“For a writer, a place like Salford is worth its weight in gold. It’s got everything a writer could ever want… It’s alive…the whole place is alive…I think it’s a fabulous place. And the language is alive, it’s virile, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it’s coming from. Right out of the earth. Down by the river it’s even romantic, if you can stand the smell.”
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“We get smarter by being around smart people. Cities make that happen.” – ‘Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier’ by Edward Glaeser.
Glaeser’s big question is, “How do we come up with the new, new thing?” The answer is that we do what we did in Newcastle at Northern Stage – people who have different skills and interests share some of what they know, and fingers crossed something new comes out of it. What Glaeser would add is that where-as we were convened, cities are a technology that makes this knowledge exchange and invention happen serendipitously, just by jamming a lot of people together in a small area. He uses the arts as an example of how this happens. Perspective in painting was invented in Florence, but it wasn’t invented by a person so much as being a product of the city itself. This is something that people in the arts can recognise quite readily, that a “scene” is useful. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is a good example – that was a product of the musicians, the producer, the record label and the designer, none of whom planned to work together on what they worked on, plus countless hours spent listening to and watching other music. Plus something intangible which is “f*ck it lets just get on with it”. The technology that made those connections and knowledge exchange possible was Manchester, its sewers and bus stops just as much as its music venues (without bus stops people can’t get to see bands, and without sewers they die of cholera on the way).This might be one way in which the arts can contribute to the viability of places in the north – by making the process of creating a “new, new thing” visible – the Industrial Revolution was the new, new thing once, in fact Manchester itself was the new, new thing – and by asking whether the city-regions in the north have what they need to work as technologies for invention
Over to Caro:
‘I thought of how some places and spaces have an unwritten convention for how one behaves in that space. For example, I remember watching some documentary about theatre and a big group of young people were taken to the theatre for the first time. They were chatting, eating & drinking and responding vocally to the show with praise or disdain.
- does free / fee / common / private matter as much as our role in the space?
- people feel comfortable with consumer spaces because they understand their role in the transaction.
- do people still know their role in common spaces?
- There has been an erosion of the commons. Cities and towns have been taken over by agents. Councils (and so the people) do not own the places they manage.
- Liverpool One is a private, made to look like public space. But you can’t legally protest there.
Over to Kate:
I absolutely love animated documentary and have seen some amazing moving stuff at film festivals. Unfortunately not a lot of it is online but wanted to share some links. A lot of animated documentary deals with people relaying some kind of experience or first person account with the audience, often of a personal and life changing nature.
Animated Minds was a series commissioned by the Wellcome Trust (commissions science/arts cross over) dealing with mental states such as depression etc. I have seen quite a few of them at various film festivals. Here is the only one I could find online, about schizophrenia:
Ruth Lingford made ‘Little Deaths’ animating people talking about their experience of orgasm.Straight/gay/beautiful/guilt, it is all covered! Saw it at the LSFF at the ICA this year and it has won many awards. Not available online but here are some deets.
‘The Mysteries’ plays were probably the earliest example of British popular theatre and have a very strong North of England connection: the York, Wakefield and Chester Mysteries are well known surviving examples. They’re regularly updated within a contemporary context (there’s a production currently on at The Globe in London based on an adaptation by Tony Harrison). What we hadn’t heard about before was ‘The Miracles’ plays: a collection of contemporary vernacular stories realised by professionals and non-professionals in artistic collaboration, focusing on ordinary people who experience something extraordinary that changes how they see the world/others/themselves/a place. This all feels quite relevant to us at the moment, an old idea (the oldest theatre idea of all) that could be used in a new context. Here’s some more info:
‘Miracle plays, or Saint’s plays, are now distinguished from mystery plays as they specifically re-enacted miraculous and marvellous interventions by the saints, particularly St. Nicholas or St. Mary, into the lives of ordinary people, rather than biblical events. The Miracles emphasized the supernatural intervention of a saint or the Blessed Virgin the events might be infinitely varied, and this afforded the authors a wide field. They were ‘folk’ stories, concerned with the miraculous entering the lives of ordinary people. They could supply us a host of details regarding the manners of the times which are not found elsewhere, but unfortunately there are no surviving manuscripts of the Miracle plays. As regards the aesthetic side of this drama, modern standards should not be applied. This theatre does not even offer unity of action, for the scenes are not derived from one another: they succeed one another without any other unity than the interest which attaches to the chief personage and the general idea of eternal salvation, whether of a single man or of humanity, which constitutes the common foundation of the picture. Moreover, side by side with pathetic and exalted scenes are found others which savour of buffoonery. The plays used as many as one, two, and even five hundred characters, not counting the chorus, and they were so long that they could not be played on one occasion. This is true at least of the mysteries dating from the middle of the fifteenth century; on the other hand, the oldest of them and the miracles were rather short. Places were indicated by vast scenery, rather than really represented. Two or three trees, for example, represented a forest, and although the action often changed from place to place the scenery did not change, for it showed simultaneously all the various localities where the characters successively appeared in the course of the drama, and which were thus in close proximity, even though in reality they were often far removed from each other. For the rest nothing was neglected to attract the eye. If the scenery was immovable, it was very rich and secrets of theoretical mechanism often produced surprising and fairy-like effects. The actors were richly dressed, each defrayed the cost of his own costume and looked more for beauty than for truth. The subject-matter admitted of the marvellous.’
So now you know.
Andy Field is an artist whose work Andrew Wilson has recently introduced us to. He creates ‘interactive encounters for unusual contexts’, is co-director of a company called ‘Forest Fringe’ and writes regularly for The Guardian. Here’s a link to his website. His work’s very interesting and imaginative – immersive, warm, playful – but his thinking and writing about theatre’s equally inspiring. Common sense arguments which achieve a kind of poetry. Here’s two examples - there are many more on his site:
I wish we could feel freer to copy each other
To reincorporate and reuse
Create intricate patterns of reoccurrence
A radical and generous ocean of ideas in constant circulation
Like the idea of oratory
Old stories remembered and re-spoken
Old rhythms and choruses and drum loops
Reused, remixed, reincorporated
Or even like an internet meme
An idea or a behaviour or a performance
Repeated beyond the point of absurdity, becoming something else entirely
Building into impossibly dense, incredible, nuanced patterns
A one-note joke becoming slowly with a near-ridiculous global effort a thing of genuine beauty
An exploration of our complicated relationship to each other
Rather than an attempt to get ahead of the crowd.
(An extract from ‘A Short Talk About Going Round In Circles’.)
What do we mean by ‘politics’. The root of the word is polis – the body of people that make up the city state. We are the politics, the network of communities and interactions that constitute our daily lives – the great, shifting ocean of people that make up this country. The way that we choose to bring people together and for what purpose are deeply political decisions. Theatre is a form of community and consequently an important expression of the way we as a society choose to live. As such, theatre is always political, whether it intends to be or not. Indeed, sometimes the politics embedded in how we make theatre can be quite contradictory to that espoused from the stage.
Experimental theatre is very often engaged with these kinds of understandings of what politics in theatre is. It is a politics that does not wear its rosette on its sleeve, but is instead embedded in the form of the event itself. It is implicitly an exploration of how and why we choose to come together – an attentiveness to the political decisions embedded in our everyday actions and interrelations. A theatre that doesn’t just talk about society but embodies it in the structure of the event, in the relationship between the audience and the performers and the surrounding world. It is a theatre that at its very best invites us to experience that world in a different way.
(An extract from ‘We Are All Politics’)
Finally, we found this recent article that Andy wrote for the Guardian, which cheered us up no end! In it he advocates that blog writing, and the manner in which this is done, can embody and be an extension of the work, rather than just as a form of publicity, or an explanation, after the work has been created. We see this is VERY important to our work and how this blog should function and we’re very keen to explore ideas that will enable us to go much further - didn’t realise we were being so cutting edge!
Have you experienced this yet? Kate alerted us to ‘The Wilderness Downtown’ while we were in Newcastle and, if you havent already, give it a go now. Arcade Fire, together with Google and artist Chris Milk, have created an interactive video set to the band’s track ‘We Used to Wait’ from ‘The Suburbs’ album. Called ‘The Wilderness Downtown’, the online project makes use of Google Maps and Google Street View to incorporate images into the video. It’s an experience that’s both personalised and deeply personal as it takes you down memory lane through the streets where you grew up.
One of its achievements is that it creates an awareness in the viewer/participants of being both unique and interconnected. It’s also interesting how they’ve created spaces within the work to be filled by the participant’s experiences. It’s changed my relationship to the song – a good album track before, now it’s got specific emotional associations for me and now I play it much, much more. Avoid doing what I did though – just allow the different windows to come up on your pc and do their thing. We’re interested to know what you think. Here’s a great ‘behind the scenes’ link.
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Charles Leadbetter’s website is well worth investigating. Some of his thinking about the ingredients of successful, innovative and creative cities are distilled below.
An old idea becomes new when it is in a different setting. Innovation is often about re-using older things or adapting technologies in use.
Most innovation comes from combining different ideas and viewpoints to create a new idea. Innovation is cumulative, one idea building upon another. Innovation usually depends on an ebb and flow of ideas. Those new combinations usually come about through conversation. Indeed I would go so far as to say that conversation is at the root of all innovation. Good conversations allow ideas to flow, to be challenged, developed upon, tested. In a good conversation you often end up saying things you did not expect and you leave with a shared understanding of an issue.
Ideas have to be challenged and tested – ideas rarely start off being good from day one. Innovation is not a theoretical activity but a very practical one. You have to try, fail a bit, learn, adapt, try again. That means organisation and cities that want to innovate have to take risks and learn from failure.
Cities that innovate are increasingly tightly connected to one another. But successful cities also need to differentiate themselves from their peers and competitors within these networks of innovation.
These days with cheaper, more distributed technology, that allows people to connect to and collaborate with other people very easily, more innovation is going to come from users and consumers, who want to be participants, players in the action not mere spectators on the sidelines. More innovation will become a participative activity. Innovation by the masses not just for the masses.
Here are some of his thoughts on how art and culture could be transformed by digital technologies and the web:
[Now] people are after a mix of three experiences… a mix of enjoy (being entertained and served), talk (a focal point for socialising) and do (they want to get involved, have a go, do their bit). The lines between these are not rigid.
The web’s significance is that it encourages people to adopt new habits and roles, as collaborators, editors, distributors, and creators of content.
The web encourages us to think and act WITH people. The principle underlying the web is the idea of endless, lateral connection.
The avant garde of the 21st century will have as its principle: combine and connect. The web will encourage a culture in which art encourages relationships and promotes interaction, encourages people to be part of the art, if only in a small way.
It is a digital version of a folk culture in which authorship is shared and cumulative rather than individualistic.
It is art as a conversation.
Art is not simply the result of self expression by the artists of a preconceived idea but a result of communication with the audience and other partners in the process.
An arts venue is a site for creative interaction and communication.
The web might open up who can contribute to the process of artistic creation, widen the definition of who is an artist.
Northern Spirit, in its live theatre incarnation, will incorporate the use of animation, led by our very own Kate Jessop. We recently had a look around for examples of work that could inspire us.
This is footage from an event which incorporates both the shadow puppetry of Lotte Reiniger and live moving illustrations from the Paper Cinema. It’s set to the live music of Amina, the Icelandic quartet. It was originally commissioned by Branchage in Jersey and was taken to Shoreditch Church last xmas. V. magical! Here’s some more info.
Which, in turn, reminded us of “>this piece.
Forkbeard Fantasy are a company who seem to be at the cutting edge of theatre/animation work. Here’s a link to their website, which is really informative, the ‘Use of Film’ section particularly so. They’ve been going since the late 70s and their artistic progression is really well archived on the site.
And here’s a link to the website of the theatre company 1927, and who are quite brilliant in their use of animation within a live, theatre experience.
In the ‘Cultural Touchstones’ section of this blog you’ll find examples of films and writing and music and events from the past and present that we feel represent and express places and experiences within the North of England in a fresh and imaginative way. We’ll keep returning to them as inspirations for our work together.
But we also felt that it would be just as helpful for us to define what we don’t want to do. Together we came up with a list of clichés and habits of imagination about the North of England that really get on our goat. Our personal bugbears, if you like. We wanted to just shoot from hip, go with the gut and be as subjective as possible. Here we go then…(collective intake of breath)…
- The North of England is the land of the working class.
- Gritty and grey urban realism OR a heightened urban grimness.
- ‘Authentic’ language is people being inarticulate.
- The need to escape to pursue aspirations or seek a ‘better’ life that is elsewhere.
- Bright working class boy or girl made-good returns home.
- The cartoonish representation, or demonization, of the ‘under-class’ i.e. as ‘monster’, ‘slut’, or ‘buffoon’.
- Horror stories or fairy tales that encapsulate a life of struggle.
- Anything set in a non-specific place, a generic ‘North’.
- Anything where accents aren’t specific to place.
- Short films depicting a coming of age struggle or the break-down of the family. (Usually a young boy in a small town, stay at home mum, lots of cultural stereotyping masked as ‘gritty realism’. Often shot in black and white. Just depicting the general ‘it’s grim up north’ theme).
- ‘Northerners’ are hostile to outsiders.
- Everyone in The North is unemployed.
- Everyone in The North has a sense of humour.
- Everyone in The North works in the public sector.
- Everyone in The North wears T shirts on a Saturday night out even in winter.
- Everyone is lazy (because they can only get a job in the public sector or they are on the dole – “Newcastle has become too reliant on public sector jobs”).
- The discourse is different outside London: “as we all know [knowing pause for the audience] the discourse is different outside London”, which translates as “we are multi cultural world-city sophisticates and they are all ignorant small town racists with no ‘culture’”.
- This is sort of reverse cultural cliche: anything that has “English”, “British” or “National” in the title but clearly benefits one place more than anywhere else: National Gallery, National Theatre, British Broadcasting Corporation, British Museum, National Media Museum (in Bradford), English National Opera, Festival of Britain (currently being re celebrated on the Southbank in London after 60 years) . This would be true of Northern Stage and Opera North as well, they benefit Newcastle city-region and Leeds city-region far more than anywhere else.
- This: “Filmed earlier this year throughout Filey, Scarborough and Bridlington, Sugartown is a new three-part comedy-drama series for BBC One which had its first episode screen on Sunday 24th July. Sugartown revolves around a small seaside hamlet in the North of England which once enjoyed a heyday as the “stick-of-rock” capital of Britain. Shaun Dooley, Miranda Raison and Tom Ellis are among the ensemble cast and Screen Yorkshire supported the production with locations and crew assistance.” from Screen Yorkshire’s bulletin. (For a review that gives it the bollocking it deserves, click here)
- And this: ‘Make way for 8 loud and proud Geordie lads and lasses who promise to show you a summer you’ll never forget! From the city that gave us Cheryl Cole, Ant & Dec and Gazza, the UK’s latest reality fix ‘Geordie Shore‘ launches on MTV on Tuesday 24 May @10pm. the glamorous city of Newcastle becomes the latest stomping ground for this gang of tanned and buffed individuals, ready for 6 weeks of unadulterated partying toon-style. Living in a gorgeous five star house complete with shared bedrooms, a shag-pile outhouse for ‘special visitors’ and a hot tub, MTV cameras will catch all the action as they work during the day for a promotions company and then get their tash on at night, at some of the most renowned hotspots on the Diamond Strip. There’ll be tears, tantrums, drama and outrageous behaviour by the bucket-load… and that’s just from the boys!’
- And…if that wasn’t piss poor enough…this: ‘Geordie Finishing School’ BBC3: What happens when some of Britain’s most privileged ex-public school girls leave the home counties and head to one of Britain’s most infamous cities in the country: Newcastle?’
How does rubbish like this come to be made? Who makes the commissioning decisions and where they are sitting when they make them? This review in The Guardian just about sums things up.
Are we missing anything? Do let us know…
Main Image: Don McCullin - ‘West Hartlepool, Co. Durham, 1963’.
The English working class is dead – its traditions and values have been replaced by sentimentality and the false promises of celebrity and credit cards. It’s time the people rediscovered their collective power and sense of pride, argues Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan.
In the summer of 1976, something happened in our house that challenged my notion of international relations. The English came to stay. Ours wasn’t the kind of house where people came to stay: it was a council house 25 miles from Glasgow full to the brim with noisy boys, unhappy dogs, phantom parents and football gloves. But my father had met this man on a building site in Coventry and rashly – or, one might say, merrily – asked him and his family to come and stay in what he called then, and still calls now, Bonnie Scotland.
The discussions and tears before the visit went on for weeks: my mother immediately christened them “the English” and threatened to go on strike. I remember her saying she hadn’t a clue what to feed the English and where would the English sleep? Did they have cornflakes or porridge for breakfast or did they expect a banquet from Harrods?
I’d like to be able to tell you that when the English turned up – all five of them, tumbling out of a hippy caravanette – everything went well and peace and understanding broke out in the land of Robert Burns. But it didn’t. The English colonised the house exactly as my mother predicted. The kids jumped on the beds and laughed at the three-bar fire. The English daddy never stopped talking in his big English accent and the mammy went straight upstairs for a bath and started smoking in the bathroom. I knew the English were different because the children were doing handstands in the hall up against my mother’s woodchip. My three brothers and I sat silent on a green sofa. My father read the Daily Record. My mother was in the kitchen with smelling salts, and one of the English children sang a rude song that included the word “bastard”.
“Are they Protestants?” I asked my mother.
“Aye, they are,” she said. “And worse!”
Long after the English had gone south, for years actually, my family discussed the horror of that summer invasion, but I found myself wondering about them. Who were these exotic beasts, the English? They seemed to be individualists – at any rate, they weren’t a family in the same way we were. Maybe I was secretly quite pleased that they had muddied my mother’s Anaglypta. Maybe I reckoned they were freer than us. But my first experience of the English left me with the beginnings of a theory – that whereas the Scots and Irish were a people, a definite community, innately together and full of songs and speeches about ourselves, the English were something else: a riot of individualism with no real sense of common purpose and no collective volition as a tribe.
The following summer, the Queen’s silver jubilee brought bunting and arguments to our street. Allegiance wasn’t much of an option round our way, though the Orangemen of the town wouldn’t have agreed, and soon another antithesis floated over the airwaves in the shape of the Sex Pistols, whom my brothers loved to death for singing “God save the Queen / She ain’t no human being”. We went through the motions with the ice cream and jelly on Jubilee Day, but everybody I knew thought the Queen was an English joke. The Sex Pistols sounded more like it, an altogether different kind of Englishness.
There was, and is, an English arrogance which resides in the view that they are naturally dominant within the British Isles. This notion was virulent in 18th-century Britain, when the Scots and the Irish were lampooned in the journals and pictorials of the day. The British Museum holds a great and hot-making archive of English caricatures that show the Scots and the Irish as drunken, hopeless, arse-kissing louts. Dr Johnson baited his friend James Boswell along similar lines, and the Scots got their own back in ways briskly intellectual and industrial. Yet the resentment lasted. My grandparents would bristle at the idea of any supposed English superiority – I remember reading a line of Milton’s, “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live”, finding it intolerable and wondering whether or not reading it aloud would give my granny a heart attack.
What drove my forebears to drink wasn’t Dr Johnson, but the Edwardian imperial snobbery of the English that hurt the Irish and undervalued the Scots contribution to the making of the United Kingdom. My people weren’t nationalists, they were socialists, and they disliked the English habit of superiority in what they otherwise considered to be a perfectly sensible union.
The historian Perry Anderson has drawn attention to the “lasting imprint of imperialism on English life, of how deeply acclimatised English culture became to the ambience of empire”. It is an ambience that made a curiously small imprint on modern Scotland, despite the Scots’ energetic cooperation and sometimes aggressive lead in foreign adventures. The Scottish nationalists of today are able to exploit a ridiculous pretension: that their country is an occupied territory, occupied by a devilish England bent on colonisation. Anyone who knows anything about tobacco and cotton will need no convincing about Scotland’s part in exploiting the empire, but England carries the can, and the English seem perfectly willing to do so.
In the winter of 1941, while bombers sped through the dark overhead, George Orwell explored the strange compendium of strictness and laxity that goes towards making up the English character. His essay “England Your England” summons a nation on the brink of its own destruction. Orwell’s England was a place of passionate moralists and inveterate gamblers. The English were a practical people with no worldview: a more or less temperate collection of Blimps and hypocrites, foul speakers and pointless intellectuals, horny-handed sons of toil and blind lovers of legality. He showed a nation of people with no artistic temper and bad teeth; he spoke of an upper class that would easily opt for fascism. He wrote of the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns and queues outside the Labour Exchanges. It was a world of graded snobberies, each to his own, but where a certain unmistakable gentleness infused the day.
As we have seen in the banking crisis, the English people call for sedation not sedition, and the spirit of the post-empire age has long been one of declinism. The English people today are addicted to the rhythms of their own industrial and imperial valediction: they like saying goodbye to the past, and saying goodbye to the past is the single biggest thing they can’t say goodbye to.
Events in America show the extent to which democracy there is fuelled by populism – Barack Obama’s victory is a manifestation not of Washington’s need for change, but of America’s. That is not how democracy works in England. A good nationalism has to depend on a principle of the common people, on myths of a struggling commonality. It is strange that Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism and Welsh nationalism – for all their faults – are still seen by a great many as healthy, colourful movements, while English nationalism continues to make people think of football hooligans, Enoch Powell, Oswald Mosley and the BNP. Why?
In The Break-up of Britain (1977, revised 1982), Tom Nairn wrote of a “profound, ambient conservatism which has marked the structure of English society for several centuries”. We see it at work every day in England. And we’ve seen it on the face of every British government since 1951. The Gordon Brown who wrote a biography of the Scottish socialist politician James Maxton would not be electable as British prime minister. He has transformed himself, like Blair, into a simulacrum of Margaret Thatcher. There are individuals in Brown’s cabinet who have long hated the war in Iraq and who privately deplored the abolition of the 10p tax rate, but who stayed silent to save their jobs. Again and again they did it, and they are doing something similar now – everybody knows it. The present government seems unlikely to produce even a token dissident in the mould of Michael Heseltine, Ian Gilmour or Geoffrey Howe.
There is an aversion in England to organised or even personal resistance, a frightening bend towards compromise. There have always been good causes worth fighting for, but seldom, in the modern era, has there been the common volition to fight for them. Perhaps that is why we love the memory of the world wars so much: they are a national heritage exhibition of our least likely selves, a testament to our nature as it might have been. The old wars show us what it was like to be a people willing to resist a vast encroaching power. It is not a posture that comes naturally to the English. Usually, the ordinary people of England only have one word to say to authority, and that word is “yes”. Orwell would not be surprised to see such forces at work over the English, but he might be shocked to see the extent to which the English themselves lacked, as time went on, all political resolve to change it. The populist mode in England is silent paralysis. No to change.
How did this vast and overwhelming numbness of England’s working class come about? Thatcher is said to have been genuinely shocked by the ease with which England rolled over when she entered with her rapier drawn. Most people were willing to see their society lose its unions and its nationalised industries – even its status as a society – without a blink. (Those who fought were often described in the press of the day as outsiders, mindless thugs, totally un-English.) But Thatcher shouldn’t have been surprised at the ease of her revolution: the English working class had been docile and careless for years. People on the left don’t like to say so because in Britain it feels counterintuitive to criticise the working class, but I strongly believe Orwell would have done so. He would have rolled into the towns of England on a Saturday night to examine why the people were so quiescent, so demoralised, so drunk, so fearful of outsiders, so drawn to fantasy and spite and so lacking in purpose as a social group. He would have asked those questions and would have found a way to publish his responses, seeing how the question of the English working class and their culture needs to be at the centre of any notion of a better future in Britain.
By the late 1990s, the working class were no longer a working class – their traditions, habits, jobs, even in some places their speech, were given over to new forms of transcendence offered by celebrity culture and credit cards and the bogus life of the fantasy rich. Woolworth’s was on its way to closing down for ever, as finally it did this week. Depression among the children of the poor, many of them third-generation unemployed, was recorded the other day as being the worst in Europe. And yet, weren’t their lives supposed to be better? Whatever else the credit crunch has done, and there will be many evils to follow, it has brought a generation up against the limits of its own fantasies. The leisured poor were Blair’s gift to Britain, people who craved not values but designer labels and satellite dishes. It gives no one joy to observe that the English underclass, as it has increasingly been called, is now the most conservative force in Britain, in some quarters fascistic, hopped up on vengeance, tabloids, alcopops and sentiment. Those English today are a people as far from the clattering clog-wearers of Orwell’s Lancashire mill towns as it is possible to get without taking a plane to Detroit. And it’s not just Thatcher’s fault: a supreme shock came over the left when the dockers came out marching in 1968 to support their injured warrior, Enoch Powell. What is the anger that lies dormant under so much reputed English decency? If you ask that of the average English person they are likely to lose their temper and remind you of everything England has achieved in the world.
In Mind the Gap (2004), Ferdinand Mount provided a surprising account of the situation of the English working class, coming as it did from the centre right. He wrote that the so-called underclass seem “to me impoverished not simply in relation to the better-off in Britain today but in relation to their own parents and grandparents. And the upper class are uncomfortably aware of it, which is why they show so little respect and affection for the lower classes.” He attacks the notion that England has been progressively (or assertively, as John Major had it) becoming a more classless society. The English working class is, he wrote, “uniquely disinherited, and the most important ways in which it is disinherited are the more crippling because they are largely hidden from us”.
I have spent a dozen or more years, when writing journalism or researching novels, in and out of Britain’s proletarian nooks and crannies, writing from what I believed was the centre of a strange breakdown in the will to common power among what I still think of as my own people. It didn’t always look like a breakdown. It more often looked like an assertion of shared values. But when you really looked at the values being expressed you saw that they were based either on spite or on a desperate, free-floating anger masquerading as moral outrage. I first saw this outside the courthouse at the trial of the youngsters who had killed the Liverpool toddler James Bulger. I saw it again among the mobs who scoured the housing estates of Manchester looking for dodgy priests. I saw it in the fields of Cumberland during the foot-and-mouth outbreak, when farmers were slaughtering their livestock because they couldn’t afford the fuel to take them to the market. It was there in the Mall during the funeral of Diana Spencer – not community, but a dismayed reverse of community, where people seemed able to experience fellow-feeling only in a hyped-up circumstance of disorientation. On each of these occasions, the people spoke in the shrugging, accepting tones of pessimism – of something lost, of a way of life being over, spoken with none of the particularly English sense of pride and worth that was said to be in boom in the years of austerity. Was it not an overweening sense of a decline in Britain’s powers of moral leadership that led to Tony Blair joining George W Bush in Iraq?
William Cobbett felt that men who lost touch with the old, pre-industrial customs also lost touch with themselves. In the 19th century English workers showed at least some resistance – this is the story of the friendly societies, and after them the trade unions, which brought with them the notion of “the social man”, an idea of community and society that is often laughed at today by people under 25. There would scarcely be any point to class organisation in the minds of today’s young men – they don’t believe in collective experience outside of leisure, that’s to say they don’t believe in it outside of sport or text voting. But if you were feeling historical you could show them EP Thompson’s account of country fairs and working habits in The Making of the English Working Class, of rhythms and seasons and ownership and self-worth. It is this collective self-consciousness, Thompson wrote, “with its corresponding theory, institutions, discipline, and community values which distinguishes the 19th-century working class”. But how do we explain the loss of this urge for self-seeking, for change, which had been a feature of the common English Protestant mind? Of the Levellers, the Ranters, the Diggers? In the face of the deep-seated ennui of the English working class today, one can present the first line of Christopher Hill’s famous book about England in the 17th century, The World Turned Upside Down: “Popular revolt,” he wrote, “was for many centuries an essential feature of the English tradition.”
The English working class – including their new ethnic groups, out of Asia, Africa and eastern Europe – are less conscious of themselves as a political class than at any time since the mid-19th century. Even then, the English were too willing to lie down in the face of exploitation – they lacked the revolutionary urge – but today the tendency has become nearly sociopathic. What of those writers who took an interest in the condition of the English? I could write much more about the influence of Cobbett, the radicalism of Hazlitt, the programme of Robert Owen – these writers were all there, spry with their times, but we see almost nothing of their influence on the English today. Who today is prepared to oppose the exploitative relationships that define their lives? No one. There is no objection. There was no real objection during the premier years of fat cattery, still with us despite the crunch, when bosses were taking salaries 75 times higher than their average employee. The working class of England take their deracination completely for granted. Disenchantment is the happy code that informs every byway of the underclass: service jobs, celebrity dreams, Lotto wins, leisured poverty on pre-crunch credit cards, it’s all there, part of the story of an English people whose grandparents never had it so good. The younger ones laugh in the face of diminishment. Or they turn to drugs. They now speak easily of the decline that they inherited. They say “it’s just life”.
Those grandparents are like my parents: they handed down a legacy of disaffection, a rudderless, almost pious attitude about Them & Us. But in England it was allowed to become a creed among the working class. Richard Hoggart, in The Uses of Literacy, was able to tell us what the English working class were like in the mid-50s. There are 10 notable features: they live in districts such as Hunslet in Leeds or Brightside in Sheffield; they live in back-to-back houses or on the new estates; they earn a wage, not a salary, of about £9 a week; they were educated at a secondary modern; they speak with an accent; “There is the cracked but warm-hearted voice, slightly spitting through all-too-regular false teeth, of some women in their 40s”; they have their heart in the right place; you can tell them by their clothes; they like to pay out money in small monthly instalments; they go on the “panel” at the local GPs (ie they take sick leave).
Hoggart’s book is fascinating reading today, in the age of Sky Plus and Nokia for kids, and you get a lot just by reading the chapter headings: “There’s No Place Like Home”, “The Neighbourhood”, “Self Respect”, “Putting Up With Things”, “The Immediate, the Present, the Cheerful” and “Indifferentism”. The last is the point so far as I’m concerned: the English working class are far ahead of every other European lower class in the sheer energy of their indifference. “Most working-class people are not climbing,” writes Hoggart. “They do not quarrel with their general level … the strong sense of the group among working-class people can express itself as a demand for conformity … My contention is that most people [in England] are subjected to a sustained and ever-increasing bombardment of invitations to assume that whatever is, is right, so long as it is widely accepted and can be classed as entertaining.”
The working class of England today have no vision of society beyond the acquisitive – no version of themselves or their habits as anything other than transitional, on their way up or on their way out. The working class, at best, is a waiting room for people who aim to become middle class if possible. As a class in and of itself, it appears to be dead. The aims of society are not part of its ethos any more, the idea is as knackered as the Working Men’s Institutes. If a foreigner asked, what is the moral universe of the English today, to where would you point – the Daily Mail? Jeremy Clarkson? Simon Cowell and the instigators of the bouts of TV gladiatorial combat on a Saturday night, where more young people vote than would ever vote in a general election? Is this the new England?
The hunger for distraction among the English working class is nothing new, but what is new is the need to find a sense of national belonging in that distraction. English national football is famous less for its achievements than for its culture of dislike. The abstraction sits very easily in the English working-class mind: supporting the English team has long since become a synecdoche for patriotic allegiance. Fans are moved to paint their faces red and white not on election day, not even on Armistice Day, but on holiday in Majorca or at international fixtures where 22 men will struggle to score goals. The statistics show that English fans abroad will still turn to violence in this situation faster, and more regularly, than any other football fans in the world.
The English see themselves as being subject to the motions of institutions, but not really party to their evolution. There will always be exceptions, and many very brilliant exceptions, but in general the English live in a miasma of what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty”: their collective aim is to be free of interference, not to define the future. “Negative liberty” has become the currency of the dispossessed – “whatever”, say the English today when they’re told something they don’t like, and “whatever” is exactly what they get and what they are ready to accept, so long as everyday life lies undisturbed.
One of the things that fascinated me about England when I was growing up was the way a people who were supposedly so dominant were also so inactive in terms of determining who they were. They were full of “indifferentism” (the term was originally Matthew Arnold’s): tons of sincerity without action. One slant on the English would be to see their dim view of political upheaval as a good thing, a guarantee of the kind of individualism that makes for eccentrics and self-excluders; but silent obedience of the English working-class sort is more often antithetical to eccentricity. It usually comes out as a completely individual conviction that difference is suspect and resistance means trouble. The English don’t say “what can be done?” – they say “what difference does it make?”
When I was a teenager, my sense of the English was deepened – or confirmed, you might say – by watching all those kitchen-sink dramas and films set in the north. Each of them served to underscore both the declinism and the modern sense of political inaction. At the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton throws a stone into the new housing estate and prepares for a life of complete subjugation to all the forces he hates. And in all the others – Billy Liar, This Sporting Life, A Taste of Honey – the main characters either have their freedom snipped or their imaginations curtailed or they run away to London, where inertia at least moves to a musical beat.
During this postwar period, a crude sense of English nationalism prevailed, tied in its new form to racism and xenophobia. In other countries – Scotland, for example – romantic nationalism, despite its many failings and fantasies, did manage to capture the essence of the common people. Robert Burns was in no way a simple nationalist and a wild patriot – he died in the employ of the British Excise – but his work nevertheless captures the essence of Scottish working folk on the brink of the industrial revolution. Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads shows a similar ambition for the English, to embed romantic nationalism in the experience of working life, and to raise a sense of that life’s moral worth in the language and diction of his poems. That impulse in Wordsworth barely survived the French revolution. Perhaps Burns died too early to turn conservative, but Wordsworth lived on, losing faith in romantic nationalism as he’d formerly understood it. He later disavowed his own radicalism while seeming to disavow it for the English people as a whole. “For a multitude of causes,” he wrote, “unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, said recently that he wants to refound capitalism on the basis of ethics and work. Is this not what Barack Obama promises, too, and is it not what Gordon Brown says to himself in the wee hours that exist between his disgruntled political actions? Now that our decline is real, and we are back in recession, will the English working class let go of their long goodbyes and embrace a notion of collective responsibility? It would be an uplifting outcome. Orwell’s view of his England relied on a notion of the innate self-respect of the English working class. He named all the diseases but one, for he believed at base in the transcendent ability of the English to be their gentle selves in the face of adversity. Perhaps he would have been disbelieving to see how the English poor have themselves become conjoined to their own adversity, distanced from their own collective powers and distracted from their best traditions of non-acceptance, dreaming of goods and fame as being great and lasting values. Or maybe he always knew it and wondered why no one was saying it. At the close of Homage to Catalonia, as he arrives back in England, we find this sentence:
And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere.
Nothing much has been happening since, except the quiet, invisible business of the people being walked over, and saying nothing, and thinking that’s just the way it is. “Whatever,” murmur the young. “But we are the people of England,” wrote GK Chesterton, “and we have not spoken yet.”
I was in Liverpool in November, watching some of the American election coverage with an old fellow who happened to be sitting in the same bar. There was a black woman on TV and she was talking about the coming election. “We’ve waited for generations,” she said, “and you know something: I think we had forgotten how much power we actually had to make things better.” The old fellow drank his pint and looked over. “That’s the ticket, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s the stuff.”
The above is an edited version of the author’s George Orwell Memorial Lecture.
The article is from The Guardian September 10th 2009.
Main image: John Harris, Orgreave, South Yorkshire (1984).
Danny Dorling is a professor of geography who has dedicated his career to exposing the deep social costs of inequality. This book is his first for a general readership, coming a year after Injustice, a detailed distillation of 20 years’ research into the effects of neo-liberal economic policy on Britain’s social fabric.What is most valuable about his writing is that it is angry, rather than indignant. You are asked not to wring your hands but to examine the relationship between your place in society and the place in which you live, and in so doing to recognise that there are winners and losers, rather than the deserving and undeserving.
The richer the area you live in, the easier your path through life will be; the poorer it is, the harder it will be. No longer can a majority of areas in Britain be described as “average” – that is, with a broad mix of people doing different jobs and earning a range of incomes. Areas are diverging in character, both socially and economically. Divorcees, for instance, tend to move to the coast, for cheaper housing.
The only significant way in which we are becoming less ghettoised is by race: black and Asian people are now less likely to be concentrated in cities or in poor areas of towns than they once were. Otherwise, we are more trammelled by postcode than ever, which leads to “nicer” areas becoming even more desirable, and therefore more attractive to people who can shell out to get away from undesirable people and areas.
In Dorling’s view, our understandable desire to make our lives easier, wherever possible, leads us collectively to place greater pressure on parts of our social and geographical infrastructure than is necessary. “We now only have a shortage of housing in Britain,” he writes, “because we share out our stock so badly – we have never had as many bedrooms per person as we have now.”
The shortage of suitable housing for all the people who need it causes prices to rise in the private sector, which in turn leads to waiting lists increasing in the public sector. Successive governments have restricted the building of new social housing for essentially political reasons, forcing many people into owner-occupation when they can’t really afford it.
A lack of suitable housing near to suitable jobs, at a time when government policy has undermined public transport and promoted the car, has caused us to clog up the roads by commuting to jobs that will pay our higher mortgages. What we need to start doing, Dorling argues, is to “point out repeatedly how precarious we have made our lives” and to ask “if there were not a better way we could arrange our affairs”.
That would require all of us to start demanding more of our governments than to tell us things they think we want to hear while doing things we didn’t vote for. For us all to be equally equipped to do so would require each of us to have a voice that will be heard, whether we’re piping up from above the fourth floor of a tower block (one instance where you are more likely to be ghettoised by race) or from rich rural Oxfordshire.
For our towns, cities and villages to become as socially mixed as they were back in the mid-1970s, from when all markers of inequality in Britain began to rise, nearly 2.5 million of us would have to move – poorer people to richer areas, and richer people to poorer ones. This shows how many people have won or lost, more dramatically than was possible before 1979, under the new rules of the “property-owning democracy”.
Dorling believes that knowledge is power: that if we have the facts, then we will act on our unease and seek to live lives that are a little less pressured and fearful. “For this country to change for the better,” he concludes, “we must all get to know it better.” If you need to be persuaded of such a case, there is no better book to read.
This review of Danny Dorling’s ‘So You Think You Know About Britain?’ was written by Lynsey Hanley and first published in The Guardian Saturday 23rdApril 2011. Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An Intimate History is published by Granta Books.
The government-sponsored Millennium Cohort Study has tracked 14,000 children born at the start of the century to build a picture of how family circumstances determine a young person’s education, health and happiness in Britain. The latest findings are from two years ago, when the children were seven years old.
The London University’s Institute of Education researchers found that despite governments having spent billions to eliminate child poverty since 1999:
• Almost one-fifth of seven-year-olds live in severe poverty – homes where the total income, including benefits, is less than £254 a week [this is an average among those surveyed]. The average income for families in the study was £563 a week, say researchers.
• Almost three-quarters of children whose parents are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin live in poverty – homes where the total income for a family with two children is under £330 a week. This is largely because of high unemployment rates for mothers and fathers, the researchers say.
• Just over half (51%) of black seven-year-olds and just over a quarter of white seven-year-olds live in poverty, with three-fifths from these groups in single-parent families.
• Seven-year-olds are most likely to live in poverty in the north-east (40%) and least likely in the south-west (22%). The figure for London was 36%.
• Just under 7% of seven-year-olds living in poverty do not have two pairs of all-weather shoes, according to parents. Just under 50% do not get pocket money.
The researchers interviewed the parents of the 14,000 seven-year-olds. They asked them to place themselves in one of 18 categories corresponding to their weekly family income. The interviewers also measured the children and gave them a questionnaire to complete which asked them how happy they were. They accounted for how many children were in each home.
The number of children living in poverty is likely to be rising, said Professor Heather Joshi, the study’s director.
“Our study captures how things were in 2008. This is not encouraging for child poverty today because worklessness is the most common indicator of poverty and our unemployment rate has gone up since then. Poor housing, low levels of qualifications among parents and low family income tend to be the key indicators of disadvantage.”
Mothers who had given birth aged 19 or younger and parents with no qualifications are heavily over-represented in the fifth of families living in severe poverty, while older mothers, who had given birth in their thirties, are over-represented in the richest fifth, where the weekly income averages £1,134. Scottish seven-year-olds are slightly more likely to be living in affluence. Welsh children are slightly more likely to be in poverty.
Just over half of mothers without any qualifications are in the poorest fifth, while 32% of fathers without qualifications are in this group. More than half of the mothers and fathers with postgraduate qualifications are in the top income group.
The researchers focused on the UK’s most-deprived neighbourhoods but adjusted the weighting of their findings to reflect all parts of Britain.
Meanwhile, the study also found that just over half of the seven-year-olds – 55% – live with married parents in England. This rises to 61% in Northern Ireland but falls to 53% in Scotland.
The mothers of the seven-year-olds were asked to place their children’s behaviour in one of three categories: normal, borderline and or serious behaviour problems. About 12% of children in single-parent families and 15% of children living with a step-parent were described as having serious behaviour difficulties. This is compared with 6% for children living with both of their birth parents.
Author William Nicholson complains that comfortable, middle-class people are no longer legitimate subject matter for serious fiction. Can he be right?William Nicholson was in his 50s by the time he got around to writing his first novel in 2004. Before then he worked in TV drama, and on Hollywood screenplays including Gladiator. He also wrote books for children. But adult fiction turned out to be harder than expected.
“I wanted to write about my own world and I felt that I couldn’t,” he says. “And I puzzled about this. Why did I feel that my world, which is comfortable, middle-class, well-educated people living in the countryside, was illegitimate subject-matter for serious fiction?”
Nicholson spoke about his experiences, including his rejection by a publisher who said he wasn’t interested in women who drive 4x4s, at a festival in Devon earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Scottish writer Alan Warner was making the opposite argument. Writing for the Guardian in praise of Ross Raisin’s second novel, Waterline, which describes the descent into homelessness of a widowed former Glasgow shipyard worker, Warner wrote of a “sly, unspoken literary prejudice” against working-class lives and characters.
While the upper-classes remain perennially interesting to publishers and readers alike, is it affluent middle-class or working-class characters who are being squeezed out of literary fiction? Or can both Nicholson and Warner be right?
When I phone him, Nicholson is quick to qualify his remarks. “I’m not daft, I know the middle classes dominate our culture,” he says from his home in Sussex. But when he began reading Jonathan Franzen‘s hugely acclaimed novels about American family life, he decided Franzen’s compassion for his characters was missing from British fiction. It is true that there is no obvious equivalent to Franzen’s success with The Corrections and Freedom in Britain. The tragic grandeur with which he invests the lives of his middle-class Americans does not have an obvious counterpart in a modern-day Middlemarch set in Harrogate or Morningside. But British fiction has become so diverse it is difficult to usefully generalise about it.
Every publisher’s list includes American writers, novels from former colonies, Scottish and Irish authors. The UK-administered Orange prize just went to the Serbian-American first-timer Tea Obreht, while hits of the summer so far range from Alan Hollinghurst’s country house intrigue The Stranger’s Child to Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, the Cambridge-educated daughter of Nigerian immigrants who now lives in Berlin.
In contrast, while crime and thrillers are international, with writers like Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown becoming global bestsellers, there is a strong domestic market for home-grown romantic and women’s fiction that is very much concerned with love and marriage in the shires. Nicholson’s frustration is partly that his work is corralled for marketing purposes into this bracket. Subject-matter, rather than form or style, have caused his books to be classified as more commercial than literary.
He has some supporters. Last year Viv Groskop called him “one of our most underrated novelists”, while fellow novelist Jojo Moyes wrote an article this week admitting that she, too, suffers pangs of self-consciousness about her privileged characters, and suggesting that perhaps the “drama played out over the scrubbed pine table” has had its day.
But looking at the most recent crop of fiction, it seems clear that middle-class lives of various kinds still dominate. This week David Nicholls‘s hugely successful comic novel One Day, about young professionals growing into older ones, sold its millionth copy, and next month opens as a Hollywood film. As Alan Warner suggests, it is Raisin’s new novel that is the more unusual work than Nicholson’s, in dealing with a downwardly mobile unemployed man on the brink of disaster. Raisin, who is 31 and trained to be a restaurant manager before studying creative writing, says the characters that interest him “do tend to be ones who are involved in some kind of struggle, and I’m certainly interested in what happens to communities when the fulcrum of that community is taken away – like an industry dying.”
He suggests the lack of representations of working-class life is an English thing, and that Scottish and Irish fiction are broader. There has been no equivalent south of the border of James Kelman’s powerfully influential use of Glasgow vernacular, while Scottish writers including Irvine Welsh and Warner, and Irish ones, including Roddy Doyle and William Trevor, have all written novels about what it means, and how it feels, to live nearer the bottom than the top of society.
There are exceptions. David Peace, who grew up two streets away from the 60s writer Stan Barstow in Ossett in the West Riding, has carved out a successful niche melding hardboiled American crime fiction with the northern working-class tradition with which he grew up. His trilogy about the Yorkshire ripper was recently adapted for TV. ( For a great interview with David Peace click here) Nicola Barker won the Impac prize for her weirdly wonderful Wide Open, a tale of misfits and missed connections set in Essex.
Those who write about working-class life tend to be working class themselves. But as academic Ian Haywood points out, “the term working-class writer has always been something of an oxymoron because at the point at which this writer gets published, they must have moved away from their original circumstances.” By the time Alan Sillitoe published his 1960 classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he was hanging out in Mallorca with Robert Graves.
Inevitably, as the writer’s economic position changes because of their education, their life experience changes, too. Livi Michael, who wrote three novels based on her experiences growing up on a council estate in Ashton-under-Lyne near Manchester, says that once you become an author, “your class position is rather peculiar. I don’t feel that I could write now with any authority about people living on big council estates, so I was looking for something a bit different.” She gave up adult fiction and began writing for children. (For a a fab interview with Livi Michael, click here) Similarly, Pat Barker wrote three novels about the gritty northern neighbourhood she grew up in, then moved on to write about the first world war.
Just because a writer has a comfortably middle-class life, and writes stories set in big, posh houses, does not make them uncritical observers of English society. Far from it. But the experience of writers such as Livi Michael, who was sent by her publisher on tours with Scottish writers for lack of English contemporaries with anything in common, does suggest that the intense draw of literary London is not conducive to attracting voices and talents from different backgrounds, who might offer alternative perspectives. Michael’s first novel took years because she didn’t want to write it in standard English. Catherine O’Flynn, whose 2007 Birmingham shopping centre debut What Was Lost became a bestseller, almost didn’t find a publisher at all.
London novelist Tim Lott points out that the huge cultural and ethnic opening out of English literature over recent decades – with writers such as Andrea Levy documenting the struggles of first-generation West Indian immigrants – is in contrast to the lack of fresh entrants from white working-class backgrounds. “It’s not a closed culture but it’s a very close-knit culture, and people are very highly educated.” He suggests a book prize for writers from poor backgrounds – the criteria could be that no one in the writer’s family has ever been to university – and says it is a disgrace that there are so few books about ordinary people’s lives. Owen Jones, who struggled to find a publisher for his recent book, Chavs, points out that as many people now work in call centres and supermarkets as once worked in the mines. “Ten million people in this country live in social housing and I can’t think of one sympathetic representation. On TV you get grotesque caricatures. I think we need a revolution in literature, a new generation of angry young men and women.” Jones believes that novels remain important, that what is represented in them matters, even though only a tiny fraction will ever have the reach and impact, achieved in part via Hollywood, of Nicholls’s One Day or Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
Whether the novel can become the vehicle for a whole or more rounded view of life in Britain seems doubtful. Fewer people than ever can afford to work as full-time writers, and many of those who do choose to work in film and television.
But perhaps the form of the novel itself is part of the problem? Haywood points out that one of the last writers to break through to the Booker prize shortlist with working-class credentials, Magnus Mills, did so in 1998 with a novel, The Restraint of Beasts, that was “not realistic, but Kafkaesque and dystopian … maybe if we’re going to rejuvenate the genre, we need to be a bit more imaginative about how we define it.”
This essay originally appeared in The Guardian on Friday 15th July 2011. The version that appears online received a very interesting comment from someone calling themselves ‘Classmyths’. I thought it would be helpful to include it:
The issue really is that there is a lack of any ‘Tales of Ordinary Sanity’.
What agents and publishers will say, and they may be right at least in commercial terms, is that what sells is dysfunction. Take the working classes first; here you generally get horror stories or fairy tales that encapsulate a life of struggle. My problem with this is that they generally make for grim reading – both of Raisin’s novels whilst good, are grim and there are other more contemporary examples (take Helen Walsh’s Once Upon a Time in England). All of which add a new dimension to Owen Jones’ demonization of the working classes in that there can be no tale of ordinary sanity when it comes to such experience.
To a lesser extent the middle classes in England also tend to be caricatured as dysfunctional. For example, Ian McEwan’s portrayal of Michael Beard in Solar is a metaphor of shallow crumbling middle class. Writing about the American comparison with the likes of Franzen, Sebastian Faulks view was that if he said, ‘I’m going to write about a family who make luggage in Leicester.’ People would just laugh.” So there are few tales of ordinary sanity, whether English or middle/working class. This may be down to the fact that a) readers just want to see how characters deal with adversity or want to read fish and chip paper stories or b) that the challenge to write about the mundanities of life is beyond many writers and so they tend towards the horror story or fairy tale.
Main Image: from Clio Barnard’s excellent verbatim documentary about the life of writer Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor.
My cultural touchstone is My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital by Peter Sansom. It’s a poem that tells the story of the death after an accident of Peter’s mother’s first husband, the man she was married to before Peter’s father. After the accident it takes the man “days to die” in hospital, but on the last day, prompted by a “sixth sense”, Peter’s mother and her sister, who are “young women, girls they call themselves”, get up too early for the bus and walk for twelve miles to the hospital to visit him outside the normal visiting hours, setting off in the dark and arriving in the daylight. When they get to the hospital though it is still very early and Peter’s mother and her sister are too shy (“young women, girls they call themselves”), despite being grown women with children, to cause a fuss, or ask for special treatment by “bothering anyone so early.” So instead they sit and wait on a bench outside, while inside:
dies on a ward already awake
that she might have visited after all.
It’s a great poem, and my favourite poem. Every time I read it I find something new both in how it is written and what it means and connects to. But what I think connects it to the north is literal. It was written by Peter Sansom, who lives and works in the north. Peter has been writing, editing and publishing poetry in Huddersfield and Sheffield for more than 25 years, and he is the editor of a poetry magazine called ‘The North’ , which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. ‘The North’ isn’t about The North though, it is about whatever is printed on its pages, poems written in and about anywhere in Britain, and the world. But Peter’s skill, energy, learning and generosity created a centre of poetry reading, writing and publishing in England that was located first in Huddersfield then Sheffield. His skill and generosity as an editor and creative writing teacher has probably helped thousands of new writers to find their voice over the last 25 years, not least Simon Armitage, who learned how to write, and wrote much of his fantastic first book ‘Zoom!’ in creative writing workshops run by Peter. I don’t know if those thousands of writers share a northern voice – I can see that they might do, drawing on common experience – but I do know that having a centre like that in the north was a lot more convenient to get to on the train. Peter would have created ‘The North’ if he’d lived in Southampton. I just thank my lucky stars he went to Huddersfield Poly and stayed in the town for the next 20 years.
Whether we have one or many centres is something that maps directly onto the political, economic, social and cultural geography of Britain, and that question connects My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital with what I almost chose as my cultural touchstone, which is Access Space’s graphic novel Grow Your Own Media Lab . Access Space is a media lab in the centre of Sheffield that re-uses second hand computers, along with open source software, to make a welcoming space for sharing knowledge and skills, and for using technology creatively: “networked technologies only truly empower when they enable people to create. To do this without boundaries people may need to repair, re-engineer and re-imagine technology”.
Grow Your Own Media Lab is the story of a place, and a way of working, and it has influenced people in the UK and worldwide, not least Brazil, to set up their own media labs following the same principles. It only takes half an hour to read, cover to cover, and even if you aren’t planning to open a media lab, it’s a great introduction to technology as a space for what Lisa Roberts from We Love Technology calls “creative misuse”, a space that anyone can play around in. Once you’ve read it, even the copyright notice at the start will be a revelation, and how many books can you say that about? Grow Your Own Media Lab, like My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital, says that we can have as many centres as we want, we just need to make them.
The poem by Gaia Holmes ‘Someone Should Tell Her Mother She’s Taking Drugs’ to me epitomises the cultural landscape of growing up in a West Yorkshire town. There has always been a duality and underriding tension between the hippie settlements of parts of the Pennines and the traditional working class culture of these mill towns. Gaia presents this with great perception and wit in this poem about a woman on her street and the impression she leaves on her nosy neighbours. The poem uses great breadth of imagination to describe what the woman’s onlookers may be thinking of her, externalising the interior world of the onlooker to illustrate their perceptions of her – projecting their own notions and concepts of what happens behind her closed door:
‘Up in her attic she conducts a choir of split-tongued harpies.They sing the Psalms backwards, set car alarms screaming and town dogs barking’.
It deals with notions of outsiders and prejudice in an insightful and refreshingly humourous way. The poem could describe any street in middle England but the tone of the poem and the humour to me presents a northern sensibility. I think it is certainly quite culturally specific in dealing with the hippie/working class tensions around West Yorkshire.
There are so many aspects of this particular performance of Elbow’s triumphant anthem of 2009 that for me depict an intriguing insight into being from and/or being creative in the North of England now. I feel the track is essentially about cherishing those bright sunny days in a climate whose sky is rather often grey. And so there is a strong reference to a particular place. Yet the metaphor of the “throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year will see me right” touched a more universal audience. The most recognisable musical phrase became the voice of British Gas. There is a regional pride but they still feel and remain inclusive.
These contradictions and many others in this example appeal to me as I feel it is hard to define a “Northern Spirit” in contemporary culture while also avoiding the contrived. It seems to me that Elbow are grounded in their local ‘roots’ and home while also outward looking and able to communicate, as this album firmly placed them as a mainstream headlining international band. Upon discussion in Newcastle I learned how the band’s singer Guy Garvey was brought up to feel the civic buildings such as Bridgewater Hall were also for him too. Nice touch then that working for Tube sound company, I recorded the bells of the Manchester Town Hall playing the main theme that was then replayed back to the audience at the show.
I like how for this performance the quite expensive and perhaps even exclusive venue of Bridgewater Hall was used as the show but it was also streamed live for free on a big screen outdoors at Castlefield Arena. I was there for that and it was a sunny summer evening and a lovely atmosphere. Guy Garvey facilitated communication between the venues using the big screens that connected the two audiences. It was a well executed collective experience and I for one did not feel I was missing out by not having purchased a ticket for the Bridgewater Hall show. In fact I felt I preferred it thanks to the lovely weather and for magic moments like when a train driver stopped for a moment on the bridge passing by the arena, beeped and waved and everyone cheered to and for him.
Here Guy Garvey talks to Stuart Maconie about a Northern sensibility in his lyrics and Elbow’s interest in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary:
To mark the relocation of some of its departments to MediaCityUK in Salford, the BBC announced last week a season of programmes celebrating “the culture, history, life and architecture of northern cities”. Writing as a northerner, I find both the relocation and the programme plan heartening.
But if the BBC had moved Broadcasting House, or Television Centre to the North, that would have been even better – akin to the puckish ploy of Tony Benn, who as a cabinet minister in the 1970s displayed a map of Britain upside down on his office wall. Where the visitor sought London, the supposed focal point, he or she would have found the North, which at the time still signified industry, trade unionism, working-class cohesion, nonconformism and other qualities dear to the heart of Benn. Today, the industry and associated society has gone, written off by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and northernness is slowly dying.
The northern voice, for example, is dying. It was determined by a communal existence, and so was not attention-seeking, but economical to the point of terseness; it was informed by industrial hardship, and so it was melancholic. The recipe involves putting these things together, then adding a dash of humour and surrealism. What you end up with is the northern droll. Les Dawson, from Manchester, was one: “There was a knock on the front door. I knew it was the mother-in-law because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps.” In the 1950s, radio shows of the baleful Al Read, Salford-born sausage manufacturer and comedian, a wife asks her idle husband, “Are you going to cut that grass, or are you waiting ’til it comes in the ‘all?” The Liverpudlian Ken Dodd is still at it. He called the millennium the “aluminium”, and took aim at the number one metropolitan folly of our times: “Have you been to the Aluminium Dome? They’ve got an exhibition there that shows you how VAT works.”
In his book, Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love, Charles Nevin argues that the once omnipresent northern droll was in practice always Lancastrian, and it’s true that one of the last drolls still plying the trade is Morrissey, who is Mancunian. But another is Alan Bennett and he’s from Leeds. Unfortunately Bennett is pushing 80 and Morrissey lives in Italy, and the dominant tone in British entertainment and life in general for years has been the London tone: loud, brash, cocky; the barrow boy rather than the industrial worker, the cabbie rather than the train driver. It’s the eclipse of Michael Parkinson by Jonathan Ross, of Emmerdale and Brookside by EastEnders which, incidentally, celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. Ugly people scream abuse at each other amid terrible decor. I suppose it’s a formula that couldn’t fail, and its equation of entertainment with strident individualism has lead naturally to the sadism of reality TV, itself a reflection of an atomised society more southern than northern.
The triumph of the City has been the triumph of London. Once, the arrogance of a City gent might have been tempered by a short walk from his workplace to King’s Cross station, where he would have seen the coal trains arriving and unloading endlessly, and he would have known that the softness of his existence depended on the hardness of the North.
If the City gent had then walked a little way west along the Euston Road, he would have come to the twin stone lodges that flanked the Euston Arch. The Arch is in pieces now, although there are plans for its reconstruction, but the lodges remain, and here are carved the names of the towns accessible from Euston (albeit sometimes with a few changes of train).
Forty years ago, those names would have triggered a series of chastening associations in our educated City gent’s mind. Preston – that was Coketown in Hard Times. Manchester – cradle of industry, depicted as Milton in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Stoke – The Potteries, Arnold Bennett territory. Nottingham – lace, mining, D H Lawrence. Huddersfield and Bradford – textile towns, combined into “Bruddersford” by J B Priestley in The Good Companions.
And Bradford was also Dufton in Room at the Top by John Braine, one of the last phase of northern books, those of the 1950s and 1960s attesting to the collapse of the social rigidities associated with industrialisation.
Most of those place names today will signify little more than football teams to many people. When James Alexander Gordon reads the classified football results at 5pm on a Saturday, it sounds to me like a beautifully modulated roll call of the dead. And, of course, many of the best players and managers are foreign, and the names of the stadia often occlude their geographical location. Newcastle, now playing at sportsdirect.com@stjames’park, have floated off into the ether. Where Sunderland once played at Roker Park, they now play at The Stadium of Light, which is at once pompous, boringly generic and copied from the name of the home ground of Benfica.
Where Middlesbrough played at Ayresome Park, they’re now based at the Riverside Stadium, located in a wasteland on the banks of the Tees where once stood the centre of world iron-making. (Incidentally, I think the BBC should look again at MediaCityUK. I prefer the brazenness of “Salford Media”).
Last year, Faber and Faber published Ten Storey Love Song a novel by Richard Milward set in contemporary Middlesbrough. A woman I know who works for New Writing North, one of the too-few organisations promoting northern writing, said, “It caused a terrific fuss up here.” Well no wonder. The northern novel with a contemporary setting hardly exists, and is not much discussed insofar as it does, whereas if you write a book set in Africa or India you’re heading straight for the Booker shortlist. The troubles of the North are not fashionable troubles.
When was the last time anybody set a novel in (to take just the Bs) modern-day Bury, Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton, Bradford or Bingley? Then again, what’s the difference between any of these places and Luton? Globalisation, Americanisation, homogenisation of high streets, the rise of the internet have all combined to abstract us from the physicality of our geographical settings – and the North was all about geography. We celebrate diversity of race, but not diversity of place. Most of us live in a sort of notional Los Angeles, and so the northern rain, the redness of the house bricks, the lumpishness of the landscape, seem anomalous, faintly perplexing in the way they insistently reassert themselves whenever the computer screen is switched off.
Oh, I left out centralisation. It’s incredible to think that an apprenticeship in local government was the standard prelude to a ministerial career. Think of Joseph Chamberlain, high flying beneficiary of the “Birmingham Machine”. I once wrote a historical novel set in Halifax in the early 20th century. I gathered from back numbers of The Halifax Courier that the leading celebrities of the town (as proud and independent as a little city state; a place where you could post a letter in the box on the tram at midnight) were the mayor and the councillors. Today, for all the talk of localism, neither of the main parties wants to resuscitate local government.
Let me acknowledge that I don’t believe I would have been suited to life in a factory or a mill. Given a choice of workplace, I would always go for somewhere a bit less dark and satanic. But I think I would prefer a senior position in a factory over one in a call centre or a coffee shop. A resident of Manchester recently told me that “We live in the city that invented industry, and however much it changes, that pride is in our DNA, and it’ll be there for ever.” I don’t know about that. Wherever northern cities are talked up, as in the glossy magazines available on the trains heading that way, the emphasis is always on new eateries, but I think we have all got over the novelty of being able to buy a croissant in Cleckheaton.
The ruling principle is a sort of vacuous cosmopolitanism. In York a few years ago I went into a restaurant – a kind of noodle bar – where clocks on the wall told you the time in Paris, New York and… possibly Beijing. But no clock told you the time in York. The other aspect of northern life pushed in the magazines is youth culture, and that’s the big thing that happened in Manchester in the post-industrial era: the rise and fall of the Happy Mondays and their bell-bottomed mates. It’s not enough really, much though I love the Stone Roses.
Northernness is not quite dead yet, and its distinctive tone has been taken on by the immigrant communities, but it is living on borrowed time. The BBC should be a spur to its revival, as should any incoming government. We need its virtues – its matter-of-factness and communality – now more than ever. And we don’t want to be a nation of EastEnders, do we?
Andrew Martin, The Independent, Sunday, 14 February 2010
Main Image: writer Richard Milward by Sarah Lee.
This is taken from Matt Edgar’s personal blog, which, if you haven’t already, we strongly urge you to visit. A link to the site is on our blog roll.
As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I moved offices in Leeds earlier this year from Holbeck Urban Village to Clarence Dock. The stark contrast between the two areas has set me thinking about a city’s built environment and how it can make a difference to people’s lives.
First some context for those who don’t know Leeds so well. Both districts are to the south of the city centre. Both played important roles in the city’s commercial past. Holbeck, at the terminus of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal, was a manufacturing district rich in textiles, engineering and pin-making. Clarence Dock was, from 1843, the city’s main dock. By dock I do not mean a place to charge your iPod but rather, in the archaic sense of the word, a big basin of water in which ships stopped to unload and take on goods.
Both areas have been developed in the past 15 years. Therein lies the difference.
The designers of Holbeck Urban Village have deliberately reused as much as they can, breathing new life into even the humblest old buildings. Where new build has been more practical it follows original street patterns to create small, interlinked public spaces with pubs and cafes. New media businesses pump pixels in the Round Foundry complex where once Matthew Murray‘s men cast steam engines.
Holbeck was a magical place for a historian to work in a high-tech business. I self-indulgently imagined that the world-changing importance of Industrial Revolution pioneers like Murray, his mentor the flax magnate John Marshall, and pin king Colonel Thomas Harding could rub off on my own work as a spinner of mobile internets. I was not alone. In the last few years Holbeck has inspired many others to create art and literature based on its multi-layered history. Granary Wharf now boasts Candle House, one of the best of the rash of new tall buildings, not to mention its own urban storyteller.
A mile down the River Aire, Clarence Dock is a different story. Cleared for redevelopment earlier in the Nineties but only recently completed, it seems there is literally nothing of the Dock’s historic fabric left above ground level, though occasional warning signs hint at something more interesting below the waterline. Compelling though it is on the inside, the Royal Armouries Museum is an alien arrival. Before it came to Leeds, it was meant to go to Sheffield where its magnificent Hall of Steel would presumably have had more resonance.
Clarence Dock is all bread and circuses, the ultimate blank canvas for the retail spectacle. I took the boys down there a couple of weeks ago for a canter round the Armouries and to watch the Dragon Boat races where teams of workmates rowed for charity in vessels emblazoned with their logos. A good time was had by all, and in a good cause, yet there was a randomness, disconnected from any sense of why the water was there, or how it played a part in the life of the city.
The history of the Dock is acknowledged – literally beneath the visitors’ feet - on dockside flagstones. These words seem to add insult to injury, like sticking plasters applied to a gaping wound of the collective memory. A paving slab that says “20 Tonne Crane” is not the same as a 20 tonne crane.
I don’t mean to knock everything that’s happening at Clarence Dock. The “ghost town” tag seems overblown. And I don’t know enough of the back-story. Maybe not a single building was fit for reuse. Maybe every crane had rusted beyond repair, even as a heritage totem pole. But it seems to me that at Clarence Dock, Leeds has squandered a huge amount of its narrative capital.
By narrative capital I mean this. When a building is first made it belongs to the builder, the architect and their paymasters. They alone can tell stories about why and how it came into being in its pristine form. But over time, the balance tips in favour of the place’s users, its neighbours and even to passers-by. Their stories become the building’s stories and the building’s stories become inspirations, symbolic of the city’s authentic character. Past achievements become our achievements to be equalled and bettered. Shared memories of past sins and humiliations can be just as valuable.
In the part of the city where I live, there is a Victorian police station. A few years ago the police sensibly moved out to a corrugated fortress with ample car parking. Local residents came together to campaign to turn the redundant building into a community centre. They lost the battle but got a half-happy ending when some new-build flats were developed nearby with a space for community arts. The new-built space is great, yet a world away from what would have been had they won the old police station. It would have been less convenient, messier, but more truly owned by the community from day one. The old police station had accumulated narrative capital which the new arts space will take years to put by.
Just about the most shocking offence against cultural life is the burning of books. Totalitarian regimes burn books to erase traces of dissent, not just to prevent transmission but to deny the existence of inconvenient ideas. To destroy a book is to destroy a story and to destroy a story is to rob human life of a little piece of its meaning. I know that buildings are not books. For one thing they take up more space. But I do believe there’s a parallel that should give us pause for thought before destroying places high in narrative capital. It’s not the long-dead architect’s freedom of expression that’s impoverished but the story-telling and meaning-carrying capacity of the whole community.
A rich environmental fabric makes a city resilient. By all means tug at loose threads, patch it up and reuse it as has happened in Holbeck. But it seems a wanton waste for any city to cut a clean swathe as big as Clarence Dock.
This is taken from Matt Edgar’s personal blog, which we strongly urge you to investigate as it’s mindblowing. A link to the site is on our blog roll.
It starts with the amazing view from the top of the TEDxLeeds venue, the Mint, which looks out over Leeds on all sides. The American architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen said: “When you look at a city, it’s like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of everyone who built it.”
And where better to illustrate this than in one of the world’s oldest industrial cities? The new cities springing up in Asia, Africa and South America have 200 years to wait before they have such depth of stories.
Looking down towards Leeds Bridge, we can imagine the scene where Louis Le Prince shot one of the world’s first ever movies. Together with his wife Lizzie, who trained in ceramics, Louis started a “school of technical arts” in Leeds. This marriage of arts and science is still alive today among the Leeds Savages and hackers at the Hackspace. While we think of new media as bits and bytes, digital content, the new media of the late Victorian period was chemistry – specifically the actions of light and chemicals on ceramics, brass, paper and celluloid. The Le Princes had to combine these things to come up with a whole new artform.
But to make his design a reality, Le Prince needed a way to reliably move the film through the gate of his camera or projector. He turned to an inventor who had something every city needs – tickets (just think of all those football matches and theatre performances). James Longley had invented a machine for dispensing tickets. Le Prince commissioned him to combine this know-how with his own work on photography to create his camera-projector.
And the result is this snippet of traffic moving across Leeds Bridge. If you don’t believe how important this is, you can look it up yourself in the Internet Movie Database where Le Prince dominates the movie charts for 1888. There are no entries for 1887.
Just down the road from Leeds Bridge is Meadow Lane where hacker Joseph Priestley moved in near Jakes and Nell’s brewery. He noticed bubbles on the vats of beer and wondered what they were. This led to a series of experiments which isolated the gas we know today as oxygen. Priestley shared his discoveries of the effect of this gas on plants and animals with his coffee-house friend Ben Franklin who, in a startling leap of imagination, suggested that we should stop chopping down trees. The green movement began wih a mint plant in a bell jar in Joseph Priestley’s kitchen. Steven Johnson also tells how Priestley invented a process for making fizzy drinks. He open sourced the method and Johann Shweppe cleaned up.
Speaking in Shanghai, the writer Charlie Leadbeater set out six C’s that determine a city’s capacity for innovation: combination, conversation, co-evolution, challenge, commitment and connection. I think we can see plenty of all six C’s here in Leeds. The Le Princes combined art and science, mchanics and chemistry to make moving pictures. Priestley’s exchanges with Ben Franklin and his French rival Antoine Lavoisier give us conversation. (For a link to many more of Charles Leadbeater’s inspirational thoughts/ideas, click here)
For co-evolution – the ability of suppliers, manufacturers and customers to develop solutions together – we look across the city to the three Italianate towers of Tower Works. Thomas Harding who built the towers was a maker of pins, not dress-maker’s pins but the pins used by billion in the textile industry. He understood that the business would prosper if his customers could rely on standard sized pins from multiple suppliers, so he worked with his customers and competitors to develop a range of standard pin sizes, called the Harding Gauge. For a modern parallel, picture those pins as angle brackets and the Harding Gauge as HTML, a standard language facilitating endless innovation and efficiency improvements.
Co-evolution was also central to the parallel developments of coal-mining, manufacturing and consumption in our city. In Holbeck, Matthew Murray built the Round Foundry, possibly the world’s first integrated engineering works. But he faced challenge in the form of competition from Boulton and Watt, a much bigger name in the steam engine trade. James Watt Junior stole Murray’s ideas, recruited a spy at his factory and bought up land to stop Murray growing his business. But the competition spurred Murray on, and he built the steam engine for the first commercially-successful steam railway at Middleton Colliery.
It seems unjust that the engineer commemorated by a statue in City Square is not Matthew Murray but his nemesis James Watt.
Murray’s mentor John Marshall faced challenges of a different kind. He was a flax spinner and flax spinning was a flamable businss. When one of Marshall’s wooden-framed mills burned down he partnered with a designer of a different kind of mill, one made of cast iron and brick. That’s commitment! The resulting fire-proof mills, like Marshall’s Mill in Holbeck are an important step in the evolution of the skyscraper. So it’s fitting that Leeds is the home of the best new tall building of 2010.
We can list a series of start-ups and businesses grown in Leeds:
- Marks & Spencer, founded on Leeds Market
- Burtons, which mass-produced suits for de-mobbed soldiers after the Second World War
- Freeserve which revolutionised the business model for ISPs in Britain, enabling millions of households to get online for the first time.
But what’s left as we move from the industrial to the post-industrial? At St Aidan’s former colliery near Garforth a five-storey-high giant walking robot stands marooned in a Teletubbyland of grassy hills and lakes.
What’s left, I think, is narrative capital, the wealth of stories we can draw on to make sense of our present and inspire our future, it’s the power people have to tell stories about their places and lives. And unlike coal, narrative capital never runs out. It’s a rich seam that’s getting deeper all the time.
Stories belong to everyone, so as well as the great innovators, the dead white men, it’s important to remember the contributions of ordinary people, like the thousands of women who laboured over spinning machinery in Temple Works, in its heyday the biggest room in the world.
And stories can be slippery when we try to grab hold of them. Of the heroes listed here:
- Louis Le Prince was a Frenchman who had to go to New York to commercialise his invention
- Joseph Priestley was from Leeds but ended his life in exile in the United States, having been hounded out of the country due to his radical political views
- Matthew Murray was a Geordie so the North East has as much claim on him as we do here in Leeds.
All of those people bear out Charlie Leadbeater’s sixth C, connection to the wider world. As do the buildings that our Nineteenth Century predecessors have left us. Squint and you can see:
- The Temple of Horus at Edfu on Marshall Street
- Rennaissance Florence, Verona and a Tuscan hill town on Water Lane
- A Venetian palazzo in Park Square
- Paris at Cuthbert Brodrick’s Corn Exchange
So when I hear that people want to make Leeds “the best city in UK” I wonder whether that’s ambitious enough. Our predecessors saw themselves not as better than, but certainly equal to, any great city anywhere in recorded history.
Which makes me optimistic for the future of the city. As the American writer and campaigner Jane Jacobs put it: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”
Main Image: ‘Leeds Leap’ by Ben Anderson.