A Review of Benjamin Myers’ The Gallows Pole
It took me quite a while to finish this one. It’s probably the book I read in the longest without giving up. Well, excluding reference works naturally. I bought this in a Waterstones on my first trip to London in July 2018. And it’s always had a bookmark in it somewhere. However, for the longest time, it remained my secondary read. Only after I had finished Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, I picked it up again and found it to be an actually enjoyable read, even though I had long since forgotten the introductory pages. Nevertheless, after that long hiatus this book grabbed me, and enthralled me into a world I’ve never once before considered.
The Physical Book
This is definitely not an especially well-crafted physical book, but it’s also not sloppy. The most striking thing about this relatively sturdy paperback is the striking colour palette of its cover design. One with which I really enjoyed working with for the artwork accompanying this review.
The Gallows Pole is set in the last years of the 1760s around Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, mostly in Cragg Vale and Mytholmyord in the Upper Calder Valley. And Benjamin Myers manages to paint a thoroughly engulfing picture of the Yorkshire moors and the villages, farmsteads, and towns within it. Without ever having been there, my mind could form a picture of the surrounding landscape and feel myself into a striking description balancing between the broad strokes and the little details.
The world Myers paints is a gritty and unforgiving one, but also one filled with glorious detail and thoroughly enticing descriptions especially of food, but also of the seasonal changes rolling over the moor. It’s the writing of a writer who is fundamentally familiar with the landscape they are describing and has done their research to form a vivid picture of life in a long-ago time, right before the onset of the industrial revolution finding its way into the small valleys of northern England.
In The Gallows Pole, Myers tells, as the epigraph reminds us, The True Story of King David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners. The story told centres around two groups of people, one one hand the Coiners i.e. farmers and workers in the Upper Calder Valley, on the other hand, the exciseman William Deighton and the Solicitor Robert Parker of Halifax working to bring the coiners to justice for defacing the currency of the land.
These two groups are a great contrast, both morally questionable at times, both morally upright in other times. As a reader, my sympathy often changed sides. Sometimes fevering with the Coiners or Clippers and their families, sometimes with those coiners around James Broadbent, who chose to become turncoats, and sometimes with the exciseman William Deighton himself. Myers really did a great job of moving the narrative focus from one to the other.
The most striking downfall of the characters of this book is their lack of diversity. And yes I know, especially with writing based on historical sources, getting a picture of for example women’s lives is often a hard task, fraught with its own trappings, but I don’t think this book would really pass the Bechdel Test.
Several years and seasons elapse during the unfolding of the story of the Turvin clippers, as the Cragg Vale Coiners are also called. As such the book is divided into seven parts each detailing the happenings within a season from spring 1767 to 1770, with the epilogue jumping forward to 1775. It’s a varied plot, with turns and climaxes, with sexual abuse and murder, but also with harvest feasts and drinking bouts. Detailed descriptions of food follow similarly detailed descriptions of death.
The book is slow to start and even with a year to forget the first few pages of this book, I didn’t really miss them, nor can I in hindsight really figure out how they fit into the general plot except possibly as setting the mood. After that slow start, however, I found the plot thoroughly captivating and felt the cold of the night giving me cover as I travelled through the moor in the hope of securing a better future for myself as James Broadbent did.
I think the writing of The Gallows Pole is its most striking asset. Rarely, have I felt as drawn in into an environment, rarely have I felt my mouth watering as much at the descriptions of food and drink, and rarely have I felt the cold wind of the night so intensely on my skin as when I read this book. I could go on, but suffice it to say, the descriptions are just very enthralling.
Noteworthy is how the narration of the book is interspersed with King David Hartley’s own account of events, often disagreeing with the narration on details of his nefarious dealings. I don’t exactly know how much of these accounts is fiction. I presume most of them are, but they are held in a very different style to the rest of the narration, imitating the local dialect and sociolect of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Sometimes that makes them challenging to decipher, but especially if you’ve found your way into them, they offer a great contrast to the normal narration of this book.
Additionally, ever so often especially as the noose tightens around the neck of the Turvin Clippers, Myers adds a quotation or an excerpt of source material into his writing, even more so, breaking up the flow of narration with contrasts.
I don’t know to whom I should recommend this book. It’s definitely a captivating read, well at least after the first few pages, but it’s also a heavy read, and dark at times. If you’re interested, be warned. This book isn’t always easy to stomach, but it rewards the reader with a lush landscape of fascinating descriptions and at least I am a sucker for detail. I just love the power with which the details of this story enveloped me, but I understand that such a level of detail might not be for everyone, and is often a point of contention if I discuss books with other readers.
I think if I had to finish this review with a sentence, I would just repeat the advice of the bookseller I bought this book from almost two years ago in London, “It’s a good choice.”