“Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields,” wrote the great nature writer Tim Dee in his 2013 book Four Fields. He had a caveat: “These acres of shaped growing earth, telling our shared story over and over, are so ordinary, ubiquitous and banal that we have – mostly – stopped noticing them as anything other than substrate or backdrop, the green crayon-lane across the bottom of every child’s drawing.”
It’s this myopia that Benjamin Myers explores in his roiling, rollicking novel The Perfect Golden Circle, set during the long hot summer of 1989. Thatcher, apartheid, the Berlin Wall: things seemed solid then. In the West Country, though, history was being made at night; farmers were waking up to discover their wheat fields decorated with crop circles and other mysterious radials. Was it the work of extraterrestrials, or proto Banksys?
In Myers’s telling, the men responsible were no vandals. Redbone and Calvert are an odd couple; their names may suggest a Savile Row shirtmaker, but the pair are closer in spirit to centrifugal visionaries such as the KLF. Redbone is younger, has travelled Europe with various bands, and is popular with women; Calvert is taciturn, always wears sunglasses, and has PTSD after serving in the SAS during the Falklands war. For weeks on end, living in a battered camper van, they move through the English countryside. Their goals: to create ever more dazzling patterns, to stay anonymous, to not get caught.
The fields are rarely quiet at night. Redbone and Calvert encounter “lampers”, driving around in open-top jeeps shining spotlights at badgers and hares before setting dogs on them. They come across people having sex in laybys; fly-tippers; Gypsy prizefighters; a ghostly old woman who says she has been searching for her missing dog, Sebastian, most nights since 1909; a pissed aristocrat who turns out to be the son of the third richest landowner in the country.
The days, too, are far from bucolic. The country lanes teem with rogues, quacks, chancers. The crop circles draw Fleet Street stringers, ufologists, a demonic exorcist, a disgraced psychic and a retired physicist explaining to passersby that they are “created by an electro-magnetic-hydrodynamic plasma vortex”. There’s also a grand wizard from Cornwall, “a new age a cappella vocal group improvising a work that will later feature on their album Lapsed Eden/Visions of Gaia, several leading Greenpeace activists … four police officers, half a dozen dogs and Brian Eno”.
The novel begins portentously. The narrative invokes wolves stalking shrinking copses and fields that are full of bones, “rotting deep in the rich soil of a singular cemetery called England”. Throughout, there are echoes of David Peace, Gordon Burn, Stephen Barber – writers who render the recent past as occulture, hallucinatory. There are also spectres of other more politically fraught fields from the 80s: Goose Green, Orgreave, the Battle of the Beanfield near Stonehenge.
But a steady flow of banter lightens the mood. Redbone describes his new musical direction as “Grindcore shit, but with a strong acid house influence”. “You’re not doing rural West Country reggae any more, then?” replies Calvert. It’s easy to imagine Myers giggling as he came up with the names of some of the circles: Throstle Henge Asteroid Necklace and Bracklebury Dodman could be Aphex Twin tracks.
Myers isn’t an ironist. What’s most striking about The Perfect Golden Circle is the way it depicts time – its thickness, mysteries, continuities, the way it ebbs and flows. Redbone knows that “there exists an under-England, a chthonic place” in which there are “so many secrets that go beyond the limitations of the here and now”. He and his pal have epiphanies about belonging to a lineage of people who, across millennia, have been magicked by the fields. A cuckoo song is “a call down the centuries … a canticle for the warming land”. That summer it never rains. The wheat fields “whisper their desperate thirst”. Calvert, a glum Tiresias, foresees new viruses, broken food chains.
Dee argued that fields show “how we live both within the grain of the world and against it”. Those trespassed by Redbone and Calvert serve to hex that persistent strain of English pastoralism that dotes on baronial piles and manicured landscapes. They embody a counter-tradition: the pagan, anarchistic ruralism so vividly channelled in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, or David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen, or by rogue art groups such as English Heretic and Folklore Tapes.
For Redbone and Calvert, England “is a kingdom that belongs entirely to the dreaming dissenters and the rat-tailed revolutionaries, and is open to all comers. All borders and boundaries, whether visible or not, are only there for the burning.” The Perfect Golden Circle makes these eccentric outsiders seem like seditionaries in arcadia, contemporary folk heroes.