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Authors: Stephen Benatar

Such Men Are Dangerous

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Such Men Are Dangerous

A Novel

Stephen Benatar

For Gill Carey, in deepest gratitude.

INTRODUCTION

New readers should be aware this Introduction reveals key elements of the plot
.

Readers familiar with Stephen Benatar’s work will be aware that he has a certain fondness for unusual subject matter: a woman’s descent into madness as witnessed from her own perspective in Wish Her Safe at Home; the discovery of the corpses of two elderly, isolated women, one a full year following her death, in When I Was Otherwise; a serious study of a pact with a time-travelling Lucifer in The Return of Ethan Hart (the companion piece to Recovery); and a gay relationship, published at a time when gays were less commonly accepted, in The Man on the Bridge. Little surprise, then, there is no sign of Benatar taking the easy option in this present novel.

But one rather wonders, on opening
Such Men Are Dangerous
, whether he has not this time surpassed himself. Is he intentionally making life—his own, his readers’—difficult by choosing the most awkward or unfashionable ideas he can think of?

A godly, single-minded vicar of the Church of England as a protagonist.

The steel town of Scunthorpe, South Humberside, as a setting.

Thatcherite 1980s as a period.

Unemployment as a backdrop.

The sighting of an angel as a subject.

And when we say angel we are not talking of a vague, mystical, spiritual, new-world otherness but of a good, old-fashioned, true-to-God, white clad (although no wings) biblical angel with a good old-fashioned message for humanity. Sighted on the parking lot behind the local disco by two schoolboy brothers, William and Michael, one of whom subsequently, miraculously, washes clean his face of acne with his tears.

Needless to say, this is quite a premise to ask the reader to swallow, as indeed it is to ask of the characters in the book. All of them, other than the two boys themselves and their mother, ‘Devotional Dawn’ who “got religion” in the wake of marital disaster, are initially sceptical. The novel, ambitious and questioning, unfolds around the gradual acceptance of the angel as a true and timely vision before leading the reader smack bang into the huge implications of such an acceptance.

The protagonist of
Such Men Are Dangerous
is Simon Madison, a handsome, thirty-three-year-old C of E vicar who, after interviewing the boys, heading discussion meetings with parishioners and a certain amount of soul-searching, self-questioning and generally turning the matter round and round in his own head (thoughts to which we are privy), reaches the conclusion that the boys are telling the truth and that the apparition of a message-delivering angel really has taken place behind Tiffany’s Nitespot.

Cynical, non-believing Josh, father of William and Michael, husband of Dawn (and he remembers the days when his wife’s biblical quotes ran no further than “Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me went down to the river to bathe…”) turns, with an eye to commercial gain, the angelic visitation into a media circus, headlining broadsheets and tabloids, making appearances on the national news and the Russell Harty Show…and asking the reader (this reader) to suspend disbelief still further.

But just when one is beginning to worry that one’s willingness to suspend disbelief is not going to stretch any further, Stephen Benatar pulls off a minor miracle himself. He places the demands of
Such Men Are Dangerous
into perspective. A perspective encompassing two thousand years of the history of western civilization which reminds us that the sighting of angels is one of the basic tenets of Christianity and one which, as a people, we have accepted for an awfully long time.

Simon is writing a
Life of Christ
in his ‘spare’ time; for, as one of his parishioners so rightly comments, “most such existing works are either turgid or sentimental, when you would think our Saviour’s life would be the most dramatic and exciting on record,” and it is with a certain element of shock that we are taken from Simon’s angsting about his capacity to pray, to Mary’s announcement of her God-given pregnancy to Joseph:

She’d never seen him like this. He was furious.…She thought at any moment he might strike her.

“Who was it?” he shouted.

Mary duly explains that “the angel says…” but Joseph’s answer is to ridicule her in a falsetto voice:

“I’m six weeks overdue, God, and already half married to that simpleton carpenter down the road but if I can say you were the one who put me in the club he’s bound to be impressed!”

Joseph reminds her that stoning is the usual punishment for such behaviour, before calming down and—sounding remarkably like a twentieth-century vicar still coming to terms with the death of his beloved wife, Ginny—reflects unhappily:

He had loved her so much. Life had seemed so perfect. Why had everything gone wrong?

Another extract from Simon’s
Life of Christ
(by now entitled
Firebrand!
) portrays the reaction of Mary’s parents to the news of her and her sixty-five-year-old cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancies—“Don’t talk so daft!” and “Oh, my lass, my poor demented lass, is it a fever you’ve caught?”—and with this simple, powerful technique we, the reader, are effectively required to review our own scepticism and as a consequence are led into the ensuing debate.

In his own writing Simon begins to see how to incorporate a short story he’d once written about “the apostles, after Jesus had sent them out on a journey to win converts and supporters and to spread the word” and although he has not yet reached the momentous conclusion that his own life should reflect this design, he does wonder all the same if this is not “the pattern in the carpet”, a pattern of which he is being allowed “piecemeal glimpses”. The book is scattered with references to Simon’s overwhelming need to find a reason for his existence: “You couldn’t face life feeling that it’s got no point.” The purpose he is seeking is slowly but clearly beginning to take shape.

So what exactly is the message delivered by the angel, the message from God? Simon sums it up very simply when answering a journalist’s question as “Love thy neighbour” and getting “back to the great Christian truths…a byword for loving and caring and
doing
…”

But how to change “the world’s priorities—prestige, power—when there are still millions living on the breadline?” Before Simon decides on a course of action, not only has the boys’ father, Josh, made a substantial profit out of the angel, through a very calculated approach to giving interviews, but a local impresario has already started turning the car park behind Tiffany’s into a tourist spot complete with souvenir badges and T-shirts, and we are forced to agree with the young, pre-vicar Simon’s frustrated words that “the only thing this world cares about is money, money, money. I’m all right, Jack, I couldn’t give a sod what happens to the rest of you.”

The angel’s message is urgent. We must all learn to love, to care about one another, if the world is to survive. Gabriel tells the boys that “people have to be made to realize, wake up, take action.” It is Geraldine, the journalist who is in love with Simon, who puts into words the thoughts he scarcely dare acknowledge, namely that he will have to be the one to wake them up: “Simon, it seems to me that you should mobilize those followers, take the land by storm…” Simon is, of course, the rabble-rousing dangerous man of the title—the
firebrand!
—but she too has her role to play; as he says to her, “You are a very persuasive young lady. Possibly a dangerous one.”

And so is born the idea of the march from Scunthorpe to London—reminiscent of the Jarrow March of the Thirties—which will have gathered “millions…many, many millions” by the time the marchers finally storm Downing Street. (The fifty-odd gathered in Westminster for a ‘last supper’ of pasta and ice-cream before Simon leaves to deliver his message to Mrs Thatcher have mainly been coached in for the day.) We are never in any doubt as to the sincerity of Simon’s motives for spreading the word of God but his religious beliefs do not, cannot, exist in a vacuum and despite his claim that “politics and religious principles never seem to mix” his final act of heroism/ fanaticism/ selflessness/ selfishness/ glory/ tragedy and
waste
would beg to differ. As a young man Simon contemplated a career in politics in order to “influence things for the better” and “make big improvements in people’s lives.” At the end of the book he chooses to make his statement in front of the Prime Minister, not before a religious leader; albeit a prime minister who—in the opinion of Simon’s mother—“certainly
thinks
she’s God.” That politics and religion are completely mixed is, of course, integral to the novel and Simon’s “urge to shake his fist at God and the government and everybody who supported it” reminds us that
Such Men Are Dangerous
was originally—and uniquely—published by Scunthorpe Borough Council, eliciting comments in the local newspaper about the appalling waste of local resources on works by “pot-smoking lefty hippies” or, as more elegantly phrased in the novel, conforming to “the airy-fairy notions of idealists everywhere who seek to change the world.” The sort of comment that the Tiffany angel might well have predicted himself.

Equally, Simon does not live in an emotionless void and various phrases almost tossed away innocuously throughout the book return to haunt us in the light of his final choice. In fact, seemingly innocent clues litter this book and it is only on a second reading that one can see how clearly they are pointing the way. One cannot, for instance, help but remember that it is Ginny who always claimed (to Simon’s horror) that he should be a vicar; help but remember her words at his “first married-life birthday” meal. If she were prematurely to die, she asks, what would he do? “Commit suicide,” he answers. But apart from that? “Something wonderful,” he says.

“All right. I’d haunt you every minute, to make sure you did. I’d clank my chains at you and demand some magnificent memorial, some golden piece of evidence…”

Well, of course, read like this, she sure gets it. So is the march and its tragic-glorious finale an entirely personal quest, a memorial to his dead wife? A culmination of the “feeling—bordering well-nigh on hatred” he harbours within him, the seeds of which were sown fourteen years ago at Ginny’s death?

Or is it the ultimate sacrifice required to make a people in jeopardy wake up to the need to love thy neighbour, to respect the fundamental principles of Christianity? Is it an act of Christian redemption? Is Simon, a profoundly religious man, prepared to undergo the extreme suffering to save (the sins of) the world? He is after all, according to his mother, “bent on doing good—at times almost fanatically so.”

But what, too, to make of Simon’s charismatic character, the part of him that feels like ‘an emperor’ preaching to a huge congregation “with people standing four or five deep”; the Simon who is tempted by the idea of playing at “Henry V leading the English towards Agincourt”; the Simon mocked in the newspapers for wanting to play
Simon Says
; “the knight-errant in shining armour, riding into battle on a milk-white charger”…? Has history not taught us to be extremely wary of such leaders, to be frightened of the fanaticism of “a charlatan with charisma”?

It is ironic that Josh of all people, after his boys had seen the angel, should have thanked Simon for having made no “serious effort to convert” him, for Josh brings hope. Redeeming hope. He joins the march as a means of escape from his marriage, from a desperate lack of fulfilment, from the person he has become. When Dawn tells him that he “ought to be pleading for forgiveness, ought to be begging for salvation,” his unvoiced response is, “No, I ought to be getting the hell out of here. I ought to be
doing
something with my life.” Initially, he comes across as a fairly seedy, unpleasant character who has been fired from his job as a teacher for having had sex with a pupil and who would be prepared to leave Dawn for Geraldine on the strength of a couple of meetings. And yet by the end of the life-affirming march we are sure, although Benatar does not spell it out in depth, that not only have he and Dawn salvaged their marriage but that it is he who will return to Scunthorpe to continue Simon’s work in his own way.

The title of Stephen Benatar’s novel is beautifully apt. Such men are dangerous; such books are dangerous: they raise questions to which they do not always deliver answers, forcing us to think about our own lives, our own behaviour and attitudes. They make us look hard at our own priorities and question whether we would be prepared to stand up for our beliefs and follow a man like Simon (Geraldine is the only character in the book to throw in her job and join the march and she has an ulterior motive) and, indeed, even whether we would be right to do so. Like Simon, we have to ask whether the “coolly analytical frame of mind, expectant of little, mistrustful of much…circumspect and cynical,” which could be said to apply to so many in our present age, is actually a prison that effectively shuts us out of a world where the norm is “to love thy neighbour”.

BOOK: Such Men Are Dangerous
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