Prospect essay: How northern is the northern novel?

The north, asserts the blurb of a new anthology of northern fiction, “is driving a revolution in new literature.” Test Signal (Bloomsbury/Dead Ink) follows Valley Press’s This New North, which came out earlier this year, in seeking to showcase new northern writing. Contributors include novelists Andrew Michael Hurley, Naomi Booth, JA Mensah, Tawseef Khan and Sammy Wright.

It does seem that northern literature is doing well or, at least, that northern publishers are doing well—or, in any case, that northern publishers exist. The recent-ish arrival of HarperNorth (in Manchester) and the Northern Fiction Alliance (incorporating Dead Ink, Peepal Tree, Bluemoose and others) is genuinely encouraging. But as we celebrate, it feels important that we should ask after the health of the northern novel too. To do this, we need a clearer idea of what a northern novel is—and isn’t.            

A novel is deemed “northern” as long as “northernness” is interesting. Northernness certainly used to be interesting, when the north was shipyards, foundries, mills and mines, and for a short, elegiac period afterwards, when they were closing down. The north as north, as a theme and not just a setting, was more or less uninteresting for a long time after that, unless we had a strike or a riot. Nowadays, in order to rake up the requisite northernness, today’s novelist has either to look back into the past or reach sideways into a folk-north repository of all our obsolete grit and outworn gumption.      

But how northern is the northern novel, really? How to plot a meaningful path from John Braine to Eliza Clark, Catherine Cookson to Sunjeev Sahota, calling en route at Keith Waterhouse, Caryl Phillips, Barry Hines, Anthony Burgess, Kathleen Heaton, Stan Barstow, SJ Bradley, JB Priestley, Joanne Harris, Len Doherty, Howard Jacobson, David Storey, Helen Fielding, Jeanette Winterson, Pat Barker, AA Dhand, Winifred Holtby, Jack Common, Jenn Ashworth, David Peace, Sid Chaplin, Fiona Mozley, Saima Mir and Philip Hensher?

The problem is not just that this is a diverse set of authors that appears to defy any attempt to, as taxonomists say, “lump.” It’s that even this rough sketch of the post-war northern canon is a list curated by London-based publishers—a selective legacy, shaped by trend, taste and self-fulfilling prophecy. (“I’ve a feeling northern lit might be about to have a moment…”). It’s easy to conflate the content of the northern novel with some sort of communal voice of the north. But the novelists’ north is not the same as the north that people actually live in.  

Keith Waterhouse got there first. In Billy Liar (1959), Billy responds to the vapid clichés of local newspaper columnist Man o’ the Dales with the timeless observation that “our main street… was exactly like any other High Street in Great Britain. Woolworth’s looked like Woolworth’s, the Odeon looked like the Odeon.” He continues: “I had a fairly passionate set-piece all worked out,” he says, “on the subject of rugged Yorkshire towns, with their rugged neon signs and their rugged plate-glass and plastic shop-fronts.” Later, he says that he can put up with talk of dark satanic mills: “They’re part of the picture. But when it comes to dark satanic power stations, dark satanic housing estates, and dark satanic dance halls…”

To get noticed, northern writers often have to play up to the old stereotypes. Ben Northman—“the 56-year-old author of England is Piss and The Skipton Goblin,” created by Lancastrian satirist and novelist Rob Palk—asserts that “we don’t have autofiction in Barnsley; folk round these parts want granite-hard muscular fiction, about witches building dry stone walls.” It’s a teasing characterisation of the more-northern-than-thee school. The mostly mythic Yorkshire of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet (2017) and the stifling monochrome of David Peace’s Leeds are expressions of the same tendency to stress the sheer weirdness of the lands north of the Trent. This feeds the perception that a book is “about” the north rather than about characters who happen to live there. What’s the point, after all, of a north that looks and feels just like the south? Who wants to buy a north like that? 

The opaque interplay between novelists who write these intensely, broodingly, harrowingly northern norths and the agents and publishers who cannily see them as a sellable hook defies close analysis. The fact remains, though, that the northern novel as a genre, kitted out with the expected motifs and props from the dress-up box, is a strong commercial proposition. The temptation is to try to dig out seams of northernness in northern works. The stone-dry deadpan delivery of Leeds’ Owen Booth—so northern! The wild, inventive picaresque of his second novel, The All True Adventures (and Rare Education) of the Daredevil Daniel Bones? He must have picked that up in Walthamstow. Eliza Clark’s Newcastle-set Boy Parts (2020) is certainly bleak and—to use a term that conjures a milieu of soap-opera barmaids—brassy. But it’s also extremely clever, fast, feminist, exhaustingly contemporary.

In literary terms, Newcastle can be said to have something of an island ecology. There’s a certain austerity—a want, perhaps, of playfulness—in a lot of Yorks-Lancs fiction. Newcastle has a broadly similar urban-industrial heritage but on the page has a different voice.

The Newcastle novels of the working-class socialist Jack Common, Kiddar’s Luck (1951) and The Ampersand (1954), are nimble, arch, clear-thinking and fun. Sid Chaplin’s memorable slum-teen Arthur Haggerston in The Day of The Sardine (1961) has more in common with Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke or Paul McVeigh’s Mickey Donnelly than Billy Casper. (In terms of voice, Tyneside fiction has much in common with Irish fiction). Boy Parts, though an unlikely companion read to Kiddar’s Luck, has a similar vigour, verve and intelligence, as does Daniel James’s compendious, ambitious, mockingly postmodern The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas (2018).

This can sometimes feel like a parlour game. But the translation of a city, a region, a society, into a literature—necessarily dependent on the priorities and prejudices of development agencies, agents, publishers, booksellers, critics—is no trivial business.                            

*

At this point, full disclosure: I’m a northern novelist. I’m from Wakefield, a city south of Leeds and east of Huddersfield. There’s some literary history there. The house Stan Barstow grew up in was three streets away from us, David Storey’s maybe a couple of miles. Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) joins Billy Liar, Storey’s This Sporting Life (also 1960) and Room at the Top (1957) by Bradford’s John Braine in a class of highly regarded novels by youngish northern men of the 1950s (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Nottingham’s Alan Sillitoe is usually allowed in too).

Parthian’s 50th anniversary edition of A Kind of Loving tellingly blurbed the novel as a story of love, lust and life “in the industrial north”; the love, lust and life bit is right, but Vic Brown, Barstow’s snarky 20-year-old narrator, works in a draughtsman’s office, and then a music shop—he’s a miner’s son, but the shadows of heavy industry impinge on the novel hardly at all. Is a book like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity—which has more in common with A Kind of Loving than protagonists who sell LPs—a “London novel”? London, London-ness, is surely some way down the list of things that it is about. (“It’s about girls, right?”) So it is with Barstow’s book, and with so many northern novels.   

Of course, many novels are “about” the north by default. If you write about coalmining or rugby league then it’s very difficult not to write about the north, too. Similarly, writers whose novels are set within large British Asian communities are more often than not also having a conversation about the north. AA Dhand, Saima Mir and MY Alam are among those constructing a “Bradford school” of noirish crime fiction, for example—and so reshaping literary models of northernness.

Another British Asian novelist, Sunjeev Sahota, who grew up in Derby and Chesterfield and now lives in Sheffield, rightly insists that class be considered alongside race as a motivating force in his writing (“I don’t remember wanting to be white, but I do remember forever yearning to be a different class”). In general terms, the working-class British Asian novel slots without too much difficulty into the northern tradition of working-class fiction. 

Northern fiction has a difficult relationship with working-class culture. We live among working-class landscapes, in towns built for industry and shaped, historically, by the values and needs of working-class society. Small wonder we engage so readily with working-class tropes (whatever class we might consider ourselves). The northern novelist is often prey to a sort of literary code-switching: my Huddersfield granddad poshed up his vowels when he spoke on the phone; I drop a lot more Ts and Hs when I’m talking to the roofers; northern writers—however agreeable the suburbs or market towns they may have grown up in—tend to seek out the unrefined, the rugged, the bleak. (Some consciously kick in the other direction: Burgess, Hensher). Sometimes this is done with Dickensian intent, letting in the light, raising the alarm. More often we do it simply because that’s what we like.  

It often doesn’t really matter what class we consider ourselves, because in any case we are liable to be relabelled, repackaged, by the prevailing south-eastern, middle-class culture. Irina in Boy Parts, recalling her early days at Central St Martins, writes: “I’m quite posh in Newcastle, practically middle-class up here… Someone asked me if my dad was a miner the first day I was there.” Middle-class up here: a lot of us come to think of ourselves that way. That post-war school of smart, restless young novelists, the miners’ sons, the grammar-school boys itching to make a break with the past generation—one might almost think they needn’t have bothered. Northern is northern.

Class provides us with a partial answer to the question of why so many of the novels that define the literature of the north are debut or early career works. “The moment any of us shows a bit of social awareness or insight,” Jack Common wrote in 1938, “we at once make a gentleman of him, thus segregating him from his subject matter and compelling him to work by memory for the rest of his life.” The coming-of-age novel is the north’s signature form. The implication, of course, is that being northern is something to be outgrown.        

*

In the social novel there’s value in saying or showing (however simply) that which hasn’t been said or shown before. Much as when I was a kid, I’d prick my ears when there was rugby league on the television—not for the game so much as the likelihood of hearing voices from along the M62 corridor—I find satisfaction in reading accent and dialect accurately rendered. It often feels provocative. “O” for “a” in Wes Brown’s Shark (“watch o movie”); dindtindtwoundtdoendt in Elmet (a novel not otherwise reeking of authenticity); Barstow’s affirmation that in West Yorkshire the first-person past tense of “be” is not were but wa’ (or, if before a vowel, war). These economical punches of this-is-us identitarianism represent something quite different to the gobbledegook of the early “regional” novels. (“Ay, lass,” says someone in Isabella Banks’ The Manchester Man (1876), “an’ as we’en a’ready a foine kirsenin’ feast, we’en no change parson’s seven-shillin’ piece”).

Jack Common, in a note accompanying The Ampersand, concedes that the reader “may wonder why they are not being treated to the traditional outbreaks of funny spelling and if in their absence they are expected to regard all dialogue as being conducted in Standard English.” Common’s contention is that—with the exception of certain “accepted stage dialects” (Yorkshire, Cockney, West Country and so on)—regional speech, phonetically rendered, is unreadable: “Try to spell the dialects of Aberdeenshire, Walthamstow, Westmorland, old rural Essex, Hawick or Tyneside and the result is something nobody can stand for more than a line or two.”

Common was right: English—in all its forms, RP included—is a non-phonetic language. We do not spell as we speak. There’s scope in fiction for bringing out those points of transition where regional pronunciation brings about distinct new word forms, but where, in a novel, the speech of southerners is written in standard English, and the speech of northerners wholly in phonetics—“funny spelling”—I feel there’s a power-play going on. The statement made, often unintentionally, is that written English belongs to the south-east; that the conventions mapping a glyph to a sound somehow break down where northern vowels are fed into the programme. What’s often framed as a reclamation of language is, rather, a yielding of the field.

The north has always spoken in many voices. I’ve concerned myself here with a limited field of writers working in the post-war period but of course the north has been different—in ways both real and imagined—for far longer than that. And yet the old stereotypes die hard. Before our landscapes were grim because of the soot and smoke and slag they were grim because of the howling moors and barren gritstone. The difference, for many critics, remains academic. Moors, mills, what does it matter? It’s bleak up here: that’s the main thing.

Richard Smyth

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