Northern Humour

Reading & Writing

This year I’m collecting and rewriting my ‘Invisible Ink’ columns into a book about once-popular authors who are now being forgotten (the weekly column continues in the Independent on Sunday). One noticeable group of writers is vanishing more quickly than others; the Northern comic authors.

The Northern comic sensibility is dark and dry. The above 48-sheet posters were put up to advertise the Northern equivalent of Coca-Cola, the peculiar amber-coloured drink Irn-Bru. They reflect that humour rather well.

After the second world war a new generation of writers emerged from the North of England. They brought a new sensibility to film, theatre, television and literature. Shelagh Delaney, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, David Nobbs and Peter Tinniswood all produced books and theatre work that mirrored life lived in more trying and painful circumstances than in the South. There’s a strong tradition of Northern comic writers who can hold tragedy and comedy in harmonious balance.

Keith Waterhouse wrote one of my favourite novels, ‘Billy Liar’, with its unbearably poignant ending, and introduced Julie Christie to the screen in its film version.

Happily David Nobbs is still writing. He wrote the Reginald Perrin books, while Peter Tinniswood commenced the long-running saga of the Brandon family with A Touch Of Daniel, which was serialised by the BBC. He’s a lovely scene-setter: ‘It was the time of year when bus conductors first appear in linen jackets.’ His deadpan throwaway style translated poorly to television.

He wrote the surreal cricketing series Tales From The Long Room, but was capable of stranger stories. The Stirk of Stirk is a highly peculiar prose poem that drops the reader into Robin Hood’s darkest winter as, with rumbling stomach and perishing soul, the bandit faces his greatest enemy.

Hood knows that creeping age and his inability to live up to his own legend will finish him off, yet simply refuses to die. The book is suffused with Northern chill and melancholy, but even in the blackest moments Tinniswood lights candles of hope. Here a laugh is described as ‘a sound that would curdle the eggs in a goldcrest’s womb’ and ‘saliva makes bitter fountains in the mouth’ as the starving Hood staggers on into history. This kind of heightened stylisation has fallen from popularity. Reading Tinniswood is like skimming any recent book on fast-forward, such is his ability to drag the reader through a colourful story.

15 comments on “Northern Humour”

  1. Roger says:

    The above 48-sheet posters were put up to advertise the Northern equivalent of Coca-Cola, the peculiar amber-coloured drink Irn-Bru.

    Irn-Bru is popular further North than the North, actually. It’s mainly drunk in Scotland.
    Another fine Northern writer (and publisher was J.L. Carr, subject of a biography, The Last Englishman, by the Welshh exile Byron Rogers.

  2. Matt McG says:

    Nit-picking, maybe, but Irn-Bru [and the ads] are Scottish, rather than from the North of England. The company started in Falkirk, in central Scotland, in the late 19th century.

  3. Gretta says:

    What they said. Scottish, admin. Most very definitely absolutely and totally, Scottish. And further more, it’s not ‘peculiar’; it’s bloody good. I am *this* close to harumph-ing in your general direction. Northern, indeed!

    Anyway…*ahem*…I didn’t realise Billy Liar was based on a book. Will need to search it out.

  4. admin says:

    Ah – the only place I’ve bought this very strange drink was in Manchester.

  5. Porl says:

    “They’ll give you the screamin’ abdabs.
    One of these, two two-and-nines at the Regal, bag of chips and you’re away!”

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    Manchester’s in the midlands I’m reliably informed. Irn Bru is Scottish as everyone has said, though there’s the big McVities factory in Carlisle so it’s not as if they’re above this border-reiver malarky still.

  7. Ken M says:

    This made me think of Henry Livings, and the bizarre fact that he wrote one of Dustin Hoffman’s early successes.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Both Carlisle and McVities are Scottish, are they not, and not pretending to anything else? although I know they’re widely eaten in England (the biscuits, of course, idiot!) If I make it to that sceptr’d isle again the first thing I’ll do is find a can of that Irn Bru. Manchester is definitively the Midlands. Admin should get out more. Drag him North, you lot. Take him to Dundee for the cake and the Shetlands for sweaters and Eigg for …whatever.

  9. Gretta says:

    Carlisle is in Cumbria, NW England, not Scotland. Manchester is in Lancashire(or Cheshire, or neither, or both, depending on who you talk to), NW England, not the Midlands. Manchester is not as far north as Sunderland or Newcastle – or Carlisle for that matter – but is still very definitely North, with a capital ‘N’. Birmingham is in the Midlands, and would be exceedingly miffed, to put it mildly, at the thought of having Mancs for neighbours.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    I was joshing about Manchester, though only a little – round here people wouldn’t regard it as being part of the north, not really. It’s got shoe shops and other modern things that aren’t sheep. It’s on the cusp, Lancashire being the north and Cheshire being the midlands. Or so its been explained. I just live here, I’m from the south, anything above Borehamwood is the north as far as I’m concerned. Well, the midlands…

  11. Alan G says:

    Can I swipe the cow poster? I want to print it and deliver it with a can of Irn-Bru (Made from Girders) to a veggie mate…

  12. glasgow1975 says:
    It’s not Xmas ‘up North’, (ie. Scotland) ’til this has been on tele.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    So my geography is bad. Why do I have this clear image of Carlisle being north of the border? Still there is definite uncertainty about where the midlands really are. Perhaps I need to get out more.

  14. Sparro says:

    Forget Irn-Bru, fizzy rust that it is; In Lancashire the gassy tipple used to be sasparella; not so many years ago, it was still available on draught in Bolton Market from a dramatic soda-water fountain. The mill-towns answer to Coca-Cola.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Sarsaparilla = root beer. I like root beer so I think Irn Bru is still on.

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