Making Time

Red Shift
(BFI DVD, 2014)

Alan Garner's novel Red Shift has been part of my life for almost forty years now, ever since I picked up a copy of the Lion paperback with its mysterious tower on the front back in the 70s. I gave that actual copy away to a girlfriend, but have a replacement copy of the same edition, as well as first edition UK and USA hardbacks, and the more recent New York Review of Books Classic edition. Alongside my reading and rereading I've interviewed Alan Garner at his house, attended his talk 'The Edge of the Ceiling' which Crewe & Alsager College hosted whilst I was studying for my degree, been shown how to crack the code in the endpapers, got hold of an unofficial timecoded copy of the TV play that was made of the book, and for the last few years used the book as a set text for my first year students at Falmouth University. More recently, I've visited the Bodleian Library and been allowed to hold and read the original draft manuscript and other documents, and with the help of one of our university librarians (thanks Malcolm) finally tracked down a library copy of one of ten 'Datapack Biographies' folders that was only ever published in a pilot/proof edition. Through the inter-library loan system I now have a PDF of said datapack, which is full of interesting manuscript excerpts, notes, Garner's research material and autobiographical fragments, as well  as photos and poems.

Now, apparently on the back of an interest in 1970s science fiction, children's TV and the wyrd-folk movement (which seems to link folklore, horror, psychogeography and the occult), not to  mention the success of the DVD reissue of Garner's The Owl Service
TV series, the BFI have seen fit to issue Red Shift. How fantastic to have an official, cleaned up digital copy, which I can use in a student lecture in a few weeks.

Red Shift
has three stories in it: Tom & Jan in the 20th century, lovers in Cheshire who are separated when Jan goes to study in London but meet up in Crewe and the surrounding  countryside every few weeks; two Thomases and Madge in the Cheshire village of Barthomley during the civil war; and Macey and his mates, deserters from the Roman army's Ninth Legion, hiding out on Mow Cop, a ridge of millstone grit. The stories jump from one to another without  much warning, all sharing Cheshire locations, each featuring some kind of love story and broken relationship, as well as a stone axe which gradually moves in time from sacred weapon to good luck charm to museum artefact.

That doesn't start to explain the webs of association, the subtext of ideas such as sanctuary, place, love, boundaries, relationships, home, time and history, which are still revealing themselves to me on what must be the thirtieth or so reading. There is also a large amount of implied sexuality and violence, both personal and social: rape, murder, adultery and abuse are all present in the book, though often missed by first-time readers. Garner discusses his concept of violence in the informative 'experimental autobiographical documentary', One Pair of Eyes: Alan Garner - All Systems Go
, which is one of the extras on this DVD. (The others are a brief interview with an assistant director and film editor, and an appallingly lightweight, twee travelogue, The Spirit of Cheshire, which seems totally misplaced here.)

How does a TV version start to deal with this kind of complexity? Visually, barring some rather primitive production values including rather am-dram costumes and a laugh-aloud drug-induced suicide jump, the jump cuts work well, especially the first time we move from Tom in a caravan pushing his hands through a window, the shards becoming falling spears. The visual element helps viewers quickly establish which time zone, which story, they are now in; something the book, which often relies on unattributed speech, does not do so clearly. In the Alan Garner papers in the Bodleian there is an undated letter from Garner to his friend Peter Plummer, a TV director, about how the stories work together on the page and will work for TV:

   All three stories interweave in a non-linear pattern, which
   sounds intimidating,but will come out as a simple, visual kick
   in the crutch. It is above all, a story of three experiences; if
   they say anything didactic it will be a constructional error.

The film, like the book, certainly says nothing didactic; like the book it leaves things unsaid and implied between characters and time zones, but it does offer the viewer geographical realities, since it appears to be filmed at the Cheshire locations from the book. The church in Barthomley, where you can see Civil War shot marks in the wall; the folly on Mow Cop and the quarry behind where millstones were cut out of the rock; Crewe station; even Jodrell Bank across the tracks from Garner's house, are all visitable and real. All this helps anchor the stories for the viewer, allowing them to concentrate on the dialogue and interaction between characters, the tensions  and violence which punctuate the stories. It doesn't, however explain the themes any more than the book does; and I was slightly startled to read in Garner's same letter mentioned earlier that 'An intelligent viewer should have a growing idea of what we're  doing, but in the final episode it becomes clear to the dumbest that the reality is Macey's visions. We, history and the TV set are being dreamt along with the story.'

That had never occurred to me, and in the critical and review material available (much of which is neatly linked to and gathered together on The Unofficial Alan Garner Website) it does not appear to have occurred to anyone else either. What has occurred to many is the title signifying things (in this case, people) moving apart, and a sense of what Garner (again, in his archived letter) calls 'time-awareness', something flagged up not only  by the title but by the use of the star Orion as a communications device, a fossil in the wall of Jan's house, not to mention the axe, or (in the book) the way the same scene is repeated, in a kind of narrative and temporal stutter.

The ending of both book and film folds the three narrative strands together. In the book text from each time zone appears on the same page as the story collapses towards the last line; in  the film, everything blurs into stripes of colour as a train moves out of the station, although it is clearly more than this. In fact the blurring more than ever allows for confusion and intuition: there is no visual or narrative resolution to the film, it simply ends.

Despite failing relationships, hurt and argument, murder and violence, Garner suggests to Plummer that the film is 'positive, optimistic - two out of three [couples] come out OK. If there's  a Tom o'Bedlam in the modern version, perhaps it's because we deny whatever the axe is'. This suggests that the axe has lost a very real power, because we do not believe in it, not because such things can or do not exist in contemporary society. Garner's fiction  and non-fiction writing, his interest in archaeology, geography and history, along with the formation of The Blackden Trust, and edited collections of folk tales, suggest that he believes myth and local/family history to be potent, stories that can inform and underpin us today, if we allow them to. We can prattle on all we like about postmodernity and the loss of metanarratives, but Red Shift
shows us just how locality and place are as much part of our stories as our relationships and sense of self. Red Shift shows us the same story happening again and again, gets to grips with the essence of what it is to be human, the struggle to love and be loved, the struggle to find or make ourselves at home in a universe that is constantly expanding and changing.

     Rupert Loydell 2014