When pistol packing was normal

In Alan Garner's novel The Weirdstone of Brisinghamen, the stolid British farmer Gowther Mossock is awakened by his dog barking at a sinister little intruder returned to prowl round his farm so he fetches his shotgun. His wife says "Watch thy step, lad. You're bigger than he is, and that's all the more of thee for him to hit." "I'll be all reet, but he wunner," Gowther replies. How times have changed.

I'm not recommending this second-rate fantasy for teens I happened to revisit as part of my summer reading. But far better to read about Gowther than imitate him.

Act like that today and the authorities will swoop on you for violating firearms laws, daring to defend yourself, and for good measure tag you for a hate crime against goblins, who would probably then get government jobs under an affirmative action program.

We were never told this would happen.

Those who brought in various changes to the law over the last half-century to expand the rights of criminals, restrict those of normal folks and import exotic brands of sociology into the justice system never warned us we would be turned into terrified wimps reduced to calling 911, fleeing, being told there was no film in the surveillance cameras and charged if we fight back.

We were hypnotized into passive acceptance in a way Garner's evil wizards would admire and envy.

What is most revealing about a society is not the things on which it concentrates its attention but those it takes for granted.

That is why humour is so revealing, and so problematic for outsiders. And it is what makes this trivial action by Farmer Mossock so significant.

In order to sell us the far-fetched action and chaotic, fragmented metaphysics of his yarn, Garner has to make the background dialogue and action as normal as possible.

Which makes the most extraordinary part of his book not Cadellin the wizard or the magic jewel Firefrost but the casual assumption of the author, in 1960, that a normal, reassuringly solid Cheshire farmer will have firearms, feel comfortable using them, and be utterly, unflappably willing to defend himself with them.

Likewise, in G.K. Chesterton's older novel The Man Who Was Thursday, published a century ago last year, the main character's experience becomes so odd that at one point even "the common things he carried with him -- the food and the brandy and the loaded pistol..." start feeling strange and fantastic.

Who in Canada today, I ask you, would not find a revolver in their pocket stranger, more fantastic and more terrifying than, say, an iPod full of hip-hop "tunes," a sex manual, or maybe that pole-dancing doll for young girls that's been causing an online flap lately (see for instance the gadget blog gizmodo.com).

What happened to us? It wasn't always this way; in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the increasingly apprehensive narrator Dr. Lanyon recounts that "though I dismissed my servants to bed, I loaded an old revolver that I might be found in some posture of self-defense."

It's not just "right-wingers" like Chesterton and, I suppose, Stevenson.

In the 1937 edition of his The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism George Bernard Shaw observed as a commonplace about hobbies that, "Indoor people want books and pictures and pianos: outdoor people want guns and fishing-rods and horses and motor cars."

Aaack. Guns? Yes. And three years after Shaw wrote, and 20 years before Garner did, the British government intentionally distributed weapons to the civilian populace to resist a feared Nazi invasion.

At the time it seemed not merely logical but part of a hallowed tradition going back to the early fifth century assertion, as Rome withdrew, that free men could bear arms, affirmed repeatedly in such vital documents as the 1688 Bill of Rights.

Yet if Britain were faced with such a deadly peril today, would any politician dare defend such a measure, or would the scientific extermination of the populace seem far more reasonable and civilized than its disorderly self-protection? We're the strange case, and an intelligent woman urgently needs a guide to us.

I would expect young people to find some aspects of life in days past unfamiliar, even magical, like riding in a horse-drawn wagon, not watching television or going to bed by candlelight. But it worries me that they would have less trouble believing in Garner's ancient wizard keeping 140 knights in an enchanted sleep until the final showdown between good and evil than in a normal person having a gun they were neither afraid nor ashamed to use in self-defence.

There's something weird here. But it's not that stone. And we are not all reet.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson