Joe Bennett: "Know what you are and be it."

Introductory remarks by ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias: Of course cancel culture came calling for Joe Bennett last year: he invited it in, gave it a seat, offered it the meat from his old bones in the form of a deeply offensive column stating there was way too much te reo Māori being spoken on Radio New Zealand these days and oh my goodness what was the point in that. It was sure to Provoke a Response and the Provoked duly Responded. The column was condemned; the Otago Daily Times took it offline. And there the matter ended. Bennett sailed on writing his columns, those 600-word letters from Lyttelton, first loved in Christchurch when he began as a newspaper columnist with the Press and now loved everywhere else as surely the only writer in New Zealand who is syndicated by both NZME and Stuff. His work exists outside of the liberal elites; he’s the People’s Columnist, a great prose stylist, funny and original, a scholar and a humanist, firmly on the side of common sense. Shame about the common sense. He wraps himself up in its conservative gowns to denounce such shocks of the new as too much te reo Māori being spoken on Radio New Zealand. Modern art, inevitably, is rubbish. His recent assessment of Martin Amis’s fiction: “Too clever by half.” It’s a thick and worthless comment, too stupid by half, but it pleases him to say so; even if it hardly qualifies as thinking, it’s exactly what he thinks. Exactness is one of his chief appeals. There is a sureness about his writing, in language as well as opinion. Practice makes perfect sentences. He reveres Waugh but his model is closer to Orwell, that master of direct speech. There is constant pleasure to be had in reading his new memoir From There to Here.

It’s only Volume One, tracing his life from birth in England, in 1957, to arriving in New Zealand, in 1987. Thirty years of nothing momentous: the youngest of four, a childhood of cricket and fishing, his father dies when he is 16, he is accepted to Cambridge, and spends his 20s without love or ambition as an English teacher in strange places around the world, none stranger than his last stop, Christchurch, which he evokes in all its stillness. It’s straight chronology, no other thesis or narrative; it’s a self-portrait of someone kind of disassociated, impersonal. He writes of “some odd compulsion to keep my feelings private, to close things off from my family. I feel it still. I don’t know why.” He tells good stories and has a good ear for the way people sound and is especially good with textures – fried bread in a roadside cafe is so hard that “it shattered like glass”. His wanderings are rootless, alone. He is good at teaching, and great with kids, but something is missing. He has glimpses of the writer he wanted to become. There were the essays he wrote in his Oxbridge entrance papers: “I meant them as I wrote them and they came with a rare fluency and urgency; they came like rivers.” In Spain, he buys a typewriter, and writes letters: “It was a form of publication, writing for a known audience of one, performing on paper, turning a life into words, wrapping it in an envelope and posting it off like a bomb.”

From There to Here is a long letter from Lyttelton. It’s typical and vintage Bennett, an easy and familiar ride. But there is a new register. He has always had a marvellous sensitivity, a genuine feeling for the vulnerable; finally, at last, he turns it on himself. He opens up. He writes about his love life. He writes about his sexuality. More so, he writes about beauty – male beauty, first felt at 14, when he sees “a youth” in purple hipsters walk down the street. “And that was that. My ideal form was male not female. And I think I had always known it.” Later in that same chapter, he writes again of “a youth”, this one catching eels. “I can see him now, half a century on, this Adonis…I can see his jeans, his ribbed sweater, his pale hair, but there is no point to the catalogue. The point was the sum of him. The point was a beauty I could not take my eyes from.”

His book could easily and rightly be co-opted into some kind of anthology of LGBTQIA+ writing. But that feels a bit…narrowing. Bennett himself doesn’t seem especially interested in his queerness. There is a particular kind of tenderness to From There to Here, a yearning, very delicately expressed. It’s a sweet and intensely memorable book of platonic love.


From chapter 17 of From There to Here by Joe Bennett, on his late teenage years in England:

At the end of the summer half a dozen of us rented a motor boat on the Thames for a week before we scattered. From that trip I have my only photograph of Sammy. He is looking quizzically into the camera, leaning on a hatch, his old black sweater worn through at the elbow, his mane of hair unkempt, his chin and upper lip dusted with yielding youthful stubble. I have the photo before me now on my desk and to stare at that face is to sense the backwash of feelings that are close to half a century old. If my house caught fire today, it’s this photo that I’d run into the flames to save.

At an approach to a lock gate Sammy mistimed his jump onto the mooring, slipped and fell backwards into the shallow water, his limbs spread-eagled, his hair fanned out like Ophelia’s and his eyes wide in disbelief. I laughed as he fell, then reached down to haul him out. One night we were the last two back from the pub and Sammy went down into the boat among the sleeping and emerged with a bottle of Sandeman ruby port and we climbed a tree with it, climbed higher than I would have dared to go alone or sober, and we sat up there overlooking the river that shone like new steel, and we passed the bottle between us. I had Carlton cigarettes, the packet a royal purple, and I passed one to Sammy  and he cupped his hands around the flame of my lighter and the image of his face lit from below had a beauty that made me gasp.

We stayed up there an hour and finished the bottle then swung down through the branches and crept aboard the boat full of muttering, breathing sleepers. Sammy slept in a sort of alcove near the door of the cabin. Later that night I clambered out past him to piss and it was a warm night with a full moon and in sleep Sammy had thrown open his sleeping bag and lay there, ivory white and skinny in a pair of battered dark-blue Y-fronts.

And that was pretty well that. In the forty-five years since, I’ve barely seen him. When at university he spent a year in France and I wrote to him there. To my surprise he wrote back, using squared French notepaper. The tone of the letter was friendly. He mentioned Erich Fromm’s To Have or to Be? – Sammy had always had an idealistic streak. And perhaps that text had something to do with the last line of the letter, the envoi: “Know what you are and be it, creep.”

Perhaps four years later I came back to the UK from working overseas and in a pub in Brighton I bumped into Sammy’s father. He told me with an exasperation that he didn’t try to hide that Sammy was living in a squat in Camberwell. He gave me the address: “Try and talk some sense into him, will you.”

I put off going to Camberwell for a couple of months, found excuses for my own fear. I had images of squalor, of Sammy ruined and raddled on bare floorboards, ravaged by drugs and poverty like Sebastian Flyte in Algiers, and me an awkward bourgeois intruder. But at the end of the summer, my last day before flying off abroad again, I went. It was hot. The building was an old tenement block of yellowish London brick. A youth with freckled milk-white shoulders and a Union Jack singlet was lounging on the steps, smoking.

“He’s in the nick,” he said. “Brixton.”

It seemed that Sammy had been working overseas and before he returned to the UK he had posted himself a block of hashish. When he went to collect it at the post office the authorities were waiting for him.

I was a Tube ride from Brixton but I found reasons not to go. At Heathrow the next day I bought Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies and sent it to Sammy c/o the prison. I hadn’t read it. The title was the point. Eighteen months later the book came back to me stamped ‘Unknown at this Address’. I read it then and didn’t think much of it.

Some fifteen years later I dedicated a book of my own to Sammy. It was only right to tell him. By now the internet made it easy to find him, especially as I knew his date of birth. He was born on Christmas Day. I had a phone number for him in five minutes. I shook as I dialled it. I recognised his voice immediately, the lazy sub-Cockney of Brighton, allied with a worldweariness that he’d always had and a sense of irony, as if disappointment was the norm, but with a grim comedy to be drawn from it. We talked together as middle-aged men but I still felt like a supplicant.

A while later, Sammy sent me an email. I’ve kept it of course. Here’s how it ended:

So are you coming to England? I would like to see you.

I enjoyed our phone conversation. There is room here to kip the night – in fact you are welcome to stay a while if you are in need of a base.

That northern summer I went. We met in a pub by the Ouse.

Beauty is rare and ephemeral. Few have it. Fewer still keep it long. It means nothing, but it makes things happen, it moves people. Beauty’s had more effect on my life than any other external influence. Sammy’s had gone, of course. His hair had thinned, his skin coarsened. But I could see the ghost of beauty in the arrangement of his features. And he remained lean and upright, a handsome man.

He had a daughter, aged nine, who lived with her mother just up the road. The following day we took her around Lewes Castle, where we read plaques about Simon de Montfort, and Sammy held her hand as she walked along the top of walls, and I bought us all ice cream.

Sammy lived in a rented flat under the roof beams of a building however many centuries old that looked out over Lewes High Street. Life had not been easy. A prison record hadn’t helped, though it had been an open prison – whatever that might mean – rather than Brixton. He’d settled to no career, no profession, but had kept up with technology and had just secured a poorly paid job with some internet outfit. He was vegetarian.

When he went off to work the next morning, leaving me in possession of his flat, I leant for a while at the sink by the little casement window, my elbows on a chopping board where Sammy had buttered toast, and I looked down over the old High Street of Lewes and thought about Sammy. I saw him in double form, as the middle-aged man thwarted by bad luck, and as the youth in whom I’d seen, rightly or wrongly, everything I wanted in this world: beauty, courage, insouciance and quiet but firm rebellion.

He was to blame for none of it. I doubt we’ll meet again. He mattered more to me than anyone.

Taken with kind permission from From There to Here, the new bestselling memoir by Joe Bennett (HarperCollins, $40), available in bookstores nationwide.

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