Thursday, 30 May 2013

Alan Garner on the Television: The Owl Service, Red Shift and The Keeper


Alan Garner is widely regarded as one of the finest writers of children’s fantasy in the post war period. His first two novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) were both set around the Cheshire escarpment of Alderley Edge, the area in which Garner grew up. Ancient mythological figures and legends were reawakened to play out their archetypal conflicts once more in this landscape. In Elidor (1965) a church in a decaying area of Manchester proves to be a gateway to a similarly barren otherworld, a chivalric Arthurian realm whose golden age is long over. The worlds of urban realism and symbolic fantasy are implicitly linked, as are the two very different literary modes which they represent. A strong attachment to landscape and the myths and histories that inhere within it has been a characteristic of his fiction ever since. Towards the end of the 60s and into the 70s, his novels became more enigmatic, written in a condensed, elliptical and very literary style. They demanded a great deal of concentration from an adult reader, let alone the young readership to which they were still being marketed. It was these challenging and emotionally highly charged stories which Garner adapted for the television, beginning with his 1967 novel The Owl Service, which he scripted for ITV in 1969. In 1978 he turned his 1973 novel Red Shift into a BBC Play for Today. And finally, he wrote a haunted house (or cottage) story for the half hour ITV children’s series Dramarama in 1983.

Alison, Gwyn and Roger - the eternal triangle
The Owl Service largely takes place around a large old manor house adjacent to a village in a Welsh valley. The house has been inherited by Alison, a girl in her late teens. She and her mother, Margaret, have come here on holiday with her stepbrother Roger and his father Clive. It’s a new family set-up, Clive and Margaret having just married, and tensions soon become apparent. The house is kept with sullen resentment by an outsider, Nancy, who also acts as cook. She has returned after many years, having moved away to the other side of Wales. She is accompanied by her son, Gwyn, a precociously intelligent, self-educated boy. Standing sentinel outside, endlessly raking the gravel drive, is Huw Halfbacon, the gardener. He watches the house and the comings and goings of its inhabitants as if waiting for something to happen. The story begins with Alison hearing scrabbling, scratching sounds coming from the attic above her bedroom ceiling (premonitory shades of The Exorcist). She gets Gwyn, with whom she is on friendly terms, to climb up and take a look. He uncovers an old, dust and grime coated set of plates painted with a pattern which weaves the beak and eyes of an owl into a garlanded floral design. Alison becomes obsessed with tracing out the pattern onto sheets of paper, which she then folds into origami owls. Once she has done this, the original pattern disappears from the plates, leaving them blank. Her driven creation of owls from flowers acts as the trigger for the re-enactment of an age-old legend associated with the local landscape. Huw looks on and makes obscure bardic proclamations. It’s as if he had expected this to happen, and had experienced it countless times before.

Tom and Sally parting at Crewe
Red Shift, like The Owl Service, features teenage protagonists on the cusp of adulthood, but who are still beholden to uncomprehending parents. They too are wracked with intense, wrenching feelings for one another which are thwarted by the social and economic forces of the world around them, as well as by their own doubts and anxieties. Tom lives in uncomfortable proximity with his mother and father in a static caravan in Rudheath, Cheshire. He has an expressively romantic relationship with Jan, who lives with her parents in a nearby bungalow. When they move away and Jan begins her nursing studies in London, Tom arranges for them to meet at regular intervals at Crewe railway station. From here, they cycle out into the outlying countryside. Besides Tom and Jan’s story, we also slip back into two historical eras, witnessing violent events which occurred within the landscapes which they explore. These time shifts are triggered by a mixture of emotional affinity and a tapping into the spirit of particular powerful locations.

The struggling rump of a Roman legion, which includes some native followers, is ambushed and retreats to the rocky outcrop of Mow Cop. Here it becomes pinned down on a sacred tribal spot, where the soldiers discover a heavily pregnant woman sheltered in a cave. She is regarded by the local tribe as a fertility goddess, but treated as a prize of war by the Roman members of the legion. The exception is Macey, who refuses to violate her like the others, treating her with due deference. He is a young Romanised Celt brought into the legion when he was just a child, and used by its leader, Logan, for his ability to go into a state of frenzied violence when certain trigger words are used. Another story takes place in the Civil War period. Another young seer, Thomas Rowley, gazes out towards Mow Cop from the tower of the church in the nearby village of Bartholmey as the inhabitants prepare for a siege. A militia of Royalist Irishmen is sweeping across the country from the West ruthlessly set on rooting out parliamentary sympathisers. Amongst those they seek is John Fowler, a charismatic figure in the village who is central to the organisation of the retreat into the fortress of the church. The Roman and Civil War periods are linked by a physical artefact, a stone axe-head. It is used by Macey, who breaks it from the axe in one of his frenzies, and dug up by Rowley, who calls it a lightning stone. He believes it to be a token of good luck if placed with a hearth, a ward against future lightning strikes. Tom and Jan discover it in an old ruined cottage on top of Mow Cop, and Tom takes care of it for them, holding it as an emblem of the possibility of a future spent together.

The Keeper's cottage
The Keeper is an enigmatic and subtly disturbing supernatural tale. It concerns Peter, an enthusiastic amateur ghost hunter. He is accompanied on one of his nocturnal investigations by Sally, as they seek to find proof of reported hauntings in a half-ruined gamekeepers cottage. Peter intends to measure and record any phenomena which might become manifest, confronting the unknown with empirical rationalism backed up with a battery of scientific equipment. His grandmother had told him tales from her childhood about the house and its reputation as a bad place. It had been left to fall into ruin by the daughter of its last inhabitant, a gamekeeper who shot himself in 1912. Sally seems to sense an abiding and watchful presence in the house. Her intuitive, empathic feel for the spirit of the place acts as a counterbalance to Peter’s analytical aloofness. As the night wears on, they play scrabble to pass the time. The words they choose with uncommon swiftness turn out to be from the lines of an old folk rhyme, which Sally has also unconsciously written out. It becomes increasingly clear that they have, through their curiosity, made a connection with some formless but powerful spirit of the land, a keeper which resents their presence.

Many of the themes of The Owl Service and Red Shift can be found in condensed form in their opening title sequences. The Owl Service uses musique concrete and diagrammatic animation and shadowplay to fold together modernity and age old tradition, the natural and the mechanistic, rational and supernatural in disconcerting visual collage. The title card pictures, with their clear and simple outlines and monotone colouring look like printed illustrations from a children’s book. Their minimal animation therefore gives the sense of stories coming to life, pages flickering into being, their contents made physically manifest in the world beyond the covers. The music begins with the rippling of a harp, a sound redolent of bardic traditions and the old oral storytelling fixed and codified in the books of the Mabinogion, the Welsh collection of Celtic legends. The harp is followed by a gurgle of water draining down a plughole, the sound transformed to give it a metallic cast. It conjures notions of a fluid passage corkscrewing through time. We then hear a motorbike engine revving, a more guttural reiteration of the harp and water sounds which lets us know that we have entered the mechanistic age of the internal combustion engine. All three sounds form elements of an unbroken continuum, it is suggested.

Bird shadows
We see a stand of trees on a hill which are then contracted within a circular frame. In the story, this is both the focal lens of Roger’s camera and the hole in the standing stone which seems also to act as a lens, bringing resonant echoes of past events into focus. The combination of the two create a composite vision, an amalgamation of ways of seeing both ancient and modern. As if to give this concept visual form, we then see a pattern of concentric circles rippling inwards, waves of time drawn towards a focal point. A pictorial candle’s glow is animated into flickering motion, the camera zooming into the flame as if our vision were drawn mothlike towards its immolating fire. A papery flutter of wings accompanies bird shadows cast by hands joined at the thumbs. A similar image was used at the strikingly effective cover of the Ghost Box LP As The Crow Flies by The Advisory Circle. It wouldn’t be surprising if its designer, Julian House, had been influenced by The Owl Service titles. Another of his Ghost Box covers, for Belbury Poly’s The Owl’s Map, also features an outline owl design. Hands then make a circle, echoing the one in which the trees were framed. This circular formation, a cyclical symbol, hints at a non-linear view of time, one which encompasses rebirth and recurrence. It is an invitation for something to come through, for an old pattern to re-establish itself.

Colouring in the owl service pattern
After the flight of wings, the harp returns, playing an old Welsh tune, and we see the pattern on the plate constructing itself, growing in an almost organic form, like time-lapsed lichen. As it is coloured in, as if by an invisible child’s felt pen, it seems flushed with renewed life. We hear a scrabbling, percussive patter, as of the scurrying of small, clawed feet. This morphs into an unnerving rubbing, ratcheting and stretching sound. It feels like some plastic material whose tensile strength is being tested to its limits, pulled taut from both directions. Something trying to break through the skein of time, perhaps. It also perfectly expresses the psychological tensions caused by the close proximity of the story’s characters, and the threat that one or more of them may snap, unleashing a destructive backlash. The raking tracks of clawed nails tears three ragged, parallel lines down the flower and owl mandala, and it fades from view. These titles really are a miniature masterpiece in themselves. They manage to convey so much, with such power, in a very short space of time.

Red Shift begins with a bounding Autobahn style electronic theme by Phil Ryan. It immediately introduces the idea of modernity and of fast motorised motion. We see blue lights coming towards us on a motorway, which blur and reform in the shape of stars approaching (or some interstellar vessel rushing towards them), a ring nebula at the centre perhaps the remains of some cataclysmic supernova. This gives an idea of the contrasts in scale which will be a feature of the story – from the intimate and personal to the historical and cosmological. It also introduces the central astronomical metaphor of blue and red shifts. Observation and measurement of these opposite ends of the visual spectrum allow us to determine whether a star is moving towards our point of perspective (blue, indicating a greater frequency in wavelength) or disappearing into the distance (red, indicating a lower frequency). The ring shape of the nebula again hints at a cyclical view of time. We see the faces of the three male protagonists framed within its iris, morphing into one another within this symbolic stellar formation. The personal and the universal are brought together, a cosmic connection outlined.

Tom in the iris of the ring nebula
We then see red car lights moving away along the other lane of the motorway, the title Red Shift appearing over them, the metaphor spelled out. Two people stand on the verge, rooted in the local landscape while all about them is in motion. They are seen from both perspectives, the blue and red shifting streams, stationary observers within the flux of progressive and regressive time, their relativistic perspective not yet available to us. They are depersonalised, peripheral figures stranded on a hard shoulder no-man’s land. These are our present day protagonists, Tom and Jan, but they are located from the beginning within a wider expanse in terms of time and space. In the opening scene, we find them sitting on a sandy hillock adjacent to the motorway, watching the cars and lorries rush past. To Jan’s innocent question ‘where are we going?’, Tom gives a smart aleck response, talking about continental shift, planetary rotations and expanding universes. Such geological and cosmological perspectives threaten to dwarf them, reduce them to insignificant specks. But when Jan announces that she’s going to move to London, the perspective narrows down to matters of immediate personal import, which have a more direct emotional impact.

Watching the trespassers enter
After the 80s electropop of the Dramarama titles (complete with synth drums and vocodored vocals), the opening credit sequence is contrastingly quiet and restrained. We hear the sparse and suspended chordal clangour of a hammered dulcimer (generally an indicator of East European intrigue in cold war spy thrillers) lightly breaking the silence in the interior of the gamekeeper’s cottage. The breathy whisper of a flute is suggestive of soft respiration, and the sense of presence is further indicated (as it is throughout the story) by the movement of the camera. A chair is set before the fireplace, with logs burning in the small iron grate. The camera eye point of view moves towards the chair, where it lowers its perspective. It’s as if some invisible form were settling itself in before the warm glow. The titles appear over the flickering flames. We hear two figures noisily approaching, and the camera swings suddenly around, startled by this unexpected intrusion. The blank gaze notices them passing by the window, and the door is forcefully shouldered a few times before it bursts open. Sally and Peter enter, and we see that the room is entirely bare, the chair unoccupied, the fireplace cold and the grate empty. We have immediately been introduced to the discomfiting idea that there is something in the cottage, however, and that it is watching. Sally’s later comment, when Peter asks whether she has ever seen a ghost, is perceptive and prescient: ‘I’d be more bothered if a ghost had seen me’.

Mythology and folklore are the matter at the heart of each of the three stories. The sense of a present at the nexus of deeper veins and currents of time is suggested by the way that ancient tales or rhymes whose words flow with incantatory cadences are made manifest in the modern world. These old legends are often attached to a particular place, but they are also universal in their recognition of the play of human emotions, and the conflicts engendered by the potent mixture of sexual, social and generational tensions and rivalries. In the Owl Service, the three young protagonists are driven to enact the story of the rivalry between Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Bebyr, lord of Penllynn. Their murderous rift came about because of the love between Gronw and Blodeuedd, Lleu’s wife. The story is told in Math Son of Mathonwy, the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, the Celtic legends collected in the 14th century in two volumes, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest and brought together in what is now known as The Mabinogion.

In this story, the magician Gwydion makes a wife for his nephew and charge, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, from ‘the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet’. He does this after Lleu has been cursed by the Lady Aranrhod, his mother, whom Gwydion had tricked into breaking a previous prophecy. She had provided Lleu with arms to defend her castle against a nonexistent enemy which Gwydion had conjured up, and had thereby gifted him his territorial inheritance. In revenge, she consequently vows that ‘he shall never have a wife of the race that is now on this earth’. Blodeuedd, the woman of flowers, is fashioned for Lleu in what amounts to a magically arranged marriage. But she develops a will and independent desires of her own, and falls for Gronw Bebyr, lord of Penllyn, whom she meets whilst he’s abroad hunting stag. He also falls for her, and they plot to do away with Lleu. As is generally the case in these stories, there is a complicated and unlikely set of conditions which must be met before a particular destiny can be fulfilled. There is an element of Celtic tall-tale telling to the legends, which Gwynn also indulges in when he spins Alison a shaggy yarn about sheep on the upper sides of the valley needing stilts to balance and stop themselves from toppling over. He describes this as ‘soaking the Saxon’, maintaining the tribal divisions of past millennia.

Updating the old tales - Gwyn takes aim at Roger
Once the conditions which will render Lleu vulnerable have been met (in this case involving him standing with one foot on the side of a bath by a riverbank, the other on the back of a goat), Gronw strikes him down from the hill crest of Bryn Cyfagyr with a specially fashioned spear he has honed in the prescribed manner over the course of the previous year. Lleu is instantly transformed into an eagle and flies off, seemingly banished for good. Gronw claims both Blodeuedd and Lleu’s cantref of Ardudwy. Gwydion, meanwhile, vows to discover Lleu’s aquiline incarnation and determine whether his fate is irreversible. He eventually finds him in the branches of an oak tree, shedding flesh and maggots which a sow feeds on below. This would seem to indicate that there was some remnant of the mortally wounded human still present. Gwydion uses his magic to transform him back into the old Lleu once more, although he is in a pitifully mangy condition. He recovers in Caer Dathyl in Gwynedd, Math son of Mathonwy’s kingdom, and then sets out to take reprisal against Gronw and Blodeuedd, with Math’s forces at his disposal. Gwydion overtakes Blodeuedd as she is fleeing with her maidens, all of whom drown in a lake. He transforms her into an owl, telling her ‘thou art never to dare show thy face in the light of the day’, and that she will be regarded as an enemy by all other birds.

Gronw, meanwhile, negotiates with Lleu in an attempt to save his own skin. But Lleu will accept nothing less than the opportunity to strike a blow similar to that which he was on the receiving end of, and on the very same spot as well. Gronw pleads to be allowed to place a stone between himself and the intended trajectory of the spear, arguing that the balance of blame for his bloody deed lay with Blodeuedd and her insinuating persuasions. Lleu grants his wish for this seemingly impenetrable piece of mineral armour, but he throws the spear with such force that it transfixes both the stone and Gronw’s heart. The stone with a hole through it is left standing on the banks of the Cynfael river in Ardudwy like a memorial headstone, and is named Llech Ronw, or Gronw’s Stone.

Gronw's Stone - Roger as target
We see it in the opening scenes of The Owl Service, Celtic spiral patterns forming a tangled horizon beneath the hole. Roger swims in the river from whose banks it rises, climbing out to lean against the bole of an aged tree, his exposed breast directly in line with the imaginary vector of the spear’s flight suggested by the hollow circle. In the next scene, we find Alison in her bedroom, idly tracing the circular pattern of light reflected from a glass of water or the pond outside to shimmer on the ceiling. We are immediately reminded, both by this and by the circle in the stone, of the circular patterns in the opening titles. When Alison hears the scratching coming from the attic above her (and above the circle of light) it is almost as if she has summoned it up, invoking the recommencement of a pre-established cycle of events (the circularity of which will also be reflected in the round, white circle of the plates themselves, which are uncovered in the attic). Gywn is called in, and the two are evidently comfortable in each other’s company (Alison remains dressed only in a loose, oversized nightshirt). He picks up the ornamental spear which stands by the dressing table and pokes at the ceiling with it. The roles which each will inhabit are established from the outset. Roger is the cuckolded and ousted Lleu, Gwyn the local usurper Gronw, both in romantic and territorial terms. And Alison, of course, is Blodeuedd, the woman created from flowers and later turned into an owl.

Comic icons 1 - Gwyn as green man

Comic icons 2 - Roger as green man
Gwyn and Roger also take up ironic modern poses with echoes of the old iconographies of the green man or wild men, figures connected to the natural landscape (woodlands in particular) and its seasonal changes. Gwyn is seen in the corridor holding his arms up to either side, the globe of a cabbage balanced in each hand. Roger poses more awkwardly and self-consciously in front of his timer-set camera, a large branch held up above his head as if it were sprouting from his ribs. With his silly grin, and with Gwyn’s cabbages from the garden, they are both caricatures of the figures of the ancient British wilds. Their foolish stances are a reminder that industrial civilisation has largely swept such dark and mysterious places aside, although certain residual impulses remain lodged in the inner depths. The bathetic nature of their impressions also makes it clear that they are hopelessly ill-prepared for the mythological roles they are fated to play.

Learning the part - reading the old tales
After the plates have been found and Alison has begun transferring the patterns into origami owls, we find her reading a green hardback Everyman edition of the Mabinogion (the paperback version of which I’ve taken my quotes from) in the garden on a hot summer’s day. It’s a book which Gwyn has lent to her, as if to impart the ancestral knowledge which is an instinctive part of his Welsh inheritance. Alison looks every bit the sulky English Lolita in her red bikini and bright plastic sunglasses. Her awakening sexuality is the catalyst for casting her as the reincarnation of Blodeuedd’s freshly created spirit. It also makes her a precursor of Angela Carter’s modern reinventions of female fairy tale characters in her Bloody Chamber stories and in the film The Company of Wolves which derived from them. The reflections of Gwyn and Roger framed in the twin screens of her dark lenses points to the formation of a new incarnation of the eternally recurrent triadic relationship. Alison uses the book to shield herself from both of them, dispelling these reflections and blocking their undisguised boyish desire. When Gwyn kicks the book away, we see a brief flash of the flowered owl design tattooed on her face. She is possessed as much by the power of the word and the truthful outline of the story as she is by the energising effect of the occult circuitry in the plates’ pattern. The word reinforces and fixes the energies which the owl service patterns and the paper models which are made from them unleash.

Mask of anger - the owl tattoo
The dangerous power of words and of powerful, archetypal stories is made alarmingly apparent when Gwyn is attacked by a fluttering flock of torn pages (an attack accompanied by shrill free jazz flurries and squawks). They swirl around him with the angry, snapping susurration of mobbing birds driving off an invasive, threatening presence. ‘Boy, there’s axiomatic’ he comments at this self-evident demonstration that the old myths still have power. Gwyn is one of a number of auto-didactic smart-arses with more than a hint of self-portraiture about them which can be found in Garner’s work (Tom in Red Shift is another). The ancient word comes to life and punishes Gwyn for his disrespect, his contemptuous kicking of his own book and his own traditions. It asserts its undiminished force in the world (or this corner of it, at least), the abiding truth encoded within the eccentric symbolism of its surface details.

Huw Halfbacon is a complex figure who is both Gwydion (and specifically identifies himself as such in the novel) and, in a previous iteration of the tale involving him, Nancy and Bertram, the former upper class owner of the house, an incarnation of Lleu. He also acts as a chorus, and both he and Gwyn talk about the old tale from the Mabinogion. Gwyn provides clarification and a narrative précis, whilst Huw comes out with a kind of running footnote commentary and explicatory exegesis, progressing from an anticipatory ‘she is coming’ to a declamatory ‘she is come’. His reading of the story attempts to reach a more sympathetic understanding, however, which would transcend his and the boys’ assigned roles. It could almost be seen as a revisionist modern interpretation, taking into account and giving primacy to the female perspective of Blodeuedd/Alison, and acknowledging the way in which she is controlled, the pattern of her life set out for her.

Huw Halfbacon
Through having been created for a particular purpose, marriage to a lord, she comes to represent, to a contemporary reader, the social powerlessness of women and the rigid expectations of class. Huw observes how hard it is to be ‘shut up with someone you’re not liking very much’. He notes that Lleu is a hard lord, and that Gronw is ‘not a bad man’. His repeated mantra ‘she wants to be flowers and you make her owls’ points to an alternate outcome to the story which takes her needs and desires in to account. His despairing cry ‘why must we destroy ourselves’ suggests that he is all to well aware of his own powerlessness to alter events, however. He seems to have abdicated his own role and shrugged off complicity by displacing any sense of responsibility. For all his proclamations of power and regal guardianship (‘I own the ground, the mountain, the valley; I own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries’, and ‘my land is the country of the summer stars’) he is in the end helpless in the face of Alison’s violent climactic metamorphosis and the seismic meteorological chaos is unleashes across the valley. The time of his domineering, capricious and vengeful authority is over. A new balance of power must be found to re-establish harmony in the world.

Garner claimed that Red Shift was inspired by the ballad of Tam Lin and Burd Janet and the Queen of Fairy, which may be familiar to many through the version Sandy Denny sings on Fairport Convention’s classic Liege and Lief LP. This is a fairy tale of the darker variety, before the old superstitions were diluted into sweeter and less threatening nursery fare. The Queen of Fairies is a figure of fearful otherwordliness who has held Tam Lin under her spell since capturing him when he fell from his horse. Janet disobeys explicit instructions not to go to the large house of Carterhaugh where he lives. The local story has it that any maiden who goes there will lose her virginity to the rakish Tam. But Janet has been promised the house by her father, and goes there to claim her inheritance. Carterhaugh is a haunted place which has the feel of being located on a threshold. It is also a world away in terms of class and wealth for local lass Janet, of course. But she meets and falls in love with the enchanted Tam Lin, and according to several versions becomes pregnant with his child. He warns her away, however, revealing that he is doomed to be offered up by the Queen of Fairy as a tithe to hell (an interesting collision of Pagan and Christian iconography there).

Janet once more shows her independent strength of spirit, however, and insists on fighting for his life. If she is to break the spell she must pull him from his horse as he rides by with the Queen and a retinue of knights on All Hallow’s Eve, when the exchange of the human currency of the damned is due to take place. She must then hold on to him throughout the long night as the Queen wrenches his body through many transformations, turning him into a lion and a serpent before he finally lies as a naked knight in her arms. The story is clearly ripe for modern interpretation as a parable of sexual awakening and of female independence and strength. It has been used as such in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock and Catherine Storr’s Thursday (Storr is better known for her children’s classic Marianne Dreams). It use in Red Shift is a little more oblique and notional, however. Charles Butler has written an excellent article, Alan Garner’s Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of Tam Lin, about how Garner incorporates the spirit of the ballad into his story rather than using it as a rigid template. He points to the key moments in the story in which the female characters hold on to the vulnerable male protagonists, whose transformations are the inner ones of wrenching emotion and psychological turmoil. The women are holding them together and shielding them from external forces which manifest themselves as manipulative parental figures (real or proxy). They hold them through dark nights to keep them from disintegrating mentally (or at least try to). The corn goddess does this on Mow Cop in the Roman period; Madge Rowley holds Thomas in the Civil War episode to warm his wounded body through the night on the bleak plain of Rudheath after they have fled the churchyard massacre; and Jan (the modern equivalent of Janet) tries to keep the volatile and mentally hyperactive Tom (the modern version of Tam) from suffering an implosive breakdown which will burn out his buzzing neural circuitry. Such an implosion would be an inverted echo of the supernova which created the ring nebula we see in the titles at the beginning.

The Bloody Braggadoccio prepares to strike
Other elements of the story are taken from fragments of history which have been passed down through hearsay and rumour as much as record. The Roman strand draws on the legend of the lost Ninth, the legion which disappeared and many have gone native, blending in with the local tribes. They are explicitly identified as such in Garner’s novel, in which their leader Logan states ‘we’re the Ninth’. We learn that they’ve disguised themselves as the ‘Mothers’, who make tribal war with the local ‘Cats’. In the Play for Today adaptation, they are more like a ragged and beleaguered rump. There are a few natives in tow, but in a significant variation from the book, this is a desperate remnant of men adrift in unknown territory, ambushed in their tents and driven towards Mow Cop where they make ready for their last stand. There is certainly no sign of the raid on the Cat village which occurs in the book. The Civil War episode is based on reports of a massacre at Bartholmey in 1643, which only became widely known after the Field-Marshal of Royalist forces in Cheshire, Sir John, Lord Byron, unwisely crowed about it in a letter which fell into the wrong hands (thus earning him the title ‘the bloody braggadoccio’). The lack of any more detailed report leaves a vague blankness which leaves room for the imaginative expansion of legend.

Automatic Scrabble writing
In The Keeper, the hidden meanings of folk rhymes form the basis of the story’s revelations. The sinister sense decrypted from seeming nonsense verse gives voice to some unnameable other, a force which is beyond conventional understanding. Language and words are key here. The rhyme emerges through the letters placed with semi-conscious haste on a Scrabble board, and is then written down in an idle moment by Sally, once more without conscious input. Both Scrabble rounds and scribbled rhyme are a form of automatic writing, bypassing conscious intent to reach some deeper layer of intuitive awareness. With the chill realisation which is at the heart of the best classic British ghost stories, it becomes retrospectively evident that some presence has found its way into both their minds. Whatever force is at work appears to be drawing on deep veins of folk memory to deliver its message or, as it turns out, warning. The rhyme, once pieced together in acrostic form and written out on paper (a bit like a Cageian chance score which taps, Zen-like, into the momentary flux of a larger universal order) reads thus: ‘go away from my window my love, my love/Go from my window my dear/for the wind’s in the west and the cuckoo’s in his nest/And you can’t have a lodging here’. The image of a figure standing at a window looking out hints at an observing presence in the house. The roving camera, which observes the two protagonists from various interstitial points of view (behind the fireplace and from between the exposed slats of the crumbling wall) gives a constant sense of something watching and waiting. The reference to the cuckoo in its nest also hints at the discomforting sense that this presence has found a lodging in their minds, the fragile house of the self in which it will grow and eventually evict the inhabitants for which it was originally built. The fact that the cottage they are spending the night in was built for a gamekeeper, someone who watches over the surrounding land to make sure that trespassers don’t intrude, suggests that this invisibly scrutinising force has an analogous role. It’s the guardian of some more intangible threshold.

PART TWO is here.


robin said...

Just watched The Owl Service. Am shattered.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen "To Kill A King"?

Jez Winship said...

No, I haven't. Thanks ever so much, I'm really looking forward to seeing this now. Looks like it might have more than a little element of autobiography to it.