Fiction & Drama

Lisa Rookes on the inspiration behind The Gallows Tree


‘Customs & traditions can look very strange from the outside in’

The Gallows Tree is the spellbinding debut thriller by Lisa Rookes, based on the unusual real-life celebrations of a small Yorkshire village. Here, Lisa tells us about the Great Plague festivities that inspired her writing.

Ten years ago, when I first moved to the West Yorkshire village I now call home, I was driving back from work when a small child staggered out into the street. His clothes were ragged and his face was full of boils.

I was horrified, until I saw a little pack of them, all playing hide and seek, and Alan from the church hanging up bunting.

Little did I realise it was Feast Day, a day when the village closes the school, opens the pub early and celebrates the end of the plague by having a massive all-village street procession with a band, and then all almighty knees-up where you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked onto the set of Shaun of Dead – scores of staggeringly middle-class people, dribbling and slurring, and trying to eat a hog roast.

It’s a thing.

The whole village gets absolutely hammered, the kids dress up like plague victims and run riot, there’s Punch and Judy, clowns and then the old boys’ rock band plays well past what is considered to be sociable hours.

It’s bloody brilliant, if I’m being honest.

It did get me thinking though, about the fusion between modern families who have moved into old working-class villages, pit villages, mining villages and the old traditions that still continue and evolve.

My best friend lives in a village in the North East and every summer her dad puts a cloak and top hat on and rides around the village with a painted sign on his bike saying Doctor Doom, and lets fireworks off from the back. The whole village would come to watch. Until last year when some commer-inners didn’t realise what was happening and called the police.

Customs and traditions can look very strange from the outside in.

I still feel awkward when I book the day off work for the Feast and have to explain to my boss it’s because I need to celebrate the end of the plague.

Still, all good storytelling material. Because while I was helping with the annual next morning clean-up, and picking up the crushed pint glasses and the forlorn, flapping bunting, it made me think, what would happen if someone actually GOT the plague. Actually, this is what my hungover friend used as an excuse to why she wasn’t helping with the clean-up. And this sparked a thought about old traditions that became myth coming full circle again.

I grew up in North Yorkshire, and the big event was a May Day gala, where all the local girls competed to be the May Queen. This is despite the fact in some old folk song, something terrible happened to the May Queen. But hey, this was 1988, so who cared because you got to have your hair done at a hairdressers and sit in an open-top Rolls Royce, and wear a frock you couldn’t get too close to an electric fire in.

Far too shy to win the coveted crown, my tender dreams almost came to fruition when I was given the role of May Queen attendant at age ten. I too got to sit in the open top car and have my hair teased to within an inch of its life – and sit on the school plastic chair in a freezing field next to the Queen’s throne (armchair from the nearest house covered in tin foil).

How I gazed at her with envious eyes as she handed out Wham bars to the winners of the sack race.

Funny what jealousy can do.

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Well, try always the attendant, never the May Queen to carry with you in a bitter cloud for thirty years until you write a book about it in revenge.

I joke.

Kind of.

But this mix of May Queens and Feasts and my love of films like The Wicker Man and Midsommar all inspired me to take a turn down this creepy path.

During my journalism days, my reporter pals in the newsroom used to joke that I should have Lisa Rookes, former May Queen attendant, on my byline.

I wonder if I could manage to convince Orion to put it on the cover of The Gallows Tree?

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