The moors near Pickering in Yorkshire. Photo: Getty
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Walks on the wild side: a weightless, weighty history of the Yorkshire moors

We now cannot think of the Yorkshire moors without Emily Brontë, but we must reclaim our moors from cream teas and see them from the vantage point of the raptors wheeling overhead.

The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature
William Atkins
Faber & Faber, 371pp, £18.99

In the upper reaches of the National Portrait Gallery in London, Branwell Brontë’s oil painting of his sister Emily is cracked and fissured. The paint barely sits on the canvas. In front of it, an American woman employed by the gallery is delivering a lunchtime talk about the Brontës. She is knowledgeable and efficient, and she quotes from a contemporary review of Wuthering Heights, written by a critic who found the book barbaric, shocking and disgusting; beyond the pale of respectability.

But Emily Brontë is now the accepted face of the wild moors, and we cannot think of the Yorkshire moors without her. The savageness of her work has become polished by our preconceptions. It needs to be renewed; we must reclaim our moors from cream teas and see them from the vantage point of the raptors wheeling overhead.

William Atkins does that, gloriously, in his disinterment of the English moors. His book, which has an affecting section on Emily – who was called “the General” by her family and who emerges as fairly barbaric, too, not above whipping her own dog – approaches those mythic wastes in the way she did, walking over them, and populating their wilderness (which covers 6 per cent of the country) with the humanity that shaped it. Drawing on literature, art and industry, The Moor is as much social history as natural history. Atkins is an expeditionary anthropologist, making his way into England’s dark heart.

He starts his countrywide trek at an unlikely place: a vestigial moor in southern Hampshire, so insignificant that, even though it is less than ten miles from where I live, I never knew it existed until now. Atkins grew up there, in the town of Bishop’s Waltham. As a 14-year-old boy, he wrote a precocious GCSE essay on these few acres of wild land. The Moor is an imaginative, allusive extension of that enthusiasm – sometimes I felt young Will was doing his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and feared for his safety in bog and mist. But as Atkins sits down to his King-Size Pork Pie and sachet of Capri-Sun, poetry spills out. Not since Tim Binding’s haunting On Ilkley Moor (2001) has a writer evoked the uncanny spirit of the moors so powerfully.

The moors lodge in our collective imaginations from early on. As my father was Yorkshire-born, we spent summer holidays visiting the blackened parsonage, graveyard and cobbles of Haworth or the moorland asylum where my own uncle was incarcerated. Dartmoor, too – with its Gothic prisons and red-eyed hounds – is a fixed childhood memory for many. In the village of Princetown, Napoleonic prisoners of war froze to death in a building whose windows went unglazed. Inmates killed one another “over half a raw potato”. In its first ten years alone, 1,478 men died at the prison; Atkins describes their bones rising to the surface as if rejected by the moor. More benevolent is the presence of Buckfast Abbey and its bee-breeding monks, in whose company the author finds a certain anachronistic solace.

On Saddleworth, other ghosts appear – those of Hindley and Brady (Atkins could well have included the white-shirt-clad spectre that lurches out of the same midnight moor in Morrissey’s autobiography). And on the North York Moors, Atkins encounters the eerie early-warning installations of Fylingdales, with their ominous domes and oddly lyrical acronyms: SSPAR, “solid-state phased array radar”.

Deeper into Yorkshire we find Ted Hughes as a boy, climbing up the hills of Hebden backwards, because it was good for the leg muscles. And we follow Hughes and Sylvia Plath up to the ruined shell of Top Withens (claimed as the model for Wuthering Heights). “We could buy this place and renovate it!” says Plath, only for Hughes to reply, darkly, “except, of course, except/For the empty horror of the moors”.

But these are places of recreation and procreation, too. Atkins takes issue with Auden’s “celibate, evacuated landscape”. Instead, he sees the land alive with burping frogs, whinnying curlews and rising larks. He “landlopes” over every moor, and even immerses his body in the peaty brown water that runs from farm bath taps (Victorian spas offered the ultimate invasion of a peat enema).

While he charts murders, plane crashes and fields filled with the lethal leavings of army manoeuvres, he also walks out in the summer, continually turning his cap peak against the beating sun. In the winter, he crosses frozen expanses where, in a memorable scene, he sees what he thinks are wading birds taking off from a lake, only to realise the shapes are “fine platelets of ice being torn away by gusts of wind and flung up – twenty feet into the air, and scintillating”.

At points, Atkins might well be describing Antarctica, a terra nullius. At others, he evokes a more obviously managed landscape, joining a grouse shoot in an exciting episode evocative of a battle scene, with circular butts as trenches and well-dressed “guns” from town. Even in this celebration of futile death, an artificial harvest for which countless hen harriers and falcons have been poisoned or shot, Atkins sees a kind of transcendence. Handed a dead grouse, he swings its head between his forefingers as he has seen the hunters do, and it seems to weigh almost nothing at all.

Perhaps that is the beauty of this book. Vivid with incident and exquisite des­cription, it has a touch so deceptively light that it too seems to weigh nothing, yet mean everything.

Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” is out now in paperback (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war