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Bonds Of Morality: Ben Myers' Beastings Reviewed In Conversation
Kit Caless , August 24th, 2014 13:43

Weary of the standard review format — of answering the question 'Yeah, but is it any good?' — Kit Caless, publisher at Influx Press, sits down with novelist and academic Heidi James to discuss their experience of Ben Myers' new novel Beastings

Setting and Place

The first thing that struck me about Beastings, which is essentially a rural tale, was I didn't feel like it was in England, or an England I knew, exactly.

Absolutely, and that was the comment made on blurb wasn’t it? 'Like an American southern gothic tale'. I found quite interesting because it read more like a kind of how I imagine Wyoming or somewhere like that. I'm with you, it's not a countryside I recognize, being a southerner, being from Kent.

K: Because the Kent is so managed. There’s no wilderness.

H: And densely populated! There's never any sense of threat. You can get lost in the Kent countryside, in the sense that you are two and a half miles away from somewhere, but there's always the nagging feeling that if you keep walking you'll eventually end up at the A2. Or Margate. Even as a kid, we went roaming in places like Romney Marshes and we sort of got lost, but not really. You knew if you kept walking you'd be out of there by six, seven o'clock in the evening. There was no sense of genuine threat.

K: And even if you hit the coast you still knew you'd get to Rye, or Hastings or wherever.

But this novel felt expansive. When I was reading it, I felt a bit lost. I was trying to picture the landscape, which is very evocatively written, but I couldn’t anchor myself. It felt like once some part of the countryside had been described and the girl had moved on, I had almost forgotten what the part she'd moved on from looked like. And then the priest tracking her would come across the same landscape a bit later and I wouldn’t recognize it for ages until suddenly it would click like – oh! That's where they are... So I was lost at the same time as the characters. It was quite exciting.

H: I think the book does that beautifully, idiomatically - it creates the loss that the characters are having so you become lost with them. As a writer, I found myself asking, how is Ben writing about the same thing so beautifully over and over again. What an incredible feat.

But now, I think you're right, it's because the landscape we grew up in that perhaps we can’t see that. A few rolling hills, the odd village pond, some basic woods - there aren't that many ways of describing these things beautifully over again, I don't think. There might be people who grew up in Kent really offended by this – but the Kent landscape isn’t dramatic outside of human interruption.

You don't get that same sense of expanse, you never feel lost. And in this book, I mean, of course – fucking awful things happen everywhere, next door to one another in a suburban tiny terrace – however, there's something about this vast physical expanse in the novel that loosens the characters from the bonds of morality. That made the whole narrative very believable.

K: It took me ages to decide when it was set! There weren’t too many clues at all.

H: I almost researched it to find out. I didn't, I resisted, but I did think about it.

K: I almost got the point where I thought, this could be set now, if I tried hard enough. It really could be. You know where Raol Moat when on the run – I thought, that's pretty much the same thing here. Not the same countryside as that was Northumbria, I think, but he genuinely disappeared, went on the run and people were sent out to search for him. Just like Beastings.

Apart from the language and some of the dialogue which is slightly archaic and clearly from a different time, I'm not sure you can place it directly in any time period. I think this adds to the whole reading experience.

H: There is this mythical, mysticality to it. It seems bound by this sense of being un-tethered, unhinged because the places – human settlements, towns, villages – are so distant from each other. Which in Kent, even 100 years ago was not the case. It's always been densely populated, comparatively to other parts of the country.

K: There's a bit where she stops at an abandoned house…

H: Yes, near the quarry…

K: As it a house in the beautiful Kent countryside is ever going to be fully abandoned! The real estate is too good. Maybe in towns like Rochester or Margate or Herne Bay you’re going to find some, but not in the downs and the small valleys. You're never going to get a house like this one in Beastings.

Near where I grew up, you can follow an old train track out of Canterbury, to Folkestone, it's no longer there, they ripped it up in 1954, but it used to carry a lot of the arsenal to the coast during the Second World War.

You can still walk along the tracks, there isn't actually track, it's just a grassy path, but because it was a train track, it's not directly connected to many roads. There's still tunnels there you can walk through, there's still the signal boxes. But.... none of the ex-station buildings that are still standing are abandoned. One of them is a local library, one is a house, one is a tea shop, it's in the middle of nowhere but because it's a building in a nice part of Kent...

H: You cannot leave it alone. Of course.

K: I found that part of the book really interesting, trying to picture such a large abandoned house in the countryside. I couldn't picture it near anywhere I knew intimately.

H: I've just come back from Washington in the USA, and that was, in my mind a lot as a reference point when I was reading Beastings; the mountains and the space, the vastness. It just isn't a topography that my mind can readily pull up, so had to go to points outside of my childhood and outside of my everyday vista.

K: I found the idea of a Priest running around the countryside quite novel as well.

H: Yes yes! The fact he has so much sway over the communities, as a catholic priest. I was raised Roman Catholic but that was very much a minority thing in Kent, and I think that's true in London too. Not that religion is talked about that much.

K: If you're from Canterbury it is. We've got a fuck-off-big Cathedral.

H: Well so does Rochester, where I grew up! But of course, these are the seats of Anglicanism in the country. So just having a Catholic priest have so much sway and roaming around the countryside above the law, it would be difficult to pull off in a novel set in the same era in Kent. The Priest wouldn't have it, the Vicar might have that sway but a priest would not.

K: Yes and that makes me think of that sort of era (whatever Victorian era it is) writing in Kent - I mean, a few decades before Beastings is set, you had Dickens writing about Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Rochester - there's some religious writing in Dickens, I think there’s a vicar in Bleak House for example, but it's not the stuff that stands out. He mostly avoided writing about it as far as I’m aware.

H: Regardless, what is interesting is we've got someone in power who is impervious to justice, who has some dark secrets that everyone seems to know about but no one can do anything about. And if we're talking about it being set in the past - well, very, very recently we've had Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris and more disturbing the revelations of cover ups in Parliament about child abuse, not surprising but still very disturbing. This is an age-old thing - the collusion of silence that allows these things to happen. Which made the book incredibly contemporary.


H: I think the poacher is a really interesting character, he is very sympathetically written – as all the working class characters are, he is not well educated but he is an intelligent man, capable of critical thought, but he still adheres to authority. So although he is questioning that priest, he doesn't do anything to in reaction to events.

K: How did you feel about the role of the girl? I took it that she was mute because of her past. I felt like she stood for that silence that we are talking about, that cover up, that collusion.

H: Exactly, emblematic. I wrote a character along time ago who is mute, a little girl who is being abused by her mother – and it definitely produces a sense of being silenced by someone else's acts.

K: It reminds me of the narrator in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he pretends to be mute all the way through the novel, and then talks at the end.

H: There's even a character in Orange is the New Black who is mute but then starts singing! It's a known metaphor I think, a known disorder too. It happens when you are silenced.

With my character, she is told to keep so many secrets that she daren't ever speak because she's afraid they will all tumble out of her at once. This is true of Myers’s girl too. I also read something recently about ‘catatonia’, where patients are clearly conscious but will not engage with the world around them, including speaking because they are so traumatised.

So on the other hand this girl does stand as a cypher or emblem for the general silencing of the general populous but also of females, girls, being silenced. 'You won't be listened to, so why even try'.

H: And that still happens now. With slut shaming and rape culture.

K: There's a whole spectrum of this silencing - from slut shaming to 'shut up about feminism all the time'. I don't think I applied this at the time I was reading Beastings, but you're right. There is a muting of women in the book. It certainly means there is only a male voice. There are female actions…

H: But there is only a male voices. Yes. Even in the final moments, whilst there are women present it is the men bring about resolutions.

K: Even the mother of the child who has been snatched is barely physically there. And certainly doesn't speak

H: What I thought was lovely was there was no exposition... it wasn't hammered home why the girl took the baby. But it was revealed along the way that sense of why she felt she had to rescue it.

K: She saw herself in the baby, quite clearly.

H: In the baby's fate, yes. There's a line in the first few pages that captures that: “She saw a life that was already set in place just as hers had been from day one.” I thought that was great, that's the set up, that's essentially the book.

K: How did you feel about the relationship between her and the baby? It deteriorates the further along she gets in her journey – which I really liked. She has that 'nurturing instinct' at the beginning, I guess, if you can term it that, or the way the DNA programmes itself to keep a baby in your hands alive. But the longer the story goes on the less she is able to fulfill that function. What is the significance of that in the book? What did it mean to you?

H: I'm not sure I agree with generalisations about maternal instinct anyway, although there are definite moments, something biological does kick in for some people. I thought it was interesting that when she is at her absolute end, how the social constructs break down for the girl in Beastings. It comes back to this Lord of the Flies idea, or any kind of apocalyptic storytelling - that what we think is most ingrained, what we hold dear, a sense of justice - equity - whatever, falls apart like a palace built from matchsticks, the minute we are at the limit. So in a sense, what can this girl do without any support?

K: It reminds me of that line from Bobby Womak’s Across 110th Street: 'You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure’. I think you also know what you are NOT capable of. That’s what I think this book is about.

H: I always think that's the interesting thing about writing – you will know your characters, often, better than you will ever know yourself. In that, hopefully, most of us have never really been in a precarious life or death situation. Hopefully, most of us haven't witnessed a horrific accident, or been beaten to a pulp, so we don't know how we would respond. We'd like to think we'd be heroic or clever, or calm but we don't know. However, we usually know it about the characters we are writing. It's an interesting chasm of not knowing – between ourselves and our characters.

K: I got run over by a car on my fifth birthday. I ran out behind a bus and a car came the other way and smashed into me. It was pretty bad – I was in hospital for 10 weeks, leg in traction. I have no genuine memories before the accident; they kind of got wiped out. From aged 5 onwards for a number of years I would replay the accident in my head, and create a different ending. I would see the car coming in my new version and I would jump up, run over the car and it would carry on going and I would land the other side absolutely fine. I had invented a heroic version what would I would do if that ever happened again. I swore to myself that I would be prepared the next time and I would change the outcome; become heroic instead of weak and helpless which is what I was.

I think that's what we do with our characters, not that we become heroic via our characters and jump over cars, but that we play situations out that we might have touched on, or read about and then imagine what our different personalities inside us would do in that situation.

H: Yes! You can examine the coward in you. You can examine the extremist in you. I'm always interested in how ordinary, good people act in extreme situations. I remember as a child – I had a chaotic difficult childhood – I remember being disappointed, in a way that's difficult to describe now, when adults who I thought were very special did very little or were quiet under an extreme situation. Maturity brings a sense of grey.

It's interesting that as a child you took hold of that situation and you revised it. You almost took control of it. I don't think adults can do that when something dreadful happens. They feel mired in it, and stuck.

K: I agree, but because it wasn't an emotional accident, it wasn't abusive, it wasn't something I had to bury away…

H: It was still very traumatic.

K: I feel like I dealt with it, bringing it back to this book ¬– the way the girl places a future on the child she’s snatched. The way she thinks, 'you're going to grow up to be a beautiful daughter that I will look after that loves me,’ she is almost projecting a new version of herself, or how she should have lived her childhood on to the baby. I think this is very similar to what I did, deciding that next time I was about to get hit by a car I would be able to jump over it.

H: What's interesting is, that is a really immature outlook. My mother was a teenage mother, my sister had a baby at 16 too, and I've known a couple of girls who had babies very young and there is a sense, you cannot generalise of course, but in my experience there's a sense of having a baby to love you, to complete you. I know grown women who think that too. But the child will always disappoint you. You must not have children to love you. You love them, you belong to them, not the other way round. At some point they must turn away from you. And this is evident in the book. The child is a projection, she projects on to the child. We never really get a sense of the baby as an individual. But babies, even from birth have a personality. Yet you don't get any sense of that. Which is really interesting.

Class and Power

H: Kevin Duffy, Ben’s publisher at Blue Moose, recently wrote something responding to a something Melvyn Bragg said about working class characters in fiction. How they are stereotyped or almost written out of fiction all together. I think Ben writes about the working class really well. In this book all the working class characters are sympathetic. But there's not necessarily a hierarchy that relates to class in this book, at least I didn't read it that way. It's the same in Pig Iron – the central hero is a traveller.

K: It's not how you would view your typical working class in fiction is it? Your industrialised, unionised, working men's club type.

H: No, and that's what freeing about it. There aren't those stereotypes. None of this salt of the earth, like you say, industrialised working class figures. I grew up on a council estate in Kent with working class family and they do not fit any stereotype. I don't know, I don't think I've ever known anyone who really does. Ben does this really well, he unsettles those stereotypes, those assumptions. You end up reading about human beings. It's not about one broad version of a sector of society. Ben writes characters that are individuated, but still embedded in the world they come from.

K: What I really liked about the relationship between the Priest and the Poacher, was the power relationship between the two. The Poacher simply did not need the Priest at all. He didn't give a shit about the Priest really. But he knew the Priest needed him and his tracker dog.

H: It's funny – I was talking to some of my students earlier, who are American: they had to give a presentation about power structure and its differences. And they decided that in the UK, as they had noticed, that we are far less respectful of authority, generally speaking. We nod to it, “all right, you're the boss”, on an everyday level. Whereas they felt they are more respectful of authority on a general level in the States. We can argue that might not be true, but it did make me think about the Priest and the Poacher in Beastings. From the Poacher there is a sort of “all right, I'll incline my head to you but actually - fuck off mate.”

K: The Poacher sees right through the Priest when he tries to pull rank. He almost views him as pathetic. The Poacher sees the Priest's flaws, he knows them. The Poacher plays this harlequin/fool character, the only person who is able to criticise the Priest in the book and get away with it. There's a part where he hears the Priest talking about some dreadful past misdemeanors in his sleep. The Poacher let's the Priest know that he heard him talking in his sleep, but doesn’t tell him anything specific things.

H: There is that form though... you know throughout literary history. Take Chaucer for example, a special man for us Kent people, he wrote less well educated, but incredibly intelligent characters who are critical of society. I think the Poacher is part of that lineage. Incredibly intelligent man actually, critical thinking, sees right through the Priest and as articulate as he can be with where he came from, with the tools available to him. I thought that was excellent.

K: There's one section where the Priest accuses the Poacher of being a common thief. But the Poacher says, I eat everything I catch, I'm not wasteful like you are I don't have all this ornamentation.

H: This was a really nice deconstruction of capitalism, of the class system. Implying something like ‘You accuse me of stealing but I'm just living off the land, I'm not stealing from anyone, I'm not gathering profits and paying slave wages’.

K: Or exploting these girls at the church!

H: There's also a theme of common decency. There was really great moment where the Poacher says to the Priest, it'd be interesting if I went back and told the blokes at the pub, who you say are beasts - though he doesn't say it so outrightly – he just implies that ‘well you hold yourself up as the moral arbiter but actually the blokes that I'm drinking with that you say are sodomites or whatever, have more decency that you.’

K: We have so many clichés that surround the working class, all classes really, but one is the 'deserving poor': the upright-moral-salt of the earth-clean the front of your steps-cliché. You've got that, then you've got your animalistic, primordial, lad who spends his wage packet down the pub etc.

What I found interesting about the way Ben writes about the working class culture is that… he doesn't really address it. He writes as if to say, these are normal people, just living everyday. They don't think themselves any higher than anyone, they don't think themselves any lower. It's sounds very dull, but actually it's quite fascinating because you don't come across this approach to writing about the working class very often, at least, I haven't. And by writing about his characters like this he makes them three dimensional beings, rather than resorting to archetype.

H: No, he's not writing about the “working class”, in the sense of hey this is a novel about the working class. You know, it's not didactic. It’s more that he says – ‘here is a situation and here are the people in it’. But it's funny that you talk about the salt of the earth stereotype because I think it’s going away. I mean, look – I hate the word 'chav', but this is now the stereotype: there's nothing that exists between aspirational lower middle class and chav council estate scroungers.

K: I think that has a lot to do with the political splintering of the working class. The breaking up of that collective block, you know? When industry left the south, what was left to replace it?

H: Yes, Thatcher did a grand job destroying any sense of working class solidarity in the south. I remember when the dockyards in Chatham closed, I was a little girl, and there was no outrage, no sense that a community was being destroyed. Everyone seemed to have bought into Thatcher’s bullshit.

K: It's almost as if the south was sold the dream and the north was simply left to rot. So what we got in the south is this nightmare of Thatcher’s vision that we could 'belong'. What I found fascinating about Beastings, was that I felt removed from the culture of the characters. Here was a book about a part of my tiny country that I had no experience of, that my southern myopia hadn't allowed me exposure to.

H: Where I grew up, when I was little there was still the idea that - you get engaged and you put your name down on the council list and you get a flat, and when you have your kids you get a house and you stay in that house, and then you get your bungalow down in Margate to retire to and you free up your lovely three bedroom house that you've looked after for the next young family coming along.

So then when the houses started being bought up everyone thought they would suddenly belong to the middle class just because they owned a property. And you just knew, even as a kid, that this wasn't the case.

I remember, being aware of the differences between classes at such a young age. I didn't have the language to express it then that I do now, but I remember being aware of the subtle differences. So I had a middle class friends, having gone to the grammar school in Rochester, who's parents were several generations of middle class. I remember my mum saying, “they're posh, they're always a bit dirty.” I suppose the way I'd read that now that is it wasn't really 'dirt' per se, but about being comfortable, and not needing to prove yourself. Whereas with my mum, a single mum in a council house, we had very little, so what we had was pristine. As children we were spotlessly turned out, the house was scrubbed from top to bottom, and that's not to judge any of these differences, but how else would she show that she was diligent and careful? How could she prove she had stand up character? But what she couldn’t see was that my friend Holly’s mum didn't need to do that because their moral integrity wasn't ever in question, because she was a dentist. Her position in society was secure.

K: And that's exactly how the Priest functions in Beastings.

H: Exactly, no one questions his moral integrity because of his background and who he is in society, his position. Let's just say that the girl who steals the baby in Beastings was middle class. Do you think the story would be completely different? Do you think that if she was educated or from a 'good' family she would be listened to? I think she probably would have been.

K: You mean the characters viewing the girl in the book?

H: Yeah. No one listens to her, or is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt for taking the baby in the book. Apart from the Poacher – a fellow working class figure – he says to the Priest, 'well she must have had good reason. There must be a reason.'

K: So you're saying for them, the others in power in the book or at least in stations above hers, she took the baby due to moral ineptitude because she is working class, or underclass? I think you're right. Particularly because the Priest and his nuns raised the girl themselves, you'd think they would blame each other first!

H: Well, exactly, but it is put down to something in the blood, something inherently immoral about her lowly blood that makes her act that way in their eyes.

K: I love that about this book. Class is never explicitly dealt with. No one mentions it outright. But it implied everywhere. It infuses the whole book.

H: That's right and I think that's what Kevin was writing about in that article. It's true, it isn't explicit, the same with Pig Iron, it is just there the whole time. Which I think is just true with the whole British society, it's impossible to divorce yourself from its influence.

Beastings by Ben Myers is out now from Blue Moose Books. Heidi James is the author of Wounding (2014) Kit Caless is an editor at and co-founder of Influx Press