The North: and Almost Everything In It
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.”