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.