Beastings is set in the Lake District. Photo: Getty
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Lakeland Gothic: Beastings by Benjamin Myers

A grim chase narrative, set in the Lake District at the turn of the 20th century, in which two characters known as the Priest and the Poacher pursue a speechless runaway and her stolen baby across the unforgiving landscape.

Beastings 
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 222pp, £8.99

Whatever else he may be, the Durham-born, Yorkshire-based novelist Benjamin Myers isn’t stuck in a rut. Among his publications to date are a 2004 gonzo rant about a music hack, apparently written in a week and entitled The Book of Fuck; Richard, a novel about the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ guitarist Richey Edwards; and 2012’s Pig Iron, a brutal vernacular story about bare-knuckle fighting and the lives of Travellers in Durham. In Beastings, his fourth novel, Myers strikes off in another direction still. This is a grim chase narrative, set in the Lake District at the turn of the 20th century, in which two characters known as the Priest and the Poacher pursue a speechless runaway and her stolen baby across the unforgiving landscape.

There are some conspicuous influences on show, most notably the blood-soaked apocalypticism and the incantatory, comma-deprived prose of Cormac McCar­thy’s Blood Meridian. In McCarthy’s now-celebrated anti-western, first published in 1985, the protagonist is pursued across California and Mexico by “the judge”, a vast, relentless creature of satanic inhumanity and power. Myers’s Priest, with his fingers “long and clipped and gleaming like blades”, his omnipresent vial of chemist’s cocaine and his savage hatred for his flock (“Adultery poverty incest skulduggery interbreeding. Your tawdry animalistic existences in your pigsty hovels”) seems a reasonably deliberate nod to McCarthy’s judge, an impression strengthened by his avid adoption of McCarthy’s signature style. Save for its use of the English dialect word “scran”, a passage of this sort might have been whipped straight out of the work of the American master:

 

The dog stood by his side until he said get by and then it went through to the other room and lay down and watched the girl watch the baby.
The farmer lifted the ham out of the pot with a fork and dropped a slice onto each plate and then he put the plates on the table. He put the slices of bread beside them.
Scran he said and when the girl didn’t move he sat down and started to eat.

 

But Myers’s distinctive strengths as a writer soon lift his novel clear of the snarl of influence. The book’s title is a colloquial term for colostrum, the first milk secreted by a pregnant animal, and the narrative revolves with fascinated attention around the operations of the human body and the animal nature of mankind. Dragging herself across the pitiless Cumbrian hills, the abused, illiterate protagonist comes to inhabit a half-mystical world of sensation, reading the movement, sounds and scents of the land and longing to become “a part of the stone and the water and the fell and the stars”, to “stay there for ever half-buried in the dirt”. Myers’s language maintains an almost pagan focus on the body’s interaction with landscape, described with a hallucinatory exactitude that dissolves as the character’s pain and despair increase: “Her head howled and her abdomen burned. Fluids ran then dried then others ran again.”

Set against this account of bestial desperation is a second narrative strand that follows the girl’s two pursuers as they stalk her across the landscape. It is in these uneasily comic passages that the book comes into its own, hitting a pitch of bickering British weirdness reminiscent of the novels of Magnus Mills, or Ben Wheatley’s blackly comic civil war film A Field in England:

 

How long before you can gather your dog and some provisions?
Don’t need no provisions.
We don’t know how long we’ll
be gone.
She’ll not have got far. We’ll find her by tea time.
I admire your optimism.
I’m a glass half full fella me.
Strange. Because from here you smell like a glass entirely empty man.
The Poacher stiffened.
That’s as may be. But nature’s my larder. I’ll just need a sit down for a little while first.

 

Most of the character work is done in these pin-sharp dialogues, which crackle with an energy and asperity that counterbalance the novel’s increasingly doom-laden tone.

Beastings is an oddly balanced book, with a long middle section of undifferentiated hard slog rising to a whirl of demented action in the final stretch, but the wildness and unpredictability of the project are such that the reader is rarely lost in its longueurs. Given Myers’s track record, it’s anyone’s guess whether he will stick with his new genre of Lakeland Gothic, or move on to outlandish pastures new. But this bitter, alarming, occasionally visionary novel of the British wilderness is likely to linger in the mind for some time. 

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge