Our Friends In The North
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.