Benjamin Myers: Under The Rock
Everything in West Yorkshire is slightly unpleasant. Nothing ever quite escapes into happiness, The people are not detached enough from the stone, as if they were only half-born from the earth and the graves are too near the surface. A disaster seems to hang around in the air there for a long time.
Ted Hughes, The Rock
I was born in Morley, a West Yorkshire mill town on the southern flank of Leeds, in 1968. I grew up in the adjacent village of Churwell, mentioned in the Domesday book and once surrounded by woods and farmland that have gradually disappeared with each passing decade. Travel a mile or so south or west and you’re in Wakefield and Bradford postcode territory. Travel another ten or fifteen miles further west and you’re in the wilder, darker end of the county, in towns and villages that cower in the shadow of the formidable and foreboding Pennines. It’s here, in the town of Mytholmroyd, that Ben Myers and his wife (the author Adele Stripe) moved to in the early 00’s, following a now-familiar exit strategy out of the over-priced and increasingly-soulless London. A former music journalist, Myers set about establishing himself as a recognisably Northern author, writing a series of novels set in places no Tory minister would ever be caught dead. So far, it’s a strategy that’s worked but along the way he found the place he now called home was getting to him. On walks with his dog Heathcliff (‘Cliff’, for short) in the hills and moors above the town, the Pennine rains washed away the stain of the capital and gave him a wider and deeper perspective on his place in the world, and informed his reactions to it. Under The Rock is the culmination of that psychic and emotional transformation and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Despite attempts to market it as such, this is not ‘nature writing’. This fad that publishers are keen to exploit, a rattling wooden cart of a bandwagon they’re all jumping on before it collapses into a ditch, is all a bit Countryfile for me, representing a joyless nexus of middle-class picnic spread competitiveness, National Trust stickers in the windows of 4X4’s and bored, fractious children exiled out of wi-fi range. Myers is very conscious of that trap, taking time to critique the ‘rewilding’ arguments you see in The Guardian, and then stomping back off into the woods to see what he can find. His genius loci is Scout Rock, a gritstone outcrop that up-thrusts out of the earth like a Titan’s knuckle. This same rock did much to inform the weltanschauung of Ted Hughes – himself born and raised in Mytholmroyd – and Ted’s is a constant presence throughout the book, a man who was forever haunted by the mysteries of the land and its animals and what they had to say about the human condition. Mears applies that approach himself, and has as much to say about the people he meets as the flora and fauna he encounters. The voices of the people – from Alan the postman, a painter and free jazz enthusiast to Keith, bollock-naked swimmer of reservoirs, to the neighbours he helped during the floods that affected the north of England in 2016 – are authentically West Yorkshire in tone and timbre, a no-nonsense attitude that to outsiders might seem brusque and unfriendly, but is not without humour. The town of Royston Vasey in The League of Gentlemen is an amalgam of towns like Morley, Mytholmroyd and many like it throughout the north, where the darkness of the black stone used in the buildings, the glowering skies, the bleak wind-scoured hills and the shadow-flooded valleys, can overwhelm the spirit if not held in check by a sardonic wit that makes gallows humour look like a script for The Vicar Of Dibley.
When he does wander close to the tropes of ‘nature writing’, rhapsodising about bluebells in a wood, for example, it’s only as a prelude to pondering what it is about West Yorkshire that spawned two ‘monsters’ of recent history: Peter Sutcliffe, ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’, and James Wilson Vincent Savile. Of the former, no-one suspected. Of the latter, I can recall it being common knowledge all my life that he was a ‘wrong ‘un’, having heard so many anecdotes and first-hand accounts of what he was like. Can the nature of the county that spawned them in any way explain their crimes? There’s an undeniable darkness there, as I’ve already acknowledged, but if that’s all there was the place would have been abandoned centuries ago. I think it’s a place that tests you, and one of the best sections of the book is Myers’ account of the floods that left the town underwater for weeks and created a major landslip that buried properties close to his home. The people didn’t wait around for help from ‘the authorities’, they got out there in wellies and waders and helped get house-bound pensioners to safety and, after the water subsided, aided with the clean-up. Adversity brought out the best in the townspeople, including local biker gangs who turned up en masse to deter petty criminals looting temporarily-abandoned homes, all of which offers different perspective on the dour Northerner stereotype, one that chimes with my own experience growing up there.
Throughout the book Myers scatters fragments of poetry (‘postcards from the hedge’), inspired by his wanderings. Serving as polaroid snapshots of fleeting moments and passing observations, they’re offered rather tentatively, but I doubt he would have included them had he not thought at least some of them were up to scratch. This is one of my favourites:
The engine of the fox growls
as it dashes
grinding through the gears
into the copse
fuelled by the possibility of
the final silence.
The image of a fox – another of Ted Hughes’ ‘power animals’ – is consistent throughout the book, whether a flash of fire out of the corner of his eye as he stumbles along a muddy woodland path, or as a silent choir of them come to regard him in the falling dusk as he lies prone on a stone outcrop. At the end of the book, I felt the same way I did to reading J.A Baker’s The Peregrine or Roger Deakin’s Waterlog – here are men looking for something, an indefinable something they can’t quite put express, so they detail their quest in the hope it might help others similarly compelled. Something about the place ‘under’ the rock has lodged in Benjamin Myers’ imagination, and this was his attempt to understand what it might be. As a premise for a book, it’s somewhat amorphous, so credit to the author and all who encouraged him to – as Ballard recommended – let his obsessions “guide him like a sleepwalker.” Highly recommended.