It seems odd – maybe contrary to some netiquette that forbids self-publicity – to repost a blog, but with Dave Aldridge‘s appearance to discuss remembrance in Cambridge (and in general) still very current, I want to return to the noxious growlings of Gove against “Blackadder history” and how I looked at this in a blog post earlier. Here it is, with its warning that “it is not only ancient history that makes myths.” This isn’t really about Gove, or the trenches, or the youths who will dress up and march in streets and square next month, but about how we seek to mythologise bloody episodes as part of our story of belonging. Glorious victory at Rochester, Brunanburh, Hastings, the “famous victory” at Blenheim, Prestonpans, Amiens and the Somme , the Baltic? Which is the most relevant now? How do we use these stories? Is Hastings an awful warning about the dreadful continentals or a defining moment in land ownership and language? Is the Somme a warning never to trust politicians’ manipulation of the people or a blow for the freedom of Europe?
Yesterday was the 84th birthday of the great Alan Garner, and as I look at his work, and mindful of my blog post on fiction, memory and Roman Britain, the work of Rosemary Sutcliff, and then think of the Battle of Hastings, remembered last week, and the battles of more recent times we celebrate (is that the word?) in the Remembrance season I think I want just to add some of his thoughts on memory and landscape from The Voice That Thunders. In the first section, from the essay “Inner Time” Garner looks bleakly at the American myth, contrasted with his vision of Europe where myth is richly layered:
Man is an animal that tests boundaries. He is a ‘mearcstapa,” “boundary strider,” and the nature of myth is to help him understand boundaries, to cross them and to comprehend the new; so that, whenever Man reaches out , it is myth that supports him with a truth that is constant, although names and shapes may change… The Biblical, the Epic, the Romantic, the Gothic are all merestones, boundary markers, of their day and the pointers of ours. Three hundred years ago, the mystery was in the greenwood; last century, the nearest grave; now the nearest galaxy…
And then in his essay on Strandloper, he returns to his task in celebrating the autochthonic ideals of language and people and history in the First Peoples in Australia and in his native Cheshire:
[I have been trying] to celebrate the land and tongue of a culture that has been marginalised by a metropolitan intellectualism, that churns out canonical writers…who draw on the library, ignorant of the land; on the head, bereft of the heart. For true reading is creativity: the willingness to look into the open hand of the writer and to see what may, or may not, be there…
Garner has the energy, skill and creativity to be the offerer, the writer who presents us with ideas and wisdom and myth and legend. Perhaps I was wrong in my earlier blog to have thrown all of this into a store room full of the “chill of secrets;” maybe the fiction writer – and the Remembrance marchers and the people protesting – is looking for the defining myth still. Just as the people recovering from the 1914-18 conflict rediscovered land and landscape – returning to a mixture of visions of pastoral and homes fit for heroes – maybe the scambling and unquiet time we are in demands of us a new view of what we mean by “home” and a world we feel at home in.
The trouble is that myths are always shifting: flora changes on the Cheshire hills of Garner and the borders of Sutcliff; we need to read our landscape as closely as the text an author proposes –
The pity is that idiots have driven a chariot of the gods through the great wonders and the true mystery.