In my opinion Alan Garner, though still perhaps best known for his early children’s books, is one of the most interesting English writers of the last century in any genre (and happily still going). True, he needs working at and his books do not give up their secrets easily: I see them as a kind of elf-shot, slowly working their way under the skin to lodge in the heart. For me his most perfect achievement is ‘The Stone Book Quartet’, written in a spare prose with a layered concentration of meaning that any poet might be proud of, and of that quartet ‘The Aimer Gate’ is the most haunting and beautifully realised, with its rural First World War setting, seen through the eyes of boy whose uncle is home on leave from the trenches. In this scene, where rabbits are scared out of the last square of corn at the end of harvest, we realise what the benign Uncle Charlie’s trade is, and get a hint of what it costs him.
Uncle Charlie didn’t answer. He was on his heel, chewing a straw of stubble and looking at the standing corn. His face had gone different. It was thinner, and Robert couldn’t tell what was in the eyes. He spat the straw out and drank from a flask he carried in his pocket, enough to wet his mouth, no more.
Uncle Charlie stood up. He took the rifle. ‘Get aback of me’, he said
‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o! ‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!’ The men and boys yelled the cry. They yelled and yelled and clapped their hands and waved their caps and banged sticks together. ‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!’ The noise was tremendous.
Uncle Charlie didn’t move. But through the noise came another, a scream, a squeal, and, in terror, rabbits broke out of the last standing corn. All day they had worked inwards from the scythes, and now they ran. Uncle Charlie watched. Over the field, between the kivvers, dodging, driven by noise, the rabbits went, and their screaming pierced all noise.
Uncle Charlie swung the rifle to his shoulder, turning on his hips. He fired. The sound of the rifle deadened Robert’s ears. Left. Left. Right. Left. ‘Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!’ Right.
One rabbit was going up hill, in line with the men. Uncle Charlie watched it go until it climbed above them. The rabbit was at the top cornerpost of the field when he shot it.
The others got away. Their squealing stopped when they reached the bracken of the wood.
And Saint Philip’s church was still black, and there were no shadows.
Ozzie Leah shouted ‘Good lad, Sniper!’
Robert looked at Uncle Charlie. The face was no different. ‘When there’s too many’, said Uncle Charlie’, ‘you can’t tell them from poppies.. They’re all alike the same, you see’
They sat by the heap of road flint stone and gutted the rabbits. Uncle Charlie lifted his eyes to look at the work he had done, at the harvest got.
‘That’s my trade, Dick-Richard’, said Uncle Charlie. ‘I stop rabbits skriking. There’s me craft, and there’s my masterness’
Note: a kivver is six sheaves of corn in a stack.
I had chance to go visit Alan Garner’s place a couple of weeks back, with the local writer’s group. See my post on The Blackden Project.
Some time ago I was prompted to examine the first of this quartet, The Stone Book, looking at its structure. It is quire revealing. I devoted a chapter to it in my ebook on rings and chiasmic structures, Gifts of Rings and Gold, on Amazon kindle.