Myers’ novels, so far, have involved the moors and rain, in The Offing he gives us an idyllic cottage above a beach in “the time of plenty promised by a summer that had seemed endless.” In 1946 Robert Appleyard leaves his Durham mining village and spends the summer with Dulcie, an elderly bohemian, as the seasons change so will the course of his life. Sharing the atmosphere of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Myers evokes a vanishing England that will provide the strength for Robert as he grows up.
The Offing charts the emotional drift from the austerity of the years after World War 2, “Everyone was glad to be alive, and no-one said so,” into the personal freedoms of the 1960s, “Freedom and the pursuit of it: that’s what we must strive for at all times.” In the background, though, are Myers’ very contemporary concerns, this is very much a novel that has been written against a background of debate about Europe and Britain’s place in it. In The Offing the memory of World War Two has created a division from Europe, this fictional 1946 contains the first argument between Brexiteers and Remainers:
“What a joy it was to travel Europe and feel part of something greater, to connect with those ancient civilisations that led us to today.”
The central pleasure of Myers’ novels has always been his descriptions of, and intimacy with, landscape. He understands landscape’s indifference to transient human dramas, and how those dramas are themselves shaped by the surrounding landscape. Here he is just as exact with his descriptions of the sea, and its changing moods, but character dominates this novel, especially the character of Dulcie. Dulcie Piper is a friend of Noel Coward, aristocratic, the antithesis of this grey, tired England with
“her linguistic dexterity, her distaste for all forms of authority and, of course, her heroic tolerance for alcohol.”
She introduces Robert, only 16 years old, to a wider culture, as much through her meals of lobster and wine as by handing him the novels of D.H. Lawrence. The Offing feels like a more traditional novel than might be expected from Myers, perhaps because of its movement from a past (pre-WW2) into the present. In earlier novels, such as Beastings, Myers creates a world as mythologised as that of a medieval Mystery Play. Even the Walter Scott Prize-winning The Gallows Pole remains as self-contained within its historical period and its isolated Yorkshire location as Wuthering Heights.
The Offing will, I hope, reach a much wider readership than the previous novels (and if that means leading more readers to his wonderful Beastings, all the better). Benjamin Myers’ new readers will find his preoccupations here: his piercing observation of the Northern landscape, his sense of the North’s, and the working-classes’, dislocation from their rulers in London (“how far removed they were from the true working heartlands of an England in a state of change”) and a healing relationship with the natural world. Though, as in his earlier novels, Myers ends on the note of eternity that his study of nature has taught him: “permanence is an impossibility. All is flux. And nature always wins.”
Any Cop?: A moving and engrossing novel, in Robert and Dulcie Myers has created his most engaging characters (who live “as freely as greater forces would permit”) while The Offing will attract a much-deserved wider readership for Benjamin Myers.