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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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