Monday 6 September 2021

Owls or Flowers? Re-reading The Owl Service by Paul May

It was 1967—The Summer of Love—but for me it was The Summer of Selling Doughnuts and Pies from door to door on the Norfolk coast, and in the evenings working in a burger van in various car-parks in Norwich. I can still smell the onions.  During the day, when we weren't working, me and my cousin would hang out in a small amusement arcade in Wroxham listening to All You Need is Love and Baby You're a Rich Man on the jukebox while we played the pinball machines. Our other main pastime was sitting beside Wroxham bridge where we watched over-confident men in yachting caps attempting to show off their boat-handling skills to their admiring families. They steered their newly-rented holiday boats through the narrow arch of the bridge—or into it. Crashes were frequent and often spectacular. Occasionally the entire superstructure was ripped off as a boat collided with the bridge at speed. It was never-ending free entertainment but it's sadly no longer available. You have to hire a pilot to take you through these days.

The Owl Service is a book about love, so I suppose it's appropriate that it was published that same year, although it's mostly about love gone wrong. And it's about flowers, too. Just the thing for a year when we were encouraged to wear flowers in our hair. But look what happens—you make a girl out of flowers for your son to marry and she goes and falls in love with another man, so the other man kills your son (except he doesn't die but turns into an eagle), and you turn the girl into an owl as punishment, then you turn your son back into a man and he kills the girl's lover. The flowers turn into owls, and they're not nice owls, either. They're hunters and killers.

In 1968 I was back in Wroxham, staying with my cousin again as I did most summer holidays. This summer we were making jewellery out of brass and copper, huge bangles that we sold to the new-fangled boutiques in Norwich—that was my cousin putting his metalwork lessons to good use. And I have the most vivid recollection of sitting in his front room watching the black-and-white TV showing Russian tanks rolling into Prague. The Summer of Love had been followed by The Prague Spring as the new Czech leader Alexander Dubcek introduced liberal reforms, but on August 20th 1968 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia, and they did it live on TV, or it felt live even if it wasn't. It was all flowers to start with but it ended up as owls.

I probably didn't read The Owl Service in 1967, but I certainly knew of it, another significant happening in that year of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the world's first live satellite broadcast of All You Need is Love. I watched that with my parents and my sisters to the accompaniment of my father's sneering at the 'banality' of the lyrics and the music. More owls and flowers. This was known as 'the generation gap.' I was fourteen, and the brief window of time when I read children's books had already partially closed. I had moved on to thrillers, science fiction and Thomas Hardy.

My dad didn't think much of 
Magical Mystery Tour either!

I can't remember exactly when I first read The Owl Service, but I can remember how I felt about it. It was a gripping, terrifying read. I felt for Gwyn, the Welsh boy with a chip on his shoulder, struggling to better himself and leave his origins behind him, and I disliked Roger, son of a wealthy father deserted by his wife who has just remarried  and whose recently widowed wife has a daughter, Alison. It's to Alison that the holiday home in a remote Welsh valley technically belongs, and the newly-married couple and their children are there together as a family for the first time as a kind of bonding exercise. I understood all this when I first read the book. I got that Gwyn was the son of the housekeeper (and, as it turns out, of Huw the gardener) and I understood that Gwyn and Alison were attracted to each other and that, when she found out, Alison's mother forbade her to have anything more to do with him. I understood that the characters were all trapped in the oppressive summer heat, and that a crisis was brewing, but as for the stuff about owls and flowers, well, I simply accepted what was written and didn't try to figure out what was going on.

I still think that this is the best way to approach the book, to let the imagery and the mythic element operate on a subconscious level and not to try to work out precise correspondences between the modern-day characters and their equivalents in the story from the Mabinogion. In this claustrophobic Welsh valley groups of people are compelled with every generation to repeat the mistakes of the past. Neil Philip, in A Fine Anger, says this:

That the contemporary story should be played out against the backdrop of the sour ruins of the previous generation's tragedy, and under that generation's jealously watchful eye, adds an emotional resonance which transforms the story from a simple tale of adolescent passion to a penetrating comment on the human predicament.

The Owl Service asks the question that we all ask from time to time: How can people treat each other so badly? And why do they do it? The wounds that the young people inflict on each other here are bitter and painful. Words will never hurt me, we used to chant as children when words had actually hurt us. It never worked. And even though one character seems at the end to break the cycle of violence and hate—to let Alison be flowers and not owls—we are still left with the uneasy possibility, or more likely the probability, that events will repeat themselves in another generation with a less good outcome.

This illustration by Joan Kiddell-Monroe from 
Welsh Folk Tales and Legends shows Lleu Llaw Gyffes as an eagle,
 his father, and the sow that eats the bones he drops from his perch.
They have something to do with The Owl Service. If you want to know
 what exactly I refer you to Neil Philip's book, or to
The Owl Service itself.

The prevailing mood of The Owl Service is dark. There are moments when there seems to be a possibility of freedom, as when Gwyn and Alison climb out of the valley together and discuss what's happening to them. But then, as their conversation suddenly becomes freer and more natural, they both reveal confidences which later form the basis of betrayal and wounding. I find it hard to see it as an optimistic book, despite the release of tension at the end, and I suspect it's this darkness, and elements of the book's subject matter that led to critics making some curious remarks about it. 

For the third edition of Chosen For Children, the Library Association's account of the Carnegie, Alec Ellis took over from Marcus Crouch as editor, and The Owl Service was the first book he wrote about. I think it's reasonable to assume that Ellis represents the views of the Association. He describes the plot in a factual and superficial manner and succeeds in being both patronising and dull: 'The characterisation in the book is good, both of major and minor characters, as might of course be expected from an author of Alan Garner's calibre. He deals sensitively with the delicate relationship between the affluent, middle class English children and the Welsh boy . . . '

I never for one moment thought of the characters in this book as 'children' and I never think of the characters I write about as children. There's something jarring in the way Ellis says this. It made me think of those tweed-jacketed journalists you see in newsreels from the 1960s, interviewing the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan or the Beatles and asking ludicrous questions—Why must you have such untidy hair? That kind of thing. Some reviewers talk about 'the generation gap' in the context of The Owl Service, but I don't see it. The generations here repeat the mistakes of their elders, and where we see Gwyn pushing against his mum's limited vision for his life we see someone trying to 'better himself' in a very traditional way. There's no rebellion from Roger and Alison. This is not long-haired free-loving, drug-taking non-conformism against the bowler-hatted uptight establishment. You would never guess that the Beatles and Bob Dylan even existed. Not until Tom puts on his headphones to listen to music in Red Shift in 1973 do Garner's characters seem to have a real connection to the contemporary world. It's in reviews like Alec Ellis's that the real generation gap is revealed. Here's how he ends his summary: 'Some critics would consider The Owl Service to be not as outstanding a book as the earlier Elidor, but nevertheless  it was still the best to be published in 1967 and is perhaps better than the selections of some other years.' 

Did he like it? I think not.

Also puzzling was a review by Philippa Pearce (in Children's Book News, July/August 1967), who was clearly in two minds about the book:

... the narrative power of the book may be the undoing of the susceptible reader, hurrying him in headlong excitement towards a total of mental confusion. It isn't up to the author to explain everything of course, but he should make plain. In Elidor there are plenty of inexplicables, but this happens; in The Owl Service, on the whole, it does not.

...there is a masterly appreciation of class idioms and snobberies, and an awareness of their deadly potentiality as weapons. Not the happiest of subjects for young readers, some may say. Others will be almost certain to add that even unhappier is the choice of illegitimacy and adultery, jealousy and revenge as recurring themes in the story.

My repeated objection, however, is not that young readers (and adults too, for that matter) may understand too much, but that they are likely to understand too little.

This comment about 'making plain' seems strange to me, (though I'm not convinced that Elidor is made any plainer by its author than The Owl Service), and I believe, though I can't find the reference, that Philippa Pearce later revised this opinion. Writing in 2003 about Red Shift, Victor Watson (in his introduction to Coming of Age in Children's Literature) sees this refusal to 'make plain' as a strength, and I agree with him. He sees Garner as 'engaged in seeking new ways of representing the effects on maturing young people of the fragmented complexities and conflicts of the post-modern world.'  He says that, in The Owl Service, 'Garner had made no concessions for young readers. He seemed to be working towards a narrative manner which - in William Blake's phrase - 'rouses the faculties to act', providing no authorial explanations and frustrating the traditional expectation that the narrator's voice should provide constant reassurance.' 

What is most modern about The Owl Service is not simply its subject matter, but just this refusal to 'make plain'. You can read it as a novel of suspense and the supernatural—or, as Alan Garner once described it, as 'a kind of ghost story'—but you are always aware of the mysterious complexity below the surface. It's useful though that Philippa Pearce pinpoints those themes that might also suggest a change in direction in 'children's books', and an opening up of new possibilities. Except that it wasn't really a change of direction, or at least not in the world of the Carnegie. The following year, 1968, the Carnegie judges selected The Moon in the Cloud by Rosemary Harris, and you can feel how much more comfortable they were with this when you read Alec Ellis's concluding remarks on that book. 'The Moon in the Cloud is a book which repays more than one reading, for with each fresh insight may be gained and hidden delights discovered.'

More of those delights (and they are genuine delights) next month as the Carnegie moves as far as possible from any contemporary relevance with a book set in ancient Egypt.

A Fine Anger by Neil Philip is an invaluable and erudite companion to Alan Garner's work up to and including The Stone Book Quartet. It's out of print but, as with most books these days, easily found second-hand.

The Carnegie Medal was not awarded in 1966 as no book was considered 'suitable'.

Paul May's website is here.

1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

I've never read The Owl Service. Indeed, this is the first I've heard of it.
Nor can I recall much of what, at 15, I did read in 1967. I do remember 'All You Need Is Love' being played to death on every radio station available to me at the time.., Radio Caroline, Radio Scotland, the BBC.  Great message, but a tedious dirge of a song.

The real 1967 classic for me has always been Scott Mackenzie's  'San Francisco..'.

On the ground, in the Rhinns of Galloway, the nearest connection to life outside that I recollect, was in 1968, whenThe Troggs performed at the Kinema, the dance hall cum cinema in Stranraer.

That 1968 summer, lifting potatoes in the hills above Loch Ryan. Hard, back grinding, work, under a hot sun, with no mechanicalaids other than a tractor with an attachment which did a basic turning over of the rows of potatoes. Followed, later, by a couple of weeks as a holiday standin at the local Coop creamery. Curds, whey, hot wax sealing of large blocks of Galloway Cheddar. Blessed may be the cheesemakers, but I was quite definite in my mind that rural labouring, and factory work was not for me.

Later in '68.., playing brag in the evenings at the church manse with Paul, the minister's son, and a couple of other friends. 
To the sound of Peter Sarstedt, and 'Where Do You Go To... ', on repeat on the record player.