Flautists, eighties wine bar music, and iced tea drunk by the bins: Ben Myers shares his favourite bits of July.
My neighbour over the road has a new cockerel. My neighbour over the road has two new cockerels. They begin their conversation as the sun first peeks over the top of Scout Rock, usually around 4am and continue that way, on and off, all day. Do they not sleep? Do they not get hoarse?
The church bells chime the time every hour, on the hour. I don’t have a clock by my bed so use them to decide whether I have to get up, though more often than not the first one or two are lost in sleep, so I’m frequently an hour or two out.
Cockerels and church chimes are either endlessly comforting or auditory triggers towards madness, depending upon the state of mind.
The countryside is noisy. When I moved here ten years ago I thought we had relocated somewhere remote and utterly rural. It certainly felt like that after years of small rooms on busy streets in South London, though I’ve long since realised that this is far from the reality. This is a valley busy with a traffic jam due to on-going restorations following the Great Floods Of Boxing Day 2015. There are cranes and diggers and car-horns. A train line runs close by too, and a canal, and a shallow river rich with litter. The screams of children at play echo across the valley and my next door neighbour only listens to Lemmy-related live albums: Motörhead, or “the mighty ‘Wind, my son.” And because we are at the edge of the village, our street riding up into the trees, young boyracers tend to floor it up the road at night, the sub bass-boom sending birds up into flight. Discarded McDonalds milkshake cups tossed from passing windows mark their territory.
Ravens caw but the owls seem silent this season.
Last summer was perhaps the best of my life, but this one feels more trying. My skin feels thin, my nerves frayed. It’s exhaustion again. It’s too much work again. Too much thinking and not enough doing. Or not-doing. I dream of not-doing for a prolonged spell. The wider world of politics isn’t helping; the moronic parade of strutting sub-humans is inescapable, despite muting every conceivable search term on social media. A pox on their houses.
I also have a new novel, The Offing, out in August (alongside reissues of my previous novels) which means repeated attempts to explain the unexplainable: why did you write this book? I am being asked. I have no idea. It just sort of came out, from somewhere very deep within. I actually find it easier talking about other people’s novels rather than my own. Analyse your own work too closely and you may struggle to write again. I suspect that this is a fear many writers experience.
There has been time however for those small pleasures that make each day better. Here are some of them.
There are two Glastonburys: the one that you experience with all its many flavours and fragrances, and the one you get to watch from the comfort of your home, thanks to the BBC’s excellent coverage. I favour the latter these days. My favourite turn this year is by Lizzo, whose song ‘Truth Hurts’ has provided repeated moments of joy. Especially the flute solo. Her rendition at the BET Awards is even better: the perfect mix between heartbreak, humour and hope.
The Bee Pond
All summer long I maintain a shallow glass bowl filled with a concoction of maple syrup, brown sugar and water, to help revitalise any ailing bees. Pebbles and rocks provide small islands for them, though after an initial surge of interest in June, it is now entirely used by wasps and bluebottles. It doesn’t matter; they’re all welcome here.
Do you ever read an author whose sentences are so good that you have to put the book down and walk away?
Eighties Wine Bar Music
My wife has spent the entirety of the summer listening to a mix featuring Sade, Joyce Sims, Luther Vandross and Gwen Guthrie. I have had a little choice but to submit to a sound that conjures images Babycham being quaffed during the ‘erection section’ in the northern discos of days gone by.
While I’m swimming in a carp pond on the hottest day of the year an angler, who looks like he could well have once been a roadie for The Mission, excitedly points out a large dragonfly hovering near to us both. “A Red-veined Darter,” he says. “They’re on the endangered species list”.
Homemade Ice Tea
Tea, lemon, water, left in a jug in the fridge overnight. To be consumed while sitting on a deckchair, by the bins out the back.
Spending time chatting to Pat Barker, one of the Britain’s greatest living writers, filled me with hopes and ideas. She’s reminder that sometimes – just sometimes – northern working class writers make it through.
Every fortnight John Mitchinson and Andy Miller continue to deliver a books podcast that hits just the right balance between intellectual rigour and the fervent enthusiasm of the fan. Each episode explores a backlisted book that warrants more attention, and I have discovered scores of new (old) writers as a result. Happy forthcoming 100th episode to them.
‘Teeth’ by Working Men’s Club
I bumped into WMC singer Syd recently; he was off for a birthday lunch with his mother. Then it dawned on me that a seventeen year old had written one of the best tracks of the year. Seventeen. (It reminds me a little of ‘Jo’s So Mean To Josephine’ by The Flowerpot Men’; no bad thing at all.)
Helmsley Open Air Swimming Pool
The picturesque North Yorkshire town of Helmsley is the only one in the county to maintain a charitably-funded, community-owned outdoor heated swimming pool for its residents. It was beautiful when I visited it recently. Once the government used to provide such facilities for an activity that has been proven to benefit both physical and mental health, and I dream of a country that one day might cares enough to give everyone close access to a swimming pool. It would surely help alleviate the rise of obesity and anxiety, though in a profit-driven era that would appear to be glaringly simple.
Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake
Turning 50 years old in July, this is an album I keep returning to, especially recently as I have been listening to it for a project that I have been working on. The beauty of it never fades and the poetry of it resonates in all seasons. After decades there are some albums that you just know you will never tire of. This is top of the list.
On two consecutive days, in two different places, I see kingfishers – brilliant blue smudges, as if put there with the flick of a wrist by a painter’s palette knife.
The Offing by Benjamin Myers is our new Book of the Month, and is published by Bloomsbury Circus on August 22nd. Pre-order a copy here. Pig Iron and Beastings are reissued on the same day.