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Book review Between a rock and a poetic place

NEIL MUDD recommends Benjamin Myers's exploration of landscape, nature and literature

Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place
by Benjamin Myers
(Elliott & Thompson, £14.99)

TEN years ago, novelist Benjamin Myers relocated from London to Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley with his wife, the writer Adelle Stripe.

“One only moves to London when either young or wealthy,” he notes in his sensual new work of non-fiction, “and now we were neither.”

The removal firm’s gaffer tells Myers he recently helped a mother and her children make the identical journey: “Same valley. Remote. She said it would be a new start for her. She killed herself after two months.”

Under the Rock — memoir, field journal and love story — feels like a spiritual cleansing after the dark savagery of Myers’s novel The Gallows Pole last year.

The rock of the title is Scout Rock, a steep wooded crag set high over Mytholmroyd, a precipitous and brooding presence even on a sunny day. The locals think it a cursed place.

The couple set up home in a terraced house directly beneath the rock’s inky black thumbprint. Myers is drawn to its near vertical slopes and plateaux like a character from a bad horror film: “[Sometimes] it feels the Rock is guiding my every movement. It is dictating my moods, my emotions. Steering hand and mind in every word I write.”

Author turns interloper, abetted in his near daily incursions into this minatory realm by his spirited Patterdale terrier, Cliff. “A dog is an explorer’s best friend. He or she is every rural lurker’s alibi, their gateway and guide. A perfect excuse for tramping and trespass,” Myers writes.

On Scout Rock, Myers finds himself. He walks, scrambles, swims wild, plays hooky in the green-black seclusion. He learns to be free. Within its cathedral silences he unearths the secret history of the valley, the spent industrial remains, the ancient kingdom of Elmet.

He finds poetry in every footfall, in the liquid rhythms of raindrops on leaves, and in the sibilant textures of wood, earth, water and rock. His prose, pungent and intoxicating, is haunted by the ghost of poet Ted Hughes: “The soil is rich with stories … It is the Yorkshire way to mythologise.”

Under the Rock is a visionary work of immense power and subtlety which establishes Myers as one of Britain’s most consistently interesting and gifted writers. Like William Blake, he shines a light on the darkness beyond — and the darkness within.

 

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