An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons probe approaching Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Photo: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben
Show Hide image

Is Pluto really the “beige planet”?

McGovern’s microphone sagged. “I just had my feeling about this particular planet go down a notch.” “The Beige Planet,” piped up her co-presenter, Lawrence Pollard.

Newsday
BBC World Service

So, after days of low-resolution teasers, we finally saw the high-res images sent back by the space probe and the global response was amazement. At first, the reporting and analysis was merely ecstatic, slipping and sliding into something poetic, but within hours had spiralled into something almost Conradian: endless digressions and footnotes abounding in every interview, astronomers royal hurried from their beds to talk of “late heavy bombardments” and the “continual reworking of geological processes”. A small planet showing activity after four and a half billion years! When Pluto was supposed to have been a lump of rock! “Evidence of large craters indicating a very young, repeatedly modified surface . . . lines of sand dunes . . . crisp mountains and landslides . . . ice deposits the size of the Rockies . . . strange hills with grooves that we don’t know what to make of yet . . .”

Over to Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy, down the line from the California Institute of Technology. “Well, y’know,” he immediately challenged, “you don’t have to be a planet to be interesting.” Testy! Or way deep? The Newsday presenter Nuala McGovern – reliably positive, never lost for words – was completely silenced (15 July, 5am). “I’m just gonna let that one sink in for a moment,” she admitted, before doing just that and then trying again.

“I’m reading that the planet is red, right?” “Well, y’know,” her gloriously refusenik guest continued, “I look at these pictures and I think it’s kinda beige. Everybody’s saying how beautiful it is but I’m a little disappointed. It looks washed out and beige. But I’m not supposed to say that.”

McGovern’s microphone sagged. “I just had my feeling about this particular planet go down a notch.” “The Beige Planet,” piped up her co-presenter, Lawrence Pollard. “It’s not exactly a brand!” “No, not really,” admitted Brown, who then closed the door to any compromise when asked by a barrel-scraping McGovern if there was any practical application to these discoveries, quite frankly? Any definitive, utilitarian, commonsensical reason to explore the planets and send out probes and rockets and endless wads of cash and tinfoil?

“Absolutely not,” Brown confirmed. “It is not going to help us make better pens.”

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 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496