There is a tension in Garner’s work between the intuitive consciousness, sensitive to time, place and feeling, and the rational, empirically ordered mindset, which seeks to make sense of the world and its existence within it through intensive learning and the application of rigorous intellectual analysis. The former is open to the forces inherent in the environment it inhabits and to any connection which might be forged with them. As such, it is both vulnerable to harm and capable of attaining a heightened state of awareness, an elevated perspective such as that gained from the top of Mow Cop, Bartholmey Church or the mountain at the head of the valley in The Owl Service. Those inclining towards the latter mindset are to an extent locked inside their own heads, monadic presences within a landscape they can only regard with a remote vision. This is particularly the case with Garner’s autodidactic working class intellectuals, who lack the ready peer group with whom they could exchange ideas and work towards a consensus viewpoint.
Peter keeps a rational record - The KeeperIt is an opposition between the mythological and the mechanical worldview, the ancient and modern, the timeless now and the fixed progression of present moments dying into the past to give birth to the future. In Red Shift, Tom surrounds himself with his books and charts in his cell-like bedroom space within the larger cell of the caravan. The map of the night sky constellations on the wall above him opens out onto wider, near infinite spaces which expand within his feverishly enquiring mind, leaving red shift traces in their wake. He can recount the histories attached to the landscapes he travels through with Jan without necessarily sensing their spirit, the layers of time and emotion which have accreted on their surfaces. John Fowler in the Barholmey of the Civil War period is also someone with great intelligence and learning – he is a batchelor of arts = who is out of touch with his environment and with the people living in it. The same could be said of the ‘civilised’ Romans deep in the heart of territory they consider primitive and barbaric. In The Keeper, Peter sets up his scientific equipment in the haunted cottage in an attempt to gain the measure of manifestations of a spirit for which he has no natural feeling. Evan after it has made itself very much apparent, he still desperately scrabbles around trying to get a record of it, to fix it and reduce it to readily quantifiable form. Gwyn in The Owl Service has his books too. He lends his copy of The Mabinogion to Alison, infecting her with the power of the story, the virus carried by the age old language translated into a modern idiom. He evidently values his education very highly, since his mother, Nancy, uses the threat of its withdrawal as the ultimate sanction to keep him in line. When she makes good on that threat, he attempts to run away, to pull free from the delimiting gravity of the valley. Learning is precious to him, and not something he is able to take for granted. The elocution records which he tells Alison about are another way to escape his environment, to transform himself by altering the nature of his language. This is his version of the transformations undergone by the characters in the Mabinogion story which he is fated to re-enact. Words and their usage have power.
Learning and education is a curse as much as a blessing for these characters. It expands their mental horizons, but makes them all the more aware of their immediate physical ones, and increasingly disconnected from their surroundings. It shows them how vast the world is, and the universe beyond, how deep the gulf of time, and then leaves them unanchored, adrift. By thinking themselves beyond locality and place, consciously cutting themselves off from ancestral territory, they come to realise the value of what they lost. To regain what was once an instinctive knowledge requires a studied effort, a process of relearning and connecting. They will always remain essentially outsiders, however, even if they do return. The divide has been established and can never be adequately bridged again.
John Fowler watches Thomas Rowley watching, seeing things he'll never see - Red ShiftThe intellectuals in Garner’s stories, who may very well be refractions of his own persona, splintered autobiographical shadows, are contrasted and often paired with visionaries. These are characters who are sensitive to the continuum of time, place and emotion. In Red Shift, Thomas Rowley gazes out to Mow Cop with a far away look in his eye. He seems to see across expanses of time as well as space, picking up the echoes of his temporal twins (his fellow Toms) in the past and future at this resonant place. It’s the site where he and Madge will settle in their cottage, so his rapt focus on this spot suggests some kind of predestined outcome to which he is vaguely attuned. John Fowler, the educated intellectual of the village, recognises Thomas Rowley’s visionary insight, and is also aware that it is something which he wholly lacks. He ascribes religious significance to it, which suggests that he has a yearning for the spiritual and wishes to learn from Thomas; to gain knowledge of something which his intellect is unable to encompass. ‘That man sees God’, he states before Madge Thomas, recognising an unmediated awareness of an immanent presence in the world which is occluded from his analytical, bookish mind. ‘He already knows more than I could learn’ he confesses at another point. Madge refuses to acknowledge any divine connection, perhaps realising that John’s desire to tune into any such communication might prove harmful to her husband.
Gwyn in The Owl Service is highly intelligent and learned in the lore of the land. But it is a distanced learning, an attempt to understand the place of his origin from which he has become disconnected. Alison’s empathetic connection with the human elements of the Mabinogion tale are what brings it to alarming life. There is a difference between an abstracted, analytical reading and one which fully absorbs the feelings and universal meanings the words are trying to convey. Such a reading translates thought and emotion and opens a direct conduit to the writer and to the time and place in which they lived. Those emotions then bleed into the present via the sensitive reader. For Gwyn, however, they remain no more than dead ideas and symbols to be picked apart for historical and cultural insight; inert stories safely locked into a distant past which has no relevance to the modern world. It’s a past which betokens primitivism and an inability to adapt and change (this despite the transformations which abound in the Mabinogion).
Logan programming Macey for blue-silver rampage - Red ShiftIn Red Shift there is a similar distinction between the ‘civilised’ Romans and the ‘barbaric’ natives. The Romans are characterised by their adherence to ideas of discipline and a rational ordering of the world; an understanding which allows them to exert control over it. Macey, the Romanised Celt, is the mystic in their midst. His visionary powers are controlled and exploited for their own ends. Logan, as the legionary commander, uses him to gain insight into the tribal mindset. He also draws from his subconscious wells of rage to transform him into a berserker, a rampaging human weapon which can be switched on and sent charging into the melee. The exploitation of the visionary, the attempt of male characters to induce and then control the possessed state is also seen in John Fowler’s interrogative probing of Thomas Rowley. It is also evident in The Owl Service. Alison’s possession seems to greatly please Huw, as if it fulfils the great plan he is constantly making portentous allusions to (‘she is come’). When Sally finally ‘sees’ the invisible watcher in The Keeper and goes into a trance state in which she divines its nature and purpose, Peter’s reaction is to frantically question her, trying to glean as much information as possible whilst its retains its hold. He is still trying to maintain a rational approach towards the ineffable, to translate visionary insight into recorded observations which can be empirically analysed at a later date.
Shattering the barrier of time - Red ShiftIn Red Shift, Logan prompts Macey’s possessions, his berserking fits, with trigger words. He controls him through tapping into his anger, the unstable lava flow of rage bubbling beneath the surface. Language is the key (language and colour). Logan tells him ‘get your big words’, and talks about the blue and silver. Thomas Rowley is a man of few words, and his wife Madge warns John Fowler not to infect him with his learning – the virus of language and the abstract ideas it conveys. For these visionaries, language clouds mental clarity and allows for manipulation and control. For Tom, in the present day, the blockage of his linguistic flow, the brilliant but often facile oupouring of words, in a moment of intense emotion leads him to press his hands against the caravan window until it shatters. It’s this instant of red, inarticulate rage which communicates down the years to the Toms of the past, the emotion of place overcoming the barriers of time. The localised storms towards the end of The Owl Service and The Keeper are also blown in on emotional weather fronts.
Counter-possession - Logan's phantom charge in Red ShiftThe attempt to control those possessed by visions, to treat them as if they were puppets, has its inherent dangers. Logan is poisoned by the corn goddess and in his delirious state is commanded by a tearful Macey. When he is ordered to ‘charge’ he does so, and leaps straight over the edge of the sheer rock face. It’s a symbolic killing of the father, a rejection of male power and influence in favour of female wisdom; a pre-Roman notion of the sacred. Similarly, Thomas Rowley turns from the command of John Fowler, with whom he has a fight on the roof of the church tower, and ends up cradled in the arms of Madge. Both Macey and Thomas are wounded or damaged visionaries. Logan tells Macey ‘you’re finished’ shortly before his own end. But they find salvation and healing through female power, persistence and wisdom.
Confronting the controlling mother - Red ShiftIn the modern day, the pattern is reversed however. Tom is tormented by the prurience and oppressive control of his mother. His father is in her thrall, weakly acting as her mouthpiece. In The Owl Service too, Gwyn is controlled by his monstrous mother, Nancy. We never see Margaret, the mother of Alison and step-mother of Roger, but her influence is felt throughout, her off-stage power evident. Clive is another weak father, intent on appeasing Margaret and acting as her ambassador. This is particularly the case with Roger, his son, who rejects his new mother and is deeply unhappy with the promiscuous nature implied by her nickname, the Birmingham Belle. If the historical periods in Red Shift saw a turning away from the father, the modern day is characterised by an attempt to gain freedom from maternal influence.
Alison at home and at ease in The Owl ServiceClass plays its corrosive part, too. The relationship between Gwyn, Roger and Alison is further complicated by their respective social status. Gwyn is effectively a servant in the house, and his subservient position makes him vulnerable. It is easy for the others to assert their superiority over him. This is explicitly voiced in the novel when Roger calmly explains to Alison, as if this observation were a given, ‘he’s not one of us, and he never will be. He’s a yob. An intelligent yob. That’s all there is to it’. And the barriers come down. In the TV adaptation, this is implicit in the way they both completely ignore him as they pass him crying on the stairs. When it is convenient, he simply becomes invisible.
Nancy remembers her moment of triumph - The Owl ServiceThe house belongs to Alison, who inherited it from her father. She’s from an upper class lineage, although her mother’s soubiquet ‘the Birmingham Belle’ suggests that she originates from a lower class. Indeed, the jibe may be so much viciousness directed at someone who married ‘above her class’ and is assumed to have used her wiles to gain social advancement. In this respect, there is a connection between her and Nancy. We learn that Nancy’s former lover Bertram was a previous owner of the house, but that ‘they’ arranged for him to be killed in a motorcycle accident. She has a feeling of being denied what was, in her mind, rightfully hers; the home which she might have come to live in as her own, as the lady of the house rather than as a domestic housekeeper. She takes delight in manufacturing a situation in which Clive is made to feel socially awkward, ‘making him look a fool’ by giving him the wrong utensil to eat a pear. It’s a twisted act of inverse snobbery which makes it clear that she believes her rightful position is sitting at the table, not serving it.
Furious Nancy - The Owl ServiceNancy is highly sensitive about her status, even (or perhaps especially) with her son. His precocious intelligence and progress at school strike her as a sign that he’s getting above his station. The education which might enable to break free from the limitations of his environment is seen by her as a betrayal, a rejection of his upbringing, his class and ultimately of her. ‘I’ll not be looked down by you’ she snaps when he gets too smart, and threatens to take him out of school so that he’ll have to work behind the local Co-op counter (another touch of inverse snobbery on her part). Gwyn is also deeply self-conscious about his social status. His ambition to be a scholar are connected with his desire to break free from his background. He associates the world he wishes to become a part of with middle class diction, and has therefore acquired a set of elocution records for himself. They’re a symbol of his sense of inferiority on both a personal and national level. The idea of making anything of himself whilst burdened with a working class Welsh accent seems simply impossible to him. Whe his ownership of the records is discovered by Roger, they become a means of ridiculing his pretensions to become someone other than who he is, to break through the barriers of class and race.
Where Gwyn’s mother threatens him with removal from school and a premature curtailment of his dreams of escaping through native intelligence, Alison’s mother controls her by threatening to suspend her membership of the tennis club and choir; privileges of class which are viewed as essential to belonging and maintaining her place amongst her social peers. She is compliant in the face of this potential disruption to the smoothly ordered surface of her life. It is this, in addition to the betrayal of his confidence regarding the elocution records, which makes Gwyn realise the gulf which lies between them, and the wholly provisional nature of any intimacy they might have shared.
In Red Shift, Tom is the son of working class parents, his father an army man in the lower ranks. Jan is the daughter of middle class parents, teachers of some sort, whom we never see. But we learn that they regularly have to move due to the nature of their work. Tom’s father has pretensions to middle class values, to ‘sophisticated’ tastes. He displays them in his ostentatiously expressed appreciation of wine. Jan offhandedly trumps him on this score by instantly identifying his mystery Moselle. It turns out she has spent a holiday on a German vineyard. When Tom learns that she has slept with the vineyard owner, it feels like a double betrayal. The older man, whom he sees with Jan in Euston station, has the easeful charm and seigneurial suavity which wealth and the stability of the privileged upbringing breed. To make things worse, Jan seems to have dressed up to meet him. He’s out of his class, and in his mind, there’s nothing he can do to compete.
John Fowler directsIn the Civil War period, John Fowler is at a remove from the villagers. He is the son of the pastor, and has also been raised up by his learning and academic qualification. When we first see him, he rides towards the church on a handsome white steed whilst others trudge along on foot, bent beneath the burden of their belongings. He takes on the direction of their defences with a natural assumption of power connected to his position in the village. In the Roman time, the class divisions are also national, as they are to an extent in The Owl Service. Romans over Romanised Celts and tribe against tribe. In the Civil War period, the villagers in Bartholmey are besieged by Irish Royalists. The massacre which follows is a slaughter made easier by the dehumanising us and them divisions hardened by national difference. In The Owl Service, the local Welsh villagers seem to act with a gestalt mind to prevent Gwyn and his mother from leaving the valley.
The origins of class are found in the initial period of invasion and occupation, and the divisions of land which ensue. Macey is adopted by Logan, but is seen as little more than a pet (a ‘boy’). He is kept as long as proves useful. But when it becomes clear that he will no longer function as a killing machine, Logan tells him that he’s finished. The tribal soldier, the village peasant or the modern servant is not granted individuality, but is seen only in terms of their functionality. Macey keeps saying that the killing is ‘not from me’ and that ‘I’m outside when Macey kills’. But this murderous possession is the only aspect of his self which is of interest to Logan and the Legion, the part which makes him a useful shock trooper, the wild joker in the ranks. There is a sense of depersonalisation at this level of society, a dull awareness that your feelings, your desires, your notion of your self are as nothing in the face of social, historical and even cosmic forces. Tom feels this helplessness when he learns of Jan’s brief holiday affair. Their relationship is subject to external forces, and a wealthy landowning aristocrat can take her away from him merely be showing due consideration and kindness. The rage which connects him to the forgotten footsoldiers and peasants of the past is the violence of emotional dispossession, the pain caused by the dislocation of self.
Delta Orionis as a constant body to orient by - Red ShiftColour plays an important symbolic role in Red Shift and The Owl Service. We have already seen how Roger, Gwyn and Alison have their own colour motifs which correspond to the old wiring of a plug. In Red Shift, the polarity between blue and red, the colours at the opposite ends of the spectrum, is central. Red is the colour of blood, rage, violence and a martial outlook. It’s also the colour of passion, particularly when it has gone nova and tipped the balance of reason. Blue is the colour of calm, reflection, coolness and tranquillity. It’s also the colour most frequently associated with spirituality, depth and eternity, the colour of the heavens. Red is a correspondingly physical, material colour, shading into earth tones. The Virgin Mary’s mantle is usually represented as blue, painted with sumptuous and expensive lapis lazuli pigments in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is the mantle of the sky, sometimes jewelled with stars; a befitting garment for a sky goddess. Stella Maris, star of the sea, is one of many manes given to the Virgin, a guide and protector for mariners in the night sky. Tom chooses a star to orient himself and Jan whilst they are apart. A distant, constant body (from their perspective) to unite them at a particular temporal instant. Perhaps significantly, he picks Delta Orionis, one of the stars in the belt of the martial male constellation of Orion the Hunter. He uses its dryly scientific designation rather than calling it by its Arabic name of Mintaka.
As a heavenly colour, blue can vary between shades of light and dark – from morning translucence to midnight opacity. Its moods shift accordingly, and remind us that blue is a colour also associated with depression and despondency (the blues, in a blue funk). It serves as an expression of Macey’s confusion and despair, a chromatic representation of the fragmentation of his personality. The blue-silver of Macey’s colour visions and the blue and white light of Thomas’ fugues clarifies the tone, bringing it into focus and placing it at the lighter end of the spectrum. Blue-silver is also suggestive of an alloy, a modern metallic shade. Having attained a state of calm equilibrium (the tranquil blue), Macey tells the corn goddess that he’ll continue to ‘watch blue silvers’ because ‘it might matter some day’. A cut to the modern day reveals an inter-city train with its blue and silvery white livery.
Kandinsky - Blue(1927)The artist Wassily Kandinsky elucidated his own feelings about the symbolic associations contained within shades of blue in his 1912 work On the Spiritual in Art. ‘Blue is the typical heavenly colour’, he wrote. Blue unfolds in its lowest depths the element of tranquillity. As it deepens towards black, it assumes overtones of a superhuman sorrow. It becomes like an infinite self-absorption into that profound state of seriousness which has, and can have, no end. As it tends towards the bright (tones), to which blue is, however, less suited, it takes on a more indifferent character and appears to the spectator remote and impersonal, like the high, pale-blue sky. The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.’ That remote brightness corresponds with the blue-silvers Macey perceives, the silent stillness the state he and Thomas attain after all the conflict and torment.
Blue and red (or sometimes yellow) have often been defined as male and female colours, with associated symbolic characteristics. The values change. Mondrian, for example, saw red as the feminine colour, partly because he regarded the intellectual and spiritual realm as male. Kandinsky initially regarded blue as a male colour, as did his fellow Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) artists. He later reversed his views, however, switching the spectral polarity of the genders. On balance, blue has been regarded as a female colour, red as male. Garner combines the cultural significance of colour, its emotional and spiritual resonance, with its scientific aspects. He thereby creates complex layers of metaphor which both bring together and contrast modern and pre-industrial worldviews.
Red shift is a piece of scientific terminology which refers to the effect experienced by a stationary observer when an object is moving away from them. In sonic terms, this is analogous to the Doppler shift from a higher to a lower tone when a train has passed by. The red shift is a phenomenon particularly associated with astronomy and cosmology, however. Observed in stars and galaxies, it can be used to deduce that the universe is expanding, astronomical bodies moving apart from one another (deductions made by Edwin Hubble in 1929). In terms of emotional metaphor, red is a lonely colour, the tone of parting, of isolation and loneliness. Blue, on the other hand, is the sound of the train approaching, the end of the spectrum betokening coming together, unification, communication. The ‘us’ with which the corn goddess blesses Macey at the end, holding out the promise of a future together. These scientific metaphors, applied on a human level, are reminiscent of the way in which entropy, an embodiment of the tendency towards running down within a closed system as delineated in the second law of thermodynamics, was used as a central motif in the British science fiction of the 60s emerging from New Worlds magazine under Michael Moorcock’s editorship.
Palm-pressed paneFrom Tom’s rooted perspective, everything seems to be disintegrating, the shattered fragments falling away from him (a touch of personal entropy afflicting him, as if he had strayed into New Worlds territory). Jan is moving away, his relationship with his parents is becoming poisonously antagonistic and he is retreating further into himself to cope, isolating himself within his studies and his headphone mind. When we witness his moment of breakdown, his splintering of the caravan window into jagged fragments, we see the pink-red of his palms which become bloody as they slice through glass. When Thomas and Macey sense his presence, however, they associate it with blue. He is coming towards them from that moment of emotional crisis, approaching with a temporal blue shift. They feel his pain and rage, but there is no reciprocal emotional echo. He remains alone, a disconnected body in a cold universe. Thomas and Macey move in the end towards the blue end of the spectrum, away from the red, and away from Tom’s inchoate rage. They are both rejecting blood, violence and the dominance of the male perspective which gives rise to it. Both end up cradled in the arms of a woman who helps to heal their wounded minds and bodies. The reversal of the red shift signifies a psychological realignment, both on an individual and a historical and cultural level. A cessation of conflict and competition in favour of settling down and establishing a stable community.
Ground sun-setting - Red ShiftThe Swiss psychologist Max Lüscher devised a colour psychology scale in the 1940s. John Gage outlines the system in his classic study Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism. ‘Blue…is held to be concentric, passive, sensitive, unifying’, he writes, ‘and thus to express tranquillity, tenderness, and love and affection. Orange-red, however, is eccentric, active, offensive, aggressive, autonomous and competitive, and hence expressive of desire, domination and sexuality’. When Tom finds out about Jan’s fling with the man in white (a neutral non-colour) he rejects her embrace, pushing her violently away. There is none of the blue shift union which brings together Madge and Thomas, Macey and the corn-goddess. The reversal of perspective from red to blue is symbolised by the goddess’ turning of the milling wheel ‘sun-setting’ or anti-clockwise. The sun as male symbol is pushed beneath the horizon, occluded. The meal thus produced poisons Logan and his men. Logan goes insane, kills his men in a berserking fugue and is directed over the edge of Mow Cop by Macey, a terminal charge to attack phantom forces. Tom tries to reverse the red shift by turning partings with Jan at Crewe station into hellos. The blue-silvers of the inter-city trains seem to conspire in supporting this willed illusion. From a certain perspective, they are seen as a union. Macey sees them bathed in blue shift light, images travelling back through time to reach him. For the final parting, however, Tom leaves her with a tentative ‘see you’, as if no longer certain that they will meet again. She greets this with a smile, acknowledging a possible shift in perspective on his part; a more realistic, balanced outlook.
Blue AxeMacey and Thomas both end up enveloped in the dark, crepuscular blue of evening. We cut from these final scenes of calm repose and see the blue-silvers slip away from Tom’s vision. As the camera focuses on the doors slamming shut, a blinking sequence of red flashes contrasts with the blue; the inside of the doors is orange-red. This is no longer a blue-shift hello-goodbye. The red shifting reality of parting is made apparent. Tom looks to the side, into the gloomy shadows beneath the station vaults. The light turns red and we dissolve to a shot of the axe head in its museum case. It’s suffused with a red glow, which fills the whole room. It’s as if the axe is once more coated with the blood which had been washed off with Macey’s healing, the exorcising of his violent alter ego (his other Tom) and the rebirth of his female soul. It has been denuded of its power, its physical embodiment of unity and domesticity, of violent rootlessness transformed by love and trust; the connection made through touch. Now it is a symbol of isolation, disconnection and distance. It has been correctly identified and labelled, but is no more than an inert historical artefact, its emotional and spiritual resonance locked away. As the camera zooms in on it, the red light fades away, however. We see the axe head in close up as a night-time blue-grey. We are taken back to the evening calm in which we left Macey and Thomas. The blue reminds of the axe’s symbolic guise as an object of union, love and domesticity. The end titles are superimposed on its flat edge: Red Shift on a blue background. It serves to underline what Tom has lost.
Tom red shift is partly an attempt to distance himself from his own inner turmoil. ‘I need a red shift’ he says after a fraught encounter with Jan in which his language has become fragmented and he seems on the verge of a breakdown. He wants to take refuge in a part of the mental spectrum where the frequency is less intense, wavelengths more widely spaced out. But it is also a turning away from intimacy and connection. It is characteristic of the male psychodramas at the heart of The Owl Service and Red Shift. The female characters are more or less refracted through the lenses of these crises, whether as objects of love and desire or as forces of control (the domineering mother). The possession to which Alison and Sally are subjected transforms them into archetypes rather than individuals. They become mysteries to be solved. The rational intellect of Garner’s self-contained autodidacts is incapable of parsing that mystery, or of dispelling the illusion of mystery and getting to the simple human heart of the matter.
Alison's agony - the final possession in The Owl ServiceTom recognises this when he tells Jan ‘my head knows. The rest of me will catch up. Heart and mind have become sundered, abstracted intellect having occluded emotional intelligence. The same is the case in The Owl Service. When Alison is going through her storm-wracked torments at the end, assailed by invisible owls which score her face and cascade her with feathers, Huw and Gwyn can only stand by, powerless or unwilling to help. As Huw laments to Gwyn, ‘you have only hate in you’. It is Roger who brings an end to her suffering through simple empathetic connection. He comforts her and shows her love and compassion, asking nothing in return. In a sudden moment of illumination, he offers the same to Gwyn, voicing a sympathetic awareness of his pain and the bitterness it gives rise to. Gwyn can only turn away with impotent shame. In the book, the frantic flurry of feathers is transformed into a soft shower of fragrant petals. Alison/ Blodeuedd becomes flowers, not owls. It’s a transformation which was anticipated in the flock of Alison’s folded paper owls which Roger discovered in the locked garage. From a distance, they looked like a field of flowers, gathered sprays of white meadowsweet.
The shock of recognition - Peter in The KeeperIn The Keeper, Peter distances himself from the protective embrace within which he and Sally have enfolded themselves during the spectral storm. He turns his back on her and returns to his charts and instruments, the safe world of measurable fact. It’s a reflexive retreat back into the self-contained rational mindset. When he is confonted with Sally in her possessed state, he is forced to look her directly in the eye, to tsee the fire burning in the dark centre of the pupil. ‘Who are you?’ he asks, a look of horror on his face. She, or the spirit of the guardian she is now possessed with, reflects the question back at him. His face slackens from its rictus of terror into a look of understanding and dull acceptance. ‘You’, he weakly replies. It’s a recognition of unity, the dissolving of separate personalities into an all-embracing commonality. This is a dissolution which entails the utter destruction of ego, the disappearance of the self. They are gone, absorbed into the spirit of the place. Part of the haunting they came to investigate.
The inner flame relit - The KeeperIn Red Shift, John Fowler asks a similar question of Thomas Rowley when he comes out of one of his visionary fugues. Thomas says of the figure he has seen ‘I know him’. John interrogates him, asking ‘do you see God?’, and then, as if it were a natural progression, ‘is it me?’ He sees himself as a completion of Thomas, the head which meets and unites with the visionary spirit. Madge is the heart. For John, they are fragmented shards of a whole. Madge and Thomas prove to be whole unto themselves, however. John is one of the fragmented selves scattered through time, symbolised by the shattered shards of glass smashed outwards by the angry tension of Tom’s pressing hands.
Mow Cop follyTom confronts Jan over her infidelity in the folly built on top of Mow Cop in 1754. It stands in contrast to the ruin of Thomas and Madge’s cottage in which they’d discovered the votive stone axe-head; the thunderstone which Thomas had built into the fireplace and the ‘bunty’ which Jan had fixed upon as a special object physically embodying the connection between her and Tom. In One Pair of Eyes, the 1972 biographical documentary about Garner included in the recently released BFI dvd of Red Shift, he describes the folly as ‘ridiculous’ and completely non-functional. It is a non-place, neither domestic nor wild. As such, it’s an ideal constricted circular arena in which to play out the tortuous drama of their relationship’s ending. Earlier, Tom had thrown out the quote ‘love is not love which alters when alteration finds’. He fails to observe its meaning, though. His lack of wisdom and self-knowledge is unconsciously elucidated in his follow-up quote: ‘more know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows’ (both of these quotes taken from the book).
Tom has his words, his complex language. But in moment of emotional intensity he becomes completely inarticulate. John Fowler also finds himself speechless at the moment when all look to his leadership. When the Irish Royalists are at the door, he cannot think of what to do. His words fail to translate into action. When his is given the opportunity to reveal himself by the leader of the Royalist forces, to sacrifice himself for the villagers, the noble words once more fail to come to his lips. Jan explains Tom’s shattering of the window pane to his parents by observing ‘he ran out of words’. Or as his mother less kindly puts it, ‘what can’t speak can’t tell’. Rage fills the void left by loss of language.
Confining folly - Circling confrontation on Mow CopThe illusion of idealised love is laid bare in the folly. It is revealed as being as fake as the fabricated ruin, built on similarly romantic foundations. Tom’s ideal of ‘perfection’ can’t withstand the complex tangle of real emotion. His language dries up and he is reduced to short, staccato phrases. Jan despairs that he is now ‘no talk, No fun. Just grab’. She has become an object, a body to be possessed. In this case, the possession is of a physical nature, rather than the spiritual possession of Sally and Alison (although there is a metaphorical dimension there, too). She voices her resentment at his objectification, bitterly spitting out ‘it would like to go now please. It feels sick’. Language, particularly when employed by a keen mind, can become a tool for creating and sustaining a self-delusory state. It can become a barrier against rather than a gateway to knowledge of the self. Thomas and Macey find peace through silence after the noise and hysteria of conflict and chaos. ‘Silence forgives’, the corn goddess tells Macey. Thomas has remained taciturn throughout, speaking only when necessary.
Disconnected headphone mind - Red ShiftIn the end, Garner’s male protagonists are left isolated. They remain in the landscape to which they are anchored, but are at the same time disconnected from it. They are all Tom Fools, locked inside the prison of their own intellect. Self-contained bodies drifting out into the cold spaces of the expanding universe, red shift traces trailing behind them, marking their lonely voyage for any who might care to observe from the distant perspective of home.
PART ONE is here
PART TWO is here