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Glam Rock & Yorkshire Occult: The Making Of Ben Myers' Turning Blue
Ben Myers , August 29th, 2016 13:27

From the anxiety of reservoirs to the landscape-driven black metal of Winterfylleth, Ben Myers walks us through the peculiar influences of his most recent novel — Turning Blue

Turning Blue is a novel about a hillbilly pig farmer in the remotest corner of the North Yorkshire dales who kills a girl and then falls in love with her dead body. It is also about his past connections to a shadowy conspiracy of abusive men, comprised of local businessmen, councillors and a much-loved children’s TV presenter. And it is about a drunk journalist and an uptight policeman who try to make sense of the case that they are investigating. It is a nihilistic work, that explores the flaws of masculinity and the lengths to which corrupted men will go to indulge their appetites and desires.

Much of this is reflected in the harsh landscapes in which they operate: upper moorlands, dark woods, reservoirs. Remote places. Along with my previous novels - Beastings (2014) and Pig Iron (2012) - it explores ideas of morality, and those who go beyond any perceived (and sane) moral code. It is about a hidden England that exists, but is rarely depicted in mainstream literary fiction or, indeed the current resurgence of landscape/nature writing. I consider Turning Blue ‘rural noir’ or ‘folk crime’ and it took seven painful re-writes before I came close to what I was hoping to achieve with it. It was inspired by all manner of influences, many of them localised and quite specific to the North of England. Here are some of them.

Occult Yorkshire.

On occasion I am asked why it is that my fiction is so bleak, and the simple answer is the Residual Psychic Wrongdoings of Others. Or, put another way: the landscape is haunted by bastards. I only latterly realised that where I live in Calderdale, West Yorkshire is slap-bang in the centre of a circle of occultist crimes and chthonic incidents, whose damaging effect have severely redefined the way we consider place. Peter Sutcliffe grew up only a few miles in one direction and one of his earliest murders took place even closer. The UK’s most prolific serial killer Harold Shipman has his first job as a general practitioner at a surgery five miles away in Todmorden, where he picked up a medical drug habit. Saddleworth Moor is less than twenty miles away, where Myra Hindley and Ian Brady buried the bodies of their victims.

Jimmy Savile has strong ties to the area too – he was an honourary warden at a church up the road in the village of Cragg Vale, where he kept a caravan. In fact, the only evidence of my house that exists on the internet is that of some silent grainy Super 8 film from the late 1960s that’s on Youtube of a bug-eyed Jimmy Savile leading a trail of children through the snow, Pied Piper-like, right past my front door. He’s wearing a Royal Marines jacket and it is a rare sighting of him with dark hair, but it’s him alright, and he is mugging it up for the camera. The clip ends with him at my front door. Watching that just as the Savile story was breaking, and almost feeling his presence just a few feet away from my desk, influenced the entire tone of Turning Blue. I knew I had to write someone like him in there somehow, which I did. He became inescapable.

Sometimes, on a dark and wet day, it feels as if beasts are lurking from the under-sod of Yorkshire, their Residual Psychic Wrongdoings tainting the collective consciousness with their lurking shadows. We cannot let them win.

Glam rock.

I love 70s glam rock and am fascinated with what happened before punk, perhaps because it’s the era that preceded my birth. Glam managed to be both exotic and banal, and also feminine and utterly masculine at the same time; you had all these very heterosexual – and, more often than not, working class - men suddenly camping it up, which is always to be encouraged. Men in make-up and heels will always make Britain a safer place. I listened to a lot of Mott The Hoople and Slade while writing Turning Blue, and especially love The Sweet, one of the great under-rated bands. Squarely aimed at really young fans who were too young for the sixties, glam had an innocence to it. The Sweet actually released some of the greatest pop singles of all time - ‘Blockbuster’, ‘The Ballroom Blitz’, ‘Teenage Rampage’, ‘The Six Teens’, ‘Little Willy’ and, my favourite, ‘Action’. The fact that they neither wrote nor played on some of their best stuff barely matters.

There’s a great Sweet documentary called All That Glitters, that is very Spinal Tap, and like two other great films of that era - Slade In Flame and David Essex in Stardust - offers a good insight into the sheer drabness of the country at that time: tins of pop, gammon and eggs, casual sexism and far from casual racism, a grubby fumble in the back of a car. Nevertheless glam offered escape for the working class in a way that just isn’t available now.

But yet, time has corrupted glam too. When you watch clips or listen to it now, the grubby fingerprints of Savile and co are all over it. There he is again, stalking our peripherals, haunting our pop memories from his underground crypt, sucking blood, joy and innocence from all who crossed his path. The Sweet’s bassist ‘playfully’ wore an SS uniform complete with a swastika armband on Top of The Pops, which makes you realise just how confused that era was. Britain was in a type of crisis, as it is now, and glam to me now represents an innocence followed by a wider sense of moral corruption that is very obliquely reflected in my novel

Richard Dawson

I have The Quietus to thank for my introduction to the work of Richard Dawson, a singular artist whose music seems to ring down the centuries, his voice that of a tortured town crier bringing tales of woe and wonderment, his guitar style reminiscent of Les Dawson’s piano playing. I mean that as nothing less than a compliment: you have to play amazingly well to sound that original.

His most known work, ‘The Vile Stuff’, is a less a song and more a novel, or film or perambulation through the dark corners of the hinterlands of Northumbria and border country, an area in which I have spent a lot of time while writing Turning Blue. A month editing the novel in a cottage in a tiny village just over the border in Scotland, seven miles from the nearest pub, bus stop or shop, whose local gamekeeper is a sadist who blinds crows and then uses them as live bait, and is prone to attacking strangers, remains one of the most intense and joyous experiences of my life. It was a period of strange omens and portents; dead animals and ancient traps on the moor. The same silver car forever appearing in the distance when I was out walking. The soundtrack to that sojourn was the entire recorded output by Richard Dawson and I suspect his next album will be something truly special.

DH Lawrence

DH Lawrence was visionary writer with a unique love-hate relationship with the country that created him. And like most visionaries he wasn’t accepted in his time; he was censored, vilified, dismissed and spent a lot of his adult life abroad. On a good day he’s untouchable, his poetry, stories, essays and novels fertile, fecund and sensuous. On a bad day he’s a man with a typewriter, but even his average work pisses in the ear of most contemporary writers.

UK crime writing

‘Crime’ is an extremely broad literary sub-genre, and should never be blindly dismissed. True crime has produced some of my favourite ever pieces of writing: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer and Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn. Joan Didion has written seem fantastic crime essays too.

I’m very picky about crime fiction and my two favourite authors are both hugely under-rated: Derek Raymond and Ted Lewis. I discovered Raymond’s novel I Was Dora Suarez via the early 1990s music press – NME, Sounds and Melody Maker used to have good non-music coverage, where people like Cathi Unsworth were given free reign - and the band Gallon Drunk, who collaborated with Raymond on bringing it to musical life. It remains one of the most singular disturbing pieces of fiction. So bleak and unflinching. It’s an assault, really. It’s a massive fuck you to the reader.

Ted Lewis is best known for his Scunthorpe-set novel Jack’s Return Home, which was filmed as Get Carter, and is a masterful work in terms of tension but GBH is his classic book, and it’s structure and tone completely influenced Turning Blue. I think that great crime fiction is, at its heart, existential literature that puts the human condition under the microscope and in GBH no word is wasted, the atmosphere one of despair and nihilism, which still translates today. A lot of crime novels just appear tame and unpredictable next to its depiction of 1970s England laid bare: raw, oppressive, a country going nowhere but down the shitter. Perhaps predictably, it’s out of print.

Black metal

For years I fell for the black metal lie: that it was a genre primarily concerned with burning churches and killing your friends. Nevertheless I remain a black metal tourist, periodically dipping my pinkies into its murky, brackish waters. I don’t listen to music much when I am writing fiction but I do stop and have breaks, and short blasts of Gorgoroth, Behemoth and, if I’m feeling naughty, Burzum, can all be as refreshing as a body scrub and a flailing with a eucalyptus branch or a stiff march up Helvelyn on a bracing winter’s morn.

It was the north-west band Winterfylleth that helped changed my perception. They are primarily inspired by landscapes, as am I, I’ve had some interesting conversations and exchanges with frontman Chris Naughton, who dispels the myth of black metal frontmen as sword-waving wangs charging about the nearest woods in corpse-paint. He’s a reader of ancient history and archaic languages and though I suspect our politics are very different, I have recently been enjoying talking to or writing about those who exist beyond the liberal bubble that many of us live in. I believe in political correctness as a force for good, but I also believe everyone is entitled to express their opinions and that’s there’s nothing wrong with discussing ideologies counter to our own.

After I explained to Chris how when I am deep in the countryside I am sometimes prone to visions and reveries, and that the unifying factor in all my writing is the idea of ‘The Green Cathedral’ – the British countryside as a place of weirdness, escape and mystery, and whose powers are rejuvenating – he responded by naming a track on Winterfylleth’s new album Green Cathedral. So music has inspired fiction which has inspired music, and so the circle goes, and so the crow crows...

Contemporary poetry

I don’t know whether it is to do with the landscape, or living costs, or a stoic work ethic, or the lingering influence of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Tony Harrison, but Yorkshire is currently home to some of the best poets in the country. Helen Mort, Steve Ely, Andrew McMillan, Zaffar Kunnial and – if I may – my wife Adelle Stripe are all producing work that reflects different aspects of 21st century life in Britain, in ways that more esteemed poets simply do not do. Collectively their work has bite and is unflinching. Poetry is little read but highly important – it cuts through the modern noise of the wider media.

Soundtrack

Everytime I write a novel I assemble a compilation soundtrack of music that evokes the required atmosphere. For Turning Blue I listened to a lot of Third Ear Band, Demdike Stare, The Misfits, Wild Beasts, The Flowerpot Men, The Birthday Party, Comus, Stealing Sheep, Wolf People and ‘Turn Blue’ by Iggy Pop.

Reservoirs

Reservoirs invoke anxiety. They just do.

Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers is out now via Moth/Mayfly.

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