Richard: An Extract & Interview With Author Ben Myers
, January 14th, 2011 10:50
"I’ve been called a cunt": Ben Myers tells Kiran Acharya about the reaction to his tome Richard. PLUS an extract from the book itself
Richard, Ben Myers' fictionalised account of the final days of Manic Street Preachers' guitarist Richey Edwards, is a book that forces you to take a stance. Ever the contrarians, this is something the band should like, though some fans have baulked at Myers' presumption. Others have welcomed it as an addition, or addendum, to the myth of the missing Welshman. Reviews have also been divided, the majority positive in commending an emotive piece of imaginative literature.
The pat narrative surrounding Edwards' disappearance is well known and easily understood. In 1995, the night before he and James Dean Bradfield were due to fly to America, Edwards upped and left London's Ramada Hyde Park Hotel (then named The Embassy). The last reported sightings of him, over the following fortnight, placed him in Newport and, finally, at the Severn View service station. He was declared legally dead in 2008. Richey's story has been become a piece of UK rock lore, the story of a talented writer (if not guitarist) fleeing his own insecurities in the face of growing success.
Full disclosure, then. In 1996 the Manic Street Preachers were the band that made me sign up to the Britannia mail-order CD club in order to get Everything Must Go. Two years later there was a fantastic performance in Belfast's Ulster Hall on Sunday August 30, 1998, the day 'If You Tolerate This...' went to number 1 in the UK singles chart. Good times, but for whatever reason I've never felt compelled to buy an album or go and see them since.
Beginning on the eve of the disappearance, Myers's story takes us inside The Embassy, quickly establishing Edwards' point of view. The outlook is not good. Harried and fearful, he is isolated and feels threatened. Italicised flashbacks to his childhood in Wales, 'playing with a toy car on the olive-green carpet', arrive with shocking immediacy. But past and present are soon tangled, as a second voice, the voice of all doubt, leaks into the first-person part of the story. Deftly and fluently, Myers sets up the structure.
This could have been the book's first stumbling block. Any reader familiar with the band already knows what follows, or knows as little as anyone, the author included. But the short remembered sections leapfrogging the first-person parts create a mixture of memory and the moment that drives things forward. Pleasing details of the time foreshadow the facts of Edwards' life. There's mention of news stories. The Irish hunger strikers bring starvation and sickness into the picture. The missing Suzy Lamplugh signifies eventual and unresolved disappearance. 'Maybe she'll turn up, they say, but who can really know. It must be hard to just disappear, though, unless someone really wants you gone.'
As the Manics' success continues through the nineties in Europe and Japan, Edwards grows ever more detached and oppositional. The exotic placenames of Japan – Nagoya, Sendai, Sapporo – are relayed with all the enthusiasm of a list of British B-roads. In England Edwards feels alienated, in Germany weary. Though solitary, he is nowhere more at home than in Wales, seeking refuge from his own incessant internal critic. Edwards' division is mirrored in external binaries. In the early days the band make guerrilla runs from Wales to perform in England, retreating to the safe side of the border to regroup. More abstract is the line drawn between the romantic impulse and the intellect, with the suggestion that the taunting voice emerges from somewhere between the two.
Though the insidious voice becomes trying – a little too literal – after 200 pages, the idea that this is the voice of Richey Manic holds weight against the portrayal of Richard, the young man. What seems compressed and pressurised in the first half turns to become expansive as Richard is described in the Welsh woodlands, rapidly processing the data of his homeland. This is the book-as-book's principal victory, standing as good writing despite any knowledge and preconceptions readers might bring to the text. Myers' true service to the story is humanising the icon by portraying Edwards outside his common context. Offstage, alone, and out of sight, Richard is fully imagined. Some descriptions of the landscape are so fresh you can smell the moss.
Though lengthy, Richard succeeds as a portrayal of an intellectual and ambitious young musician, hounded by creative insecurity. Myers turns an icon a few degrees towards the light, complicating the memories of a man in danger of having his story calcified by fanatics. There are maculate passages, certainly. But his reading generates empathy and interest, returning you to the band and to the music. Ben Myers may not have known Richey Edwards but by the book's end readers will feel closer to Richard.
Q & A With Ben Myers
A large part of the novel imagines Richey in rural Wales, finding some kind of solace in nature. How far did you go in researching the area, to arrive at these great descriptions of the landscape?
Ben Myers: I spend a lot of time in the countryside. In fact I live in the countryside, so writing about nature and landscape is something I enjoy and never tire of – though it's usually the more northerly counties: Yorkshire, Cumbria, Northumberland and Durham. Before writing Richard I spent some time staying in a remote part of the South Wales valleys – oddly, in an old vardo (a wooden gypsy caravan). So I think a lot of what I saw while walking and driving round those parts crept into the book when I started writing it about 6 months later. Plus, nature doesn't generally feature in books about rock & roll a great deal. As part of my research I also visited the old Severn Bridge, the service station and its surrounding area but that just felt fucking weird. I was worried that someone might think I was on some sort of a morbid pilgrimage, so I didn't stick around.
The two narrative strands offer a dual kind of enjoyment. The band history, with references to songs and bands like Suede and Therapy, then the imaginary internal monologue. Which was the more enjoyable to develop?
BM: I think the narrative that tracks the formation and rise of the Manics was more enjoyable to write because it was fact-based and set in a world – the music business – that I know, have worked in, and have a vague distaste for. The other narrative was more concerned with attempting to see the world through Richey Edwards' eyes which is of course an impossible task, but one I thought still worth attempting. Trying to portray a total nervous breakdown is not easy. I wouldn't expect any sympathy because it was entirely self-induced, but I was left feeling pretty bereft by the end of it all.
Some readers have considered your book alongside The Damned United by David Peace. But with the long lonely walk in rural Wales, and the mixture of fact, fiction and biography, there's a conceptual similarity between Richard and WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn or even Will Self's Walking to Hollywood. Do you read much of this genre-bending auto-fiction?
BM: Yes I do – and it's pretty perceptive of you to specifically mention those books because if ever anyone asks if I have any hobbies, the only answer I can think of is 'walking', which seems such a basic, primal thing to do, like listing your hobby as 'breathing'.
But I think walking is the physical equivalent of writing: you start off with no idea where you're going, you discover things along the way, you embark upon real or imagined dialogues, characters might pass you by, you pass a point of no return and then maybe you a finally arrive at somewhere new or surprising or unexpected. Plus, you can keep your weight down without having to wear a tracksuit.
My favourite thing to do in London is to walk. Public transport requires introversion, if only for the sake of your sanity, but when you walk you notice the architecture, the side alleys and snickets - the things you miss on a bus. There's a long and rich tradition of the literary flaneur or the more recent psychogeographers, of which Will Self is a prime exponent - who blend fact and fiction with movement. But, yes, Richard is, in part, 50% one long narrative walk into the wilderness.
Can you describe the cruellest or most irrational response to the book so far? (Or indeed, the nicest and most flattering.)
BM: The book has been called repulsive and distasteful, but taste is a very subjective thing. I've been called a cunt – fine – but the worst thing was that someone called me lazy. Then again that was written online by someone using a pseudonym and you can't get too upset by people who hide behind the safety of their computer screens. It's endemic at the moment, isn't it? And it's not reality. It's like when you spend more than five minutes reading YouTube comments your faith in humanity quickly wanes. Similarly I'm trying not to pay too much attention to the nice reviews too, though was flattered that a couple of people have described the writing as poetic.
Here's something I have learnt though: there are many young, intelligent, articulate people who consider themselves as being alternative or open-minded yet who act, talk and think like Young Conservatives. It's no wonder the Tories got in. We're living in an age where moral outrage is encouraged, hysteria is the norm and the kneejerk reaction is the prevailing reaction. This is an era when some stupid woman putting a cat into a dustbin can galvanise more people into action than a genocide in a far-flung country. The internet is the great facilitator for this moral outpouring. But let he who is without sin... and all of that.
The book presents a creative young mind in turmoil. Did you discharge any of your own authorial or writerly insecurities when creating the insistent, often malicious critical voice?
BM: Yeah, probably. I'm not a confident person. I'm not shy, but I do worry. After writing a number of novels which never got published I was haunted by an Einstein quote: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". So I decided that if I couldn't get Richard published I would stop and do something else for a while otherwise I would be clinically insane. So maybe that lack of confidence – the nagging doubts and insecurities – in my mind seeped through into the book itself. As an insecure unsuccessful young man writing a book about an insecure successful young man, you can't avoid putting a lot of yourself in there.
As an icon, who do you think Richey Edwards is aligned with; what's his place in rock history? Similarly, which characters in fiction can Richard claim kinship with?
BM: I don't think Richey Edwards was too similar to many people who had gone before in 'rock history', which was possibly what drew me to him in the first place. All rock & roll is theft, so outwardly he appeared to be a composite of various reference points – Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, Ian Curtis, and maybe Elizabeth Taylor or Joan Collins too – but I don't think he was anything like them at all. I think the literary comparisons are maybe easier to draw: Thomas Chatterton, Arthur Rimbaud and maybe some literary creations, like the brilliant, tormented young men in the writing of people like Celine, Hamsun or Mishima – men who are either so highly sensitive or have such a wider view of the world that they cannot exist in it easily.
There are scenes that describe Richey's angst immediately before Gold Against the Soul. He's portrayed as fretful, without full confidence in his work. If second novels are like second albums, how do you feel about this one?
BM: If you could tinker or change anything, what would it be? I wrote a novel a few years ago – The Book Of Fuck – but it is so short and was written so quickly that Richard feels like the first proper novel. So perhaps if I publish another novel I'll be able to answer then...
Disapproving Manic Street Preachers fans might accuse the publishers of cynically releasing Richard at the same time as Postcards From a Young Man. What's the final word?
BM: In August 2009, Richard was scheduled for publication by Picador for October 2010. This was two months before the Manics had even recorded a note of their new album. But thinking about it... I'm not bothered what people think.
An Extract From Richard
The beck is far away below as I continue along the reptile's
spine. It is nothing more than a grey wound in the earth,
a meandering fissure in the earth's crust, the car-sized
boulders that litter its banks reduced to jagged dots lifted
down the valley during the last days of the ice age some
twenty thousand years ago and randomly deposited at
the beck's side – itself the last trickling traces of a glacier
that must have once covered South Wales with hundreds
of miles of creaking, shifting, landscape-sculpting ice.
Where the beck snakes downhill, miniature oxbows
have formed amongst the rocks and small shelves where
the earth has been sluiced away by the flow, revealing redpeat
cross-sections from which tangled roots protrude
and earthworms gamely attempt to wriggle back into the
Across the other side of the valley, patches of flattened
bracken are patterned across the hillside; great brittle
burnt-orange swathes, poised for fossilization. I realize I
am walking through one such crop now, a mirror image
of what I can see a mile away as the crisp branches and
dead leaves crunch underfoot like a frost.
I am tired and I keep coughing but I intend to keep
walking, even if it kills me.
The cold sake tastes like nail polish, but you knock it
back all the same while pushing at the untouched squid
rings with your chopsticks.
Tokyo again. City of vending machines. City of the
soiled panties. Germany is a shadow on the memory.
You – band and crew – have the night off and take
turns suggesting what to do after the meal.
Someone thinks you should all go to a lesbian sumowrestling club they've heard about.
Someone else dismisses the idea.
Your head feels hot and heavy; your skin puffy. Blotchy.
Japan again. Jet-lagged again.
Drunk and depressed again.
Still down in the darkness.
You get into an argument with James about football,
but halfway through making a long and convoluted point
you forget what you're arguing about, and start laughing.
Then you're in another bar. Some ridiculously tacky
and clichéd karaoke place that one of the crew recommended.
Nick disappears. Sean gets sarcastic. Someone knocks over a drink.
James meanwhile clenches his teeth and stoically
drains his bottled lager. He is becoming as unhinged as
you are, in his own quiet, brooding, macho way.
In such alien landscapes, you all revert to type.
Many more drinks later and you are falling onto your
bed at the palatial Miyako Hotel.
It's only the next morning that you're told that an
earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale shook the
hotel for a few minutes in the middle of the night.
Blissfully drunk, you slept right through it.
There are gifts wherever you go.
Game Boys, toys, books, flowers, dolls, comics,
pornography, letters, cards. It's a gift-giving culture.
You spend three weeks here.
Three weeks flitting between Osaka and Fukuoka.
Hiroshima and Tokyo.
In and out of hotels. On and off trains. In and out of
Smoking and coughing. Smoking and coughing.
Unknown Pleasures on your Walkman to block out
the silence of Japan in autumn. The pink chrysanthemum
blossom of a lovelorn, wine-drunk Li Po poem and azure
watercolour sunsets. The mist on the distant mountaintops.
A solitary cigarette on a station platform.
Then back to the city. Rain falls as the
opposite side of the valley gives way to a
thick forest of alpine trees planted in near-perfect lines.
The trees are tucked in tight and are of the darkest green.
There is something very comforting about the regimented
pattern as well as the consistency of nature.
I stop and sit on a rock in a slight hollow to drink
some water and catch my breath. Then I light a cigarette.
When I have smoked it, I use my heel to dig a divot in
the soil, drop the butt end into it, then cover up again.
I read somewhere that it takes sixty years for a fag end to
biodegrade. Or maybe it was six hundred years. I forget
What does that have to do with anything?
I was just saying.
It's a bit late to be worrying about your impact on the
planet you're intent on leaving behind, don't you think?
They'll be looking for you, you know.
I don't want to think about that.
They'll be tearing their hair out.
Please don't. I thought you had stopped. I thought you
were going to leave me alone.
I don't remember that conversation. You and I both
know I will only stop when you make me stop.
Oh, I will.
Saying isn't doing.
Richard is out now, published by Picador.