EVERY CHRISTMAS SINCE 2006, someone has called to congratulate me, or called my mother to ask her to relay congratulations, on my latest book. Invariably the congratulator has been given the book as a Christmas gift, and has been “roaring with laughter” or “giggling away” since they opened its pages. They have read some passages several times again. They have read lines out aloud to their spouse. They really hope I’ll write a follow-up, because they’ll certainly be buying it!
“Well,” I say. “No, sadly not, becau-”
“Oh, you should, you know!” they say. “It’s ever so funny!”
“I know, but-”
“It had me roaring with laughter!”
“Yes, you mentioned that. But I didn’t write it, you see.”
“I mean it’s a different Richard Benson.”
“Oh. We all thought it was you.”
“No. Not me.”
“We’ve been telling our friends we know this hilarious author.”
“No, sorry. It’s a sort of doppelganger.”
“Right.” Another pause. “Have you not done another one then?”
“No. I’ve been working on one for a long time, but it’s not out yet.”
“When was The Farm?” The Farm is the one book I did write. It was published in 2005. In reply, I name the number of years since 2005.
“Oh. So, you had nothing to do with this one then?”
“Can they do that?” (I didn’t understand this question the first time either. It means, “Can an author use another author’s name?”)
“I suppose if you’re called Richard Benson, you can’t be made to stop using your name just because there’s someone else with that name working in the same business.”
“No. Well, how are you anyway? Have you had a nice Christmas?” Etc., etc.
Richard Benson, ie the Richard Benson to whom the disappointed congratulators refer, not the Richard Benson who wrote the words you are now reading, is the author of 21 humor books. These books are mostly collections of quotes or funny answers from student examination papers, published as small £9.99 hardbacks by Summersdale Publishing of Chichester, Sussex. The first was Wicket Wit: Quips and Quotes for the Cricket Obsessed, published in September 2006. I was given a copy of this as a birthday gift by my mother-in-law. I remember her gift tag said, “So, this is what you get up to in the “SHED.” The “SHED” refers to the garden shed I work in. (I don’t know why she put it in caps and quotation marks, but I’ve noticed that many people of her generation have a habit of seemingly-random capitalizations and quotation marks). Wicket Wit was followed by Rugby Wit, Fishing Wit, Sporting Wit, Nautical Wit, Old Git Wit and, with two extra words implying Benson’s admiration for the former Conservative Prime Minister, The Wit and Wisdom of Margaret Thatcher. There have followed various others such as Kids Klangers: The Funny Things That Children Say and Leather On Willow: The Pocket Book Of Cricket; it appears that in the last few years the author and Summersdale have found a new and popular seam in examination answers with F In Exams: The Best Test Paper Blunders followed by F In English, F In Geography, F In Retakes etc, but, judging by the congratulations, the sport-based collections are the most commonly purchased by my extended family and friends.
I have wondered about Benson’s identity over the years since 2006. When Wicket Wit was published, my own book, The Farm, a memoir about my father and brother and the sale of my family’s farm in 1999, was in the sales charts, and because of this I pondered two possibilities. First, was Richard Benson a made-up author, with a name perhaps taken at random from the books pages of a newspaper? I Googled the book, and skimming the first page, thought the lack of information about him seemed suspicious, but didn’t search for him directly, and I didn’t check the colophon, which would have told me if he was an actual person. I can’t remember if that didn’t occur to me, or if, for some reason I didn’t and/or don’t understand, I just chose not to look.
Actually, I do know the reason, it’s just that I can’t name it because it’s not a rational cause, but rather a vague, variable, unexamined and slightly ridiculous feeling. It’s in the category of feeling that dissuades some people from executing simple, workless tasks such as replying to voicemails even when not they’re not busy, or getting around to filling up a car’s half-empty fuel tank before it’s in danger of running dry. It’s a feeling-category that is depicted in several works of literature, the one I identify with being Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar. In this novel, the hero Billy Fisher’s has agreed to deliver, door-to-door, several dozen promotional calendars for the firm of funeral directors for which he works. The calendars remain locked in his wardrobe while he spends more time worrying about them than it would have taken to deliver them. To his boss and family, this inaction manifests as idleness, selfishness and basic low-level weirdness, but to the reader it signifies more. Billy wants and doesn’t want to escape; to deliver the calendars would be to accept his situation, to decide to ignore them would require a decision to leave which he cannot take.
I don’t know the greater significance of my inaction habit (I’d guess it has to do with a fear of failure, but that seems a bit unspecific), but what it is is not looking at or reading anything with my byline on it. When I’m working on it, fine, but afterwards anything to do with a finished book or article or a radio appearance, or with authorship in general, makes me feel apprehensive and awkward, so if I can, I avoid the subject. I suppose this is why I didn’t Google or investigate Richard Benson very intensively.
It was also, if I am honest, because his existence annoyed me. There I was in 2006, starting out as an author, hoping to be taken seriously, talking about a second book, when suddenly my family and friends thought I’d knocked out another already. They thought a collection of humorous quotes about cricket was fine, but I wasn’t exactly sure that it would help me develop a reputation as a sensitive memoirist. Would other people confuse us? Some authors had polymathic sidelines that only added to their standing, of course, but I doubted that critics and editors were unlikely to regard compilations of funny quotations in the same light as, say, Kingsley Amis’ works on the English language, or Nabokov’s lepidoptery. No offence to Richard or his millions of fans, but I’d have thought you have to be pretty heavily into cricket to even understand some of those lines.
I did imagine Richard Benson once or twice, guessing that he would be one of those bluff, purposeful men who are good at getting on with things and making money. When I worked on a local newspaper called the Beverley Guardian in the early 1990s, the deputy editor was an untidy, smug and bellicose Yorkshireman I will call Brian. Brian liked to shout at juniors in the office for careless copy while never doing that great a job himself, using his not inconsiderable talent on sideline work with local publishers, news agencies, and national tabloids. He hated anyone trying to do anything different in the paper, and took the piss out anyone who thought words and information could have more than commodity value (though to be fair, he did begrudgingly accept my weekly “Village in Focus” idea, adjectives and all). Wicket Wit was the sort of book I could imagine Brian writing, and when I thought about it, I imagined Richard Benson being like him, compiling it from books in the office on quiet Wednesday afternoons. Because he wrote about cricket and had a publisher based in Chichester, though, he would be tidier than Brian – tall, I thought, slim, fair-haired, and as unassumingly attractive as Wiltshire.
However, I have to admit that as time passed my feelings about him changed. I found my second book much harder to write than the first, and I became bogged down in research and interviews, always feeling I needed another interview or archive visit before I could begin writing. My wife and I had two children, and time became scarcer. My publisher kindly moved the deadline back, and I felt guilty, and like I was never going to finish it. The years passed, and when friends and family members tentatively asked, “how’s your book coming along?” I lied (“Getting there!”). I was finding it difficult to earn enough money to pay bills and knew I was letting people down.
Meanwhile, Richard fucking Benson was going great guns, carving out not so much a niche as a mature river valley. He had responded to the success of Wicket Wit by knuckling down and getting Rugby Wit to his editor at Summersdale in about six seconds, and now he seemed to put out a new book every six months. The Christmas phone calls grew in number, and he popped up everywhere. I remember losing my log in for a Tumblr page I’d set up, and trying to find the page by searching for my name. It didn’t find me, but it did turn up dozens of his book jackets, lovingly scanned and posted by his armies of fans. I might as well have been called Jonathon Kevin Rowling and have published a book the year before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (There is always another nasty surprise waiting, too. I sent this blog to my editor in the US assuming she’d think it was a parochial little story about two British writers with the same name. “Do you mean those little books you can buy in Urban Outfitters?” she said. After checking, she informed me that they were also available in Walmart and other national outlets – as they would be, being US national best sellers.)
If I envisioned Richard Benson now, it was not as a low-brow publishing journeyman who might embarrass me by association, to a man who shamed me by example. Our books might be different, of course, but he knew what he could do, and got on with it, didn’t he? He did just as much research as was needed, and produced books that paid for his family’s rent and food. He rose early and did a couple of hours in the study in a Turnbull & Asser silk dressing gown before pulling on a crisp white shirt and cream linen suit over his tall, elegant English frame, and enjoying breakfast with his family in their home on the Chichester outskirts. Then he dropped off his children at school, and walked down to the County Library to work on the latest work in his exam answers series.
Once a month, on a Friday, he met his publisher for a lunch in an old pub with an animal in its name. “And what about you, Richard?” the publisher would say, signaling to the bar for another bottle of claret. “What will you do next, do you think?” “Well,” Richard replies, “I have an idea for another book about examination papers.” “That sounds marvelous! The other ones have sold a billion copies between them now, you know. When might you start, do you think?” “Oh, I already have – it’s half-done, in fact. Can’t mess about, there are the bills for my children’s shoes to pay. Just one more glass thank you, I want to get back to the library for an hour.”
Benson had probably had advantages that I hadn’t, of course, but the important thing was that he had seized his chance when he saw it. That was his character – decisive without being reckless, dependable without being boring, and smart. Once the kids were old enough to do without the expensive childcare, he was going to slow down on the Wit and F In series, and use his excellent idea for a new translation of The Odyssey.
My book, The Valley, is finished now. To be fair (ie fair to me), it is much longer than Benson’s, but still, he has produced twenty in the time it took me to produce one. Not only that; there is every chance that between now and September, when The Valley comes out, a friend will call my mother to say how much they enjoyed F In Creative Writing. However, this time I shall be less bothered by the call, because I have recently discovered his secret.
Don’t ask me why, but around the time I was finishing the manuscript, I finally took Wicket Wit down from the shelf in the “SHED,” and looked at the colophon. At the top of the page the words read:
Copyright © Summersdale Publishers Ltd 2006
This selection was compiled by Summersdale Publishers with thanks to Daniel Flanagan.
lllustrations by Alan Gilliland Graphics
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted 2006 and 2007
I assume this means that in so far as these books do have an author who is in some way “Richard Benson,” the person in question is really called Daniel Flanagan. It is impossible to know the extent of his work, but I like to imagine him as having some kind of authorial role, as old Benson occupies a space in my imagination now, albeit with a fake identity. I wonder if Daniel Flanagan ever wonders about the actual name of the Richard Benson who wrote The Farm? After all, he laughs with his publisher in the Old Horse Tavern, what sort of idiot would lay himself open to ridicule by using their real name on a book?