‘Let words be nice’ – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Treacle Walker’

[NB: this article assumes that you have read the book]

All writing, it might be said, works by synecdoche: the writer supplies the part and from it we infer the whole to fill the space the writer leaves. Alan Garner is a master of omission: what makes it onto the page is spare and lean and more effective for it; he often says less than we expect, yet we realise it is enough. In Treacle Walker what is left out is as important as what is put in: it is a book that plays with our assumptions, inviting us to make them yet forcing us to question them as the book goes on.

Take the opening line (which is also, incidentally, the last line, too): it is the cry of a rag-and-bone man. I am old enough to remember a rag-and-bone man with a flat horse-drawn cart, but that was over sixty years ago, before I started school. This suggestion that the story is set (apparently) some time in the middle of last century is confirmed by the passage of a steam engine, which for the boy Joe Coppock signals that it is mid-day, hence his nickname for the engine, Noony. Joe himself is like boys in the comics of my childhood, old-fashioned even then: he has a catapult (doubtless made from a Y-shaped stick) plays marbles and collects birds’ eggs and other things he chances on, which he keeps in his ‘museum’. He is in poor health and wears an eyepatch because he has a ‘lazy eye’.

When the rag-and-bone man’s cry is repeated, about half-way down the opening page, the line that follows is worth noting:

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe.

It is, I think, the sole instance of inner dialogue of any kind in the entire book; in a form that typically lends itself to introspection, the absence of any account of inner thoughts or feelings is remarkable. Apart from that one line, everything is outward. We see and hear only what is public: the things Joe sees and hears, what he and the others say. What we know of his feelings we infer from his speech and actions. We know nothing of his remembering, save that he once found a sheep’s shoulder blade in a molehill beside the railway.

The characters are few and they inhabit a sparse landscape simply named. There is a house, and visible from it a yard, several fields – Barn Croft, Pool Field, Big Meadow – and a track with a top and bottom gate and the railway line close by. Beyond these are trees, a bog and a heath. Apart from Joe the only other characters are the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, and Thin Amren, the man in (and out of) the bog. To these we must add an incidental oculist and three characters from Knockout, the comic Joe reads, since at some point they intrude on the story: Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit, Whizzy the wizard and his Brit-basher sidekick.

At the outset, from this little that Garner provides, we are confident in assuming a great deal: we can place the story (roughly) in time – somewhere from Garner’s own childhood (he was born in 1934) up to, say, the late fifties; we know that there must be a school (which Joe presumably does not attend because of his ill-health) and equally there must be some adults who look after Joe, parent(s), grandparent(s) or other relatives; and of course there must be neighbours and likely a town somewhere for the train to come from as well as all the normal human activity of everyday life, such as eating and drinking – but none of that is actually mentioned.

The growing bewilderment that the reader feels as the book proceeds – just what is going on here? – is shared by Joe, who expresses it in exclamations of scornful disbelief and angry puzzlement (mostly variants on ‘daft, I call it’ which is what one of the characters in Knockout says at the end of every episode). He can barely understand a word that Treacle Walker says and frequently demands that he ‘give over’ or ‘leave off’. His first close encounter with him leads to a memorable exchange:

’You smell!’ ‘Not I, Joseph Coppock,’ said the man. ‘You smell that I stink. Let words be nice.’

This falls strangely on the ear – to stink is hardly ‘nice’ – till we remember that ‘nice’ can also mean ‘done with great care and exactness; accurate’ (as in ‘a nice distinction’). Treacle Walker is not admonishing Joe to speak pleasantly but precisely, to give proper heed to the use of words (and it is an admonition to the reader, too: pay attention to what is being said, here: do not cloud it with assumptions).

And those assumptions that we made so confidently at the outset are steadily undermined as the book goes on, just as Joe’s understanding of his own situation is repeatedly challenged by Treacle Walker’s questions, which he is seldom able to answer. This is nowhere better seen than in the episode with the oculist in part V and what follows in part VIII when Joe is asked about it. Part V begins abruptly, without preamble or forewarning and is the only change of location in the whole tale:

‘Come in, Joe,’ the man said.

Joe went into the room and sat on the chair.
‘How are things?’
‘All right.’
‘Let’s have a shufti, then.’

Our initial puzzlement gives way to understanding: we know already that Joe has a ‘lazy eye’ and when the man starts giving Joe a range of tests that are evidently familiar to him (‘The usual drill. Keep your eye on the dot.’) we realise that this must be a regular visit to the oculist. The two are on easy terms with one another, even when the visit takes a rather strange turn (when Joe looks at the chart with his good eye he reads out what later turns out to be a Latin inscription)

‘Not funny, old son.’
‘What isn’t?’
‘It doesn’t help if you faff around.’
‘I’m not faffing.’

However, when Joe later shows Treacle Walker the paper on which the oculist made him write down what he saw with his good eye, Walker’s line of questioning is strange and Joe’s answers stranger still:

‘Did you write this, Joseph Coppock?’
‘I was having my eyes tested –’
‘When they were being tested. And the man said –’
‘What man?’
‘The man in the room.’

‘Which room?’

‘Where I was having my eyes tested!’
‘Where was the room?’ said Treacle Walker.
‘It was – there,’ said Joe.
‘Who was the man?’

‘The man testing my eyes! Give over!’

‘I am but asking the question,’ said Treacle Walker. ‘Who was the man?’
‘He was – I dunno.’

Joe’s inability to furnish any specific detail (and his mounting irritation at it) is painfully reminiscent of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or a similar dementia: his answers are plausible, yet lack substance. As readers, we feel that Joe ought to remember: he and the man clearly knew one another from the way they talked; he was evidently the oculist, and the room was his consulting room, where Joe must have been before. But we have never actually been told who the man was, where the room was, or how Joe got there; and Joe does not seem to know either. We begin to wonder at the validity of our inferences.

As it happens, the episodes between the meeting with the oculist and the interrogation above have already given the reader ample cause to question the frame of reference we assumed at the start. Joe goes out in pursuit of the cuckoo, experiences what seems to be a time-slip, then ends up in conversation with a man who rises out of the bog and introduces himself as Thin Amren (he already knows Joe’s name). In the next part, set back in the house, Stonehenge Kit emerges from the pages of Knockout and passes through the room, shortly pursued by Whizzy and his sidekick; betweentimes, Joe has climbed into the comic frame from which Kit emerged into a shaft which seems to echo the chimney of the house (later identified by Treacle Walker as ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘the way between… the earth, the heavens and the sapient stars’). All this has been effected with the aid of his good eye, now beglamoured with the ointment from the jar that Treacle Walker traded for Joe’s old pajamas and Joe accidentally smeared on his eyelid. Viewed with his other eye, all seems as usual.

What happens to us as we read is similar to what Joe experiences: our vision alters; our everyday assumptions about where and when we are fall away, and we find ourselves in a stark, mythic landscape where what you see is all there is. We already have a sense, early on, that Treacle Walker is no ordinary rag-and-bone man (if indeed there ever was a such a thing). His style of speech recalls another figure of children’s literature, Cole Hawlings, the Punch-and-Judy man from John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (and indeed the chest of treasures from which Joe picks his humble pot could well be termed a box of delights). Cole is a magician and a time-traveller; we begin to wonder if Treacle Walker might not be cast in a similar mould (he also recalls the packman John Turner in Garner’s Thursbitch and echoes the shaman-like figures that occur in Strandloper and Boneland).

Of course, the folkloric, mythic tale has been there from the start, albeit submerged at first (like Thin Amren in his bog) by our conventional assumptions about a story involving a (relatively) modern schoolboy who lives in a world of steam locomotives and comics. Its general form is that the hero (Joe) is selected by passing an initiation test (choosing the pot) for which he is rewarded with magical gifts (the donkey stone and glamourie or second sight) to aid him in the task that he is set, which is to put the world to rights from its disrupted state: ‘what’s in is out and what’s out is in’ – which applies equally to the comic characters, Whizzy and Brit Basher, who have escaped the pages of Knockout into Joe’s world and to Thin Amren, who has wakened from his dreaming in the bog and got up.

What precipitates this disruption is unclear. The first portent that all is not well comes after Joe has invited the rag-and-bone man in and asks him his name (names are potent in traditional tales)

‘can you not talk sense? What’s your name?’

Outside, the iron ring handle of the door banged on the wood three slow times, sounding through the house.

[Joe looks out the window]

‘there’s nobody there,’ he said.
‘Then no body wishes to come in,’ said the man.

Bang. Bang, Bang.

(note the nice distinction between Joe’s ‘nobody’ and the man’s ‘no body’)

We sense Joe’s rising panic as the ominous knocks are repeated a second time: ‘what must I do?’ he asks and on the third repetition he opens the door and what spills in, out of the Spring day, is night, vividly portrayed as ‘a sheet of darkness, flapping from wall to wall.’ The sheet becomes more animate with each verb: dropped, ruckled, fell, humped, shrieked, reared. Notably, it does not go up the chimney, but escapes out under the eaves as ‘on the floor snow melted to tears.’

This incursion of night is plainly a harbinger of something and also serves as a portentous overture, like a thunderclap, before the rag-and-bone man reveals his name; whether it might be more again is an idea that comes with rereading.

It is the next part that seems more obviously to set the mythic tale in motion: when Joe borrows Treacle Walker’s bone flute (‘I made it from a man that sang… it is the way for him to sing now’) and has a go, he produces a cuckoo’s call that is answered from across the valley. This elicits a curious response from Treacle Walker,

‘Unfound bones sing louder. Draw a pail of water.’

We wonder at the first part (whose bones are unfound?) but are distracted by the second and what follows: Joe is commanded to ‘stone the step’ with the donkey stone, in order to ‘keep the house’, evidently an apotropaic measure to ward off evil incursions – in traditional tales, supernatural creatures can only cross the threshold if they are invited; it is notable that Treacle Walker always seeks Joe’s permission to do so.

Perhaps prompted by the cuckoo’s call, Treacle Walker falls into a melancholic reverie, reciting a curious verse:

‘Iram, biram, brendon, bo,
Where did all the children go?
They went to the east. They went to the west.
They went where the cuckoo has its nest.’ *

Joe wants a cuckoo’s egg for his collection, but as he is unaware of their peculiar laying habits (a fact that amuses Thin Amren greatly later in the tale) the ominous note struck by that last line would pass him by.

The coming (or summoning) of the cuckoo builds the climax of the book: each time Joe hears it, it is nearer. When (on page 99) its call is first set down directly, it is repeated seven times, and we are at once reminded of that other guise in which cuckoos appear, sounding the time in a cuckoo clock. In the final confrontation, on p144, the cuckoo calls eleven times – the eleventh hour – then further down the page, just before Joe acts, it calls thirteen times – not only an unlucky number, but a signal that the times are out of joint; chaos is come (and perhaps, who knows, there is also a nod to Orwell: It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen).

As our assumptions are stripped away, we begin to wonder (with Joe) what his situation actually is; the clearest clue comes in his secound encounter with Thin Amren. Joe asks how long he has been in the bog; Thin Amren says ‘From then till now. And you?’

‘What about me?’
‘How long have you been up in the fine chimney house?’
‘Always. I live there.’
‘And how is “always”?’
‘It’s – always,’ said Joe.

This recalls the earlier interrogation about the oculist: Joe seems unable to answer a straightforward question; while his first response is just what a child might say, his inability to quantify it is striking: he must, after all, know what age he is; it is one of the things that children make particular note of.

Thin Amren recasts the question in a different form by asking Joe to consider an eddy in the water, or ‘whirligig’ as he calls it:

‘He doesn’t move. But water, she goes by. Then what’s whirligig?’
‘I dunno. It just – is,’ said Joe.
‘Then what is brook?’ said Thin Amren.
‘It’s the brook.’
‘And brook was here yesterday,’ said Thin Amren. ‘and she’ll be here tomorrow. Whirligig stays. Though he’s not the same water. Then what is yesterday? What today? What tomorrow? Whirligig, what is he? What is brook?’
‘Oh, dry up,’ said Joe.
‘That’s the last thing I’ll be doing,’ said Thin Amren. ‘I asked a question. Whirligig neither asks nor cares.’

The last remark suggests an identification that is later made explicit, that Whirligig is Joe from Thin Amren’s point of view ( or sub specie aeternitatis, if you prefer). We have just been given an elegant statement of the problem of identity: how is it that I suppose myself to be the same person that was born sixty odd years ago and has undergone all manner of experiences in between? There is (I think it is accurate to say) actually nothing of me that persists for all that time: cells are perpetually renewed. Am I not, then, as David Hume puts it,

’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’

– in a word, a whirligig?

But it is in the next exchange that we receive some confirmation of what we may already have begun to suspect. Joe asks Thin Amren if he knows Treacle Walker, to which he responds,

‘Me know that pickthank psychopomp?’

Now, a ‘pickthank’ is an ingratiating flatterer, but a psychopomp (which Joes rationalises as ‘cycle-pump’ just as he makes ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘ask us Monday’) is one who guides the souls of the (newly) dead from one world to the next (it is also one of the titles given to Hermes, messenger of the gods). The inference to be drawn is that Joe has died, either before the story starts, or else early on. On the one hand, there is that singular moment of inner thought I noted on the first page,

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe

Which I associate with a line from WB Yeats’s The Cold Heaven:

when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over

(‘Quick’ of course can mean ‘alive, living’ as in ‘the quick and the dead’). This could point either way: Joe certainly undergoes a sustained period of confusion which only clears when he asks (on the penultimate page) ‘Treacle Walker, am I dead?’ but we might also take it to be the starting point of an altered mode of existence. Treacle Walker’s response to Joe’s question is

‘I will not say you are dead. Rather, in this world you have changed your life, and are got into another place.’

On the other hand, the momentous thrice-repeated summons (‘no body wishes to come in’) that panics Joe into opening the door and letting in ‘a hurlothrumbo of winter… a lomperhomock of night. Nothing more’ might also be a candidate for the moment of dissolution, at once momentous and insignificant – not that it really matters. In one interview, Garner observes that Treacle Walker and Joe are in some sense alternative versions of himself: Walker is the classics don he might have become, had he stayed on at Oxford, while Joe is the boy he might have been had he never gone to Manchester Grammar School – and one way that might have happened is if he had died beforehand, which Garner almost did from childhood illnesses, on three separate occasions.

Joe’s progress is marked by small but significant actions on his part which reveal his true character (and worth) in contrast to the sharp-tongued intolerance (bred of fear and confusion) that he displays for much of the time. At the outset, he chooses humbly and fairly, feeling that the little pot is as much as he is entitled to claim from among the glittering treasures (‘they’re worth loads, this lot… more than jamas or bones.’). Then he is courteous: when the rag-and-bone man complains of the heat, Joe invites him in where it is cooler, so welcoming the stranger, one of the primal acts of human decency. Later, it is when Joe asks for help, mired in the bog, that Thin Amren comes. He shows courage and resourcefulness in tackling the task he is set, to vanquish Whizzy, and in the greater one of returning Thin Amren to the bog. He takes responsibility for his actions in summoning the cuckoo and causing the disruption which he has resolved: ‘No. It was me. I did it.’ Finally, he is unselfish, compassionate and generous: after Treacle Walker has answered his question ‘am I dead?’ Joe asks him

‘What is it you want for you? What is it you want most? For you. Not some wazzock else.’

to which Walker responds,

‘never has a soul asked that of me.’

This is a book that rewards rereading: there is so much in its 15000 words that more is to be had from it every time. It is multilayered in its meanings and is not ‘about’ any one thing; it deals with the riddles of time, human existence and death, the relation of past and present, the mysteries of religion and storytelling. It is, above all, life-affirming: the jealousy that is the one thing Treacle Walker cannot cure is felt by Thin Amren, who loves the Whirligig, the fleeting brilliance of life that Joe embodies, and is envious that he cannot have it (compare what the shade of Achilles tells Odysseus when he visits the underworld: ‘I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.’) He is jealous that Treacle Walker shares his company while he cannot. In one sense, just as all the characters are aspects of Garner (if Joe is the boy he might have been and Walker the don, then Thin Amren is surely the writer he has become, who dreams worlds into existence) they are also aspects of each other: Joe has been the man ritually sacrificed by the tribe and immersed in the bog, giving his life that all life might continue (perhaps he is also ‘the man that sang in the marrow bone’) and in the end, he becomes Treacle Walker, by releasing him from his duty and taking it on himself, so that the book ends as it began with the rag-and-bone man’s cry.


* much of the delight of reading and rereading this book is to seek out the sources of the obscurer parts, a task made much easier by the internet. This rhyme, for instance, turns out to have been composed by Garner himself more than fifty tears ago as part of a tale he rewrote in The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins.

3 thoughts on “‘Let words be nice’ – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Treacle Walker’

  1. This is a brilliant read. Thank you. Just one thing- I think brain cells are for life- hence we remember. However, as you say, Joe doesn’t appear to have memory. Children’s memories are somewhat differ, though, and perplexing, when you are trying to get them to remember things.

    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. I wonder if perhaps we take a while to learn the vocabulary of remembering, so that we may have vivid memories before we are able to give an articulate account of them (or to distinguish them from dreams and imaginings)

    • Ah! only on rereading what I wrote do I grasp your point – there are bits of us that last a lifetime (and indeed I heard a programme recently that suggested my notion that we are entirely renewed every seven years or so is no longer current – but then I did learn it from James Joyce, whose Stephen Dedalus (I think) uses it as an excuse for not paying debts: ‘other me me that agreement’ or somesuch). So thank you for updating my antiquated store of knowledge!

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