‘They had the violence running those generations like a coal seam in the northern soil’ – Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers

Recently released from prison John-John is housed on a run-down housing estate, working in an ice-cream van and disconnected from the society and life around him. It’s the late 1990’s and after five years in prison John-John has emerged into a world of mobile phones and a feeling that the people around him are “like they’ve fast forwarded themsels into the future and left me to try and make sense of it all.” 

Benjamin Myers writes in John-John’s voice; that of a traveller in Durham, an accent that has little in common with that of Brad Pitt’s traveller in the Guy Ritchie movie Snatch. John-John is the son of the legendary Mac Wisdom, one of “the knuckle men” (bare-knuckle boxers), and bears the emotional scars of his violent childhood that have made him an outsider even to his own people: “a traveller who’s never bloody travelled”. He is happy only when he is alone with the natural world, “the fields me theme parks and the woodlands me beautiful green cathedral.” Since the Industrial Revolution pantheism has always been the author’s favourite way to indicate the alienation felt by the proletariat.

The reader is immersed in John-John’s character and world, his ancestry as one of the Wisdoms, a family “cursed with the wickedness since the days of Cromwell… they had the violence running those generations like a coal seam in the northern soil.” John-John’s self-awareness, the violence of his past and brittle awareness of the degradation of everything and everyone he encounters is powerfully expressed and impossible to escape. The world that Myers depicts is one that is damned with elements of every news story that would have the ’Daily Mail’ agog, child abuse, incest, violence (John-John’s pride in his employment and refusal to live on benefits, though, would make him an ambivalent hero for the ’Mail’ reading classes.)

It’s admirable that Myers could create such a wholly realistic character, and his ability to maintain John-John’s distinctive voice is impressive (its authenticity I’ll leave to the more informed to judge.)  On the whole it is Celtic writers, Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths and, the presiding spirit of them all, James Kelman who have vividly represented previously excluded voices in literature. Yet they include a large dose of humour in the creation of their underclass. Myers replaces humour with the sort of unrelenting bleakness (every plot twist leads further into the ‘heart of darkness’ of a housing estate on the outskirts ofDurham) that can only be compared to Eastenders. The conclusion of the novel owes something to the example of the first Rambo movie as John-John finally abandons the modern world and walks off to live alone in the countryside. 

Any Cop?:  It’s gripping, distinctive, conveying the thoughts and language of a convincing character but, at times, cinematic clichés are relied on to drag it forward. It’s more Shane Meadows than James Kelman.

James Doyle

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