Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and the making strange of the children's holiday adventure story

First, congratulations to Alan Garner for being placed on the Booker longlist at the age of 87 for his adult novel Treacle Walker.

Justine Jordan says the book

"a flinty little fable about a convalescent boy visited by a rag-and-bone man, reads like a perfect distillation of his long-worked themes: mythology, archaeology, childhood, the transient rhythms of vernacular speech, deep time and inner visions."

And you can listen to a special edition of the podcast Backlisted devoted to it.

Garner first found fame as a children's writer in the 1960s and I suspect his best work of all, a young adult novel called Red Shift, appeared in 1973, but it's great to see him getting the recognition he deserves.

The news about Garner sent me to an interview he once gave to the archaeologist Mike Pitts. There he mentioned the opening of his first children's story The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which turns out to run:

The guard knocked on the door of the compartment as he went past. "Wilmslow 15 minutes!"

"Thank you!" shouted Colin.

So we have nicely behaved children of on an adventure by train. On reading that I immediately thought of three things.

The first was this blog's hero Malcolm Saville, whose first children's book Mystery at Witchend (1943) begins with the line:

They changed trains at Shrewsbury.

The second was the observation by Victor Watson in his Reading Series Fiction that children's "camping and tramping" fiction grew out of the agricultural depression at the end of the 19th century, which made the countryside a playground for middle-class children, and was killed off by Common Market farming subsidies.

He adds:

And at about the same time the Beeching cuts closed down the branch lines that had taken so many fictional children by steam to their favourite holiday destinations.

And the third was how much Garner hated the limitations of this variety of fiction when he found himself writing it. 

As he told the Guardian in 2012:

"I could not go on. The book was within a few pages of its end, but I'd had enough," says Garner. He had come to "loath" the characters, describing them as "zeroes", the novels as "drivel". He brought the story to a swift, unexpected conclusion. He pauses: "Wait, I think I can do it", and he recites from memory. "'We wins!' said the Morrigan from the rhododendron bushes. And when the moon came out and the house reappeared, she went up to the room where Colin was and wrung the little bugger's neck."

Garner twinkles ferociously as he recites the lines. But he forced himself to find a more suitable ending, finished The Moon of Gomrath by the age of 27, and vowed – despite entreaties from a publisher – not to cash in on his now-established name and turn the hugely popular novels into a series.

Then I thought of Susan Cooper, who set of to write a conventional holiday adventure and, as she tells in the part of this video I have selected, found something different happening,

And how does Over Sea, Under Stone begin?
"Where is he?"

Barney hopped from one foot to the other as he clambered down from the train, peering in vain through the white-faced crowds flooding eagerly to the St Austell ticket barrier. "Oh, I can't see him. Is he there?" 

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