Peak & Northern Footpaths Society (est.1894)

Book Review: Under the Rock

Mel Bale, Membership Secretary, Webmaster and Trustee

This article is from Signpost 64, Summer 2020

Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place by Benjamin Myers, published by Elliot and Thompson

The writer Benjamin Myers might be familiar to some of our members. His book “The Gallows Pole” (2017) tells the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners and won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Ben followed up the success of that book with something completely different. “Under the Rock” is his first venture into non-fiction. The book's subtitle, "The Poetry of a Place," might seem to pigeon hole the work within the 'new nature writing' genre and in some ways that is true. However, whilst aspects of the book do fit neatly into that style of writing, large parts of it don't. The author readily admits that he doesn't know a great deal about nature and struggles to identity birds and trees!

The central theme of the book is the relationship that Ben, his friends and neighbours have with their landscape and how this in turn shapes their lives and those that came before them. The book begins when the writer decides to leave London and move to Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley in order 'to navigate a new way'. The choice of place is deeply significant as his new home sits under two enormous shadows. Firstly there is Scout Rock, a large disused quarry with a very chequered past . Secondly is the memory and writing of Ted Hughes. Hughes was born in the village in 1930 and even though he moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire when he was only seven the surrounding landscape had a lasting impact on his work throughout his career. In 1963 the poet wrote an essay titled “The Rock”, which Ben describes as the 'perfect primer to Hughes poetry'. The essay is about Scout Rock and so much more: 'the violence of landscape, haunted memory, myth, the animal kingdom, a changing England, the inner self and the close proximity of death'. This is also an apt description of “Under the Rock”.

Photographs: copyright Ben Myers, reproduced with permission.

The book is divided into four ‘elemental’ sections, Wood, Earth, Water and Rock, each of which end with the writer’s Field Notes. These are a series of short poems and photographs which illuminate the author’s preceding thoughts and observations. There are many reasons why people enjoy walking. For me it is both important and rewarding to understand as much as possible about where I am walking. Whilst I love wild places, a post-industrial landscape also has much to offer. “Under the Rock” is an ideal companion with which to explore just such a place. Not only does it describe the area but it brings it to life. In Ben’s own words, it makes ‘the unremarkable remarkable’. You feel as if you are with the writer as he explores his new patch and in some cases literally unearths its past.

The only criticism I have of the book is the relatively poor quality reproductions of the author’s own photographs. They are an integral part of the book and it is a shame that the publisher has failed to do them justice. I have no doubt that we'll be hearing much more about this writer in the coming years and I for one very much look forward to reading his next book, who knows where it will take me!

If you want to find out even more about Mytholmroyd and walks around the village I recommend that you take look at the website of the local walking group at http://www.mytholmroydwalkers.org/ and download their guides to the area.


Next: Melbourne Footpaths 13, 22 and 30

Page title:Book Review: Under the Rock
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