ALan Garner has always feared that he might die unexpectedly before he finished the book he is working on. This means that this most beloved writer – whose works seem to be carved out of the Cheshire landscape of his home and whose devoted fans range from Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman to Margaret Atwood – continues to joke that he wrote his last. delivered.
He did this when Boneland, the haunting sequel to his children’s novels The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, was released in 2012. He did so when his childhood memoir, Where Shall We Run To? , came out in 2018. It takes me between five and nine years to write a novel, ”he said at the time,“ the joke turns a little sour when you’re in the early 80s. Three years later, barely 87, Garner wrote Treacle Walker, a slice of myth and magic that only he could have produced, in which a young boy, Joe Coppock, is drawn into the world of ” glamor “- which stands next door and in its own world – when a man in rags comes to her door.
“This fear of a lifetime meant that I had done stupid things. Before computers, I took the only manuscript with me to The Owl Service, and there is nothing more dangerous than doing it, ”Garner explains, after his wife, Griselda, adjusted his Zoom. “But a friend, who is very cynical and very helpful, told me that I just had to accept that there was something going wrong. It’s good to be scared in your twenties. But when you’re 87 and an average of nine per book … “
In Treacle Walker, a spare and weird book, Joe trades pajamas and a lamb shoulder blade for a nearly empty medicine jar and a donkey stone, a sort of scouring pad. Touching the remnants of what’s left in the jar to his eye shifts the veil between the everyday and the strange – and he sees a man sit in a bog to talk to him.
The new novel has its roots in a conversation Garner had in 2012 with his friend Bob Cywinski, a particle physicist. Cywinski had asked Garner about the origin of his ideas. “He’s dealing with issues arising from the observed universe, and I couldn’t get him to understand that I didn’t know where I got the ideas from, that they had sort of emerged and that bothered him.”
The next day they walked together through Castle Hill, an Iron Age fort in Huddersfield. “Of no consequence, Bob told me about a historical figure, a local tramp called Walter Helliwell, known as Treacle Walker. He was a healer, claiming he could heal everything except jealousy. And I looked at Bob and I said, ‘Remember last night? Well, just notice that on the afternoon of Sunday July 15, 2012 you gave me an idea and you gave me a book.
What had caught Garner’s attention was the original meaning of molasses: medicine. “But Walter Helliwell, a bum, couldn’t know it, and that’s how I knew something was there.”
The idea must have ‘nebula brew’ for a while, derailed after Garner’s work on an oral history project with the University of Manchester prompted the fragmentary childhood memoir Where Shall We Run To ?, elements of which appear in Treacle Walker. Garner’s contribution to the oral work was his recollection of his grandfather’s account of the Alderley Edge legend, in which a farmer sells his white mare to an old man who turns out to be a wizard and leads him to an army sleeping knights inside the hill – the base of Weirdstone. “It was his truth, a part of him, that he passed on,” Garner writes. “Here’s how he said it. And it’s the way of saying it that is important.
“While doing the project, I found that by talking to my peers, we could all remember a certain event, but when we compared the notes, there were as many versions of that memory as there were. of people to remember it. And I realized that oral history was as unreliable as documentary history. At the end of the oral history, there were so many fragments lying around that were valuable that didn’t get in, so I scanned them into some kind of mental folder, and left them in gestation. Then I heard a voice speak in my head. And that was me. It was a complete reconstruction of childhood, and all I had to do was write it down, honestly, but without worrying about the subjectivity of it all.
Garner says that “the historian in me” had always prevented him from wanting to write an autobiography. “It’s absolutely pretentious shit, and anyway, it’s only there to promote egos.” But I found a reason to do it, so I just listened to the voice.
Treacle Walker, meanwhile, had been “on the back plate, simmering.” “After having immersed myself in childhood memories, and having spoken to my contemporaries for the oral archives, I had reopened a lexicon that had been closed for a long time, and the rhythms of speech had been there in my head since my childhood. It gave me Where are we going to run? and then it gave me – not consciously, I’m wise after the event – the format for Treacle Walker. “
It wasn’t until he finished writing the novel that he realized how much he was pulling out of his own life, from the rag man scream to the Knockout comic book pieces. “A friend read the manuscript and said, ‘You did it again – you wrote your autobiography.’ Bob Cywinski grieved me when I said, “I will never write an autobiography. He said, “It’s because you never wrote anything else. Who needs enemies!
Garner has long been concerned with the weather. As a child, he suffered from three long-term illnesses – diphtheria, meningitis and pneumonia – each bringing him to the brink of death and confining him to bed for long periods of time. The ceiling he was looking at became three-dimensional and time became elastic. “The ceiling had shown me that time was not just a clock,” he wrote in his 1997 collection of essays and lectures, The Voice That Thunders. Treacle Walker opens with a quote from the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli: “time is ignorance”. Garner says, “Rovelli was putting in scientific terms what I have known all my life. It is a child’s vision.
Garner is a meticulous researcher. He took the time to learn Welsh by writing The Owl Service, a Carnegie medalist, based on the legendary Welshwoman Blodeuwedd and adapted for a 1969 television series. And he chatted with Cywinski to see if it was theoretically possible that the time goes back. “What quantum physics shows you is that we model our universe to deal with it,” he says, “because there is no such thing now. Because you are looking at me, and I am looking at you, and we are ruled by the speed of light, but it’s also over. And so I look at you and you look at me in the past.
Joe Coppock’s house in Treacle Walker, and the fireplace space where he and his tramp talk about important things, is a version of the Old Medicine House, a half-timbered building that was built around 450 years old in Wrinehill, Staffordshire, and saved from demolition by the Garners after it fell into disrepair. They oversaw its dismantling and removal in Blackden, Cheshire 20 miles away, where it was rebuilt and now stands next to the Garner House near Alderley Edge, an area where Garner has lived since at least 1592 and where Alan and Griselda happily protected each other during Covid Time. “I made it very difficult to remove the shields,” Garner explains.
Treacle Walker is dedicated to “MGS”, which is the Manchester Grammar School, to which Garner won a place when he was 11 and over. It was an experience that would lead him to Oxford (although he left without completing his classical studies) and also to alienation from his family and community. “You become an outcast to your own family and a temporary gentleman to society,” Garner explains. “There is a terrible isolation that this produces, in the transition from a working class environment to an academic environment. This leaves the individual stranded.
Without Manchester Grammar School, however, Garner thinks it is unlikely that he would have written any of his novels, from Elidor and Red Shift to Thursbitch, Strandloper and Treacle Walker. “MGS is the point I could never have written without,” he says. “Joseph Coppock is the me I could have become if I hadn’t had the rigorous academic training I took. Treacle Walker is what I could have become if I hadn’t gotten off the ship in Oxford and off the college route.
This time, he doesn’t intend to say it’s his last book. “I just feel a little uneasy,” he said. “I don’t want to have a brilliant idea at 87 – but I’m afraid there will be a tickle.”