Books: The Gallows Pole – Ben Myers

Historical fiction, based on the real activities of the Craggvale Coiners in 18th Century Yorkshire, England. A gloomy, grimy, and sodden tale, this story looks at how the criminal gang saw themselves, and how, in turn, the forces of justice saw them.

In a written style that I found unusual at first, before embracing it for the value it added, the book presents the bare face of poverty in rural Yorkshire of 1760s, setting the body-breaking work of the manual weaving community in contrast to the encroaching industrial revolution. A slow and inevitable event, it promises to bring change to the region even as it eliminates what little wealth the villages can accrue through their own laborious works.

In this time, and this place, a criminal counterfeit gang operated out of Cragg Vale, clipping tiny slices from the edge of coins and smelting them together to form new ones. In the story, this helps to generate local wealth as suddenly there is more financial prosperity and money to be spent. Questions of currency devaluation are far past the concerns of the locals. It helps the gang see themselves as part of the community, breaking the laws of a distant and aloof government to help their own people. Certainly, the main protagonist, David Hartley, is seen throughout the novel as ‘King’ David Hartly. The local entrepreneur, source of new wealth, criminal baron, and dangerous thug.

On the side in opposition to David Hartley is the lawman William Deighton. Both characters are entirely real historical figures who were, indeed, to cross paths. Sent to investigate growing awareness of this criminal gang, Deighton investigates, finds, and exploits weaknesses in the men of the Craggvale Coiners. In extracting aid and confessions his system of law does not play entirely fair but, then, his opposition isn’t kind-hearted either. As the pressure escalates on the Clippers, it becomes apparent that violence is a familiar tool. Bodies are easily disposed, out on the moor.

The story has a sense of rhythm in its written style, calling forth images of the wild and mud-soaked lands, dwelling on local names and places. Deep woodlands, empty country, and small pockets of humanity; all draw together to tell the humbling power of nature and the tenacity of merge human existence. For all their earthy beauty, though, we are reminded that the moors are also dangerous. The people of this region survive by knowing the land, not by conquering it. It is a place of fleeting summer and gripping winter, where the countryside itself is a character of the tale.

The written style, forgoing much punctuation, took a moment to get used to, but in no way interferes with the tale being told. In fact it helps to highlight both the era, the local dialects, and the prevalent level of written language skills. In excepts that lead each chapter, David Hartley writes his – bias – memoirs, telling the story of his rise to power, and subsequent fall from its height. An utterly unbending man to the last, he is proud and sure of himself, never really understanding that he could not have won out against the phenomenal power and influence of the justice system, which sees him as little more than a local criminal and minor threat. One, nevertheless, that must be stamped out. Power jealously guards the wealth that got it there.

The awards that this book has won are well earned. It is detailed, thought provoking, evocative and unusual. It is a good read, drawing the reader in to a rugged and deceptively simple world. It made me want to visit Yorkshire, to see the empty wilds and ancient habitats of humanity. It shone light on the types of fraud that bought us to our present day currency.

Probably best to avoid the moors at night though, I feel.