Winner of The 2018 Walter Scott Prize
…. and winner of Lizzy’s ugliest cover of 2017 award, because, seriously, have you ever seen anything as ugly as this?
Admittedly, there is detail missing from the digital image, until you expand it. The two coins in the eye sockets of the dark, brooding character, do improve the cover, but only marginally, even if they are entirely relevant to the tale at hand.
Self-professed “King” David Hartley was the man at the helm of the Cragg Valley Coiners. Milling the royal king’s coin to produce counterfeit coinage from the millings, Hartley distributed the resulting wealth among the impoverished weaving communities in the Calder Valley. As a result the late C18th was a time of plenty for many – relatively speaking. Putting food on the table and clothing on their children’s backs was sufficient for many. Hartley and his gang had free rein for a time, the remoteness of their location a key factor. Yet, while he would have liked to see himself as some kind of benevolent Robin Hood, was that in fact the case?
There’s much realism in Myers’s telling. The opening scene in which a young lad is making his way to Bell House, Hartley’s residence on the top of the hill, to deliver coins from his master for milling, is fraught with foreboding. On his way he meets “his first dead body, swinging from the gibbet high up on Beacon Hill”. Then he is intercepted by an older youth, one of Hartley’s lookouts. Strangers are not welcome in these parts, and the lad needs all his wits to survive the encounter.
The message is clear. Hartley controls this area, and those who live, do so only with his tolerance. All are expected to contribute coins for the milling; those who don’t are made to see sense. Hartley has his gang of bully boys to dish out the harsh treatment that is sometimes necessary. But, as is the way with all tyrants, he sows the seeds of his own downfall. He may despise his bully boys, but it is a fatal mistake to show it and breed resentment.
Hartley’s operation is so successful that it eventually comes to the attention of the authorities, who believe it a threat to the stability of the economy. The new excise officer, William Deighton, is determined to destroy the racket. He knows how to tap into the resentment that incubates in one of Hartley’s men, and he scores an early success with the arrest of Hartley himself. That he pays for it with his life is no spoiler, it is an historical fact. At which point the stakes are raised. Suddenly the authorities take a zero tolerance approach. Rewards are offered …
… and foul deeds become even fouler. The murder of William Deighton is not the most shocking in these pages. Look up the murder of Abraham Ingham, an incomer who thought out loud about sharing information for the reward. Myers’s description of this foul act not only puts you in the room, but in the body of the man being killed. But brutality isn’t the preserve of the coiners. To return to the gibbet in the opening pages – Myers describes exactly what happens to a corpse hung in an iron suit, and the psychological terror it induced in the general population.
The novel has two narrative styles: a traditional third person omniscient, and extracts from the fictitious prison journals of King David Hartley. These are a challenge to read. Hartley is trying to create his own legend. He uses olde worldee phonetic spelling, possibly to transport his story back to the time of myth, or, as is more likely, because he was uneducated. What is without doubt though is that he can cuss along with the best. Now normally this would be an absolute turn-off for me, but, here I am prepared to forgive. Can you really expect anything other that pure earthiness from an C18th godfather, and, as Michael Stewart taught me last year, the c-word was an everyday expletive of the time.
Talking of earthiness, The Gallows Pole was granted a Roger Deakin grant for nature writing. Quite rightly – there are some stunning descriptions of the West Riding of Yorkshire, attesting to the author’s deep love of the county. He also subtly supports the idea of Hartley’s myth-making with passages of lyrical repetition, rendering his prose almost balladic. It is an absorbing, intoxicating mix; one which acknowledges the legend, but tempers it with the brutal, thuggish and sometimes stomach-churning reality.