First Light – a celebration of Alan Garner, ed Erica Wagner
I will get back to book reviews very soon, but the book launch I attended last night was very special – and apologies – but I will be name-dropping!
I love Unbound books and their crowdfunding publishing model, (see here for a Shiny interview I did with Unbound’s Caitlin). I also love, nay revere, the writing of Alan Garner, (see here for my posts on him) – so when I saw that Unbound were publishing an appreciation of his work I was one of the first to pledge. Somewhat recklessly I went in at a higher level than just getting a signed deluxe copy of the book and my name in the back – I pledged extra dosh so I could go to the launch party – and it was well worth it.
As you can see from the cover (left) there are some major famous names contributing, but they are just the glitter on an astounding array of writers, historians, archaeologists, storytellers, scientists and more that make this a very special collection of essays, memoir, storytelling and poetry.
It started off earlier in the afternoon – Unbound kindly threw in a ticket to the Oxford Literary Festival event in the Bodleian Divinity School about the book where editor Erica Wagner was in conversation with Richard Ovenden – the Librarian of the Bodleian library which holds Alan’s papers, and author Neel Mukherjee – a newish fan of his writing – all contributors to the book. One look around the audience told me I would be in for a treat – it was full of other authors including Rowan Williams (a former Archbishop of Canterbury)! Then Ali Shaw joined the audience, and we had a lovely chat before he went off to sit with his old boss from when he worked at the Bodleian. Then in came Garner himself, now 81, with his wife Griselda.
The talk was fascinating! Erica started by describing herself as ‘FoG’ – Friend of Garner – the audience were all FoGs. With Erica and Neel coming from other parts, they came to Garner late – both via The Stone Book Quartet – a set of connected fables about rural living in earlier times, written for children originally, but in typical Garner style, not condescending to his intended audience and full of Lancashire vernacular. Garner’s rootedness to his home landscape around Alderley Edge in Cheshire and seeming refusal/lack of need to write about other locales can seem a challenge – but Mukherjee said “If you can write about one place truthfully and faithfully, you have written about the world.” Erica talked about how Garner himself came up with the title for the collection, which refers to the Jodrell Bank telescope – on Alderley Edge – seeing back to nearly the start of the universe, that ‘First Light’.
Ovenden told the story of a collaboration that failed: Garner was to have written the text to accompany a book of amazing photographs of ‘Megaliths‘ by American photographer Paul Caponigro, but their correspondence came to nothing in the end, and the book was published without Garner’s contribution.
After the talk, I went round hoovering up signatures with Ali (in case they weren’t at the launch – they all were, but it meant the launch was more leisurely! ). Thank you to Elizabeth Wein (YA author), Katherine Langrish (YA author), Bel Mooney, Richard Ovenden, Neel Mukherjee, Erica Wagner, John Prag (archaelogist and editor), Richard Morris (archaeologist), and Rowan Williams who signed for me there.
So an hour later, I’d met up with Simon whom I was taking as my guest, and we entered the new hall of the Weston Library at the Bodleian. Drinks and canapes, and more signatures (thank you to Philip Pullman, Helen Dunmore, Francis Pryor (archaelogist) and one of my heroes – historian Michael Wood). I’m afraid I had a real fan-girl moment with Wood, (on the left in the photo left, in which Simon artfully posed for me, so I could sneakily snap him). I said how I’d followed his work on TV and in books ever since his groundbreaking series ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’ in 1981 in which he strode around mainly Arthurian sites in jeans and flying jacket. That series was responsible for me getting a serious addiction to all things Arthurian!
Simon and I also chatted with publisher John Mitchison – mostly about the Backlisted Podcastwhich we are both fans of. Mitchison does this with Andy Miller (author of The Year of Reading Dangerously) and it’s great.
Then it was time for a few speeches. Mitchison, then Erica Wagner, then Garner. Garner may be frail in form, but was in full voice. He talked about the interconnectedness of creativity in how we all draw in influences – if that all sounds rather intellectual – he brought it down to earth by describing himself as the ‘dead cat in the middle of the compost heap’ that gets the (de)composition started – and that Wagner was thus Queen of the Compost. He then told a story about how other creative minds had been the ‘dead cats’ for him too !
I went home one happy pledger, clutching my signed book which I will savour and treasure as a momento of a fabulous evening.