There’s a character in Benjamin Myers’ new book, Male Tears, that’s absolutely terrifying.
A permanently angry, unfriendly man with a face irreversibly puce and social manners worn-down by decades minding his section of the Northern moors.
Old Ginger’s infamy is rooted largely in his habit of violently dealing with trespassers. Step on his patch, and he will fuck you up.
What’s more – Old Ginger is very real.
“I’ve had run-ins with him,” Myers laughs in his soft Durham accent from his home in rural West Yorkshire. “He’s a gamekeeper who basically polices the countryside. He’s been known to jump out on walkers and beat them up with a stick.”
With his moustache and braces, there’s an air of the old fashioned about Myers that suits the rural noir that often backdrops his books.
In Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, where he’s lived with his wife for the last decade, he says he spends a lot of his time quietly writing and “living like a monk”. Wild swimming is a hobby (Guardian readers, take a shot), as is spending a lot of time out in the hills hiking.
“From our house, I can get up onto the moors quite quickly. There’s all sorts of mad little farms up there,” he says. “They’re not like the farms you see on Countryfile, they’re like ITV Sunday night dramas, places which just look like bomb sites. There’ll be some totally fucked barn and random fridges and baths lying around, abandoned cars.”
Male Tears is full of men living different lives, but really not so different. Their tales examine the male condition and “the blind folly of men” via short stories Myers has amassed over the past 15 years of writing. There are bare-knuckle boxers, travellers, ex-convicts, farmers, religious men and sinners. One story, 1,000 Acres Of English Soil, based on a tale that Myers’ father-in-law, an agricultural worker, told him about an unfortunate chap who fell into a potato picker (“It chewed up three-quarters of his body and he survived”). Some are as real and now as Old Ginger, others from an old England long gone. Without judgement, the men of Male Tears are often given enough rope to let their behaviour do the work for them.
“I’m definitely interested in masculinity, only because I just don’t feel a part of that ultra-masculine world,” he says. “I’m kind of repulsed or repelled by it, watching violence. But at the same time, I can’t turn away from it. I’m not sure it’s about toxic masculinity – it’s not as obvious as that. It’s more about failed endeavours and cruelty and misadventure.”
As with his award-winning novels Pig Iron and The Gallows Pole, a violent thriller following the activities of a gang of coin forgers in pre-industrial Yorkshire, Male Tears treats the past as someone’s present. Though he’s reluctant to be tagged as a historical author, Myers does his homework to ensure accuracy of the setting. Sometimes, he even finds himself living like his subjects.
The Bloody Bell, set around Hadrian’s Wall 1,500 years ago, grew out of being caught in Border Country when a ferocious storm broke out. Staying in “this weird little cottage”, modern conveniences such as electricity and phone signal were quickly lost. So was the heating. Somehow, Myers managed to chop the end of one of his fingers off. It gave him an idea.
“I just thought: ‘This is what it must have been like in the past,’” he recalls. “When it boils down to the bare basics, humans just sort of want food and warmth and heating and survival. Your instincts kick in, I guess.”
It’s a kind of instinct, or human condition, in fact, that underscores and pulls together all of the men found in Male Tears. Even if, unlike the author, you’re often not supposed to like them very much.
“Technology changes, the way we live changes, but I think men are still kind of chimps,” he says. “I don’t think men have changed very much over the centuries. I almost see the man as being interchangeable from one story to another because of the way they behave and the way they act.
“Really, we haven’t evolved that much.”
Male Tears is released on 29th April via Bloomsbury Circus.