I’m a bit slow arriving at the party to celebrate the genius of Benjamin Myers, and shame on me given he lives about 15 miles away as the crow flies. But this is good. Seriously good.
Set in the pre-industrial revolution Calder valley – there are dark mutterings about “mills the size of cathedrals” that will come and eat up all the work, and about children being put to work that will stunt and kill many of them, there’s even talk of a canal – where self-styled “King” David Hartley and his family and mob of “coiners” or “coin-clippers” rule. Living in a farm on the moors above Mytholmroyd from where they can see along the valley and from they reach down to punish those they see as working against them and to reward the families and businesses ‘under their care’, some kind of early days Mafia or Peaky Blinders. There is no spare sentiment and the violence of some of the exchanges might make some blanche.
The characters are brilliantly realised, the harsh logic of people brought up hard and grabbing what they can while it is there, willing to defend it with everything they have. The Hartleys, especially King David are brute grotesques, stomping around the moors killing anything in their way, seeing visions of “stagmen” which David sees as ill-starred, but also demonstrating largesse when the mood takes him. The blood of people of the valley and of the moor pulses with the rhythms of nature, its moods.
“But then he was aware that he was not alone, He felt himself watched. Felt a gaze upon him.
David Hartley turned and looked to the trees. To the wall of green. He felt another heartbeat nearby. A heartbeat and blood. Hot blood. Close. The pulse of something living.”
As well as being a tale of brutality it is also a fable on capitalism and the class system in this country, which are both of course tales of brutality, just differently writ. The men of the moors resent the wealthy, their entitlement and see no earthly reason why they should pay to fatten geese for the table of the King of England or his swarm of aristocrat leeches. In the end “the law” is brought to bear, but it is “their law” and it is only exercised through deviousness, duplicity and by buying testimony. The local exciseman and young lawyer who set about bringing the family and their business down are never sympathetic characters: we know where Myers’ sympathies lie.
The main character of the novel, lording it over everyone and everything, is the land of “Jorvikshire” and its doom-laden weather…the rain, the wind and the sleet. The moorlands are vast as oceans, filled with treacherous mires and dark wooded rifts. The people are always drenched, the cobbles slippery under ice, the crops and the sheep are wind-blasted, the skies heavy. This writing is atmospheric, poetic and speaking as someone who has lived here a while, true.
Buy the book and read it before someone makes a film / TV series out of it.
I’ll finish with a reasonably lengthy quote that summarises the book well. It comes from one of the coiners, Absalom Butts, at a meeting when King David has told his men that there are people conspiring to bring them down and there is a rat amongst them…
“The moors are ours and the woods are ours he said. And the marshes are ours and the sky is ours and the fire is ours and the forge is ours. The night is ours and the means are ours and the moulds are ours and the metal is ours and the coins are ours and the crags are ours and this grand life in the dark world is ours.
It was more words than most of them had heard him speak at any one time…
…and these mill men with their new machines…I will smash every one of them. And after that I will break every waterwheel, every spindle. I’ll fill their foundations with rocks. I’ll poison their ponds and burn their horses from fetlock to mane. I’ll fuck their womenfolk and fuck them again. This valley is your valley, King David. And I will protect it from the bastard scheming offcumdens,”