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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Potato and Juliet: how Mark Rylance makes children like Shakespeare

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences which can be used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. 

How young can you learn Shakespeare? A rare repeat of a 1998 programme presented by Mark Rylance (27 April, 6.30am, rebroadcast 1.30pm and 8.30pm) asks the question. Not yet a superstar incapable of resisting a part in the new Christopher Nolan film, Rylance was then the artistic director of the Globe Theatre. Just an Abrahamic guy in a silly hat (most likely), sitting all mystical in a class of six-year-olds and asking things like what the word “Romeo” makes them think of.

“Potato,” someone decides. “Now, girls,” giggles Rylance, “would you fall in love with a boy called Potato?”

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences that can then be cast into solid chunks and used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. When Rylance talks about hoping that children recognise Shakespeare as a “playful friend, rather than someone they are going to meet on a forced march to an exam”, the unpreening lightness of his delivery suggests one, unscripted take. “He wrote for the ears,” the director went on. “It just sounds interesting. His words have body and form.”

I suppose the question is not so much how young you can teach Shakespeare, but how young you can teach any (great) poetry, because children instinctively take to it. For instance, a big-screen adaptation of T S Eliot’s Cats has been announced. In the fantasies of my friend James, this adaptation will feature Channing Tatum as Rum Tum Tugger and Lady Gaga singing “Memory”, and will be produced by the team behind The Incredibles. In short, a poem with children in mind while the adults sit there thinking: “What the f*** is this? There’s no plot at all!”

Instead, the upcoming Cats will be directed by the sombre Tom Hooper, doubtless brought in to “study” the text. Give me Rylance’s six-year-olds any day, imagining what things Henry V might have noticed the night before the Battle of Agincourt. “Wolves howling,” breathes one. “Bats flapping,” gulps another. Then finally – and this suggestion couldn’t be bettered – just before Henry steps out to claim “. . . I think the king is but a man, as I/am”, he possibly spots “a mouse rolling on his bed”. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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