The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
I’m a bit behind in my reviews, but I knew as soon as I finished this novel I’d have to bang one out. It’s ridiculously good – an historical novel rooted in truth that also manages to be a psychogeographical, folk-horror wonder. And features the following threat:
I’ll stitch your scut hole shut and feed you moldy parsnips all day long
How could I not give it a rave-up?
(Obviously Jack White agrees, because Third Man are publishing the book (their first novel) in the US.)
Winning the Walter Scott Prize – the biggest deal in historical fiction terms – Myers’ book is a grim wonder. It presents the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners with a bit more meat on its bones than history might provide. It tells the story of “King” David Hartley, the ringleader of a group of coin clippers – forgers shaving legitimate currency in order to strike new counterfeit – who acts as a Yorkshire Robin Hood, were Robin Hood not averse to putting the eyes out of any bloke who looked too long at Maid Marian.
What drives the story is friction. The friction of legality against dubious doings. The scrape of poverty against the world of the rich. The grinding of ancient ways against incipient industrialisation. And most importantly, the tension generated by bad blood, and the desire for reputation. The setting – 1870s Yorkshire – is a locale that’s equally Brontë moor and industrial revolution hotbed. It’s a place where mills are moving across the land, fucking smaller operators, and a place where the the established order – no law but the Coiners’ law – is on the verge of destruction.
While economic changes creep into the area, the real downfall of the Coiners – Hartley and his kin, specifically – stem from something more base: feelings of misuse of one of their brethren. A pissed-off low-level accomplice seeks the ear of law and order in order to score a Tyburn Ticket – a date with a noose – for the King who’s scorned him. Really, wounded pride and too much piss and wind are what bring the maelstrom down on this band, and Myers fleshes out how the reign of a larger than life crew can be destroyed by grievance, and the desire to be the last one standing.
The prose in this novel is remarkable. Myers’ lines – particularly in the barely-literate scribblings of a jailed leader – sing with a poetry that’s undeniable. There’s emotion coursing through the work, and an enviable grasp on when to back off. There’s streams of consciousness, but they never outstay their welcome. There’s letters and documents, but not enough to stultify. It flows.
Name your Gods gentlemen, for they are all around you.
Of course, history isn’t the only thing that’s threaded through this story. There’s a distinct sense of the strange, of the weirdness that lives in wild country. The landscape itself is a character, speaking not in words but in weathered tones. The things that live there – some mythic, some not – are as much a part of the action as the Coiners themselves. The change of seasons is as lovingly described as the process of coin striking. And the valleys and streams of the wild places where criminals hide their products provide a startling contrast to the fanciness of landed gentry dwellings, or the grimness of York’s prison.
Indeed, the novel has a distinctly magical feeling, right there alongside the dirty fingernails and reeking breeks. There’s a man who deals in signs and sigils – apt for a coiner’s ally – who preaches coming chaos. There’s stag-headed dancers. And there’s a sense that what is real is open to negotiation: there’s something behind the scenes that’s just as ominous, and as influential as industrialisation – only it’s much, much older. There’s a whiff of weirdness here that cannot be shaken away.
This is a book which fits nicely alongside Burnet’s His Bloody Project or Fowles’s A Maggot as tomes which strive to recreate the mindset and experiences of a very particular time. Each work uses a variety of textual supports – diaries, confessions, communiques and legal actions – to complete their portrait. And while they’re very different texts, there’s a shared devotion to the creation of a character’s story. The one told here does not end well, but features some Bierce-like flourish that makes the journey oddly compelling.
Myers has an investment in both this story and – moreso, I suspect – the land in which it occurs. The book ends with a brief historical epilogue (and a copious list of appealing sources) and details of a hiking map of the book’s locations that’s suddenly taken top slot on my Yorkshire to-do list.
This grimly violent tale, as much as it presents the deeds of terrible men, is a letter of careful love to an environment. It’s not difficult to feel enthralled, myself.