Alan Garner – the Swing 51 interview

18. 10. 2010 | Rubriky: Articles,Interviews

Part 1: Some Influences and Inspiration

[by Ken Hunt, London] 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Alan Garner’s novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and HarperCollins has duly published a 50th anniversary edition. Hence the excuse to re-publish part of the first part of this interview. Any changes are so that the text conforms to our style guide and to contextualise and clarify matters. There has been no attempt to impose updates on this interview.

Finding an article on the English author Alan Garner in a magazine like this, the contents of which revolve around music, may appear a little unusual at first sight but Garner’s is a talent which fully justifies the inclusion of an article on him in any magazine with an interest in folk music and folklore. Alan Garner is commonly regarded as a writer of children’s books – a description which undervalues his talents by a long chalk (without denigrating that profession) and which fails to take account of the main corpus of his work. His books, when viewed chronologically, show a steady progression. The early fiction – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and Elidor (1965) – with hindsight seems shaky in parts, yet reading them at the time, as they appeared, each book seemed far more forceful to a boy entering his teens. Nevertheless those books laid down the rudiments of Garner’s writing style; formative prose it may be but enjoyable for all that. At the time of their appearance they were lumped with much of the fantasy writing so prized by admirers of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, yet apart from superficial resemblances in form those books are poles apart. One of Alan Garner’s quotes summing up his whole attitude to what might be described as the fantasy folly of the Sixties was used as an introduction to the review of Neil Philip’s A Fine Anger, (which appeared in the fifth issue of this magazine). That examination of Garner’s work cogently argues the case that its subject is an original talent. The Owl Service (1967) and Red Shift (1973) were clear evidence of this, and they mark a turning point In Garner’s literary style. Prior to The Owl Service his prose lacked the tautness that was to exemplify his subsequent work but the clincher was Red Shift whose bare prose was a revelation. By the time of that book certain elements in his work were clearly discernible. His use of dialect, particularly the dialect of his home county – Cheshire – was increasingly more accomplished (even if his later works like The Stone Book Quartet were to eclipse the earlier experiments). His innovative handling of time as an essential dramatic device, whether in the split time frame of Red Shift or in the interconnectedness of the past with the present in The Owl Service. A story, Feel Free, in several senses bridges the divide between those two novels in that it has elements found in both of the longer works. It has a paranormal element (which was used so successfully in The Owl Service and the television adaptation of that work) and makes use of slipped time (which also formed a part of Red Shift). It was published as one of the stories in an anthology under the title of The Restless Ghost (1970) edited by one S. Dickinson and in the earlier Miscellany (1967) edited by E. Blishen. Another characteristic feature of his work is his drawing upon locally based historical incidents or myths and in this he has become extremely accomplished. For example, there is the strand in Red Shift depicting the events leading up to and following, the English Civil War massacre at Barthomley Church which is situated not far from Garner’s Cheshire home. This was further reinforced by The Stone Book (1976), Tom Fobble’s Day (1977), Granny Reardun (1977) and The Aimer Gate (1978), which make up the so-called Stone Book Quartet; these four volumes plot four generations of Garner’s family during the course of a particular event in the life of a particular person in each generation and a local flavour abounds. As Alan Garner relates in the following interview not just the locality but also the specific dwelling in which he and his family live affect him and his writings. In his sleeve notes for the Argo recordings of the Quartet, Ray Horricks gives a picture of the Garner residence: “The house is remarkably close to the main Manchester/Crewe railway line, but by car can only be approached by driving up to, opening and then closing behind one, a series of farmer’s gates. It’s a fascinating place. The oldest part dates from about 1380; the later medicine-house and wing from 1500 and 1550 respectively. Apart from which these later parts were transported to the site from Newcastle (Staffs) and joined to the older part by a modern corridor incorporating a bathroom…” The structure itself is impressive and occasional visits from architectural students attest to its significance. The interior is replete with the trophies of the author’s magpie habits: eye-catching stones or archaeological finds, a library of impressive dimensions, an odd spear or two (props left over from the television adaptation of Red Shift), odd objects in general… ” It is no wonder that Garner finds his Cheshire life and background such a rewarding source of inspiration and that it has played such an important role in his work since its onset, since that first novel.

An equally fascinating aspect of Alan Garner’s work is the part that folk tale has played in the creation of his books. Even that debut novel (subtitled A Tale of Alderley) had links with a traditional story about a king under the hill at Alderley Edge. As early as 1969 he was adapting and retelling material of a traditional or folk origin in The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins (which became A Book of Goblins in paperback and A Cavalcade of Goblins for its American edition). The impressive The Guizer: A Book of Fools (1975) followed in a similar vein and, as the title may suggest (for the word is not one in common parlance), it hinges upon the role of the Fool in various societies, though not necessarily in any sense of idiocy; a guizer is an actor in a mumming play. An epigrammatic comment encountered early in The Guizer may serve to illustrate the author’s intentions: apparently (according to The World of Primitive Man), an Eskimo uttered the following on gazing at the panorama that greeted him from the top of a New York skyscraper: “I can see things more than my mind can grasp; and the only way to save oneself from madness is to suppose that we have all died suddenly before we knew, and that this is part of another life”, a quote with a distinct Borges flavour to it. The next book in the vein of folk tale was to be published in two forms: the earlier being as individually published paperbacks (in 1979) followed by all four in one volume called Alan Garner’s Fairytales of Gold (in 1980); these stories (The Girl of the Golden Gate, The Golden Brother, The Princess and the Golden Mane and The Three Golden Heads of the Well) with their brightly coloured pictures are more obviously geared to an audience of children. The book published in 1981, The Lad of the Gad, again made use of folklore. It contained five tales (Upright John, Rascally Tag – which appeared in an earlier variant as one of the stories in Jubilee Jackanory (1977) – Olioll Olom, The Lad of the Gad and Lurga Lom) and the collection is in a very real sense a summation of this branch of Alan Garner’s work for it combines many of the threads into a powerful tapestry. As the author remarks in the interview he does not revise his work to any great degree, but this is only partially true in that his earlier books have undergone a measure of revision at stages in the past, resulting in a tightening of the prose. This gradual winnowing of the prose has led to a removal of many superfluous or inessential segments and in Red Shift, for example, all prolixity has been removed: passages of speech are bare the way speech often is. The Lad of the Gad has that selfsame ‘bare’ quality and it makes for powerful effect.

At this juncture it may be as well to quote from Garner’s introduction to Lad of the Gad on the subject of folk tale and its place today:

“The oral tradition of folktale no longer exists in the English language. Now, rather than human recollection shared through community of audience and the storyteller’s own belief, the source of every folktale is another hook. Made written, folktale is treated as a juvenile branch of literature; but the two are different, and we should mark the differences. The word in the air is not the same word on the page.

“The folktale, when written, should still continue to be worked as it was when it was a spoken form, so that it stays relevant and vital; yet the body of British folktale is obsolete, a reductive continuity of Nineteenth Century texts, which reflect the attitudes of the period when the bulk of our traditional remains were set in print. Since that time, the British folktale has become, properly, a subject for scholarship, and, less properly, a vehicle for the moral instruction of the young. Shorn of its inherent music, mistakenly pursued for rational meaning, folktale has lost its force within the general culture.”

This seems to strike at the heart of the matter. The art of story-telling is a dying art as far as the oral tradition in the British Isles goes. There may be the odd pocket which has nurtured the art but the erosion of the old changing way by mass technology and the media has left its mark. Hearing somebody like Seamus Ennis breathing life into a tale is sufficient proof that the loss of that sort of skill is a very sad one indeed. He could demonstrate the story-teller’s art like few others and in each variation, in each subtle development in the story line, he revealed an age old craft. Alan Garner, as he points out above, believes that the art of tale spinning should not grow stale and musty. The Lad of the Gad shows that belief in operation and vindicates that belief fully.

Alan Garner is also an accomplished playwright and his books make potentially good television or film. There is a cinematic quality to much of the writing. That The Owl Service and Red Shift found their way onto the TV screen was important for the development of Garner’s writings; not only did it enlarge his readership in the way that television spin-offs so frequently do but by appearing on the TV screen it must have opened up new ideas for presentation. More television work followed in due course, although strangely a nativity play (which made use of traditional song in its action) entitled Holly from the Bongs (1966) has to date eluded any adaptation for the small screen. To Kill A King (1980) and The Keeper (1982), both mentioned in the interview, are clearly later works in the corpus. Amongst future commissions is the adaptation of The Stone Book Quartet for television in the form of “four fifty-minute plays, to be shown in 1984”. A pilot for this project was worked on in 1981.
Alan Garner’s influence is probably hard to assess. He is a writer who repays attention and scrutiny. Robin Williamson, another keen user of traditional and folk elements in his work and his Gruagach stories and Tree of Leaf and Flame have links with similar territory as some of Alan Garner’s work; Williamson expanded upon this when speaking of Alan Garner: “I admire his writing a lot. He seems to have been reaching for Celtic matters which have a very present relevance; you know, the way a myth can reach out and touch someone in the present moment. That’s what The Owl Service, for instance, is about. I think he’s a fantastic writer. I was wondering when someone was going to notice the similarities, because I think there’s a lot of comparison between what he’s been doing and what I’m doing, although, whereas I have a lyrical, a more of a poet’s approach, I think he has a novelist’s approach to the same material and he must be aware of some of the things that I’m aware of, perhaps more than I am in some ways.”

Two further publications deserve mention in this introduction. Neil Philip’s A Fine Anger is a book which is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to understand Garner’s works. Likewise Labrys 7. They are reviewed in issues 5 and 6 of this magazine respectively. Labrys 7 also contains an almost complete screenplay for To Kill A King (amongst other works by Alan Garner).

The interview that follows was recorded on 4th September 1982 at Alan’s Cheshire home. Like Ray Horricks said in his sleeve notes to Granny Reardun [the Argo recording], the home is close to the railway line, although its apparent atmosphere of remoteness is accentuated by the track which leads up to the property, seeing as it is unmade and somewhat bumpy. Only the trains disturb the sensation as they rumble by behind the house. A number of people assisted in this interview. Neil Philip and John Matthews were enormous helps. Sonia Birch and Nicky Henderson at Collins helped at various stages, as did BBC Publications. Most of all thanks are extended to the Garners.

I wondered how much folk song has influenced you.

Folk song has influenced me a very great deal as source material. I’m not able to talk much about the music because I have no musical education so I can’t work with music technically; I find that this isn’t altogether a bad thing because I’ve got a very happy relationship with Gordon Crosse, the composer, who finds that what he calls ‘my natural musicianship’ is enough for him. In other words I turn him out a libretto which is workable and then I’m, very fortunately for him, unable to do anything more about it; I can’t get in the way of his composition; I can’t suggest things. But yes, I’m very concerned for the music, for folk song and like it and I need it, which isn’t quite the same thing. Especially Scots, the Lowland Scots folk songs I’ve found very rewarding sources. My own area of Cheshire is very poorly represented in folk song; there’s hardly any which could be tied down to the area at all. I’ve collected, I think, four pieces which were a local variant but that’s all that can be said of them.

Did you do much in the way of collecting or were they the only examples that you could locate?

They were the only examples I could locate and that was largely brought about by being provided almost unexpectedly from the men I was talking to anyway. They were old men I was talking to for their own historical memories and they would sometimes come out with bits of song that they knew. There’s an interesting one which came from Alderley which was sung to me as an example of gibberish and I recognised it. It’s a Gaelic folk song and the man was singing with a Cheshire accent words which were recognisably Gaelic in origin. And how that came to his family, and he said it was only sung in his family, it’s not possible to infer with any accuracy but I think I’ve got it because in 1745 when Charles Edward was marching South for the Battle of Derby he passed through Alderley Edge and bivouacked for the night and I think it’s just possible that within that family memory there’s carried some record of a song that was being sung. Otherwise I can think of no other reason for a Gaelic fragment being retained in a Cheshire dialect voice.

There was no Scots blood in the family?

No, no. It was a remarkable family in that it was one of the few families which can be traced on the land and on the same piece of land for 300 years as yeoman farmers.

I use music myself but not directly. Some of the words of the folk songs are directly helpful. Mainly my use of music is as a catalyst. I find that I unconsciously – I don’t plan it – I’m playing certain types of music to myself when I’m in certain types of difficulty with writing and there is a pattern which doesn’t actually relate to folk song but it may relate to something else. When I’m really faced with the problem that there’s something there to write- but I don’t know what it is, it’s just an enormous pressure, I find that I’m playing Jimi Hendrix very loudly for very long periods of time and I almost anaesthetize myself with it because I play it so very loudly. I get complaints from the neighbours a quarter of a mile away! I like the kind of music that he plays but not enough to collect it but I do find that I lay my hands on anything I can get of Jimi Hendrix. I think he was a rare genius and what he communicates is almost impossible to put into words. It exists at the area where language doesn’t reach. So, I use him to get through some kind of barrier in the work and then, at a much later stage, when I’ve overcome the main problems and it’s largely the physical slog of getting through the writing, I find that I go towards the formalised stuff, like Faure’s Requiem or typical Nineteenth Century vegetative music, very succulent music, and I think that’s because some order is coming into the work that I’m doing and I like to see the order in the music. Then right at the end, which is the worst part of writing – I think it’s possibly even worse than the Jimi Hendrix phase – is when the book is almost finished. By ‘almost’ I mean within a couple of days and for a period afterwards, after the actual finishing of the manuscript, I go into an enormous depressive cycle, because it’s rather like giving birth. I’m redundant now. There’s nothing else I can do. I made a mess of what I have done. I can’t alter it. It’s out, it’s there, it exists. And then I really do need to have the reassurance that there is perfection in the world, so I go for the mathematical beauties of Bach and his religious music, in particular in his masses, and that sees me through the really dangerous part of having finished something. That is when all judgement goes, because when writing I suspend judgement. Judgement comes back again at a later stage of revision. But I’m an intuitive writer; I never plan what I’m going to write. This is what Gordon Crosse says is typically musical. I just follow it organically, as it comes. I hardly ever revise anyway but I’m prepared to revise. But I don’t control it as it’s coming out.

Don’t you find yourself sweating over phrases or words?

I used to do. Over the years, and I have been doing it for 26 years today as a matter of fact…26 years today I started The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, at three minutes past four on a Tuesday afternoon – I have a memory for irrelevancies. The fourth of September 1956. The first two books were written very labouredly. It was rather like carving hieroglyphics. It felt strenuous and it shows in the books. The words are wordy. It’s an overblown book, which, I think, is almost impossible to avoid when you first start. As time’s gone by there is a shift which isn’t planned. Again, it’s automatic; it’s within me. And that is the period between the conceptual moments when the ideas arrive spontaneously from some stimulus or other, aren’t sought, and I just know I’m pregnant. There then follows a period of assessing what this implies in the way of research and then there’s the research which has two functions. One is that it satisfies the academically trained mind in me. In other words I go through the motions of working. It feels like work and it looks like work. And then after that’s over, when all the research sources are cross-referring to each other, I know there’s no more to do. I’ve read it all and there’s still no story. That’s the sensation that I had maybe two years earlier that I was pregnant. And that goes into a really grim phase which I have to come to terms with, which I call the “Oh, my God!” bit, because I’ve done the research; I’ve gone through the hoop of working at it, at the background; and there’s still no story. I just have to let it ride. I can’t do anything else and, again, I play a lot of folk music then. This period is never less than a year and with the current one – I’m in an “Oh, my God!” at the moment – that’s four years. What happens at the end of that is I experience something which is recognisable the instant that it happens. It’s very like the sensation that I think most people have of being half asleep and their foot slipping off the kerb, the jolt of coming awake. Well, I feel a jolt within me and I hear quite without any understanding, I hear words, which I put down. I just write them down and that’s always the last sentence of the book.

Is that what is being described in To Kill A King?

Yes, yes. [Laughter] Well, not exactly. I’m using it. It’s not an exact reduplication. And I get that down quickly and I feel very relieved. It’s a totally emotional sensation; it’s not rational. I just feel very relieved and I know that’s the end of the book and then quite soon afterwards, a few weeks or months, I have a slightly less violent jolt. I start to see and hear in my head people talking and moving and I find I can spool back on that and play it again. It’s rather like editing. I have to get the lip-synch. I have to get that. And when lip-synch occurs the focus on the visuals gets crisp and also on the sound. I can actually hear clearly what’s being said. From then on it’s very much like automatic writing. I just listen to it and I take it down and I do not question it. To begin with, it only comes in spurts. By ‘comes’ I mean I can only concentrate on it in spurts, then I get very tired. The clearest example so far is the Red Shift where after nearly five years, which is the “Oh, my God!” plus the research, I heard somebody say, “Shall I tell you?” which is the opening line of the book and the whole of that dialogue was obtained by putting it all into focus and into synch. And so I wrote it all out. The first third of the book cane in about nine months and that was slow for this stage of the writing. Then the second third following straight on took three months and the third third took about three weeks, so in the end I was writing very fast. Towards the end comes the other moment of horror which I can never rationalise away and that is to see the end of the book coming; there is that fixed, last sentence or paragraph that was there at the beginning. It’s almost like a docking manoeuvre and I feel, “Oh, my God!” If I miss this, I shall go into outer space and never be able to stop writing this book!” But of course, it always goes click. Now, I’ve described there the subjective experience. What I know now from observing it often enough “is that period of research has an importance in that it’s rather like putting down a concrete platform on which to build. It never shows but when decisions have to be made about the way things are developing if there’s a choice between A and B, if B makes sense in the context of all that research B would seem the better idea. And so the research is very useful but it never afflicts me consciously and the “Oh, my God!” is really at the time when the book’s being written. I now know that, for me, the process is very like a computer, that the “Oh, my God!” is the switching off of my conscious, analytical self to enable my subconscious to analyse all that work, all that research and to select that which is relevant only, and having done that I get the print-out. It’s almost like a computer signalling that it’s ready to go: I get the end of the book, which means that it’s there, somewhere, and has to be given shape. And then it starts. The more I write the longer the “Oh, my God!” bit is and the shorter the writing, until by the time of The Stone Book Quartet this was written in a single sitting. I know they’re short, but still 7,000 words for me is a long piece of writing. I’m not prolific. But the manuscript at the end of the Quartet, the last one The Aimer Gate…the speed of writing was so great that the fibres in the paper had broken down under the pressure of the ball-point pen; it’s an exercise book and instead of being stiff paper it goes like rice paper. It’s limp. And that’s just with the actual intensity of the pressure. I don’t remember writing it, well, I can remember writing it but I wasn’t aware of time passing. My wife says she fed me occasionally. But I don’t want to give any impression that it is a mediumistic or in any way an esoteric function. I think it can be explained away in straightforward terms of the way the brain works. Nonetheless interesting for all that! [Laughter] Which is answering your question about folk song. [Exploding with laughter]

You were talking earlier about collecting some songs. This Joshua Birtles was one of the people whom you collected from. “I’ll dye, I’ll dye my petticoat red…”

That’s it. That’s the chorus. “Siubhail, siubhail, siubhail a ruin, siubhail go socair agus siubhail go cuin” – “Sweet Willy in the morning all among the rush”. And on the tape that I did of him, I’ve got him saying, laughing at the end of that, “What that means I’ve no idea.” But I have on a Topic record, one of those classic albums, an old Hebridian lady, very old lady, singing it as a spinning song. In English it would be held as “Shooly, shooly, shoo-gang-rowl, shoo-gang-lollymog shoog-a-gang-a-lo”, but not “Sweet Willy in the morning among the rush”. Even her version was a bit bilingual because she had the line, “I’ll dye, I’ll dye my petticoat red”, but the chorus that she sings was in Irish. Those Topic records have stood me in very good stead, because one of the stereotypes that exists in the Russian mind is that all Englishmen are bursting with English folk song and the first time I went it hit me. I was almost dragged off the ‘plane and told to sing and for two consecutive nights in a railway train I didn’t get any sleep; I just had to sing all through the night…

[Note: The particular volume being referred to here is part of Topic’s Folk Songs of Britain series (originally issued on Caedmon in the United States). Elizabeth Cronin sings “Shule Aroon” on Volume 1 Songs of Courtship (Topic 12T157). As Alan Garner commented after the interview, “Siubhail a ruin” is pronounced, approximately, ‘shule aroon’.”]

…reinforcing the stereotype!

Yes! [Laughter] It was amazing when I was scraping the barrel what was accepted as folk song. Bobby Shaftoe. Oh, I was drawing heavily on the school phase! I should imagine that the whole of school singing is very much influenced by Sharp and his collections, his bowdlerized collections. I have no reputation here for having the slightest interest in folk song. Yet every time I appear in the Soviet Union it gets quite wearing. They cry over “Black is the colour of my true love’s hair”. It makes them weep. A bit of a weepie. They respond to it. Waltzing Matilda was also considered to be an English folk song.

One thing that puzzled me, and I think it puzzled Neil Philip too, was the connection between Tam Lin and Red Shift. I for one never fathomed that out.

Yes, it is a difficulty. Because I do so much work simply to find something that interests me, and I think there are puritanical reasons as well, I do reward anybody who cares to dig but it’s as easy to make the mistake that I’m a tight, academic scholar in my work; I’m not. I’m really being a magpie, as you noticed earlier. I grab what is relevant and, for me, what was relevant in Tam Lin, what seized my mind, was only one aspect of it which was Tam Lin telling Janet that he was going to do everything he can to destroy himself and her at the end. He’s going to change and be slippery. He’ll be very unpleasant. I thought, “Yes, I recognise that.” And from that I got the names of the characters, but to worry too much about tying in with the whole piece is really to get yourself bogged down in a great deal of difficulty, because there’s no need to follow it so far as to say at the end of the Red Shift Janet is pregnant at the end. I mean, she could be, I suppose! [Laughter] I don’t build with meticulous following of the source. I don’t know if I should. I just don’t know. It is a magpie attitude. I just take what’s there but there again because I’ve done it for so long I can see recurrent patterns. Each writing is a fresh experience but there are recurrent patterns, generalisations which can be made. One is that I feel that the piece, in this case “Tam Lin”, would not have sprung at me if it hadn’t been relevant. Why did I choose that? Why did that come out and hit me? Why did seeing a particular plate with an abstract pattern on it bring out of my mind instantly The Mabinogion? It was Griselda who said, “Here is the pattern and I’ll make it into a paper owl,” and I said, “Have you read The Mabinogion?” Which is a great conversation stopper! The owl/flower idea came out. Things like that I observe quite frequently. Serendipity is something I enjoy very much. Finding and seeing connections. Only a very rare few stick, like the owl service did in bringing The Mabinogion out of my data banks and causing me to become obsessed with it for several years…as the result of seeing the plate. I don’t like rationalising too much because I think I tend to believe it and could become a victim of it in the end. At the time it’s all instinctive. I save the cleverness for the research. I never plot. And I know that the piece that results is far better than I could’ve written. If I consciously sat down, as I did at the beginning of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, if I sat down and plotted something on paper, it would not be as good as the thing I entrusted to my sub-conscious mind. I’m not good enough to make Red Shift as tightly constructed as it is. I couldn’t have held all that consciously in my mind or on paper; that came from the sub-conscious. And I hope the next one will.

Have you got a theme that you’re working towards?

I’m not being precious now; I just can’t talk about it. It panics me to think about it. If I started to talk about it, two things would happen: one is that I would confuse and annoy myself and I would lose confidence in it, and worse I would release the pressure. For me talking is so much easier than doing and if I were to talk about something that hadn’t been done yet I don’t know if I’d have the interest or the energies to go much further with it. It’s one of the many reasons why I avoid London society. I don’t enjoy the company of other writers very much but I certainly would avoid any literary social life where people talk about it. No, I have no time for it; I’d much rather talk about archaeology. [Laughter]

On the way here I was thinking about To Kill A King in which there is a stage direction ‘Harry is pent up’; at that stage the whole house is pent up, is tensed and it struck me that Pent Up House would make a good soundtrack for it…

The whole of this site and house I use emotionally very much. The brief for To Kill A King involved a certain amount of autobiography. That was what was wanted by the BBC: a personal experience. Now, although I never experienced what happened in To Kill A King, I used it to exemplify more clearly what I had experienced which is what I feel to be a symbiotic relationship between this house and its site and me, in that I feel this house will absorb any amount of tension and pain. It will just absorb it and eventually everything will settle down and in To Kill A King the numinous woman who appeared is, for me, the personalization of the site that I live on. This is based on emotion and also on practical observation. I’ve been living here for over twenty-five years and I was an archaeologist and the site has revealed itself to be very remarkable. Not only are the buildings remarkable but the site has been occupied, can be observed and can be proven to be, for 15,000 years. Recently I’ve done the work which seems to show that the observations of Professor Thom and his megalithic observatories are true which is the ability of neolithic man to construct basically the circles on the ground, of which Avebury and Stonehenge are examples. He was able to measure very accurately the movements of the sun and the moon and predict eclipses by using aspects of the site – stones or wooden posts -and distant features of the landscape, which were not man-made; so you had to find a place where this occurred, rather than settling down and saying, “I’m going to live here. I’m going to build my observatory here. Now, what fits?” And this appears to be one of them. The chances of it being chance are almost nil. So, yes, it is an important place, in that it has energies which anybody can register. The room we’re in now is the only place where I can write or have ever written. Where I am sitting is the place where I would sit to write. It’s also the place where, for the first thirty or forty years of the century, because of the size of the local midwife, all the children in the house were born. The midwife couldn’t get up the stairs, so before I came to live here children were born in this corner of the room. I have written everything in this corner of the room and in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century there was a long history of poltergeist activity in this building and it turns out to have been in this room. From aerial photography and from some archaeological work that was done here the main tumulus of the many that are on this site has its centre in this corner of the room. Very sophisticated metal detectors go berserk in this room, so it’s a scientific observation which can be repeated. There is an American one which is so sensitive that it doesn’t register metal, it registers disturbance in the magnetic field of the soil. In other words, if anyone’s dug a hole, that registers. That described very accurately that there was something, a cubic shape, about five feet down, which suggests to me, the archaeologist, what is known as a cyst, that is, a stone chamber. It’s a cube of about three feet. I’m not going to dig it up because I’ve seen 2001 about eleven times and not going to dig up my black slab! Also anybody can dowse in this room. I was highly sceptical about dowsing until it was explained to me carefully and I then went out to prove that, if it existed, anybody could do it and found that I could do it. Anybody who comes here and tries dowsing can dowse in this room because the responses are so strong, so much so that if anybody wanted to do it, I don’t tell them anything about it. I just say, “Try in here.” I draw a sketch plan unbeknown to the person who’s going to do it and I mark the places where they’re going to get reactions. It’s not water that’s being picked up; I don’t know what it is. But there’s a 100 per cent reaction from this, from everybody who has ever tried it. They all quickly isolate, first of all, the main source and once they’ve had the experience of something reacting in their hands, two things happen. One is that they have no sense of doubt anymore whatsoever. They know. Once it’s happened to you, you know you’re not doing it. Soon after they become more sensitive and they can find the other two sources. Now those three sources: one corresponds to the same signal that the mine detectors get and the other two appear to be random until they’re plotted, on the archaeological map of the site and they are the post holes of large wooden posts which form part of the henge system here. So, that is an example of both the complexity and the strength of the place. It works on an entirely emotional level and it also works scientifically; in other words, in this room you can find things by repeating the experiment.

[Note: These observations are the basis for Alexander Thorn’s Megalithic Sites in Britain (Clarendon Press, 1967), Megalithic Lunar Observatories (Clarendon Press, 1971) and, with A S Thom, Megalithic Remains in Britain and Brittany (Clarendon Press, 1978), all three of which expound on the theories in great detail.]

There was something that you touched upon a little earlier before we started the interview and in Neil Philip’s A Fine Anger about film. You described a sequence in terms of angles, from a lens’ point of view and you’ve also mentioned at one stage being influenced by Seven Samurai. Were you ever a fan of Resnais’ L’Année derničre ę Marienbad and that sort of film? [To interpolate for Czechs, Mariánské Lázně]

Not a fan, no.

It’s just that in that film, L’Année derničre ę Marienbad, you’ve got the ‘memories’ of other times, which finds echoes in some of your works. I wondered whether that had affected you.

It may well have gone in subliminally, but not consciously. It’s the most obvious things that I recognise. I’m sure that nearly everything that I do has got some source somewhere else. Seven Samurai was particularly apt, because it came at a time when I was becoming aware of film, 1954, and I was living in London. That sounds pretentious. I was in the army and I was so inefficient that I had to be posted to London where I could not do anything dangerous and that’s where I saw Seven Samurai first. I tend not to like French film very much. I’ve always had an antipathy for the French language, which is totally subjective. It’s not based on anything except prejudice. I just don’t like the sound of it. Yet Japanese, which I don’t understand a word of, I like listening to. It’s a very musical sound, a rather harsh sound. I suppose that Marienbad had an influence, must have done, because I saw that twice. I was vaguely impressed by it. Didn’t like it but was moved by it. I think that most of the film influence I have is again childhood, because in the Forties I used to go to the local cinema, so I became something of an expert on Hollywood B-movies. One thing I didn’t remember until long after I’d done it was…I can’t remember the name of the film but I think it registers as the worst film I ever saw in my childhood. It seemed to consist entirely of three men going in and out of a New York skyscraper flat shouting at a woman. It was supposed to be a comedy but I couldn’t get a hold of it except I remember one incident from it where the woman said she didn’t like saying ‘goodbye’ so she always said ‘hallo’ when she said ‘goodbye’. I used that in the Red Shift very prominently and it was only after we’d made the television film of Red Shift in which that doesn’t appear – the use of ‘hallo’ does not appear in the film of Red Shift – that it suddenly floated back into my mind when we were working on the film. So, that’s how things happen. It’s usually years and years ago. I don’t think I’d ever deliberately go and poach stuff.

Our second instalment contains more on the use of language, especially dialect, his background and meeting readers.

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