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The myths of “the north”

Alex Niven’s The North Will Rise Again is a missed chance – a sustained swipe at a government long gone rather than a sober analysis of today’s north.

By Stuart Maconie

Early in Russell T Davies’s reboot of the Doctor Who franchise, Billie Piper’s Rose addresses a potential issue for pedantic viewers. “If you’re an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the north?” she asked, to which the Doctor, played by Salfordian Christopher Eccleston, replies, “Lots of planets have a north.”

That wisecrack is latitudinal and attitudinal. There’s a geographical north of course, but there is also what the great Canadian pianist and broadcaster Glenn Gould called “The Idea of North”, something cold and spare, austere and mystical. Or, in the English case, brash, streetwise and pimp-rolling. Lots of planets have a north. But there’s a plurality of norths too – Harrogate is very different to Byker – and the groaning shelf of literature about the region attests to this fertile motherlode for writers (and northerners) as different as Paul Morley, Emily Brontë and James Herriot.

The title of Alex Niven’s book – which is variously memoir, cultural critique, coursework essay, potted indie-rock digest and, eventually and unexpectedly, election pamphlet – nods (consciously, one imagines) to post-punk band the Fall’s rebarbative epic “The NWRA”. Mark E Smith’s title is a sardonic take on the Confederate slogan “The South Will Rise Again”, both being effectively whingeing boasts, steeped in failure and exceptionalism. The Fall continue an aesthetic we might call, to paraphrase Greil Marcus’s evocation of “the Old Weird America”, “the Old Weird North”, a north of Lowry’s haunted streetscapes of stunted, scurrying figures, satanic mills, high moors and their dark secrets, diphtheria and street urchins five to a filthy bed. Contrast this with the contemporary dazzle of millennium bridges, sleek trams, the Sage and the Baltic glittering by the Tyne, Salford’s MediaCity rising from the Manchester Ship Canal’s abandoned docks. This book is suspicious of both.

Niven, a co-founder of the radical publisher Repeater Books and a lecturer at Newcastle University, grew up in the north-east. He sees the north as craggy cradle of tradition but also crucible of modernity, from T Dan Smith’s doomed architectural dreams of Newcastle as “the Brasilia of the north” to the experimental poetry of the 1960s centred around the Morden Tower poets. Basil Bunting is lionised, as is customary these days, and Barry MacSweeney, another “outlier”, is acclaimed as superior to unnamed “duller, Poet-Laureate-style figures”. Who are these dullards? Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes presumably, all of them superior poets to MacSweeney. It may be “dull” to point this out, but it’s unarguably the truth.

[See also: The strange death of the centre right]

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There are digressions, interesting ones, into subjects such as the pickling, deleterious effects of alcohol on the northern psyche, as seen in the work and lives of Andrea Dunbar, John Braine and Paul Gascoigne. Niven is good too on the melancholic, bitter-sweet descant of failure detectable in Victoria Wood, Phoenix Nights, Morrissey and others – the sad, plangent bottom note audible beneath the raucous swagger. His reading of the papier-mâché-headed grotesque Frank Sidebottom, the comic creation of Chris Sievey, is welcome and provocative. Unlike the consensual romantic view – namely that the character was uncomplicatedly charming and joyous – Niven notes that Frank’s persona contains “a kind of tacit admission that the dreams of the north and northerners would ultimately come to dust… this gentle parody of northern hopelessness, who had himself become a slightly hopeless figure in the hollowed-out culture of Noughties Manchester”. There’s something both true and uncomfortable in this and it is admirably frank (apologies) to point it out.

He concludes, though, of his time in that city with his former band Everything Everything (he was a founding member), that it “existed for us as a largely incidental backdrop, perhaps in part because everywhere in Britain in the New Labour years had started to look more or less the same”. This will come as a surprise to anyone who experienced, say, both Belgravia and Wigan during this period, or Cleator Moor and Chipping Norton. Echoes of Private Eye’s Trotskyite cliché-monger Dave Spart abound. It is simply not good enough to slander anyone suspicious of Jeremy Corbyn and his cult as a “fogey” or anyone unimpressed by Diane Abbott as a racist, “thinly veiled” or not.

Slowly then, the book reveals its interest in the Northern Independence Party (NIP), which Niven describes as initially “a sort of bedroom joke devised… in the 2020 Covid lockdown… a sort of high-camp, surrealistic political brand”. Nonetheless, he admires the party’s “ethical creed”, even while ruefully acknowledging that it has “very little chance of even moderate electoral success – largely due to Britain’s antiquated first-past-the-post system”.

This is, frankly, bunkum. The NIP candidate in the 2022 Wakefield by-election received 84 votes, coming 14th out of 15 with 0.3 per cent of the turnout. The Monster Raving Loony Party did twice as well. It’s hard to conceive of any electoral system, short of a lottery, in which the NIP would even get its deposit back. The former Labour comms staffer James Matthewson identified the NIP as “a glorified Twitter account… a fetishisation of northern working-class culture by privileged, middle-class, hard-left ideologues”. Niven isn’t one of these – nor is he a member or campaigner for the NIP – which is why it’s puzzling that a portion of this ambitious, thoughtful book reads like election material for them, a party whose logo is a whippet silhouette.

This compounds the feel of The North Will Rise Again as a missed chance, a sustained swipe at a government long gone, a book that could have been published two decades ago, rather than a sober analysis of a post-Johnson north. I’d have liked much more on Andy Burnham, Lisa Nandy, Rachel Reeves and other significant figures of today’s northern political landscape, and a steelier look at the ongoing inequalities in transport provision and vapid chimeras such as “levelling up” and “the Northern Powerhouse”. Continuing to complain instead about Tony Blair seems rather like railing against the use of children as chimney sweeps or the removal of the cardboard trays in Bounty bars, a reform that enraged Sheffield’s Jarvis Cocker.

In the end this is a provocative, sometimes fascinating read, but perhaps a mislabelled one. It is very much about Northumbria rather than the north as a whole. Merseyside is hardly mentioned. Liverpool physically turns its back on the sullen towns of the west Lancashire plain, but it is still indubitably northern. And rather than a work of futurology, The North Will Rise Again is essentially elegiac (“and so the blend of victimhood and hopeless dreaming is compounded in a seemingly endless and inescapable cycle”) even when it is at its most pugnacious: “A truly viable, autonomous northern polity can only hope to succeed when the south-east-based English establishment is torn up at the roots.”

[See also: Michael Bracewell’s anatomy of English nostalgia]

This may well be true. But good luck with that, as the sarky northerner in me wants to say. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that if the north of England were a country, it would come above only Greece at the bottom of a league table for public and private investment. Whippet logos and secessionist dreams make for counterfactual novels and comedy sketches. But if the north is to rise again, it will be by taking its seat at the table.

Clarification: on 21 February this article was amended to emphasise that Alex Niven is not a campaigner for or member of the Northern Independence Party.

Stuart Maconie’s “The Full English: A Journey in Search of a Country and its People” is published in April (HarperNorth)

The North Will Rise Again
Alex Niven
Bloomsbury Continuum, 336pp, £18

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid