Saint Cuthbert was a seventh-century hermit who spent much of his life alone in a stone cell on an island off the coast of Northumberland. He died in 687 AD and a century later, to protect his body from Viking raiders, a group of monks ‘they call the haliwerfolc ― that is, the wandering folk of the holy man’ travelled around the North looking for a final resting place for the saint. At last they found ‘Dun Holm… meaning hill island’ and built a cathedral there, Durham Cathedral.
Cuthbert, known locally as Cuddy, is the unofficial patron saint of Northern England. In Cuddy, Benjamin Myers, the unofficial laureate of Northern England, explores Cuddy’s afterlife as the protector and inspirer of the working-class in Durham. It deserves to be as well-known a memorial to Cuthbert as Durham Cathedral itself for as Myers observes,
‘The stories we tell one another are all that shall remain when time dies and even the strongest sculpted stones crumple to sand.’
Cuddy is a series of interlinked stories that range from the thoughts of Cuddy in his grave to a young man in 2019 living in poverty. Across the centuries Cuddy’s myth provides strength to those in need, ‘Even here in death I serve a purpose as all things living/serve you’. In the first story we meet one of Cuthbert’s followers, Ediva, who is a cook to his ‘rag-tag menagerie/of wandering souls’. Ediva has a gift, like many of the characters inspired by Cuthbert over the centuries she has visions. The second story centres on Eda, who sells beer to the men working on the building of the Cathedral while there are rumours of ‘the tide of an approaching plague’, the Black Death. Eda is married to a brutal archer, Fletcher Bullard. She meets a kind mason and becomes pregnant with his child, but their happiness is only possible by escaping her husband: ‘just one story in a thousand million stories that combine to define a place.’
Durham Cathedral becomes a prison in 1650 to house defeated Scottish soldiers from the Battle of Dunbar and, again, the legend of Cuddy provides sustenance to the prisoners. We then meet a priggish nineteenth-century academic who is called to Durham to investigate the remains of Cuthbert as they are disinterred. He, too, has a vision of Cuthbert’s followers. The final story is the most powerful. In 2019, Michael, a teenager, in ‘the contemporary hinterlands, the English anywhere’ does casual labour to support his terminally ill mother. The grinding poverty of his life is vividly outlined. He begins to work at the Cathedral for a team of stonemasons (names, jobs and, perhaps, identities recur in this novel across a thousand years) and, as with many of the characters, he finds a faith in Cuddy: ‘even if God doesn’t exist, the cathedral very much does.’
Cuddy is a moving portrayal of working-class endurance and working-class creativity. In his description of a stonemason, Myers celebrates
‘the same men who can look at a lump dragged all those miles by a pack of oxen and see the shape of something within it… who can deliver beauty from within to without.’
The beauty of the Cathedral inspires and consoles, while echoes of each story appear in the subsequent stories as the characters respond to the comfort of Cuddy’s myth and the continuity of their faith in what Cuddy represents: ‘a simple image. But the feeling it leaves is powerful.’
Although centred on a Saint, this is not a religious book. It is, as with much of Myers’ writing, political in the widest sense, interested in how we live with each other and are responsible for each other (itself a religious theme): ‘they say old Cuthbert starts talking to everyone eventually. Or he’s there for those who need him, anyway.’ Parts of Cuddy are written in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as a play, and underlying it all is a visionary faith in the continuity, and value, of working-class lives. In the final story, Michael wonders about those who have worked on the Cathedral over the centuries: ‘Did they, he wonders, have the same hopes and desires back then as he does today?’ Cuddy answers this question and portrays the enduring meaning of those working-class lives, and their voices, from prostitutes and masons in the Middle Ages to a teenager in 2019.
Any Cop?: Myers is creating an alternative canon of the North, and here he edges into becoming his generation’s Iain Sinclair, connecting the roots of a mythology of the North to how its people live today.