[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.
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:
He 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.
Born 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.