The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers
The title of Ben Myers’ latest novel reminded me of the Led Zep track of the same name on their third album. In the song, the protagonist’s attempts to delay the hangman from doing his ghastly duty until friends and family ride to the rescue come to naught. And likewise in Myers’ book, despite all the efforts of David Hartley’s family and extended gang, the self-styled King of the North cannot avoid the noose.
The book is based on a true story and tells of the Cragg Vale Coiners who operated in the Calderdale valley region of West Yorkshire. They collected coins, often using violence against those who refused to co-operate, and would remove their genuine edges, milling them down and collecting the shavings. From the shavings, they would make new coins which the gang would put into circulation again. As well as providing a modest return to the counterfeiters, the fake coins destabilised the local economy. Counterfeiting coins was a hanging offence and once the authorities got wise to what was going on, they took steps to eradicate the gang.
The story tells of how the authorities curtailed the gang’s operations and along the way we are treated to a tale of intrigue, violence, intimidation, betrayal and revenge. In some ways Myers would like us to see the gang in a rather idealistic light, bringing succour and money to the local communities who supported them and fighting against the imminent threat that industrialisation brings to their traditional way of life – the book is full of references to the factories that are on their way and the canal and turnpike that are to scar the landscape – but for me it was hard to get past the idea that they were just vicious thugs on the make.
Stylistically, the book has two narrative strands running through it. The main story is told in a third-party narrative and is well-paced. His description of the scenery brought the area, with which I am vaguely familiar, to life – a gloomy, desolate place where nature is elemental. There are some oddities though – Myers is a master of the convoluted simile and his frequent listings of all who turn up to meetings became as tiresome as those choruses that plague folk songs.
The other strand to the narrative is provided by italicised excerpts from David Hartley’s diary. That no such document exists is no matter. It enables us to get a sense of Hartley’s thoughts and despair as he realised that he has been betrayed and abandoned and a record of his indomitable spirit. For the reader, the phonetic, dialectical, unpunctuated stream of consciousness, whilst enlightening, proves hard going.
Myers’ tale is light on characterisation. I would have liked to have known more about William Deighton, or Dighton as he seems to have been in the historical records. What made him tick and why was he so determined to stamp out the coiners? At the very least, his ghastly end warranted that. And the most intriguing character is the rather ethereal Grace Hartley who has the good sense to stash some of the money away and after her hubby’s demise is able to move from the area and buy a new farm, cash on the nail. This is a man’s tale and, indeed a man’s world – women just serve the ale and provide sexual companionship – but it would have been nice to get things from her perspective.
All that aside, it is a riveting read and rather like the Zep song after a slow start it builds up to a crescendo. But I did miss the banjo!