BEN MYERS talks to NEIL MUDD about The Gallows Pole, his brilliant retelling of the brutal rise and fall of ‘King’ David Hartley and the Crag Vale Coiners. Just don’t call it a historical novel.
When the editor at his London publishers told him he should stop writing about Northerners, Ben Myers realised his days with the firm were numbered. “You’re part of a much bigger machine,” says the Durham-born author when we meet at the Old Gate in Hebden Bridge to talk about new novel The Gallows Pole. “Your book has a shelf-life of about six weeks and if it’s not selling, they’re onto the next thing.”
The author found himself in limbo with a new novel all ready for publication (Pig Iron, a gritty coming of age story set in the North-East), but no publishing deal. “I wanted to get it out there because it was about travellers and gypsies. [At the time] there were a lot of travellers in the news and on the telly in documentaries.”
That was five years ago. Luckily Kevin Duffy’s esoteric imprint Bluemoose Books stepped in: “Kevin’s a bit like P. T. Barnum: he’s good at talking the talk,” says Myers. “He re-mortgaged his home to fund it, so when someone’s done that, you know there’s a level of commitment.” Pig Iron went on to win the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize in 2013. Reviewing it in The Guardian, Cathi Unsworth praised Myers for his ‘poetic vernacular’ and ‘humanity’.
Myers has remained with Bluemoose for his latest book. The Gallows Pole is a brilliantly realised fiction – rooted in visceral truth – about the rise and fall of the Crag Vale Coiners and their charismatic leader, ‘King’ David Hartley. Well-documented locally in non-fiction books and on websites, the gang captained the Calder Valley for a brief period during the 18th Century. Myers became aware of their activities some years ago. “The story of the Coiners is just so interesting and so dramatic. It feels like such an English story, but it hasn’t really been done justice. Why isn’t it more widely known?”