The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, is written in prose that is as mesmerising as poetry. The author conjures up a potent sense of place, rendering the beauty and power of nature alongside man’s small place in it. The tale is humbling but also uplifting. This is writing to be savoured.
The story is narrated by Robert Appleyard, son of a miner working the pits around Durham. Now facing old age, Robert is looking back on a pivotal summer when he was sixteen and hungry for freedom. Growing up he understood that, once finished with school, the colliery beckoned as it had his father and grandfather. Before accepting this fate, he decides to satisfy a hunger for a different experience. The Second World War is not long over and the transience of life, the need not to waste what precious moments are granted, is seared into a mind still reeling from horrific images of mass graves.
“Wars continue long after the fighting has stopped, and the world felt then as if it were full of holes. It appeared to me scarred and shattered, a place made senseless by those in positions of power.”
“no one ever really wins a war: some just lose a little less than others.”
With a pack on his back, Robert sets out from home one morning to explore whatever is beyond the village where he has spent his life to date. He sleeps in outbuildings or under hedges, doing odd jobs to earn food along the way. Having felt cooped up in a classroom, where lessons dragged interminably, he relishes being outdoors, unknown and unconstrained. He walks from Durham across Cumbria and through North Yorkshire, to where the land meets the sea.
“This was agricultural rather than industrial terrain – of the earth rather than stained by it.”
“I experienced frequent and quite unexpected moments of exhilaration at the overwhelming sense of purposelessness that I now had. I could go anywhere, do anything. Be anyone.”
Although drinking in his newfound freedom, Robert’s outlook is still limited by the beliefs drummed into him about what someone like him can expect to achieve. He is therefore unprepared when he meets Dulcie Piper, a wealthy and eccentric older lady living in a rundown cottage above a remote bay. She recognises the potential in the boy and sets about inculcating an appreciation of literature. Amongst other pleasures, including fine cooking and wider thinking, she introduces him to poetry.
Dulcie is a fabulous creation with her disregard for rules, religion and those in authority.
“I have seen other wars. Read about plenty more too. And what I’ve learned is that they’re all much the same […] most people just want a quiet life. A nice meal, a little love. A late-night stroll. A lie-in on a Sunday. As I said before, don’t despise the Germans.”
“‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.”
Dulcie tells Robert stories from a colourful history, lends him books, expresses opinions he has never before considered. Over the course of the coming weeks she awakens in him a deeper understanding of possibilities. Alongside their burgeoning friendship the verdant surroundings shares its bounty. Robert is enraptured by the sea, the land and its creatures. In time he learns why Dulcie, with her wealth and connections, has settled in this place.
Plot development is gentle. The joy of the book is the language: the rich descriptions of nature, the wit and wisdom of dialogue. Although set in a time that too many hark back to with nostalgia, it has contemporary relevance. Time is marked in the shape of the land more than the history of man’s repeated foolishness fuelled by ego.
“the Great War was the worst atrocity committed by humankind. What lessons were learned? Build bigger bombs and better bombs, that’s all. Hitler still happened, and there’ll be another angry little man along in due course. I sometimes think that in many ways we’re completely screwed, all the time. I suppose it’s a collective state of insanity. It must be, to keep repeating the same patterns of death and violence.”
Perhaps because of such sentiments, the life Dulcie has lived, and introduces Robert to, is one of making the most of every moment. She has taken pleasure wherever it may be found: nature and literature, food and wine, love and travel. A tragedy haunts her yet she retains an enthusiasm for life, eschewing societal strictures. She shows Robert that he has choices beyond family expectation.
I finished this novel both with tears in my eyes and feeling like punching the air with satisfaction. It made me want to go straight out and enjoy a long walk through the local fields to appreciate what matters in our still beautiful world. There may always be the endless bickering of dull men about: politics, loss of respect for some self-appointed hierarchy, the good old days. Of more import and value is the breathing in and out of the seasons. Nature renews and offers itself as a balm for those willing to engage. Perspectives in life need not be those imposed by oppressors.
I enjoyed this story, the power of its words and beauty of its language. The author has delivered something special. I recommend you read it.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury.