Friday, October 28, 2005

The Stone Book Quartet - Alan Garner

Alan Garner's The Stone Book Quartet is a collection of four short fictionalised biographical stories. The four stories are The Stone Book, Granny Reardun, The Aimer Gate and Tom Fobble's Day, and they feature the turning point moments in the lives of four members of Alan Garner's family, spread over several generations with the first set in 1864 and the last set in 1941 (the middle two books are set in 1886 and 1914 respectively).

In The Stone Book Mary climbs the steeple of Saint Philip's church which her father Robert is hurrying to complete in time for the Sunday service. Once atop the steeple, Mary's father lifts her up onto the golden weathercock and she "rides" it so that her father can check that it moves properly. Both take an exuberant child-like joy in the experience, which Garner narrates with affection. Later that day Robert takes her into the mine and directs her into a cavern that he himself cannot enter because the entrance is too small for any but a child to use. Inside the cavern Mary finds an ancient cave painting of a bull with her father's arrow mason's mark, and a painted hand outlined that is the same size as her own hand, and on the floor footprints of sizes and types (shoes, boots and clogs), and they all look as fresh as her own footprints. They have been there under the hill for many, many years, longer perhaps than the parson says that the earth has been around. When they get back home, Robert makes Mary the stone book of the title, from a pebble; it looks like a prayer book, and only the weight of it reveals that it's not made of leather.

In Granny Reardun (a Granny Reardun is a child raised by their grandparents rather than their mother), Joseph is an illegitimate child who has been raised by his grandfather Robert (Mary's father). Joseph is trying to help his grandfather with his work in building a wall, but he knows he doesn't have the skill to be a mason. Instead he goes off and asks the local blacksmith to apprentice him - Joseph knows he can never be as good a mason as his grandfather and wants to make his own place in the community; by becoming a blacksmith he can get "aback" of his grandfather by making the tools that Robert needs to do his work. He recognises that the smith's work tops the church steeple in the shape of the weathercock that his mother had rode on when she was a child; the smith had made the hands for the clock on the chapel, and the bells for the school, and he realises that the smith is "aback" of the mason.

In The Aimer Gate, Joseph's son, another Robert, spends much of the day with his father, Joseph's half-brother Charlie (who is a soldier home on leave from the First World War) and their neighbor Faddock Allman, who lost his legs in the Boer War. Charlie is working with some other neighbours in harvesting two cornfields which have too steep a slope for them to be done by machine. One of Robert's jobs is to ferry Faddock to and fro in 'Wicked Winnie', his wagon, and bring him rocks from the fields to break up for road surfacing. Garner describes the harvesting in poetic prose:

The men stood in a line, at the field edge, facing the hill, Ozzie on the outside, and began their swing. It was a slow swing, scythes and men like a big clock, back and to, back and to, against the hill they walked. They walked and swung, hips forward letting the weighting cut. It was as if they were walking in a yellow water before them. Each blade came up in time with each blade, at Ozzie's march, for if they ever got out of time the blades would cut flesh and bone.

Behind each man the corn swarf lay like silk in the light of poppies. And the women gathered the swarf by armfuls, spun bants of straw and tied in armfuls into sheaves, stacked sheaves into kivvers. Six sheaves stood to a kivver, and the kivvers must stand till the church bells had rung over them three times. Three weeks to harvest: but first was the getting.

(Alan Garner, The Aimer Gate (Collins, 1983), pp. 106-7)

Robert takes his father's lunch to him, at the chapel where he will arrive shortly to wind the clock. Whilst he's there, Robert climbs up inside the spire (in an action reminiscent of Mary climbing the church steeple) and fits himself inside the spire as if it was a stone dunce's hat that he was wearing. Then he finds a mark cut into the stone, shaped like an arrow and his own name carved into the stone. It gives him a great shock but his father explains that the name is that of Robert's great-grandfather who had built both the church and the chapel. Although this is a significant moment for Robert, it is unclear just what significance it has - as if to echo the waste of the First World War, Robert does not seem to have any special talent for craft as his forebears do.

In the final story, Tom Fobble's Day, Joseph's grandson William has his sledge, which has taken a day and a morning to build, smashed up by Stewart Allman, a bullying boy who seems to delight in tormenting William. The book's title refers to a custom by which children can "Tom Fobble", or take, another child's marbles on Tom Fobble's Day, which follows Easter. And Stewart Allman has Tom Fobbled William's sledge, although it isn't Easter yet, nor is the sledge equivalent to marbles. However, Joseph makes him a new sledge using the handles from his forge bellows (which he will no longer be needing because today is his retirement day), and the iron and some wood from the old, broken-down loom which Mary's uncle, Old William (young William's great-great-great-uncle), had used in The Stone Book. William takes the sledge out to the field where his great-uncle Charlie had harvested during the First World War (in The Aimer Gate) and discovers that

The sledge found its own course; a touch corrected it. As he went faster, William used his clogs for balance. The steering moved into his hands and arms, then his shoulders, and he was going so fast and true that he could steer with a turn of his head. [He goes back up the hill again and starts down again on the sledge.] He set off. It had not been imagined. He was not alone on the sledge. There was a line and he could feel it. It was a line through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill. He owned them all: and they owned him.

These last two lines are beautiful and convey Garner's own belief in his craftsmanship as a writer, a belief that is clearly proven in this quartet of books.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Michelle. It is very useful to have your insights.

John in Dublin.

Michele said...

You're quite welcome.

Deborah said...

Are you still pursuing these topics? I just re-read the Garner "Stone Book" quartet and I experienced the same stunned mixture of beauty and sadness in them.

But what is the "aimer gate"? Death, apparently, but why?

Michele said...

I'm afraid I don't know just what an 'aimer gate' is - I've tended to assume it's a dialect word or phrase from Garner's home county.

Walter Mason said...

What a lovely precis - good to see how they all fit together.
I have only read one of them so far, and have just ordered the other three, so i will start again in order.
Garner has been such a wonderful discovery for me!

Bill said...

An "aimer gate" is a nearer, more direct way (ref "The English Dialect Dictionary"), perhaps a short-cut. The Dictionary suggests the exchange "Are you going to Knutsford by the road? / No, au knows an aimer gate". I love the way the books deal so obliquely with both Wars, especially the first.

Michele said...

Thank for the explanation of an aimer gate, Bill.

Jennifer said...

Finally, what an aimer gate is. l started to think it might be something to do with Charlie being, actually, what we would call a sniper now. Because that is what his skill is, he is a sniper. The only way he can use that skill productively away from the war , is to shoot rabbits, and help provide food for the table.So, the aim in aimer gate l thought perhaps was connected. Have loved Alan Garners work since l was a kid, and l still do.