Benjamin Myers’ wildly experimental new book spans thousands of years of northern history and multiple literary forms. Through a cast of characters at different points of history it tells the story of St Cuthbert – the unofficial patron saint of the North whose legacy lives on in subtle ways throughout the region and in the less subtle 200ft beacon of Durham Cathedral, which Myers explored as a boy in his hometown.
In what ways did St Cuthbert shape northern identity and is it still tied up with the “cult of Cuddy”?
Cuthbert was – and is – a figurehead for the North East as he was perhaps the most prominent religious figure in the North to endure down the centuries. Ironically he was generally regarded as humble and not enamoured by the trappings usually afforded to people of his status; quite the opposite. “Fame” would have been anathema to him as he lived a very simple, austere life and died alone on a rock in the North Sea. The fact that he then inspired an entire community of wandering acolytes strikes me as almost Monty Python-esque. I can imagine them crying “Behold! A saint!” and Cuthbert charging across the moors. “No, I’m not, leave me alone!” But that community built a cathedral in his honour too, and preserved his reputation. Without them he might have been a minor, or forgotten, figure.
“Cuthbert yearned with ever increasing intensity for a less and less worldly lifestyle. He craved solitude, not to escape from the cares of the world but as a means of coming closer to God,” Magnus Magnusson writes in Lindisfarne: The Cradle Island. Modern-day readers might find escaping the cares of the world romantic, but do you think we also crave connection to something bigger than ourselves? And having spent time on Lindisfarne writing the book do you think it’s attainable?
I think different people crave different things really, and connection can come in various forms. Belief and faith are entirely personal things, and there’s room for all of them, though escaping the cares of the world is a bit of a simplistic concept, certainly in Britain. Wherever you go, the modern world is still there because you are part of the modern world. That said, I often spend a week or two alone in rural spots, and enjoyed two solitary stays on Lindisfarne while researching the novel. Reflective time alone lost in thought is necessary to the creative process, though I appreciate most people are too busy to be able to indulge. I also think ideas of faith, spirituality and God have all been reduced down as to be almost meaningless as we enter a post-Christian age. The idea of God as a bearded man in white robes – no, that’s not for me. But I don’t laugh at anyone’s beliefs. We’re all just flailing around, searching for meaning.
The novel is experimental and takes on several literary forms including direct quotes from historical sources, poetry, drama, diary entries and contemporary prose. Was it a liberating process for you as a writer and does this mark a change in direction for you, or was it simply that – an experiment?
I often read articles saying “the novel is dead”, which seems ridiculous as we‘ve been telling stories for thousands of years. Narratives are at the heart of civilisation. With Cuddy I wanted to attempt something original by subverting the form and hopefully thrilling, offending, exciting and maybe baffling readers. I experimented with different techniques and voices, and then decided to keep them all. Prose, poetry, a play – it’s all just writing. It’s all just stories. I’m fairly certain that it will divide opinion, though the next novel that I’ve written is even madder and wilder. It’s an assault of the senses. Oh, and it’s set in Germany.
Your last two books were almost bucolic and The Perfect Golden Circle was set outside the North. Cuddy is perhaps your most northern book to date, in that it’s so tied up with the identity of the place, and some sections have the brutalist hallmarks of your earlier work. Is this book a homecoming?
I’ve become increasingly wary of being viewed as a “northern writer” – because what does that really mean? It just happens that I’m from the North, and tend to write about what I know. Also, I probably have a bit of a chip on my shoulder, which has grown larger over the past 13 years of a government who seem keen to ignore the North entirely. I definitely wanted to attempt to create an alternative fictional history of the North East of England, and assert Durham’s position as a powerful and important city, while giving voice to imaginary characters throughout the ages, but also for it to be read by anyone. Live locally, think internationally. It’s an occult account in the traditional sense – that which lies hidden, just beneath the surface. I feel Cuddy also contains elements of everything I’ve previously done – there’s tenderness, violence, weirdness, poetry. More than anything, however, I just want to entertain people.
Books one and two forefront women’s voices. Was this important to you when writing a book about a venerated male saint?
Absolutely. To give imagined voices to people throughout the centuries, and to do it with any degree of accuracy, I felt there had to be a 50/50 balance. Therefore Cuddy is comprised of a series of interlinked stories that feature pilgrims, prostitutes, brewers, monks, stonemasons, students, soldiers and zero hours contract labourers. Historical accounts seem to be dominated by either men or the victors, or both, so my version hopefully redresses that imbalance. That’s the beauty of fiction – you can do what you want.
Books three and four focus on faithless men who come, in their own ways, to believe in Cuddy’s power. You describe yourself as a “curious atheist”. Can those of us who don’t believe in an almighty God find faith in less dogmatic ways, in things like history and tradition, and is it important that we do?
I would hope so. As a teenager, a street-preaching Christian told me that I was going to hell because I didn’t believe in his concept of God; this struck me as extremely narrow-minded. It’s good to put one’s faith into things – nature, science, history, animals, architecture, tradition, culture, football, music – or, indeed, actual living people, real life saints, rather than mythical figures who are open to interpretation and corruption by non-elected, self-appointed envoys. Celebrity seems to partially meet that demand to fixate on individuals too, though we should be aware of false prophets. I’m far too wilful to sign up to one fixed school of thought, or live my life by the doctrines of one book, when there are thousands to be read.
Both endure even if meanings change – does your fascination with Durham Cathedral parallel your fascination with stories?
Durham Cathedral is a staggering achievement when we consider the living conditions during the time in which it was built – the 900s. Imagine living in a little hovel on a hill, when suddenly this towering and ornate monument to God springs from the soil, stone by stone. It’s a reminder that people one thousand years ago were far from primitive – they understood mathematics, engineering, art. There were architects and stonemasons as talented as many today. So, yes, when I look at such buildings, I see stories. I see the lives of those who toiled, and the faith they must have had to embark on such a lofty endeavour.