A few years ago I wrote a book and that. Like Charles Dickens, I used my experiences and memories of stuff that had happened to me and turned it into fiction. I know this has been a hard thing for some people to grasp. Just as presumably, they have trouble with the idea that there never actually was someone called Pip or Bob Cratchett, or a legal case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a title which always makes me think of Randal and Hopkirk (Deceased). It’s probably my age or something.
I used a literary technique we writers call ‘Making Things Up’ to some effect; it was one of five winners of the BBC Writers Room competition out of a field of 3,500. After that I wrote another screenplay called Janni Schenck, a fictional story about a real-life character I met once, an old man who had been a young boy in Germany in the 1930s. That was entered for Cannes by the Maison des Scenaristes. I showed it to a friend once. She said she never wanted to read it again. I asked her why. She told me that ‘kids like Janni killed half my family in Vienna.’ The only shred of intelligence I could find stopped me singing ‘this means nothing to me.’ Luckily.
So far so blah. Another two screenplays, one about Hereward, the forgotten Saxon with anger management issues and one about Shingle Street, just down the road from me. And then yesterday a phone call out of the blue. Would I like to meet a TV company on Monday to talk about writing a series for the BBC?
I looked back to the Not Your Heart Away reviews this morning and found the nicest thing anyone ever wrote about my stuff. It went like this:
For those men of a certain age, who grew up in an era of patchouli oil, smoky pubs and vinyl records, Not Your Heart Away is a sort of emotional time machine which instantly, effortlessly and somewhat disturbingly transports the reader back to their adolescence. It would be cliched – and untrue – to refer to this as an age of innocence. Carl Bennett’s nineteen year old protagonist Ben has mostly one thing on his mind and it certainly isn’t innocent. But there is a strange naivete about a pre-satnav and iPod world where driving any distance involved maps and cassette players, and a Zippo lighter, twenty Marlboros and a pint of cider was about as good as it got.
But Bennett’s second novel – which picks up where last year’s debut A Day For Pyjamas left off – is much, much more than a nostalgia trip for middle-aged men the wrong side of 50. Themes of loss – loss of love, loss of innocence, loss of friends – are interwoven with asides and observations on such diverse subjects as UFOs, rolling the perfect joint and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn. Not many authors could juxtapose Bob Marley and AE Houseman, Patti Smith and Shakespeare, and get away with it, but these characters make it sound perfectly natural. There is a dreamlike, sun-tinted quality to Bennett’s prose which derives in part from his ability to evoke the wide open spaces of Salisbury Plain, the delicious (and never to be repeated) laziness of post-A level summer holidays and the sheer joy of a road trip with friends in a car borrowed from your parents.
And throughout, the aching, the sweating nervousness, the misunderstandings and the real fear of first love. On one level it would be easy to dismiss Not Your Heart Away as a familiar tale of teen angst and unrequited love. Ben’s stumbling, fumbling and ultimately humiliating pursuit of Claire will strike a chord with many of us. But it is Bennett’s gut-wrenching, relentless, visceral ability to put the reader in that place, at that time, with that girl – to enable us to say, “that’s me, that was my story” – which puts the novel in a class of its own.
Not Your Heart Away is not without flaws. Whether deliberately or not, the narrative bewildering switches from past to present tense and back again – sometimes within the same sentence. Ben’s best friend Peter, a key character in the first half of the story, disappears without trace in the second and is never heard of again. Theresa, Ben’s unimaginative and undemanding girlfriend, suffers a similar fate and somewhat conveniently fades into the background. At times, the verbal jousting between characters is confusing and repetitive. The lack of resolution or denouement is strangely unsatisfying and there is no doubt that when, in the closing stages, the story catches up with the present and we encounter the middle-aged Ben, the writing lacks the insight and depth of earlier chapters. Perhaps this feeling of loose ends still unravelled, and fates not yet determined, is deliberate. After all, life rarely has neat conclusions, and more rarely still is there a “happy ending”. Maybe it’s just a ploy to get us to buy the third and final part of Ben’s story.
But these are minor complaints. Not Your Heart Away is, by any standards, a remarkable story. It takes you back to a time and place – not just a memory but a palpable, tangible time and place – just as surely as a whiff of dope or a snatch of Roy Harper. It is both unsettling and comforting, dream and reality, fact and fiction. If you left school in the late 1970s, it is not just Ben and Claire’s story, it’s yours. As Ben himself says, “It’s soul, it’s heartland. It’s where I’m from.”
I didn’t even have to slip him a fiver for the review.