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Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Levels


[S]he had been brought up to know things to do with words, and to do with being able to act, as a girl, more like a man than most men do. Open. Strong and direct. She knew what she wanted. – Peter Benson, The Levels

Blokes don’t read love stories. They read about spies and soldiers and adventurers and aliens; they read about shiny things that go fast and explode; dangerous things; exciting things. Offer most men a love story and they’d sniff at it. The odd thing is that all of them will have been in love, probably several times in their lives, and most of those experiences will, especially at the start of those relationships, count as some of the happiest memories in their lives. I’m a bloke and I can report, hand on heart, that that’s true for me; falling in love is wonderful. And, yes, I admit it, especially when I was young and hormone-driven it was sometimes hard to tell the love from the lust but it wasn’t all about the sex; there were genuine feelings there, a sense of belonging, of being more than a son or a student or someone’s mate. Being in love was—is—wonderful. So why, when I look at my bookshelves, are there so few books that deal with it? One of the main reasons I would suspect is that most of my books were written by men—men who, although every single one of them will have loved and (most likely) have been loved back by the object of their affection, never thought to write about it. Odd, eh?

A while back I was sent a review copy of Peter Benson’s last novel, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, which was a decent book but for some reason it failed to charm me; I just didn’t connect with the protagonist. When it came to writing the review I struggled to be objective and, try as I might, I’m sure that my lack of enthusiasm seeped through. I even ended my review with the following:

I feel bad about not being about to be as excited as Christian House in The Independent and I would certainly give Benson another go but I really was the wrong reviewer for this particular one.

It happens. Alma Books have now seen fit to rerelease Peter’s back catalogue as e-books, so I decided I’d give him another go and volunteered to read his first novel, The Levels, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1987, The Author's Club First Novel Award, and a Betty Trask Prize. Since then he has written another seven books although there is a big gap between The Shape of the Clouds (1997) and Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke (2011). The reason I picked The Levels was not because of the awards nor because this was his first book; I chose it because it was a love story, specifically a story of first love and a coming-of-age story which I’ve always been a sucker for. The title refers to the Somerset Levels, a sparsely populated coastal plain and wetland area between the Quantock and Mendip Hills.

In a recent interview Peter says this about himself:

I’m an instinctive writer. I don’t plan. I don’t write behavioural traits on index cards, or cover a cork board with plot points connected with arrows and colour-coded reminders. I make the occasional note, but beyond that, I simply run with the story, and hope that I’m heading in the right direction. I never know how a novel is going to end, or if any of my people will fall in love, get in the wrong car, eat pasta on a Thursday night, buy a dog, walk into a pub or die. A bit like life, I suppose. And although I always tell students to ‘write the whole thing down and worry about editing when you’ve finished…’ (advice given to me by my first agent) I don’t follow this advice myself, and edit as I go.

This information I have to say enamours me to him because that’s how I write. He also says that every novel he has written has begun with a jolt, something else I can relate to. This particular novel began when its opening line came to him as he was drifting off to sleep:

I riddled the stove, stoked it, and carried the ash to the heap. A breeze came off the sea, miles away, a flooding wind.

Not, perhaps, a contender for the Best First Line in a Novel Ever Aware but I’m not one of those people who believes that if your first line fails it’s all downhill from there.

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke[3]Once I started to get into The Levels something dawned on me: this was a very similar setup to Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke. In The Levels Billy lives at home with his parents where he works in, for want of a better word for it, the family firm—he’s a basketmaker; he has a best friend, Dick, who’s not too bright and prone to getting into bother and during the course of the novel Billy acquires a girlfriend as the story progresses. In Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke Elliot doesn’t live with his parents but he spends so much time there he might as well, he works as a farmhand, has a friend called Spike who’s not too bright and prone to getting into bother and during the course of the novel Elliot also acquires a girlfriend. The difference—and it’s a significant one for me—is all to do with percentages. In Two Cows the girl is a subplot; in The Levels she’s the fulcrum on which the events rest. Two Cows also suffers from the fact it has a plot; The Levels does not, it’s a slice of life mostly with a bit of reminiscing at the start.

I liked The Levels so if you’re reading this Peter you can breathe a sigh of relief. There is nothing contrived about it. It’s perfectly believable. Billy and Muriel are not Heathcliff and Cathy; they’re not Romeo and Juliet; they’re not Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It has more in common with any number of popular holiday romances than anything penned by D H Lawrence and yet it’s so much more. It reminded me of Keith Waterhouse’s seminal work, Billy Liar, specifically the relationship between Billy and Liz. Billy is from the north of England; Liz is from London; they are poles apart and yet draw together. If only Billy has the balls to get on the train for London and head off towards the bright lights with her. Benson’s Billy lives in Somerset; Muriel is from London; the attraction is immediate but Benson’s Billy faces the same predicament at the end of his book as Waterhouse’s Billy: is he willing—or more importantly able—to get on the train with her and leave everything he has ever known?

The Levels begins in the present so it’s not hard to work out what’s happened. This is how Alma’s blurb describes the book:

Drove House has always loomed large over village life. Boarded-up for years, it is reputed to be brimming with ghosts, and is shunned by the locals – all except Billy, for whom it has been the site of childhood dens and secret adolescent adventures. When the captivating Muriel moves in with her bohemian mother, they sweep out the ghosts and breathe new life into both the house and Billy’s quiet rural existence. After an idyllic summer, though, Muriel returns to her life in London, and the newly empty Drove House becomes the backdrop for Billy’s struggle to reconcile the vanishing agricultural lifestyle he has inherited with the glimpses of a baffling new way of life Muriel seemed to offer.

So he doesn’t go. How could he go? His dad’s back’s gone and although the old man potters around acting as if he’s in charge, it’s clear that Billy’s the one that’s got to shoulder the responsibility for keeping the business afloat. For as long as he can. The days when every woman carried her shopping basket with her are dying out; plastic bags are the future and the odds are that Billy will be the last of a dying breed.

During the 1930s, over 9,000 acres (36 km2) of willow were being grown commercially on the Levels. Largely because of the replacement of baskets by plastic bags and cardboard boxes, the industry has severely declined since the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century only about 350 acres (1.4 km2) were grown commercially, near the villages of Burrowbridge, Westonzoyland, and North Curry. The Somerset Levels is now the only area in the UK where basket willow is grown commercially. – Wikipedia

Of course it’s not just shopping baskets he makes but not as many as his father could:

wicker-baskets-imageHe could make more types of baskets than I can name. Cockle pads, Fisking maunds, hundreds of Withy Butts, Seedlips, Creels, Winchesters, Swills, Flaskets, Hampers, Panniers, Pottles and Punnets, Wiskets, Fishtraps, Butter flats and Sieves.

As I’ve said the love story is central to the story but it’s really only the battlefield on which Billy wages a war with himself; with who he is, what he aspires to and what’s important to him. He goes into the relationship a boy and comes out a man although the loss of his virginity has little really to do with the outcome.

That the book is most likely based on Peter’s own experiences is not hard to guess—a great many authors start out there (I was a bit of an exception there)—he was a basketmaker and was living in Dorset at the time The Levels was published although he was actually born in Kent. Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east; all part of the West Country as it’s known in the UK. Mostly rural, it’s income comes primarily from agriculture and tourism; being largely flat, the Levels are well suited to bicycles. And it’s tourism that brings Muriel, her bike and her artist mother to the area; they’ve leased the supposedly haunted manor house for the summer, it having lain abandoned for years. Our first encounter with it is years earlier. It is a favourite place for Dick and Billy to go to play. They manage to reassemble a fifteen fowl hen house in the double forks of the tallest tree in the garden and it serves as a tree house for a time until the wind blows it down:

Many things happened there. We played ghosts. We looked through the dirty windows at the rooms, dusty, dark, the views from partly opened doors showing other partly opened doors into rooms we couldn’t see through any window. An overgrown elder scratched at the galvanized roof of a lean-to, once, twice, in a cold winter night.

Only once, though, do they venture inside and allow their imaginations to scare the bejesus out of themselves.

I said that this was a love story but—wisely—Peter doesn’t dive straight into it. Billy does mention the girl in passing a couple of times but the first few chapters of the book concentrate on helping us to build up a clear picture of Billy. Although none of the main characters in the book could ever be said to be two-dimensional, no one is fleshed out like him and this isn’t simply because he’s the narrator, although that obviously makes it easier. It’s actually surprising how little description some of the characters get, Muriel especially. The landscape on the other hand, as I had expected, is thoroughly described; snippets of descriptions slip in everywhere building up a detailed picture of Somerset. Muriel appears as a memory at first as I’ve said but from that very first appearance the differences between the two are obvious:

From my place at the supper table, I could watch the road. A waxing moon slid up the sky, a clearing sky, a gloomy evening mist eased itself into the spaces between the trees that bank the rhines. We ate a tin of apricots and I washed the dishes while they sat down.

When I’d finished, I left the house by the back door, walked through the orchard, and followed the river where it straightens. I walked over South Moor towards Drayton. As the sun grew bigger, it sank, the pink deepened in the hour to an orange and bloody red. I could see Langport and Muchelney Abbey. Many of the houses here are built from Hamstone. They were glowing in the evening. We walked this way once, but all she said was, ‘There are ten people in the world, and eight of them are hamburgers.’ I hated that.

A rhine (or rhyne), or reen (South Wales) (from Welsh rhewyn or rhewin, meaning a ditch) is a drainage ditch, or canal, used to turn areas of wetland at around sea level into useful pasture.

Muriel’s a city girl; you would expect her to be ignorant. She’s no different than the people who visit Billy while he’s working:

I have interested women here, watching, from that association or that guild. They are the kind of people who first came when my father asked them years ago, and I have inherited them. He comes and stands behind them in the door, but can’t be bothered to say anything, who can blame him? Why he ever asked them is a mystery. They have nothing in common with us, other than the word ‘common’, which they think we are. They always ask how many baskets I make in a day and say how nice the workshop smells. I have to tell them about willow. They bore so quickly. They always look lost between something they forgot to do when they were younger and something terrible that is going to happen one day. I try to say things that will make them think I’ve wits, and some things old basketmakers say, like ‘Never stand to the right of a basketmaker’. I tease them. They wear work shirts with ironcreased sleeves. They never buy anything, though say they’re lovely and I’m so clever. One or two ask to have a go, but I tell them I can’t stop. They will crouch and stare at me.

The time period is never stated explicitly but as Peter is ages with me and as a teenager Billy talks about the UK as a member of the EEC, the main events in the book have to take place after 1975 making Billy about seventeen (since he can legally drive) if he’s a proxy for Peter, but he’s young seventeen; I related strongly to him. At times though the book felt as if it was set further back, perhaps in the thirties, but then I imagine life wasn’t that dissimilar to what it had been then.

On the surface there’s nothing that special about Billy’s story; there’s nothing special about Billy. He’s not well educated, lacks life experience, hasn’t travelled far from home and hasn’t much ambition; he’s quite naïve in fact. Muriel, on the other hand, is everything he is not and from the start she realises this is just a fling. Not that’s she’s not fond of Billy but when he says he loves her, the response is not what he might have expected:

‘Muriel,’ I had said, ‘I love you.’ She’d looked up from her towelling, dabbed a string of water off her stomach, and smiled.

‘You love me,’ she said, ‘I’ll never forget.’

Been there. Done that.

This is a gentle short novel—176 pages when out in paperback—but there is a lot to recommend it. I especially liked its cyclical structure. The book ends where it begins:

Spring. A new beginning. I tried to make it so. Another day. I riddled the stove, stoked it, and carried the ash to the heap. A breeze came off the sea, miles away, a flooding wind.

It’s a nice touch.


Peter BensonBorn in 1956, Peter Benson was educated in Ramsgate, Canterbury and Exeter. His first novel, The Levels, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. This was followed by A Lesser Dependency, winner of the Encore award and The Other Occupant, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award. He has also published short stories, screenplays and poetry, some adapted for TV, radio and many translated into other languages. His new novel, Isabel’s Skin, described as “a slick gothic tale in the English tradi­tion, a murder mystery, a reflection on the works of the masters of the French Enlightenment and a tour of Edwardian England” will be published by Alma this autumn.


Ken Armstrong said...

I like how candid Peter is about his writing methodology. (And your own constant candour, of course).

People are made to believe that the act of writing is black and white, either do it the 'right' way or don't do it at all. It's such crap.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, Ken. I have always been keen to demystify this writing malarkey. I sometimes with there was a way to write though because, as there’s not, every single writer out there is faced with working out what’s right for them. As Kate Grenville writes: “Some writers can work for eight or twelve hours at a stretch, others find that an hour or two is all they can usefully do. Some writers have unlimited time, some have the restrictions of other jobs, households to run, children to look after. Some writers use word processors, some use typewriters, some use pens or pencils. Every writer works out a personal routine for working. Writing is one of the most individual things you'll ever do, so you'll gradually develop your own individual way of doing it. It doesn't matter how or when you write, as long as you keep doing it.” And she’s right: Writing is one of the most individual things you'll ever do.

She also says that writers have to unlearn a lot—“the whispering voices of advice” she calls them—and in that respect I’ve been quite lucky because I never learned anything; I read books and, as Larkin put it, thought, “That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”

One of the writers whose blogs I follow is Clare Dudman and in a recent post she says, “Today I remapped the plan of my book shading in the parts I've finished. It's a rough method, but it looks like I've done about two-thirds (around 105 000 words so far) ... in around three years.” Being a slowpoke myself I was quite comforted to see this. I makes such a change from all those who are insisting that even a book a year isn’t enough these days.

Art Durkee said...

I find deadline pressure is helpful. Rather than the purposeless free floating with no goal, I mean. This weekend I received an email asking for a short piece of music, a round or canon or chant, that would have to be sent off by next week. I wrote not one but two, and am sending them off today. Sometimes writing short forms is harder, because you really have to polish them to a lapidary edge.

I've always liked Larkin's advice on writing that you quote above. It's a good summation of the process and the enthusiasm it creates in us.

I have a soft spot for coming of age novels, too, so I might like this one. I'll look into it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t mind deadlines, Art, as long as they’re well off. I’ve agreed to take part in a blog tour to promote a friend’s new book and I picked the latest date possible which would fit in with my blogging schedule giving me about six weeks’ breathing space to read the book and write the article. That, I think, is a reasonable amount of time. Has she said I had a fortnight I would have declined. I might well have managed it—I regularly read and review a book within a week (I think The Levels took me five days in total)—but I don’t like having to manage it.

Dave King said...

They always look lost between something they forgot to do when they were younger and something terrible that is going to happen one day.

I remember this dread. Been there. Done that!

Actually, I find this a difficult response to write: your review left me with a lot of different and disconnected feelings.

I don't write love poetry - not for public view, anyway - not because it doesn't interest me, but because I can't. I read it, when I can find some that is written from as rigorous a standpoint as the author would have used for something else - and maybe that's the point, maybe it's the same with novels: when poets start to write about love, the critical faculty is given a tea break.

Another remark that interested me was the jolt at the beginning. I remember as a teenager going to a talk at the local library given by an author. He said his first ever (unpublished) book began Crash! The captain's head struck the deck. He still thought it his best ever. Seems publishers didn't agree.

maekitso said...

The similarities that you have mentioned between Benson's first and last novels seem all the more poignant in light of the cyclical structure of 'The Levels' that you have pointed to, Jim. If he had written them the other way around, it might look to the casual observer like he'd planned it that way; especially given the 14 year gap in his writing that preceded his last effort. I can imagine that he was struggling a lot during that period to come up with something 'worthy' for his publisher. Perhaps he was even looking for some kind of closure.

On the other hand, Peter Benson might find that idea to be offensive.

(Are you reading this Peter? I'd love to see or hear what you think.)

I guess it depends on how much of himself and his experience he really did invest in 'The Levels', and in it's success. I'm curious now about whether I'm on the right track there; so much so that I wish to read the entirety of his work. I'm not sure that studying the mind of an author through their work is a good reason to read their work. In fact, I find the idea of that repugnant myself; and not just a little. Nevertheless... I don't want to discount the idea until I've seen it for myself. I'm also keeping in mind that, in a cyclical world, the last book is not necessarily the final book.

I also want to say Jim that I am a great admirer of your reviewing style. It is the embodiment of "Critical Thinking" in the broad sense; a kind of critical thinking that is applicable to everyday life in every arena of life. It is not a special domain of 'The Philosopher'. I know it's not proper for 'blokes' to display too much admiration though, which is why I'm relieved that you raised the subject of men reading/not love stories.

You say men do read about "spies and soldiers and adventurers and aliens; ... shiny things that go fast and explode; dangerous things; exciting things." That sounds like the stuff of love stories to me. At the very least, it must be the stuff of the backdrop to love. That might explain why "[they] always look lost between something they forgot to do when they were younger and something terrible that is going to happen one day."

maekitso said...

Speaking of trying to get a handle on the nature of the internet, which I accept we were not; I just hit publish comment and within a fraction of a second received this text message from my mobile phone provider:

"Love your long recharge, love a long chat? Half-price calls (excl flagfall)..."

Jim Murdoch said...

I have a few decent love poems under my belt, Dave, but it bothers me that I can’t churn them out as and when needed. I loved my last wife as much as I’ve loved anyone and yet as hard as I tried—and I did try—none of the love poems I wrote for her were up to much. The best found its way into Milligan and Murphy, the story of the two one-legged men; that was originally a love poem called ‘For F.’ which is why I kept the characters’ names as F. and M., M. being me of course. The sentiment is fine, the image of two broken people who limp along together, but it’s not really romantic; Carrie has fared a little better. She writes the odd poem on a card but it’s been a few years since I managed one. In the early days of a relationship I desperately want to write but gap between the desire to write and the ability to do so is an immense one.

And, Brad, I have no idea why the gap. I was tempted to ask but I’m not sure it’s important. I don’t think any less of an author because there’s a big gap in his writing. William Golding had one but he still won the Nobel Prize; Rites of Passage came out in 1980; Close Quarters followed in 1987. Peter’s not written so many books that you couldn't read his entire output over maybe the course of a month. I deliberately chose The Levels from what was available: A Private Moon is about a private eye and that might have been interesting (I was a big fan of the old TV show Public Eye); A Lesser Dependency is all about colonialism which I’ve read a bit about but it’s not a subject that excites me; Riptide is about surfing and that was enough to put me off; Odo’s Hanging is an historical novel set during the reign of William I and, again, that was enough to put me off. The two that I might have gone for are The Other Occupant and The Shape of Clouds as they both deal with loners and I like reading about people on their own. All my characters are loners and I even count Milligan and Murphy as loners since they come as a package. Peter’s next novel is out in August and I imagine I’ll be offered a copy. I’ll certainly be happy to give it a shuftie.

A part of me hopes that Peter has read this review especially if he read my previous one and thought me uncharitable; I really don’t like being negative in reviews but I think it’s also important to call it as I see it so that when I do praise a book—which I pretty much expect I’m going to do with the book I’m currently reading—people will believe me. That’s why when I’m being negative I’ll look to see what other reviewers have said and pull in an alternative viewpoint to provide balance. I’m glad you appreciate what I have to say and keep coming back for me. That’s all the pat on the back I need.

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