Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.
4th Estate, 2022 (2021).
‘Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!’Treacle Walker
Deceptively simple yet cunningly wrought, Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker defies categorisation. Instead of easily slipping into one genre or another it does what many good stories do – it intrigues, enthralls, makes one think, conjures up images, presents distinct characters, and takes us through from start to finish before the stern critic can adjust their spectacles and sharpen their quill.
And, too, Garner does so much with so little. He gives us a limited cast of characters – Joseph Coppock, Treacle Walker, Thin Amren – and conjures up established figures from a classic British kids comic which ran from 1939 to 1963. He sets his story in a mythical landscape which evokes aspects of the Cheshire he knows so well and which feature in much of his writing. And he presents a hazy, elastic timeline which mixes the ancient past, his mid-century childhood, and the timeless feel of a fable or fairytale.
But above all this is the work of a visionary poet, of a shaman who is describing a journey to a spirit world. Nominations for literary and fantasy awards may come his way but we do Garner an injustice if we attempt to pigeonhole what he creates.
Joseph is a young lad who appears to live alone, or at least he never interacts with anybody else in his house. He’s been made to wear an eye patch over one eye in an attempt to cure a squint and, when he’s not asleep in bed on top of an inbuilt cupboard by the side of his chimney, spends much of his time reading and collecting copies of Knockout. His favourite strip is about Stonehenge Kit and Whizzy the Wicked Wizard, his adversary.
But who is this outside his door? It’s the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, with his horse and cart, bearing strange objects to swap with recyclable material. Who is Thin Amren, the man who rises from the adjacent marshland with his strange cap? How does Joseph’s visit to the optician cause confusion? And why are the characters in an issue of Knockout simply missing from the Stonehenge Kit page?
How to approach a story composed largely of everyday dialogue and seemingly obsessed with popular culture? Garner himself tells us where he is coming from: “I have a mind of my own, and the words to express it. If that is a new voice, it is the voice of Aeschylus reading Desperate Dan.” He can’t be clearer – his mind is that of a tragedian combined with a love of outrageous wordplay, surreal comedy and everything in between, seeing correspondences in opposites and the past as one with the future.
What of the audience for Treacle Walker? For me – and I can only speak personally – I engage with the narrative as any spellbound audience member might, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns; I fear for Joe, I wonder about the role of Walker, I puzzle at Thin Amren’s nature; but I also marvel at the store of tradition that Garner draws on. Let me count some of the ways.
Hospitality and the crossing of the threshold; the ritual exchange of gifts; the healing Treacle Well of St Margaret, Oxford; the Uffington white horse (no donkey, this one); shamanic journeys through smoke holes; Alice Through the Looking Glass; the ritual murder of the man in the peat bog of Lindow (‘Black Lake’) Moss and the cap of the Trollund bog body; Hir Amren (‘tall Amren’) in the Welsh medieval tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, who’s said to be the son of Bedwyr or Bedivere who threw Arthur’s sword into the lake; the fabled second sight of the seer; and so much more. Then, after he has done his protracted research for a new work like this, Garner tells us
‘the closing sentences frequently appear, and I’ve learnt to write them down without question. Then it’s largely a matter of ‘watching’ the story unroll as a film and getting it onto paper. It’s a mysterious, but not a mystical, sensation.’Booker Prize interview.
I can’t tell you how much this seemingly slight tale has appealed to me, and even moved me. For while Garner’s writing – what I’ve read of it – is nearly always intensely personal, the fact that he shares his own journeys with us, so that we may recognise that which may resonate and help us, shows a generosity of spirit. If you’ve yet to read Treacle Walker I hope when you get to it that you may also find a little of what you’re looking for.
The Booker Prize for 2022 was announced on Garner’s 87th birthday, and though he didn’t win it the coincidence of the announcement underlined I think the significance of him being on the shortlist.