The A-Z of northern fiction

From the bonny beck to the kitchen sink and Heathcliff to the angry young men, Frances Wilson explores the personality of writing from the north of England, while Philip Maughan asks how the land lies today.

Wild hearts: the Brontës built a mythology around the Yorkshire landscape. Photo: Michael Turek/Gallery Stock.

In Writing Home, Alan Bennett describes having speech difficulties. He grew up to be fluent in two voices. There was “speaking properly”, like in the matinees at the Grand Theatre on a Saturday afternoon, and there was “being yourself”, which was how he was expected to speak at home in Leeds, where his father was a butcher. “Speaking properly” was metropolitan and they did it down south; “being yourself” was provincial, like it was up north. As a fledgling dramatist, what was he to do? Should he write about the middleclass life he knew from books or the life in a dull, northern town in the 1950s that was “largely unwritten about”?

The children in the stories Bennett read as a boy all “spoke properly”. They called their parents Mummy and Daddy and lived in a “down south” equipped with thatched cottages, millstreams, picnics on red-and-white chequered tablecloths, owls in hollow trees and sticklebacks in buckets. Leeds could provide none of these things, not even hollow trees, so his only option if he wanted life to be more like literature was to try replacing “Mam” with “Mummy”. This was discouraged by his father as a sign of social pretension and of not “being himself”.

My experience of childhood reading was the opposite of Bennett’s. My compass always faced north. As someone of no fixed abode whose family perched during my most impressionable years in the West Midlands, I didn’t have a book in my bedroom that didn’t take me up the M1. The north had personality – it almost seemed to be a person – whereas the south, slumbering beneath me, was only a place. The south was literature’s finishing school but the north undid etiquette; it was where people stopped talking properly and became themselves. It was in the north that the spoiled Mary Lennox found her secret garden in the tangled grounds of Misselthwaite Manor and turned from nasty to nice; the north was where E Nesbit’s “railway children” – Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter – sent their love to their father on the 9.15 train to London and where John, Susan, Titty and Roger camped on their Lake District isle in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Dracula landed in Whitby, Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White was set in Cumberland and West Riding provided Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Catherine Earnshaw.

I would have loved then to have known the Newcastle of David Almond’s Skellig, where Michael befriends a Blakean angel in the garage. To me, the north was a place of courage and transformation while the south was about storing what you already had (sticklebacks in buckets).

Northern tales often contained two voices. In Wuthering Heights, some characters spoke “properly” while others, such as the servant Joseph, were so brazenly themselves that they seemed not to mind whether we understood them or not. Joseph’s vernacular was his badge of belonging: “T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld,” he would scowl. “Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.” Like the poet and playwright Tony Harrison, Joseph subjected everything, as Alan Bennett put it, “to one defiant Leeds voice”. When Mary Lennox speaks, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, her words fall dead on the page but the language of her servant Martha soars into flight. The moor, Martha explains, is “none bare. It’s covered wi’ growin’ things as smells sweet.”

I identify the north of my childhood reading with the heritage north catered for by the refurbished Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and the dinky reconstruction of Wordsworth’s cottage in Grasmere. There was, I later learned, a less Laura Ashley experience of northern writing. A new school of writers emerged in the social transformation of postwar Britain and the kitchen sink replaced the bonny beck. Bennett’s “largely unwritten-about” world became the subject of the northern “lad lit” of John Braine, raised in an Irish-Catholic enclave of lower middle-class Bradford; Stan Barstow, a coal miner’s son from the outskirts of Wakefield; and the Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse.

“We had the temerity to think we could write,” said Barstow, “but [with] no teachers and no models.” Heathcliff and Rochester had morphed into the daydreaming William Fisher in Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959), the upwardly mobile Joe Lampton in Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), Vic Brown in Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) and the angry young Frank Machin, who leaves the pit to play league rugby in David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960).

The other England: (from top left) Thomas De Quincey,
John Braine, Charlotte Brontë and Alan Bennett
Photos: Bridgeman, Rex, Getty

 

The West Riding of Waterhouse, Braine and Barstow is isolated and landlocked, caught, as David Storey puts it, between “two deep and narrow valleys on the eastern slope of the Pennines”. Its “obsessively puritan” inhabitants operate on a “very simple morality: that work is good and that indolence is not so much deplorable or unfortunate as evil”. In Storey’s Wakefield mining community, the maxim is further simplified: physical work is good and mental work is evil.

In the opening pages of Room at the Top, Braine’s first novel, we read: “I came to Warley on a wet September morning with the sky the grey of Guiseley sandstone.” Warley is the name Braine gives to Bradford; Guiseley is a small town in the suburbs of north-west Leeds. We note the weather; the writing is spare. In an interview with J B Priestley – another Bradford man – Braine described his home town as dominated “more than any other in England . . . by a success ethos”, an ethos that is at the heart of his fiction. Joe Lampton comes to Warley from Dufton with the aim of earning £1,000 a year. He secures a desk job, joins the amateur dramatic society and gets the girls.

“It is hard now to convey,” Stan Barstow once said, “the importance of Room at the Top for a generation of writers from the north of England.” Braine’s novel allowed Barstow, Storey and Waterhouse “to hoe their own row”, to write about the world they knew “from the inside”.

In Billy Liar, William Fisher, working for the local undertaker and living with his parents in a small Yorkshire town, fantasises about life as a comedy writer in London. In Barstow’s A Kind of Loving, Vic Brown’s dreams end when he gets his girlfriend pregnant and, because there is a housing shortage, the couple move in with her mother.

What readers responded to in these novels (and in the films that they all became) was the primitive sexuality of the men. D H Lawrence, the last provincial writer to have risen to the top, had cleared the path in this respect. Working-class men, especially those with northern accents, were represented as more masculine than their middle-class counterparts who “spoke properly”. Working- class characters in books had, in the past, been described solely in terms of social economy, while middle-class characters were endowed with psychological depth. William Fisher and Vic Brown were given complex moral interiors; Billy constructed his own reality, while for all his banter about sex, it is love that Vic is looking for.

The 1960s was the decade of angry young men, lecherous young men, chancers, Jack the Lad figures and blokes. Gone were the effete, over-educated southerners such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, who had dominated the pre-war literary scene. So macho was the atmosphere that women such as Winifred Holtby, who had helped to shape the landscape, might be forgotten. Snootily described by Virginia Woolf as a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter who learned to read while feeding the pigs, Holtby was a socialist feminist who lectured for the League of Nations.

Her novel South Riding, later adapted for television by Stan Barstow (South Riding is a fictionalisation of Holtby’s native East Riding), was published in 1936, a year after her early death. A state-of-the-nation romance, the plot might be described as Jane Eyre uncovers local government corruption. Sarah Burton, an idealistic young headmistress, takes over a school in Kiplington (an amalgam of Hornsey and Withernsea) and gets involved in council politics; her nemesis, the conservative Robert Carne, proprietor of the dessicated Maythorpe Hall, eventually wins her heart.

Holtby was well aware that the accessibility of her writing was out of sync with the ethos of the Bloomsbury set. In her critical study of Virginia Woolf (which was published in 1932) – the first such book on Woolf to appear – Holtby weighed up the benefits of modernist and traditional fiction and found herself preferring literary democracy over elitism, the values of the north over those of the south.

If we follow a female line, Holtby is succeeded by Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Jeanette Winterson, who are rooted, respectively, in Yorkshire, Liverpool and Lancashire. She is preceded by the Knutsfordraised Elizabeth Gaskell, whose North and South (1855) appeared at around the same period as Dickens’s Hard Times. Both Gaskell and Dickens set their stories in Manchester, which Dickens called Coketown and Gaskell called Milton. While Dickens wrote from the position of a Londoner, Mrs Gaskell, who now lived in the great Cottonopolis, understood, as Charlotte Brontë said, “the genius of the north”.

A tale of two Englands, North and South describes the transformation of Margaret Hale from stuck-up southerner to informed observer of the Industrial Revolution. Her family moves from the tranquil Helstone, a place of thatched cottages and owls in hollow trees, to the smog-ridden Milton, a place of dust and tuberculosis. Their arrival coincides with a series of strikes at the local mill. Sympathising with the impoverished workers, Margaret clashes with the factory owner, the wrong but romantic John Thornton. By the close of the novel, she has learned to love not only the cotton mills but Thornton, too.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), written as a homage to her friend after her death, fuelled the myth of the elemental northern writer. The book begins in wailing wind, with a description of the Leeds and Bradford railway running through “a deep valley of the Aire”; Gaskell arrives in Haworth on a “dull, drizzly, Indian-inky day”.

The Brontë family is described as carved out of the landscape – as Ted Hughes, raised on the Pennine moorland would also seem – and Charlotte’s story is told as though she were a character from one of her novels. Yet the Brontës had already constructed their own mythology.

In a letter to Wordsworth, Branwell Brontë had said that he, like the poet, lived in “wild seclusion”, with only rocks and stones and trees for company. Haworth Parsonage was on the edge of the moor but it was not secluded; there was a village attached. Four miles away was Keighley, which, as Gaskell points out, with its “great worsted factories” and “rows of workmen’s houses”, could “hardly be called ‘country’”.

Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey in the
1959 adaptation of "Room at the Top"
Photo: Rex/Courtesy of Everett Collection

The Brontës’ model of the Romantic life came from the biographical sketches of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy by Thomas De Quincey, a Mancunian – a scandalous series of articles written for Blackwood’s Magazine in 1837. Today, Wordsworth is largely presented as the asexual spokesman of leech-gatherers and idiot boys but De Quincey described the poet, who was bourgeois to his marrow, as barely civilised and semi-incestuous. With his teeth bared and his eyes flashing, Wordsworth was fuelled by “animal appetites”. Dorothy, who her brother would kiss on the mouth, was also “beyond any person I have known in this world . . . the creature of impulse”.

Emily Brontë, who read Blackwood’s Magazine, surely based her tale of barely civilised and semi-incestuous siblings on this account of the Wordsworths. When I read Wuthering Heights, I am reminded of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals, in which she describes the two and half years that she lived alone with her brother in Dove Cottage, before he married and was transformed from a wild, Heathcliff- like figure to a gentleman resembling the priggish Edgar Linton. The nature of Dorothy’s love for William, which is hard for us to understand, is replicated in Cathy’s well-known des cription of her love for Heathcliff. Less a pleasure than a necessity, it is like “the eternal rocks beneath”.

“We are all, at heart, Wordsworthians,” writes J B Priestley of his fellow northerners in English Journey (1934). He has reached the point of his tour at which he is heading home. The hills have become “solidly black, their edges very sharp against the last faint silver of the day”; they are beginning to take on “that Wordsworthian quality which belongs to the north”.

Native northerners, Priestley writes, “have to make an effort to appreciate a poet like Shelley, with his rather gassy enthusiasm and his bright Italian colouring; but we have Wordsworth in our very legs”. (Wordsworth’s legs, according to De Quincey, were not his best feature; short and stocky, they were suited only for contemplating nature. It was a pity that he did not have a spare pair for “evening dress parties”.)

It is one of the peculiarities of the Lake District that, apart from its effect on Wordsworth, the sublimity of the landscape stems the flow of creativity. Wordsworth’s aim in the Lyrical Ballads was to write in “the very language of men” (he rhymed “water” with “matter”) but the writers who followed him to Grasmere found themselves tongue-tied.

Wordsworth country quickly became, as Michael Neve has put it, a country called Wordsworth: he is the only poet able to grow in its soil. The poet in Coleridge died when he moved from the coombs of the Quantocks to the crags of the lakes. De Quincey, Wordsworth’s first fan, lived in Dove Cottage for over 20 years but – like Ted Hughes – did his best writing down south.

De Quincey set his store by poetry but produced not a line of his own verse; his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, mentions the country called Wordsworth – now his own turf – only from a safe distance.

The young De Quincey, who has run away from Manchester Grammar School, finds himself homeless and hungry on Oxford Street in London, a copy of Lyrical Ballads in his pocket. It is Wordsworth he wants to meet and Words worth’s rural idyll that he wants to inhabit. Like Branwell Brontë, he has written to the poet to prove his Romantic credentials. It is a cold night and he looks “up every avenue in succession which pierces through the heart of Marylebone to the fields and the woods; for that, said I, travelling with my eyes up the long vistas which lay part in light and part in shade, ‘That is the road to the north, and therefore to [Wordsworth], and if I had the wings of a dove, that way I would fly for comfort.’”

This was Thomas De Quincey’s version of writing home.

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Martin Amis v The Provinces

By Philip Maughan

The Arctic Monkeys knew what they were doing when they chose the title for their debut album. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, a line from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, perfectly captures the brooding, self-defeating energies that power northern fiction.

Billy Fisher, the protagonist in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar, dreams of a life as a writer in London. But when the opportunity to begin a new life in the south presents itself, he opts not to get on the train. Likewise, Sillitoe’s lonely long-distance runner Colin Smith is a highly cognisant thief, who, at the point when he is about to win a competition and delight his borstal masters, stops running. The barrier to “success” is not his incapacity, or want of personal volition. It is the realisation that he is competing in someone else’s race.

In 1957, John Braine, the author of Room at the Top, wrote an affectionate yet satirical essay entitled “Portrait of a Provincial Intellectual” for the NS. The narrator mocks his own pretensions (freshly ground coffee, no more tea) and the local scene (“the Little Theatre and the Arts Group”) and ends with a familiar refrain: “The next time the London job was offered, he wouldn’t say no.”

Eighteen years later, Martin Amis scorned Braine’s sole literary triumph: “One wonders what sort of shape the late-1950s imagination must have been in to get itself captured by such a modest and unsophisticated book,” he wrote. All sympathy for the thwarted outsider had drained away, partly due to Braine’s shift to the political right and partly due to Amis’s snotty metropolitanism. He recently told an audience at the RSA: “England is a one-city nation. I get the horrors when I go to provincial England. The sort of trundling, pottering English – I can’t be doing with that.”

The genius of the angry young men was to build vivid fictions from the soiled matter of everyday life. They expanded the boundaries of British fiction. Today’s northern writers – Sarah Hall, David Peace, Jon McGregor, Sunjeev Sahota – concern themselves with epic themes: nature, violence, landscape, multiculturalism. They are among the most inventive stylists in contemporary fiction and draw no end of blood from trundling, pottering life.