Our Friends In The North

Great Britain

You know the North, it’s where all the bad people live. ‘Winter is Coming’. France is stuck with Brittany, Spain with the Basques. But whisper the heresy…in England it’s not actually very grim up North.

The weather yes, obviously, but it seems to me that many Northern writers got stuck with a hometown tag they didn’t deserve. The words ‘depressing’ and ‘grim’ still pop up all the time when southerners mention the top half of the country. The North of England is, largely speaking, so different now that writers from the great postwar era of Northern British writing would not recognise their old neighbourhoods.

The grandchildren of those born to the collieries and potteries, the textile mills and back-to-backs are setting up companies, running online start-ups, performing in arts centres, renovating property, working in Europe. They travel the world and are mindful of their health (although I’m told it will take some years for the Northern love of sugar to be curbed).

Even in the roughest parts I’ve visited, outside Manchester and Glasgow, I’ve not seen the levels of poverty that I know existed in the 1960s. To get a sense of just how trapped in Victorian times it was, watch ‘The Whisperers’, filmed on location in the Lancashire town of Oldham, a once-thriving textile centre which by 1967 had fallen into decline. (Watch it anyway for Dame Edith Evans’ Oscar-winning performance).

A mate of mine called Porl works for the innovative theatre company Slung Low in Leeds and regularly bombards me with examples of bleak northern humour. I was onto this particular pleasure a long time ago. Before the York Evening Press ran a competition to ‘Win a trip out with the city’s road gritting team!’ and the Manchester Evening News ran the headline ‘Man’s legs stolen – wedding dream shattered’, I was collecting press cuttings and uncovering writers whose dark sense of humour once got them banned from libraries.

Porl invited me up to his ‘How To…’ festival, an event in an area of derelict warehouses which blurred the lines between audiences and artists, getting people to participate. It was shamefully under-attended while, just around the corner, shoppers drifted aimlessly around chain stores gawping at knickers. After, we held a Q&A, and a young woman raised her hand with a question.

‘Can I ask – have you ever had a proper job?’

I explained that I’d been a journalist and had run a film company before becoming a writer, and she cut me off. ‘No, a proper job.’

‘Like what?’ I asked.

‘You know,’ she replied. ‘Lifting.’

True, I hadn’t done any lifting except at the gym, but I knew a bit about books. I knew that Thomas De Quincey,
John Braine, Charlotte Brontë and Alan Bennett were all from the North, as were Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Jeanette Winterson. Bainbridge’s novels, like ‘Young Adolf’, based on the myth that Hitler once worked at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, brought hilarity to death and darkness.

One of theist delightful ‘professional Northerner’ writers is cartoonist Bill Tidy (above) but all of Tidy’s fourteen rambunctious ‘Fosdyke Saga’ books are out of print, and many are now changing hands for a fortune.

Mancunian Peter Tinniswood’s hit novel ‘A Touch of Daniel’ begins like this; ‘When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty three days. At the end of this period she died, and they had a funeral.’ The author’s character Uncle Mort can’t help admiring his wife’s funeral plot and thinking what a champion crop of onions he could grow in the soil. The book spawned sequels and a hit TV series, and are comic masterpieces.

Tinniswood’s honesty about life, love, illness and death reflected life without the London varnish. The comedy writers Galton & Simpson once told me, ‘Happiness is boring. It’s tragedy that’s funny.’ Forget about the Brontës; I’ve always admired David Nobbs, John Braine, Winifred Holtby, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and Keith Waterhouse, who mixed dark and light together almost without thinking.

Their lessons are worth learning. When I started writing crime, I found myself peppering my novels with their clear-eyed mentality. ‘I’m going to a screening,’ says my elderly detective Arthur Bryant. ‘Oh, the new Alien film?’ asks his partner. ‘No,’ he cheerfully replies, ‘bowel cancer.’

What Southerners overlooked was a natural sense of fun in Northern writing. Tinniswood created a strange, poetic masterpiece called ‘The Stirk of Stirk’, a story about Robin Hood as an old man, and it could only have been written by someone who saw the cruel humour in his situation as, freezing to death, his hero wanders the woods with his dwindling crew, wondering how much longer the old ways will survive. The style is poetic. Here he is on the journeys made by house martins;

‘Desert. Ocean. Stab of lighthouse, Swoop of falcon. Lime trap. Storm. Draught. Pellets of shot gun. And here they are. Back home.’

When you feel your reading is all getting a bit too…southern, move up.



19 comments on “Our Friends In The North”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    What do expect from an area that includes place names like Grimethorpe and Grimsby? Durham has villages called Cold Heseldon, Pity Me and No Place. Northumberland has Black Callerton and Shitlington.

    A man who stands for an hour in an easterly gale waiting for the last bus to Shitlington is a very brave man indeed.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    When I read the ‘screening’ section in your book, I was struck by a mental image of it being said by Uncle Mort (as played so beautifully dourly by Robin Bailey) in ‘I Didn’t Know You Cared’. I lived in Ripon for a while in the late 1980’s, and I loved it. I was a bit thrown that people in shops would actually talk to you – ladies would call you ‘love’, and men would call you ‘mate’. Coming from a rather surly town in Suffolk, this was a shock. The fact that random people would say ‘Morning’ to you as you went shopping or whatever, threw me. As I’ve said before, every weekday morning, at eleven o’clock, an elderly man, whose name, sadly, I never found out, would cycle up the road, lean his bike against the tea-room across from my shop, buy a paper in the nextdoor newsagent, and without fail, would tap on the window, give me a cheery wave, and cycle off. Something I’ve never encountered before – somebody being friendly simply because he can, and does. I love the North. I was saddened by the recent death of Mark E Smith of that most ‘Marmite’ of bands, The Fall (I love them). I once put a cassette of their songs in the ‘muzak’ player of a shop in which I worked, and then went to lunch, taking the keys of the office in which the machine was located with me. To a lot of people my age, Mark E Smith was the North made flesh. Bolshy. Articulate. Always thinking outside the box. Didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about what people thought of him. A true one off, and I regret never being able to see The Fall play live. (Sigh). The North. It’s not evil, and it ain’t all bleedin’ pigeons and whippets.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The Stirk of Stirk – $2.35 Canadian Ah. Recommended but not obligatory.

    On a different note – the Canadian Post Office contains party poopers. They have returned my envelope as not having sufficient address. Don’t know what their problem is; the London, England UK part (give them all the alternatives) is there and that’s all the Canadians needed. Anyway, I have received it back. If you will give me a street address I will put the rejected missive in a new envelope, re-address it and mail it off again. You’re welcome.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and Hall of Mirrors arrived today.

  5. admin says:

    I’m confused, Helen – what are you sending to whom?

  6. David Millward says:

    I am now living in the North (Manchester) but am a brummie.

    This then may be an appropriate venue to inform you Mr Fowler of a stange coincidence and I do not believe in coincdences.

    Years ago I purchased your book Darkest Day and having (erroneiusly) assumed it was the ONLY Bryant and May book religiously reread it every year. I was extremely surprised last year to discover a whole series of books which I am ploughing through.

    Well, I have just started reading The Invisible Code and was staggered to have started reading this in the same week as the media output about the folk that travelled here on the SS Empire Windrush in 1948.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Chris: the puzzle envelope I did for you. As I said (but not clearly enough) if you give me a street address I’ll put it in another envelope, properly addressed, and send it on to you.

  8. John Griffin says:

    Can confirm the Victorian aspect of Oldham. Was brought up there (till 1970) and since my foster-mum worked in the cotton mill where the suffragette Annie Kenney worked (though half a century later) I rocked up there after school for a couple of hours every day. It had changed little since Kenney’s day and I was often paid by the ladies to run under the machines sweeping up, as since they were on piecework, it saved them stopping the machines. This was 1961-3. The buildings were blackened, the snow was black within a day, and central heating was a Southern affliction.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Good heavens, John, that sounds like a very dangerous activity unless there was more clearance under there that I suspect there was. The picture I used to put up on my wall calendar for Labour Day (1st Mon. in Sept.) was of a child standing next to one of the huge industrial looms and I always shuddered when I looked at it.

  10. Jan says:

    By the 1970s most of the cotton mills round my neck of the woods had been converted into bases for running catalogues from. Running the accounts, storing, dispatching goods and working out the accounts + accepting payments. All done by hand back then. I worked as a filing clerk for Fattorinis but there were loads of places, loads of catalogues. Can’t bring many to mind now JD Williams was one thats actually survived. Each mill premises was the address for half a dozen catalogues.

    Some websites are still running from the old mills. Lots of websites though are much smaller. Loads of the stall holders I talk to @ Dorchester market actually also run web sites selling their shoes, household goods etc. Same stuff they sell on their stalls. The set ups have actually got smaller. Not all Amazon size outfits!

  11. Porl says:

    Hey, Film Freak! Thanks for the mention 🙂

    Bit of trivia for you here given your love for British Films-
    The woman (Nicola) who asked you about the “proper job” and her family lived on Rivington St in Oldham – and Crompton Street, both of which are locations in HELL IS A CITY
    ( the slanted row of houses immortalised beautifully 3 seconds into this clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4bRPiumjuo and then also round the corner on Crompton St which was also used as a location in the same film! http://www.british-film-locations.com/scene-uf/Hell-Is-A-City-1960)

    (And any road Christopher Fowler if you did but know it I’ve now gone proper posh an working in Harrogate 😉 – no pikelets to be found this side o’t’ Pennines, though ;-( ………….. )

  12. admin says:

    There are a LOT of kitchen shops in Harrogate. It’s posher than my (wrong) side of the tracks in King’s Cross!

  13. David Millward says:

    Update to my earlier comment about The Invisible Code
    There is reference on page 230 about toxins used by Russians – again soemthing that has been in the press (and in Salisbury) recently.

    How did you know about these vents when you wrote the book ?

    I am now expecting to find further recent events later in this book

  14. Helen Martin says:

    (It has been known for a long time that the Russians had these toxins and everyone else holds up innocent hands to say they don’t so poisonings using those substances tend to land at Russia’s door. That is not saying that they are innocent, though, just that there is no hard evidence.)

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    Well as noted it’s all modern up here now, we even have our own dedicated online selling site Ebay-gum-tree, Thank you very much.

    I’m currently reading a Les Dawson novel, he’s at his best when he rambles down surreal avenues, the novel is ‘Come Back with the Wind.’ set in a odd version of the 1970ish with the backdrop of a North-South war, the war begins ‘On Monday morning at six a.m. as the tepid rays of an invalid sun filtered through low-lying nimbus,…’ He has a lovely turn of phrase but sadly this is not one of his best as he forces some jokes, that sadly break the flow f the narrative.

    The Northern art of cruel humour is old, George Formby Sr (a musical hall star) who had & would eventually die of TB had a cheerful comedy catchphrase, ‘I’m coughing well tonight.’

    The humour still exists, even in popular tunes. Stephen Jones AKA Babybird is a good example, he’s from Sheffield and if you listen to ‘Your Gorgeous’ and bare in mind the resent grooming cases from South Yorkshire the song becomes even more sinister, also have a listen to ‘Bad Old Man’ to get a glimpse at his dark, comedic view of the world. He has written several books including ‘Harry and Ida Swap Teeth.’ How Northern does that sound?


  16. Ian Luck says:

    It’s very close to a piece of graffitti I once saw on a wall in Leeds, way back in 1987, which I was so taken with, I wrote it in my Filofax (don’t judge me!). It would have been funnier on the wall of an old peoples’ home, but it still made me laugh. It was simply: ‘GET YER TEETH OUT FOR THE LADS’. There’s lovely.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    I just put the radio on to BBC Radio 4 Extra, and starting at 02:45, was the radio version of ‘The Fosdike Saga’. I didn’t know such a thing existed.

  18. Wayne Mook says:

    Splendid Ian. Must try and catch that.

    One day I’d love to see Bill Tidy’s musical play (from his own book) The Great Eric Ackroyd Disaster with it’s coughing choir.


  19. Ian Luck says:

    My late father would always say, if we were somewhere and somebody had a particularly bad, chesty cough: “Oh, the Consumptive Symphony, by Fleming.”

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