Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Welcome to Myersworld: These Darkening Days and the Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, with detours to Glasgow and New York

I get my various Yorkshires confused: Leeds, where I went to buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee from a dealer in used police cars. Leeds, setting for Alan Plater’s magnificently, hilariously grim Beiderbecke Trilogy. There’s the David Peace/Red Riding /Damned United Yorkshire. Leeds again. Then you’ve got your Brontës and your Hughes and your Plath and your James Herriot. Wait, don’t diss The Herriot: veterinary doings have made Thirsk’s ‘World of Herriot’  one of the UK’s top visitor attractions. Haud me back. And then of course Harrogate, where I get my tea. Yorkshire Gold, the greatest argument against Scottish independence. 

If I ever travel to Yorkshire again, I will go mainly for Betty’s, and to see if Hebden Bridge is really the epicentre of rugged, hand-made-breeks bohemianism it portrays itself as. Or if it’s more like Sally Wainwright’s superlatively scary (and millstone-grit-hard) Happy Valley.

Thirsk is North Yorkshire, technically. Myersworld is West: The Upper Calder Valley, the Pennines, and yes, Hebden Bridge. Myersworld is mired in blood, mud, grimy mythology, twisted history, poverty, extreme rural violence - haplessly loyal dogs are ALWAYS under threat -  and sheer, grinding grimness. It reminds me a bit of RS Thomas’s bitter and gloomy hill farming Wales, but with a much older, dirtier religiosity.

Having read Myers’s other fiction - including the eye-wateringly fierce Pig Iron, the unforgiving Beastings, the intensely moving Richard, and his first venture into ‘rural noir’ genre fiction, Turning Blue (reviewed on Thrillfilter last year), I thought I was ready for anything this former specialist music press correspondent in black metal could throw at me. But I have to admit that the sex scene early in The Gallows Pole (pregnancy, lots of hydraulic detail) was, well, bracing. I can see the interactive display in Hebden Bridge’s World of Myers...no, on second thoughts, perhaps not.

The Gallows Pole tells the story - tackled in fiction previously - of the Cragg Vale Coiners, an episode in the inexorable move towards industrialisation in 1760s England, which saw a kind of rebel state of forgers and ‘coin clippers’ established in the Upper Calder Valley, led by the ruthless, brutal and charismatic ‘King’ David Hartley. The forces of modernity, symbolised by the building of a new turnpike road and the threat of mechanised looms, stand ready to invade the valley, and tax collector William Deighton is determined to stamp out the ‘yellow trade’ and bring Hartley to justice.

At first there’s a touch of the Cold Comfort Farms/Python’s You-Were-Lucky in the combination of ultra-grimness with some of Myers’s more poetic flights of descriptive writing: Is he entirely serious? I settled for seeing an element of very dark humour,  and once you get used to the style, which goes for mythic portentousness a little too often, the narrative’s inexorable momentum carries you along, albeit with some rather lumpy moments. Notably the pidgin dialect thoughts of Hartley himself, which preface each chapter, and fall into the trap (common in written Shetlandic, for example) of painstaking phoneticism. 

I was left with powerful flashbacks of some scenes, some I wish to retain, some I don’t, and a real sense of the central story’s contemporary political relevance. But my feeling - and to be fair, this isn’t reflected in other, almost universally enthusiastic reviews - is that this book, with its astonishing cover and great immersion in the details of an historical landscape, sees Myers allowing the fascinating source material, and the location, to overwhelm him and his characters.

I was, however, now thoroughly prepared for the sequel to Turning Blue, These Darkening Days, ‘the second Mace and Brindle novel’, which arrived not long after I’d finished The Gallows Pole. This is Modern Myersworld, set in an affectionately parodied Hebden Bridge, with its yurts and houseboats, prayer wheels, dreamcatchers and a gloriously right-on music venue where they won’t serve bottled water on ethical grounds, man.

Everything here, from the now-familiar landscapes to the description of life at the local newspaper and the behaviour of parachuted-in Sun reporters, is note perfect. Where Turning Blue had a tendency to sprawl, brilliantly, the economy and precision of These Darkening Days, and its flinty humour, takes this sequel onto a new level. And fascinatingly, like The Gallows Pole, it’s central plot - the whodunnit element - is based on local historical events.

Mace is an alcoholic, gay local hack, moved ‘down into the valley’ from his high moorland horrors in Turning Blue, living on an ex-hippy houseboat. Brindle, OCD-afflicted and unwilling to admit his desperate loneliness, is on long-term suspension following his meltdown as a result of the horrific events in that book. A local woman in ‘the Valley’ suffers an appalling knife assault, and as her background in amateur pornography and prostitution emerges, things spiral into bloody mayhem.

There is a convincing portrayal of the media in action, from the callous cruelty of YouTubing smartphone adolescents to the full panoply of ‘multimedia’ Sun teams and the slide into economic doom of local newspapers. But the book goes much further, delving into society’s hysterical  narcissism and the way its tendrils snake all the way back into myth, legend and half-forgotten community history. The lynch mob pursuing an almost-innocent boy (his life a twisted reflection of John-John’s in Pig Iron) could comprise the same gnarly characters who followed ‘King’ David in The Gallows Pole, along the same streets, in some of the same hostelries.

Perhaps there’s not quite enough Brindle. Maybe the final wrapping-up is bit too pat, but there’s no question that this is a superb piece of work which combines wonderfully fractured, eccentric characters (more of the transgender pathologist, I think, next time) a fantastic eye for landscape and great political and cultural insight. Good dog, too. It’s funny, brutal and properly thrilling. 

But that’s no way to skin a rabbit. When the school parties are touring Myersworld, they’ll need to be shown the unzipping method.

Meanwhile, back in my everyday world of research, I have been immersing myself in Glaswegian ‘true crime’, courtesy of memoirs by an assortment of detectives, criminals (mostly, but not all, with the aid of ghostwriters) and Reg McKay's (one of said ghostwriters) very odd and utterly compulsive McGraw: 'The Incredible Untold Story of Tam ‘The Licensee’ McGraw'. Featuring the wholly unappealing farting Rottweiler Zoltan, who comes to a very bad end.

Most of the slew of books I’ve been reading centre on the major Glasgow gangsters of the 70s, 80s and 90s - Walter Norval, Arthur Thompson, McGraw and the enigmatic Paul Ferris, with the pivotal event in the modern history of Glasgow crime undoubtedly the horrific 1984 arson attack on a house in the Ruchazie housing scheme, which killed six members of the Doyle family, part of the so-called Ice Cream Wars. 

McKay’s posthumous biography of McGraw contains so much torture, murder, rape, arson, abuse, drug dealing, betrayal, bombings and police corruption it makes Myersworld seems like Narnia after the Return of Aslan, and
Don Winslow’s New York epic The Force (powerful, but fatally undermined by its Spielbergian sentimentality and endless nods to The Sopranos, Serpico and The Godfather) like a Famous Five novel. 

When it comes to Glasgow, you quite literally could not make it up.

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