For some reason I hadn’t got around to reading Benjamin Myers despite recommendations by lots of people whose opinion I trust. The Gallows Pole has been on my TBR list for quite some time but it was the arrival of The Offing which finally kicked me into action. Myers’ new novel sees an old man remembering the summer after the Second World War when he tramped out of the pit village where his family lived for generations, eager for adventure.
Robert Appleyard knows that he’s destined for a life down the pit. There’s nothing else to do in his village but he’s determined to see a bit of the country before drudgery sets in. He works his way south to Whitby then onwards, picking up casual work here and there, eked out by the generosity of strangers, and sleeping in farm sheds. One day, he takes a turning down a lane which leads him to Dulcie Price, a woman quite unlike anyone he’s met. Tall, sharp-tongued and clearly posh, Dulcie welcomes him with nettle tea and the kind of conversation which leaves Robert taciturn but intrigued. Determined to work for the delicious supper Dulcie later puts on the table, he camps in her overgrown field then sets about scything it next day. One day turns into two and despite his protestations that it’s time he was moving on, he finds more work to do for Dulcie, setting about renovating the shack that was once a studio. There he finds a manuscript of poems by Romy Landau. When he asks Dulcie about it, she’s uncharacteristically quiet but over the course of a seemingly endless summer, Dulcie tells Romy’s sad story which is also her own. As autumn appears on the horizon, Robert walks back the way he came, a new friend made and both their lives changed irrevocably.
But I was a young man once, so young and green, and that can never change. Memory allows me to be so again
Myers bookends Robert’s recollections with his thoughts as an elderly man so that we know both his roots and what he has become. The war casts a long shadow over the country sixteen-year-old Robert walks though: grief, hunger and deprivation are all too apparent yet so is kindness and generosity.
War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end.
With its evocative descriptions of the natural world, Myers’ account of Robert’s stay with Dulcie feels both timeless and unending. The wonderfully imagined Dulcie is undoubtedly the star of the show: forthright and delightfully eccentric, she’s artistically well connected – casually throwing her friendship with Noël Coward into the conversation – and determined that this bright young boy should live rather than just exist. Who can resist a character who declares:
Books are just paper, but they contain within them revolutions.
Indeed, they do, both large and small as Robert goes on to demonstrate.