Books in the Blood #5: The Owl Service by Alan Garner

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As an adult, I’ve revisited a chunk of books I first read when I was a child and I’m not sure why.

Maybe as I draw further away from childhood and I can only now experience my younger self through the rear view mirror of memory, I’m desperate to find something I’ve lost.

I don’t think it’s about recapturing my youth – the mirror and the bathroom scales plot together to remind me that that would be an exercise in pointlessness. I have to work hard to keep this wreck of a body functional. From my feet to my back, to my internal workings, it all needs keeping an eye on, whereas once everything seemed to run smoothly with little attention from me. Those corns won’t buff themselves, people.

I really wouldn’t want to be a kid again anyway.

I remember having a conversation with a friend who waxed lyrical about how wonderful his childhood was. According to him it was such a perfect, joyous time, you’d think he grew up in a Famous Five book, filled with exciting adventures catching foreign spies – and lashings of ginger beer for tea. He even used the cliché ‘best years of my life.’

I actually found listening to him a bit irritating. Because, I remember childhood quite differently.

Fear seemed an constant companion, forever holding my clammy hand: fear of the dark and the monsters that splashed about in the loo, ready to take a bite out of the unwary backside. Fear of insanity (yes, at around the age of ten I had a morbid fear of going mad, though worrying about going mad probably took me closer than any actual mental instability).

I worried about school, maths and P.E being regularly terrifying and humiliating ordeals for the humanity-minded plumpster I was. I worried about the bully that spat in my hair whenever she was given the opportunity.

And there was the overriding sensation of being painfully self-conscious, of feeling out of place in my own body, amongst other teens and in the world. I would’ve gladly been bewitched Sleeping Beauty-like by a bad fairy, happy for the most thorny of roses to clamber and tangle around my room, trapping me until I was old enough to not care about how lumpy I looked in drainpipe jeans.

Safe to say, I didn’t recognise childhood as my friend described it. Though, he’s a very confident, easy-going guy, so maybe that carried him over his own bumps and troughs with little damage.

Rereading a once loved book is, though, an exercise in self-assessment.

This week’s Book in the Blood is The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I had a copy bought for me a few years ago after dropping some very heavy and specific hints to my in-laws around the time of my birthday. I read the book eagerly, remembering how much I’d loved it as an adolescent, how I’d adored the mystical elements, the young love, the spine-tingling chills.

The story centres on a trio of young people in a farmhouse in Wales. Unexplained scratching and knocking from the attic draws two of them to discover a china dinner service with an abstract design that could just depict the faces of owls.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Garner is a genius at slow, creeping shudders. He blends violent Welsh myth with modern life, until the characters are compelled to re-enact the past, as if they’re possessed by dead spirits. It’s otherworldly, with a distinctly trippy element – it was first published in 1967 and you feel that sixties ethic through the book.

But what struck me – and here’s where the self-assessment came in – was how much more disturbing I found it as an adult than as a kid. The ending is vague to say the least and how much children’s fiction today doesn’t have a nicely tidied up last act? As the characters lose their grip on their own identities, the tone becomes increasingly unsettling. I remember nothing of this from the first time I read it. I took it all at face value then, accepting its odd qualities as part of the adventure.

Maybe the problem is I’ve had so many more years of conventional story telling rammed into in my head now – beginning, middle, end, story and character arcs – that I find it hard to accept anything different.

I’m glad I read this book as a child – it’s way too grown up for me to appreciate as an adult.    

books in the blood #4 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

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If you read Friday’s post How to be an escape artist (and quite honestly, if you didn’t where the heck were you, sunshine?) then you’ll know that as a child/ young adult/ not-so-young-adult/ middle-aged fart, I love to vanish down the plughole of my own brain.

It’s a beautifully soothing experience, this slipping away, soft and enveloping as a warm marshmallow cushion, as involving as having a virtual reality chip implanted in your cerebellum. In your head, you’re standing on your windswept hilltop, busting out of your stays as the smouldering, razor-cheeked man of your dreams gets his breeches in a tangle over just how ruddy marvellous you are. There’s probably a stallion big enough for two on hand. And hounds.

Well, when I was a nipper, before a tsunami of hormones swept in and gave my imagination a good kicking, before steamy heroes and the contents of their ‘fall front’ (look it up) were of such fascination, my brain brimmed with other men.

These chaps were cut from a different cloth. Usually elderly in a sprightly, twinkly-eyed way, generally friendly but with a chip of flint driven into their hearts, they would take my hand and whisk me down the rabbit hole. We’d visit new realms, dangerous ones where school was a memory, along with homework, parents, boredom and personal hygeine.

With these old men – and they’re usually VERY old, I mean we’re talking the kind that as a young man bounced the baby Methuselah on his knee – I could be brave, ingenious, fleet of brain and foot, a crafty adventuress who could fight the bad guy, save the world and be back home in time for tea and the Antiques Roadshow.

In the company of these old men, I was no longer the girl who was picked last for sports teams, who could barely swim a length or who was humiliated in front of the whole class by her P.E teacher (you know who you are) because she just really, truly didn’t have the upper body strength to climb a rope.

I was SUPER-ME. Though the old duffers I dreamed of hadn’t been bitten by radioactive invertebrates, weren’t closet PVC-wearing billionaires or members of some secret largely-masculine-and-wholly-posturing government agency, but

WIZARDS.

I loved a good wizard. Old, cranky, mercurial, stinking of sulphur and saltpetre, strung with amulets and mummified animal parts, preferrably with a beard large enough to hide a cub scout troup in. During primary school, these chaps were my male role models. All right, maybe I would’ve preferred less focus on toxic plant materials and potions and more on bathing and the odd visit to the barber, but they were the pup’s nuts.

The best I found as a we’en? Stand aside Gandalf, Merlin and the Great Soprendo. Make way for the star of this week’s Book in the Blood, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner …

Cadellin Silverbrow.

He’s ancient, odd, twisty in his moods (tick those wizardy boxes), he’s there to help and guide our heroes – brave children, natch – but regularly leaves them alone in dangerous situations, giving them plenty of opportunity to be almost killed by baddies.

The story’s set in Cheshire, under Alderley Edge, a place heavy with witch legends and ghost stories which isn’t too far from where I grew up. It’s set in the countryside and filled with good, strong post-war Englishmen and women with names like Bess, Susan and Gowther Mossock. It has a truly horrifying witch, some very scary chases through cave systems involving hundreds of slithery, Orc-like goblins who would eat a nicely brought up child soon as cough.

It’s a widely acclaimed kids classic and Cadellin is its guiding light. 


Now I’m older, I’d like a mixture of the steamy hero and the crumbly wizard, please. A man who can have your heaving corset unlaced with one smouldering look and enchant the house so it’s self-cleaning.