13 May 2006

Re-reading the past

Last Saturday, at a charity garage sale, I found a copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.

I last read this book as a ten year old child. I withdrew it from the library in Elizabeth, South Australia, read it spell bound as I walked (how I crossed the Phillip Highway in one piece I really don't know), and had finished it by the time I arrived home. That was forty four years ago; all detail had faded in the interim, leaving only three memories: the early goblin chase, the rich feel for landscape which pervades the book, and how much my ten year old self enjoyed it. I've read a couple of other Garner books (Red Shift, for one – very good) but not revisited Brisingamen.

I'm a person who rarely revisits anywhere. Good memories are best left golden, and why bother with the bad ones? I'll even go a few hundred extra metres around to avoid walking past a place where I used to live. To reread a book that gripped at age ten seems like a sure recipe for disappointment. But, on the spur of the moment, wanting to make a contribution to the charity in whose benefit the garage sale was being held, I handed over a Euro for the slim little paperback (I remember it as being so much thicker!) marked "10 cents".

Even as a slower and more thoughtful adult reader, reading it yesterday didn't take me much longer than it did for that ten year old. As I read, the story came back – but only as I read, not in advance of my eyes, so I could enjoy the whole thing again as fresh.

The original hardback was published in 1960, when I was eight; I read it two years later, 1962, so I still inhabited the same world as the one in which the author lived. The paperback copy I now have was published by Armada in 1971, the year I started my degree course; there is a current edition available from Collins[1], dated 2002. The rereading brought a whole bundle of rambles down memory lane and lessons in changing times.

To start with the most mundane: my 1971 paperback is UK cover priced at 30p, the current edition £5.99 ... 2000% inflation over the period of my adulthood. OK, that's only about 1.24% per annum, but it still brings price differences home.

The story itself is a version of the Fellowship of the Ring model, with an Arthurian context thrown in, all compellingly told as a children's thriller. Susan is the Frodo figure; the stone on her bracelet, handed down through her family, turns out to be a lost talisman of great magical power. Accompanied by her brother Colin, two dwarves and a Cheshire farmer, she must undergo a perilous journey before she is safe and the stone is restored to the powers of good. The whole thing takes place in a real fragment of landscape near Macclesfield, and can be easily traced on an Ordnance Survey map as Susan and her companions are hunted cross country from tree to tree and ditch to ditch by witches, trolls, crows, vindictive clouds, goblins and neighbours with suddenly hostile intent.

Following that map shows another obvious change: landscape doesn't survive unaltered over a span of forty six years. Where Susan waded cold and terrified down Bag Brook to negotiate the open country between Radnor Wood and Dumville's Plantation, for example, there is now a research laboratory complex. Much of the journey, though, is still intact.

Other changes are social. We are not told how old Susan and Colin are, though their relationship suggests that Colin is probably the elder by a year. There are clues, though: they are at school, so probably at least five years old; but one brief reference suggests that they are young enough to be put in the bath together. They are my contemporaries; I had only brothers, but would not have been put in the bath with my female cousin at the age of ten. All in all, taking into account their language and activities compared to those of my friends and I as I grew up in the fifties and early sixties, I reckon they are about eight years old – the same age as I was when the book was published.

Given that age estimate, this was a world where children of eight are sent on train journeys alone, to stay with friends of their parents whom they have themselves never met. Thinking back to the world when I was eight years old, that is not unrealistic ... but it would be unthinkable now. The world is not noticeably more dangerous for eight year olds now, but parents are noticeably more paranoid ... and children are, as a result, less self reliant. That's a change which prompts sadness and nostalgia; my step daughter's ten year old (the same age, coincidentally, as I when I read this book) provides a comparison: he has never been into the centre of town alone from the place on its edge where he lives, even though a single bus would take him there and bring him back. He certainly would never be allowed, as Susan and Colin do without comment and I would have done myself, to cycle at whim ten kilometres to another town.

The children also take part, without comment, in the work of the farm including the bringing in of harvest. My parents were not farmers, but I often joined my classmates as they worked with their families: some were up at five for the milking, before school, and couldn't play with me in the evening until the cows had been brought in or other chores had been done. That would probably be seen as exploitation, now; it was a normal (and fun) part of community life, then.

I know that the past is always seen through golden haze and rose tinted spectacles ... but reading Weirdstone I find enough concrete marker posts to compare with verifiable memory. As I do so, I find myself glad that I was born when I was: in the early years of post war prosperity, but before the world closed in on childhood.

  1. Garner, Alan. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. London, 2002, Collins Voyager. ISBN 000712788X

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