Reviewed by Annabel
I’ve been a fan of Alan Garner’s novels ever since my childhood when I first encountered The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath in the 1960s. I can think of few books that are imbued with such a sense of place as that pair, being set at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, an area rich in history and mythology which Garner freely builds into his wonderful stories. Indeed, that sense of place pervades Garner’s very being, most of his life having centred around the locale where he still resides, and which has remained at the heart of his work ever since.
Where Shall We Run To? (complete with its question mark, unusual in a book title) is a memoir of Garner’s early childhood there, mostly occurring during WWII. There is a running cast of recurring adult characters whom we will get to know alongside the children. Garner casts his mind back into his younger self to give us boy’s-eye views of PC Pessle, the detested headmaster ‘Twiggy’ and an assortment of teachers and relations.
Garner prefaces his childhood stories with his photo – a cheeky schoolboy toothily grinning at the camera. It’s a great image and puts you straight into the right frame of mind to enjoy his first story – in which Alan and his friend John discover a ‘bomb’ in the brook – they knew from the poster outside the police station which showed all the types and told them what to do.
We were nearly across the field when we saw it.
It was on the other side of the brook, floating in a tangle of alder roots. It was grey, with a neck, and a black mark or letters or numbers on the side. We couldn’t read them that far off. But we knew.
What must we do? There was no teacher to tell. It was holidays. It had to be a policeman. The notice said.
PC Pessle took the boys seriously, but luckily this time it was an empty clay bottle. Garner captures the boys’s sense of peril at their discovery perfectly, yet with tongue firmly in his cheek, knowing how it turned out.
Garner’s favourite book as a child was passed onto him by his grandma – Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopedia (the 1910 edition). This encouraged Alan to ask questions too:
Where would they get the coal for the train from on the way to the moon? […]
Did God watch us pee?
Why did nettles sting?
It mattered to me, a mardy-arse. I always made sure I knew where the dock leaves grew to stop the hurt.
Cue stories of nettles, and the day he pushed his poor friend Harold into a large clump to test a theory. Harold screamed – as you would.
Garner was cheeky, but also as he says, a bit of a ‘mardy-arse’, a whinger. However, he was also quite a sickly boy with several spells in hospital, where he essentially taught himself to read; Tarzan of the Apes became his new favourite. A clever boy, he would go on to earn a scholarship.
He recounts too how his father goes off to war, how evacuees were billeted in the village, and how the Yanks came too – with lots of tempting sweets and comics. He describes how getting his first bike allowed him to see how Alderley Edge fitted into the world. All these stories are populated by schoolboy japes, and the silly rhymes they made up such as this one at the end of the war:
An atom bomb’s boom,
And two big explosions.’
This is a delightful memoir, told with much humour, of episodes from a bygone age when children could roam free to play once outside the school gates. Three additional chapters at the end append stories from 1955, 1974 and 2001 that echo back to three of the previous chapters and ultimately show how the beginnings of Garner’s fascination with Alderley Edge would later take full-flight after this time of innocence. The only downside to this volume is that the reader is left yearning for more.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Alan Garner, Where Shall We Run To? (4th Estate, 2018). 978-0008305970, 208pp., hardback.BUY in pbk at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)