Book Review: Panenka

panenka

“His throat became swollen hearing her take his side. No one had ever done that. Not even he had done that.”

Panenka is Rónán Hession’s second published novel. His first, Leonard and Hungry Paul, has acquired legions of fans eager to press it into the palms of every reader. Hession, a recognised musician before he took to writing, tweeted yesterday, on publication day, ‘Always a bit of Second Album Syndrome at the back of the mind, so it’s nice when people accept the book as it is.’ Let us consider then his latest book as the stand alone work it is.

Before the story begins we are provided with a definition of the title.

Panenka: In football, a penalty technique in which the taker chips the ball artfully into the centre of the goal, counting on the likelihood that the goalkeeper will have dived to either side.”

The protagonist of the tale, Joseph, is burdened with this word as his nickname. It is even how his daughter, Marie-Thérèse, refers to him in the town where they have always lived. As we discover, there is a deep and abiding sadness to how it was acquired.

Now middle-aged, Joseph suffers debilitating, nightly pain that he refers to as his iron mask. When the medical profession investigate, the diagnosis makes Joseph reassess the bargains he has made with himself over how he lives his life. He does not share his worries with Marie-Thérèse, who moved in with him along with her seven year old son, Arthur, when she left her husband. Joseph believes she shoulders more than enough concerns already and wishes to spare her. This shutting himself away emotionally from those who care for him is an ingrained habit, one that cost him his marriage.

Joseph was a professional footballer, playing for his local team. Football fans may find this backstory of interest. What it offered this reader was a glimpse into a world where winning a game becomes everything. When any aspect of life takes on such all encompassing importance it can be hard to recognise the value of what is pushed to the margins.

Marie-Thérèse’s husband, Vincent, runs a café/bar at which Joseph is a regular. Conversations here amongst his fellow drinkers provide a picture of life in the town where they all reside. The ordinary lives depicted are shadowed by individual, small tragedies. It is a reminder that we can rarely fully know even those we interact with frequently.

This knowing a person is explored with the author’s trademark insight and wit when Joseph, requiring a haircut, is forced to try a new establishment as his usual barber is unavailable.

“Donnie had learned to cut hair in the army and viewed barbering as something akin to getting your toenails cut or brushing your teeth. It was a maintenance job, and not something to develop ideas about.”

The new barbershop Joseph chooses is run by Esther, a women he is drawn to, perhaps by the aura of sadness she too carries. Esther turns out to be wise in ways few master. Having been let down badly by someone she believed she knew well, she is circumspect when it comes to accepting what others share of themselves.

“I could have asked for the full tour – you could have shown me around all your own facts and circumstances, given me the tourist board version of yourself. A whole story that I would later have to revise or unlearn based on who you turned out to be.”

Joseph has an endearing relationship with young Arthur, a contrast to that which he offered Marie-Thérèse when she was a child. Whatever sadness it brings Esther, she is gentle with his eagerness to tell her of the boy.

“‘That’s old – one of his baby pictures’, he said.
‘Ah yes, he was still landscape then,’ she said. ‘He’s probably portrait now.'”

When guilt is hollowing a person, gnawing away from the inside, what do they hear or remember other than the blame that affirms worst fears? Joseph believes he has let everyone who ever cared for him down. He struggles to accept when love is offered, caught up as he is in trying to process the pain of perceived failure. That he has been given another chance with his grown daughter, grandson and then Esther makes him anxious not to repeat the mistakes of his past. Changing habits is never easy.

The shadows cast over the characters by loss – historic and impending – could have made this a dark read but the author is adept at evoking the resilience and hope that even the simplest acts of kindness bring. This is a story of people and relationships, of finding sincere words that the damaged can hear. A poignant and thoughtful tale that lingers beyond the final page.

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

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Book Review: Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters

“I’ve had a bit of a session with Laura. She’s a young mother. Her baby, Harry, is only four months old and she’s struggling with it a bit. I didn’t like to tell her that I’m an older mother with children in their twenties and I’m struggling with it a bit too. So we discussed her struggles as if I didn’t have any.”

Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters, by Jane Ions, is the most honest depiction of being a parent of grown up children that I have read. It is also hilarious. I don’t mean just mildly humorous, this is laugh out loud funny on numerous occasions. Structured as a sort of diary, the story covers eight months in the life of a woman approaching fifty who questions what she has become since giving up her job as an English teacher.

The narrator, Sally Forth (and yes, she does decry her own name), is married to Bill, a politician. They have two children: Laura, who is married to Ben; and Dan, recently graduated but looking for personal fulfilment rather than a job that pays well. When the book opens, Sally’s long time friend, Jen, has just announced that she is moving north to help look after her grandchildren. Sally is appalled at this willing ‘banishment into servitude’.

“Jen knows me well, and understood that my reasons for wanting her to stay put were purely selfish. A friendship built up over more than twenty years is not easily replaced, however dysfunctional it might have turned out to be.”

The author captures the depressing competitiveness of parenting perfectly, but also the clash between comfort and jealousy when peers face either crises or perceived success.

Laura blames her mother for not warning her how entirely having a baby would change her life (as if she would have listened anyway). When she seeks reassurance that her prenatal freedom and independence will return eventually, Sally doesn’t like to point out that children do not disappear – concerns simply change. Laura expects Sally to be there for her, and to help with Harry occasionally, yet she criticises her mother for putting up with the scenarios Dan drops on her without a thought for how Sally might feel.

Dan’s role in this tale is brilliant, capturing the sanguinity with which he introduces friends to the household, fully expecting anyone he comes home with to be made welcome. He sees no big deal in offering hospitality in his parents’ house where he is put up and fed rent free. When he decides to build an ugly extension made from recycled materials, he looks on Sally’s concerns as stifling his rights and creativity.

Sally does her best to make all comers feel welcome, so much so that some seem in no hurry to leave. As Dan’s extension grows, neighbours threaten to complain to the council. All of this plays out over the Christmas period and into a leadership election that Bill is contending. Sally is struggling to find some direction in her life, all the while firefighting situations her children spring.

The writing is pitched to be light hearted while touching on truths that are rarely acknowledged. Expectations in family dynamics are mined for their irony. The underlying toxicity of many friendships is balanced against the need for reassurance many mothers seek  – that they have not somehow failed their offspring. Sally’s needs are recognised only by Jen, whose daughter is appalled when her mother does not find the role of doting granny enough, and Jen sets out to find herself a man.

If my children read this, I wonder would they may take my empathy with Sally personally and feel affronted – parents being expected to behave as wanted. When quizzed by Laura about certain subjects, Sally understood that honestly is not always the loving response.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend it wholeheartedly to women whose children have grown and who may now find their continuing efforts underappreciated – or to those who wish to understand better how a mother of grown children feels. There is much to laugh about in the absurd situations Sally puts up with, through love and a kind heart.

I don’t suppose any mother of adults will manage to change how they are regarded – homemakers in nests that never quite empty. I’m already hoping there will be another instalment in this saga to enjoy soon.

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

Book Review: Saving Lucia

“Don’t let me be remembered only as a madwoman, as a case.”

Saving Lucia, by Anna Vaught, is a fictionalised retelling of the lives of four women who, in their lifetimes, were regarded as mentally impaired. They were incarcerated and given treatments thought fitting at the time, often by renowned pioneers whose names readers may recognise. In looking at the women’s lives and the people they met and mixed with, the question is posited: how are they deemed mad and others sane?

The Lucia of the title is the daughter of James Joyce, the Irish writer best known for his wordy and challenging novels. Born in 1907, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic in the mid-1930s and institutionalized at the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich. In 1951, she was transferred to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. She died there in 1982.

“St Andrew’s is quite a select place if you have the money, because you get a well-appointed room of your own to be mad in.”

During Lucia’s first few years at St Andrew’s – according to this tale – she befriends another inmate, the Honourable Violet Gibson. In 1926, Violet shot Mussolini as he walked amongst a crowd in Rome. She wishes her story to be told and asks Lucia to be her scribe. As they share their stories, those of two other women also rise.

Marie ‘Blanche’ Wittman was a prominent patient of esteemed neurologist, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot. He would exhibit her in his clinical lessons at La Salpêtrière in Paris. Under hypnosis, this beautiful woman would be presented as a model example of hysteria. One such lesson was captured in a painting by André Brouillet. Charcot was a showman, Blanche his commodity. Under the guise of teaching he offered her up for men to ogle – a curiosity without agency.

“Neurology: such detail – and he swam in its glory and down its pathways; he thought hysteria had a logic of the body.
Hmmm.
I don’t recall that he studied it in men”

The fourth woman in this imagined friendship group (who lived in different times and places) is Anna O. She was a patient of Josef Breuer who published her case study in his book Studies on Hysteria, written in collaboration with Sigmund Freud. Her treatment is regarded as marking the beginning of psychoanalysis. Her real name was Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian Jew and the founder of the League of Jewish Women.

What these four women have in common, as well as their purported mental conditions, is the power others had over them and how this was was misused.

“women of her time could find no outlet in ‘a cold and oppressive conventional atmosphere’ to satisfy their passion and intellect. They were not supposed to have ‘any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted'”

The book’s brilliantly written opening chapter pulls the reader in. From there the narrator’s voice is established – a somewhat frantic and illusory remembrance of various events from each of the character’s histories. Gradually the reasons for their incarcerations are revealed along with the direction their lives subsequently took. In giving them a voice, the author also asks what they would have done instead if given the choice.

Lucia Joyce’s letters, papers and medical records were destroyed at the behest of her surviving family – an attempt to expunge her existence. Violet Gibson was moved to a shared ward when her family wished to save themselves money towards the end of her life. Marie Wittman was taken on by Marie Curie as an assistant to work in the Paris laboratory where, in 1898, radium was discovered – she suffered debilitating health issues as a result of this work. Bertha Pappenheim recovered over time and led a productive life – the West German government issued a postage stamp in honour of her contributions to the field of social work.

These stories of vital, intelligent women whose lasting history is remembered largely through what they were to famous men make for fascinating reading. Mental health is still widely regarded as an embarrassing condition best kept hidden away – the author has given voice to those who, for fear of consequences, were forced to submit silently and kept in captivity. Readers are reminded that captivity does not always require rooms and keys.

There is much to consider in this poignant and impressive story. Although certain threads are not always the easiest to follow due to the fragmented structure, it is worth pursuing for all that comes together at the end. This leaves a powerful and lasting impression as well as a new lens to look through at some of the supposed titans of science. A layered, affecting and recommended read.

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

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: Leonard and Hungry Paul

“We are never entirely outside of life’s choices; everything leads somewhere.”

Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession, is a novel of wry intelligence wrapped around the quiet rhythms of ordinary lives as they are being lived. The apparent simplicity of the narrative carries the reader through moments of insight as characters speak from their hearts on everyday dilemmas. The rarity of such truthfulness in conversation and the skill with which thoughts and feelings are conveyed make this a singular read.

The eponymous protagonists are men in their early thirties still living in their childhood homes. Leonard’s mother has recently died leaving him alone in trying to work out how to cope with his quiet grief. His work – writing text for boilerplate encyclopedias marketed for children, which will be published under a better known author’s name – fills his day but offers limited satisfaction. He recognises his social awkwardness, especially when he becomes attracted to the office fire marshal, Shelley. He has little idea how he is expected to interact in potentially romantic situations.

Hungry Paul lives with his recently retired parents. His busy and successful sister, Grace, is planning her wedding and urges her parents to make the most of their upcoming freedom while they still have their health. Grace would like to see Hungry Paul take more personal responsibility. His occasional work as a postman leaves him financially dependent and his acceptance of this frustrates Grace. Their mother is more phlegmatic but also wonders how her unadventurous son would cope if left to look after himself.

“The kids lives are their own. From day one you are handing it back to them bit by bit, until they move on”

Leonard and Hungry Paul are best friends. They get together on regular evenings during the week to play board games and discuss topics of mutual interest. They share the minutiae of their lives in the knowledge that the other will accept whatever has happened and move forward without assigning blame. They observe the world around them and ponder how best to integrate when this is necessary.

Other people’s crises provide moments of clarity. Leonard’s burgeoning relationship with Shelley plays out with unusual honesty. He voices the risks and fears encountered when two strangers tentatively open up to each other – their expectations and the likelihood of misinterpretations. Grace’s wish for her brother to be more independent provides a gently poignant yet masterfully rendered understanding of family dynamics. The asides on marriage cut to the heart of why the institution can sometimes succeed.

This is a gentle yet penetrating tale of the many guises of love and friendship that pierces the too often impenetrable veneer most will apply to protect themselves from others perceived judgement. Leonard and Hungry Paul may appear socially awkward but they offer a deeper understanding of relationships than many who remain unaware that their confidence in a crowd is shallow and blinkered.

A sterling read, a rare achievement, recommended without reservation.

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

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: Man With A Seagull On His Head

“She’d sat in front of him for three weeks and he hadn’t seen her. How odd to discover one didn’t exist.”

Man With A Seagull On His Head, by Harriet Paige, opens in the summer of 1976 when council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. The moment is witnessed by Jennifer Mulholland, a shop assistant at a nearby department store who happens to be by the shore. No words are exchanged but this brief encounter, the unexpected vision of an unknown woman as he is felled, is seared onto Ray’s subconscious. The previously ordinary middle aged man living alone, who had never thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman on every surface available and with whatever substances come to hand.

Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world. Now living in London he has been adopted by Grace and George Zoob, collectors with a penchant for the experimental. Ray is still painting his woman and nobody, including him, knows who she is. An interview in a national newspaper alerts Jennifer to her unasked for role as Ray’s muse.

Alternative chapters allow the reader to catch up with the direction Jennifer’s life has taken. Still living in her small Essex town she no longer lives in a bedsit but has become part of a wider family. She observes the decisions people around her have made and how these have changed the trajectories of their lives. Few have ended up where they expected.

“she realised that she had no true friends in the world and that there was no one at all who understood anything about who she was.”

Themes of loneliness and the small deaths of personal dreams pervade. There is an undercurrent of quiet desperation. Grace Zoob struggles with her need to be acknowledged in a world that has no need for her individual existence. Eventually she takes out her frustrations on Ray.

The depiction of the art world is amusing but it is the deftly drawn characters and their private concerns that add impressive depth to this engaging story. It is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Life may at times appear to have no purpose yet still people find ways to live.

“sometimes you just had to put one foot in front of the other and tell yourself that you’d have a nice cup of tea when you got home.”

Quirky in places but always accessible this is existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale. A book that I will now be eagerly recommending – a vividly drawn, satisfying read.

 

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

 

Man With A Seagull On His Head has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: So The Doves

“We are a tale we tell ourselves: editing, adding, mythologising, and of course we do it to each other too.”

So The Doves, by Heidi James, is an intelligent murder mystery set in Medway, Kent. Its protagonist is Marcus Murray, an award winning journalist working for a prestigious London newspaper that has just published his impeccably sourced exposé of an influential, international organisation. Marcus uncovered the company’s involvement in illicit currency trades leading to government arms deals in the middle east. He considers himself a good guy but has opened a Pandora’s Box, and he too has an Achilles heel.

When Marcus’s boss sends him to cover the story of a body found near his old home town he is irritated at being set a task he now considers beneath him. Staying with his elderly mother in his childhood bedroom, memories of a life changing teenage friendship, the ending of which he has long suppressed, return. When he realises that he has been removed from London to enable his newspaper to protect itself, he must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for the principles on which he has built his life and career.

The story jumps between 1989 and the present day. As fifteen year olds, Melanie Shoreham befriends Marcus when he moves from his fee paying school to the local comprehensive. He basks in the reflection of the image he builds of Mel, never truly understanding what her life has entailed.

“Were they really so different? Maybe they were and maybe he believed that if he could only figure her out, emulate her – her gestures, her attitude – then maybe he could be invincible, extraordinary, like her.”

In the present day Marcus strikes up a friendship with one of the detectives on the local murder case. Marcus is wary of relationships and cannot trust the motives of his new lover, initial perceptions bolstered by his view of the flat where they go to have sex.

“His place was neat and stylishly bland, like a flat in those estate agent brochures. Everything matching, and revealing nothing about the owner except that they have no taste of their own.”

Marcus cannot tell if his wariness is due to his growing paranoia, the innate ability be believes he has to read others, or a hangover from the teenage memories now crowding his days.

“The brain sees what it wants to see, looking for patterns and the familiar, what we know. Perhaps that was it? We’re trapped in the wireframe of our memories, building our present from old images.”

All but cut off from his London life, Marcus’s refusal to capitulate brings the trouble generated to Kent. Even now he is unsure of what is real and what he is constructing to excuse his increasingly volatile behaviour.

An undercurrent of foreboding slowly rises to the surface. Marcus struggles to maintain his veneer of studious truth-seeking which is gradually being peeled away. The fictions he has created which pass as memory have enabled him to live with his selfishness and failings. He was not proud of his behaviour then, and must now confront the fact that he may be no better decades later.

When the timelines come together, after the police investigation uncover links, Marcus is forced to remember events leading up to the last time he saw Mel. He revisits the past, but powerful forces are reinterpreting what is known to suit their own ends.

This is an evocative study of memory and the stories we create to shape how we regard ourselves. Its razor sharp percipience is in places discomfiting but this never detracts from the tension of the storytelling.

“Memory, if we’re honest, is a servile , biased little beast, delivering up half-remembered scenes that cast, at the very least, a flattering light over even the worst moments. […] We hunt like toothy little animals for patterns, for meaning, scurrying about gathering our special tales to line our nests and keep us warm at night.”

Artfully told this tale demands that the reader question their core perceptions of themselves. It is a disturbing, compelling, ultimately satisfying read.

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

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.