Joseph is William’s grandfather, and Joseph is the Granny Reardun of this story’s title. In this book we are here to watch Joseph choose his life and the mastery he’ll attain even as we have already seen him lay down that life and all that belongs to it in a future unguessable from here.
When here is is impossible to say. We are nearer to Mary’s time than to William’s, maybe around the turn of the century, or perhaps a little before. Mary is Joseph’s mother, and whilst she does appear, briefly, in this volume, we neither see nor hear her, nor see anyone speak to her: she is a ghost.
There are two reasons for this. One is that she has had her day, and this is Joseph’s turn, but the other has already been hinted to us in Tom Fobble’s Day, by Old Joseph, referring to his half-brother Charlie whose name adorns the First World War monument in what was Alderley Edge then but which is still Chorley now. Charlie is in this book. He is a baby in a broken bassinet, with whom Joseph plays and runs, the bassinet that, in another time, will go to form the frame of a sledge.
Connections begin to pour up and down the generations. Charlie lives with his mother and his father. Mary comes to visit her mother and father, Old Robert, the stonemason, with whom Joseph lives. Joseph is a Granny Reardun. Try saying it. He is an illegitimate child, his father never identified, though Garner without giving any clues opens us up to a possible explanation.
Charlie’s father married Mary and gave her his child but wouldn’t take on her other boy. That was for her mother, his Grandmother, to take on, and he the stigma that will attach to him all the years ahead, that and the detachment.
We’re entering a phase where a lot of what is being said is being said beyond the printed page, where we must imagine it, not read it.
Granny Reardun, at its simplest, is about the day a boy chooses his future. Everyone, from Grandfather Robert down, expects Joseph to prentice as a stonemason: it is his family’s profession. But Joseph is uncertain. That uncertainty is exacerbated today, which begins with the Allman family being evicted from their cottage that stands in the top corner of the lower of two fields. The eviction is being carried out in the public gaze, which the Allmans give a pretence of not noticing. Most significant is the moment of final departure, as Mrs Allman emerges from the once home backwards, donkey-stoning the step as a final gesture, having lime-washed the walls inside: the cottage is utterly clean: read into that what you will.
By the end of the day, it will already have been pulled down to the ground floor, and some of the good stone will go where it sickens Joseph to see it. The Allmans have been flitted and their home pulled down because Lady Stanley wants a kitchen garden: for no more reason than that. Joseph feels it keenly.
Meanwhile, Old Robert is building a wall to hold the bank in for the road, and Joseph is to help him before his last day of School, which he will sag off. The stonemason is still possessed of his old strength and skill, but he hasn’t the stone for it. The good stone, the yellow-white Dimension, has all but been used up, and what Robert has to replace it won’t last above a hundred years, and a poor testament to his craft.
But some of that wall, a barrow load or two at any rate, will be good Dimension stone, and lime-washed on the inside too. Joseph hates it. His grandfather’s defence is that of inevitability. It was going to happen, and none to prevent it, and what should the stone go to except a good end.
But stone was never in Joseph, and this social injustice only confirms it. Robert needs a new four pound hammer. Damper Latham, who gets stone for him, calls at the Smithy to order one. Joseph goes with him. The Smithy, and its master, James Jump, fills him with amazement, a world of mastery that owes nothing to his grandfather. When he wags School he comes back, to ask to be prenticed.
Despite Jump’s seemingly caustic reception, he is willing to accept the boy as a seeker after the truths of the hammermen. He and Damper have had their eye on Joseph this twelvemonth. Someone else has known Joseph’s future before him and that is Old Robert himself. When Joseph confronts him with his intention not to follow him, the expected temper doesn’t flare. Instead, Robert treats it as recognition of the boy’s nature, none too soon either.
For Joseph there is an imperative. He has to get aback of the old man. Robert is everywhere in Chorley, his stone and his maker’s mark. He has left no room for Joseph to do anything. But the Smith’s aback of everyone, for he is the toolmaker, who makes the clock and the weathercock and the bell to call all to prayer.
It’s presented as one boy’s choice of profession, but it’s also symbolic of the transition from the age of Stone to the age of Metal, as well of the continuity of mastery, skill and understanding.
Granny Reardun was also the first time Alan Garner began to give full expression to his Cheshire heritage, allowing not just old Robert but Damper Latham, and James Jump to express themselves in the words and phrases the men of their times would have used. It’s a dialect that’s both common and rich, a revelling in language that so many specific localities boasts, in their own enclaves. Later reviewers will miss understanding of what Garner is doing, treat it as yokelism, the more so as Garner grows in confidence in its usage. But this is where he first mastered that tool, and the book sings for it.