Monthly Archives: March 2018

Why Colin can’t remember – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’


Cave paintings, Lascaux, France (image courtesy of Prof saxx, via Wikimedia Commons)

Boneland must be one of the strangest sequels ever written. It is not Alan Garner’s best book, but for the questions it poses, it is of great interest to all of us who write for children.

It purports to complete the trilogy begun fifty years ago with his earliest books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The first made a powerful impression on me, perhaps because I heard it on the wireless before I read it (and I was startled to discover, on rereading it, that it was the source of a key part of the climactic scene in my own first book, The Secret of the Alchemist – a borrowing of which I was entirely unconscious). Yet the second made so little impact that only when I took it out of the library last year, in preparation for reading Boneland, did I realise I had read it before.

The strangeness of Boneland as a sequel stems from its lack of sequence: of the two characters who feature centrally in the other books, one – Susan – is conspicuous by her absence, while the other – her brother Colin – is effectively a different character: as the result of a traumatic experience in adolescence, he has undergone a personality change, becoming an autistic polymath who is now, in adult life, a professor of astronomy.

He has also lost all memory of the events of those first two books. In other words, to all intents and purposes, he has no connection with the earlier books at all (and even things that seem like links – the fact that Colin and Susan are twins, that she addresses him as ‘Col’, that their parents are killed in an aircrash, that Susan disappears – none of these actually features in the earlier books).

At first sight this seems almost perverse, as if Boneland were less a sequel, more a repudiation of that earlier work – and in a way, it is; but the question to ask is, could it have been otherwise?

Let us suppose that Colin survives into adulthood with his memory intact: here is someone who has personally encountered wizards, witches and warlocks, elves, dwarves and goblins, sleeping Arthurian knights and house-high troll-women, all in the Cheshire countryside; at the very least, he would have become a professor of comparative folklore rather than astronomy – it is impossible to believe that such events would not have shaped the rest of his life.

But the truth of the matter is that it simply will not do: elves and goblins belong in storybooks; there is no way to reconcile Colin’s childhood encounters with the reality of his adult life that would be believable. The only thing is to have him conveniently forget it all.

So am I conceding what some critics have long asserted, that fantasy is childish stuff, of no interest to adults, and of doubtful value to children, who would be better served by books about the ‘real world’ ?

By no means.

Fantasy, as it happens, does succeed best with children of a certain age, but for reasons that are the opposite of those put forward by its detractors: far from being an escape from the real world, it is for them an image of it.

Consider that the child entering adolescence stands on the verge of a mysterious world that he must soon enter, a world of which he knows little, governed by powerful hidden forces, a place where anything might happen: it is a prospect both daunting and exciting, in equal measure. Mapped, that world would resemble the products of mediaeval cartographers – a tiny area (home, school) that is familiar, surrounded by huge blank spaces furnished by the imagination, where be dragons.


Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 (image from Wikimedia Commons: public domain)

In other words, fantasy literature is a metaphorical embodiment of the fears and hopes we all experience on the verge of adulthood, when, though we long for freedom and independence, we are still the responsibility of other people – our parents, or those who stand in their stead. We seek reassurance that we can enter that world alone and survive on our own resources, and the emotional experience of doing that is what fantasy adventures allow us to try out.

Garner’s problems with Boneland do not arise from the fact that the earlier books are fantasy, but from his failure to keep the worlds in them separate. Colin and Susan’s encounters take place where they live; they do not go to the monsters – the monsters come to them. And because Colin, as an adult, continues to inhabit the same landscape, the question of what happened to all those fabulous creatures becomes an awkward one.

In his later story, Elidor – a fine work that manages to evoke an epic world without being of epic length – Garner ensures that there is a portal (in the liminal space of an abandoned church in the process of being demolished) so that the children in that tale pass into another world for their magical encounters; even the magical objects they bring back with them are transformed, in the mundane world, into mundane things.

But Colin, if he could remember, would know that the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Susan’s Tear – is under Alderley Edge, in Fundindelve, where the knights and their stallions lie asleep; he would know that Angharad Golden-hand’s floating island is somewhere on Redesmere – and it is unlikely that he would be more interested in distant galaxies, with that on his doorstep.


The View from Sormy Point, Alderley Edge (image courtesy of Randomgurn via Wikimedia Commons)

However, there is a second reason for Colin’s inability to remember, which has to do with Garner himself, and how he has come to view the business of storytelling. It is interesting that he rejects the label of ‘children’s writer’ – “I certainly have never written for children” – though it is hard to argue that his first two books are not primarily aimed at a young audience.

What he is, first and foremost, is a writer rooted in a particular landscape – what Orkney was to George Mackay Brown, the Cheshire countryside in the vicinity of Alderley Edge is to him. However, in those first two books the spirit of place is heavily overlaid with a rather motley heap of borrowings from Arthurian, Norse and Celtic myth.

In his later writing, he dispenses with this: increasingly, it is the landscape itself, its history and prehistory, that furnishes the element of wonder that legendary borrowings supplied before. The prehistoric bull-painting in the cavern that features in The Stone Book establishes a theme that runs through all his later work. That is the other reason why Garner has Colin forget his earlier adventures: that way of telling stories no longer works for him.

Boneland, in fact, has much more in common with Garner’s more recent works, Thursbitch and Strandloper. A key figure in all three is the Shaman, who mediates between the tribe and the forces beyond – forces that imbue the landscape, with which the tribe must come to terms if it is to survive, controlling (or at least harnessing) them by enmeshing them in a web of ritual and story.

In Boneland, the Shaman (who is also an aspect of Colin himself) is the last survivor of an extinguished human species, probably Neanderthals; in Strandloper, it is an 18th century Cheshire labourer who is transported for sedition and becomes an Aboriginal medicine man; in Thursbitch, it is a Cheshire packman, who keeps alive the ancient Mithraic bull-cult among the country folk residing in a remote valley.

The implication is that the storyteller stands in a direct line of descent from the shaman of old, and the ideas and images on which he draws are an inheritance we all share from our earliest beginnings, but which in modern times we are doing our best to deny and forget.

The world of the fantasy story resonates with the child on the verge of adolescence because she recognises it as an image of her own situation, something the adult is unable to do, because the very process of ‘growing up’ and entering ‘the real world’ is actually about acquiring a whole set of elaborate constructs to protect us from reality (which, as Eliot wisely remarked, humankind cannot bear very much).

We have work, we have mortgages, we have ‘lifestyles’ (a fine pretence, that we are actually able to shape and style our lives as we please, as if the unexpected was not at any moment liable to come down on us like a giant hammer) and – in the developed world at least, and in those countries where the social fabric still holds together and order is not breaking down – we collude in the communal self-deception that we have everything under control, that it’s all sorted, pretty much.

What Garner reminds us, as writers, is that our task is to open a crack in the walls of that complacency, and let in the light of wonder.


(This piece, here very slightly edited, originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of  An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, (ABBA) – the online presence of the SAS – The Scattered Authors Society)


Leave a comment

Filed under book-related

The (limited) meaning of existence

Never mind God – do I exist?

I don’t mean that feeling – familiar enough to some of us – that you have somehow become invisible to those around you, nor am I suggesting that I might be a figment of your imagination (a kind of reverse solipsism) – rather I am concerned with the scope and application of that often-used term ‘exist’.

‘Existence’ is generally coupled with ‘reality’ – what is real is what can be said to exist, and vice versa; the branch of philosophy that deals with these matters is called ontology. Before we go into philosophy, though, let us tarry a moment with commonsense. Dr Johnson may not have understood what Berkeley was talking about , but his memorable refutation is interesting  – ‘he struck his foot against a rock with such force that he rebounded from it and said, ‘I refute it thus”.

What interests me here is that the commonsense definition of reality – the conviction that something is real – is a feeling : specifically, the feeling we get when we encounter something solid, as when we strike our hand upon the table or our head against the wall, or as Dr Johnson did, our foot against a stone. Real is real for us – which, ironically, is just what Berkeley was arguing with his esse est percipi.

The aim of Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, as he states in his preface, is

‘to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts’.

Here is what he has to say on the matter of the subject (in the philosophical sense of what is denoted by the pronoun ‘I’– as opposed to ‘me’, which denotes my objective aspect: what I see in the mirror is not I, but me):


Here is the section that precedes it:


It is interesting to compare Wittgenstein on the Subject with Hume on the Self:

‘I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’
(A Treatise of Human Nature, sect VI, ‘of personal identity’)

Are Wittgenstein and Hume saying the same thing? It may be a matter of where you put the emphasis – is it ‘there is no such thing as the subject’ or ‘there is no such thing as the subject’? (the latter allowing that there may be subjects, but they are not things).

Of course we find that language is against us here: if what we are talking about is no thing, then it is nothing, surely? And if it is nothing – well, it is simply nothing, an absence, a non-entity.

Not necessarily: it may be that the coverage that language provides is not universal – it does not cover all there is  – and that calls to mind the final section of the Tractatus:

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’

It might be that there is a process of mutual reinforcement (or indeed validation) going on here – if language stands to the world as a picture does to what it pictures – which is what Wittgenstein proposes in the Tractatus* – then the content of the one is the content of the other; so that once we move to a general level, things (or reality, which means the same) are what exist, and what exist are things. Whatever falls outside the sphere defined by language is nothing: it does not exist.

However, it may be that Hume cannot find the self because he is looking for it: you can find things by looking, but what if what you seek is not a thing?

This puzzle becomes clearer if we go back, via Descartes, to S. Augustine. Descartes, seeking for some certain foundation on which he could build, asserts cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – making it seem a logical deduction; Augustine, over a thousand years earlier, observed that ‘the man who says ‘I know that I am alive’ can neither be deceived nor lie.’ (meaning he could neither be mistaken about it, nor pretending) – which makes ‘being alive’ seem a matter of knowledge.

However, my being alive is not something I know; it is not something I discovered as the result of research, after a period of doubt, nor is it subject to any verification**; rather it is what I am. Indeed, my being alive is surely the ground of my knowing anything. Likewise, to take the Cartesian formulation, we do not deduce from reflection that we are – we simply are; and our being is a prerequisite for any deduction. Wittgenstein says ‘you do not see the eye’ but he might equally have said ‘you do not see the ‘I’ ‘

This relation, the subject-object interface, is a problem for philosophers; it does not trouble commonsense, as the Johnson story I began with illustrates. And like many philosophical problems, its root can be traced back to Plato, whose discrediting of the senses is equally a discrediting, marginalisation and suppression of the Subject, which henceforth is regarded by philosophers as an obstacle to be overcome, preferably by discounting it altogether, particularly when it comes to rational thought – consider the pejorative sense that ‘subjective’ has in any discussion in that field: to say that a viewpoint is ‘subjective’ is to brand it partial, biased, distorted by personal considerations and generally not worth heeding: it is involved, rather than detached (a telling distinction).

I think the time has come to rehabilitate the subject.

It is, as I said above, the ground of our knowing anything (and that resonates interestingly with a definition that some theologians – including Hans Kung, if I remember right – use of God: ‘the ground of our being’). I would suggest the model below to express the relationship between the subject and the world of  ‘independent objective reality’ (a treble redundancy, since ‘reality’ in its philosophical use carries with it the notion of being objective and independent, though it does not in its commonsense or Johnsonian one):
2018-03-01 09.51.04

I think the implications of this model are worth unfolding, and I will return to it in a later article. For the present I will say only that Language (in its philosophical sense) operates only in the red area; Art operates in the blue (which is the universal set, and contains the red).

*though he later abandoned the picture theory – where meaning is a correspondence between words and a state of affairs in the world – for the idea that meaning is the use of a word, a shift of the most profound significance.

**this in fact is the theme of Wittgenstein’s last work, On Certainty



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Eight questions

My estimable friend Jackie Morris, artist and illustrator, writer of books, friend of bears, has some questions she would like us to answer (you can find more details here – – including the prospect of prizes if you so incline).

Here are the questions:

  1. If you could see through someone else’s eyes who would that be?
  2. If you could see something one more time, what would that be?
  3. If you could make something, anything, what would you choose to make?
  4. How would you describe your desire?
  5. Do you make wishes?
  6. Do you dream?
  7. If you could develop a skill before you die what would you choose?
  8. Do you have any regrets? if the answer is no please move to question 8a.

8a. What are your regrets?

I  like 8a. Honesty is the best policy (apart from outright brazen lying)

My first reaction was to feel sad and think that I could not really answer any of those questions. Then I decided I would try anyway.

So, first question, through whose eyes would I see?

an albatross, I think. I like the idea of that lone cruising

‘Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.’

as Mr Eliot so admirably puts it.

Next, what something would I see again? ‘Something‘ excludes people, and a host of bittersweet possibilities; so I would say – what? I do not know. Perhaps I do not believe you can see anything again – it will always be different. As Heraclitus observed, you cannot step in the same river twice.

What to make? I have lately become enamoured of the whole process of making books, having recently made one hundred of my own (see here: Making McAvinchey) So, something possible and specific – a hydraulic printing press like this one:

How would I describe my desire?

Not fervent enough, alas, but I will try to burn hotter.

Do I make wishes?


Do I dream?

yes, both waking and sleeping.

What skill would I develop? Letterpress printing or working a lathe.


That I did not do more; that I held back and lacked courage; that I thought too much and felt too little; that I did not love enough.




Filed under Uncategorized