Benjamin Myers is a writer whose time has come. Recent winner of the Walter Scott Prize for his stunning The Gallows Pole, Myers has been a prolific voice of the English North for several years, and his wider renown is thoroughly deserved. It also comes at a fertile time for writing from the North of England. Writers such as Jon McGregor, Fiona Mozley and Andrew Michael Hurley have also recently published critically-acclaimed works which explore a sense of place and identity during this (to put it mildly) interesting time for England.
I want to look at his most recent works: The Gallows Pole, which resurrects the tale of the Cragg Vale coiners in 18th century Yorkshire; and Under the Rock, which details Myers’s own experience of settling into a home in the shadow of the brooding Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd: a town whose name immediately sparks thoughts of another writer intimately associated with deep Yorkshire: Ted Hughes.
The Gallows Pole tells of the rise and fall of a gang of coiners under the rule of “King” David Hartley. For 3 years, from 1767 to 1770 his fiefdom provided a kind of socialism or, if that’s too much of a stretch, a welfare sub-state for the poor of the Calder valley. In so doing his forged coins devalued the official currency of England, something the authorities were not going to overlook. Myers’s story, then, is a tale of power and authority and identity, what creates them and what happens when they are challenged.
Myers writes thickly layered prose; the world is invoked by dense clods of language and his David Hartley is an elemental figure subject to visions, in stark contrast to the “genteel”, smartly-dressed figures of authority who live in town: “David Hartley appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills”. Town and country are pitted against one another. Men “whose family names were as much a part of the terrain as the boundary marker stones that mapped the moors and fractioned their tight territories” do not exist in an urban environment. Yet urbanity, too, has its depths: “It seemed to him to be two places, Halifax. A town of two faces. One of sunlight and another of shadows”: both exist and both are true.
To the coiners, town represents officialdom and “England”, a notion which means little; an idea too big and too distant to matter. “Jorvikshire” is the limit of their focus and ambition: they make no reference to England and cannot conceive of a wider polity than their own county. “England” exists only for the rich: when the Prime Minister’s name is invoked, one of the coiners retorts “I’ve never heard of him”. Hartley’s brothers style themselves the “Duke of Edinburgh” and “Duke of York” in a (partly) ironic assumption of nobility. They are questioning what nobility means: they are, after all, acting for the benefit of their people, even if the nobility of their actions is a side-effect of their accumulation of specious wealth. But England contains Yorkshire within it, and their power and independence is ultimately shown up for the circumscribed game that it is.
When removed from their environment, the gang members are bereft: turncoat James Broadbent looks around him in the home of one of these authority figures, hoping to trade his knowledge for cash and immunity. But his identity is fractured by the multiplicity of things, of reflective surfaces: “Furnished textiles. A pewter platter. A tea service. A decanter. Mirrors. Many mirrors reflecting James Broadbent’s eyes as they dart around the room and struggled to take everything in…a world unimaginable.” The difference between assumed power and established power is revealed.
And yet, for all the power of the establishment, to what end is it being put? To maintain itself, of course. The coiners offer a vision of something better, a localism opposed to the nationalism of England. “The starving of Calder Valley…had been clothed and fed and given hope, and that was more than any landowner or dignitary or law-maker…had done. It was more than the King of England himself had offered.”
Of course, an existential threat such as is posed by the coiners cannot be accommodated and must be purged. “The Crown doesn’t need proof…when the man decides it’s you, then it’s you that will be swinging”. The lawmen’s betrayal of Broadbent is no surprise: “this was about pragmatism and trust in a system. The English way.” Pragmatism is that default setting of the English establishment, historically adept at justifying the means to an end. For all their culture and manners, the Law and “England” are as morally skewed as the coiners, who are at least true to their word.
The Gallows Pole is a brutal work (not least for the few stoic females that haunt its pages), but utterly gripping and convincing in every aspect.
Staying in the Calder Valley, Under the Rock sees Myers explore his new home. It’s a piece of landscape writing which is parochial in the best sense: in not showing how small a locality is in the wider world, but showing how large a world exists in that locality.
The double meaning of the title can of course refer to the poetry written about and around a place (by Ted Hughes, Glyn Hughes and Simon Armitage, for instance), and also the innate meanings and resonances, shapes, forms and moods, that a place can have. Elmet is the title of one of Ted Hughes’s finest collections, where his poems are paired with photos by Fay Godwin: wonderfully evocative monochrome scenes of post-industrial decline and savage moorland in which even the brightest sunlight sends a shiver down the spine.
“Elmet was the ancient Brittonic kingdom of the native Celts that covered much of the West Riding between the fifth and early 7th centuries and part of the larger Yr Hen Ogledd – The Old North – region that incorporated numerous minor kingdoms from Southern Scotland down through the Borders, Cumbria and Yorkshire.”
Hughes had previously written a collection called Remains of Elmet, but edited and supplemented this in the revealing light of Godwin’s work.
Remains are thick on the ground anywhere in Britain, and come in many forms: “what I particularly like are the industrial remains: the old mills and mill ponds, the buried pieces of machinery, forgotten things half hidden beneath the undergrowth.” Even since the late 70s of Hughes’s poems and Godwin’s photos, the landscape has changed. In trying to find the spot from which a particular photo – featuring the dark sentinel of Scout Rock – was taken, Myers realises that it too has gone; has been built over, redeveloped. The site of those lost visions of Hughes’s 1930s childhood are themselves lost; a double-burial.
Myers’s writing is refreshing in that his eye misses nothing; its view is not selective: beauty can exist anywhere, in unexpected forms. “The sun’s rays reach Burnley road to flood the industrial units and workshops and bacon-packing factory with light, and fill the stagnant canal with honey, making even the dumped BMXs and deep-green swirls of goose shit look golden”. This is nature writing that acknowledges the pictureskew, that does not hide from the acts of violence done to and within a landscape:
“Recent years have seen our bookshops swell with works that consider the rural landscapes of Britain. Often their authors are people like me, blindly staggering around trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. But so many of these accounts veer towards the romantic. They are escapist representations…one step removed from the reality. Few seem prepared to tackle the more insidious side of the landscape – the blood and guts of it, and also the actions of those individuals whose negative influence can define a place for decades of centuries”
Myers may have had one eye on the Cragg Vale coiners as he wrote that, but the other was fixed on the unholy local trinity of Peter Sutcliffe – the Yorkshire Ripper – his friend, Jimmy Savile (whose life and fame only becomes more strange and unpleasant the more you read of it), and mass-murdering GP Harold Shipman. In this region of uncompromising landscapes, the world of Heathcliff and Ted Hughes, he asks “can the contours of a county determine the actions of its residents?”
Yet Scout Rock, whose “dark mythology” overhangs the book in every sense, offers Myers both stability and hope in a time of financial hardship and emotional difficulty. This may be from study of the fauna: “most are weeds and viewed as invasive or poisonous or ugly, yet I find them fascinating and beautiful, each as valuable as a wild orchid, if not as rarely seen”, from the persistence of nature in reclaiming humankind’s efforts to subdue it: “I have seen true rewilding at work at a microcosmic level, and barely a stone’s throw from schools and houses, pubs and petrol stations. It has been completely accidental, and has happened despite, rather than because of, humans…the rewilding of Scout Rock is born out of neglect, and is nature’s fight-back against the centuries of industrialisation,” or from the hypnotic consolations of putting one foot in front of the other:
“Walking is writing with your feet. When we walk our footprints mark the soil like the crudest of hieroglyphics, and our minds take fanciful turns. Over long, solitary miles abstract or disconnected thoughts can often find purposes in words which then link to form cogent sentences. Writing and walking are co-dependent…Writing is a form of alchemy. It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.. But it is archaeological too, an act of digging and looking. Writing is an attempt to tap into narratives, and to look in either direction along the timeline.”
As a coda, Myers journeys to Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber, into which the Calder flows: that river’s “true conclusion”. He despairs – as he has throughout the book – of the “downward ecological spiral” our culture has produced for itself. At this outermost point of Yorkshire he sees the curious juxtaposition of plastic junk washed down rivers or cast up by the waves, piling up on a steadily eroding coastline. When he says “we are a shrinking island” he speaks metaphorically as well as literally. “Water is only ever passing through”: it is “not self-contained…[and] lead[s] elsewhere…I must remind myself that there is a world beyond.”
The obvious, looming narrative that writing taps into at this point in time is Brexit. In common with both fiction and non-fiction currently exploring the idea of “place”, these works are – perhaps inadvertently – a reaction against the narratives that have brought us to the brink of Brexit; a reaction against the insular visions of Britain (Greater England) that have poisoned the public sphere and made the current political mess possible. They are works that aim to reclaim the local – explored in explicit, even forensic, detail – in deliberate contrast to the vague, platitudinous ideas of the nation that decorate tabloid front pages.
I may be stretching here, but this wave of New North writing reminds me of the brief mid-90s fashion for Scottish literature (fashionable among London press and publishers, that is: it wasn’t “fashion” up here, it was just “literature”). It’s widely accepted that this resurgence, which started in the 1980s with writers like Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, helped fashion the new sense of national identity (crucially, from a left-wing perspective) that made devolution possible (and independence likely).
What’s telling now is that this New North writing is a specifically English – as distinct from British – thing. The fact that many of these works are from independent (northern) publishers also shows that the movement (to call it such) is an organic thing, and not driven by London taste. I know that Yorkshire in particular sees itself as a separate country (as does Cornwall) and that it has a far greater sense of identity than, say, Northamptonshire or West Sussex. One of the many interesting things about the insane state we find ourselves in as Brexit looms is the struggle for a specifically English identity to emerge from the unravelling fabric of “Britain”. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have long had a sense of themselves as entities; England, as the major partner in the United Kingdom, has not; and as the ties of that Union fray, England is an uncertain and fearful thing. It needs more works of literature like these, which examine the country, its people and its places, and the relationship between them. It may be a dark and painful process but it’s a necessary one.
Myers, Benjamin: The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose)
Myers, Benjamin: Under the Rock (Elliott & Thompson)
Myers, Benjamin: These Darkening Days (Mayfly)