NORTHERN SPIRIT

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‘Kes’

July 27, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

'Kes'

I first encountered this story at school when I was about 8 years old. Someone must have thought that it was a good idea to encourage us kids to read at home, or in our own time (which, of course, it is) and so they brought a tall cupboard into the classroom filled with brand new books. Someone was nominated as book-lending monitor, you could choose any book you liked, could read it, then return it, then write down what you thought about it on a card for others to read (a new, reasonably exciting twist at the time) and then choose another. ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’ was the first book that I chose, mainly I think because of the picture of the young cheeky looking lad in the parka coat on its cover (not the one below, sadly). Everyone I knew wore parkas to school.

Although it was set in Barnsley (wherever that was) and I lived in Bishop Auckland (near Durham), it was the first book that depicted a landscape and lives being lived in a way that I completely recognised and related to. It was also the first book that didn’t talk down to me. It was really funny and quite complicated and really sad and quite shocking at the end and there were lads exactly like Billy Casper sitting near me in class. Billy Casper was also a bit like me. I must have written something a little like that on my card, but I made sure that no one else got to read it – I borrowed it again straight afterwards. I must have read it four times in the end.

My grandfather, my father’s dad, worked at the pit (as did my mam’s dad and my dad’s brother). I remember how he would seize any opportunity he could to be outdoors and with nature – fishing, feeding horses. He would constantly bring stray dogs into the house. I now think I understand why.

I saw Ken Loach’s film much later on. In many ways it’s better than the book.  The performances are exceptionally natural, from a cast of largely non-trained actors using Barnsley dialect (although now-familar faces include an unusually sensitive Colin Welland, a brilliantly bullying Brian Glover and dysfunctional mother Lynne Perrie – new ground for the time, when most ‘Northern’ mothers were depicted as endlessly warm and long-suffering). It’s the only film that I can think of that employs metaphor effectively, in the form of the kestrel that Billy forges a relationship with. And this relationship is depicted without any sentimentality whatsoever – a relationship, from Billy’s point of view, based on respect and awe. It also breaks the stereotype of Northern ‘gritty realism’ in that we are given equal access to the countryside, and what this landscape means to Billy. (The score is gorgeous).

Writer Barry Hynes was a teacher within a Barnsley comprehensive school, and must have seen hundreds of Billy Caspers, with untapped imaginations, heading towards, and ultimately swallowed up, by the black hole of the coal pit. (What are the black holes, and obstacles, for contemporary Billys?) It’s an angry, yet beautifully lyrical story. It deals in hard truths, yet its politics are understated. Billy Casper is a magical character, yet very flawed. He’s the way that most kids are.

The scene below is wonderful for many reasons, but I love it most of all for how – in a matter of minutes – Billy’s teacher and class mates are able to see him in a new and surprising way. He changes them, without trying.

For a beautiful (and much better) description of why ‘Kes’ is so good, read this book. I also strongly recommend Barry Hines’ recent anthology ‘This Artistic Life’, published by the exceptional Pomona Books.

‘The North Is Not History…’

July 7, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

Richard Milward by Sarah Lee

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.