Ever since Rebecca reviewed this book in hardback for Shiny (see here), I’ve wanted to read it, (and Myers’s prize-winning novel Gallows Pole which I already had on my shelf). Now out in paperback, in Under the Rock, subtitled ‘Stories carved from the land’, Myers boldly combines nature writing with history, psycho-geography, photography and poetry in a study based around Scout Rock. This is a crag overlooking the village of Mytholmroyd, which you may know was where Ted Hughes grew up – in the historic West Yorkshire Calder Valley, an area historically known as Elmet – yes! It sounds like a winning combination – all that, and Ted Hughes too. I rarely quote from book blurbs, but rather liked the style of this one:
Under the Rock is about badgers, balsam, history, nettles, mythology, moorlands, mosses, poetry, bats, wild swimming, slugs, recession, floods, logging, peacocks, community, apples, asbestos, quarries, geology, industrial music, owls, stone walls, farming, anxiety, relocation, the North, woodpiles, folklore, landslides, ruins, terriers, woodlands, ravens, dales, valleys, walking, animal skulls, trespassing, crows, factories, maps, rain – lots of rain – and a great big rock.
I’ve not had time to fully read the book yet, but I’m loving it so far. Consequently, I agreed to host an extract for the blog tour running to coincide with the publication of the paperback edition. I hope you enjoy this…
Under the Rock – Stories Carved from the Land by Benjamin Myers
An Extract from Part 1 – Wood
Unremarkable places are made remarkable by the minds that map them.
Carved from the south side of the Calder Valley at Mytholmroyd, Scout Rock is a sheer slab of crag overlooking wooded slopes and undulating, weed-tangled plateaus. To most, it is unremarkable, a fleeting backdrop gone in a slow blink from a passing train or car window, or perhaps more akin to a dirty grounded iceberg if seen from a slow-gliding canal boat; an umbral form flitting briefly across the mind’s eye. Subliminal, almost.
To others The Rock might serve as a marker for the widening out of the dale between the more heavily populated conurbation of Halifax to the east and a narrowing at Hebden Bridge to the west. Here great wooded walls harbour hidden ante-valleys, ruined mills and the ghostly remains of hamlets, which appear to squeeze inwards, restricting daylight and shortening the breath for just a few hard miles to the valley town of Todmorden and, beyond it, the hinterlands of Lancashire (as an old saying goes: ‘Yorkshire is all hills and moors; Lancashire is all mills and whores.’)
For some of the more mature generation Scout Rock is a doomed place. Foreboding mythologies took seed in the fertile imagination of childhood and made it a no-go area, where eighteenth-century thieves hid out, where the town tip once was, and later where industrial refuse was dumped without forethought or environmental consideration.
Charles Dickens passed through the area in 1858 and later wrote of it in a lengthy piece entitled ‘The Calder Valley’. Dickens charted the rich history of the area in fascinated detail. Of Scout Rock he wrote: ‘Beyond Mytholmroyd by the precipitous crags of Hathershelf Scouts – a rampart-like range of weather-worn rock, very conspicuous in the neighbourhood, and in places the sides are richly wooded. This place was the head of a feudal district, the forest of Sowerbyshire.’
Too doomed to be a playground for the modern valley’s children, Scout Rock was yet significant enough to imprint itself upon the memory of a master of words who came of age facing this very arboreal stage, Edward James ‘Ted’ Hughes, described on his death by Seamus Heaney as ‘a great arch under which the least of poetry’s children could enter and feel secure’. This man is remembered in blushed recollections and with a reading voice like thunder rolling down off Midgley Moor; his life is commemorated with a Westminster slab, and with him rest the fading memories stored in muscle and bone of the black-stone scarp that haunted his adolescence, the ‘memento mundi over my birth; my spiritual midwife at the time and my godfather ever since’.
Scout Rock is remarkable in the eyes of those who have decided it is so. Anything can be if it is willed into being: a pebble shaped by centuries of tumbling in the oceanic backwash, a single falling feather so light it barely succumbs to gravity, a mysterious gash in the landscape dense with trees, now fenced off and left to rewild itself.
Today The Rock still inspires dark utterances from the tongues of elders, their weather-worn faces creasing in admonishment at my confession that I like to explore this place that is, officially at least, hazardous and out of bounds to all members of the public: stay away from the Rock, lad, they say in voices as deep as ancient wells. Nothing good ever happened up there.
Thank you to Elliott & Thompson for the review copy of this book.
Benjamin Myers, Under the Rock, paperback, 388 pages.