The Gallows Pole is the latest in Benjamin Myers’ alternative history of the north, another mapping of the identity of those who live on the moors and fells. Much of the power of his previous novels (especially in the earlier novel Beastings) lay in their use of the trappings of historical fiction, most prominently in description that draws on seemingly archaic language that is perfectly judged for evoking a unique, forbiddingly non-conformist, landscape. The Gallows Pole is the first of Myers’ novels to be based on recorded historical events, a ring of counterfeiters who lived in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley in the late eighteenth-century led by ‘King’ David Hartley.
Hartley is “a moorman of the hills”, another of Myers’ protagonists to live “by their old ways and by their own rules”. Hartley is a combination of Gerrard Winstanley and Robin Hood. His crimes are an assertion of identity as much as a means to help his people survive against his social betters, the enemy, “they do not give a fuck about us hill-dwellers in their palaces down in London.” The joy, and power, of Myers’ writing has always been its weight of tradition, a delight in the excavation of language to give it vivid contemporary life. The Gallows Pole gives him the opportunity to unleash a thesaurus of eighteenth-century language, the extent of Yorkshire swearing is worth reading the novel alone: “the coining lads of Cragg Vale are nothing but hackums and hectors. Bouncers and merry-begotten bastards ourselves. Dung-dwellers and needy-mizzlers.” The flow of such language not only gives an air of authenticity, at times it becomes a prose folk-song, but pulls the reader into this community, the clan of the Calder Valley that surrounds and protects its King.
In counterfeiting currency Hartley and his gang destabilise the local economy, attracting the attention of the authorities from “that London” and the tireless attention of a local excise officer, William Deighton. King David Hartley is all too aware of the threat he poses to “men of wealth and privilege,” as well as understanding that he stands in the way of the approach of the Industrial Revolution. Those who mean to exploit the Calder Valley to establish “mills the size of cathedrals” will condemn Hartley’s people to lives of poverty and meaningless labour, they will become victims of industrialisation. Throughout The Gallows Pole there is a political undercurrent, a sense of the tradition of English radicalism from the Diggers of the English Civil War to the echo of Woody Guthrie in Hartley’s assertion: “this land belongs to no men an all men.” The Gallows Pole builds to King David’s inevitable end, but his resistance keeps alive those older values (captured in Hartley’s own, idiosyncratically spelt, words), “miths like paths you see are made by the passing of tyme”.
Any Cop?: The seriousness, and consistency of vision, found in Myers’ work deserves a much wider readership. Like a Yorkshire Cormac MacCarthy he is establishing a mythic North of the mind.