We Are Nostalgia: Alan Garner’s The Stone Book Quartet

On the occasion of the publication of Alan Garner’s memoir, Where Shall We Run To?, Garner was interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s arts programme, Front Row. Something that really struck me was the closing exchange of the interview. The interviewer asked Garner about his views of nostalgia, and the question was framed with particular reference to Brexit and an apparent upsurge in nostalgic feelings for a Britain of the past. Garner’s answer was striking: “I find nostalgia one of the most poisonous words in the language. It is a complete romantic fabrication. When I was living in that time [i.e. during the Second World War] I heard adults talking about the good old days, and now they are talking about the good old days, but the point of getting out of the bed in the morning is to bring about the future. And that’s why I loathe nostalgia.”[1]

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I think I was particularly struck by this statement because it seemed to go against the grain of so much that I have read in Garner’s fiction. Now, I should immediately clarify that the context of the question and answer here was that of a jingoistic romanticisation of the war years in light of Brexit. I am certainly not suggesting that Garner’s fiction has anything to do with a patriotic mythologizing of the past for the purposes of augmenting a particular contemporary national identity. Clearly his work is multi-faceted, deep and devoid of easy stereotyping. But nonetheless his work is very often concerned with the past and I feel often has elements of nostalgia. If there is anything to this feeling of mine then obviously it must be referring to a nostalgia that is deep, ambiguous and nuanced. But, even so, I felt that his stated antipathy to nostalgia was perhaps a conscious disavowal of something that can be found in his fiction.

Just after hearing the Garner interview I came across the recently published book, The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli is a theoretical physicist whose work is concerned with the nature of time. In The Order of Time he explains that time is not a necessary feature of any of our scientific explanations of the universe; it is not needed for any of the fundamental equations or formulae. This has been known for some time, but it was previously assumed that the second law of thermodynamics, which describes the amount of entropy in isolated systems, necessitated the passage of time in one direction, from past to future. This is discussed by Hawking in A Brief History of Time where he explains that our perception of the passing of time is dependent on the entropic arrow of time:

“I shall argue that the psychological arrow is determined by the thermodynamic arrow, and that these two arrows necessarily always point in the same direction.”[2]

In other words, we perceive time as passing from the past to the future because we are embedded within a more fundamental feature of the universe, namely the law of entropy. All systems, including life, accord with this principle. We often see glasses fall from tables and shatter into dozens of pieces but we never see broken glasses spontaneously reform themselves from many pieces into one. Similarly, all of the physical processes in our bodies produce heat and so increase entropy. We are stuck within this temporal directionality and it cannot be reversed.

Rovelli, though, argues that the movement of the universe from a state of low entropy to high entropy is not actually a feature of the universe itself but only a consequence of the blurred way in which humans are able to see and describe that universe. This means that the thermodynamic arrow of time is not a prior condition for the human perception of the flow of time. In fact, the thermodynamic arrow of time is a consequence of the human perception of time. We see a partial picture of the universe which we cannot interpret without our own (illusory) experience of time. Contra Hawking, Rovelli argues that the thermodynamic arrow depends on the psychological arrow, and furthermore that both arrows do not really exist outside of our own heads. Time is not a property of the universe outside of the minds of man.

Anyway, for the present purpose the upshot of this is that time is a human construct and that it is an integral part of how we create and understand our own identities. It is the peculiar way in which our brains retain traces of our experiences and project them into a future-posited orientation that generates and sustains our sense of self and our experience of the passing of time.

Whilst reading Rovelli’s book I was reminded of Garner’s Stone Book quartet. In those four (very) short books (The Stone Book, Granny Reardun, The Aimer Gate and Tom Fobble’s Day) we see small vignettes of successive generations of Garner’s own artisan family. As the books progress there are constant reminders of the ongoing movement of time, and time itself is a recurrent theme of the books. Perhaps the most striking thing about the quartet is the absence of a connecting narrative between one book and the next. There is nothing in a purely narrative sense that carries over from one book to its successor, so there is not an intrusive sense of authorial perspective in the ongoing stories. Each book can be read on its own and has its own internal structure, so they can be read as entirely separate stories. But, at the same time, there are residual memories that hang over from one book to the next, sometimes in the form of family anecdotes, sometimes in the form of lingering landscape features. It is this sense of temporal persistence that gives the books their unique character.

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In The Stone Book, a young girl is taken by her father down a series of mine shafts and through a small crack in the rock only large enough for a young child to fit through. Beyond this crack she discovers some ancient cave art. Her father had previously been taken there as a boy by his father. A skilled stone mason, her father had also chosen the site for a stone quarry that would render the stone for many villages in the village.

At the beginning of Granny Reardun, a family, the Allmans, are evicted from their home so that the stones of the house can be used to build a kitchen garden for the Rector’s wife. It’s a significant event and it registers as being a harsh experience for a family to be put through. There is a poignancy to the plundering of the house but also a sense that what has been done cannot be undone. The event resolves itself into a fact that endures: “Even the ruin was gentle now. It had its place.”[3] By the time of the next book, The Aimer Gate, the remains of the house have been reclaimed by the land so that they are now nothing more than, “a hump of green, with nettles and a few thistles going to seed.”[4] Some of the remaining stones in the hump are removed to be broken into road flints by Faddock Allman. Allman was a young boy when the family were evicted. He can remember the house standing empty when he was a child but he appears to have no recollection of having lived there. The meaning of the house is slipping from memory as it returns to the earth.

In the final book of the series, Tom Fobble’s Day, the place where the house once stood is now used by local children for sledging in the winter:

“It was two fields, one above the other and above the road. The bottom field was short and steep, and all that had to be done was to stop before the thorn hedge. The top field was long, and there was a gate in the corner to the bottom field. But there weren’t many who could sledge the top field, corner to corner, across the slope, and through the gate and down the bottom field. It was fast, and the sledge had to be turned sharply for the gate, and at the only patch in the whole field where it could be turned, there was a hump that made the sledge take off. And the chances for the sledge then were to land against a tree, or in barbed wire, or the gatepost, or to go through to the bottom field.”[5]

Now the house is just a topographical feature in a field, a hump, of significance only as a challenging obstacle for young boys to aim their sledges at. One of those children is Stewart Allman, a descendant of the family who once lived in the house. He does not even have a recollection of the physical building that once stood there. The house has returned to the earth and passed away from human knowledge. And, for the reader, the significance of the hump, one element in a list of landscape features, can be easily missed.

Across the four books of the quartet the story of the stone is told from its pre-human dwelling beneath the earth, through its use by paleolithic cave artists, its discovery through mining for building materials, its function as a home for a family, and ultimately to its concealment once more beneath the earth. But Garner doesn’t actually tell the story of the stone as such. He registers its interplay with human agents and notes the meaning that it has at a human level. But he also registers, without comment, the slippage of the stone, the slippage of the house, away from the enclosure of human meaning. It’s receding presence is there, but it slips further and further away from human notice. And there are a number of other of significant objects and forgotten traces that run through the seam of these books in a similar way.

One of the interesting things about this is that these artefacts come into focus to the extent that they are crafted or used in some way by people; they enter into a human narrative and obtain a significance in that respect. It is as though we are able to illuminate only a tiny circle of the world with our awareness and we cannot help but attribute a disproportionate importance to the people and things that pass into this circle. All of this is quite natural and hardly surprising of course. But the achievement of the Stone Book quartet is in depicting the stories of its characters with detailed, unsentimental poignancy whilst at the same time subtly allowing a greater backdrop of forgotten, missed significance to sit quietly just at the edge of the stories’ loci. One imagines that there must have been some temptation for Garner as a writer to signal these elements of the book to a greater extent than he actually does. As mentioned earlier, it is likely that some of these careful touches will be missed by many readers, particularly if the books are only read once. So, in this respect, Garner is acting exactly as his great-great-grandfather, Robert the stone mason, who hid his mason’s mark, “at the back of a stone, or on its bed, where it wouldn’t spoil the facing”[6], and who carved his name into the capstone of the chapel, “though it would never be seen.”[7]

So, to begin to tie these threads together, let us turn again to Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. As noted earlier, our sense of self, of identity, is generated through the way in which we create a sense of time. Our brains retain traces that we call memories, and it is the unique way in which these memories stitch together for each individual that generates the experience of self. Rovelli writes of the scientific quest to understand the physics of time:

“And we begin to see that we are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come. The clearing that is opened up in this way, by memory and by anticipation, is time; a source of anguish sometimes, but in the end a tremendous gift.”[8]

Time seems to be a uniquely human experience and it is generated by nostalgia. What this means for physics and cosmology cannot be touched on in this brief essay but it is enough to note that Rovelli’s ideas offer us a picture of the world whereby people generate a circle of phenomenological meaning outside of which unseen forces operate according to principles we cannot understand. Like the characters in The Stone Book quartet, we generate items of nostalgia and stich them together in a way that makes sense and provokes poignancy for us individually. And this takes place against a backdrop of forces that are beyond our ken. Perhaps, though, we should remember Garner’s emulation of his great-great-grandfather in hiding so many of these traces of poignancy in the books. Perhaps this is the source of his loathing for nostalgia; not so much for the personal stories that nostalgia allows each of us to create for ourselves, but for the immodest display of nostalgia, the imposition of personal meaning onto a broader canvas without due humility.

This is to say that nostalgia is a personal, manageable, engineered system that relies on much greater, incomprehensible forces for its utility. The mechanism of nostalgia then, in this sense, seems to mirror the mechanism of escapement. When young Robert in The Aimer Gate asks his father how the clock mechanism works, his father explains that it all depends on escapement. Weights attached to cables drive the pendulum and the ticking is regulated by a small cogged wheel that stops and starts with the movement of teeth attached to the pendulum. When Robert’s father explains the mechanism, he starts to hint at something of the cosmic vertigo that had crippled Tom in Red Shift:

“You could say as you weren’t winding weights up, you were winding chapel down. It comes to the same. It’s all according, gears and cogs. We’re going at that much of a rattle, the whole blooming earth, moon and stars, we need escapement to hold us together.”[9]

The magnitude and nature of cosmological forces would overwhelm us if we had unfiltered apprehension of them. We need to reduce the world to a manageable portion within which we can create our own story. This is how we create time and this is why we need nostalgia to hold us together.

  1. Front Row, (2018). [Radio programme] Radio 4: BBC.
  2. Hawking, S. (1988). A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. London: Bantam Press.
  3. Garner, A. (1977). Granny Reardun. London: William Collins.
  4. Garner, A. (1978). The Aimer Gate. London: William Collins.
  5. Garner, A. (1977). Tom Fobble’s Day. London: William Collins.
  6. Garner, A. (1976). The Stone Book. London: William Collins.
  7. Garner, The Aimer Gate, op. cit.
  8. Rovelli, C. (2018). The Order of Time. London: Allen Lane.
  9. Garner, The Aimer Gate, op. cit.

Alan Garner – Stone Book Quartet
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time

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