Saturday, April 07, 2018

Ill-gotten gains

In The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers tells the little-known tale of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a bunch of manual labourers (some skilled weavers, some unskilled farmhands) brought together in eighteenth-century Yorkshire by the charismatic David Hartley to forge coins. Hartley assumes the title "King", being perceived by both himself and many others as a beneficent local surrogate for a real monarch. This Robin Hood type figure and his gang provide for the impoverished local people what they are denied by the Establishment.

And yet there is no simple romanticising of Hartley's legend: his "rule" is often marked by violence, his methods often brutal, inevitably breeding fear and mistrust and creating enemies as well as friends. The novel charts the grim demise of the Coiners through bitter betrayals, complacent hubris and drunken braggadocio, opposition from those aggrieved at the forgers' destabilising of the local economy, and the increasing attention of doggedly determined representatives of the law.

Myers, a former NME and Kerrang! writer, recounts the extraordinary story with gripping and visceral intensity. The depth of his archival research is evident, as is his passion for the subject and close affinity with the landscape in which the novel is set (Myers himself lives in the Upper Calder Valley) - which isn't to deny the power of imagination necessary to piece together a narrative from scant source material and to bring historical events to often disturbingly vivid life.

Myers allows Hartley to address the reader directly through memoirs written in prison, on occasion taking issue in a nicely metafictional way with the novel's "official" version of events. These interludes, however, also underline that Hartley is delusional and superstitious, and therefore hardly a reliable narrator himself. Just as he finds that he cannot control those theoretically under his command, neither can he control the way that his story is told.

If the narrative is unmanageable, then the environment is arguably even more so. As a frequent visitor to this part of the world, I'm familiar with the dark, wet valleys and inhospitable hilltops and moorland. So richly evocative are Myers' descriptions of the wild landscape and untameable weather that they are arguably the novel's most dominant protagonists, rather than Hartley. In a manner strikingly reminiscent (to this former D H Lawrence scholar, at least) of the early pages of The Rainbow, Myers depicts a pre-industrial world in which the people are intimately and inextricably linked to both the land and the cyclical rhythm of the seasons.

However, The Gallows Pole is also fascinating as a historical fiction in its acknowledgement that, at the time at which the novel is set, these linkages were starting to break. It takes place against the wider backdrop of the emerging Industrial Revolution, which brought new roads, canals and mills to the area and fundamentally shifted the relations between workers, their land and their labours. Hartley initially unites the Coiners with a rallying cry that urges retaliation against the Establishment and resistance against the economic and social forces of industrialism, but later becomes resigned to the inexorable momentum of fate and history.

One final thought: as a very visual and episodic novel, The Gallows Pole would seem ideal base material for a film. I'm envisaging John Hillcoat directing, a screenplay by Nick Cave (or maybe just Myers himself - there's not much that would need doing, really) and Paddy Considine in the role of Hartley. Here's hoping.

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