When Tim Binding was a little lad in Ilkley, his best friend drowned in the River Wharfe. One moment Michael Airey was pedalling a tricycle along the riverside path, the next he had tumbled into the water to be swept away to his death. So while one boy grew up, his playmate's remaining life went unlived. Binding's family left Ilkley when he was seven but, more than 40 years on, the tragedy - and by association the town itself - still tug at his imagination. It was inevitable that, as a writer, he would eventually draw literary inspiration from his time there. The result is a remarkable book, combining autobiography, travelogue and history, but which is, in essence, a powerful prose elegy. It can be read as a lament for lost youth, lost souls, lost generations, lost culture, but also as a celebration of life.
Once briefly important for its Roman garrison, Ilkley is now a commuter dormitory for Leeds and Bradford, and a focus for day-trippers and walkers, or holiday-makers heading for the Dales and the Lakes. Its heyday came with the Victorian fashion for hydropathy and the discovery of supposedly therapeutic properties in the springs that drained from the adjacent moor. Ilkley became a spa - a less grand affair than Harrogate, but bustling with those seeking douches, plunge baths, wet compresses or an invigorating moorland hike: the Ilkley Cure. This elemental sympathy between town and setting is evoked in highly wrought language - close to poetry at times, with the flavour of Ted Hughes. In descriptive passages, and in the introspective reflections on his early childhood, Binding is at his stylistic best.
To leaven the more prosaic chronicling of local history, he interweaves fact with the anecdotal. Maps of Ilkley past and present would help, and I'm not sure how the more parochial details might engage a non-Ilkley audience. But Binding, like a novelist, knows the value of animating a story with characters: Oswald Lister, for example, who fought an idiosyncratic crusade against civic malpractice; Jack Ballardie, whose letters home from the Boer war are fascinating, and whose return to a hero's welcome is vividly recreated; the officious policeman who pulled the plug, literally, on a Jimi Hendrix gig (yes, Hendrix played Ilkley) after just one song; and Mary Learoyd, a lass seeking romance - raped and killed by a man who was never caught. Murder, war, flood, drownings, workmen crushed by falling masonry, recurring images of his long-lost friend, a visit to a cemetery that prompts poignant thoughts of his dead mother - death is never far away for Binding.
He writes about himself with deliberate detachment, in the third person. In places, there is confusion over which "he" is being referred to; in the recounting of his research trips, it seems an affectation. The device is more effective in the episodes from his youth, creating a sense that, at half a lifetime's remove, the actions and emotions of Binding the boy belong to a separate person from Binding the man - as if he, like poor Michael Airey, is frozen in time.
A history book is a book of the dead, Binding implies. But, as individuals and communities, we draw comfort from the written record, even if it is only a name etched on a gravestone - or on a rock, as Binding does in honour of his friend. There is the illusion of permanence - that we live on, in words. As a fusion of collective and personal histories, On Ilkley Moor far exceeds the sum of its parts. By turns tiresome and diverting, mundane and captivating, its cumulative effect is magical. In this respect, Binding's book is not unlike Ilkley itself.
Martyn Bedford's most recent novel is Black Cat (Penguin, £5.99)