By Benjamin Myers
Pig Iron is a love letter to the people and landscapes of post-industrial North East England.
It tugged at my heartstrings from the off; I spent six formative years in the area through study and work. Myers successfully portrays its beauty and barnacles in equal measure.
What struck most was his sensitive framing of the lives of travellers, the day-to-day prejudices they face and the existential questions the modern forces them to answer, coupled with internal pressures of bloodline, heritage and relationships with the natural world.
Myers evocative descriptions and vocabulary draw you into the world which many people, myself included, may be ignorant of. It never descends into tropes about travellers – although it may be guilty of doing that for some of its council estate characters – again this is forgivable because of its fresh angle.
The main character, John-John, is a young man torn between making a new start and feeling the weight of his family’s surname dragging him down. John-John seeks solace in nature and tries to change his life around and leave behind the legacy of his father – the King of the Gypsies and bare-knuckle boxer Mac Wisdom. Wherever John-John turns, there are consequences and he seems to unwittingly always be the one to suffer. He is a traveller who never really seems to travel.
It’s not the ‘grim-up-north’ hackneyed stereotype that shines through. The region’s rapier wit and strong moral codes dominate the character’s emotions and movements. It’s best when they break those shackles; John-John’s dog, his fumbling affair with Maria and his longing to be closer to nature. It ducks into visceral at times, especially the violence, yet that is an essential part of the humanity to be found.
The ending builds to a scarce-believable crescendo and tension. Myers is a master at showing you what’s over there only to take you somewhere else. This is showing how Thatcher changed parts of Britain in the 1980s but told through ones of its most marginalised and misunderstood ethnic groups, with a tone and language that is its own. Every action has a consequence.