Travelling Man | Living North

Travelling Man


Winner of the Gordon Burn Prize for his novel Pig Iron, Living North chats with Ben Myers
'Pig Iron follows John John, a young County Durham man, with roots in the traveller community, who has just been released from prison and returns to Durham to take a job in an ice cream van.'
Ben Myers
Ben Myers

Ben Myers' first taste of the rock and roll lifestyle came when he was 14 years old, when he played bass guitar in a punk band. He didn't possess much in the way of musical genius, instead what he brought was a valuable understanding of good administration. 'The others were more talented musically but I was the organiser,' he says. 'Our singer was 13 at the time and his voice hadn't broken so we were a bit of a novelty act.' Yet since his inauspicious start in the music industry, Ben has gone on to write for numerous music magazines and newspapers, culminating in him becoming a respected novelist, winning the Gordon Burn Prize for his third novel, Pig Iron.

Born in Belmont, County Durham, Ben showed early signs of creativity – 'I grew up reading a lot of books. I was always getting into scrapes and then writing stories about them' – but his A-Level results were an early stumbling block in his writing career. 'I was heavily into literature and music but I was also into girls, drink and experimentation. I totally messed up my exams. So I rang every university in Britain, and they all turned me down except Luton [now the University of Bedfordshire].' Ben also started writing for Melody Maker, and later did an internship with the now defunct News of the World. 'That was quite an eye-opener,' he laughs. One of his tasks included being paid £100 to go undercover at an advice centre for gay and lesbian teenagers to prove it was a paedophile ring (it wasn't). 'It's still probably the best pay I've ever had. But then you realise what they're asking and it's not enough.'

Ben was saved from a life of unethical espionage when he took a full-time job with Melody Maker. He was rubbing shoulders with writers he had grown up reading (as well as a young Caitlin Moran), but he decided to go freelance when he was 23, partly for his health. 'I'd had five years working all the time and it was catching up with me. My doctor thought I had a stomach ulcer from too much chaotic living.'

Ben continued to write about music, spending time with some of music's most dissolute characters. He flew to LA to visit the mansion of shock-rocker Marilyn Manson for Kerrang! 'He didn't leave the house for about nine months,' says Ben. 'We had a phone conversation and got on quite well, so he invited me out to the States for his comeback interview.' Ben spent the evening drinking absinthe and enjoying a tour of Manson's bizarre cabinet of curiosities. Ben also spent a memorable evening with Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne. 'I went to his house and got drunk. He got his gun collection out and we started firing his guns in the back garden. He said, "Do you want to a drink?" and I said, "Oh yeah, that'd be nice," and he poured me a pint of wine.'

Ben was also busy writing short stories and poems. His first novel, bluntly titled The Book of F**k, took a week to write. It was based on his experiences living in Oval Mansions, one of the most famous squats in London, where Ian Dury wrote Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Ben's book about the experience follows a young journalist living in a damp squat who is commissioned to track down a reclusive rockstar. 'When I look at it now it seems quite naive and raw, but I still have people contacting me about it. I'm not sure about the title now but it's become quite collectible.'

In 2010, he published his second book, Richard, about one of rock histories most compelling enigmas – the Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards, who disappeared in 1995. The book controversially hypothesised what happened next. Richey's bandmate Nicky Wire denounced the book, although not without admitting that if he were a 16-year-old music fan he would probably want to read it. 'There was no band better at mythologising their own existence,' says Ben. 'Some of the band might have wanted to be successful musicians but I think Richey wanted to be an icon.'

Ben's third novel, Pig Iron, was published in 2012 by Bluemoose Books, a small publisher operating out of a terraced house in Hebden Bridge. The company received some media attention in 2012 when owner Kevin Duffy mentioned in an interview with The Bookseller that he would be publishing the unauthorised biography of Fifty Shades of Grey character Christian Grey. After 12 major publishing companies had called asking to buy the rights, Kevin realised he would need someone to actually write the book. Kevin rang Ben, who frantically began researching and writing the book that the entire publishing world wanted to see on their desk by Monday morning. 'I spent three days writing furiously. Then EL James's agent got in touch and basically said, "We'll crush you."'

Pig Iron follows John John, a young County Durham man, the son of a bare-knuckle boxer with roots in the traveller community, who has just been released from prison and returns to Durham to take a job in an ice cream van. Told by two narrators in a North East dialect, the book is a violent and shocking tale of an individual's struggle to establish his own identity when those around him only see his background and family name. In October, Pig Iron won the inaugural Gordon Burn prize, named after one of the North East's most successful and provocative writers, who passed away in 2009. Winning is a particular honour for Ben as he has been greatly influenced by Burn. His first taste was Burn's true crime book Happy Like Murderers: The Story of Fred and Rosemary West, which he read over ten years ago. 'I was commissioned to write a music biography so I left London and went to stay at my sisters in Newcastle. She said, 'Read this, I just bought it.' I read the first few pages and dropped everything. It was a deeply disturbing book but so well handled – it had a really unique voice and was as much about the victims as the killers.' 

The Gordon Burn Prize was set up to celebrate works which echo the spirit of Burn's writing. Pig Iron was chosen by the judges – journalist Deborah Orr, writer David Peace and broadcaster Mark Lawson – from a shortlist of five novels. The prize comprises £5,000 and a writer's retreat at Burn's remote cottage in Berwickshire. Ben has already visited the cottage and spent some time writing there. 'It was inspiring but intimidating because all his signs of life were there, including his book collection with notes in the margins.' Ben has already finished his next book, about a 16-year-old nanny who absconds with a baby and is pursued by a number of sinister characters, including a priest and a poacher, which he describes as 'almost biblical in tone, very rural and a bit gothic.' He hopes the retreat will provide inspiration for further books he has planned, which are set in rural locations in the North. Inspired by the wild, elemental landscape of remote Berwickshire and surrounded by mementos of the great writer's life, Ben hopes to continue writing in the spirit of his hero. He says of Burn, 'He wrote about the North in a way I could relate to.'

Published in: January 2014

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