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

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit