I will wear the green willow

Sometimes I think my childhood was just too innocent.

For instance, it was only a couple of days ago that I was listening to Steeleye Span’s “All around my hat”, a song about a girl staying faithful to her far, far away true love despite the attentions of a much nearer poor, deluded young man. And it contains this line:

“the other night he brought me a fine diamond ring
but he thought to have deprived me of a far better thing”

I looked at that for a while, and thought, crikey, they sung that on Crackerjack.

Then I whiled away a large part of a gloriously sunny afternoon yesterday re-reading Alan Garner’s Elidor. I want to get into the zone of writing children’s fantasy and it’s a classic, though one that left me stranded at about the age of 10. I remembered the gist of it – three brothers and a sister from sixties Manchester have to preserve the four treasures of the land of Elidor from the encroaching darkness. The darkness will only be banished for good when the Song of Findhorn, whatever or whoever that is, is heard.

It could so easily nowadays be derivative fantasy pap, but what makes it is the relationship between the kids, with their simultaneous love and bickering; the depictions of bombed out Manchester matching the desolate, blasted Elidor; and the resolutely respectable middle class Watson family, at a time when families would plan their evening TV viewing together. I remember our TV misbehaving in exactly that way, though probably not for the same reasons.

And then there is the weird stuff as Elidor starts to encroach on the Greater Manchester urban area. Trinkets in Christmas crackers bear a strange resemblance to the treasures. Household appliances start to switch themselves on, energised by the treasures’ energy field (reading it now, I see that Garner brings a very scientific sensibility to his fantasy, which is added points). And two shadows on the wall gradually take on the form of armoured men, the more you look at them, and you can’t help not looking at them …

Meanwhile the sister, Helen, finds a broken pot depicting a unicorn and the legend:

“Save maid that is makeless no man with me mell.”

The kids scratch their heads over what this can mean, and get on with their lives. Then we learn that Findhorn is in fact a unicorn (not much of a surprise in my edition which showed a rearing unicorn on the cover, towering over young Roland). There is a certain minimum qualification for unicorn whispering and Helen has it.

Oh, so that’s what makeless means. Not that Garner spells it out, and I’m betting at the age of 10 I still wasn’t certain. But I do wonder how many 10 year old kids in class demanded to know. “Are you makeless, Miss?”

Next stop, Garner’s The Owl Service, which again left me stranded as a kid because it turned out not to be about a service either run by or providing owls.

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