Blowing wild and searching for peace

At the start of this month I re-read a selection of Peter Benson novels and re-appraised the music of The Waterboys from 1981 to 1985. It didn’t take long to decide that all were terrific and well-worth revisiting. In the midst of all this I also read Benson’s 2019 novel ‘The Stromness Dinner‘, which struck me as a beautifully judged piece of poetic fiction with a realist backbone. Lots of handsomely worked language about landscape and the pleasures of food. Finely wrought but staying the right side of rococo, delicious filigree and shadow. In summing up ‘The Stromness Dinner’ and Benson’s other novels I noted that nothing ever really happens in his books. Or rather that it does, but it doesn’t really. Even in something like the marvellous 2012 ‘Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke’ where there are drug dealers and murder, car chases and falling in love with hippie girls, it feels as if those cartoon episodes of action are just that: cartoons punctuating an afternoon spent watching Pasolini films on Channel 4. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck infiltrating a Truffaut season on BBC2. What lingers most are the deceptively light observations on the worlds that we pass through, the lives we lead and the loves we love to love. Darkness, sorrow, and loss, too. Inevitably.

Well, just to prove that I’ve likely been talking out of my arse, Peter Benson has only gone and written a new novel where EVERYthing happens. Here the cartoons are the main feature, a psychedelic madcap race into oblivion where the pauses for breath allow the recharging of energies under the guise of philosophical reflections. Fidelity. Loneliness. Boredom. Justice. Mediated obsession with everyone else’s business. Actually not giving a fuck about anyone else’s business. Tuning out the hate and turning onto love. Deep breath and on we go again. Foot to the floor and take to the backroads where no-one will find us.

Now there was a time when Peter Benson might have been seen to be, if not on the M4 of literary ascendency, at least on the A303. This would be back when Benson’s debut novel ‘The Levels’ was winning The Guardian fiction prize and when books like ‘Riptide’ sported quotes from reviews in the Daily Mail. If it’s something of a shame then to suggest that subsequent books such as ‘Two Cows’, ‘The Shape of Clouds’, ‘The Other Occupant’, ‘A Lesser Dependency’ and ‘A Private Moon’ might have dropped him off even the A303 into the backwater lanes of the Blackdowns, perhaps that’s been to the reader’s benefit. It’s certainly true to say that each of these books has been a treasure of intelligent, measured prose untarnished by whatever the literary fashions of the days might have been. Not that such metaphorical travelling around in the backroads, reversing up for tractors and milk tankers, will have helped pay the bills. But perhaps it’s allowed Benson to build a body of work that is impressive in its wealth of intelligent prose. And there is, in all of Benson’s work, an indulgence in the luxury of words that is immensely pleasurable but never cloying and that never outstays its welcome. A certain pragmatism is always ready to curb pretension when it threatens to get above itself. Mind how you go, poet wanker.

If there was a delicate restraint in ‘The Stromness Dinner’ then in ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ Benson really lets it all hang out. There is a spontaneity to the language here that feeds off the narrative and vice versa. At times it feels almost out of control, a wild and wicked stream of consciousness on the road to nowhere, which might be North Wales or might be anywhere else but here today. Running away to get away. Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Peter Benson doing David Goodis doing William Burroughs reading R.S. Thomas whilst listening to Paul Haig doing Sly Stone. Albert Ayler wailing in the background. And then, and then, and then.

Pause. Breathe. Punctuate with an asterisk like a Big Flame change of pace and direction. Just so.

‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is a comic thriller, a dystopian modern fairy tale searching for enlightenment in the richness of words and the white light of unexpected love. ‘End of the fucking world’ meets ‘Harold and Maude’, perhaps. It also recalls something of the wickedly funny series of novels featuring Peacock Johnson that Stuart David has been writing these past ten years or so: books that simultaneously remind us that striking the right comedic balance in a novel is a tough act to pull off, yet still make it seem so effortless. Bastards.

It’s not entirely smooth running though. There are some stumbles that might be intentional nods to what’s gone before or might be examples of a writer forgetting that past and losing their place. So there’s the same perfume (the one Marie Antoinette wore) that crops up in ‘The Stromness Dinner’, and there’s a familiar anecdote about a bishop and a diplomat from the south seas discussing the inherent impossibilities of religion and belief. Perhaps an editor said “Benson, have you lost your shit here?” and Benson replied, “can’t you see the signposts of connective narrative that I’m threading through the cosmos?”. Or perhaps not.

As in his previous books, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ showcases Benson’s gift for the gab. His exchanges between characters are eminently believable, quick fire, barely broken up with ‘he said, she said’ markers. It’s easy to get carried along, sometimes forgetting the place. Who’s this? What’s that? Doesn’t matter. Onwards!

I love this about Peter Benson’s books, and about ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ in particular. They are quick and easy reads, this one more than most. A tabloid headline turned against itself, ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ is about knowing when to say fuck you and fuck off and when to shut up, shut down and lose yourself in love. It raises you up on its shoulders and carries you away. Quick and easy, but not easy easy. Simple not stupid, stupid. It’s so difficult to do that. Stripping things out to leave just what’s required. ‘Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers’ then is the sound of a Modernist doing improv. Blowing wild and searching for peace.

Kidnap Fury of The Smoking Lovers‘ is published by Seren books.

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