The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers
Earlier this year, 2022, I came across this book while visiting my brother in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, England. The book was the talk of the town. Because it was about their history and their valley; the steep, damp, leafy Calder Valley.
I asked, in the pub, about the book and one of my brother’s friends gave me a mysterious, sideways look, added a slight smile, and said, “There aren’t many women in it.” And he was so right. This is what you might call a thoroughly “masculine” book. There is head-on cruelty and violence. There is raw fear, raw hunger and raw hatred. There is exploitation, murder and economic desperation. There are passages I simply decided to skip over.
So why would I suggest you read this book?
For a start it is beautifully written, and by a poet. Here is the opening passage:
“Soot and Ash. Snot and Spume.
Quag and sump and clotted moss.
The boy left the river and the village behind him and he felt the valley tighten as he turned up the track and the trees curled in around him and over him. Pulled him in.
In to dell and dingle. Gulch and gully. Mulch and algae. England”
Ah, the locals are thinking, we know exactly where you are. Here is the industrial history, the ever-present water, the shade-loving vegetation, the narrow paths, the romance of nature opening out, the accumulated detritus underfoot; all that we will step into right outside the walls of this pub.
Secondly, because it’s a slice of local history, based on the exploits, and ultimate demise, of a family of “coiners”; people who clipped and forged gold coins. It tells of their hardness, shrewdness and violence. It also tells of their desperate, edge-of-existence lives as weavers. And it integrates the local perspective into the wider economic picture. Debasing currency harms legitimate trade. An excise man’s job is to uphold the law and support the economy. And it is an excise man’s persistence that finally ends the coining and the temporary ascendancy of those involved in the enterprise. This is an economy that will soon be fundamentally changed by the advent of those sooty mills hinted at in the opening words, which still dominate the river Calder and its tributary streams, although the soot has gone.
The story is set in the 1760’s and parts of the book are written in the form of a confession by the main character, David Hartley, in a version of semi-educated, rural seventeenth-century English. This can be hard. I suggest sounding out the words in your head. It’s worth it. It gets you close to this character’s opinion of himself as a latter-day Robin Hood.
And thirdly? Precisely because of those “masculine” qualities mentioned above. For that hard look at the human condition and human cruelty. For that hard look at how the lowliest in society are exploited, and how they are cut down if they escape from their subjugation. And at how they sometimes seek to improve their own lot by exploiting others.
If you like dense, poetic language, the evocation of nature and tough realities then The Gallows Pole is for you.
(Or if you live in Calder Valley, but then you’ve probably already read it).