Richard Benson is an English author, journalist and critic. He grew up on a small farm in Yorkshire, was educated at King’s College, London, and began his professional writing career as a news reporter for the Beverley Guardian, a local newspaper, in 1989.
In the 1990s he edited The Face magazine. In this period the magazine achieved record sales, won the International Magazine of the Year award, and promoted many of the emerging artists and cultural movements that became dominant in the late 1990s and 2000s. Writing and speaking about British society and popular culture in the media, he became known as “one of Britain’s leading cultural commentators” (The Guardian).
His first experience in book publishing was as editor of Night Fever, a collection of writing about nightclubs and popular culture published by Ebury in 1998. In 2005 he published his memoir The Farm, an account of his family in the aftermath of the forced sale of their farm in 1999. The book, which blended fictional and non-fictional narrative techniques, was described by Ronald Blythe as “one of the most remarkable farm books I have read… an extraordinary mixture of hardness and tenderness, wit and slog, and quite original.” It was shortlisted for The Guardian first-book award, chosen for Channel 4’s Richard and Judy’s Book Club and as a Radio 4 Book of the Week, and became a number-one bestseller.
Following The Farm he spent seven years researching and writing about a spiritualist miner’s wife and matriarch Winnie Hollingworth and four generations of her family. The book, The Valley, set the family’s stories against the background of mining and Britains’ turbulent 20th century history. Rachel Cooke in The Observer said it was “a masterpiece of empathy and good writing” that made the reader feel “he is holding not a book of social history but a fat and vivid novel.” The Literary Review called it “a landmark social history”, and according to the Sunday Express it was “an extraordinary book [that] combines the epic sweep of Gone With The Wind with the microscopic intensity of Tolstoy.” The Valley won the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, the Portico Prize, and was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn prize. It was also serialised as a Radio 4 Book of the Week.
Richard has also worked with archivists and researchers at companies including BMW, Motorola and Unilever, and since 2012 he has been working with the archives of Vauxhall Motors in Luton. He is currently working on the biography of a family of 19th-century British emigrants to the United States. He is a a contributing editor at Esquire and Hole & Corner magazines, and a contributor to The Guardian, Daily Telegraph London Evening Standard and Independent. As part of a collective of writers and researchers called Bug, he hosts regular talks exploring contemporary social an cultural issues.
Richard lives in London with his wife and two daughters, and divides his working time between the city and Yorkshire.
On the blog on this site, he writes mostly about life in rural Yorkshire and books. He blogs about popular culture on the Bug site, which can be found here.
Praise for The Valley:
“The things [Benson] sees, and the things he understands! This 500-page collection of stories could not be more meticulous or magically intimate if it tried… the reader comes to feel he is holding not a book of social history but a fat and vivid novel. A masterpiece of empathy and good writing.”
Rachel Cooke, Observer
“Richard Benson’s new book, a sprawling masterpiece chronicling 100 years in the life of one mining family in the Dearne Valley, is social history as it is meant to be. Neither novel nor documentary, it is a compelling hybrid of both. It’s safe to say he has invented a whole new genre.”
“An extraordinary book [that] combines the epic sweep of Gone With The Wind with the microscopic intensity of Tolstoy. Benson’s facility with words produces neither a historical record nor a biography, but somehow both.”
“The early sections of The Valley recall the world described by DH Lawrence in Sons and Lovers but, with her spirit guides and secret passions, Winnie could have wandered in from the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As the book progresses, however, we move into unknown territory. Benson is writing on a clean slate; the inhabitants of the Dearne Valley have never been commemorated in literature before, and the likes of Winnie and Juggler are unlikely to be seen again…It shouldn’t work, but it does… The Valley is an extraordinary book about hidden lives.”
Frances Wilson, Daily Telegraph
“The detail, while forensic, is delivered in a fine poetic rhythm. Benson doffs a flat cap to a northern literary ancestry that boasts the likes of Barry Hines, John Braine and Alana Sillitoe… the snippets of dialogue picked up from hours and hours of conversations with relatives are wonderfully evocative.”
“A masterpiece of empathetic imagination, a narrative of refracted images, of stories told and retold through the generations, of tragedies relationships, squabbles, disapointments, triumphs and secrets… He writes entirely without sentimentality and with exquisite tenderness.”
“Richard Benson is a kind of cultural obituarist, watching ways of life die out. This new book charts the eclipse of coal mining in the pit villages of the Dearne Valley, drawing on the group memory of four generations of his mother’s family, the Hollingworths. It is intensely enjoyable, rich in quirks of social history and sizzling with the antagonisms only families generate.”
John Carey, Sunday Times
“Profoundly moving and, given the collaborative nature of the project, it can be described as an almost an act of collective confessional writing. To be allowed to share all of those secrets is, as Benson notes, a privilege for the writer – but it’s a privilege for the reader too. This is social history at its very best.”
Olivia Cole, GQ
“Captures the hard graft and constant perils of colliery life with cinematic vividness, especially in the set-pieces on mining accidents. For an unvarnished, well-crafted story of the human side of mining, there won’t be anything better than The Valley.”
“This rare and finely tempered work serves up a devastating combination of memory and imagination. The Valley is a landmark history.”
Praise for The Farm:
“What a wonderful farm book – quite one of the the most remarkable I have read for a long time. Farm sales were among the most poignant incidents of the great agriculture depression during the first half of the twentieth century, and it would astonish most people – even country people in the south of England – that they still occur, and Richard Benson’s up-to-date story of a farming family’s collapse will come as a shock to them. The writing is an extraordinary mixture of hardness and tenderness, wit and slog, and quite original, and the language of rural Yorkshire captured with an authenticity which shakes the reader.”
Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield
“A meditation – all the more haunting for being so affectionate and matter-of-fact – on the nature of love, work and family, happiness and belonging, and the mutability of all these things.”
“Read Richard Benson’s book and you’ll see farms and farming and the fate of the British countryside in an entirely different way. Benson writes crisp, witty and enjoyable prose, filling his pages with character sketches and dialogue, brilliantly capturing the terse wit of grumpy Yorkshiremen.”
“A more wry and trustworthy narrator you could not hope to meet… a lovely book, elegiac yet full of life.”
“Poignant and enduring. Eschews hand-wringing to focus on the resilience and humour of its human subjects. Benson does the vernacular brilliantly, its combination of Pinter and Coward shining in farm gate conversations.”
“Moving, funny and solidly engaging from beginning to end.”
Julie Myerson, New Statesman Books of the Year
“Poignant, absorbing, funny, moving and enlightening. Head and shoulders above most other personal memoirs… an elegantly rendered tale of the changing fortunes and shifting relationships within one family.”
“Beautiful writing coupled with brilliant observation and genuine emotions among tough country people. I defy anyone not to be moved by this true story of the end of a family farm.”
Nicholas Rhea, Darlington and Stockton Times
“A touching portrayal of endurance in the face of adversity, with a good smattering of dour humour and an enlightening depiction of how Britain’s farming industry has fallen from grace in the last century.”
“Crammed with authentic characters. Benson has a marvellous ear for dialogue: the dry-witted banter is a treat to read. I recommend The Farm to anyone who yearns for an unpretentious story.”