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

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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.