Review of ‘Thursbitch’ by Alan Garner

Garner’s novel is a curious affair, and all the better for it. Compact, and spare in its prose, it manages to pack much into the generously-spaced text of its 158 pages. Interweaving two periods and two sets of characters united by a single space – the eponymous Pennine valley of the title – he creates a tale in which the landscape becomes a place of enchantment, possessed of an atmosphere dense enough to hold the imprint of memories of lives and events long since passed.  

It opens with a packman and his train of horses amidst a snowstorm on an open hillside track in 1755, and it was thanks to a short and enigmatic inscription in memory of this John Turner, that Garner’s imagination set to work in crafting this piece of prose. Turner died in that storm, and but for that bare fact and mention of the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow by his side, nothing more concrete is known. Garner’s creative imagining provides the reader with a plausible character and tale behind the name, embedded within a local community linked by his wanderings to the outside world, but resolutely insular, and minded to observe its own customs and ways. Pagan echoes resound about the valley of Thursbitch, its eighteenth-century inhabitants thinking nothing of their mushroom-induced hallucinogenic rites, which with its sacrificial climax brings to mind the imagery of Mithras slaying the bull. They speak in dialect, faithfully rendered and richly textured, that some readers may not find to their taste. To my mind, however, it lends the tale an authenticity that it would otherwise lack.  

The lives of these characters somehow intersect with those of an academic with a penchant for geology, and her friend, a Catholic priest, who live on the cusp of the twenty-first century. They too are enamoured with Thursbitch, but they are transitory visitors, rather than residents, who tread its paths for leisure rather than trade. A vessel fashioned from Blue John, that tumbles from above and through time, brings their worlds into contact, and fleeting glimpses suggest that the span of the years has been bridged on more than one occasion.  

It is a tale of love and death, and the nature of time, place, and enchantment. The lives of both ‘couples’ is ultimately marred by loss, but Thursbitch, and their attachment to it, remains, seemingly, outside of time itself. An enchanting read.

Twelfth Night Old and New

Today we find ourselves enter the last day of Christmastide, traditionally marked by Twelfth Night celebrations that have in recent years dwindled to near extinction. Whereas it once served as a highlight of the festive celebratory calendar, a night of feasting and revelry, it is now little more than a footnote, with only the tradition of wassailing keeping its name alive in some parts of the country. Even so, although the wassail itself has undergone something of a modest revival in recent decades, it remains strongest in its West Country heartland where it frequently takes place on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on 17 January. If you should happen to be wondering why there is such a marked divergence in dates, this is all down to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in Britain which took place in September 1752, which caused an instant ‘leap forward’ in time from Wednesday 2 September to Thursday 14 September, bringing the calendar back into line with the Earth’s annual progress around the Sun. Somehow, this seemed neither right nor proper to a number of rustic celebrants, so they continued to mark Old Twelfth Night long after the reform. 

The wassail ostensibly takes place with a view to propitiating the spirit of the orchard by singing and drinking to the health of the trees, but as this bare outline of this practice illustrates, it is rather more likely that it is the participants who derive any enjoyment and benefit from its conduct (providing that they don’t overdo it on the cider of course). Perhaps it is because of this focus upon the future and the fruit of the year to come that Twelfth Night, unlike the immediate lead-up to Christmas, is not traditionally associated with ghost stories in Britain; it is focused not upon death, but rebirth. Moreover, the days are now beginning to perceptibly lengthen, and the inward focus of Christmas itself, which generally centres upon the family and stirs memories of those no longer with us with whom we celebrated Christmases past, is gone, as we turn once again to the wider world of work and society.  

Such a focus would, therefore, seem to be uncongenial to the ghost story, although I do know of one that specifically focuses upon Twelfth Night. It opens with a disorientating scene amidst a Somerset apple orchard on Old Twelfth Night shortly after the local menfolk have returned from the trenches, and despite the ritual’s traditional future focus, its reinstitution has been undertaken with a view to restoring a past order that has been permanently ruptured by the Great War. This is but one aspect of the collision between encroaching modernity and tradition dealt with in the story, in which the former unleashes darker and older forces. There is, however, also a marked humorous streak to this tale.  

Returning to the present, the picture of the tree seen at the beginning of this post was taken recently in Cotehele’s Old Orchard in Cornwall, which can be found next to its ‘Mother Orchard’ planted in 2007 to preserve and propagate traditional varieties of West Country apple. A noble undertaking, so let us raise a cup to the endeavours of Mary Martin and James Evans, the apple specialists who conceived this noble undertaking. Wassail!