Eighteen years passed.
Alan Garner was not idle. He produced a number of books devoted to British Fairy Tale, rewriting and refining the folklore of this country in words both simple and rhythmic. He just didn’t publish anything original from 1978 to 1996, by which point it had begun to seem as if he never would again.
He did not lack for pressure. Had he given way, he could have turned his existing books into series, cheap, light and hollow, and destroyed his own ability. Instead, he held true to his gift, and the roots of his craft in the county of his birth.
Garmer had always been regarded as a children’s writer. He denied ever having written for children, only for himself, though he also regarded children as his clearest and most perceptive readers, able to understand simplicity where adult readers wanted to complicate things. But everything he had published up till and including The Aimer Gate, was marketed for children.
From Strandloper onwards, that has no longer been the case.
For me, this has always been the hardest of Garner’s to absorb. It tells a true story, of William Buckley, a Cheshire man convicted of a trumped-up charge in the early 1800s and sentenced to transportation to Australia, or New Holland as it was then called. Though he’s sentenced to life, William promises his fiancee Esther, or Het, that he’ll return: he will simply walk north until he reaches China, then turn left.
After enduring a six months voyage in chains, William makes an immediate escape from the camp that is established: he is the only survivor. He walks for weeks under the harsh Australian sun until he collapses from dehydration and malnutrition on what turns out to be the gravesite of an Aborigine shaman. The tribe, the Bengailites, treat him as a reincarnation of the shaman, and preserve his life. He becomes a member of the tribe for thirty years, growing in age and wisdom and respect among them for his understanding of the Dreaming.
When the white men start arriving in numbers, intent on taking Australia for themselves, William understands that they are too many and too rigid to be opposed. He negotiates an initial peace, for which he is granted a King’s Pardon and the right to return. Trying to act as negotiator of a kind of co-existence that will preserve his tribes and the Dreaming, William fails, on the rock of the Christians’ determination to drive out all inferior folk and cultures. He undergoes a final ritual in which he is entrusted with the Dreaming, to be established in England.
William returns to Cheshire. The old folk rituals which were, in part, responsible for his original transportation, have been driven out by a Christianity that emphasises meekness for the lower classes. Het has not waited for him: she has borne a child that she has named William, though she strongly hints that the father was actually Edward Stanley, son of Lord Stanley who had William convicted and despatched, now the Vicar and a figure of shallowness. Het is married, and now lives in Chorley (i.e., the future Alderley Edge).
William left Australia, his tribe and the woman he lived with for the sake of a promise given but never requested. He Walks his land, understanding it, and merges the rituals of his life with the presence of the Church, resolving these seemingly different beliefs into a unity that begins the new Dreaming, in Cheshire.
Strandloper when first published in hardback, the copy I have, appeared to be a big book, a thick book. It is so, in content, though the edition itself proves to still be less than 200 pages in total: Garner’s longest book but much less than the impression it gives from outside. Like his previous works, there is a heavy reliance in many sequences upon dialogue, with minimal text to supplement it, and Garner has gone deep into dialect, not merely that of Cheshire but other cultures.
The Cheshire dialect is thick and impenetrable. It feels real, but that’s maybe because I live on the fringe of Cheshire and whilst I am not of that county I am close enough to feel it. Other people, adults of course, pick at the density of the ‘rustic’ speech, consider it overdone and a barrier to enjoyment, which says more about their ability to comprehend than it does about Garner’s involvement in a past that was still a living presence for his family a hundred and fifty years later.
But dense as it is, and impenetrable as the folk rituals are at this remove, only a small portion of the book, the first and last of its five parts, take place in Cheshire. The larger part of the book takes place in Australia, and an Australia far removed in time and place from the two cousins I have who live there: time and place and understanding.
For each book, Garner researches thoroughly, indeed obsessively, needing to know all manner of things that, when recounted, seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with what he ends up writing. For Strandloper, he had to immerse himself in Aboriginal culture, thought, belief, perception. He had expert help, which shows in the pages, but this is where the book loses me, and always has. Garner evidently understands, and presents as such. But I don’t understand. Unlike the folklore of England and Britain, I have no connection to that of the Aborigines, nor any means of absorbing it at any level of innate understanding. I can only participate on an intellectual level, and that is the wrong level.
So to that extent, since the experiences William Buckley absorbed and which led to him being re-named Murrangurruck do not stick with me, it could be said that Strandloper fails. I do not internalise it. But the failure, if any, is mine, not Alan Garner’s.
I vaguely recall an interview, which might have come out during that period of excitement between the announcement that Garner had written a new book and its publication, in which Garner commented that he had discovered the seeds for the story during his researches into family history for The Stone Book Quartet (and that in researching William Buckley he had found the seed for his next book, lying even further back).
From that, and the fact that Het married a man from Chorley/Alderley named Joseph, and named her son thus adopted William, names we are familiar with from The Stone Book Quartet, I am intuiting that Joseph’s surname was Garner and William Buckley a collateral ancestor of our writer, possibly but probably not in blood.
Whatever my own reactions to and inescapable alienation from Strandloper, it is still a great book. It is part of the continuum of Alan Garner’s work. William is an epileptic, like the three Thomases of Red Shift. Lineal time is of less importance than internal time, like Red Shift again, and Thursbitch, which is to follow. Eighteen years did not dull him, but rather focussed him even more finely upon the land and the language from which he sprung. The real becomes the fantastic in Strandloper and the books that follow.