Song of the Muck
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole
Consider the poetry of the tarn. Does it even exist? Glaciers, waterfalls, windswept moors: these are the features of landscape typically taken up for romanticisation. Tarns tend to be disregarded, ugly black pools fringed with reeds, or else construed as the dwelling places of demons, hags, Grendel’s mother. If there’s any hope for a poetry of such things, it’s to be penned by way of an inverse romance: a celebration of mud and muck, spindles and gorse, the suck and squelch of claggy soil, and an adoration of the guttural language which, in its own peculiar way, breathes a beautiful onomatopoeia into these usually maligned aspects of terra Britannica. But not content with simply pulling poetry from the tarn and its dreary surrounds, Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole is a novel that aims for something more difficult. It trains its gaze upon a group of hardbitten, weatherbeaten men who find the tarn a thing of beauty anyway, regardless of any attempts at romanticisation, and it sets out to give voice to their latent poetic sensibilities.
The Gallows Pole has been at the centre of the independent publishing success story of the past twelve months. Released and championed by Bluemoose Books, a small press based in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, it has sold thousands of copies, is now in its fourth printing, and was longlisted for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize. Most recently, and most notably, The Gallows Pole also won the extremely lucrative (£25,000) Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction; the judges praised it as a “brutal but lyrical and deeply affecting” book, and an “important” one. All of this — the popular reception of the novel, and its legitimation by the reigning powers of literary tastemaking — raises some intriguing questions. Why has The Gallows Pole touched a nerve? What sort of rhetorical and aesthetic appeals does the novel make to its readers? And how do these appeals intersect with its approach to historical events and their representation?
The Gallows Pole tells the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a gang of outlaws hunkering down on the bleak moors around the valley of Calderdale, Yorkshire, in the late eighteenth century. It hews closely to the course of actual events, even quoting liberally from historical documentation, as it charts the rise and fall of the Coiners’ charismatic leader, David Hartley, revered by his followers as “King David”. The Coiners were basically counterfeiters who profited from the business of “clipping”, shearing the edges off real, officially minted coins, and then melting down the shavings to forge lookalikes. More broadly, though, under Hartley’s guidance, the Coiners became political agitators, revolutionaries without a manifesto. Their ranks were made up largely of tradesmen with fine skills who found themselves degraded, impoverished, and cast aside as collateral damage from the industrialisation then sweeping across the Midlands.
When these men migrated north out of sheer desperation, Hartley offered them safehaven, employment, remuneration, dignity. What they ended up founding was a venture that allowed them both to put their skills to use and to keep the winnings for themselves. They took a stand for organised labour over the dehumanising forces of unrestrained capital — less out of ideological fervour than in response to having no alternative livelihoods — and, in Myers’ account, their efforts were nurtured, even mothered, by the landscape to which they fled. In The Gallows Pole, day by day, they smuggle their illicit profits into what Myers calls “the valley’s bank”, “the bank of hill-tops and hidden ravines; of forest and field, of coins stashed beneath boulders and cow troughs. By rat’s nests under coops, shit-dripped and bird-pecked.”
But Myers also tells the tale in a way that shows the Coiners’ enterprise triggering three long-term effects which combine to bring about their downfall. The first is the unwilling implication of the peasants and merchants of Calderdale in criminal activity. “The hardened hill men”, Myers writes, “persuaded the traders of the valley to give up their gains for this great fraudulent venture, in exchange for a nice return and protection and discretion guaranteed”. For “persuaded”, however, read “threatened”, and for “protection” read “involvement in a racket”. The second effect of their clipping is the elevation of Hartley to the position of an actual pseudo-monarch, a king in more than name. Exploiting the relative isolation of the moors, exploiting his distance from the reach of law enforcement, Hartley “assume[s] sovereignty over his own fiefdom” and institutes his own rules of conduct. “It’s time to let the bastards know that the only law is our law,” one of Hartley’s loyalists declares. “That him that crosses a Coiner digs his plot. That him who crosses the clipper loses his tongue. That valley men fight and valley men sing and valley men bow to none but their king.” Naturally, then, the third effect of the Coiners’ operations is the attraction of the authorities to their far-flung corner of England. The ruling elite — the landed gentry and their mercantilist allies — can’t abide the economic damage of the Coiners’ acts of vandalism, but even more than that, they cannot abide Hartley’s incipient challenge to the legitimacy of the crown.
For the most part, The Gallows Pole traces the dynamics of a conflict that really did play out over many years between Hartley and his nemesis William Deighton. Deighton was the “exciseman” dispatched to Yorkshire, with the blessings of King George III, to bring the Coiners to heel. In Myers’ novel he comes across as essentially a glorified tax collector, though he conceives of himself in loftier terms as an “upholder of the law in an increasingly lawless land”. For Deighton, Hartley’s operations represent nothing less than a brazen attempt to precipitate “England’s downfall”; Hartley leads an “anti-empire, anti-monarchy, anti-government” tribe of “pin-eyed, low-browed, dirty-fingered” barbarians. When Deighton arrives in the West Riding of Yorkshire, then, he envisions himself as the saviour of the place: “The responsibility to restore order fell upon his shoulders alone.” But, for reasons of pride as much as survival, Hartley and the Coiners will not give in to the intimidations of the exciseman and the sovereign power he represents. More importantly, they have the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of the inhospitable terrain that Deighton is seeing for the first time, and they strive to keep their operations concealed by making themselves at one with the landscape they love.
It would be an understatement to say that The Gallows Pole inflates its landscape to mythic proportions. It would even be an understatement to say that it elevates David Hartley into a larger-than-life figure by way of his association with the landscape, his affinity for all its qualities. Better to say that Myers allows Hartley simultaneously to speak in an eloquent demotic and to smoosh his carefully chosen words into sentence structures that embody the rhythms of life in this landscape, the sense of traversing it on foot. Myers’ sinuous syntax twists adoringly around the moors and their seasonal changes of mood, as if striving to expand the reach of each sentence so as to physically embrace the elements. Of one especially bleak winter, he writes:
The trees held no leaves. They were skeletal now. When a breeze lifted, their branches played a fidgeting rhythm and the dry stiff leaves that had matted together around their roots stiffly flapped an inch or two but mostly the air was still, as if that too was frozen. As if that too was a solid thing to be chipped away by the indifferent rays of a sun that sat low, malevolent and with little warmth.
Myers’ Calderdale is a dismal place where, in the hours before dawn, “the day has claws and still belongs to the creatures of tooth and feather and snout”. Each of its moors is “a wet rag never fully wrung”, a place of stagnation punctuated by sudden, aqueous undulations, where the edges of tarns are “tasselled” with moss that feeds droplets into dark water. Often, the morbidity of the moors is augmented by signs of animal life on the outskirts of human affairs: “Crows blown like black handkerchiefs from a funeral feast into the tangled tree tops exchanged shrill chatter there”, Myers writes. And just as often, the men and women who eke out an existence on these lands are every bit as forlorn as the birds and beasts. “Here lived those wild and red in pointed tooth and curled claw”, Myers writes, “and alongside them were those that walked on two legs and lived in houses but still emulated many of the upland creatures’ feral ways.” They are beings of sweat and snot, of spit and semen; sensate bodies afflicted by rotten teeth and wheezing breaths, and squints and limps and sprains and amputated parts. They imbibe the hardscrabble spirit of the moors, sometimes even embodying it, as Myers gives them a carnal presence using the same rhetorical resources with which he conveys the sensuality of their world.
What The Gallows Pole achieves through prose like this, its cadences and its connotations, is a sort of inverse glorification of the Cragg Vale Coiners via an adoration of the muck they dwell in. Myers evokes the spirit of the their enterprise in a language founded upon a restricted, recondite diction, as pinched and austere as the moors, and peppered with the vulgar vernacular of Hartley and his acolytes. By channelling this language into ornate clauses compounded with little or no punctuation, little or no indication of where the reader might stop to draw breath, he manages to build up a bizarre, loping prosody that sounds like nothing so much as a rollicking song of reverence for his subjects and the terrain that nurtures them.
Ultimately, then, Myers’ language is a language of love. It allows for some eerily beautiful constructions, many of which are as melodic as anything from the novels of Cormac McCarthy: a clear influence on The Gallows Pole. But, importantly, it also invests Myers in the business of mythologising historical events, rather than simply depicting or unpacking them, and by way of its style alone it makes a couple of unsettling suggestions. The first is that there was a notional nobility to the Coiners’ way of life on the moors. The second, implied by the first, is that readers ought to mourn the loss of this life to the upheavals of history and the ravages of time.
Mythologisation is, of course, an enterprise fraught with pitfalls, and unfortunately, for the first quarter of The Gallows Pole, not even the sensual wonders of Myers’ prose can prevent the novel from plunging into them. Who exactly are the men deemed so worthy, so deserving, of having their praises sung? Myers never fleshes them out, never allows most of them to manifest as anything more than a name:
Like crows to the first pickings of carrion after the snow melt, from the four corners they walked.
Up they came and over they came and through they came. Many men.
Isaac Dewhurst and Absolom Butts.
Thomas Clayton and Benjamin Sutcliffe. Abraham Lumb and Aloysius Smith and Nathan Horsfall and Matthew Hepworth and Joseph Gelder and Jonathan Bolton.
John Wilcox and Jonas Eastwood.
Fathers and brothers and sons and uncles. Up they came. And others too.
When the majority of the Cragg Vale Coiners exist as only items on a list, the result is a paucity of character which puts the entire novel on unstable foundations. This is not to say that Myers is somehow morally obligated to distinguish and humanise these men; it’s to say that he troubles the aesthetic integrity of The Gallows Pole with a problem that stems directly from his decision to leave blank spaces where their identities might be. If there’s no way for the reader to understand who these men are, or to picture the upheavals they’re fleeing, or to develop a feeling for the better lives they’re striving towards, then there’s no way to truly appreciate what attracts them and binds them to David Hartley. In consequence, The Gallows Pole offers no sense of how Hartley managed to build his movement or involve these men in his operations, no sense of what led them to put their faith in him and legitimise his claims to authority. Hartley never lays out a vision for his followers to invest themselves in, and he’s not so bloodthirsty or terrifying that they tremble at the thought of what might befall them if they cross him.
Bluntly put, then, neither Hartley nor the Coiners seem like fitting beneficiaries of mythologisation. The descriptions of their actions are so attenuated that none of the things they do deserves the veneration they receive through Myers’ prose. Myers either simply states that they are honourable men whose actions are somehow admirable, or he describes them in language that exudes admiration for them. But it’s difficult to feel admiration for them because Myers’ summarisation of their characters makes their actions slight, even senseless. Myers is in such a rush to mythologise these men that he doesn’t take the time to explore who they are as men, not as myths, and so he insinuates that they warrant glory without quite imparting why.
As a result, what actually incurs mythologisation is not the litany of things these men achieved so much as their having embodied an older, implicitly purer way of life. With references to the ceremonies of Samhain and Imbolc as remnants of Britain’s Celtic past, and with Hartley’s habit of referring to Yorkshire by its Viking name, Jórvíkshire, The Gallows Pole fairly fetishises a bygone Britain for the simple fact that it is bygone. Not only that, but the novel allows David Hartley himself to do likewise. “Name your Gods gentlemen”, he says to his followers, “for they are all around you”, and then he embarks on a paean to his country’s pagan origins:
Sycamore and silver birch he said. Beech and goat willow. Oak and ash. And before them pine and hazel, aspen and sallow. Alder. Because this is our kingdom of Jórvíkshire and time was the whole island was like this once. It was coast to coast with trees, all the way up to these higher lands of ours. The wildwood they called it. We lived as clans then. Under the trees when the trees were worshipped as Gods. Under the great rustling canopy. Tribal, like. Maybe a few of us still do. It was the way of the land then. You protected you and yours. You still do. … Protection was our purpose. Protection from any incomers.
Hartley here gives voice to the beating heart of the mythology of England, touching with his words the very bedrock of English nationalism. Real Britons, true Englishmen, are those who square up to outlanders and remain stalwart in the face of incursions by foreigners, resolving to stand firm against them or else die in the attempt. As far as mythologies go, that’s not an entirely spurious one, anchored as it is in cultural memories of ancient conquest from the trouncing of the Celts by the Romans to the trouncing of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans. Since then, of course, it has been presumed validated by comparatively more recent events, whether these involve Queen Elizabeth repelling the Spanish Armada or Winston Churchill yielding not an inch to the Luftwaffe — and, in 2016, the inane public debate during the Brexit referendum offered a reminder that the core tenets of this mythology remain potent even today.
Intriguingly, and perhaps unexpectedly, this mythology has also informed a recent strain of pseudo-nativist British literature. Best exemplified by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (2014) and the novels of Cynan Jones, this literature makes the most of the poetic capacities of the English language but turns them towards a valorisation of the myth’s distasteful avatars: dogged, rugged men of crippling insularity, men whose small, mean worlds are circumscribed by their spite towards everything beyond them. For all the eloquence of David Hartley, he often presents himself as the Nigel Farage of the eighteenth century, petty and crass and too ill-tempered to conduct a sober examination of his own public standing. To say the least, it’s unsettling to see the vigorous poetry of a novel like The Gallows Pole lavished upon men like Hartley and the Coiners — men who preach narrowness of mind and perception, who denigrate ways of living other than their own, who would close themselves off to the very variety of experiences made possible by poetic language itself. How, then, does the novel address this stylistic double-bind?
Mercifully, with a few choice words on page 100, an altogether different spirit takes possession of The Gallows Pole and splinters it, subverting its apparent aims and sending it off in pursuit of others. The final three-quarters of the novel are largely redemptive, unwinding and unpicking what the first quarter assembles. Possibly, Myers spends so much time mythologising the Cragg Vale Coiners precisely to skew the proportions of The Gallows Pole in this way — the more thoroughly a mythology is constructed, the more meticulously it can be dissected and disempowered — but even then, he asks a lot of his readers to stay with him up until the turning point. The Gallows Pole is shorn of the conventional markers of narrative momentum: again like the novels of Cormac McCarthy, especially Blood Meridian (1985), there’s no signposting of imminent events, no reliance on traditional ways of establishing and manipulating rhythm and pace. Things happen and happen and happen, sometimes causally, sometimes coincidentally, and then a few more things happen. It takes real stamina to reach the words that turn the novel upside down. The rewards, however, are worth the labour.
The words in question belong to David Hartley and take the form of an italicised monologue. These monologues intercut the dramatic action throughout the novel, but whereas Hartley uses earlier monologues to bolster his own assumed status and reinforce his mythologisation, in this particular instance he speaks out to dispute — to deny — the truth of events as Myers depicts them in the preceding scene. Those events involve Hartley’s sexual humiliation and molestation of one of his underlings, James Broadbent. But, Hartley says when able to speak for himself,
with these words I rite the truth to you that wot ever is said abaht King Daevid Hartley he was not wan of them kinds Not one of them sorts… So now you see somewan is twisten the trooth for I never did tug that Rat Jaymes Brordbend’s parsnip I have never seen it never tuched it If it happund I was not there that day…
Hartley, in essence, claims control over the depiction of his own affairs — reclaims it from Myers’ narratorial voice — and uses his authority to deflate and humanise the mythical figure he has been construed as throughout the first quarter of the novel.
Following this incident, Myers injects the narrative proper with another demythologising agent when he rejigs the character of William Deighton. Deighton comes to realise that his own actions are partly responsible for Hartley’s outsized status on the moors, and that by a change in perspective he might bring the man back down to earth. “His own fertile mind had perhaps played its part too”, Myers writes, “for in the endless hours of plotting and planning and rumination, William Deighton had surely elevated his prey. Inflated him. He was guilty of flattering him with imaginary abnormal attributes and making a myth from a man.” As Deighton proceeds to act on this new understanding of Hartley, Myers turns the tax collector into an almost metafictional device, a device with which to unsettle the work of the narratorial prose, to interrogate its presentation of David Hartley as a man of mythical stature.
Then, too, Myers slowly broadens the scope of the narrative by opening up sub-plots and lines of action that run parallel to Hartley’s escapades, structuring The Gallows Pole so that beyond a certain point its focus on Hartley is diluted. While narrative events continue to revolve around the self-styled king, the scope expands and the perspective shifts in order to attend to others. There is a turncoat in Hartley’s ranks. Myers gives a voice to the turncoat and his world-weary father. There are underlings who hatch their own schemes in private, in contravention of Hartley’s will. Myers sheds light on their hazy objectives, their misguided reasoning, and the crude results of their actions. And, of course, there is Deighton. Myers details Deighton’s investigative procedures, and even allows Deighton to develop such affinity with Calderdale that his knowledge of the terrain comes to rival Hartley’s: “He gained a feel for the undulations of the moorland’s edge”, we are told. “His muscles gained memories and the memories guided him. … The hills registered in his bones and joints.” And whereas more conventional novels tend to resolve or intertwine their narrative strands as they approach their final pages, The Gallows Pole continues expanding right up to the end: its final pages dissolve Hartley’s narrative into a multivalent situation swollen with voices contesting the meaning of events and shot through with fragments of historical documentation.
This achievement remains diminished by the first hundred pages of The Gallows Pole, which in retrospect amount to an unwieldy buffer between the front cover and the novel’s real substance. But the change in direction is welcome, anyway, and finally shows that Myers is capable of producing an unconventionally structured narrative, in highly stylised prose, which aims for and satisfies objectives of sweeping cultural import. The result is a baggy, misshapen lump of a book that sometimes glistens with sterling turns of phrase, sometimes drips with words slung together in a flow of syntactic sludge. It feels like a thing ripped from the innermost depths of a tarn, clodded together like so many fistfuls of mud compacted into a mound. If there’s poetry to its prose — in its stresses and rhythms and the otherworldly imagery it conjures up — there is also, somehow, a poetry to its earthiness as well, a glee and a grace to its grotesqueries. Its power is not as refined as it might have been, but it is power of a rare sort: one that invokes a distinctly, determinedly English voice and lets it sing in a way that ultimately damns it.