The Yorkshire moors: wild and untameable. Land of the Brontës, Bram Stoker, Ted Hughes and David Hockney, that much I knew, until I read Ben Myers’ pungent and addictive novel, The Gallows Pole, about a forgotten chapter of history. King David Hartley of Bell House was the leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners, “whose brutality had put the fear in many and whose wicked practices had damaged the trade of the common man, but whose efforts had rewarded the brave too, and whose rumoured generosity had put clothes on the backs and food on the tables of the starved communities of the upper moorlands when everyone else had failed them.”
In the 1760s, Hartley ran “the yellow trade,” creating counterfeit coins, from his “gloomy sky palace” perched on the lawless upper moorlands — Sowerby Bridge and Halifax to the east; Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall to the west. A place apart, it is well away from a changing England where the “wheels of industry turn ever onwards and the trees are falling still. Last week I did chance to meet a man right down there in Cragg Vale who told me that soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and buildings and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money. This man — he told me this land around us was soon no longer to be our land but that of those who want to reap and rape and bind those of us whose blood is in the sod. They’re pulling it out from beneath our feet like a widow shaking out her clippy mat. He said he had it in writing. Said it was legally binding.”
Hartley’s coiners clip coins, milling the edges and melting them down to make “an extra coin per thirty” thereby scraping a little bit extra, over and above the pittance made from weaving and farming work. Forgery is a treasonous offence which will “get you hung by rope until your neck snaps and your body jerks and don’t they say you soil yourself when you’re dangling from that gallows pole? Your good wives left at home with nothing but the memory of a man who gave his life for a coin with which to buy a loaf an’ a jar and scratch-all else.”
The blunt urge to survive, and the rage at being ignored and abandoned by the lawmen and moneymen, are all-consuming. “They care nothing for the people of the valley like we do,” says Hartley as he steps up his illicit trade, bringing in the Alchemist from Bradford. The magic man will “clip and smelt until the pile is doubled.”
David Hartley is a Robin Hood figure, a leader. “It’s time to split the coins proper and make the money that’s ours. It’s time to clip a coin and fuck the crown. It’s time to let the bastards know that the only law is our law . . . Valley men fight and valley men sing and valley men bow to none . . . Fuck the king because you can be sure the king is already fucking you . . . A hand-loom in a wool loft never killed a child. Only the men from the cities with their stone cathedrals of mass production killed children.”
Fathers and brothers and sons and uncles come from everywhere with sacks of coins to get half the value back again on top. As the valley flows with gold, it’s boom time. Bellies are filled.
But pheasant-fattened William Deighton, “sole representative of the crown, tax collector for Halifax and its surrounds, excise-man and upholder of the law” is sent in to catch the bandits and put a stop to the lawlessness which blocks progress, and is “anti-empire, anti-monarchy, anti-government.” He is supported by an ambitious, young capitalist-in-the-making, Robert Parker. “My influence and resources are at your disposal, whispered the solicitor. I have the ears of powerful men; those who long ago divided up Yorkshire and took a big chunk each. Men of initiative. Forward thinkers and empire builders. They will help us.”
David Hartley and his men are rough and arrogant. They get greedy. Their bullying ways mocking the oafish son of the charcoal burner are their undoing, leading to the gallows where Dick Turpin swung, carrion for the crows, three decades earlier.
Thirteen years ago I read Myers’ The Book of Fuck and was blown away — here was a writer to be with reckoned with. To (re)discover him is exciting. He grapples with poverty, injustice and human suffering. His writing packs a visceral punch and is not for the faint-hearted. His descriptions of beatings and murders are to be relished — fan that I am of Richard Allen and Quentin Tarantino — and are beautifully rendered in poetic, unrelenting, muscular prose bringing alive acts of savage desperation.
Sitting reading about the moorlands in West London, I had a pronounced longing for the smell of rain and the earth and the call of the curlew as I read how “the stag is the life force of the moors just as fire is the life of forging,” and about “the kestrel and the hawk that hunt there and the hares that box there, and the clouds and the moon and the sun and everything that passes overhead.” I was reminded of the Franche Comté in the east of France where I partly grew up — borderlands independent of the French king until 1679 — where the wild men of the woods read the signs sent by Mother Nature and central authority was distrusted. Another lost world.
The Gallows Pole is ultimately about power, the disillusioned, and the making of a criminal. The god-fearing and law-abiding are no better than those whom they deem to be godless barbarians, living by their own kind of rough justice, at a time when “we lived as clans then. Under the trees when the trees were worshipped as Gods. Under the great rustling canopy. Tribal, like. Maybe a few of us still do. It was the way of the land then. You protected you and yours.”
Two hundred years on, we are going through another revolution: British industry is dead, its workers thrown on to the slag heap of history by the government, as a bright new digital age dawns, manned by drones, robots and tech-enabled systems of control. Meaning loadsa money for the few, and poverty for the many. Plus ça change.
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The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers | Bluemoose Books | 17 May, 2017 £9.99 360pp | ISBN: 978-1910422328 | e-book: B06ZZZFT46