Lost Words

A while before Christmas, I was with a dear friend in my local bookshop The Suffolk Anthology and we were looking at books by Robert McFarlane such as Landmarks and Holloway. I mentioned that I loved The Lost Words, the book he made with artist Jackie Morris. My friend remembered, and at Christmas-time she surprised me with it. What a gift for me; and what a gift the book is to the world.

As is well known, a few years ago there was a furore when a new edition of a dictionary for younger children dropped words like acorn, adder, bramble, and fern, and replaced them with words to do with computers and the internet. The editors said something, I believe, to the effect that a dictionary is descriptive, and records the language actually in use. And so Robert McFarlane begins The Lost Words thus:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

He calls the book “a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words” and hopes that it will be read aloud, and “unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.” Jackie Morris’s beautiful illustrations of birds and plants complement the “spells.” Their combined magic evokes what happens when we really look at the natural things around us.

The bluebell picture is especially lovely, and exactly captures the delicate native bluebell with its drooping curve, “arched down like a cutwater drawing itself back from the line of the keel,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his notebooks. He loved bluebells, gazed intently at them: The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape…He experienced them with all his senses: drawing his fingers through, so they struggle with a shock of wet heads; smelling the faint honey smell; and tasting the sweet gum when you bite them.

But this is easy, he says; it is the eye they baffle. They give one a fancy of panpipes…..He seeks to describe that curve like a shepherd’s crook, and notes how the flower holds itself differently when you put it in water from the way it looks when growing. Over and over he tries to capture that arch of the bluebell: what with these overhung necks and what with the crisped ruffled bells dropping mostly on one side and the gloss they have at their footstalks they have an air of the knights at chess.

It’s still January, a while off bluebell season, but The Lost Words has conjured it. The book reminds me to look closely at the ordinary but infinitely precious bluebell, bramble, conker, fern. But while adults have praised the book, it is made to give children the words. I wonder if they are reading it, or having it read to them? Will these spells do even more powerful magic than evoking the natural world, will they send the children outside so they can see and touch these things for themselves, and learn their names?

Bluebell by Jackie Morris from  Lost Words  by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books)

Bluebell by Jackie Morris from Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books)

Alan Garner: "The numinous as a book"

How quickly time passes, how many days have gone by since I last wrote here. At least by posting today I'll prevent April from slipping away unmarked.

I was lucky enough recently to be at the launch for a wonderful collection of essays in honour of Alan Garner, called First Light, edited by Erica Wagner.  As a teenager I was captivated by Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and I have been in his debt ever since, though have not kept up with all his books through the years. But now I will read all those I missed, and revisit the ones I read when so young that I probably missed a good deal of their complexity.

 A few years ago, I heard him speak at the Cheltenham Literature festival and he was mesmerising. And what a wonderful feeling to be there listening to someone whose work enchanted me so forcefully when I was fourteen; apart from anything else, it made me feel much younger than I am. Or, to put what I mean less flippantly, it gave me a wonderful sense of continuity in my reading life. (A bit like when Madeleine L'Engle, whose Wrinkle in Time was one of the most important books I read as a ten-year-old English child, came three decades later to a conference centre near where I lived in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I met her at last).  

If you don't know the work of Alan Garner, I can't convey his spell here. But contributors to the book include Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry, Robert Macfarlane, Ali Smith, Salley Vickers, Margaret Atwood, Rowan Williams, Michael Wood....he appeals to writers and artists, but also, as Erica Wagner says in her introduction, to scientists, archaeologists, historians. His words "make worlds which connect" with the work of all these different people.

At the afternoon lecture preceding the reception, I found myself sitting next to writer Katherine Langrish. In her contribution to First Light, she says Garner's first four books changed her imagination. "Under the seeing eye, landscapes reveal layers—strata—of history, prehistory, geology and legend. Places are founded in time, time becomes a dimension of place." 

Garner himself, in his talk "The Voice that Thunders" (collected with other lectures and essays in the book of the same name), says he has the combination of "an academic's and a magpie's mind that sees, finds or makes connections and patterns where others do not."  It's this making of connections and patterns that is his magic.

His fictions connect real places in modern England with the life of their past centuries, and with the myths that sleep in their stony underground bones. He does not really write for children, though children are sometimes the protagonists of his books and young readers can enjoy some of them.  Describing the twelve-year-long writing of Strandloper (published 1996) he said it began with a newspaper cutting about a man from a hamlet called Marton, close to Garner's own home, who had been transported to Australia in 1803: "I know instantly that I am pregnant with his story." He begins researching, delighting in what he learns as he collects information, follows many seemingly-unlinked threads; and then becomes "enthralled as the unconnected themes begin to converge....and for me it is the convergence, an elegant and natural simplicity of resolution, that hidden union, which has always been waiting: the numinous as a book."

The "Voice that Thunders," he says, is the name the Aborigines give to the source of inspiration. He has heard it himself. In the writing of Strandloper it commanded: "Go to Marton church." He had known this church all his life,  but now it showed him, in the patterns of its medieval windows, a link with the patterns used in Aboriginal ritual body art, and with the abstract patterns of dot, zig-zag and spiral, the "entoptic lines," used in cave paintings and elsewhere in many different times and places. In this church he found the climax for his story, and his fiction came full circle, back to home ground.

Impossible in this space to give more than a hint of the resonating power of Garner's themes, stories, and images. Or of his language. Or of the way he intertwines myth with reality, making them seem—or showing that they are?—part of the same story. But it was an amazing experience to be with so many other people who had been moved by this writer. It was a testimony to the power of language, of story, of the way books can touch the deepest parts of us. 

As Hugh Lupton writes of Garner in First Light: "At the back of our battered landscapes and our tattered shreds of folklore he gives us story and prayer, the deep culture of England." And David Almond puts it thus: "He helps us touch the extraordinary ordinary objects, helps us experience the sacred places...And we are enthralled by this world made so very real, and by the mystery that lies within and all around it."