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.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1970 issue of the New Statesman,

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A powerful portrait of the Bangladeshi textiles industry

Jeremy Seabrook's The Song of the Shirt goes beyond hand-wringing to investigate the true cost of cheap labour.

On 24 April 2013, an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza in the Bangladeshi capital city, Dhaka, collapsed. Hundreds of bodies were buried in the rubble. The search for the dead went on for weeks. More than 1,000 people lost their lives; 2,500 were injured. The deadliest ­accident at a garment factory in history, the incident shone a light on the dire conditions endured by those who produce cheap clothing for the west.

In a cramped and unstable building, the workers – many of whom were women – stitched clothes for international brands such as Benetton and Primark. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of what happened was the wanton disregard for human life shown by the bosses. The building was clearly structurally unsound. The day before the disaster, cracks had appeared in the walls. But many workers were ordered to return the next day. Some of those who died had yet to receive their first pay cheque.

While the international firms that sold clothes made at Rana Plaza have offered ­financial compensation to the survivors and to families of the victims, not much has happened to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. This is not surprising. Numerous factory fires in recent years, cumulatively resulting in the deaths of hundreds of workers, have also failed to trigger any systemic change.

In his book The Song of the Shirt, Jeremy Seabrook goes beyond the all-too-transient hand-wringing about sweatshops that has typified much of the media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters. Seabrook is nothing if not prolific. He has written about forty books over the course of five decades, many of them focusing on poverty and development, both in the UK and on the Indian subcontinent. For several years he was a columnist for the New Statesman in Kolkata.

The richness of that experience is evident in this book. Researched over the course of many years, it stitches together history, folklore and hundreds of encounters with individual Bangladeshis to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices that have led to the present situation.

“The position of Bangladesh in the division of labour of globalism today is not to clothe the nakedness of the world but to provide it with limitless, cheap garments,” he writes. “The workers are disposable, rags of humanity, as it were, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export.”

In lyrical prose, Seabrook places the personal stories of garment workers and their families in a broader context, showing them as dots in a bigger picture of the destructive effects of British colonisation and the injustices of modern globalisation, but also as the inheritors of their history: a people who have long been associated with weaving, in a country at the mercy of the ­elements, where riverbanks break and ­water consumes whatever scant resources the poor have.

The stories of the people Seabrook meets often extend to just a few paragraphs and the chapters, too, are short, sometimes just a couple of pages. Yet this fragmentary approach never feels disjointed. Rather, each small section layers on the last, gradually building up a complex and textured whole that illustrates the ways in which big ideas – colonisation, industrialisation and deindustrialisation – play out on the smallest of levels.

What distinguishes this book is its deep historical consciousness. Quietly outraged, Seabrook sets out in detail how in the 18th century the East India Company deliberately destroyed the long-established weaving industry in Bengal in order to promote British textiles. At times, he makes specific comparisons, noting that the workers of Bengal were forced to produce opium, which was then used for sedatives and medicines that made things “less harsh for the disaffected and sometimes mutinous workers of industrial Britain”.

He also applies these contrasts, which illustrate relative privilege, to the present day, describing children at a factory in Dhaka who stitch clothes together for the lower end of the European and North American markets. “The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the west,” he writes. Elsewhere, he makes a cross-historical comparison between workers in the north of England in the 19th century and today’s Bangladeshi garment workers. Both groups are casualties of unjust capitalism.

Seabrook travels outside Dhaka, notably to Barisal, a city where poverty is so deep that families – many of which have lost what scant land they had to flooding – have no option but to send their daughters to work in the capital’s garment factories. These brief stories are woven into a fabric that displays the relentlessness of poverty in places hardly touched by modernity and the claustrophobic pressing-inwards of structural inequality.

Seabrook is at his best outlining the living conditions of the poor. He tells their stories dispassionately but vividly, always according his subjects dignity. These are people with the odds stacked against them. Lima, a garment worker who has migrated from Barisal to Dhaka, dreams of earning enough money to purchase land in her village and become self-sufficient. Seabrook explains to readers that it would take her 13 years to earn enough to buy a tenth of the land required for self-sufficiency. “Still, she goes about her daily work meekly obedient; her trust is absolute, both in the future and the grace of a God who will not fail her.”

There is not much hope in The Song of the Shirt but, sadly, that is a realistic representation of the situation. At present, for all the moments of collective outrage, there remains a huge demand in the west for cheap clothing, which is met by the supply of cheap labour in southern Asia. And if cheaper labour appears elsewhere, this industry that has sprung up so quickly that its buildings are hardly fit for purpose will instantly relocate.

Fittingly for what begins as a study of mutability, Seabrook ends with a question: “Will the resourcefulness of humanity demand a new and more ample relationship with material resources, one that does not continuously deplete the reservoirs of human energy, nor exhaust the limited treasures of a wasting planet?” We do not yet have an answer.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism