The North Is A Brilliant Idea

Durham Bloggers 2

December 22, 2012 in A WONDROUS SPACE, Wondrous Cities, XMAS SPECIAL

“There are two Norths. There is the compass point North. And there is the North as an idea.” Jonathan Meades.


In October 2012 our project partners New Writing North kindly invited us to embed ourselves within the Durham Books Festival, the North East’s biggest annual celebration of books and new writing. Their support enabled us to bring together (and actually meet in person for the first time!) four kindred spirits from four North of England cities who have contributed to the ‘A Wondrous Place’ digital space over recent months - Hayley FlynnAmy RobertsAmy Mackelden and Missy Tassles. We attended festival events together, did lots of tweeting and we jointly led a practical workshop with lots of lovely people from the region (more info here). 

The workshop was extremely worthwhile and helpful. At the beginning we asked each participant their reason for attending  - they told us that it was because they wanted to hear about, and be inspired by, a more positive perspective on the North. This felt encouraging! They also wanted to learn more about the positives of online writing and online communities – the guest curators were particularly helpful within this part of the workshop. The workshop also involved us engaging in writing exercises that explored, in a practical way, where we’re coming from with the project: generating a more positive and more surprising fictional expression of North of England landscapes.

Why do we want to do that? Well…

There are four stories that overwhelmingly predominate within cultural representations of the North of England (theatre, film and tv drama; fictional prose)*:
  • Characters experiencing social struggle, hardship and emotional repression within a bleak, brutal landscape.
  • London as the arena for a character’s pursuit of excitement and personal ambition – the need to escape a restricting North.
  • The North is a place for a character to return to as sanctuary, consolation or after a suitably life enhancing experience elsewhere.
  • A character from the North’s imaginative/creative potential is nurtured through the intervention of a 3rd party from elsewhere.

Those kinds of stories are certainly not the WHOLE story, are they? And stories that are located in this part of the world, and what they express about this part of the world, matter – they impact upon how we see ourselves, and upon how we’re seen.

So that’s what we’re aiming for with the ‘A Wondrous Place’ theatre show in the Spring: four compelling short stories for the theatre, written by four dramatic writers with a love for this part of the world, located within four vivid, contemporary North of England landscapes that avoid these four narrative cliches.

There are some fantastic precedents for where we’re coming from…

Jarvis Cocker interviewed Roger McGough recently on Jarvis’ Sunday Service show (this particular show has sadly been deleted) and Jarvis was talking about how much Roger McGough was an influence on his lyric writing. Roger McGough explained how his approach came about – he was tired of the ‘gritty realist’ style of representing this part of the world (“…the everyday doesn’t have to be grey or grimy”), and wanted to make his home and surroundings (Liverpool) seem as exotic and exciting as he felt that it was. He was provoked by two things: The Shadows’ tune ‘Stars Over Stockton’ and Adrian Henry’s ‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool’ painting.


Adrian Henry’s ‘The Entry of Christ Into Liverpool’.

Take a look at this from Roger M, an early poem ‘At Lunchtime: A Story of Love’ . It’s an obvious inspiration for Pulp’s ‘Sheffield Sex City’ – see here – and ‘Wickerman’ – see here. (Incidently, fact fans, Roger M’s poem also directly inspired David Bowie’s lyric for ‘Five Years’ from the Ziggy Stardust album.)

And here’s a clip of Jarvis discussing seeing the dramatic in your own surroundings (with a rather natty acoustic version of ‘Joyriders’ an’ all): Jarvis Cocker – Songbook

During the weekend at the Durham Books Festival, Northern Spirit and the four guest curators who joined us also had the invaluable opportunity to pool our perspectives on the part of the world we live within and love. To share what we feel are the contemporary points of connection between Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. We learned a huge amount from the experience: it was clear that Hayley Flynn, Amy Mackelden, Amy Roberts and Missy Tassles share a generosity of spirit, a desire for community, an enormous respect and love for their cities and are each motivated as bloggers, in different ways, through a desire to create change. It’s also obvious  - by looking through the archive and taking a trip to their individual websites – that this ‘can-do’ spirit is shared by every one of the people who have contributed to this digital space over recent months.

That’s why this digital space is such an important part of the overall ‘A Wondrous Place’ project for us – as a way of being inspired by, and expressing a story about, a very real shift in sensibility  - a more positive and surprising way of seeing this part of the world, driven by people who love this part of the world – that’s already happening organically across the North. We’re also very excited by how the eventual theatre show can be informed by and share a tangible kinship with this online space.

We’re very chuffed by what the space is generating and encouraging, and extremely grateful that New Writing North have enabled this to happen. We’re thrilled that more guest curators with surprising perspectives on this part of the world will be joining us from the 7th of January. A massive thank you to every one who has contributed their creativity to this space since September. And thank you so much for reading!

Have a lovely Christmas. See you in the New Year!

Featured photo: (l-r) Chris Meads, Hayley Flynn, Missy Tassles, Amy Roberts, Amy Mackelden.

*Read ‘Looking North – Northern England and the National Imagination’ – Dave Russell (Manchester University Press -  an extremely well researched exploration of the North of England’s impact upon the national imagination, each chapter dedicated to different cultural forms such as film, music, prose writing, drama etc.