill you anyway), but reading begets reading – that’s sort of the point of it, surely? – ad anybody who never deviates from a set list of books is intellectually dead, anyway.

One of the themes in his reading at the start of this volume, is his discovery of young adult fiction.  He had written a YA novel himself (Slam) and on a trip to promote it in the US, started to really discover the world of children’s fiction from an adult reader’s perspective.

I read Skellig on the plane, and though I have no idea whether it’s the third greatest children’s book of the last seventy years, I can tell you that it’s one of the best novels published in the last decade, and I’d never heard of it. … The only problem with reading Skellig at an advanced age is that it’s over before you know it; a twelve-year-old might be able to eke it out, spend a little longer in the exalted, downbeat world that Almond creates. Skellig is a children’s book because it is accessible and because it has children at the centre of its narrative, but, believe me, it’s for you too, because it’s for everybody, and the author knows it. … …suddenly, I’m aware that there may well be scores of authors like David Almond, people producing masterpieces that I am ignorant of because I happen to be older than the intended readership.

Well said! I’ve long been a champion of YA and children’s books that adults can read too.  This sets him off on a stream of reading such books. I do hope that some adult readers of this book will be tempted to try a few after noting Hornby’s approval.

driversseatElsewhere, he gets into some of the nominated novels for the ‘Lost Booker’ – 1970 the year they changed the timing rules, so a whole year’s books couldn’t be entered for the Book Prize.  He reads and enjoys Nina Bawden’s The birds on the trees, and Muriel Spark’s The Drivers Seat finding that ‘its icy strangeness is part of its charm’.  This sets him off reading lots more Spark.  He says: ‘But what a writer Spark is – dry, odd, funny, aphoristic, wise, technically brilliant.’

sharpHornby is able to put things so well. For instance, writing about Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, a contemporary werewolf novel set in LA and written in blank verse, he is able to get to the essence of the style, saying: ‘The blank verse does precisely what Barlow must have hoped it would do, namely, adds intensity without distracting, or affecting readability.’  I loved this book, and was glad to find that Hornby did too.

The other joy of reading about what Nick Hornby’s been reading is his love of non-fiction. His choices are always interesting, and while I may not go on to read them necessarily, it is fascinating to hear his views.

All the above is interspersed with asides on football, family, and culture in general. Although the asides set the date within the book’s chronology, the fact that this is a diary is largely irrelevant, except for some of the trails he is set off on by his circumstances. Hornby is an everyman in the world of reading.

Once again, I loved being in his company, and would thoroughly recommend this book and its predecessor to anyone who loves reading about books. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review Copy – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Stuff I’ve Been Reading by Nick Hornby, pub 7th Nov by Viking, Trade paperback, 272 pages.
1001: Books You Must Read Before You Die ed Peter Boxall
Skellig: 15th Anniversary Edition by David Almond
The Birds On The Trees (VMC) by Nina Bawden
The Driver’s Seat (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark
Sharp Teethby Toby Barlow

‘November spawned a monster’?

Autobiography by Morrissey

autobiographymorrissey_lrgSorry – couldn’t resist the title of this post.  I wrote about my initial reaction to the opening pages of Moz’s memoir here.  There, I questioned whether I could stand to read a whole 457 pages of his purple prose.

Well, reader – I finished it. Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed a good amount of it too, but, if ever there was a book to which the term ‘curate’s egg’ could apply – this is it! Famously unedited, it is at least one hundred pages too long.  This is primarily because, (as I at once surmised), he uses double the amount of words that he needs to.

I suspect that, as his sense of humour is entirely on a different plane to that of the general public,  he didn’t set out to make anyone laugh – but laugh I did in quite a few places. Let me share some of those with you before getting serious:

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, …  (p5)

England calls with an offer of a role on Eastenders, as the son (so far unmentioned) of the character Dot Cotton. I would arrive unexpectedly in Albert Square and cause births, deaths and factory fires every time I opened my mouth – numb to shame throughout. (p353)

The cast (of Friends) is friendly, and I am immediately taken aside by the scriptwriters and asked if I’d jump in on a newly jumbled plot-line where I appear with the character Phoebe in the Central Perk diner, where I am requested to sing in ‘a really depressing voice.’ Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it’s goodbye to Hollywood yet again. (p368)

A Manc-accented Nick Cotton in Eastenders – I don’t think so.  At least he has the sense to recognise that he probably can’t act, but it would have been wonderful to see him send himself up in Friends, but ever Narcissus, he can’t.

Morrissey is famous for being vegetarian; later walking out of many restaurant meetings when someone at his table orders meat.  This was even so in his childhood, and his description of school dinners could turn you off most food for life.

Putrid smells reduce me to a pitiful pile, and none are more vomitarian than school dinners. All foods of miasmic fragrance disturb me, and the mere hint of garlic induces the shakes, as fish cooked or uncooked causes gut-wrenching panic. This boy of 1971 has an abnormally limited palate – a working-class host of relentless toast, and the inability to expand beyond the spartan.

What was nice was that although he hated school, outside, he developed a love for poetry, starting off with the wit of Hillaire Belloc, and Wilde, then Dorothy Parker before moving on to Stevie Smith, WH Auden, Herrick and Housman.

It is page 141 before he meets Johnny Marr, shortly after discovering he has “a chest voice of light baritone,” and an initial flirtation with performing in public as The Nosebleeds (not a band name of his choosing).  He and Marr hit it off, and the rest, as they say is history.

The years with The Smiths, before it all fell to pieces are fascinating. Like all tyro bands faced with their first record contract, they gaily sign.  They have hit records but never reach the number one spot, something that really irks Morrissey. All the way through his memoir, whether with The Smiths or solo, he is obsessed with chart positions, seeing the inability to get a single to the top spot as a failure of the record company.  It is hard to see how a song called ‘Shoplifters of the world unite‘ could have got the airplay he thinks it deserves.  The albums chart higher though, and live audiences bear out their popularity, but you sense he is really aggrieved at never having had a No 1 single.

On p175, he talks about why he calls himself Morrissey…

My own name has now become synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johhny putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at misery mozzery, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. I had originally decided to use only my surname because I couldn’t think of anyone else in the music that had done so – although, or course, many had been known by just one name, but it hadn’t been their surname.  Only classical composers were known by just their surnames, and that suited my mudlark temperament quite nicely.

Comparing himself to a classical composer – he’s having a laugh, isn’t he?

Where I got bogged down with this memoir was the section post-Smiths when Morrissey was sued by the Smiths’ bassist and drummer, whom Morrissey insists had been signed on for 10% (himself and Marr as the songwriters getting 40% each), asking for their full 25% – years after the event. Morrissey is full of vitriol at them, and as it goes on and on for about fifty pages, I got more and more bored.

Things get a little more interesting again when Morrissey moves to LA, meets various celebs and has strange conversations. He also has relationships which are still kept very private. They get boring again when he goes on tour – and we get night after night of a new city and audience sizes.

So – a mixed bag of too much information, too little information. Occasions of too much purple prose – “even though his expressionist jargon often swamped logic in far too much existentialism” – I can’t even begin to assimilate that phrase. I have no idea of the veracity of his writing – Stuart Maconie and Julie Burchill give different accounts of meetings for instance, but it is his own (narcissistic) account. Morrissey shouldn’t have been allowed to become the first living author to be published in Penguin Classics – but it was a great marketing coup.

To sum it up, when talking about family, friends, poetry, The Smiths’ creative peak, Morrissey was happy – and I was happy reading about it too; when whining about record companies, court cases, the NME, never getting to no 1, endless gigs, being a Misery Moz – I thought ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’. (7/10)

So I shall leave you with a promo video for Girlfriend in a Coma, and links to Morrissey’s appearance on Desert Island Discs which was fascinating plus a couple of press reviews of his book – one funny, one more balanced: Craig Brown in the Daily Mail; and Stuart Maconie in the Guardian.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Autobiography by Morrissey, Penguin Classics, October 2013, 457 pages

‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’

Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent

dark satanic mills

It’s a rare thing for me to read a graphic novel – in fact the only one I’ve read since starting this blog was The Crow by James O’Barr, (see here). When I finished reading that, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to read more of such dark fare in this style, figuring I’d read Posy Simmonds instead. Well, I never got around to that, and two years later I’ve just read another dark and very dystopian graphic novel.

It was the name of Marcus Sedgwick being attached that drew me to it – I will read anything he writes, the title promised strong visions inspired by William Blake, and there’s a motorbike.

Before getting into the story proper, the front cover folds out to reveal a series of panels containing the words of ‘Jerusalem’ by Blake, and the vision of England therein gets bleaker with each panel as the colour is faded out to end in a drawing of a bluebell in monochrome. England’s green and pleasant land indeed!

Now to the story – it starts with a motorbike courier trying to deliver a package through the gang-ridden, semi-derelict and overgrown streets of London. The rider stops to help a man that was being set upon and rescues him.  The rescued man, Thomas, happens to be involved with a bunch of atheists who are enemies of the True Church – the de facto fundamentalist rulers of this defunct England. The rider is revealed to be a girl – Christy, and she’s sympathetic to Thomas’s cause.

Christy and Thomas

Through rescuing Thomas, Christy misses the timed drop, losing her day’s wages – but is not so late that she doesn’t see a man being murdered – and she was seen. She flees to the house of an old friend, and finds their son is ill and being left to die as the True Church doesn’t believe in doctors, her friend’s husband has converted. Not welcome, Christy abducts the child to take him to hospital but he dies before she gets there – now framed for his murder, she needs to get out of London. Meeting up with Thomas again, they head north towards the seat of the anti-True Church movement’s home base. A cat and mouse game ensues as they try to evade the Soldiers of Truth who are on their tail…

The Anti-Sci Gang

It’s all very grim. The picture spreads are black and white echoing the fanatical beliefs of the True Church, there is no room for grey in their credo. In this semi-drowned world protected by giant mirrors in the sky, it is always twilight, always dark. It’s never made clear whether the catastrophe that has beset this England was environmental or, dare I say it an act of God, or man-made for that matter.

The text is full of biblical quotations; in particular from the last supper and Jesus on the cross, alongside the paean to Blake’s poem. The story is bookended by words from Francisco Goya too, (as used in my title for this post) – it is crammed full of references, some of which are discussed in the afterword by Marcus and Julian Sedgwick. The story with its race to leave London for a better life elsewhere reminded me too of John Christopher’s marvellous 1956 novel The Death of Grass, reviewed here.

breaking glassChristy in her black leathers could be Hazel O’Connor (left) in the 1980 film Breaking Glass, (loved that film). Personally, I find that women, drawn in this heavily shaded style used in graphic novels often look rather mannish and over-strong of jaw but, in my limited experience, they’re given little opportunity to display any femininity. In the well-lit hospital scene in particular, Christy does get to show some vulnerability – thumbs up to illustrators Higgins and Olivent for that bit.

Given that this novel is published by Walker Books, a children’s book publisher, and aimed at 12+, I did like that the Sedgwicks chose a heroine for the lead character and I hope that girls will read it.  There is much to enjoy in this world gone bad and much to think about from the text. My main complaint (and this is good) is that at around 160 pages, it was all over too fast – I wanted more!  (8/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent, officially pub 7th Nov by Walker Books, softback, but available now.
Breaking Glass [DVD] starring Hazel O’Connor, Phil Daniels.
The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Christopher