Cuddy: Winner of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize

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Cuddy: Winner of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize

Cuddy: Winner of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize

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Myers creates characters and voices so absorbing that when the timeline jumps forward you are reluctant to leave them, only for the next protagonist to become the centre of your world until it is time to move on again. It is on the final leg of this journey that Benjamin Myers’s novel opens, with the great cathedral, founded in Cuthbert’s honour in 1093 at what will later be Durham, still nothing but a holy vision of his most fervent disciples. He is the author of ten books, including The Offing , which was an international bestseller and selected for the Radio 2 Book Club; The Gallows Pole , which won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and has been adapted as a BBC series by Shane Meadows; Beastings which was awarded the Portico Prize for Literature, and Pig Iron which won the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize. Cuddy is another book which deserves the highest praise, it is a series of stories linked by Saint Cuthbert, or 'Cuddy' as he is affectionately known, and gives us insight into various points in over a thousand years of English history.

Section 1, a kind of epic poem telling the story of the Haliwerfolc, a group of dedicated monks and others who carried Cuddy's body around the north to help it avoid desecration by the invading vikings, is glorious. When his wife, Eda, meets Francis Rolfe, one of a team of masons engaged in repairing and enhancing Durham Cathedral’s decorative stonework, what occurs will live on in the stone. Along the way we meet brewers and masons, archers and academics, monks and labourers, their visionary voices and stories echoing through their ancestors and down the ages. I have not read any books by Baenjamin Myers before but so I approached this novel cautiously particularly as its main plot was about St Cuthbert and how he reached his final resting place in Durham Cathedral. In some ways, what stood out for me apart from the quality of the writing was the gentle exploration of faith and intimations of the possibility of the divine.I also visited Durham and Lindisfarne last month and always love a setting-driven story and was curious about the central St Cuthbert. My admiration of Benjamin Myers' work is well known, and I think with Cuddy- because it is extremely experimental in style and approach- he has positioned himself more than ever before to be in the running for a longlist nomination on this year's Booker Prize. But sections 3 and 4 became tiresome quickly, as we are asked again to switch styles and to abandon characters we had invested in. I knew nothing about St Cuthbert before reading the novel although I was vaguely aware of the Early Christian church and Lindesfarne. Daring, expansive and deeply satisfying, Cuddy is a truly original piece of writing which weaves a special kind of magic.

Incorporating poetry, prose, play, diary and real historical accounts to create a novel like no other, Cuddy straddles historical eras – from the first Christian-slaying Viking invaders of the holy island of Lindisfarne in the 8th century to a contemporary England defined by class and austerity. As the book moves from 687 to 2019 in centuries-long leaps, there are less obvious themes which run throughout. Here we have all the poetry and intensity of his writing, all the excellence of his historical fiction and it is all mixed together with some literary experimentation that makes you think Myers is really going places with his writing.

The pacing, sense of place and period, and the personal stories of its protagonists in Cuddy grip from the beginning and keep a firm hold right through its 400+ pages. Cuddy is a shortened form of Cuthbert and refers to St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, a seventh century shepherd boy who became a monk and then prior of Melrose Abbey and finally a hermit on the island of Lindisfarne. There is indeed poetry, prose, the occasional epistle, dramatic dialogue and bibliographical references woven into it stretching from Bede to modern times (Schama). Myers has written this in the flamboyant wordy style of the period, catching the nuances effortlessly. There is a strong smell of urine, the invisible scent markings of feral men after midnight staining the cold concrete.

It is poetry and prose, fact and fiction, passionate and discursive: a dash through over a thousand years of history. Pig Iron (2012) was the winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize and runner-up in The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Telling the story of Saint Cuthbert and Durham Cathedral over the period of a thousand years, the author takes full advantage of all styles of writing be it poetry, prose , play script and the use of historical quotations. I found his earlier novels rather bleak, but he then wrote The Offing, a wonderfully sensitive coming-of-age novel set on the Yorkshire coast. The final book is the story of Michael, a teenager labourer who in 2017 begins work at the cathedral among the repairs to the medieval masonry.The north to me has always appeared a land of coughing chimneys, blotched babies, vile ale, wet wool and cloying clouds, where all is coated with a slick of grime, a skein of grease, and such concepts as aspiration, education and betterment extend to an extra pan-load of dripping of a week's end. This is a superb novel about St Cuthbert and Durham Cathedral which sweeps through the ages in a variety of different styles. Section 2, a stream of consciousness novella about an affair after the building of Durham Cathedral, I enjoyed. The increasingly serious turn taken by this chapter had the effect of removing my doubts, as well as shaking the professor’s loudly proclaimed contempt for the ineffable. I've read several other books from Benjamin Myers and not one has disappointed me (The Perfect Circle is a beautiful evocation of the English countryside).

I have spent a lot of time working out how the words are arranged on the page, and there is lots of white space within it. It is probably Myers' most ambitious and experimental book (with the possible exception of The Gallows Pole) and it is a very enjoyable and stimulating read.So much so that in one short section that is presented to us as a play, the cathedral has a speaking part. The stories we tell one another are all that shall remain when time dies and even the strongest sculpted stones crumble to sand. He never knew his father, who has done time in prison, and his lack of qualifications leaves him dependent on zero-hours labouring contracts. I began with The Gallows Pole when I was part of the panel that longlisted the book for The Republic of Consciousness prize in 2018.



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