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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage