The Unbroken Circle

“I was every track The Waterboys recorded between December 1981 and July 1985, from ‘December’ through ‘All The Things She Gave Me’ and ‘Be My Enemy’ to ‘This Is The Sea’.”

That’s Peter Benson writing in his 1994 novel ‘Riptide’. Or rather, it’s Peter Benson putting words in a characters’ mouth, for it is a work of fiction and we should always be wary of reading too much of the author’s personal life into their work, be it books, films, songs, reviews, whatever. Benson himself nods explicitly to this in a later book (2012’s terrific ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke’) when he/his narrator warns us that we should not “think that something [we] hear in a book or a film has anything to do with real life. Books and films are false.” Well quite. Songs too, as often as not. Mike Scott would probably agree with that. A suggestion of the real but also a hefty dose of the mystical and mythical, perhaps. Holes around the moon on a winter’s night walking the footpath to Loans and the Bruce Inn. That kind of thing.

The Waterboys, though, never really did it for me back in the 1980s or at any time since. It was one of the main reasons I put off reading ‘Riptide’ for so many years. That and surfing. I always felt there was something insufferably smug and dreary about surfers. I still do, to some extent, but I also understand that’s more about the mediated image and my own insecurities. You could say the same things about cycling, and I’d be with you pretty much 100%. Ironically of course Duncan, the narrator in ‘Riptide’, tells us that he feels exactly the same way about “surfer wankers” so yeah, that’s me told.

It is often difficult to look back and to understand our past impulses. They can often be remarkably uncomfortable and we try to obfuscate them with morning mists of misremembering. So it goes. I think then, though cannot be certain, that another reason I avoided reading ‘Riptide’ for 18 years was because Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ had meant such a lot to me in 1987 and I did not want to be disappointed. Stupid, in hindsight, but then how many of our younger selves’ decisions were anything but foolish at the very least? Then again too, je ne regrette rien and all that, and in this particular universe I’m happy I waited so long because it meant ‘Riptide’ became, along with ‘Two Cows’ and a handful of Benson’s other novels, a hugely enjoyable break from reading detective fiction back in 2012 or so.

Oddly, or inevitably not really, it’s much the same situation a decade on. The hefty piles of detective fiction on the ‘to be read’ shelves left for another week or so whilst I (re)indulge myself in some Peter Benson again, circling back to start with ‘Riptide’ because of a chance remark on social media about resurrecting old mix tapes from the mid 1980s. This particular one was great. Could have almost been one of mine, but only almost, and there is always something pleasing about that because our differences are as valuable as our connections after all. Something on there by Sinatra that I’d once foolishly have sniffed at but that now sounds sublime. An old Microdisney number that I listened to just hours before hearing of Cathal Coughlan’s tragic passing. Orange Juice, Love, New Order, The Velvets and closing out with The Chameleons. Old friends. Bookends. And yes, a Simon and Garfunkel track on there too. And The Waterboys’ ‘All The Things She Gave Me’, a song I barely recognised and all the better for that.

‘A Pagan Place’ did not mean anything to me in 1984 or in any year since until now. In some respects this is strange because I do remember that I loved, and bought, ‘The Big Music’ early in that year. Yet when we are eighteen time moves so quickly, or perhaps impossibly slowly, so by the time the summer came and left I was in a different place, a different person, metaphorically if not physically. Big was bad. An unconscionable evil. Something along those lines, anyway, and I was certainly no longer interested in The Waterboys. A year later things were not much different, and though my best friend Scott played ‘This Is The Sea’ on repeat and I begrudgingly admitted a fondness for ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ (informed in large part by aforementioned late winter night wandering of footpath to Loans and the Bruce Inn where some degree of alcohol may have been involved) in reality I couldn’t help wonder if this was a sign of us growing up, apart, as teenagers do when the dreaded twenties approach. I mean, just look at the teenage male friendships in Peter Benson’s books for proof of that. Sometimes I wonder if we would still be in touch, still riding bicycles, still listening to similar but different music. Moot point of course. I do still think of him though. The things he missed. Where do the years go?

I’m glad to hear every track The Waterboys recorded between December 1981 and July 1985 at this point in my life though, where the weight of the/my past can be cast off to a degree and allow me to hear things I’d never have allowed myself to notice. So that now what I hear is the sound of The Teardrop Explodes on steroids; Pale Fountains with long hair and more pointed Chelsea boots (enough in itself to put backs up and noses out, and I’d have been in line with that response then, but now it feels an irrelevance); Lou Reed singing songs of Ayrshire mysticism; Springsteen and the E Street Band channelling Van Morrison, swimming in symbolism and flying on metaphysical Beat poetry, a Semina soul of strangeness and sensuality. Occasionally overbearingly earnest and eager, but then they were earnest times and who wasn’t desperate to be something Other? And then that number about wanting to look like Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine. Someone told me it wasn’t even on ‘A Pagan Place’ when it was originally released, but whatever, it sounds hilarious/magical now. When I hear it I need to follow it with The Triffids’ ‘My Baby Thinks She’s A Train’, which is maybe just the train connection or perhaps because of those Mike Scott lines about calling up Australia. And would Peter Benson, or his eighteen year old narrator in ‘Riptide’, have dug The Triffids? I hope so.

‘Riptide’ is a tremendous read and I think I understand now the appeal The Waterboys would have had for the eighteen year old Duncan in the book who is searching for something. Losing and finding different things, all of which might have been It and then again might not. We used to make a thing about It, didn’t we? Perhaps failing to realise that It was constantly changing in front of our eyes and ears. Or maybe it was just me who didn’t understand that state of flux at the time. Entirely probable. Hopelessly naive, looking for black and white. This not that. That not this. For a long time I thought the narrator in Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Panninaro’ was the epitome of cool. That long list of things he says he doesn’t like, and then laughing and saying that the things he DOES like he loves with a passion. I mean, I still get that. I really do. It’s just that now it also feels limiting. A little embarrassing. Maybe that ‘Panninaro’ character sees it that way now too. Grown up. Grown old, at least.

I wonder if Duncan would still be listening to those Waterboys records in 2022 or if he’d have filed them in a box of uncomfortable memories and hidden them in a dusty attic or let them die of mould in a damp garage somewhere. Is he still with Estelle? Still surfing? Still looking for things and finding them and losing them? Aren’t we all?

There is a quote on the cover of my paperback copy of ‘Riptide’ from the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ that says the book is “Touching, funny and erotic.” I’m not sure about that. Touching and funny, certainly, and that’s pretty much Benson in a nutshell. But erotic? Certainly there is a lot of sex and thinking about sex in ‘Riptide’. It is a book narrated by an 18 year old boy, after all, so how could it be otherwise? Personally though I’d call the writing sensual, and it is what Benson does so well in all of his books. In ‘Riptide’ that sensuality is in the writing about sex, certainly, but it is also present in the way Benson paints the landscape and in how he has Duncan express the pleasures of surfing. The surfing of course is a metaphor for struggle and conflict. That searching for something and the finding and the losing. It is elemental and obsessive. That tantalisingly tangible yet infinitely elusive It again. Pure teenage dreams.

Benson writes with a sensuality in his latest book, 2019’s ‘The Stromness Dinner’, but here the sensuality is about food. And landscape, of course, this time that of Orkney. Always the mystical pull of landscape. The magic it holds, electric and essentially unknowable. Which is why we yearn to taste it, feel it, touch it. Steve Diggle knows the score here. I nearly missed ‘The Stromness Dinner’. Lost down my rabbit holes of detective fiction. Coming up for air. So thanks to my friends for nudging me to (re)discover The Waterboys, and thanks to Mike Scott for nudging me back to ‘Riptide’, and thanks to Peter Benson for writing books in a way that make me want to just keep reading more. And thanks to Peter Benson too for writing books that can be devoured so quickly that they feed the appetite. So I (re)read ‘Riptide’, ‘Two Cows…’ and ‘The Levels’ in a day each; ‘The Stromness Dinner’ over two. Not that they are slight books, any of them. There is a lot in there to chew over. Language mostly, because not much happens in Peter Benson books. Well, it does, but it doesn’t really. Except perhaps in parts of ‘Two Cows…’ which could be a comedy crime caper gone wrong. Except it’s also bleak and dark in places, the shadows cast by the endless scorching sun of the summer of 1976. The spells of the countryside around Ashbrittle, a place that feels like it sounds. Indeed there is something of that contrast in all of these Benson books. It could be a trademark quality. Like his skill for writing perfectly abrupt sentences. Hemingway or Fitzgerald losing themselves in Hardy landscapes. Something like that. Or nothing like that at all. Much better than I can manage, certainly.

Another of Benson’s trademark qualities would be his way with dialogue. Did I write something in the past about Benson’s dialogue being like George Pelecanos’? I might have done. Should have done, since both have a natural grasp for exchanges that is quick-fire, flowing, easy to follow until it isn’t. Who’s talking? Who said that line? Was that Muriel or Billy? Duncan or his mother? Ed or Claire?

Less happens in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ than in any of these other Benson novels. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that there is a red herring of a stolen vase, but that is about it. A cottage gets renovated and we think we might have seen ghosts. But not really. There are some reflections on Brexit and some sorrowfully angry, lost characters who might the read the Daily Mail, even on Orkney. There are salt of the earth working folks and wealthy City types, but again it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Benson makes a point (bluntly, but also, paradoxically, softly and gently because he always does) that people are mostly decent and thoughtful and kind despite their differences. It might be a book about individuals retreating to perceived positions of remote isolation, but it’s also about humans’ need to create connections and to belong to communities. The book may be separated from ‘The Levels’ by more than thirty years, but I sense a circularity here, not least in the tension between The City and Orkney, Somerset and That London. Ed and Claire might be what Muriel and Billy never were, partly because they are in their thirties and not teenagers, and partly perhaps because they are fictional characters and Benson is in his sixties not his twenties and that has to count for something, right? Even though books are false. Because books are false, perhaps.

When I first read ‘The Levels’ I was turning twenty one, so still a teenager of course, and I felt so bad for Billy. Every time I’ve read it since I have still felt bad for the boy, but increasingly also frustrated about his obsessive fixation on Muriel as Object Of Desire. Caught in a world of illusion and self-perpetuated emotional bondage (to family, to tradition, to place) he’s the Billy Liar of an ancient rural landscape with Muriel cast as Liz. Julie Christie disappears on the London train and Tom Courtney is left with the milk bottles. Or in the other Billy’s case, the willow and the basket weaving.

So is there a sense in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ of Ed and Claire doing what Billy and Muriel never could? There are certainly echoes whispering in the distance between the two books. Scents that linger. Almonds and apricots. Ghosts that flicker. Those lines in ‘We Were A Happy Crew’ about the wind in the reeds. I’m not sure Ed or Claire or Muriel or Billy would dig the sounds of Spirogyra but I think Duncan would have done and I think Peter Benson just might. They linger in ‘The Levels’, where Billy reckons that Muriel “had a beautiful face and the brain to match; her man would never be like me.” More than three decades later Ed says the same about Claire, though never quite as self-pityingly, as befits a man of thirty compared to a teenager. Naturally Claire and Ed could never be Billy and Muriel though. They’d be in their fifties, for one thing. Like me. Perhaps then they could be their children; fictional surrogates transplanted in time to fulfil a destiny that was never on the cards, not in a million years never mind thirty.

But then again ‘The Levels’ ends with the lines: “I was by the door, staring at a tree I’d planted against the wall. It looked dead months ago, but I can’t dig it up, I get a feeling, once in a while; something might happen.” And with ‘The Stromness Dinner’ there is the softest suggestion that, in some alternative universe of fictional reality and falsehood, the circle is unbroken and that tree might just have blossomed. It is certainly pretty to think so.

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