Over the last few years Benjamin Myers’ writing has taken various forms. There have been grimly realistic crime novels, nature writing and his triumphantly successful The Offing (best described by comparing it favourably to J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country). Male Tears brings together his short stories with his familiar setting of northern England, its moors and housing estates, and while there are sentences, and paragraphs, that could have come from his novels, they add something to his developing themes and concerns. As David Peace points out, Myers is becoming one of the “crucial voices of our times” so it’s always good to see new writing from him.
Despite the title, the most emotionally intense and affecting of the stories focuses on a woman. ‘An English Ending’ describes a woman who succumbs to years of marriage to an abusive man: “A final release of pressure, years of it… Messy, yet contained. An English ending.” A running theme is how often endings come through violence. Destruction, whether the violence of men or the indifference of nature, is always present here for violence, in all its forms, is natural: “Retribution was as inevitable as the turning of the leaves.” This is a fictional world where the natural order cannot be denied, even if “beyond the wheat fields were more estates where once there had been old parish villages devoted to the mining of coal.” The order once found is the past and in nature has gone, and Myer’s concern with technology and its threat on the natural world, and the changing landscape, are threaded throughout these stories. Once the order of the natural world goes, many stories suggest, there is nothing to replace it: “the new homes with their trimmed lawns and streets that went nowhere but back in on themselves surely signalled the slow death of agriculture.”
It is the variety of Myers’ writing, within the limits of its northern setting, that is most obvious from these stories. There are stories that are based on throwaway ideas, such as the entertaining ‘Saxophone Solos’, where a middle-aged novelist leaves his wife for a younger woman and fears that “he was now facing a fate worse than death: a possible return to journalism.” The humour, and the trail of clues that make it easy to guess who is being fictionalised, is a treat. A music journalist is gently mocked in ‘The Folk Song Singer’ alongside another emotionally gripping portrait of a woman. Myers presents character studies of men who could have appeared in his novels in ‘Old Ginger’ and Bomber’, but the vividness of his characterisation and his descriptive rhythms bring what could have been portraits left adrift from fictional life into vividly evoked communities, “You’d know Ginger’s face if you’d ever clocked him: wind-worn and a head half bald, the rest of it crowned by a frayed red mane.”
However, the best story here is ‘The Bloody Bell’. A group of northern men, “one of the most feared beasts of the northlands,” drag a bell along Hadrian’s Wall while in the background the Roman Empire, and its “Men of the Emperor’s wall”, leave Britain. There is a story, ‘The Whip Hand’, where a family who own a fun-fair (and other, more criminal, enterprises) force a group of men to drag granite blocks up a hill to build a memorial in woods “as still and hallowed a space as a cathedral.”
In ‘The Folk Song Singer’, the music journalist is initially shocked to see someone he has grown up with, “that disconnected sense of being faced with someone so utterly familiar yet completely unknown: an intimate stranger.” That captures the impression left by reading Male Tears, each story seems familiar with Myers’ perennial themes and setting yet several have a sense of freedom (the author released into the joyful frolic of the short story for the day) that is a joy to read.
Any Cop?: Everything Benjamin Myers writes is worth reading and these short stories especially so. A few, ‘The Bloody Bell’ and ‘Ten Men’, should appear in anthologies in the years ahead while all demonstrate Myers’ sensitive mastery of his fictional world, “this was her valley; it was all she had known or might ever know.”