The Gallows Pole
Bluemoose Books: 374 pp. (with postscript): £9.99 rrp.
As you read the opening pages of Benjamin Myers’ novel you might be forgiven for recognising the North of England that was then as the North of England that is now: “Gulch and gully. Mulch and algae. England.” England in 1767 apparently, but ten miles outside of the city of Leeds today you can be back on that terrain. I always find it remarkable how, for such a developed nation encapsulated in a small island, it remains brown and green with its moors, Pennines, Peaks, and Dales – and this is just the North. But although declamatory novels might try and tell us this is England, with Myers’ work you get a sense that this land really is England.
Set shortly after the end of the Seven Years War when the weaving industry that the North relied on was severely depleted, Myers tells the story of ‘King’ David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of counterfeiters who began producing fake gold coins. These were real people and as Steven Hartley explains on his website (www.yorkshirecoiners.com), he is the great, great, great, great, great grandson of the eponymous David Hartley and is still able to trace a lineage of Hartleys to the Cragg Vale area. It is this sense of identity in the land of the moors and the Pennines that Myers crafts into his own work:
“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.”
Often, the body seems inexplicable with the land in the novel like here, but it’s also as if the body of the text is aligned with this idea of what the land is, as though a propelling mechanism that underpins it. We’re frequently witnessing moments of production and movement. Look for instance how the accumulation of details and actions builds in the following excerpt until there is movement in various modes. This reliance on the present participle can create a jarring and repetitive effect, yet stylistically or not, it adds to this overarching idea:
“With a scoop Robert Thomas poured more grain onto the floor and then picked up a flail and joined him.The men swung their sticks with determination, with violence. First Robert Thomas then Matthew Normanton. They found a rhythm. An alternating pattern. The Coiners’ messenger Thomas Spencer watched. He counted twenty alternate cracks before the man straightened together, breathing deeply.”
To know this land though is to seemingly know the limit of their world. As a result there’s a sense of how do the characters know and assimilate their knowledge from outside influences in a place like the Cragg Vale. It’s interesting to watch as Hartley and his clan have a hardened realism to their environment, but then also ‘believe’ in it beyond a realistic capacity to estimate their actions. Unlike Macbeth – who wasn’t a particularly intelligent man either and often upon a moor-like heath – he had to rely on his wife and three witches’ prophecies to try and foresee his future. Hartley doesn’t have this. He has his own convictions. Animals are often in his accounts though and as he sits in jail he recounts a very Macbethian image: “an malkins an all I seen malkins stows of times up not moors” with the moors being “A secret place where things do occuer beyond any explanayshun things you must never medull with No No.” It’s as if without question he sees what he sees, and as with the Thane of Cawdor, has an inability to discern what is a vision and what is vision:
“A duzzen of them if not more and all their tayles were tangulled and like notted together and they must have drownit that way and I swear it was the most horribullest thing a man ever did see so horribul it did give me the fear but I cuddent show that to the lads becors sum of them silly sods wership the ground the kind warks on.”
This appears to be the mystical notion of a ‘Rat-King’. In literal terms it’s when a rest of rats get their tales knotted and tied, but although gruesome sounding, it’s a rare phenomenon bound in folk lore. Hartley’s response is visceral and whether or not he believes in its totemistic capacity he is scared by it non-the-less. Is it a case of belief if it invokes fear? Or should the question be who does the believed believe in? In Macbeth one of the first witch’s declarations is, “Like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do and I’ll do” and one might find, not just the most contemporary aspect of the novel with this brutal land and its self-perpetuating male mythology, but also a fulfilling of one of the witches’ most cryptic auguries in this idea. As Hartley says “he cuddent show that [fear] to the lads”: plenty of rats but none without tails.
As much as this may be England as we know it, it also feels like it’s England, or a part of England, as Myers knows it. He is interested as much with the land as he is the novel which he has ‘chosen’ to set there. And similar to Ted Hughes, who also heralded from the region, you begin to wonder if there really is something in the land fecund for writing. Hughes was a man though who similarly recognised the symbolic capacity of animals. His macabre creation, Crow, remarks at one point “Man could not be man nor God God” and as Hartley and his men battle against conspirators, capitalists, the Crown, in a time where those ‘dark Satanic mills’ were beginning to pop up across the land, like Crow, he appears in a world where the skepticism of our conventional, disavowing narratives is not see England without faith, but England without faith in us