Alan Garner is sitting in a high-backed leather porter’s chair right inside the hearth enclosure of an immense fireplace, with a chimney stack stretching up 27ft and a very strange-looking firepit.
I duck under a beam to join him. He adds a log to the fire and says: ‘This firepit is made from a disused steam engine we found in an old lead mine and the rear brake-drum of a Model T Ford lorry.’ The flames give a crackling warmth and smoke swirls up the vast chimney, down which whooshes, periodically, the thunder of a passing train. I recognise this as the sound of ‘Noony’ from Garner’s most recent novel, Treacle Walker. I perch on a low beam and Garner tells me that this is where his protagonist Joe Coppock sits. ‘The chimney wrote Treacle Walker, I didn’t,’ says Garner.
When Treacle Walker was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Garner became the oldest author ever to make the list. He’ll be 90 this year and his writing career spans 67 years. His books, which engage with local landscape and folklore, have earned him a place in the line of great British fantasy writers between J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman. Some, like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service, are ostensibly for children; others, like Red Shift, Boneland and Treacle Walker, are decidedly not.
When Joseph Coppock sits in my low fireside seat, the mysterious character Treacle Walker sits across from him, leans his head back and looks up the stack, describing the chimney as: ‘Axis mundi… the heart of all that is. The sky turns on it. It is the way between.’ Garner and I discuss the chimney being a ‘way between’, and we soon come on to what the writer terms ‘liminality’ in his work.