The Angel of the North, perpetual symbol of all things Not-In-the-South. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: A "southern sod" discovers the north on foot

Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape.

There’s nothing that the great mass of us enjoy more than exercising our fine discrimination: “This is good,” we delight in saying, “while that is emphatically bad.” We point to the sky and announce, “Up!” Then gesture to the ground while weightily intoning, “Down.” We have no hesitation when it comes to branding things, convictions and even people as either U or non-U and, although our numerical system is decimal, we’d probably prefer it if it was binary. All of which explains, at least in part, why it is that we speak of “the north” and “the south” as if they were entirely distinct places, separated not by another debatable land, the Midlands, but miles of desert or raging ocean.

I say this mental foible provides only a partial explanation because the history of our false regional dichotomising is bound up with our history. I don’t mean to suggest that there is no distinctive culture in the north of England – I’m not suicidal – but the great extent to which we perceive it as so is, I think, paradoxical. As the first industrialised nation, we experienced the great homogenising impact of the railways earliest – and began accommodating to it right away. By the 1840s, you could travel from pea-soupers to mushy peas in a matter of hours and I’d contend it was the sheer pleasure in traversing this disjunction that helped to preserve it in the aspic of our anecdotage.

Today, with local dialects being steadily submerged beneath the estuarine mud and quaint customs crumbing into dust like desiccated corn dollies, we find only the strong contrast provided by rapid north-south transit gives us any sense of change at all – and so we laud it: “This is north!” We cry, clogdancing our way into Piccadilly, although we were soft-shoe-shuffling our way through the London one only a short time before. But if you want to understand how the south shades imperceptibly into the north, there’s a way at hand (or, perhaps, foot): simply walk there – which is what my 11-year-old son and I did this summer, setting off from our home in London on the morning of 12 July and arriving in Whitby, North Yorkshire, 15 days and 288 miles later.

Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape, because when you’re labouring up and down hills rather than caroming through cuttings, you register every minute alteration in vernacular architecture, in flora and fauna; and when you stop in a pub for a ginger beer and packet of crisps, you also register the equally subtle modulation of the barman’s accent as against that of the barman in the last pub. On the East Coast main line, Peterborough seems like an outer-London suburb, gained after an hour or so of clacking and snacking; but if you take five days getting there and spend the night before at Cromwell’s home town, Huntingdon, you’re in no doubt that you’re in the Roundheaded Midlands.

And if you then set off across the shimmering agri-desert of Lincolnshire – which takes another five days to traverse on foot – you begin to appreciate how this land is a great and dappled unity. Indeed, Lincolnshire is so very big that while its feet dabble in the metropolitan hugger-mugger, its head is in the northern fastness. In Spalding, there was still a nasal whine to the accent and the speciality in Turner’s chip shop was mushy peas with balsamic vinegar but by the time we got to Caistor on the northern edge of the Wolds, we were being served chip butties within eebah-gumming distance of the Humber.

Still, if I were forced to identify a precise point where south met north and it was quite impossible for me to exercise my own fine discrimination, then I’d say it came in the little village of Helpringham, about 111 miles due north of London. We came sweating in out of the heatwave to the Nag’s Head pub, got our ginger beers in and sat watching, enthralled, as a group of middle-aged men started performing calisthenic tricks in the public bar. One picked up a beer mat with his mouth while doing the splits, then a second – still more Father William – was encouraged to do his party piece: standing on his head. With jokey asides, we were made to feel that we were included in this display and while I’m by no means certain that such antics don’t go on down souf, nonetheless the sense of beery masculine sodality seemed, to this southern sod, very definitely of the north.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser