Nominally a historical fantasy for young adults, Alan Garner's Red Shift is an unconventional and "difficult" book by any standards. Partially inspired by an oblique piece of graffiti (Not really now not anymore) which the author noticed at a railway station, it interweaves three separate narratives taking place in Southern Cheshire over a period of some three thousand years: a motorway and a caravan park in the 1970s, a besieged church during the English Civil War, and finally back to a troop of lost legionaries during the Roman period. A stone axe head persists through each period, providing an explicit link between the stories, while at times the fates of the most troubled and alienated characters seem somehow mystically interwoven. Garner's novel offers us not so much a present haunted by the past, as a sense of time as being somehow synchronous and indivisible, with past, present and future all haunted by the threads which weave the whole together: not really now anymore. It's not a easy read - Garner's books (this one in particular) demand a great deal of creative input from the reader, and his vision is unsentimental and even brutal at times. But Red Shift is the work of a stubborn and uncategorizable craftsman who respects his readers in a way that publishers rarely do, and whose affect has often been compared to that of a long prose poem.
In 1978, Red Shift was adapted by the BBC's Play for Today (the series which produced the incredible Penda's Fen which I blogged about here). The director was John Mackenzie, best known in the general cinema world for 1980's The Long Good Friday, but remembered by connoisseurs of the Public Information Film as the director of that Friday the 13th of farm accident prevention Apaches. It's a noble and largely successful attempt to translate a very difficult and complex book to the screen. Watch it on youtube here.
Hat tip to feuilleton
screen grabs from Alan Garner on the Television at Sparks in Electric Jelly.