Our friends in the north
By Declan Tan.
Pig Iron, Benjamin Myers, Bluemoose Books 2012
In the summer of 2011, when it emerged that Basildon council had rejected offers from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to broker a deal with Dale Farm residents, for some, the prejudice and discrimination that has for so long oppressed gypsies and travellers returned to the public consciousness. Around the same time, those savvy Celebrity Big Brother viewers/producers crowned former bare-knuckle boxer and My Big Fat Gyspy Wedding star, Paddy Doherty, their first Channel 5 winner. So to say that the British people have a confused relationship with travellers may just be an understatement. Reviled in the tabloid press, targeted by local councils and then heralded, however falsely, as the people’s champion, travellers find themselves in the murky limbo of being the nation’s favourite sideshow.
Myers’ third novel makes their plight a little more real. Pig Iron is the story of John-John Wisdom, a self-educated young traveller recently released from a five-year stint in a Young Offender’s Institute, possibly for manslaughter (it isn’t made clear). He lives a fringe existence, spat back into the redbrick prison of the estates at the arse end of the old millennium, faced with gurgling youths blitzed on speed or weed setting fire to cats, he’s forced to stagnate in a grey tomb of a flat, observing the decay while waiting out his probation.
“It never feels right here. The bairns are never laughing and skipping and singing like other kids do. They’re arranged about the place like crows. Hoying things. Smashing things. Hanging off things. Tough adult faces on wee bairns’ bodies.”
Just beyond his suffocating limits though, is what he calls the ‘green cathedral’, nature untouched, free of restraint, and untainted by man’s ignorant hand. But it will be a while until he can roam the earth again; chained down this time by authorities, he has never had freedom as, forever in the shadow of the infamous Wisdom name, and the shadow of the brutal bare-knuckle boxing father who bore it, John-John has lived through a disturbing amount of abuse and neglect.
Once out, he gets a job through a dodgy connection on the inside. Arty, the father of a once-fellow inmate, runs a fleet of ice cream vans selling not only ices, 99s and Magnums but some gear on the side, an enterprise watched over by the local thugs, who also happen to be BNP. Out on his rounds up at the Nook, the nearby estate inhabited by said charvers, he meets a girl, Maria. He recognises something of the outsider in her too, and his prospects for the future finally start to look up. That is, until a youngling group of speed-freaks with something to prove take a dislike to John-John’s traveller background, and his stoic plans for escape take an unexpected turn.
Told alternately by John-John himself and his mother, Vancy, the past and the present comingle to produce a dense air of quick doom, a landscape ready to break out in quiet, unseen violence. John-John’s new world is one foaming at the mouth, desperate to tear off some flesh:
“You’ve got to watch these little squirts. They’re like them coyotes I saw on this BBC programme; they’ll take on owt if there’s enough of them. Even if it’s a buffalo or summat, they’ll still attack it and overwhelm it. Tear it apart, “increment by increment” the gadgie on the programme said, which I reckoned to mean limb by limb, like. This rabble are just like them. They’ve got the same mentality because they’re always hungry. Safety in numbers and that. Half of them’ll be inside within five years, mark my words.”
This image of a world, where others are a constant threat, matches Vancy’s. But her threat is from within the traveller community. Namely, her husband. Told with just the right balance of fairytale nostalgia and cold reality that works within character and her often romanticised memory, her illusions of a secure existence are buried as she relates the rise and fall of Mac Wisdom, the fighter, his ego swelling with each win, his arrogance overflowing into casual domestic violence against Vancy, the children, and a young John-John. Her passages, italicised in the style of Richard’s inner voice, lay out the family history as one of sick and bloodied memories, though not without perspective. As, through his double helix narrative, Myers recognises that Mac is also a product of this unrelentingly violent animal nature, and the chances of its reversal are bleak.
The question remains as to whether his son can resist, whether he can escape to live as he sees fit. In this, John-John functions simultaneously as a representation of the hardships experienced by travellers, and also as arguably the most ‘outside’ outsider in Britain today; not only part of the last remaining race deemed acceptable to openly mock, but by way of circumstance, physical and social, as far from the mainstream as possible. But this all reveals itself incrementally, and with craft, before an eruption of flagrant savagery. The encounters with the gang becoming increasingly tense, the territorial disputes degenerate into racial invective:
“Who do you think you’re talking to? says the third lad. You look like a fucking pikey, you. Are you a dirty fucking gyppo? Is that what ye are?
I don’t say anything.
Cos if you are, he continues, I’ll put you in the fucking ovens where you and your lot belong.”
But it’s a mutual disdain they have for each other. John-John, though tolerant, looks down on the local hoodlums, albeit for different reasons. But it is the symptomatic and inculcated hatred that the locals feel for John-John that brings about the violence. This hate is perhaps merely another ingredient of nature, albeit an uglier one, but nevertheless a perceived element of what these men think is their struggle for survival. As related in the Francis Bacon quote that opens the book (“Even within the most beautiful landscape, in the trees, under the leaves the insects are eating each other; violence is a part of life.”) beyond in the green cathedral, creatures destroy each other automatically, without rhetoric or reasoning. Yet within the estate, the animal brain attempts to reason as to what and why it hates, fallacious rationale and confused emotions boiled up to create a pretext for destruction. Much of Pig Iron is about this slow destruction, as it deals with nature in all its forms, but in John-John is also the basic desire for liberty, an escape from these carnal forces, not only physically but psychologically.
What endears us most to John-John is his combination of surface naivety and instinctual wisdom. An autodidact, he holds a deep scepticism of “civilised” life. The things of man, its mobiles, its clothing, its DVD players, hold no intrigue for him. John-John has a kind of ‘eyes squinted into the sun’ laconic world-weariness. His view of these objects, like a 20th century Kaspar Hauser, exposes their absurdity. Yet Pig Iron isn’t as much a diatribe against technology or its effect on human communication as it sounds, this is only implied; John-John is no Luddite, he doesn’t endeavour to destroy the new technology, he just wants to be away from it.
His caring for a puppy, Coughdrop, his first connection again to ‘life’ as it should be, is a simple love. He cares for him, feeds him, and plays with him in his flat. He fills the rest of his days with work, smoking tabs, reading Robinson Crusoe and looking for Maria. He is constantly aware and connected to his existence. Life could be simple.
In both these strains, Myers points to the wrongful oppression of an entire race, as well as the wrongful oppression of individuals, by society and family. It is a novel that resists mere classification as a ‘traveller’ book. This is yet another singular portrait of an outsider from Myers. And delivered through authentic characterisation, a monstrously compelling plot, and frequent humour – a rare combination of such successfully crafted elements – Pig Iron deserves to find itself on many a reading list, if not the National Curriculum.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Declan Tan is a borderline freelance journalist. He has also published minor amounts of fiction and poetry.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 25th, 2012.