Hard To Find And Far To Seek: In The Wake Of A Saint With Benjamin Myers

Benjamin Myers finds dreamlike inspiration in the life of a seventh-century Northumberland saint. Words by Jim Hilton

"A rheumy slit glued shut. / My eye." So speaks Saint Cuthbert from his deathbed on Inner Farne, part of a small archipelago off the Northumbrian coast. The prologue of Benjamin Myers’ new novel, Cuddy, follows the saint’s final moments on 20 March 687 AD, and his first post-mortem impressions. "Death is a surprise party you knew all / along was to be thrown in your honour", he warns, which is to say it’s underwhelming. Mundane annoyances prevail: he overhears the "squabbles and quibbles" of monks fussing over his corpse and detects "a competitive edge to their sudden mourning." In life, his best friends were animals and he craves their contact:

"What I would like now more than anything is to be licked about the face by dogs or nipped at the toes by Coldingham crabs or nuzzled at the earlobes by seals or otters who waddle over low-tide banks…"

Cuddy’s eye has opened to "eternity", but it hasn’t shut on the world. And though he spends most of the novel offstage, he is watching closely from the wings and ready to supply a Voice-of-God in an emergency.

Saint Cuthbert – affectionately Cuddy – was the Anglo-Saxon bishop, hermit and missionary monk who remains unofficial patron saint of the North of England. His quirks and charisma emerge forcefully in Cuddy’s first movement, where source quotations jostle to describe him: "dreamy" and "humble", but "unsurpassed for courage". Cuthbert was a roving evangeliser and according to the Irish poet Helen Waddell he most liked "to wander in those places […] where other men would have a dread of going."

The same could be said of Ben Myers’ novels, which often lead into perilous country: Pig Iron’s underworld of bare-knuckle boxing, survival on the harsh Cumbrian mountains in Beastings (2014), or the tough justice of eighteenth-century Yorkshire in The Gallows Pole (2017). If that novel – soon to be adapted for TV by Shane Meadows – dealt with the stuff of popular legend, telling the story of David Hartley, the larger-than-life King of the Cragg Vale coiners, Cuddy flirts with mysticism and the occult. Ghosts, visions and other supernatural glitches reveal an undead history which continues to assert itself in the present and – Myers suggests – gives meaning to it.

Myers planned the project as separate novellas, and Cuddy’s four parts each feel and look distinct on the page. The story takes place over some 1,000 years of English history, from marauding Vikings to the age of the Pot Noodle, and style and form shift across time. There’s nothing over-pedantic here; Myers isn’t doing ‘Oxen Of The Sun’. In the first section, Anglo-Saxon England is conjured rather than transcribed, with free verse that trickles like meltwater down a rockface. While later on, the diary entries of a boorish Oxford antiquarian are more strictly pastiche. And by the time we join Michael Cuthbert in 2019, we’ve arrived at the economical prose of contemporary fiction.

Our first narrator is Ediva. She’s an orphan adopted by the haliwerfolc – "the folk of the holy man" – who transported Cuthbert’s body to its final resting-place at what would become Durham Cathedral. Unburdened by a past, Ediva is keyed into the future: "O Cuddy", she tells him, "I have / visions / too." Her ecstatic glimpses of the Cathedral’s as yet unbuilt edifice "looming large over the wooded Wear" are relayed in typeface which shrinks, line by line, vanishing into the white sky of the page.

Durham Cathedral – dreams of it, explorations and summitings of its tower – becomes a lightning rod connecting the novel’s different parts and connecting people across history. It’s not the first time this building has appeared in Myers’ writing. John-John Wisdom, the young hero of Pig Iron, would enter as a teenager with his homeless friend Fingers, and the two outcasts would allow themselves a moment of rapture at the stained-glass windows:

"We’d both stand there for a while, looking at the hundreds – mebbes thousands – of little pieces of coloured glass that had been clipped and shaped and painted and placed to make that window what it was. The most beautiful sight in the whole town. Summat to properly take your breath away."

John-John filters his love of nature through this divine monument, describing a favourite secluded spot in the woods as his "green cathedral". It’s a place where "you can sit and think and be yersel", and with "the sun shining down through the tangle of branches", it’s like you have "your own stain-glass window".

Our modern-day protagonist Michael Cuthbert also has a heightened sensitivity to nature. As a child "he spent hours in these secluded nowhere places, usually alone, building imaginary worlds from nothing but branches and bracken". The incursions of twenty-first century architecture into this landscape are invariably ugly and unwelcome. Michael finds himself working on "a demolition job", knocking down "what was once a small industrial estate that is soon to be replaced by a larger industrial estate" with shiny new "branches of B&Q, KFC, Currys, Sports Direct and a drive-thru McDonald’s, everything a household needs, and in close proximity". Choose Life etc.

At nineteen, Michael is scraping by doing minimum-wage site work for an agency whilst caring for his terminally ill mother. Between these responsibilities and living miles outside the city, he’s an infrequent pilgrim to the cathedral. Hand in hand with the pricing-out of working-class communities from town centres goes the cultural disinheritance, the estrangement from history. And so when Michael lands a gig there helping out on a renovation project, the experience is bracing. It falls to the well-versed Durham History undergraduate Evelyn to initiate him into the building’s mysteries, yet he feels a pre-existing tie. The place is "both strange yet familiar, unnerving but exhilarating".

Whether Michael knows it or not, his life runs in meaningful parallel to what has gone before. The ground he must cover by foot on either side of his work-day sees him retracing the wanderings of the haliwerfolc. And like them, he too is carrying someone. Confined to a hospital bed in their living-room, Michael’s mother must endure the physical and mental torment of the saint sealed in his island cell. And like a stubborn-minded saint, she downplays her suffering, preferring unalleviated discomfort to the interference of strangers: "I don’t want to put anyone out", she demurs.

Myers’ sources tell us that Saint Cuthbert used to pray for nights at a time in the freezing North Sea and his boots, which he kept on "from one Easter to the next", would cause "thick calluses" on his shins. Myers instinctively bends his ear towards such complaints, attending without embarrassment, like a doctor, to the body’s hidden aches and rumblings – to the awkward rashes of monks who ride horseback all day. His characters lead colourful intestinal lives and their hopes and fears play out in the stomach region. Worries “wriggle” in the "belly like a pot of maggots". In a recent piece for tQ, Myers describes the symptoms of extreme anxiety which accompanied a press junket radio interview for a new book. Beyond the frame of the hygienic media segment the bodily reality is gory but relatable: it’s the stuff of life and – Myers impresses – of art.

Heading off what he senses as an inevitable question, Myers says he sees "no paradox" in tackling sainthood as "a curious atheist". For him, "writing is a form that borders on the magical". Imaginative transfer between beings is par for the course, and the writer "can – and should – write about anything they see fit". If not a paradox, there is a lurking tautness in Myers’ approach: something which only comes to the surface when he must choose how to deal with Cuthbert’s incorruptible remains.

But chronicling the saint’s life or piecing together what happened to him after death is not what Cuddy sets out to do. It takes place across history, but it’s not a history. And Myers is less concerned with architectonics than with the trapped little air pockets between centuries: moments snagged in time which can induce a sudden rush of temporal vertigo. In Cuddy’s second section, set in the 14th century, the brewer Eda Bullard receives a small stone cross carved for her by her lover. She senses that "everything the stone has borne silent witness to is held within it now", and as she touches it in the night it transmits a dizzying torrent of images into her dreams:

"Everything comes gushing out at once. Rainstorms and quarrymen, Picts, plague pits and paupers, hawkers and jesters, skirling new life and coughing old death, archers and anglers, devils and angels, sunrises and sunsets, courting couples on stone walls watching snowfall…"

There’s no denouement to this revelation. Its message is all momentum, with pulses that simulate the erotic unfurling of the body. Myers’ historical lenses are hardly rose-tinted, but he suspects that those who came before had more vivid dreams than we do. When media does so much of our dreaming for us, the question of how to make room for visionary experience, in life as well as in art, gets thornier and more salient. Who better to consult than a saint?

Cuddy by Benjamin Myers is out now via Bloomsbury

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