Benjamin Myers – The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole
by
Benjamin Myers
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.

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PHOTO: Bluemoose Books

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

Martyn Bedford – Letters Home

Letters Home
by
Martyn Bedford
Comma Press: 208pp.: £9.99 rrp.

“Rushdie is telling us that we can make a home anywhere except home – anywhere in Oz, nowhere in Kansas” – Michael Wood, Enigmas and Homelands

In a recent TLS article, Will Stone narrates how he used to visit Samuel Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset, before it came under ownership of the National Trust. After their propiertorship, Stone notices how “guided no doubt by a philosophy of accessibility, they redesigned it as a tourist attraction for everyone, especially for families, whether they were interested or not.” Now, as he walks round Coleridge’s old home, the Trust have modified aspects of it. You can draw water from the well in the same way the Trust promotes Sara Coleridge did; or you can have a go at writing your own poem in the same way, presumably, Samuel did. It leads Stone to ask “Why do we visit these carapaces of our canonical legends?” Before glumly summarising “it seems our imaginations are no longer enough.”

Ironically it was Coleridge who both professed and warned of the powers of the imagination in his great poem of poetic vision (“And all, who heard, should see them there/and all should cry, Beware! Beware!) and in Martyn Bedford’s ‘Because of Olsen’ it appears that the imagination is more than enough when Miller finds his apartment overrun with tourists. It transpires to be the same apartment that Thorvald Olsen (not Thorvald Hagedorn-Olsen, the Danish painter who died in 1996) apparently lived and committed suicide in. Miller takes it upon himself to ‘become’ Olsen for the tourists. We’ve all seen those trying actors dressed in evocative garb, apparently paid to help deliver a more authentic experience, but Miller needs little encouragement and seems willing to take his Olsen act to dangerous lengths for the tourists. What pushes him to do this? Perhaps it’s when:

seeing them [the tourists] all like that, engrossed in the guide’s spiel, Miller felt as if he was the intruder now.

There is something Kafka-esque about his surmise (an element of Bedford’s work at times feels like a direct allusion to Kafka. ‘Sayer of the Sooth’ was very reminiscent of ‘The Hunger Artist’) but weren’t Kafka’s characters often parables of the failed imagination? Because a failure of the imagination does not necessarily mean it has failed to imagine, but that it has failed to recognise the limits of its imagination. In Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ the soldier, so enamoured with the machine, swaps places with the convict strapped to it. Kafka writes “by operating so silently the machine seemed to make itself noticeable”, however, by the end the machine is falling apart: this is Nathan in ‘A Representative in Automotive Components’ who travels through India whilst incapacitated by a dysentery-like illness as he delivers ‘goods’:

It made him fearful what was happening to his body – afraid of the illness, but also of the consequences of failing to deliver.

Is Nathan’s ‘recoiling’ body that malfunctioning machine? It is as if that failure of the imagination to be something, and he is instead a representative.

Image: Comma Press

There is then the otherwise aspect of failing to imagine,and when the imagination’s machinery actually fails to conjure any other perspective to relate to or become anything more than the imagination. In ‘Letters Home’, the title story, a man tries to write letters to his family who live in his home country. He can’t finish the letters through and they remain perpetually unwritten. Invited to a Leeds United football match he reveals to Paul his language tutor that he is a “Man U” supporter. Any Leeds resident, past or present, will know this is anathema, even now to some fans. The use though of this very specific but pertinent rivalry reinstates the divisions between people that are not simply overcome by words, intellectualism and empathy; are not just overcome by acts of imagining. There are levels to language and Bedford’s skill is to render this external world of communication as a composite of sounds offsetting other potential meanings. Doesn’t “Man U” sound like a troglodytic condition of entry to the tribe or cave? “Man are you?” Or when Paul tells him that his wife’s job is a pharmacist, as Paul breaks down the word to aid the man’s comprehension, the man confirms “Yes a pharmaciss. A phar-ma-cist.” The “cist” or cyst becomes a glaring phoneme when one reads the rest of the man’s experience as Bedford writes:

The Englishman tended to characterise his situation as that of a man cut off, by his politics and sectarian justice, from love. And it was true, he was cut off from love. [author’s emphasis]

The idea of being “cut-off” is prominent but there’s also a sense of application to something else, as if cut for a purpose. Isn’t that what a cyst is? A thing attached, but not ‘part’ of the body it is attached to? This isn’t exclusively about being away from home though as these three stories we’ve mentioned are; the alienation can also occur in the very local places we comfortably call ‘home’. In ‘The Beckhams are in Bettys’, a small town in West Yorkshire is suddenly rendered alienable by the presence of the celebrities in the title (Betty’s in fact becomes cordoned and ‘cut-off’ from the locals). And this failure to imagine, to assimilate experience is even apparent at the core of a family, as ‘Withen’ depicts.

Inspired by the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ (commissioned as part of a series of stories on ‘Protest’ by Comma Press) the story is of a family split by the mining strikes in the eighties. The action opens though at a funeral, in 2014, where the father of the family, Don, has died. As the family reconvene, Don’s brother, an Uncle of Matt and Rich, returns thirty years after being ostracised for crossing the picket-lines in 1984. Since we’ve talked about cysts we’re in the territory of ‘scabs’ here, the term for those who would cross the picket lines and go to work.

Matt, who tells the story, jumping between the funeral and his return from Hong Kong to support the family, remembers a time before Uncle Peter was shunned. His brother and he sit in the back of the car with their Dad and Peter in the front. A chant begins to envelop them:

Then dad…’here we go, here we go, here we go, here go-o-o, here we go.’

Rich is beating out the rhythm on his knee, Dad is rapping the dashboard, Uncle Peter thumping the steering wheel with the heel of his hand, three voices united as one: HERE WE GO, HERE WE GO, HERE GO, HERE WE GO, HERE WE GO…

Why, when the football chant’s rhythms and words appear so neutral (every Saturday afternoon you can be sure to hear the same melodies but with different words around the stadiums) can they be used for such a divisive cause? These are people who have to go somewhere as the chant says because, like most of Bedford’s characters, they are often caught in these moments of transition, traversing the past to make sense of the present and there is nowhere left to go but to go.

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Photo: Curb Complex