For those of us old enough to remember, there was a period in history when mysterious geometric shapes appeared in crops across the western world with increasing regularity. Despite being recorded as far back as the seventeenth century, the proliferation of these shapes in the 1980s gave rise to the term ‘crop circles’. While it was long suspected that the circles were the work of humans, there were plenty of other theories, including that they might have been created by some supernatural force or by aliens or by a meteorological or electro-magnetic phenomenon. In Britain at least, 1991 saw two men come forward and admit to being behind the majority of the most spectacular crop formations of the previous 15 years.
Benjamin Myers’ ninth novel, The Perfect Golden Circle, is set in the summer of 1989 and reimagines these two men and their mission to create the most magnificent and beguiling figures in crops. Along the way he delivers commentary on the nature of art, on modern Britain and its class system, and on our relationship with nature.
Redbone and Calvert are a decidedly odd couple. Calvert is an ex-Special Forces soldier and veteran of the Falkland Islands war. Redbone is an ageing hippy. But the two have found common cause – going out on summer nights and creating figures in the crops in south-west Britain. They are not doing it for fame or notoriety, but in pursuit of beauty and the capacity to create awe. As Calvin observes:
‘The things we are creating this year are going to resonate down through the ages … Trust me, we might not be famous but we’ll be the first. And the best.’ …
‘Fuel the myth,’ says Redbone. ‘And strive for beauty.’
In fact, their lengthy series of rules includes:
… never publicly challenging inane conspiracies about the origin of crop circles lest it draw attention to their insider’s knowledge of the subject; continually striving towards beauty; and, most importantly, never telling another soul about their endeavour. This is the one rule, above all others.
Of the two, Redbone is the creative dreamer – designing grand patterns that they know will be ephemeral. Calvert, the military man, does the logistics – scoping out townships and fields that are suitable, and far enough away from civilisation to allow them some privacy. As Calvert observes:
‘…you’re digging deep into your subconscious to conceive this stuff. The candle of your imagination has been burned from both ends, whereas I just gather intel and do half the heavy lifting. I’m the map-man, the practical thinker. I acknowledge that. From each according to his ability and all that.’
‘You’re quoting Karl Marx now?’
In that exchange is a hint of the Beckettian style of their relationship. While they do not say much, letting their actions and designs do the talking, when they do have a discussion it is often a delight of non-sequiturs and faint barbs, such as this conversation relating to the title of the book, the quest for a perfect golden circle, which Redbone maintains cannot exist as there will always be an imperfection. Calvert says:
‘So in a way, the perfect golden circle does exist after all.’
‘Yes. In our imaginations only.’
‘Where they are beyond corruption,’ says Calvert.
‘Yes,’ says Redbone. ‘I suppose that’s true.’
‘So they exist in our minds.’
Redbone sighs. ‘As much as anything that does not exist can do so in the most fertile of imaginations, yes.’
‘Good,’ nods Calvert. ‘I knew they did.’
The narrative is structured around each of the patterns that the two inscribe over a long, hot summer. This is the third year of their endeavour, and each year the patterns have become more complex. Each pattern has a name (‘The Cuckoo Spittle Thought Bubble’, ‘The High Bassett Butter Barrell Whirlpool’) and the novel builds up to the most complex of all, The Honeycomb Double Helix. But each mission is not without its dangers and encounters, and it is here that Myers explores the various strata of 1980s Britain, be it the fly-tippers illegally dumping rubbish in remote fields, the night-time hunters, the elderly or the upper class. As the designs become more elaborate, they gain a following such that the local landholders start charging tourists and investigators to come and look at them.
But Myers is also deeply interested in the landscape and its inhabitants, and it is here that the narrative really shines:
The light tonight is strange and brilliant as Redbone and Calvert push through the crop. When they pause to listen to the sporadic concerto played by the unseen soloists of the night – those fleet of foot and swift of wing – they become scarecrows guarding a lake of mercury. They hear the nocturne music that is entirely devoid of melody but not of meaning, for within it are animalistic expressions of hunger, fear, desire, all heightened by an instinctive awareness of the shortened night and the moon’s radial power.
Pylons watch on, hulking metallic skeletons that are joined wrist to wrist by cables that supply the hungry houses built too close together in the nearby estates.
The Perfect Golden Circle may be a historical novel, but it is also one with a message for our times. It is about not pursuing fame or notoriety, but instead striving for beauty over conflict, and about being respectful of the environment (at one point a farmer notes that the crop circles do not actually damage the crops and that most of the damage is done by the hordes of visitors who trample over the fields).
But it might be best to leave the last word to Calvert about the pair’s philosophy of crop circles, a philosophy that is epitomised by the novel itself:
‘They are part of a wordless story that goes beyond language barriers to become metaphor for some, myth for others, and a mystery to most except us. They tell a strange story, create a narrative. More than anything, they are something to believe in during cynical times … Hope is essential. Hope is the human currency and we are spreading it about.’
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.