Richard Benson

Walter Parkin’s Great War Story in Esquire


The story about my grandfather Walter Parkin is published in this month’s Esquire magazine. An except is here.

Does Joan Didion have painter and decorator materials stored in her office?

With the warmer weather here, we are having the house exterior painted by a friend of my friend Swiss Cottage Kev, called Clive. Requiring a dry place to store his tools and materials, Clive suggests the shed, and so the bags of filler, dust sheets, brushes and knives gather at the far end of the bookshelves like a heap of silent snoozing dogs.


They join (out of shot) Violet’s pink bicycle, the sunshade for the patio table,  a non-functioning Apple iMac computer, my upright bicycle pump, an unused amplifier, two unassembled IKEA storage boxes, and a wooden wine crate full of books, css and other sundry items that we never get around to selling on ebay.

When I began working in the shed nine years ago, I foresaw an almost austere, minimally-furnished room; an old desk, bookshelves, filing cabinet, and that would be it. I thought partly of Joan Didion, whose early writing was full of descriptions of attractive rooms and desks conducive to the act of creation: a desk in a hotel suite overlooking the fresh-smelling ocean in Hawaii, the cool rooms of her parents’ old home in Sacramento, the calm, dark studies she shared with John Gregory Dunne in Los Angeles.

Could Joan have written Slouching Towards Bethlehem or Play It As It Lays surrounded by sacks of Toupret Expert Masonry Filler and a Raleigh Molly bike? She could not! In the 1970s even shoes were too much!


To compensate I rearrange the untidy bookshelves.


But of course untidy bookshelves and clutter make little difference to how you work once you get started. A cool, today room just makes it easier to sit down and get going, that’s all. The belief that a better space will improve your work is probably unfounded. When I interviewed Barry Hines a few years ago, he told me that after the success of A Kestrel For A Knave, he rented a house in Capri where he intended to write his next novel. He spent the summer there and returned with nothing, progressing only when he returned to the bedroom overlooking streets of blackened brick in South Yorkshire.

Anyway, at least my shed is a little less lived-in than my brother’s on the farm where he works. This is a photo from a couple of years ago.


And anyway again, I was wrong about Joan Didion. I interviewed her a few years ago too, and her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was quite pleasingly cluttered, albeit with no Toupret sacks in view.


Rock n Roll Will Never Die, But It Might Have A Nap On Mondays


Over the years I’ve seen The Fiddler’s Arms, a pub round the corner from me on Prince of Wales Road in Kentish Town, try every musical genre known to man to get their Monday nights going. It looks as if February 2014 is the month they finally threw in the towel.

What makes a man?

To Borough to talk to Maria Neophytou and Sarah Perry of the Gender Rights and Equalities Action Trust about their campaign to increase teenage boys’ respect for women and girls. I was looking for some insights for a piece I’m writing for Red magazine about young men and feminism.

With male volunteers, Maria and Sarah go into London schools to talk to boys about gender roles and stereotyping. In one exercise the boys are given magazines and asked to make collages of cut-out images representing their ideal women and ideal women. The ideal women were – without exception, said Sarah – pretty, curvy and dressed in bikinis or nothing at all.

The men were more interesting. Beckham and Clooney featured, fewer footballers than you might expect, and more besuited businessmen. On one collage, boys invited to list the ideal male attributes had written:





Maria and Sarah agreed that the low levels of knowledge about biology, sex and gender was striking (the boys are mostly aged between 14 and 16) and said that the Government’s downgrading of sex education hadn’t helped. One had asked them if it was true that crying made your penis shrink.

A tweet from Bob

This afternoon as I was making beans on toast for the girls’ lunch, I glanced at my Twitter timeline and noticed a tweet from Bob my rock neighbour. It mentioned something happening at a birthday party on the river. Nice, I thought. A birthday party on the Thames seemed a nice thing to be doing, and quite down to earth for Bob’s mates really.

I tweeted him back saying have a nice time, and remember to duck when you go under Tower Bridge.

“No!” replied. “We’re on the River Nile.”

Violet versus literature

I was reading The Outsider this evening when Violet came over and asked me what the book was about. She said she thought it must be about a tramp, because of the cover.


I asked if she thought the man looked like a tramp (it is in fact the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, painted by his brother Jacques Villon, the two of them being the elder brothers of Marcel Duchamp). ‘No,’ she said, ‘but it says he lives outside.’

This made me laugh, so  I got some more books and asked her to guess what they were about, starting with Middlemarch.


‘About a war,’ she said. ‘And in the middle of their march, the soldiers stop in a garden for a rest.’


‘About a family called the Pickwicks, and they all write in newspapers.’


‘About the snacks that children take into school to eat at play. They all take oranges, and the teaching assistant says, “Why have you all brought oranges today? Oranges aren’t the only fruit you can bring you know.”‘


Useless? Is that what  it’s called? So it’s about a man who’s useless. And he looks weird.’

Cultivated wildness

I am indebted to @katetooncopy for sharing this picture of what she felt was some rather middle-class grafitti in London:


I have sometimes wondered about the labelling of so-called “wild” food. If M&S wild blueberries, for example, were really wild, wouldn’t M&S have had to forage for them? And wouldn’t a foraging corporation really be stealing?

Ben Watt’s book

I’ve been reading Romany and Tom, Ben Watt’s new book about his parents’ lives – and his life with his parents.


It’s a good book, honest about this feelings towards his father, and very moving in parts. One thing it caught well was that self-destructive streak some men develop after becoming more successful and acclaimed than they expected to be. It is do with not knowing how to take a compliment. Ben’s dad Tommy was a jazz band leader, very big in the late 1950s, but seems to have become either more integrity-obsessed/bloody-minded as his star rose.

You can feel the difficult relationships some of the musicians had with their own characters in Watt’s evocative descriptions of the jazz musicians that his dad took him to see.

“I sensed it was like a secret society,” he says about the back room of the Bull’s Head in Barnes. “Language-less men with so much to say, who came alive through music, who understood each other and revealed so much through beats and notes, each with a common hinterland. When a session ended and the lights came up, it was as if a spell were broken, and as they packed away their instruments they returned to being just quiet, unexceptional men: self protective, self effacing, internalized.”

I reviewed it for Caught By The Riverhere.

Boys and girls and boys

The features editor from Red magazine emails to ask if I can write an opinion piece about some campaigns designed to teach teenage boys to respect women. The idea is to contrast the supposedly more innocent 1980s, when I was a teenager, with the current period when sexism and abuse among 18-25 year old men is increasing.

It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure how innocent the 1980s were. Being a teenage boy has always been more complicated than it looks, even when it looks extremely simple. I think of a Friday afternoon in the mid-1980s, when I and 20 other 16 year olds gathered in Neil Foster’s front room to watch a porn film for what was for many of us the first time. It had been planned for weeks. Neil’s mum and dad had – unusually at the time – a VCR, and they were going away for the weekend. His older brother would supply the video. All we had to do was  draw the curtains and sit there and enjoy it.


The thing is, I’m not sure how much we did enjoy the film itself.  Thirty years later, I remember nothing whatsoever about entertainment itself but have a very clear memory of the atmosphere in the room, which was one of quiet self-consciousness relieved now and again by cheering and lines of blustering banter (”That’ll be me tonight,’ was the most popular theme, as we were going on to a disco at the town hall). I’m sure we took some pleasure in the images, but they were certainly less an end in themselves, and more a means to our bonding; I feel confident saying this because I know know that at least two of the lads loudly leering over the breasts were/are gay.

Afterwards we all walked up to the disco predicting who we’d get off with, and it felt great, because all our insecurities were dissolved in a single, collective, outward-facing outlaw identity in the way that men like. We didn’t express it in those terms, of course. I imagine that we expressed it by furtively comparing girls in the disco to girls in the film.

Transcribing: the Barnsley school

To visit my aunty Lynda at her home in South Yorkshire, to scan the two of my great-grandfather’s World War One medals (the Military and the War) of which she has custody. I need pictures for the story I’ve done for Esquire magazine about researching my great-grandfather’s war record.

Afterwards we somehow end up talking about the transcription of audio recordings. Aunty Lynda worked as a secretary and administrative assistant, so she knows as I do that transcribing is a craft, requiring a sort of learned intuition. Include too many of the umms, ahhs and repetitions, and your work is unreadable; precis it too much, and you risk misrepresentation, which is a serious problem if  you are transcribing meeting minutes, for example. When I worked in magazine offices, I occasionally had problems with junior members of staff or students on work experience placements who handed back partially-transcribed interviews and explained the gaps by saying ‘They talked too fast for me,’ as if the pause and rewind buttons on the tape player were for decoration.

Aunty Lynda worked for many years in the offices of Hickleton Colliery, where the mining jargon was so dense and obscure that admin staff were given a full year to learn it. That was where she learned her craft, picking up irrelevant digressions and tangents, and omitting them.

‘If they asked me to do minutes, they got ’em Barnsley-style, and they could lump it,’ she said.

I think she meant she kept it all tightly to the point, but I liked the idea of a Barnsley school of transcription, whatever it happened to be.