Book Corner – June 2017 (1)

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!


Swaggering Giants


Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin

Was it really forty years ago that I bought my copy of Zep’s Physical Graffiti from Andy’s record stall on Cambridge market? I can still remember the excitement of getting it back to my college rooms, assembling some mates for the grand inaugural hearing, cranking up the volume and sitting back to enjoy the full range of sonic mayhem that the album delivered.

Physical Graffiti was almost a victim of the physical constraints of the recording formats available at the time – vinyl. For those of you too young to remember the joys of vinyl, seemingly regaining popularity as a medium I hear, a side lasted around twenty minutes – just enough time to feel nicely relaxed and then you would have to get up again to change the record over, a dangerous exercise late in the night as many scratches will testify.

Anyway, Zep recorded 55 minutes of material originally, enough for a CD these days, but only about three sides of vinyl. So they hit upon the bright idea of expanding the record to a double album by using some of their material which missed the cut for earlier albums to pad it out to the requisite length. And of course the 40th anniversary triple CD set has padded out the monster even further by including the obligatory outtakes and early versions of the songs.

The opening track of the first side, Custard Pie, sets the scene showing that the band means to take no prisoners. All the trademark Zep features are there – John Paul Jones’ pounding bass and John Bonham’s brutal drumming setting up the platform for Jimmy Page’s mesmerising guitar and Robert Plant’s vocal pyrotechnics.

Kashmir shows the band at their most bombastic, mixing orchestral backing with pseudo-eastern effects and no other band but them could carry it off. My favourite track always was In My Time Of Dying which is a heavy metal blues number in which the opening few minutes give the impression of a band cranking up for the final aural assault.

Trampled Under Foot, another favourite, shows off Jones’ bass virtuosity well giving what is a heavy metal tune a very funky feel. Black Country Woman has some brilliant harmonica work from Page and  stomping, quasi-military, drumwork from Bonham. There are a couple of tracks that seem somewhat out of place – the beautiful folky Bron-Yr-Aur with Page on acoustic guitar, an off cut from the sessions for their third album, the country rock number, Down By The Seaside, and one weak track, Boogie with Stu.

Inevitably, the original album has been remixed and remastered by Page and it does sound sharper and fuller, but that may be because I am playing it on far superior reproduction equipment. And I’m blowed if I can find much difference between the final versions and the outtakes but that may just be me.

One of the glories of the original album was the record sleeve and artwork which loses its impact, inevitably, in the more condensed format of the CD. Still you still have the pictures of people and letters which you can align with the cut out windows of the rather grim building, if you feel the need.

Many claim this to be the greatest double album ever. That may be so but what is very clear is that this is a powerful group at their height. Hearing it again after so many years reminds me how vapid and ephemeral so much of the music that has been produced since really is. This is a monster album from a monster of a group at their swaggering best.

The Song Doesn’t (Quite) Remain The Same


Lullaby and.. the Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant

Led Zep – now there was a band. Powerful vocals, astonishing guitar licks backed by a rock steady rhythm section combined with the pomposity that only heavy rock in the late 60s and early 70s was capable of and, off stage, living the rock ‘n roll lifestyle – groupies, industrial quantities of drugs and gratuitous hotel vandalism. Of course, Zeppelin shamelessly ripped off the old Blues artists but we didn’t know at the time and, frankly, didn’t care. Their music was as exciting as it got.

Having sat on the top of rock’s Mount Olympus and not crashed and burned like some of your contemporaries and, alas, band members, where do you go from there? Plant, at least, has used his financial freedom and deep love of roots music (horrible phrase but is shorthand to describe Blues, Bluegrass and African musical influences, to name just three) to continue his musical experimentation and to resist the siren calls (and easy pay days) of a reunion with Page. Astonishingly, Lullaby and… is his tenth solo album, although his first in four years, and a cracker it is too.

His voice is still there – unlike some he doesn’t disguise the ravages of age by drowning his voice with backing singers – but, understandably, we don’t get the range and pyrotechnics of the Plant in his pomp. The band, the Sensational Space Shifters are more than just a pick-up band of session players – they seem to have an affinity with Plant’s vision and are allowed space to develop and embellish the musical ideas. Some of the aural twiddling and doodling supplied, I imagine, by the former Portishead duo can be a bit irritating at times but the fusion of African instrumentation – principally the Gambian musician Juldeh Camara’s ritti, a one stringed instrument producing a sound midway between a violin and a clarinet – enriches the sound.

On one level this is identi-kit Led Zep – repackaging roots music for a contemporary audience – but on another it shows an artist willing to experiment and push out the boundaries and, for once, write his own material. For me the best tracks are the first two – Little Maggie and Rainbow – but there isn’t a duff one in the eleven. Embrace Another Fall is the nearest to a Zep track with the guitarist, Liam Tyson, itching to recreate the killer riffs

Whilst deserving of a careful listen – each time I play it I find and pick up on hidden nuggets I had missed before – it also works as ambient music. If you judge music on a Dinner Party What the F**k is that scale – 10 being the wonderful Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (music for which the MP3 player was designed for) and 1 being the Essential Hits of Neil Diamond, this definitely falls into the middle range. Nothing wrong with that and we should be grateful that Plant has survived and is still able to make wonderful music.