Book Review: We’ll Meat Again

well-meat-again

“The owls are hooting in the afternoon again

or maybe the world is just quiet enough to hear them.”

We’ll Meat Again, by Benjamin Myers, is the third title published by the recently formed Ration Books (I review the first here and the second here). These are pocket sized quick reads intended to be: disposed of, passed on, left for other readers to find. Ration 3 is described on the back cover as ‘quarantine dream scenes disguised as fleeting poems’. In reading them I pondered if the author had been ingesting the special cookies (not that I am suggesting he indulges in such behaviour).

Myers’ trademark appreciation of nature, alongside his willingness to face down brutal realities, are injected with elements so surreal that they at times perplexed this reader. His lockdown observations are undoubtedly pithy and witty but some remained opaque even after several attempts to decipher meaning. Others honed in on tropes that garnered media attention as life grew ever more constricted. Images evoked are often playful, if morbidly so. This is not an offering that celebrates the best of what man can be in a crisis.

“A man accidentally strangles himself with the clanking chain of his sex swing

Neighbours are alerted by the black smoke pluming from his burnt sourdough”

My reaction after first perusal was to question what I had just read. Be assured, enjoyment improves with rereads. There is play on language alongside a reminder of what lockdown featured. Perhaps this work is intended as an aide-memoire for the times we have experienced over the past year.

“Keep two claps apart
and wash your metres

Social the unprecedented
extension hands.

Isolate a lockdown.
Panic immediately.”

As a literary reminder I personally prefer Jonathan Gibbs’ Spring Journal. There is, however, room on my shelves for a collection such as this that both provokes and entertains.

Book Review: Beastings

Beastings, by Benjamin Myers, is a raw and shocking tale set in the wilds of the English Lake District. The author’s prose retains its signature poetic quality but is used here to flay any notions of easy tranquility when up against nature. Characters are depicted as elemental – brutal in their determination to protect the way they live.

A teenage girl, raised by nuns in a pitiless workhouse, takes her employers’ baby and flees their home in Cumberland. She plans to cross the fells in hope of reaching the sea. The girl seeks a life away from people. Her existence to date has been one of endless abuse. She wishes to offer the child a chance of a better life than she has had to accept.

When the abduction is discovered the baby’s father turns to the town priest for help. It was the church that placed the girl in his home to help with chores his wife’s sickness prevents her from completing. The priest has personal reasons to wish the girl be found and returned to the church’s care.

The priest employs the services of a poacher and his dog to track the absconders. The poacher has heard rumours of the priest’s proclivities but has reasons of his own for helping a man with such influence. He does not expect it to take long to catch up with a young girl considered ‘a dummy’ and lacking provisions.

The story told is of the chase. Narrative switches between: the girl, those she meets, the poacher and priest. Journeying across high ground in order to avoid locals and tourists – who may have been alerted to the taking of a baby – the travellers encounter few people other than men hardened to survival in a lonely and rugged terrain.

The priest is a monstrous creation – the church at its worst. He is contemptuous of his congregation and believes he deserves the rewards he grants himself for ‘doing God’s work’. As he and the poacher traverse the fells, their conversation reveals details of the life he leads. When faced with those who will not bend to his will he responds with cold brutality.

As days pass, the girl struggles to find food for herself and the baby. She knows that she will be hunted and must keep moving if she is to succeed in getting away. Gradually, her backstory is revealed and the reader comes to understand the extent of the suffering she has faced – why she is so determined to escape. She is just one of many taken in by the church as an act of charity, used and then punished for the sin of existing.

In an era before mass tourism, the locals eke out their livings against a landscape of fearsome beauty but hard won takings. There is a poverty of expectation in communities where choice is limited by economics and location.

“I do believe killing is bad.
The Priest raised his head from the fire and looked at him.
Yet you kill animals every day.
That’s different.
[…]
They’re just animals.
And humans aren’t?
[…]
Some of them are pests Father.
So are some humans.”

This story is not for the faint-hearted. It is tense and engaging but filled with horror and hate filled individuals who think nothing of violating others knowing they will get away with it. It is also quite brilliant in the way it remorselessly evokes the time and place.

A succinct and skilful rendition of base behaviour in a bleak yet awe inspiring landscape.

Originally released by Bluemoose Books, Beastings is now published by Bloomsbury.

Book Review: A Stone Statue In The Future – #SaveIndies

It is probably stretching the definition somewhat to describe A Stone Statue In The Future, by Benjamin Myers, as a book. It is a new short story that has been released to raise much needed funds for two excellent small, independent presses whose finances are suffering because of the current lockdown. Priced at only £3, the reader purchases a digital download. As I do not read ebooks and wished to savour the writing from an author whose work I have previously enjoyed immensely, I made my own hard copy (pictured above).

The story features a young man, sitting by a pond, fishing. I have never understood this activity – how so much time can be spent apparently inactive. Having read this work I feel I understand better the motivation. The young man is taking in his surroundings and allowing his mind to wander. This takes him to a potential future and is a delightful reposte to how we interpret the past from found objects.

A warden makes his way around the ponds where coarse fishermen tend their rods. He offers practical advice to the young man who is impressed and grateful. The denouement is crafted with skill leaving a memorable impression.

The author’s writing evokes a strong sense of place. The vivid, sensuous language whilst rich is never cloying. Rather, there is a playfulness in the observations and characters created. This short story was a delight to read.

A Stone Statue In The Future is published by Bluemoose Books and Little Toller Books.

Do please consider purchasing – click on the cover below for further details.

Book Review: The Offing

The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, is written in prose that is as mesmerising as poetry. The author conjures up a potent sense of place, rendering the beauty and power of nature alongside man’s small place in it. The tale is humbling but also uplifting. This is writing to be savoured.

The story is narrated by Robert Appleyard, son of a miner working the pits around Durham. Now facing old age, Robert is looking back on a pivotal summer when he was sixteen and hungry for freedom. Growing up he understood that, once finished with school, the colliery beckoned as it had his father and grandfather. Before accepting this fate, he decides to satisfy a hunger for a different experience. The Second World War is not long over and the transience of life, the need not to waste what precious moments are granted, is seared into a mind still reeling from horrific images of mass graves.

“Wars continue long after the fighting has stopped, and the world felt then as if it were full of holes. It appeared to me scarred and shattered, a place made senseless by those in positions of power.”

“no one ever really wins a war: some just lose a little less than others.”

With a pack on his back, Robert sets out from home one morning to explore whatever is beyond the village where he has spent his life to date. He sleeps in outbuildings or under hedges, doing odd jobs to earn food along the way. Having felt cooped up in a classroom, where lessons dragged interminably, he relishes being outdoors, unknown and unconstrained. He walks from Durham across Cumbria and through North Yorkshire, to where the land meets the sea.

“This was agricultural rather than industrial terrain – of the earth rather than stained by it.”

“I experienced frequent and quite unexpected moments of exhilaration at the overwhelming sense of purposelessness that I now had. I could go anywhere, do anything. Be anyone.”

Although drinking in his newfound freedom, Robert’s outlook is still limited by the beliefs drummed into him about what someone like him can expect to achieve. He is therefore unprepared when he meets Dulcie Piper, a wealthy and eccentric older lady living in a rundown cottage above a remote bay. She recognises the potential in the boy and sets about inculcating an appreciation of literature. Amongst other pleasures, including fine cooking and wider thinking, she introduces him to poetry.

Dulcie is a fabulous creation with her disregard for rules, religion and those in authority.

“I have seen other wars. Read about plenty more too. And what I’ve learned is that they’re all much the same […] most people just want a quiet life. A nice meal, a little love. A late-night stroll. A lie-in on a Sunday. As I said before, don’t despise the Germans.”

“‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.”

Dulcie tells Robert stories from a colourful history, lends him books, expresses opinions he has never before considered. Over the course of the coming weeks she awakens in him a deeper understanding of possibilities. Alongside their burgeoning friendship the verdant surroundings shares its bounty. Robert is enraptured by the sea, the land and its creatures. In time he learns why Dulcie, with her wealth and connections, has settled in this place.

Plot development is gentle. The joy of the book is the language: the rich descriptions of nature, the wit and wisdom of dialogue. Although set in a time that too many hark back to with nostalgia, it has contemporary relevance. Time is marked in the shape of the land more than the history of man’s repeated foolishness fuelled by ego.

“the Great War was the worst atrocity committed by humankind. What lessons were learned? Build bigger bombs and better bombs, that’s all. Hitler still happened, and there’ll be another angry little man along in due course. I sometimes think that in many ways we’re completely screwed, all the time. I suppose it’s a collective state of insanity. It must be, to keep repeating the same patterns of death and violence.”

Perhaps because of such sentiments, the life Dulcie has lived, and introduces Robert to, is one of making the most of every moment. She has taken pleasure wherever it may be found: nature and literature, food and wine, love and travel. A tragedy haunts her yet she retains an enthusiasm for life, eschewing societal strictures. She shows Robert that he has choices beyond family expectation.

I finished this novel both with tears in my eyes and feeling like punching the air with satisfaction. It made me want to go straight out and enjoy a long walk through the local fields to appreciate what matters in our still beautiful world. There may always be the endless bickering of dull men about: politics, loss of respect for some self-appointed hierarchy, the good old days. Of more import and value is the breathing in and out of the seasons. Nature renews and offers itself as a balm for those willing to engage. Perspectives in life need not be those imposed by oppressors.

I enjoyed this story, the power of its words and beauty of its language. The author has delivered something special. I recommend you read it.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury.

Book Review: Under the Rock

In celebration of the paperback publication of this beautifully written and produced book, I am reposting my review.

This is not a book to be rushed. Over the course of the days I spent reading I kept setting it down to step outside and appreciate my surroundings – the small things it is easy to pass by, unregarded, on my walks through local fields and woodland.

The author is curious and unafraid of straying beyond marked paths. He views man as a part of nature, a shaper of landscape albeit for short term, selfish gain. There are no gushing superlatives about the beauty of our natural world – however that may be defined given man’s tinkering – but rather an exploration of a microcosm through the changing seasons and from a variety of perspectives. There is recognition and appreciation of the cycle of life, that death is not an end.

“Nature does not stop. It never shies away from the task at hand: perpetual growth and death, growth and death. Survival – that is all. Of plant species and creature alike. Feeding, mating, birthing. Dying. On and on it goes.”

“Only humans reach further, filling their time with false desires, delusion and distraction from the self. Turning away from news media, I find myself instead considering the wider environment, at a deeper level.”

Ben moved out of London with his partner a decade ago. He left the noise and bustle of the city for a village in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Within Mytholmroyd is a fenced off area containing the looming mass of Scout Rock. The site has been quarried, was once the town dump in which asbestos from a nearby factory was buried. It is a place of:

“toxic soil and bottomless mineshafts and cliff-diving suicides and unexpected landslides in the night”

Having been abandoned by man, the flora and fauna thrived. This is the story of the place, its history and surrounds, the impact a sometimes desolate environment has had on the author.

Ben and his wife purchased a property in the shadow of the rock. Each day he would take their dog and walk through the fenced off area, scrambling around the rock, making his way to the moorland above. He came to understand the personal changes wrought by the seasons, to endure the persistent rainfall, to accept the mud splatter, the minor injuries from slips and falls. He would swim in the nearby pools and at a reservoir, seeking to immerse himself physically in the place. Gradually he learned its history from libraries and conversations with locals, some of whose families had lived there for generations.

Divided into four main sections – Wood, Earth, Water and Rock – each is completed by field notes, poetry, and photographs. The chapters in Water detail the devastating floods that affected the area at the close of 2015. There is acceptance that this was not a unique event in the valley’s long history. It did, however, bring change.

“The Scout Rock I have known for the past decade is no more. It is something else now.”

When the workmen, drafted in to supposedly make the area safer, finally leave, this fresh molestation will be recolonised, reclaimed. The author may then explore the place anew, recreate the paths he chooses to take.

Ben’s walks and swims lift his mood but the dank darkness of winter, the heavy rainfall of the area, are oppressive. He mentions the financial difficulties of surviving as a writer. He acknowledges both the challenges and benefits of modern living. Woven into these deeply personal musings are the layers of discovery from his daily perambulations.

He writes:

“My goal in life is
to walk the
hills unheard.”

Within these pages we hear his voice, and it sings.

Under the Rock is published by Elliot & Thompson and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Under the Rock

The first thing a reader will notice on picking up Under the Rock is that it is beautifully produced: the vibrant detail and embossing on the cover; the purple end papers; the clear, well spaced print. Within a few pages it becomes clear that the writing is something special too. That subtitle, The Poetry of a Place, is deserved.

This is not a book to be rushed. Over the course of the days I spent reading I kept setting it down to step outside and appreciate my surroundings – the small things it is easy to pass by, unregarded, on my walks through local fields and woodland.

The author is curious and unafraid of straying beyond marked paths. He views man as a part of nature, a shaper of landscape albeit for short term, selfish gain. There are no gushing superlatives about the beauty of our natural world – however that may be defined given man’s tinkering – but rather an exploration of a microcosm through the changing seasons and from a variety of perspectives. There is recognition and appreciation of the cycle of life, that death is not an end.

“Nature does not stop. It never shies away from the task at hand: perpetual growth and death, growth and death. Survival – that is all. Of plant species and creature alike. Feeding, mating, birthing. Dying. On and on it goes.”

“Only humans reach further, filling their time with false desires, delusion and distraction from the self. Turning away from news media, I find myself instead considering the wider environment, at a deeper level.”

Ben moved out of London with his partner a decade ago. He left the noise and bustle of the city for a village in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Within Mytholmroyd is a fenced off area containing the looming mass of Scout Rock. The site has been quarried, was once the town dump in which asbestos from a nearby factory was buried. It is a place of:

“toxic soil and bottomless mineshafts and cliff-diving suicides and unexpected landslides in the night”

Having been abandoned by man, the flora and fauna thrived. This is the story of the place, its history and surrounds, the impact a sometimes desolate environment has had on the author.

Ben and his wife purchased a property in the shadow of the rock. Each day he would take their dog and walk through the fenced off area, scrambling around the rock, making his way to the moorland above. He came to understand the personal changes wrought by the seasons, to endure the persistent rainfall, to accept the mud splatter, the minor injuries from slips and falls. He would swim in the nearby pools and at a reservoir, seeking to immerse himself physically in the place. Gradually he learned its history from libraries and conversations with locals, some of whose families had lived there for generations.

Divided into four main sections – Wood, Earth, Water and Rock – each is completed by field notes, poetry, and photographs. The chapters in Water detail the devastating floods that affected the area at the close of 2015. There is acceptance that this was not a unique event in the valley’s long history. It did, however, bring change.

“The Scout Rock I have known for the past decade is no more. It is something else now.”

When the workmen, drafted in to supposedly make the area safer, finally leave, this fresh molestation will be recolonised, reclaimed. The author may then explore the place anew, recreate the paths he chooses to take.

Ben’s walks and swims lift his mood but the dank darkness of winter, the heavy rainfall of the area, are oppressive. He mentions the financial difficulties of surviving as a writer. He acknowledges both the challenges and benefits of modern living. Woven into these deeply personal musings are the layers of discovery from his daily perambulations.

He writes:

“My goal in life is
to walk the
hills unheard.”

Within these pages we hear his voice, and it sings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Author Interview: Benjamin Myers

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Ben Myers, author of The Gallows Pole.

Unlike previous interviews where I submitted questions and received written answers, this one was carried out over the phone – a new experience for me and one I hope I have risen to. What follows is therefore a summary of an interesting conversation.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m from the North-East of England. I grew up on a housing estate on the edge of Durham. I wanted to be a writer from around the age of ten. Before that I wanted to be a boxer but I’m small and quite soft so that wasn’t going to work out. I became a journalist partly as a way to make money through writing but also to buy me time to write books.

I did a degree in English Literature although I failed my A levels and had to ring over a hundred universities before Luton agreed to take me. I spent a lot of time in the library there reading books that weren’t on the syllabus and which ended up shaping my literary tastes.

By this time I was writing for music magazines in London. I would find a way to get into gigs, interview the bands, and sell the pieces I wrote to magazines such as Melody Maker. The week I was due to graduate I got offered a job as staff writer there so moved to London where I lived in a squat for four years. I was living a very odd dual life where one day I would be sent to Beverly Hills or Hollywood to interview some rock star and then the next I’d be flying back to a room with holes in the walls, mice, and a bathtub on a pile of bricks in the kitchen. All of this felt like good training for being a writer.

I had a few years of working all hours, travelling to Europe and America, interviewing bands mainly but also some writers, yet I knew I didn’t want to be solely a journalist. Literature and poetry have always been my first love. I’ve been self-employed since the age of twenty-four, working in journalism and writing novels. I still do some work with the music industry.

My first fiction was published in 2004 but it was a small, underground thing. My first novel, Richard – about the disappearance of the guitarist ‘Richey’ Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers – was published in 2010. By this time I had left London and moved north to Hebden Bridge, Calderdale. I now live there on the edge of a small town and spend all my time writing.

2. The Gallows Pole tells the story of the Calder Vale Coiners. Why did you decide to write about them?

It is all based on facts and I became aware of the story when I moved here eight years ago from looking in the local history sections of the libraries. It is very much rooted in place with the people here knowing all about it but a few miles in either direction and people are unaware. I thought it was as significant as, maybe, Robin Hood.

The coiners created the biggest forging operation ever at the time in Britain. What grabbed me was that the men responsible were poor, illiterate weavers and hill farmers who embarked on this enterprise that had repercussions right across the country. They capsized the local economy and word of them reached Westminster. It was a very big deal at the time yet it’s not part of national history. There was no police force at the time of course and the location enabled the men to evade the law such as it was.

Several of the houses in the story are still here today.

3. When you’re writing do you plan everything or do you start and see what happens?

Everything else I’ve published I just embark on it. I have maybe a plot that could be described in few sentences, maybe a location, and I just start writing.

This novel is based on facts so I constructed a timeline, did several months of research. I didn’t know for example what people wore or ate in the 1770s in a little corner of West Yorkshire and I wanted it to be credible. I did a lot of reading and spoke to a lot of people. I had to simplify it a bit to make it fit into the shape of a novel and I had to take quite a bit of artistic licence. A lot of the documented facts are in legal documents from the time but these include little on personality or emotion. It is the first novel I’ve written where I knew how it was going to end.

I wrote a list of maybe fifty key things that I knew had to be included and the order they happened. This list became the spine of the novel. I didn’t write the book in a linear way. I rarely do. I knew where I was going with it though, unlike with other books I’ve written. I do a lot of my writing and research by walking and wandering about. I would visit locations and take notes. The weather where I live is terrible.

4. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Being able to be an architect of your own kingdom. In a really indulgent way you are able to play god, do what you want, kill people if you like. You can do what you want, at least until editors tell you you can’t say that.

5. And your least favourite?

The money I suppose. I don’t think anyone goes into writing to make money. It’s frustrating that literature doesn’t play more of a part in contemporary culture.

I’m also a reluctant public speaker so find readings aren’t the most pleasurable part although I’ve done a lot more of that this year. If you leave your comfort zone it’s not as comfortable as being in your comfort zone. People say you should leave your comfort zone and I think, why? I’m comfortable.

I love writing though, it doesn’t feel like a job.

6. Do you enjoy using social media?

I’m hopelessly addicted to it. It’s great for writers who are with independent publishers who do a lot of marketing for themselves. With Twitter I’ve come to realise that what you put out you get back. If you put out a lot of negativity it comes back twofold and that can be stressful. I try to avoid that.

I’ve made a lot of connections and then you go out in real life and talk to readers and bookshops who have seen the book being discussed on Twitter. I find Facebook a little bit irritating, people getting into arguments over nothing.

It helps, you just have to be a little bit careful. My wife was saying the other day that she has 4000 followers. Imagine walking into a theatre filled with 4000 people, would you say what you are about to say in front of that many people? You have to slightly moderate what you put out.

7. Has The Republic of Consciousness Prize longlisting had an impact?

It’s very pleasing. I didn’t expect it. Some writers say they don’t care about prizes. They’re not the be all and end all but it’s a nice validation, to know you are on people’s radars. It’s an interesting prize. I like the fact that it was set up in opposition to the mainstream prizes. It’s very hard for independent publishers and their writers to sit alongside those who have big marketing and publicity budgets. The book world needs prizes like this one.

I was in Waterstones in London and I went round buying some of the other books on the list so in that respect it must have an impact. If other readers are doing the same thing it is helping sales.

8. What books have you enjoyed reading recently?

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
  • All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook
  • The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack
  • Attrib. by Eley Williams
  • Getting Carter by Nick Triplow
  • The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson

I’m also reading several from the publisher And Other Stories, and rereading quite a lot of Roald Dahl.

9. What do you do when you want to treat yourself?

I like to go swimming outdoors in reservoirs and rivers. You need to build up to it which I have been doing over the years. It’s good for waking you up.

I watch a lot of films and television.

I have a dog – I like spending time with any animals.

I like cake.

10. Any films you’ve seen recently and enjoyed?

The reason I was in London this week was because the option on The Gallows Pole has been sold so I’ve been watching quite a few films by the company that’s bought it.

I’ve enjoyed American Honey.

I’m quite into sixties and seventies British horror films. Also obscure seventies TV series that I’ve found on YouTube. The violence in some couldn’t be shown on TV today.

11. If you could sit down to dinner with anyone, real or fictional, who would you choose?

I’m a big fan of Iggy Pop. I was stood next to him at some event and I thought there’s nothing I can say to him that’s going to be of interest so I kept quiet. He’s a unique individual, a force of nature. If I could sit down with him, he’s a raconteur who’d be full of stories. He changed the course of music I think.

12. What has no one asked you that you wish they would?

Probably exactly that.

 

Thank you Ben for providing such interesting answers to my questions, and for being so amiable and supportive on my first telephone interview. You may follow Ben on Twitter: @BenMyers1

Click on the book cover above to find out more about The Gallows Pole. 

The Gallows Pole is published by Bluemoose Books who I previously interviewed here

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, published by Bluemoose Books

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, published by Bluemoose Books.

Paul is a father of 3 girls, lives in Wimbledon, works in the City, and has a particular interest in the culture and literature of his wife’s homeland of Korea. He is also my other guest reviewer for this feature, Graham Fulcher’s, identical twin.

 

“So name your Gods lads. Honour them. Live amongst them. And always remember your place. Because England is changing. The wheels of industry turn ever onwards and the trees are falling still. Last week I did chance to meet a man down there in Cragg Vale who told me that soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money. This man – he told me that this land around us was soon no longer to be our land but that of those who want to reap and rape and bind those of us whose blood is in the sod.”

The independent publisher Bluemoose Books aims to deliver ‘brilliant stories that have travelled from Hebden Bridge, across the border into Lancashire, down to London across to Moscow, Sofia and Budapest and into the United States, Australia, India, Colombia and Greenland, Iceland and Bosnia Herzevogina.

Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole certainly fits that bill, a story firmly rooted in the Yorkshire moors. Myers’s debut novel Pig Iron was winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize – a prize awarded to ‘novels which dare to enter history and interrogate the past…literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading’, but has chosen to remain with an independent publisher rather than adapt his work to more conventional tastes:

“I feel like as a writer, I’m from the margins, or the underground – a lot of my heroes and influences are people who are on the edge … so I think ‘why bother to chase [the big] publishers?’” (The Guardian)

The Gallows Pole tells the real-life story of “King” David Hartley, leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners in the 18th Century, who clipped gold coins and then produced forged coins with the clippings. Their activities were of sufficient economic import to come to the attention of Parliament and the London authorities, and Hartley’s life (and the novel) ended on the gallows.

Their approach, which, while considerably enriching themselves, enlisted the support of many (but not all) of the local populace is explained on the website Yorkshire Coiners maintained by a present-day direct descendent of David Hartley:

“The Cragg Vale Coiners would pay 22 Shillings for a full size coin (worth 21 shillings) and would then clip and shave up to forty Pence worth of gold from it before returning it to circulation for its face value of 21 Shillings. The lender themselves therefore gained a shilling as a result of the transaction whilst not actually being involved in the clipping. This helped to gain support locally and to conceal the activities of the Coiners, since nobody (except the excise collectors and the Government) suffered a loss and generally all involved made a small gain.”

“The Coiners would use the gold collected from about 7 or 8 genuine coins to create an imitation Portuguese Moidore, with a higher face value of 27 Shillings and feed this fake coin into circulation for its face value. They would only use about 22 Shillings worth of gold to create the fake, so making a substantial profit on each new coin they forged.”

An 18th century Portuguese Moidore:
description

One of the coiners tools from the Heptonstall Museum:
description

Reviewers saw present-day political references, to Margaret Thatcher’s antagonism to the North, in Myers debut novel that the author himself had not consciously placed there but agreed could be present as a sub-conscious metaphor (A Fiction Habit).

And with The Gallows Pole there are again obvious parallels (implicit and perhaps sub-conscious) to Brexit and the 2017 general election and the rebellion against globalisation. The Coiners saw themselves as fighting – what even David Hartley realises is a losing battle – against the economic forces of the industrial revolution: see the quote that opens my review.

Whereas the authorities – represented by the solicitor Robert Parker (believed by some to be the real-life model for Bronte’s Heathcliff) and the exciseman William Deighton – see them as a regressive resistance to positive change. Deighton wants to:

“Send a message. A message to the hill folk. That times were changing. The empire expanding. That men earned money not made it; that a country ran on rules. Rules for everyone. Call it society. Call it civilisation. From the crown all the way down. Rules. Laws. Restrictions. The dark days were over. New ways were coming. Big ideas. Ideas that would change the world. Call it economy. Call it industry. Call it England.”

And on a second read in December 2017, I could also see echoes of the current fad of cryptocurrencies, threatening to debase fiat money, and cryptoanarchy:

“He had been warned: the authoritarian grip was weakening and this way outright anarchy beckoned.”

Myers has also worked as a freelance music journalist and for each of his novels constructs a playlist ‘of songs and sounds that might shape the narrative. … compiled as one would an imaginary soundtrack to a film adaptation of the work.’

His playlist for this novel can be found at The Quietus, including Leadbelly’s version of The Gallows Pole (itself an adaption of the traditional song ‘The Maid Freed From the Gallows’), from which the novel takes both its name and its epigraph, and, my favourite, Winterfylleth’s The Divination Of Antiquity, from a band that produces ‘passionate, anthemic black metal inspired by the history, heritage and landscapes of England’.

Although the list excludes Chumbawumba’s ‘Snip, Snip, Snip’, directly inspired by the Coiners’ story.

“Pick a coin, any coin, and with a snip snip snip you turn a portuguese guinea to a threepenny bit; and every last watermark just curled up and died and now the king and the queen got a bit on the side. Don’t be bloody silly keep away from bloody Billy cause he’s shopping all the chopping going down along the valley, and supergrassing catches like a plague, to be sure, but it’s nothing that a bullet in the belly couldn’t cure.”

There is also a related musicality to the novel itself, a deliberately dull repetitiveness, strongly reminiscent of David Peace. Myers himself explains it perfectly:

“I was aiming to achieve in the novel – a sort of haunted and ethereal earthiness, which draws on a limited vocabulary and heavy use of repetition. The Gallows Pole features the names of people and places repeated over and over again almost to absurd and annoying levels, in an attempt to induce a trance or evoke a rural reverie within the reader.”

Yet at the same time, when it comes to descriptions of natural surroundings – the weather, flora and fauna and people of the vale – the prose is beautifully lyrical:

“The rain fell like the filings of a milled guinea bit onto a folded piece of paper.”

And describing the ‘supergrasses’ who eventually brought down the Coiners:

“All his life Joseph ‘Belch’ Broadbent had been shrouded in smoke. Years tending the charcoal clamp meant it flavoured not just his clothes and hair with the slow dampened burn of oak and willow and alder, nor merely tanned his skin with soot and blackened dirt, but was within him; it had smoked him from the inside out and left Belch Broadbent with rheumy lidded eyes and a hacking cough that rattled most violently in the early hours.

James Broadbent walked towards the distant rising plume that marked his father’s position as if it were a swarm of wasps leaving its fissure of an arid woodland floor or curl of a crawling tree root.
[…]

The earth was in his father’s scalp and his stubble. It had become him. His body hosted smoke. It was stirred into his essence to dilute that which made him human so that he was now part of the landscape and part of the fire; he was made of the smoke that billowed and rolled and tumbled during the slow process that took felled timber through combustion to become the shards and clots of carbon that fuelled fires and furnaces the length and breadth of Calderdale. He was wood-smoke manifest; man as a settled miasma. A nebulous fellow, burnt brume in stout boots, with a clay pipe clicking between what remained of his teeth.”

The Guardian has already made the comparison that The Gallows Pole might be 2017’s His Bloody Project, but in my view it is much much better than that. A notable point of comparison is that both feature excerpts of a condemned-cell confession but whereas HBP’s version was unrealistically literate, King David Hartley’s thoughts are written in a sort of pidgin English that reads oddly but works if read aloud (rather reminiscent of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, another Gordon Burn Prize winner), and give insight into his motivations, both his self-importance but also his doubts, and his rather delusional visions of the stag-men

“I saw them. Stag-headed men dancing at on the moor at midnight, nostrils flared and steam rising.”

Both the narrative tension and the perspective of the novel are at the micro-level in the enclosed world of the moors and particularly in the thoughts and actions of Hartley. We hear allusions to the impact of the debasement of the coin of the realm on the wider economy, but this largely happens off-page. And both the title of the novel and the fatalistic attitude of the Hartleys leave us in little doubt where the story will end: even the identity of their ultimate betrayer is pretty clear from the opening pages (hence lack of any spoiler alerts in my review).

Perhaps one small weakness of the work was the lack of development of Hartley’s wife.

Unbeknownst to her husband she salts away some of the Coiners output to protect her family from the likely hard times ahead, and, in reality, she bought a new home (for a considerable sum in hard cash) after her husband’s execution and outlived him for 30 or more years. It would have been interesting to have seen into her thoughts, as she acts mostly in the novel as a rather passive observer.

But that is a small flaw – and indeed perhaps no flaw at all, since no novel is entirely comprehensive – in a fascinating work. A book deserving of wider attention and one I hope to see – as His Bloody Project did – featuring in awards.

Highly recommended.

PF

 

You may read my review of The Gallows Pole here.

Next week on my blog look out for an interview with Benjamin Myers, the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Book Review: The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole, by Benjamin Myers, is a fictionalised story based on surviving accounts of true events from eighteenth century northern England. In a remote Yorkshire hamlet, on the cusp of the industrial revolution, a local man named David Hartley pronounces himself King. He leads a gang of weavers and land workers in an illegal enterprise that puts food on the tables and clothes on the backs of the poorest in his area at the expense of those who have sufficient. Hartley and his brothers talk of becoming Lords of the woods and moors which they believe belong to the likes of them. Unlike those who more regularly bear such titles, Hartley shares his ill gotten gains. Those who live in abject poverty have little regard for the aristocracy who treat them with disdain.

“Landowners who rarely walked the land […] who spent their days away paving turnpikes and building mills. Sinking canals and striking deals. Buying and selling. Traders. Sons of the empire, the aristocratic archtects of England’s new future. Men for whom too much was never enough.”

Hartley recognises that changes are ahead. He worked for a time in the Black Country and knows of the huge mills that will replace the hand looms still operating in basic homes such as his.

“soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money.”

An illegal practise had existed in the area for many years, the clipping and forging of coins. Through persuasion and coercion the Hartleys centralise and expand the scale of this operation, thereby disrupting the local economy. With many benefiting, loyalty is assured, until one man grows dissatisfied with his share. Jealous of Hartley’s growing comfort and power he approaches an excise officer, William Deighton, who is determined to bring down those now known widely as the Cragg Vale Coiners and their leader, King David.

Deighton and his friend, a successful young solicitor named Robert Parker, are unused to the base manners and smell of this turncoat, pondering if he deserves any better than the harsh life he leads. As well fed, regularly paid servants of the Crown they do not appreciate how the Coiners value their freedom, and know the land on which they and their forebears were raised. The Coiners are family men, even if they do treat their women as chattels, existing to satisfy men’s needs and provide children. The wealthy may be fatuous and condescending but they have the law on their side, and it exists to protect the lawmakers.

The writing is fluvial, reflecting the stark beauty of the land and the depths of the characters portrayed. The audacity of Hartley’s operation, the cunning with which it was perpetuated, is presented alongside acknowledgement that some suffered from his success. Yet he fed the hungry, cared for the needy, while the wealthy brought industry in the name of progress, costing forgotten lives and keeping the many in poverty. Had Hartley’s criminal activity continued, I wonder would his willingness to share.

A multi-layered account presenting the north and its people with vivid, brutal realism. Although historical, it is a tale for our own changing times. A prodigious, beguiling, utterly compelling literary achievement.