‘A life not known’ – Richard by Ben Myers

Fifteen years ago, standing outside the Carlisle Arms on Bateman Street (how retrospectively apt), Soho, talking to a friend about books: Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (Yes), Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (No), Martin Amis’s The Information (Yes from me, No from friend); football – Liverpool had finished fourth and Spurs seventh; and music –Weezer, the death of Viv Stanshall, we eventually got around to talking about the Foo Fighters, Nirvana, the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and – by a commodius vicus of recirculation – to the recent disappearance of Richey (Edwards) Manic, (non)rhythm guitarist and lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers. We were both unsure about the Manics – I should have liked them, they were in sound and look a cross between my beloved New York Dolls and The Clash, an agitprop version of Hanoi Rocks – whom I’d seen countless times, an updated and more serious London Cowboys, the Manics rocked like 999 and brooded like Wasted Youth – but, at the time, I was listening more to Guided by Voices, Pavement, Fugazi, and Swans, and there was something about the Manic Street Preachers I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something not quite right, and then my friend hit upon it – “they had the stench of onions about them” – fried onions, burgers, sausages – they were a wannabe stadium band – wannabe Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, wannabe Brucies.

Now, in 2010, I’m sitting at my desk typing this review while listening to Generation Terrorists, Gold Against the Soul, The Holy Bible, and Everything Must Go, a bit pissed off I’d waited this long to finally “get” and enjoy Manic Street Preachers’ music – and all because of Ben Myers’ Richard. Writing fictionalised accounts of a celebrity’s life is not new; in fact, it is a whole sub-genre in itself: Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan, Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde (Marilyn Monroe), and David Peace’s The Damned United (Brian Clough) being the most recent and successful examples. As Burn did with Alma Cogan, Myers has re-imagined a life outside of what we know. This re-imagining is important. Myers is not claiming to know what exactly happened to Edwards, he is projecting a possibility in a similar way to Stephen Greenblatt’s methodology in his must-read Will in the World – a new historicist approach to biography in which Greenblatt states on numerous occasions “Let us imagine” before launching into an archaeobiographical analysis of a life not known. Ben Myers offers us the same chance – to imagine what happened to Richey Edwards.

The narrative takes bipartite form – one strand running from Richey’s childhood, through school, university, the early days of the band, their nascent success, until February 1995 and Richey alone in his hotel room dreading a promotional trip to the USA; the second strand begins at that time, in that hotel room, and tracks Richey’s thoughts, movements, and encounters on the first few days of his disappearance. In a similar method to Don DeLillo’s Libra, the two paths coincide at a point and a conclusion we are always/already familiar with – it is the getting there that draws us on, that turns the page, that pulls us in.

Identity is one of the main subjects of this book – who is/was Richey? The question tortured him throughout his life – was he Richey, Teddy Edwards, Richey Manic, Richey James? Was he Richard? A guitarist who could not play the guitar. A shy boy who performed on stage. A sensitive artist who subjected himself to violence. A person with a loving family and close friends who hid behind make-up, mascara, and Elnett-hardened hair. In 1871, Arthur Rimbaud – one of Richey’s heroes – wrote in a letter to Paul Demeny “je est un autre” “I is another”, and other Rimbaud quotes would fit Edwards’ philosophy: “Idle youth, enslaved to everything; by being too sensitive I have wasted my life,” or “What a life! True life is elsewhere. We are not in the world,” and “I believe that I am in hell, therefore I am there.” Myers explores the pressures of celebrity, the unrelenting need to perform even when not on stage, and the desire to leave it all, get out, get away – just like Rimbaud.

In some ways – and this is meant as huge praise – Richard can be read as a conflation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel Personality and his reportage/autobiography The Missing. Personality portrays a thinly (no pun intended)-disguised Lena Zavaroni, a victim of celebrity, stricken by anorexia nervosa, manipulated by music executives, faced with the strange adoration of some of her fans, estranged from her home and family; while The Missing reports on snatched children, the disappeared, people who exist in a purgatory between life and death. Richey is all these things – an innocent suffering, a fragmented psyche whose only release is/was self-hurt, poetry, and disappearance.

Myers presents Richey Edwards as a contradictory character – selfish yet loyal, spoiled yet generous, creative yet destructive, at times full of life and at others full of dread – like most of us, really. Myers shows Edwards as a sensitive young man crushed by his own and others’ expectations, a man who could express himself on paper but had to hide behind a mask in public – no wonder he felt at ease in Japan. Myers’ prose – sometimes clipped a la Peace and Ellroy, sometimes poetic like Edward and Dylan Thomas from whom he quotes – is mostly precise, untricksy, and always heartfelt.

In the notes at the end of the novel, Myers bravely provides a bibliography acknowledging the books he referenced in research and the influences on his writing. Manic Street Preachers were also open about the source of their inspiration and openly derided for it by the press. (I am mightily relieved to discover that Richey Edwards also thought East 17’s “Stay Another Day” is a great song). I applaud this refreshing approach to sources of research and things one uses to enable the dreaded return to the table and the blank page.

Any Cop?: A novel for our celebrity-obsessed age, a thorough investigation – written in beautiful prose – of a young man suicided or disappeared by society. From life in a small town to sex, drugs and rock and roll excess, Ben Myers’ Richard slashes and burns its way through the bloated beigeness of the contemporary British novel.

Steve Finbow

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