Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks | 10th January 2023

Every year, we give over all of December (and usually most of January) to a series called ‘Shadows and Reflections’, in which our contributors share highs, lows and oddments from the past 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Sue Brooks.

It all started on September 7th.

“A British writer, Alan Garner, 87, has become the oldest writer to be shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. The winner will be announced on October 17th, which will be Alan Garner’s 88th birthday.”

Something happened in that moment which set off a train of events.

A delivery had just arrived at the bookshop when I called. Only one copy of Treacle Walker. Yours if you want it. A small paperback — 150 pages, quite a few of them blank, first published in 2021. The print is large and well-spaced on the page. Blissfully easy for my eyes. The main character has problems with his eyes, too. 

I settle down to read. But settle is not the word. What is written on the page makes no sense, but it has momentum and a strange power. The tears come, deep, heart-wrenching tears by the end.

In the weeks leading up to the Booker Prize, I ferreted around for more information. Treacle Walker lists eleven previous books, and at the bottom, a single title in the Memoir section. Where Shall We Run To? I tracked down a hardback copy — the only one in the AbeBooks catalogue — and it arrived in fine style as befits a first edition, wrapped in tissue paper with a letter from the bookseller, C. L. Hawley, 26 Belgrave Street, Skipton, Yorkshire, and it contained a faded New Statesman review left by the previous owner. 

What a joy it has been. The hard cover is embossed with an image in gold of the weathercock on St Philips Church close to Alan’s primary school. It had been regilded by his father after the war. The end pages are golden and also part of the dust jacket. There are black and white photos of his family and the school and of the letter to his parents from the hospital saying Alan was dangerously ill and should be visited without delay. Where Shall We Run To? is astonishing in its truthfulness. Alan’s voice recounts his childhood from age three to eleven, in a small village in Cheshire. It doesn’t falter and there is no hint whatsoever that it has been written by an adult. Things happen — the war years, long illnesses, the first day at school, learning to read — told through the matter-of-fact child’s eye which recorded the details. It sparked my own memories, which overlap some of this post-war period as no other book has ever done.

October 17th dawned. I was absurdly excited. Wishing and wanting Treacle Walker to win the prize against all the odds. It didn’t, but what a birthday celebration.

Back to the books.

There are clues in the memoir — the rag and bone man with his pony and cart in the village, the donkey stone for the flags, Alan’s grandfather’s name (Joseph), Mr Noon, the school caretaker — but no more than I knew already: that every book written by Alan Garner is autobiographical. Working and reworking what has meaning for him — time, the child’s eye, sacred music, spiritual healing, wisdom and folly, the land.

Eight years in the making. As dense and word-perfect as poetry, and at a first glance, totally perplexing.

Like Joe, it was a long time before I recognised the letters he “saw” on the optician’s chart as the ones Carl Jung inscribed on the stone cube in the wall of his tower at Bollingen, Switzerland. This stone is small, of little price, spurned by fools, more honoured by the wise.

Just one example of the hidden treasures in this book, which I have been slow to discover. There are others, of that I am sure, and each time, the ending will be even more powerful.

Postscript in the month of December:

Another discovery — Robert Macfarlane and Simon McBurney have been working this year on a radio script for Susan Cooper’s 1973 book The Dark Is Rising. She is a great admirer of Alan Garner. They had arranged for it to be broadcast over the twelve days from December 21st to the 31st, to be faithful to the narrative. The main character is an eleven year old boy with what Alan would call the “glamourie”. What was so marvellous was that it was going out live on the BBC World Service to a GLOBAL audience. 

 The Dark Is Rising. Treacle Walker. These are ancient stories and an urgent wake-up call for 2023.