The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers
(Bluemoose Books, paperback, 370 pages. Out now and available here.)
Review by Will Burns
For Marx, enclosure was the engine of the cultural, social and economic shift from a feudal agricultural society to an industrial, waged economy. It was both the biggest factor in and signifier of the process by which land passed into private hands and all the inequality that has resulted. Ben Myers’ new novel does not take enclosure specifically as its subject — rather, the practice of coin-clipping in a remote and rural Yorkshire community — but it does locate itself, in both time and space, somewhere in that all-important pivot towards industrialisation. The Gallows Pole’s Northern town and villages, one senses, are about to bloom into the mill towns and cities of the industrial age, while the families existing on the moors and in the hills cling to their older ways. It is both a fascinating true story and a perfect diorama in which to discuss the kind of ideas about power, loyalty, money and land that retain their potency today.
The novel plays out over the period of three years (importantly marked by the seasons) in which the ‘King’ David Hartley and his gang, the Cragg Vale Coiners, organise themselves and accumulate the sort of wealth that inevitably attracts the attention of the authorities, while offering their extended communities something like transcendence of their previously meagre lives. We learn of the scale of the impact of this elicit, shadow economy in various ways – one of Myers’ neatest tricks is a repetition of streams of names when describing a meeting here or a drinking session there. The names flow over the land and into dwellings or pubs or towns much like the rivers these people know so well. The effect of these lists is to assert the primacy of the gang over both the land and the ‘other’ society that Hartley’s gang are set up in opposition to, an opposition that Myers exposes through subtle shifts in the prose. There are passages taken from David’s own prison-cell account, written in a disarmingly convincing vernacular, but there are also more delicate changes in the narration as the scenes move from the imposing, secret, dark environment of the moors and the Hartleys’ house-cum-HQ, and the local towns or other urban settings. The book opens with the kind of sensual language Myers deploys so well to locate us in the wild:
Soot and ash. Snot and spume. Quag and sump and clotted moss. Loam. The boy left the river and the village behind him and he felt the valley narrow and tighten as he turned up the track and the trees curled in around him and over him. Pulled him in.
The physicality of sections such as this is one of the novel’s great strengths, rooting the senses of the reader in a landscape that the author so obviously has an intimate knowledge of. The novel form is re-imagined here as a vehicle for the ways of seeing that can render knowledge and observation of a landscape as an act of rebellion. Compare with this the passage describing Halifax, where Autumn and winter would make secrets of the unlit corners. With the dying of the bright blue days of sun an insects and harvest song, the town and its people always turned inwards – collars up and curtains drawn, and where there is a new kind of elegance to the prose. A town of two faces indeed.
In some ways, it is perhaps best to think of the novel as a kind of Western, with all the radical, republican connotations of the genre. There is the narrative tension of an escalating battle of nerve between the gang, and an almost archetypal lawman (a good man, troubled in his own way, whose belief in the law goes beyond the socio-economic and verges on the mystical), as well as the Western’s unique sense of the land as a — or perhaps even the — chief character throughout the book. The land looms large in the imagination of Hartley specifically, but it also comes to hound, and eventually fundamentally alter the lawman William Deighton. His hunting of the gang in the depths of the wood and the middle of the night change him physically as well as intuitively, Soon he began to know the camber of the track over the hump-back hills from Halifax. He gained a feel for the undulations of the moorland’s edge and saw the moon turned silver in the puddles and sump holes that never seemed to dry up. His muscles gained memories and the memories guided him. Deighton’s journeys become literally transformative. For Hartley the land is a primal force, the seasons and their accompanying changes in the landscape bringing forth life, death and, most potently, symbols. He is haunted by his ‘stag-men’ almost to madness, and the appearance of the gang’s vital alchemist comes at a ‘harvest drinke up’. These are the kind of auspicious details and signs that come to permeate the gang’s story, especially in Hartley’s own account, layering the sense of a people truly belonging to their land and its superstitions. For James Broadbent’s father, The earth was in his [father’s] scalp and his stubble. It had become him. The line might sound trite in the hands of a less skilled story-teller, or without the foundation of the rest of the novel’s integrity. ‘Brume’, ‘chod’, ‘pizzle’ – at times the language becomes the very soil for Myers and lends the book its solidity. A shifting epoch, treasure, law and order, a brutal indictment of masculine violence and a wonderfully wrought mystic who can seemingly conjure currency as if by magic. The elements build like a Western with the added shade of the peculiarly English class dualisms that descend from inheritance, through Parliament, down to local government and finally seep into the very soil.
Ben Myers’ work, however, transcends easy genre, and where his previous novels have used tradition for their own ends, so The Gallows Pole does with much success. Displaying admirable control of his prose as well as his cast of characters, this is a novel full of tension, colour, and drama, but also one that is underpinned by a radical relationship with the author’s own country — suggestive of the many different histories that our literature continues to neglect and positing thoroughly modern questions about the nature of the environment, ownership, wealth, and class. No mean achievement at all.
Signed copies of The Gallows Pole are available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £9.99.