Turning the clock back

Glaswegian writer Alex Benzie has

published his first novel about a watchmaker with an unnatural ability. He took time out to talk to David Harris.

There's a second moral to the story of the boy who cried wolf: just because you heard it before. don‘t mean it ain't true. Although the fanfare heralding debut authors is as wearyingly familiar as the sound ofa summer hit in September. let‘s give it one more spin. With his first novel. Alex Benzie shows himself to be a vital new voice in British fiction. displaying the literary gifts of a seasoned veteran.

Set in a Scottish farming village at the turn of the centry, The Year Is Mir/night tells the story of ‘Watchie' Leckie. whose mechanical skills lead him to forsake the farmer‘s life he has been groomed for and becotne apprenticed to a local watclunaker. But his talent is seen by some in Aberlevin as a manifestation of wickedness: commissioned to repair the village clock. which has lain unused since being destroyed by rioters 100 years earlier. Watchie meets with deep-seated resistance. setting in motion a struggle for Aberlevin‘s soul.

The novel features an array of vividly realised characters. but the star of the show is Benzie‘s prose. lucent and precise as quartz. full of revelatory images


-. x 3/ tifl’i‘i'ijli Clocking in: Alex Benzie and the hypnotic. pulsing rhythms of the storyteller‘s voice. While recalling the lluid lyricism ofthe l‘hh centrrry. the solid evocation of its setting ney er intrudes on the timeless and universal feel of the narrative.

.r\ llilll‘. e (.ilaswegian. lienzic found the roots of the story in his family. augmenting knowledge of his lather‘s northeastern background with supplementaryreading. ‘lt's not something I floated into naturally.‘ he says. ‘(ictting the ideas of how people feel about the land is just a matter of understanding your characters. truderstandiug what it means to people whose livings depend on it. It‘s ruore than just property and livelihood: people genuinely feel an elemental connection.‘

Research was important in establishing the book’s strong social realism. but for Benzie who cites


l !

Angela Carter and Peter (‘arey as primary influences

historical accuracy is secondary to fictional imperatives. His passion for magic realism may explain why it is not as lcadcn as many traditional Scottish pastoral novels.

'l’he central figure of time itself looms large in the novel. "l‘he idea of the clock and the watch as images of dynamism of all kinds stuck with me. of social relationships throughout the village.‘ Benzie

- explains. "l‘here‘s also the idea ofthe clock being

used as an appropriate metaphor for creation. I think chaos does a lot more to create than order.‘

Thus the appositely accident-prone Watchie is a small agent of change. a cog in the imperfect movement of technological and social advancement. ‘The intention.‘ notes Benzie. ‘was to pitch notions of progress and their validity against the tendency of religious schemes of thought to act as a braking agent. Not that I‘m starry—eyed about progress. but there is a feeling that religion is always yanking the reins of any advance.‘

Benzic qualifies his criticism. maintaining that the folly lies in investing faith with absolute truth. ‘lt‘s a crack at prejudice in the wider field. If any message comes out of the book it should be that I don't think religion is the repository of knowledge of good and evil. It's always Useful to have a devil to pitch up and it's always useful to externalise that. but everybody has times when they have to face that darkness within themselves.‘

While the historical setting allows Ben/.ie to explore religious certainty as a social force. the past has no monopoly on the novel‘s themes of flux and progress. ‘The intellectual furniture changes.‘ he suggests. ‘but there‘s nothing new about the debates we‘re currently engaged in. The past makes a great metaphor for the present.‘ The Year's .llir/m'ght augurs well for Alex Ben/ie's future: watch this space.

The Year '3' Mir/night Irv .vi/(it‘ liens/e is published by Viking at rm.

EEIE- 3 Hard nuts, '

screws and washers

Dannie M. Martin has led what is euphemlstically termed a ‘colourful’ life. Born into a family of migrant Californian workers in 1939, he was, according to family legend, regularly intoxicated from the age of two onwards. Though deemed a very bright child, Martin’s schooling was on the j slide and by the age of thirteen, when . he was imprisoned for joyriding, it was i well and truly over. For the next 40 ' years this heavily-tattooed weight- lifter and self-described ‘redneck thug’ was to spend most of his time incarcerated in establishments such as Folsom and San Quentin for drug related crimes and bank robberies.

However, it was the enforced ‘leisure time’ of prison life that led indirectly to his post-prison life as a journalist _ and now novelist with The Dishwasher. A tough but compulsive debut novel with echoes of Chandler and ' Steinbeck, the main character is a l moral and intelligent ex-con called Bill Malone who has just been i '* released and is attempting to carve out a quiet life as a full time dishwasher and resident at The Star Motel. His quest for stability is diverted when the motel owner’s daughter is raped and Mallone is compelled to intervene. Superficially this may sound like a run-of—the-mill plot but Martin’s style and autobiographical experiences endow the book with an emotional depth and intelligence that elevate it substantially. i

The Dishwasher is the culmination of Martin’s passionate desire to read and . write that he developed as a means of i retaining his dignity while in prison. 5 ‘Prison life teaches convicts to scorn g and ridicule feelings,’ he says. ‘Feelings are viewed as a weakness.

In a world that dampens emotions I tried to hang on to mine through reading. It was a way of keeping prison from deforming me.’ And so he . be consumed the works of literary and f : philosophical giants like Plato, Schopenhauer, Shakespeare and


This in turn led to his own attempts at writing which began as jailhouse ballads and fairytales before moving on to a highly successful collaboration with a San Francisco Chronicle journalist. Martin’s fifty essays detailing prison life and the minds of the men within were seen as eloquent and powerful criticisms of the American penal system as well as putting a human face to the inmates. These essays and other autobiographical works were published in America as Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of lied llog.

Clearly Martin’s smartest move in his life was to pick up a pencil instead of a shooter. As he put it in his trial testimony ‘I always had a dream of being a writer. And at some point there I put the dream aside and picked up : the pencil. It was getting late in the game.‘ (Ann Donald)

The Dishwasher by Dannie M. Martin is published by Bollancz at £15. 99 on Thurs 10 August.

The List 28 Jul-10 Aug I995 81