The North by Paul Morley: Warmth, decency, truth and proper beer, with a side order of menace

For everyone who is exasperated by Morley’s oblique, mazy, impressionistic style, there will be others who will be seduced by its heft, even if they don’t realise quite how good it is.

The North: and Almost Everything In It
Paul Morley
Bloomsbury, 592pp, £20

The BBC doesn’t have a south of England correspondent. It always has one for the north of England, though, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Usually he’s one of their more “lived-in” presenters – a stocky man in his early fifties, with jowls and a salt-and-pepper beard and clad in Gore-Tex. He looks like he might have played rugby league in his time and knows where you can place a bet or get a Guinness in Oldham at six in the morning. He’s most often to be found looking tense outside a courtroom in Bolton at the conclusion of a major drugs trial, or standing in front of yellow police tape by a burned-out Mondeo on a Yorkshire sink estate where some sort of armed siege is occurring.

There’s no south of England correspondent because there is no need for one, which is a tacit acknowledgment of how events within the M25 beltway dominate our national agenda. In a similar vein, no one has ever been accused of being a professional southerner. There’s any number of people of whom you might say it – Suggs, John Terry, Alan Sugar, pretty much everyone on Radio 4’s satire shows, the Queen, Rick Stein – but the idea is somehow absurd . . . possibly apart from Chas’n’Dave.

None of this is to be heard in a register of high dudgeon, complaint or, heaven forbid, chippiness. It’s just to realise that the north is different, other, singular, even weird. Depending on where you’re standing, it means desolation, a cultural wasteland, arctic temperatures, whippets and limited dining opportunities. Or warmth, decency, truth and proper beer, with a side order of menace.

The books about the north could probably fill a shelf of your local library by now, if you still had one. I have to plead guilty to adding to the load. They range from the thoughtful and sympathetic, such as Graham Turner’s sadly out-of-print The North Country, to the sweet, sticky homilies of Gervase Phinn, to sneering dismissals, as in Charles Jennings’s rotten Up North. Paul Morley’s weighty new work probably deserves a section to itself: the poetic, stream-of-consciousness, socio-historical, non-linear memoir-cum-gazetteer.

There are the things you’ll expect from Morley if you’re familiar with his oeuvre. He soars above the landscape with daring and verve and ambition and brings it to life with his usual heady and mesmerising prose gymnastics. There are delicious, dizzying switches of perspective, Escher-like switchbacks, blind alleys and diversions. He is catholic in his tastes, and thinks nothing of corralling the inscrutable novelist W G Sebald and blowsy Julie Goodyear, Coronation Street’s Bet Lynch, in a single paragraph.

This is the sort of stuff that’s had many of us hanging on his every word (and there are generally lots of them) since his NME days. But there are things here that will surprise even devotees. There’s history, geology, geography, all conveyed with clarity and concision. There are delightful, unexpected riffs and obbligatos, such as a paean to “the crystalline elegance” of cricket.

This being Morley country, there are also constant but consistently illuminating digressions, meandering from Alan Turing through to Bernard Manning to the abandoned slip road in the sky just off the Mancunian Way. I learned something on pretty much every page – how Norman Foster’s architectural vision took shape in a terraced house in Levenshulme, Manchester, where he dreamed of clean lines and uncluttered form, or how Henry Moore’s aesthetic was formed in a similar tiny terrace in Yorkshire.

George Orwell once wrote that “only by resurrecting our own memories can we realise how incredibly distorted is the child’s vision of the world”. I, for one, was convinced as a small child that the spacecraft in the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson puppet series Fireball XL5 was launched from the abandoned colliery behind my grandmother’s house. An excursion to find it when I was about four caused my parents, and subsequently me, no small pain.

It seems Morley moved in a world of similar misconceptions and rumours. He is superb at conjuring the orbit of a northern child in the Sixties and Seventies – a small, proscribed world of adverts, tinned food and cramped bedrooms with the sense, beyond that pool of light, of a barely understood adult world and a darkness in the hills that stood at the end of every street. A darkness made flesh in the shape of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady:

The illustrations alone give a flavour of the book’s charming and eccentric eclectism. Viv Nicholson, the Sex Pistols in Manchester in 1976. Wittgenstein flying a kite in a muddy field in Glossop circa 1908. Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel in Nearest and Dearest, Scafell Pike, the Preston by-pass. Best of all for this reader was the evocative rainy snap of the locally famous orange-and-white “Fried Egg” buses run by Selnec which, despite sounding like the kind of shadowy organisation bent on world domination à laSmersh, was actually just a bus company.

Those looking for an overarching narrative in The North will be disappointed, as will those in the market for a briskly chronological history or a neatly plotted travelogue. The book unfolds like a recalcitrant OS map, opens up like an advent calendar, accrues meaning and detail like barnacles, but core themes and threads anchor it in Morley’s experience. Stockport, or more specifically Reddish, is at the centre of it, and he describes how, for a child, a few streets, a park, a shop, a patch of waste ground, become the limits of the known world.

For everyone who is exasperated by Morley’s oblique, mazy, impressionistic style, there will be others who will be seduced by its heft, even if they don’t realise quite how good it is. Yet it is more than just an ox-stunning tome. It is rich and dense, and its sprawling nature encourages one to luxuriate, exploring it at your leisure and finding the odd tracks that link say, Ken Dodd to L S Lowry.

I would have liked a few more laughs perhaps, possibly because I know how funny both Morley and the north of England are. It is a particular kind of humour, as T S Eliot noted: “Lancashire wit is mordant, ferocious, and personal.” Morrissey had this. Frank Randle had it. It is as much a recognisable landmark and feature of the region as the Pennines or Blackpool Tower.

Then again, Morley has done well to find the right voice and tone for this huge, kaleidoscopic work and he sustains it, measured but lyrical and with a kind of bottom note of melancholy. Maybe wisecracks and asides would have jarred. As it is, this is a book to lose oneself in, as long as you’re not too worried about where you emerge or when you might get there.

Whether you have to be northern to set out on the journey or not, I’m not sure. For those – and there will be some –who find The North baffling or unnavigable, Morrissey has the perfect riposte: “But you’re southern. You wouldn’t understand. When you’re northern, you’re northern for ever, and you’re instilled with a certain feel for life that you can’t get rid of. You really can’t.”

The Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, c.1950. Photograph: Getty Images

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.