X Close

Teenagers need to have sex again A book about owls set the scene for my own awakening

I had never been involved in a love triangle before I watched The Owl Service (pictured)

I had never been involved in a love triangle before I watched The Owl Service (pictured)


August 10, 2021   4 mins

I’ve never been a procrastinator, the type of person who shies away from cracking on and showing off. But knowing that I was going to write about Alan Garner’s novel — what we’d call a “Young Adult” book today — The Owl Service, I suddenly remembered a dozen things that needed doing. Surely no writer worthy of the name could bear to live any longer without her bookshelves organised alphabetically?

The Owl Service is what I think of as a Burning Book — as opposed to book-burning, which has always been popular at certain stages of civilisational breakdown. When I think of re-reading it — as with Brighton Rock or Ladder To the Sky — I feel something which is almost fear. This, for me, is the sign not of a good book, but of a great book which will never become familiar, giving the reader both the thrill of revelation and the comfort of recognition — surely one of the most peculiar combinations of emotions.

When I first saw the 1969 Granada television adaptation at the age of ten — class war and sexual awakening played out over a long hot summer in a remote Welsh valley — I had never been involved in a love triangle. I was not yet aware that my working-class background would put me at a disadvantage, or that I would soon become obsessed with making paper owls by tracing the pattern on some manky old teacups.

But a part of me realised that the incidents in the book would somehow pertain to the adult life which I was already impatient to begin. I was obsessed with Wales; growing up in Bristol, just across the Severn Bridge, we often went there and I developed a crush on the whole country.

Full of castles and mountains, as opposed to palaces and hills, everything seemed bigger and better in Wales — despite its shocking subjugation by England, despite all the valleys flooded to make reservoirs for the English. In an age of nations jostling for victim status, Wales remains a country that does not seek to be understood too quickly, if at all. And at a time when countries clamour for historical apologies, it’s easy to imagine Wales viewing one from England with disdain. Too much has been done. As the quote from the poet R.S Thomas says at the start of the book:

“The owls are restless. People have died here. Good men for bad reasons, better forgotten.”

When I saw the TV show, I was stimulated — probably in a not altogether wholesome manner, due to the extreme beauty of the 19-year-old actor Michael Holden, brought up in a shepherd’s cottage in Snowdonia — but when I read the book I was spellbound. Alan Garner, now 86, is a character as fascinating as any of his creations. From a working-class Cheshire family he survived several life-threatening illnesses as a child; at the age of six, he was punished for speaking in his native accent when a teacher washed his mouth out with soap. The first member of his family to go to university, Oxford led him to the familiar situation of working-class children removed from their culture: “My family could not cope with me, and I could not cope with them
 I soon learned that it was not a good idea to come home excited over irregular verbs.”

The Owl Service was his fourth novel, published in 1967, influenced by a legend from The Mabinogion — the earliest prose stories in the literature of the British Isles, compiled in Welsh in the 12th century. The theme of a woman torn — literally, towards the end, as owls and flowers compete to take over her body — between two men was as relevant in the Swinging Sixties as it is now in the Tremulous Twenties.

But it’s striking that our culture has in some ways moved back towards the Medieval origin of the book’s inspiration compared to when it was published. In some ways, this is good. There is the emergence of Wales as a proudly independent nation once more, setting an example of how it is perfectly possible for a people to vote both for Labour and for Brexit.

Then there is the revival of the Welsh language; with the Act of Union in 1536, Welsh was all but banned, with a parliamentary report describing it as “a manifold barrier to the moral progress of the people”. Yet in 2008 Welsh was used at a meeting of the European Union’s Council of Ministers for the first time; in 2018 it was debuted in Parliament.

But other reversals are not so pleasing. The Owl Service is, at heart, a book about how even the most ordinary middle-class youngsters will likely lead far more interesting and rewarding lives than the most exceptional working-class kids. The savagery of class divisions, helpfully obscured these days by the liberal establishment’s obsession with race, has led to the grotesque situation where social mobility is reversing rather than improving, as it appeared to be in the Sixties.

Garner spent four years on the book, learning Welsh “in order not to use it” — now that’s a writer. The writing is as plain as only a genius dares; the very first exchange between the housekeeper’s son Gwyn and the house’s heiress Alison — “How’s the bellyache?” “A bore” — tells us exactly which social class they are from.

In the local shop, two ordinary women discuss quite matter-of-factly how the ancient myth of the love triangle which saw two men dead and a woman turned into an owl is about to happen again. “There’s no escaping, is there? I’ll have a packet of snow flakes.”

Re-reading it, I thought most of all of the awful plight of today’s teenagers under the pandemic — grounded for what should be the most exciting time of discovery in their lives. Already having less sex than my generation, the plague (and pornography) has made the sexes even more foreign to each other, echoing the simmering chastity which torments the trio of teenagers whose trials make up the plot of this book.

Penelope Farmer wrote: “I doubt if you could find any piece of realistic fiction for adolescents that says a quarter as much about adolescence as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.” Over the past year, we have all been Alison, Gwyn and Roger, hog-tied by history, mired in hysteria and caught up in a blindfolded paranoia which makes us see our fellow citizens as harbingers of death. We are all trapped in the valley now, wondering where all the flowers have gone and whether we will be the next prey of the parliament of owls.


Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.

BoozeAndFagz

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

32 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I disliked the header of this article.

I grew up with a great deal of time to read, and took to it completely. Alan Garners books were my very favorite (not Red Shift though), and struck something in me, as I had seen a great many places and wilds, and mysterious times. The world to me was not so concrete, there were different realities, I had had glimpses of them.

As I became a young man my past reading of Tove Jasson, Garner, Tolkien, Lewis, Masefield, drew me to the wild places and I set out to explore the world to see its magic (not occult at all, but the mysteries of the world which mostly we never see – you have to spend many years, solitary, in remote lands to begin see what is usually hidden – I have seen great deal out there)

Garner’s books evoke that indescribable side of existence where the laws are different for a bit, and you see into nature, Annie Dilliard described it as Nature dancing the dance of the 7 veils, and only in very unusual circumstances does a veil not cover, a time one must devote years of watching and being out there, to catch, and one can have a tiny glimpse at what is underneath…

I lived years alone in remote places, usually very harsh living, mostly no books, never any electronics as they were not possible then, not when remote, and the thing was how utterly tedious it is, so much so your reality becomes altered bit. You make a camp, a fire, cook something, and then nothing, just sit there on the ground till it is time to get into the sleeping bag, then lay there till sleep. You get up, do whatever it is, and then sit there, that is all life is – you do some mindless thing, and then you sit on the ground, just maybe thinking (I used to fish a good deal too, when remote, and that brings you another step closer to nature). Nothing else, no one to talk to, often bad weather and no good tent or indoors – just the ground for your place, you may sit days under plastic in rain, doing nothing….. But you do see everything. Nature becomes exceedingly clear to you – you become a creature partly yourself, you are so in tune with nature. Nature is fantastically Cold though. It is an endless circle of really bad suffering. The little creatures born, more of them than can live, and so they die badly, and this is nature, it is so cold, inhumanly cold, and this is why we need people, because we are not made for that hardness.

And after you put in your time, and it is hard time, you will begin to see things which are mysterious once in a very great wile – often very worrying things, and you come to realize that these writers had been out and seen the cryptic which all fairy tails and myth tell of, but you do not see very much, but some…

I have led a wasted life, but I have seen a lot – and it was these childhood writers which pushed me off to see the remote places where things are still as they were – because where we live it is all just as it is, mundane pretty much, maybe religious experience, but natural, no, no mysteries of Natural existence left…

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Outstanding comment. You should write a book about your vagabond life. All the snippets you’ve provided on Unherd are fascinating.
Yes, fairy tales and myths are but glimmers of something deeper and we’ll only learn about that from nature. Tough luck because most of us are now so very far removed from nature and we wouldn’t know how to survive there if we had to.
I’ve hiked extensively in the mountain west of the USA and there are places where you stop to camp, or just stop for lunch, and you know, know deeply, you should not be there. Something doesn’t want you there, and if you have any sense you move along and rest someplace else.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yup-an autobiography that I would definitely read. Sanford in wasted indeed fitting air cond !

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Remember what writers always say – ‘We don’t write the headlines!’

peter lucey
peter lucey
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Burchill

Indeed. I can remember when Auberon Waugh became editor of Literary Review. As one of his minor improvements he placed the word “SEX” in capital letters somewhere on the front cover of each issue – anything to boost sales 🙂

Last edited 2 years ago by peter lucey
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Burchill

Although when the headline and the copy diverge significantly – although much less so with this article compared to other much more egregious examples here – it means the editor hasn’t even bothered to read the article beyond a cursory skim.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

That’s a great comment.
Our individual lives are so small and pass away so quickly but by sharing experience and stories (including fairy tales and myths) with our fellows we get to incorporate other lives, we can go back thousands of years and share a battle or a lost love and our little lives expand and deepen and we become more than just ourselves.
Natural existence may not be possible anymore but I think the mysteries remain, as you say, we get hints and glimpses at times in places where the natural world predominates.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Great comment, but you malign “Red Shift”. I read it first aged around 11 and didn’t understand it. I hadn’t gone through the emotional turmoil of puberty and lost first love. I read it again aged 22 and found it outstandingly good.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Thanks for an unexpected introduction to Alan Garner. I just googled him and he does, indeed, appear to be an interesting writer. Anyone who came from humble origins then quit Oxford (surely another kind of magical door: one that leads from one class to another) to become that most precarious of professionals, a novelist, can’t be dull.
I’ll order The Owl Service from my local library.

Julie Burchill
Julie Burchill
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I envy you reading it for the first time!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’ve never read him either. I only knew of him from the blurbs at the back of other books; so you’d finish reading about Narnia (or whatever) and there’d be – in effect – ads at the back for other titles. The only one of his I remember was called The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which sounded really stupid. So, aged 11, I avoided him.
Then again, my own literary tastes were recalibrated for me when I had chicken pox aged about 10. I was at home for 3 weeks and I ran out of stuff to read. There were no books in our house (in spite or as a result of which I did an English degree), apart from my sister’s, which comprised one shelf: a few art books, the odd Harold Robbins and four or five James Bonds. So faute de mieux I read the James Bonds.
They made quite a big impression. James Bond did two things prolifically that the heroes of kids’ fiction rarely or never did: he killed people and he fondled women. As the killings were pretty explicit, I assumed the fondling was too, i.e. that everything normally done was described in the books. I therefore found Bond a bit mystifying, because he spent a lot of energy chasing women, but clearly didn’t like them very much. What he got up to them didn’t seem worth his trouble. “Bond kissed her hard” – what and where was a woman’s “hard”, and why was Bond kissing it? Was she liking it or just putting up with it? Was it some unfathomable grown-up euphemism?
If I’d been ill longer I’d have got onto her Harold Robbinses and all would have been revealed, sort of.
So unfortunately, thanks to James Bond, his Walther PPK and his brutally-handsome-with-a-slightly-cruel-smile schtick, I skipped a whole YA reading generation and missed out on Alan Garner altogether. Is it too late?

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Interesting article, The Weirdstone of Bresingamen was one of my favourite books as a child, but I read The Owl Service too young, when the series was on, and was disappointed and bewildered by it as far as I remember. I must re-read it.
I can’t agree with Julie about the lack of s e x for youngsters, deprivation is’nt always a bad thing, it may feel bad but objectively it might be good. S e x during the teenage years, fashionable as it is, may not always be as positive as our society holds it to be.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Agree re your last. Internet filth has not just demystified the opposite s e x but made everyone look like lowlife.

aaron david
aaron david
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

S E X isn’t just the physical act. It’s also holding hands, talking to strange boys, having a crush on the girl who sits in front of you, kissing various people that you just met, and so on. In short, it’s part of growing up. And that is what is sorely lacking in the younger generations.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  aaron david

I strongly agree with you on that aspect.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

“S e x during the teenage years, fashionable as it is, may not always be as positive as our society holds it to be.”
Agree entirely. But isn’t part of being young finding that out for oneself?
And, as you observe above, “our individual lives are so small and pass away so quickly”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

I’m reminded of the time an elderly John Betjeman was asked if he had any regrets in life. His answer after careful thought was ‘I haven’t had enough s e x’.
That was certainly true of my teenage years in the 70s. Used to dream of meeting fun-loving girls like Julie…

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I might be wrong but I doubt there are many women who would share Betjeman’s regret. We are different. No criticism implied.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

You may well be right, I couldn’t possibly comment! I’m sure any women here who disagree will say so.
A thing nobody (of either sex) has ever said on their deathbed is ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office’.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

There’s something in that. When I was young it seemed as if every male I ever met was up for it and there was no shortage of sex, if you just wanted a quick in and out, so to speak. Getting out of it if you didn’t fancy someone was more of a problem.
John B was young before the sexual revolution got going though, when women were still being policed and shamed for their carnal desires, and access to contraception was extremely difficult for unmarried women and girls, so there was an acute danger of pregnancy and no support for the unmarried mother. I believe that males could obtain condoms only from the barber, for some unknown reason.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Your suggestion in today’s world probably entails; going on the pill, which is not without uncomfortable side effects for girls, STDs, quite possibly an abor tion, bad s e x by mistake, and all to be handled by emotionally immature youngsters under a barrage of other pressures – exams, social media, family breakdowns etc.
I think there were good reasons for protecting young people from adolescent s e x in the past. If a couple were very strongly attracted to each other they usually managed to find a way; surely that scenario is better than the casual approach pushed by our society now.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Well in the face of that long litany of highly plausible negative outcomes, then, of course, I agree with your last point.
But I’m of an age where the sexual mores of the younger generation and the intrusion of social media into their lives are happily a mystery to me.
However, the tone of your comments generally does seem to imply that your opinion of s e x is less than favourable, and one you appear keen to socialise:
“I might be wrong but I doubt there are many women who would share Betjeman’s regret. We are different”.
With respect, YOU may be different. But how on earth can you presume to speak for femininity in general?
I have several good female friends (yes, it is possible among men and women) and former lovers who I suspect would share the same “regrets” as Mr Betjeman – as they unashamedly enjoy (good!) s e x.
And do you really want to encourage yet another generation of youngsters to grow up believing that s e x is exclusively bad, shameful and fraught with danger?
I don’t. And neither should you.

Last edited 2 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

I certainly agree with you that many or most women are just as sexually driven as most men. I think there is scientific evidence for that. However, the regret was about not getting enough, that begs a few more questions.

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Spot on. Those of us baby boomers who grew up being made to feel ashamed of our bodies and even of ‘appropriate’ -ie: within marriage – sexual desire, suffered unnecessary guilt and shame.
I remember, as a 16 years old, 2 younger acquaintances (who were twin sisters) telling me that their mother had talked to them about sex and how “beautiful” it was when it was within a loving marriage. I could not understand that. Not until I fell in love the following year and experience real, tender, beautiful sexual love.
Dirtyfying sex means too many miss out on the ultimate union between humans of deep love expressed in sexual union.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

I hope you have calmed down by now. I think you may have just reprimanded an imaginary foe.
You’ve certainly read a lot into my “tone”. Perhaps you should have stuck with the words I actually used, eg, “I might be wrong” and “I doubt”, neither of which are very assertive, or suggestive of me presuming to “speak for femininity”, as you put it.
Perhaps you were projecting some negative female figure you have known in the past onto me and wanted to tell her off.
I am just writing from a position on s e x that is a bit more cautious and conservative than yours or Julie’s. My experience as a woman and a friend of many other women down the years lies behind that position.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Jim Cox
Jim Cox
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Very good point. Every major religion advocates not for limitless sex but rather for it to not be cheapened but rather used within the bounds of ultimate commitment(marriage) for our enjoyment and God’s glory.

Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago

Thanks Julie for your writing. It’s always a pleasure to read – whatever you write about. I saw the TV series when I was younger and loved it and was determined to read it to my kids, but I made the mistake of reading it to them when too young. Think it will read best to for a teenage mind. But well done for bringing this book and author into 2021. The book is brilliantly original. Couldn’t see it being published today.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago

I often talk to my son about how we used to have sex instead of using a mobile phone. Maybe it was just me but sex was one of the most important aspects of my later teenage years, and music.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

If I were your son I don’t think I would want to hear about it.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago

Don’t worry, he’s not sexually repressed

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

You can be as unrepressed as you like but no child wants to hear about their parent’s sexual misadventures. years of therapy to follow.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

When one considers that for the generation of your parents work at 14 and sacrifice during the war were the most important aspects of their adolescence, I can’t help but feel such a statement doesn’t reflect especially well on that which followed.