Radical and gently revolutionary

Like the men who make crop circles in his new novel, Benjamin Myers is trespassing on the literary mainstream - an author by turns brutal and bucolic and increasingly willing to surprise his readers

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By his own reckoning, Benjamin Myers has had three debuts. Richard, his fictionalisation of the disappearance of troubled Manic Street Preachers member Richey Edwards, was the first “proper debut” for the then music journalist – published by Picador in 2010.

“It did okay,” says the author. “But it was a one-book deal, and then they were going to put my next book out but my editor left and things slowed down.”

His background in DIY music scenes, beginning with playing in punk bands from age 13, showed him how to speed the process up.

“You can’t sit around and wait for people to discover you. It doesn’t happen. You have to just do it yourself.”

Myers turned to Bluemoose, the indie publisher based in his adopted hometown of Hebden Bridge, to publish his 2012 North East-set novel Pig Iron.

“It was like going back to the drawing board really, to build it up locally,” says Myers, whose tale of a young ice cream selling Traveller, John-John, trying to escape a legacy of brutality left by his bare-knuckle boxing father, earned him the Gordon Burns Prize.

“I thought this is it, I’m away, and sent my next book out. No one wanted it.”

“I’m a Northerner because I was born here. You can only talk about that so much and for so long.”

But Pig Iron was, in fact, already his third “debut” in fiction. In 2004 Myers released the little-known Book of Fuck, via Hull-based indie press Wrecking Ball. Written in just seven days, the pulp fiction pastiche followed a music journalist on the trail of death metal megastar the God of Fuck. It was sandwiched between non-fiction books about bands including Green Day, System of a Down and The Clash.

“I’m not ashamed or embarrassed, but it was very obviously a first novel,” Myers says, sitting in the garden of his Hebden Bridge home, where he lives with his wife, the writer Adelle Stripe, and their 12-year-old Patterdale terrier Cliff – full name Heathcliff.

It’s a bright but breezy spring day in the Calder Valley, but Myers offers a warm welcome, hot drinks, blankets and “average confectionery”. It’s apt to chat with him surrounded by hills, fields and woodland, with lambs, squirrels and a pheasant as bonus company. His connection to the Northern landscape – both rural and post-industrial – has provided literary inspiration for Durham-born Myers.

His 2014 book Beastings, also published by Bluemoose, was set among the wild and brutal Cumbrian fells. His two Mace and Brindle novels, published by New Writing North’s short-lived crime publishing imprint Moth, were set in fictionalised versions of Hebden, Halifax and the surrounding countryside. To his left Myers points out St Thomas the Apostle Church standing proudly on the hillside village of Heptonstall.

“That’s where King David Hartley, the lead character of [2017’s] The Gallows Pole is buried.”

In between novels there have been other projects. Poetry collection Heathcliff Adrift (2014) was set between the Pennines and the Brontës’ West Yorkshire moors. In non-fiction book Under The Rock (2018) Myers explores the landscape surrounding his then-newly adopted home of Mytholmroyd. It’s named after Scout Rock – a steep crag where 18th-century thieves hid out, people leapt to their deaths, and which Ted Hughes called his “spiritual midwife…  both the curtain and backdrop to existence”. The young body of Hughes’s tormented wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath, lies in the same grounds as King David Hartley.

For Myers, landscape is often gritty, brutal and uncompromising. But in 2019 he surprised readers with The Offing, his first book with mainstream publisher Bloomsbury. It had some of the author’s hallmarks – it follows a 16-year-old boy and would-be miner from a Durham town across the Northern countryside to Robin Hood’s Bay – but it was more of a pleasant ramble than a gruelling hike.

“I quite like the idea of trying to surprise people. The Offing’s quite a gentle, sunny, almost bucolic book. I don’t think anyone expected that, but I think they are probably expecting more of that… and I think publishers would like you to do more of the same.”

In many ways Myers’s new book, The Perfect Golden Circle, may not surprise readers. It follows two men over the long hot summer of 1989 while, under the cover of darkness, they form crop circles.

“It sounds a bit overconfident but I had the idea for the book in like 10 seconds,” says Myers. “I grew up on a post-war housing estate and I was visiting my mam and dad and I was completely exhausted and burnt out. The last thing I wanted to do was any writing. This was in 2019, The Offing was coming out, and I was feeling the pressure a little bit. I went for a walk and I walked out into this barley crop and it was almost like the idea just fell on me.”

The framework would be simple: ten chapters long, each about a circle of increasingly elaborate design. “I was like, I don’t want to write a book, but that’s an idea I think I could do.”

What may surprise readers, however, is the book’s setting.

“I’ve been slightly aware of writing several books set around these parts and Durham, so I wanted to write about somewhere that’s not the North of England. When I realised that there were no crop circles here – it was all the South West – I thought great, I can get out of the North.

“I get asked to do a lot of things like: ‘Will you come to this festival and talk about the gothic North?’ Or talk about what it is to be a Northerner,” Myers sighs. “I get why I would be asked that but I’m a Northerner because I was born here. You can only talk about that so much and for so long.

“I never want to come across as an overtly proud Northerner – ‘I’m in God’s Own Country’. It’s like, what other counties have you been to?”

Myers has been to at least four. As well as his formative years in punk bands, and those spent locked out of mainstream publishing, his trajectory from leaving home in the 1990s goes some way to explaining why he is drawn to outsiders.

“I got turned down by every university in Britain, apart from Luton, so I went there. I mean, having a degree in English, I’m not a complete outsider, but just even to get to university I had to fight because I totally messed up my A levels.

“Then I had to fight to get journalism work in London. It’s no great tale of hardship – it’s what people have to do. I’m from relative privilege, because I’m a white man from a lower-middle class world in the North East. But I had no connections in the media or publishing or music. Everything is down there.”

His one connection was an older sister who lived in a squat in London. He slept on her floor for four years – and stayed in London for 12.

“It was known as Cat Shit Mansions. Ian Dury used to live there and a lot of the YBAs [Young British Artists] before me. So I had somewhere to stay, which is crucial. I don’t know how you would do it now.

“I had to force myself upon people, and I feel like that in publishing. I’ve had to keep banging on the door, and the door keeps getting shut, so I think I don’t want to come in anyway, I’ll just do my own thing over here.”

Redbone and Calvert, the characters in Myers’s new novel, also live on the fringes of society. A New Age nomad and a traumatised ex-soldier, they are drawn together by their desire to fight power through subversive art.

“I’m not particularly interested in crop circles,” says Myers. “I was 13 in the summer of 1989 and I remember it was all over the press. The reports were about alien visitation and how human beings can’t possibly have made these, and I just remember thinking, of course they can. What are you, stupid?

“I’m more interested in the type of people who would do such a thing – the who rather than the how, and the why as well. The answer is for the sheer hell of it, and to baffle people, impress them, and to create a spectacle. I like that because, in 2022, everything has a price and even Banksy signs his artwork – his stuff gets sold for high amounts of money.

“Crop circles have never really been framed as landscape art. The other stories at the time were about trespass and hooligans and tabloid outrage. ‘Look at it. These hooligans have been tramping across farmers’ fields and destroying the crops.’ They didn’t – the people who did it properly were delicate about it, as they are in the book.”

Myers points to his garden’s neighbouring field. A public footpath runs through it, leading walkers into Hebden Bridge, but the rest is private land. Currently the public has a right to roam over just 8 per cent of England.

“I walk everywhere really, respectfully, and I think people can and should. So crop circles are the ultimate manifestation of trespass – what they did was radical and gently revolutionary.”

The story’s backdrop is a decade of Thatcherism. “Acid house was going on and illegal raves. There was the Battle of the Beanfield, which is mentioned. There were a lot of police clashes with Travellers, crusties and punks. There was the miners’ strike, there was Hillsborough… police were hired thugs, basically. Some of my grandparents were miners and I remember the atmosphere of the time.

“Part of the reason for writing the book is the parallels between then and now. The past 10 years probably feel like the 1980s. I don’t tend to write obviously heavily political books, but I think some of that is buried in there.”

Writing about two men whose art went uncredited and was temporary – disappearing after a week or ten days once the crops recovered – gave the author pause for thought. Could Myers, a reluctant social media user only by necessity, put out writing anonymously and forego the glory?

“I like knowing that my books are read. I’m not bothered about being seen, but I’ve still got an ego and you still want a bit of credit… Am I so egotistical that I need validation?”

If Myers doubts his position as bestselling author (in Germany at least – The Offing has been a hit there and is still in the top ten) then he hides it well. Much of his frustration at not being picked up by the literary establishment before 2019 seems born of his defiant belief that he deserves a place in it. In 2006, along with Stripe and Blackburn-born writer Tony O’Neill, Myers branded a new literary movement Brutalism. Although he’s mellowed since, their manifesto stated: “The Brutalists are young, hungry and rejected by the mainstream… We create the culture we deserve… Fuck You!”

He wears his critical and commercial success well, as he does his bright blue suit – “Burton’s, second hand, £30” – Hawaiian shirt and scuffed boots. He is unpretentious, a thoughtful and generous interviewee, good humoured and entertaining. His home is as eclectic as his outfit – practical and plainly decorated but crammed full of books, CDs, vinyl, posters, art painted by his old postman (to whom Myers gifted some of his books before having them swiftly returned with notes), and iconography borrowing from every religion to the point it becomes meaningless. His first-floor office is unfussy and up a second flight of stairs is a library that also houses a rowing machine (not yet assembled) and a futuristic Tardis-like thing, which Myers reveals is a portable sauna he bought because the local pool remains shut following lockdowns. For swimming, there’s a nearby reservoir.

Next door is “the eagle’s nest” – Stripe’s office, where she’s working on a memoir while also figuring out a plan for what to do should Hebden Bridge come under nuclear attack. The pair met in London in 2006 when Stripe – whose latest book, Ten Thousand Apologies*, the story of Fat White Family co-written with frontman Lias Saoudi, is a current bestseller – was working as a music promoter for a Brick Lane venue and running a literary zine.

“I sent some quite dirty poems that I probably wouldn’t write or send to anyone now – not that I sent them specifically to her, I just submitted them and she liked them,” Myers laughs. “We ended up corresponding.”

Chatting about potential nuclear threat – something they both remember fearing when young – they come up with an idea for a story about what you would do in the few minutes before a bomb dropped if you knew it was coming.

“These are writers’ brains,” jokes Stripe. “This is what we do all day – think about terrible scenarios.”

But when a story idea develops like this between them, who gets to tell it?

“Well, with The Gallows Pole, I found the original trial notes of King David Hartley in the library up at the Bowes Museum in the North East,” reveals Stripe. Hartley was the leader of a gang of weavers who became known as the Cragg Vale coiners – clipping and forging gold coins into circulation and nearly bringing the Georgian economy to its knees.

At the time, Stripe says, she was working on Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, a fictional biography of writer Andrea Dunbar, so told Myers he should write it.

“I knew he could do a much better job than I could because he just has a way of being able to transform this kind of historic material and give it something extra special.”

“What you actually said was: ‘This would make a great TV series, like The Sopranos, and you should write it,’” corrects Myers. “I said I don’t know how to write for telly but I could write it as a novel and then maybe we could get somebody like Shane Meadows to make it.”

“We didn’t take it seriously at the time, did we?” adds Stripe.

After winning the Portico Prize for Beastings, Myers wrote The Gallows Pole “almost as one big fuck you” to the mainstream publishing world that had rejected it.

“I thought, I’m going to write this and put everything in there. It was long and there was a lot of historic research. I enjoyed writing it but it was quite an intense experience. I got a new agent and she read it and was like, ‘We’ll get you a book deal,’ and then it got turned down by everyone.”

Again, Myers published with Bluemoose. The Gallows Pole was a critical and commercial hit, winning him the Walter Scott Prize and landing him his two-book publishing deal with Bloomsbury. In 2019, as The Offing was released, he got a phone call saying someone wanted to pick it up for TV – Shane Meadows.

“It was like predicting a lottery win,” says Myers who has since formed a friendship with the This Is England director. “We’re both into bare-knuckle boxing and he’s just really a hilarious guy, quite a unique character. I think film directors are a breed apart.”

The series was filmed in the Calder Valley in 2021, without a script and with many street-cast local actors.

“I haven’t seen it and I don’t know if it’s ready,” says Myers. “Someone I know who works in TV said that it’s already sort of semi-legendary within the business in terms of the madness of the shoot. It’s been total chaos, it’s been changing every day. Shane has this very singular vision and everyone has to serve that, I suppose.”

Myers insisted Bloomsbury license his backlist with Bluemoose and pay it royalties so that the people who stood by him can now benefit from his success. Now he’s signed another two-book deal – both of which will see him escaping any pigeonholes while remaining faithfully Myers.

The first will be an “experimental historical novel inspired by Durham Cathedral, set over 1,300 years from about 700 AD to 2020”. The second, a “very mad experimental novel about a real person, set in Berlin in the 1970s and here today”.

“It’s written in sort of spontaneous prose, with words all over the place. There’s poetry, photographs and real dialogue taken from another book and from a film and then remixed.”

His publisher, he says, is encouraging of his ideas and processes.

“Bloomsbury are really good. I think they’ve cottoned onto the fact that I get very heavily involved in a lot of it, like the cover design. I’ll have ideas and opinions and I think as long as you’re nice about it, and cordial, they quite like it.

“My agent yesterday said, ‘You know, writers are rarely allowed to talk to publishers’ and I was like, really? There are all these protocols in publishing that I have no idea about. I just break them because I’m ignorant to them. I’m removed from it all. I’m up here. I’m not hanging out in literary circles. I’m just a recluse really.”

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