A midsummer melody of a book, Benjamin Myers’ The Offing is filled with the freedom and wonder of youth.
It details the story of young Robert, a sixteen year-old lad from County Durham, who decides one summer to walk out his village, and wander across the fields of northern England, to drink “in greedy gulps” the nectar of nature, as the countryside blossoms and blooms up around him.
The most immediate comparison is Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, in which the young Laurie walks out his Cotswolds village, and wanders across the fields of southern England, sleeping in haystacks and busking with a violin. Myers takes a leaf out of Laurie Lee’s memoir. And yet, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning takes place in 1934 to 1936, teetering on the cusp of the Second World War, while The Offing takes place at the end of WW2, in the blasted aftermath of 1946, so that Robert wanders through a traumatised landscape, one still bearing the scars, both physical and mental, of the tired conflict which has recently passed.
Myers’ novel departs from Laurie Lee’s format, when Robert stumbles into an Edenic garden. In that garden he meets a woman, Dulcie Piper, an eccentric older lady living out on the Yorkshire coast. In her ramshackle cottage, with its overgrown meadow, and its obscured view of the turbulent sea, she lives on her own with her loyal dog Butler. She is independent and spirited and garrulous. She likes to indulge in life’s simpler pleasures, delighting in good food, fresh lobsters from the ocean, washed down with good wine, or nettle tea from her garden, further washed down with a good conversation. She likes to tell anecdotes of her roaring twenties, among the literati and socialites of London. She counts in her address book such glamorous names as Noël Coward and D.H. Lawrence. She offers for Robert to stay through the summer. She has a profound effect on his young, fledgling mind.
The Offing is a book interested in boundaries. Robert states from the outset that “the only true boundaries are not trenches and shelters and checkpoints, but those between rock and sea and sky”, therefore a set of boundaries which are constantly shifting, collapsing and reforming, like the sea and the shore. Yet Robert still holds a set of mental boundaries, ones which he carries over from his childhood, ones which Dulcie helps him to slowly erode: the boundaries he has set against the German people (the result of years of wartime propaganda), the boundaries he has set against talking to women (the first hints of hormones are flickering inside him), the boundaries he has set against his future life path (it is generally assumed he will follow his father, and his father’s father, into the local coal pits, as all of his village has done for generations).
But, sermon by sermon, witticism by witticism, anecdote by anecdote, Dulcie challenges him to question his deeper assumptions, to ask himself truly what he really wants from life, to look beyond the zeitgeist of his own community. She nudges his life path onto a different track.
This process is glacial. Myers’ writing is gentle. Long, detailed descriptions are given to nature, and every passage unfolds at a calm, measured pace. This is a book which forces its readers to slow down, to look closer at the beauty of nature, to listen to the birdsong and swash of the sea, to listen to the insects and the sighing trees. In that sense, it resembles a piece of nature writing, while Robert lies awake in a shed in the garden, and listens to a symphony of “sun-worshipping species … the polyphonic dual-note mantra of two resting wood pigeons … the pedantic argument of a shrieking flock of seagulls … the strangulated cough of a young roe deer”.
Ultimately though, The Offing is a story all about friendship. Robert has his boundaries, but Dulcie has hers too, and through their long summer of each other’s company, Robert helps her to erode her own boundaries as well. This is a tender story of unlikely connection. It is a quiet story of mutual self-growth.
It is a book well suited to the tenor of this summer, in which the pandemic and its consequent restrictions have forced us to slow down and look at our surroundings, to value the beauty and wonder of home, to search for adventures on our own doorsteps, to seek out discoveries in our backyards.
And, somewhere amongst Dulcie’s inveterate ramblings, we might detect a mantra for our future times, an ethos and a road map to guide us in coming years, a life-loving philosophy for our changing world:
“You must live your life exactly how you wish to, not for anybody else … Freedom, and the pursuit of it: that’s what we must strive for … The future may be uncertain but it is yours for the taking … Let poetry and music and wine and romance guide the way”.
Review published 21.07.20
Disclaimer: at no point during his wanderings around Durham does Robert stop off for a jaunt at Barnard Castle.