Allthatsleft Book Club #13: Pig Iron by Ben Myers

by Ray_North on October 14, 2014

Unknown-1In my teens I read the Northern kitchen sink literature of Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow and John Braine. They were angry young men, usually Northern; grammar school boys who had been plucked from their working class roots and thrust socially upwards with the assistance of post-war free University education.

They wrote with often brutal passion, proudly using their dialect, revelling in the fact that the world they were depicting was real, in your face, a proper challenge to the literary types of Bloomsbury. There was grimy sex and drunken violence, heroes acted without honour and raged against the slow decay of their surroundings.

I loved this writing. It seemed real to me. Sadly, in the last few decades angry young men writing excellent literature have been few and far between (the same cannot be said for angry young women, who have been far more prevalent and successful).

Ben Myers is a writer in the very best tradition of the 1950s and 60’s angry young northern authors, and Pig Iron demonstrates his skills in a wonderfully entertaining and provocative way. Winner of the 2013, Gordon Burn Prize for literature, Pig Iron tells the story of John-John Wisdom the son of a gypsy bare knuckle fighter – a hard man, a bastard, who abused and raped his mother and beat the young John-John until he could take it no more.

When we meet John-John he is rehabilitating himself upon release from a prison sentence. Still only in his late teens, he take a job selling ice-cream from a van – this is a brilliant device that allows Myers to take us on a journey across the North East, through beautiful stark countryside and into forgotten villages, places without hope; where kids run riot, pedal bad drugs and rage against anything that is remotely challenging. It is a landscape of teenage pregnancies, the BNP and cowardly violence where gangs set upon an outsider like rabid dogs. It is an England that has been devastated and forgotten and neglected by a failing system of capitalism that has sucked the meaning from life.

All John-John wants to do is enjoy the peace of the countryside, his green cathedral and wait for his inner-turmoil to settle and dissipate. He meets a girl, who is attracted to his simple way of thinking, his strangely genteel language and his mysterious past. Sadly, she is also the girlfriend of the son of a local family of thugs and villains who see travellers as ‘pikeys’ who should be drummed out. They set about making his life hell and succeed in stirring the inner-rage in him, until he can take no more and finds himself fighting back.

The language is wonderful, the landscape is bleak and provocative and the character of John-John is one we grow to care about, loving his strength and his vulnerability, his innocence and his desperate and simple desire for a simple happiness. I thoroughly recommend this book.

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