This week brings with it the paperback release of one of my favorite novels of 2022: Benjamin Myers’s The Perfect Golden Circle. Set in 1989, the novel follows two men, Calvert and Redbone, as they embark on a Quixotic quest to create a series of detailed patterns across rural landscapes in England. Over the course of their novel, their efforts invoke an array of grand ideas, from the bond between two disparate people to the changing sociopolitical landscape around the duo. Plus: crop circles. I spoke with Myers about the origins of this novel, its relationship to the rest of his bibliography, and the role of music in his books.
The past looms very large in the three novels of yours I’ve read — The Perfect Golden Circle, The Gallows Pole, and The Offing — but all three are set in radically different eras. What draws you to the particular historical settings you’ve worked in?
Most of my novels tend to start with a simple image, often of one person in a particular landscape – for example an English field at night, a man walking across a barren moor, or someone swimming in the choppy waters of the North Sea. The story then dictates the historical era, though in the case of The Gallows Pole, it is a novel entirely based upon real events that took place in the 18th century in the valley in which I live – Calderdale in West Yorkshire. This has then led to it being adapted as a series for the BBC, which was filmed in the very same locations that inspired my novelization in the first place. So it has come full circle. There’s a synchronicity to it all that almost feels magical or foretold.
The Perfect Golden Circle focuses on the specific landscapes where Redbone and Calvert go about their work. How did you go about selecting those areas — and to what extent were you reflecting (or not reflecting) the actual crop circles of the late 1980s?
The British crop circle phenomenon of the late 1980s took place in very specific counties in England – most commonly in Wiltshire, which is best known internationally for being the home of Stonehenge. It’s a place full of ancient Neolithic sites, standing stones and wide open plains so I simply to chose to recreate some fictionalized versions of the real life locations where the circles appeared. They were such a huge thing here in the summer of 1989; they gave the media something mysterious to fixate upon at the close of a decade that had seen strikes, war, mass unemployment and ten years of Margaret Thatcher’s very right-wing government. The crop circles in my novel are very close to the real life ones specific to that time period. Much more elaborate designs came later in the 1990s and beyond, but they would have been inauthentic to the era I was focusing on.
This latest novel is set during your own lifetime. Were you at all interested in crop circles as you came of age?
I was a 13 year old comic collector, skateboarder and punk rock fan in the summer of 1989 and though I wasn’t particularly interested in crop circles – even then I think I knew that they were the work of mischievous pranksters – I was interested in the media’s response and the endless speculation by so-called experts. Many people believed, and indeed still believe, crop circles to be the work of alien visitors and/or UFOs, even though these theories were disproved years ago. This then naturally lends itself to asking wider questions about conspiracy theory, gullibility and people’s willingness to ignore cold hard facts. I think it’s a natural human impulse to believe in mystery and mythology, yet scientific explanation should not be overlooked just because the truth is often more prosaic. Actually, I found the prospect of two men embarking on these grand nocturnal missions – creating crop circles that are so mathematically precise and aesthetically pleasing, yet using only planks, lengths of rope and their fertile imaginations – to be a much more interesting subject to fictionalise than any outdated ideas about alien visitation. Most of my work is very much grounded in reality.
One of the aspects of The Perfect Golden Circle that appealed to me most was the structure, and the way that certain aspects — like Calvert and Redbone’s lives outside of crop circles — are only spoken about but never seen. At what point in writing this did you decide that everything else would be pared away?
Right from the outset I wanted The Perfect Golden Circle to be short and lean and something that could conceivably be read in one or two sittings. I wrote it quickly. I worked on it every day, form beginning to end, until it was done. The first draft was finished the day before the first Covid lockdown, so I then set aside for a while.
The main character of the novel was always going to be the English countryside at night and my intention was for the reader to feel like they had gained an understanding of the landscape almost equal to that of those people who inhabit it. The anonymity of the original crop circle makers was perhaps their best asset and I didn’t want to dilute that fact by overloading the narrative with too much back story. There is so much more to be said about Calvert and Redbone but I left it all off the page. I know who they are – I’ve met and known characters like them – but really I just wanted the reader to get little snatches or glimpses into their lives, and experience an almost dream-like quality of these long hours spent between dusk and dawn. For them, crop circles are everything, and all else that is going on in their lives is secondary. To make the reader realise this I pared back their personal lives and instead focused almost entirely on that which bring meaning and shape to their lives: their forays in the fields.
The phrase “Fuel the myth and strive for beauty” is said early on in the novel. Does that dovetail at all with your own approach to writing?
I never like to let the truth get in the way of a good story, as the saying goes, so, yes, I think it could be said I am certainly guilty of at least attempting to spawn new myths for the future. Narratives lie at the heart of civilization and I hope to be making my own minor contribution. That’s it. Nothing more.
To what extent has Durham influenced your work? (I’ll admit that I don’t know much about it other than it’s where both you and the band Martha are from, but I feel like those qualities speak well of it.)
Durham is an ancient mediaeval city though really it is small enough to be a town; it is comparable to a miniature version of York, Oxford or Edinburgh, but situated in the post-industrial heartlands of the north-east of England. Historically it is a region of coal mining and shipbuilding, and then economic decline. In America it would probably be considered rust belt territory, yet at the same time it is a university city that attracts students from all around the world, many of them far wealthier and more privileged than the locals. So Durham is different things to different people, but its cathedral is undoubtedly internationally renowned. And, yes, the band Martha are from near to where I grew up – they come from a place that is called, believe it or not, Pity Me, though they are younger than me so I have never actually encountered them as I moved away, first to London and then to rural Yorkshire, years ago. Durham has influenced me in the same way that any writer is influenced by the place in which they came of age. The humour and disposition of people from the north-east is very specific – we can be quite deadpan and sarcastic, and are pathologically prevented from ever being pretentious, but at the same time you’re unlikely to find cheerier and more friendly people anywhere else in Britain.
Both The Perfect Golden Circle and The Offing focus almost entirely on the bond between two people. Is there something about exploring the permutations of that that you find especially intriguing as a writer?
I think human connection and the spaces that exist between us lie at the heart of all my fiction – that and our relationship with the natural world. I’m interested in the ways in which humans treat one another – the cruelties, the corruption and the contradictions. But also the generosity and charity of spirit too. I still believe in a thing called love.
“Grindcore shit, but with a strong acid house influence.” I’ll admit, I’m really curious as to what this would sound like in real life. Did you have any musicians in mind when you wrote that phrase?
None in particular – I’m not sure such music has ever been created? The closest band would probably be The KLF, who made dance music, but also collaborated with Extreme Noise Terror and were into crop circles, stone circles and all manner of esoteric prankster projects.
I think I really just wanted to show the slightly unhinged, yet cavalier, approach to life that the Redbone character has. I can tell you what was on the Spotify playlist I made while writing the novel if that helps: lots of early 70s psychedelic folk music, plus some 80s anarcho punk and a fair few acid house tracks too. So, on the one hand, plenty of whimsical melodies, but on the other serrated guitars and onto digital bleeps and belches. From Donovan, Gong and The Incredible String Band through Crass and Can and onto The Shamen, Julian Cope and various obscure rave tracks. A heady brew of transgressive sounds, all told.
Both Redbone and Calvert come from very different backgrounds prior to the events of this novel. Did you find your opinions on them change at all as you wrote and edited this book?
I would say that Redbone and Calvert actually come from a similar time and place, but that their lives have taken different trajectories during their adolescence and into young adulthood. Calvert served in the military and suffered a lot of mental and physical trauma as a result, while Redbone has pursued a freewheeling life of touring punk bands and partying. That was pretty much all I knew about them when I started writing the book, but over time they appeared to emerge from the shadows and I was able to add more detail to them – their motivations, that desires, their ambitions. And especially their quirks and eccentricities. And there’s surely a small part of me each of them too.
Photo: Adelle Stripe
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