I found these four short novels with a squeal of triumph in an Aberdeen second-hand bookshop, and bought them for £3. That’s right: the four books that are one of Garner’s greatest creative accomplishments, in a pristine box set, for barely more than they cost the original buyer in the late 1970s. I could barely contain my excitement, and gobbled all four stories over the next two evenings.
The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate were originally sold as children’s books. I know I read Granny Reardun as a child because I never forgot the image of the mother scrubbing the floor, moving backwards on her knees towards the door for the last time, where the rest of the family were waiting in their loaded cart to move somewhere they didn’t want to go. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember the title, and wondered for years where that story had come from. It came from Cheshire, Alan Garner’s ancestral county, and the Allman family were put out of their cottage because it was built of the last dimension stone in the county, and the vicar’s wife wanted it for her garden wall. This cruelty and injustice is a mere detail in the novel, since the main plot is about Joseph deciding that he does not want to be a stonemason like his grandfather, and how he is drawn to the forge as if he belongs there instead. Mark Edmonds wrote about Granny Reardun in an essay in the Alan Garner festschrift First Light: ‘It is only when [Joseph] sees their connection, in chisel mark and weathercock, that he fully understands. Metal is not asking him to turn his back; it just wants him to know where and how he fits’ (76).
Joseph is Mary’s son, and she is the stout-hearted daughter of Robert, the stone mason of The Stone Book. She climbs a ladder all the way to the top of Saint Philip’s steeple, carrying her father’s baggin in a knotted cloth between her teeth. Once she’s got over the dizziness she’s quite happy, and climbs the weathercock to be whizzed round and round by her delighted father. She wants to learn to read, but the squire doesn’t like his kitchen-maids to read, so Robert tools and knaps her a prayer-book from green flint, with a fossil fern on the back. There is also one more wonder in the story, that only Mary can see: she’s the bravest of all the characters in this quartet.
Joseph comes back in Tom Fobble’s Day, when his grandson William is learning how to stand up to the bullying Allman boy over the loan of his sledge. Joseph builds a sledge that carries William from the top of the top field past the dangerous rough ground near the gate, right through to the bottom field, well past the sledge graveyard where all the smashed ruins of homemade sledges end up. William’s sledge, much better than the shrapnel that rains from the sky as German bombers pass overhead, unregarded, is Joseph’s best and last job. Edmonds again: ‘The frame and rails are a composite of the forge that Joseph had stepped back from, and the loom used by William’s namesake many years before’ (78).
We go back in time to uncover that awkward bit between the fields, in The Aimer Gate, in which young Robert is put to work to move the stones and rubble by his uncle Charlie, back from France on leave in the First World War. Charlie is a sniper, his leave nearly up, and he has the shadow of death around him. Faddock Allman is the legless Boer War veteran now breaking stones in the road, sitting in his trolley. Charlie treats Faddock kindly, and with respect, one soldier to another. Faddock was the boy who threw stones through his own cottage window when he was working for the team who broke it up for the vicar’s wife’s garden wall, which is why Robert’s father William won’t speak to him. The ruins of the Allmans’ cottage make the ridge in the field boundary that smashes the unwary sledges, and will blunt the scythes of Charlie and the Leah brothers if young Robert doesn’t clear it out. Charlie’s last job is to shoot the rabbits and other creatures escaping from the field portion ever shrinking beneath the scythes. His sniping skill is his route out of farming, and stonework, and metal crafting, but his own plans may include something more drastic than that.
There’s a photograph of the Garners in First Light, with Joseph and Charlie and Mary and old Robert. We don’t really need to know that all the stories are true, or near enough. They are marvellous. Harry Lupton, again in First Light, said it best: ‘They are of such a distilled precision, they are so layered, so finely observed, so pregnant with what lies under their surfaces’. They wear like stone, with stories in every layer.