Book Review – The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

Myer’s award winning work of historical fiction (collecting both The Walter Scott Prize and The Roger Deakin Award) has been on the radar for a while. Despite this, we just haven’t got around to buying it.

We do buy plenty books. Lots of books. Piles of books. We always read these books of course. But there’s no denying, we do buy a lot of books.

‘We’ being my wonderful lady wife of course. My partner in life, my soul mate, my (literal) running buddy and, naturally, the other member of our two person book club.

So why hasn’t Benjamin Myers featured before now?

Well, it has come to my attention that there are some very organised book lovers who keep meticulous lists of books they intend to read. We’re not like that. We often start these lists but then forget where. Then we start the lists again but forget what was on the first list. Better still, the one place we definitely don’t take the lists is to the book shop when we have a buying spree.

Despite The Gallows Pole regularly appearing on my list, it had never quite made it into the basket. We do get distracted when we’re buying books.

This spring we saw the error of our ways and The Gallows Pole duly arrived in a lockdown book bundle. We both devoured it in rapid succession.

And here’s why.

It is a brutal, forceful telling of the story of the Crag Valley Coiners. On the Yorkshire moors, this 18th century gang were involved in the escalation of ‘coining’. Coins of the realm were clipped and these clippings melted down before being formed into new coins.

The gang were led by their self acclaimed king, David Hartley, and his family. They oversaw the ‘coining’ operation and had a ring of protection which demanded respect from the men who followed him and were happy to use whatever means necessary to keep their highly illegal and secretive work secure.

Settle your nerves before tucking into this. I found myself wincing and occasionally having to look away from the page as Hartley and his henchmen meter out punishment for disloyalty and violence towards any outsiders who might try to puncture the inner circle. Or on one occasion, an innocent bodger who stumbled into their territory and had too much to say whilst enjoying the wares of the ale house.

The bodger fell as the fists and clogs came. A hail of them. He was stamped and kicked down into the trees. Down and out of sight into the crisp dead leaves. Absolum Butts and Brian Dempsey and Paul Taylor said nothing as they thumped and pounded and worked and grunted and clumped and punched and slugged and sweated

(a ‘bodger’ was not an unskilled tradesmen, more someone who could turn and create with wood)

The industrial revolution was coming and the families found their moorland way of life threatened by the automation of their skills, particularly weaving. These truths, alongside the constant threat of the gallows if a coiner they to be caught, drive the pace of this bitter and desperate tale.

I found I tuned in quickly to the clipped and percussive pace of the dialogue. Myers creates a mercenary streak in the coiners but the violence he portrays, the dominant force with which the Hartleys keep their gang in line, appear to be justified by the carnage which is coming the way of the moors. The exciseman, Deighton, is the government’s envoy, tasked with hunting down, and catching in the act, the coiners. The book delves into the psyche of both Deighton and Hartley as they seem as hell bent on destroying each other as they do achieving whatever their version of ‘right’ is.

The book is absolutely a page turner. Sometimes the narrative bullies you from page to page. I found, even when dosing off reading, I would rush to splash water on my face in order to come back and have just one more page.

The research appears to have been extensive, the life that the lower classes in rural England lived was hard. So why wouldn’t they have pursued their illicit skills in an attempt to protect their families’ futures from the onrushing changes of the 18th century?

By creating (David) Hartley’s fictional prison memoirs, produced sporadically throughout the story, Myer’s has produced something which resonates on a deeply personal level. These memoirs are written as they might have been spoken, full of inconsistencies and Yorkshire slang. They add welcome pauses to the frenetic pace of the novel. There are subtle moments of dark humour, such as David reflecting on how he winds up his fellow prisoners with his singing and shouting.

An so I showts out I shout Get a wash yer blacc Lancastreen bustuds becors even tho the most of them is Jórvíkshire men lyke myself its bestst way to get theyr blud and piss boilin

Like much of my reading in these strange times, the bitter divisions, societal changes and personal tragedies resonate with all that is ill in the world today. Changes come and those that resist might have their moment of standing strong or delaying the inevitable, but at the coiners’ level, society was fragile and constantly in danger breaking.

I’d normally baulk at historical fiction but was enthralled, obsessed and appalled by this and regularly found myself reading it while cooking, on the ‘phone, walking to the compost bin…….

I’d heartily recommend you let this book muscle its way into your psyche and challenge you. And I’d be interested to know if you too found the words giving you shivers worthy of the cold damp Yorkshire moors and the dark secrets they harbour.