A recent call out on Twitter for cheerful fiction brought a range of suggestions to brighten up what has sometimes been a pretty morbid selection of novels in the bookshop. One of those suggested was The Offing by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury, £8.99 postfree from firstname.lastname@example.org) and it is a cheering and easy read. But not happy-clappy.
Even better, it is set in Robin Hood’s Bay – which would have been my holiday destination again this year, a two weeks’ reading and walking holiday. This might be the nearest I get to it.
The Robin Hood’s Bay of the book is not the one so many of us are used to, a former fishing village whose picturesque, tiny houses clinging to a disintegrating cliff landscape which is now largely a cottage-to-rent holiday village.
This story is set immediately after WWII. One Robert Appleyard – destined to go down the pit – walks off after leaving school in his pit village to see at least a little of the world to at least put off the inevitable for a while. It’s not quite As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning though. Walking by footpath, aimlessly, rough camping by night, a day labourer when he can get a job, he ends up walking down towards the sea near Robin Hood’s Bay. There he meets Dulcie Piper, a much older, slightly dotty, well-off intellectual drop-out, and her dog, Butter.
He offers his labour but, for reasons never clear to him or to her, he is taken under her wing and stays for a while. Robert knows only the natural world and how to fix things, he knows nothing of culture or of good food. Dulcie, in this period of rationing, has contacts so Robert gets tanned and becomes less of a skinny rat as he rebuilds a broken-down studio on her land and eats (and drinks) well for the first time in his life. He knows nothing of conversation either, which suits Dulcie who talks with him, or at him, non-stop, dropping all sorts of hints of past lives led, of adventure, but also of sorrow.
She’s also outspoken and quite crude, shocking young Robert with lines like “You’re going to have to loosen up… Look at you, you’re stiff as a lighthouse keeper’s prick.” She had been a friend of DH Lawrence, knowing “Bert” in Mexico. One of the books she gives the literate but unread Robert is a copy of Women in Love dedicated to her. Yet the more Duclie reveals, the more she holds back. At night in the studio Robert works through the books she loans him, particularly struck by John Clare, not least as Robert, too, knows of the natural world.
At the little church above Robin Hood’s Bay he finds tombstones for drowned sailors facing out to sea, for those lost at sea, and what he later discovers are “maiden’s garlands”, carried at the funerals of unmarried girls – he had found one in the debris in the studio he is renovating. (This is actually the real Old St Stephen’s Church, worth visiting for its garlands, box pews and gravestones.)
Also in the studio he finds a manuscript of poetry by one Romy Landau which…
The Offing – the local word for the skyline where the big sea meets the sky – is an effortless read and is one of the shop’s best selling lockdown novels.
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