Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 5 – Red Shift


Red Shift

Red Shift is the book of Alan Garner’s that I have read most often, more often than all of his other works put together. I read it over and over in the Seventies, sometimes blasting through it as fast as possible, at others lingering over every word. When I missed the BBC1 Play for Today adaptation in 1977, I read it that way, envisioning everything that I’d missed, and discovered a complete, and crucial scene hidden between two lines of dialogue from the same character that I had never previously noticed.
And today I read it in the aftermath of disturbing dreams that have left me unsettled and peculiarly sensitive to the disaster that leads to the hidden suicide intimated after the book ends.
Since The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Garner’s writing has been a process of stripping down, of eliminating, reducing, refining. Quite early on I read a review of Red Shift that focussed on this approach, that stated that the book had been so pared down to essentials that it gave the sense that if one more word were to be removed, the entire story would collapse into incoherence. And I agree.
As with The Owl Service, the story is structured upon a deeply buried myth, in which place is of greater importance than time. Red Shift revolves around the hill of Mow Cop, on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border and the myth of Tam Lin and Burd Ellen, but where the former concerns itself with the current generation, there are three layers in time colliding and corresponding, three figures who are, we are meant to infer, the same person: Macey, a Roman Legionnaire, Thomas Rowley, in the Civil War, and Tom, who does not survive.
It’s Tom, in the present day, who gets the most attention, though that’s not to slight his earlier equivalents. Tom, no last name given, son of a Regular Army Sergeant Major living in a static caravan at Rudheath, loves Jan, daughter of two psychologists, intent upon becoming a nurse. Very quickly, we pick up on the curious fact that whilst Jan can tell Tom that she loves him, and does so with delighted frequency, he cannot say the same: not in the words. It’s a foreshadowing of the ending, that Tom is the one who will break and fall.
Macey is an epileptic, a young boy in a small group of Legionnaires of multiple backgrounds, deserters from the Ninth Legion, going to ground, going native in Cheshire, on Mow Cop. His epilepsy allows their commander, Logan, to drive him into a berserker rage in which he becomes a killing machine. Logan and the remnants of the band talk like American soldiers in Vietnam, a deliberate and inspired decision by Garner. Insanely, Logan plans to establish a new Ninth, breeding from an already pregnant young woman, hamstrung and captive, a priestess of the Corn-Goddess.
Thomas Rowley is also an epileptic, one of the village of Barthomley, massacred in the Civil War. His condition affects his daily abilities. He is married to Madge, who was once courting another Thomas, Venables, a rough man from Mow Cop. John Fowler, son of the Vicar, whose arrogance and self-importance brings the massacre down on the Village, wants to bed Madge, who will have nothing to do with him: he claims she only chose Thomas because he was soft enough to be malleable. We have to judge for ourselves if there’s any truth to that.
Tom is not an epileptic, or perhaps he’s pre-epileptic, has the condition but has not yet experienced an attack. He’s certainly very intelligent, highly-strung, erratic, unstable. Jan means a great deal to him. She stabilises him, grounds him, treats him with the kind of understanding he doesn’t get, has never had, from his well-meaning, loving but extremely limited parents. There are traces of Gwyn and Nancy in their relationship, the sense that he’s their pride, that they expect him to go far but will never comprehend what he does.
The story is triggered by two things. To train, Jan will have to go to London, breaking their daily relationship, but that’s compounded by her parents also moving, to a new posting in Portsmouth: her only connection to Rudheath henceforward will be him. The other, and more crucial, is that Tom’s parents subject them to an inquisition about whether they have been having sex. The answer is no, not until much later, but the enormity of the question is outrageous and horrifying even before we learn exactly why Tom, thanks to his parents, is utterly fucked up over sex.
It’s intrusive, it’s gross and Tom breaks under it, not for the last time in the book. It can also be read, though I don’t necessarily subscribe to this idea, as being the traumatic event that links all three figures, Macey, Thomas, Tom, throughout their ages.
But the parallels are not exact. Two out of three are epileptics, not all of them. This is merely the most obvious of the imperfect parallels that run through the book. The deeply buried myth that underlines the book does not play out the same way each time, and the one unequivocal thing that does link all three – a perfect Stone Age axe-head that passes through each man’s hands – ends up put beyond reach of a successor in a future age.
The threats to Macey and Thomas are clear, present and physical, yet at the end each leave the place where they were, in effect, imprisoned, to lead their ongoing lives, Macey with the girl, Thomas with Madge. Macey and the girl leave Mow Cop, under the threat that she, having ground corn to bring death on the hill, may herself have to die, but we infer they will survive. Thomas is badly wounded, a sword through the chest by Thomas Venables, but expertly delivered to not kill: he and Madge go to Mow Cop, to live. Thomas might yet die, but we infer he will survive.
Tom and Jan…
The rest of the book is theirs, is about their love. They work out a system whereby they can meet in Crewe one Saturday in every four, but it’s not their separation that gradually undoes everything about them. Slowly, naturally, we see deeper into each of them, see the things that their childhood have burnt into them. They fuck you up, your Mums and Dads… And ultimately, the line of graffiti Alan Garner once saw, written on a wall, that is the book’s last line, that he recognised as a book’s last line and wrote Red Shift to find out how to get there: not really now not any more. There’s a starkness to that line, a flatness that has disturbed me for fifty years, the indifference that is a worse death than death itself.
Underneath, it’s sex. Jan is not a virgin. Tom’s discovery of that breaks the platonic ideal of her. He hates and fears sex because of how a caravan shakes when two people… Sex enters their relationship and destroys it. Jan is the innocent, the victim. Her last significant words in the book are ‘It has had enough. It wants to go home now.’ The depersonalisation is as much a conclusion as the last and telling words: not really now not any more.
But they are only the end of the story. Red Shift‘s endpapers are decorated by a jumble of letters, another massage, spelt out in a code Tom and Jan use in the story to keep her letters, intercepted and steamed open by Tom’s mother, private. Not until the advent of Wikipedia did I discover how these translated. They are a coda, Tom’s last note to Jan. No, I won’t say what they mean. Tam Lin has not been freed from Faerie by Burd Ellen: an ending must be made outside the bounds of space and time. Remember that, if Elidor had contained one more line, Roland would have been driven mad…
Red Shift is a work of brilliance. It is spare, lean, finely-drawn. It is a surface, with much more than nine-tenths hidden below it, that we feel, we understand, we sense rather than read. Probably better so: the pressure of such depths are not easy places for men and women to go. Better we stay on the surface, seeing only what is visible to be seen. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds: not really now not any more.

7 thoughts on “Not Just For Children – Alan Garner: 5 – Red Shift

  1. Enjoyed reading this, and delving in to other Alan Garner links of yours. One thing is, that there are several critics who suggest that Jan *is* pregnant at the end of Red Shift. I lived in Crewe for five years and used to visit Mow Cop and Barthomley, on the back of Red Shift, which remains one of my favourite books.

    1. Yes, I’m well aware of that theory, but had temporarily forgotten it when I wrote this post. Though it’s a very appealing theory, and well within the story Garner has created, there is no actual evidence in the words for it to be a concrete fact. It’s another example of the way Garner refuses to make absolute parallels between Macey, Thomas and Tom. Macey’s Corn Goddess girl is pregnant, by someone else, Margery may be pregnant and, if she is, would be by Thomas Venables, not Thomas Whittaker: if Jan is pregnant, it would both fulfil the pattern and disrupt it since the father would be ‘her’ man, Tom. I think that, unless Garner himself confirms it, as with the reference to Roland going mad one line after the conclusion of Elidor, it’s for the individual reader themselves to decide if Jan is or is not pregnant in their vision of the book. I personally have never ‘felt’ that to be the case. Hence the non-reference to it, which I’m glasd you brought up.

      I too have visited Mow Cop and Barthomley a few times because of Red Shift, the last time with a companion who had some psychic tendencies and couldn’t enter the folly because of the vibes she was getting from it. I have no sensitivity whatsoever to such things.

      1. Hi Martin

        that was quick!

        there’s the possibility that Jan is pregnant via the wine grower, too… a different father.

        but then, that’s what I like about Red Shift – there’s always more possibilities every time you read it.

        I’ve taught it at university for 15 years [stopped now]. the students really struggle with it, but later on some write dissertations or have got into it.

        like you, i managed to get a bootleg copy of the tv film [mine was time coded] before BFI released it. and a pdf copy of the reserach folder [jackdaws was what they were called in my day] they only got to proof stage.

        i actually went to the Bodleian and saw the m/s [white gloves etc]. there are drafts where the soldiers speak in Britsh ‘tally-ho’ type language, and some sections of Jan as a nurse in London. so there was a lot of revision going on; something Garner tends to not mention.

        i interviewed Garner in 1984, went to his house… intriuing place. Jodrell Bank looming over the tracks. Ought to go back to Cheshire, but it’s a long way from Cornwall where I now live.

        I presume you know the unofficial Garner website? lots of links there. i send Robert anything i come across – your pages are linked to now on there.

        Best wishes Rupert

        >

      2. Hi Rupert. I always like to reply to anyone who’s taken the trouble to comment, and if I’m not doing anything at the time I’m notified, I’ll usually do that straight away.

        I considered the wine-grower but I’m convinced that the timescale rules out that possibility. If he had made Jan pregnant in the summer it would have been showing for quite some time before Tom even learns about him (I discount a possible sexual encounter in London: Jan wouldn’t do that). Yes, you’re right, because it’s so stripped down there are so many possibilities in the book.

        I’ve never seen any of Garner’s manuscripts but the idea that multiple revisions take place between the first draft and what we get to read comes as no surprise (certainly not after Neil Philip’s report of Garner killing Colin off in The Moon of Gomrath!) As a writer I am fascinated but the thought-processes that go into producing a novel: I have the complete set of Tolkien’s History of Middle-Earth, all First Editions. Lucky you to have interviewed him, though I think I’d probably be too awed to ask any intelligent questions. I did meet him once, after a talk a group of us went to, and despite being warned of his reluctance to sign autographs, I got one from him – Red Shift, of course!

        And I have the Unofficial website on my Favourites: I was linked there in the past, when I responded to, rather than analysed, Boneland.

        The series of posts will go all the way through to Treacle Walker (which, I confess, I have not yet got to proper grips with) and will treat each of the Stone Book Quartet as indivudual books.

        It’s nice to talk with a fellow enthusiast. I hope there are other things on the blog to interest you, and maybe to inspire you to try writers you may not have encountered.

      3. Hi Martin.

        yes i have been rummaging around on your blog…

        No, revision is key to writing books (I twitch over my poems, and academic papers/chapters, endlessly), but Garner does tend to present the idea that he is ‘given’ or channels books, first putting off the writing by his research period. I was quite relieved to see how much work he does do.

        I must confess i am not a big fan of Treacle Walker, not after 3 reads anyway. I look forward to seeing your comments.

        I was slightly shocked, although Neil Philip said i shouldnt have been, to find Garner putting forward the idea that it is Macey who is dreaming the later strands of Red Shift.

        I enjoyed meeting Garner and he liked that i wrote down his answers, not taped them, but he said new questions i sent him a few years alter hurt his head and he wanted to concentrate on writing not explanation!

        best wishes R

        >

  2. there’s the possibility that Jan is pregnant via the wine grower, too… a different father.

    but then, that’s what I like about Red Shift – there’s always more possibilities every time you read it.

    I’ve taught it at university for 15 years [stopped now]. the students really struggle with it, but later on some write dissertations or have got into it.

    like you, i managed to get a bootleg copy of the tv film [mine was time coded] before BFI released it, and a pdf copy of the reserach folder [jackdaws was what they were called in my day] they only got to proof stage.

    i actually went to the Bodleian and saw the m/s [white gloves etc]. there are drafts where the soldiers speak in Britsh ‘tally-ho’ type language, and some sections of Jan as a nurse in London. so there was a lot of revision going on; something Garner tends to not mention.

    i interviewed Garner in 1984, went to his house… intriuing place. Jodrell Bank looming over the tracks. Ought to go back to Cheshire, but it’s a long way from Cornwall where I now live.

    I presume you know the unofficial Garner website? lots of links there.
    i send Robert anything i come across – your pages are linked to now on there.

    Best wishes
    Rupert

  3. Macey as the sole ‘real’ experience of Red Shift? I don’t remember that in Philip’s book and my instinct is to reject it utterly.

    As you may know from the blog I also write novels and have self-published several through Lulu.com. This is for my own pleasure and necessity. I’d love for them to sell in vast quantities and fund me to at last see Cornwall for myself (one of only four English counties I have neither been to or through) but I strongly suspect that I am in no way commercial enough, and anyway I am in no way a salesman. First drafts are for charging through nonstop and finding out what the characters want to do, then you start revising. I’m currently revising one completed novel where I recently discovered I had left off a closing chapter and, in tandem, a half-written novel that I have struggled with so much that I am having to break with practice to remind myself what has already happened (not to mention that I suspect I have totally screwed up the timeline). It also helps me stay sane.

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