The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Music

Gateshead International Jazz Festival, The Sage, Gateshead, 5-7 April

According to its organisers, Gateshead International Jazz Festival is the largest UK festival held under one roof. Headline acts include the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Lighthouse, Ruby Turner and the Brand New Heavies. But its nuanced programme of smaller performances is equally interesting: Broadcaster/musician Alyn Shipton, will be exploring the relationship between jazz and poetry, notably the work of Philip Larkin and W B Yeats, in a piece entitled Jazz Words. Meanwhile, seminal French guitarist Bireli Lagrene will be making a rare appearance to the festival, with a jazz quartet reminiscent of the Blue Note acts of the 1960s.

Dance

Labyrinth of Love tour. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 9-19 April

The Rambert dance company returns to Edinburgh with the critically-acclaimed Labyrinth of Love. Grammy award-wining composer Michael Daugherty’s score is performed live by both the Rambert Orchestra and soprano Sarah Gabriel, in what is both a musically and visually stunning piece. Choreographed by Marguerite Donlon, Labyrinth of Love provides a fitting centre-piece for a production which also features Merce Cunningham’s seminal work Sounddance, Richard Alston’s solo Dutiful Ducks and Paul Taylor’s Roses.

Art

Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, until 7 April

An exhibition that sets about creating a space in which ideas from different disciplines can cross-pollinate, A Cosmos sees German artist Trockel situate her work among other artefacts and objects. Each one was selected by Trockel, in dialogue with curator Lynne Cooke, to produce a context for the artist’s work, including science and natural history. Trockel has resisted an identifiable style throughout her 30-year career, which has seen her exhibit in Paris, London and New York. It closes this Sunday, so catch this marvellously eclectic exhibition while you still can.

Theatre

A day in the death of Joe Egg, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, 5-27 April

This weekend sees the revival of the critically-acclaimed play A day in the death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols. The play was first performed in 1967. This production stars Ralph Little, Rebecca Johnson and Marjorie Yates. A fast-paced black comedy centred on the struggle of a young couple raising a disabled child, Nichols’s script was described by the Stage’s Gareth K Vile as “brutal, funny and provocative. The actors are challenged to jump across genres, picturing a reality bounded by a child’s absolute dependence, but made into a hell by their own personal failures.” It’s one to watch.

Spoken Word

Scratch the word, The Ovalhouse, London SE11, 11 April

Scratch the word is an exciting "scratch" event, exploring the creative overlap between spoken word, live literature and video verse. A group of performance poets will each perform a 10-minute sample of their work, followed be a Q&A panel discussion hosted by organisers Spread the Word. It will also include performances from the likes of Nick Makoha, whose one-man show My Father and Other Superheroes is due to feature at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival.

A tenor saxophone. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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