The genre of British ‘place’ writing has exploded in the last five years and made literary superstars of its best proponents. Mesmerising wordsmiths like Helen Macdonald, Horatio Clare and literary national treasure Robert Macfarlane have given rise to an industry of ornithologists, geologists, entomologists, and etymologists who take us rocking and rolling over the British landscape, singing songs of past dwellers and personal woes as they go. In general, the genre has held up well, with glints of diamond often found gleaming among the inevitable slew of copyists. But few are as impressive as the formidable Benjamin Myers, who has developed a voice as pure and authentic as it is stark, commanding and resolutely northern.
Durham-born Myers began his writing career as a music journalist, but didn’t take long to find his true calling in novels, poetry and nature writing. Under The Rock is a kind of autobiographical journey, detailing his leaving London and setting up home in West Yorkshire, where he discovers, and becomes enchanted by, a magnificent local hillside crag; Scout Rock. He spends his days investigating The Rock, excavating its legends, its language (“stubb, slack, holme, broad, crag”) its dark and terrible past of deaths, floods and suicides, and its place in literature (including being the subject of Ted Hughes’ penetrating and possibly grief-ridden gaze).
Myers is a committed scholar of literature as well as land, and calls on a wide range of witnesses, including Sylvia Plath, Wordsworth, DH Lawrence and Wendell Berry. His premise – that memory, myth and the romantic instinct can make an unremarkable place remarkable – is well served by his forensic and empathetic scrutiny of Calderdale’s chequered history.
He is an obsessive wanderer and thinker, a sombre fellow. With Myers, you get a lot of rock, but not many lols
He rightly says that much recent place writing has over-romanticised the bucolic, and he doesn’t bypass the social problems of rural Yorkshire. At the same time, his often alliterative lyricism – a seemingly effortless style which must demand hours of headachey commitment – creates an overall sense of dreamy, quiet beauty, born of love for the lie of the land. He is an obsessive wanderer and thinker, a sombre fellow. With Myers, you get a lot of rock, but not many lols.
I’m all the more impressed by Myers’ confident strides because I remember him as a young pup starting his writing career at Melody Maker in the mid-nineties. The flush-faced, indecently enthusiastic boy has become a prodigious, awe-incurring writer, but he hasn’t left young Ben behind completely; there is a rhythm in his poetry which I like to think is enhanced by his continued passion for all kinds of music, from dance to punk to folk. The melody maker is still in there, hypnotising his readers like a Pied Piper, leading them right to the ragged ruinous reef that is The Rock. (No, not Stone ‘Enge, you at the back; don’t be childish.)
Welsh writer Dan Tyte’s The Offline Project caught me unawares. This endearing novel, about a man whose life is so damagingly dependent on social media the only antidote is to attempt an existence wholly offline, came with little fanfare. But it is an exceptionally funny, well observed and street-smart book, as self-aware as it is sensitive. The dialogue is as natural and believable as any I’ve read this year, almost as if Tyte has secretly recorded conversations and simply transcribed them word for word. Few modern British novels have captured so well the constant, pathological instinct to weigh up every moment in terms of how it can be expressed – and what response it might elicit – on Twitter. Tyte’s descriptive, scene-setting powers are equally evocative. If critics do their jobs and seek it out, it should win lots of awards.
Under The Rock: The Poetry of a Place by Benjamin Myers (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99)
The Offline Project by Dan Tyte (Graffeg, £8.99)