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We require fresh narratives about the northern regions that go beyond cliches and patronizing attitudes.

We require fresh narratives about the northern regions that go beyond cliches and patronizing attitudes.


I have spent my entire life in the northern region of England. I lived in Barnsley for 18 years, then moved to Lancaster, returned briefly to Barnsley, and eventually settled in Manchester after a period of time in Liverpool. In my poetry, including my debut work “physical” and my current novel “Pity,” I have always been intrigued by the role that writing can play in celebrating and reevaluating one’s sense of place. I am interested in how it can bring attention to overlooked aspects and break through preconceived notions. This fascination is likely due to my father being a poet himself, who always encouraged my sisters and I to embrace our surroundings and dialect just as much as anywhere else in the world.

The collection physical was my attempt to surface same-sex desire, the fragility of masculinity and the legacy of rapid and often brutal de-industrialisation in the northern town and then the northern city that I lived in. More recently, with Pity, I wanted to interrogate what narratives exist about a place and who gets to tell them. I wanted, in the words of the great north-east poet Barry MacSweeney, to stand at the coalface, like Hamlet, and strike a match.

What is the significance of “The North” for those outside of this region? How does it impact the national consciousness? When I contemplate the North, I envision leaving my home and passing through Newton Heath and Moston tram stop, eventually reaching Newton Heath high street. As I continue on, I pass by the library, canal, and old church. The concept of the North also comes to mind while I am traveling back to Manchester from Barnsley, first on a slow single-track train to Huddersfield and then through the hills to the city. It is present as I visit my closest friends in Westhoughton and as I plan a reading for my upcoming novel in Whitley Bay.

There are numerous variations that could be expressed. “The North” cannot be defined by a single entity, perspective, or description. Its borders may be influenced by cultural, political, geographical, or financial factors. Is it feasible to discuss “The North” without also mentioning its psychological opposite, “The South”? And if not, can it be done without relying on cliches?

Cliche refers to repetitive language that has become commonplace, but this does not diminish its accuracy. One potential problem with cliche is that it attempts to discredit or mock ideas that may still require contemplation, just in different forms. For instance, someone may dismiss a book about coal mines written by someone from Barnsley by saying, “Oh, how cliched.” As a result, the work may remain unwritten because the dominant societal narrative says, “That topic has been exhausted, there is no need to discuss it further. We have already told you how you should feel about it.”

I recently came across two books that provided intriguing perspectives on the north. However, they had been out of print for quite some time. One of the books is Caliban Shrieks by Jack Hilton, who was born in Oldham and published the book in 1935. Thanks to Jack Chadwick’s rediscovery, Vintage will be reissuing the book next month. This modernist novel is an intense and disorienting howl that delves into the first few decades of the 20th century. It offers a glimpse into northern society and industry during that time, and Hilton’s words serve as a call for a more equitable Britain.

During the previous summer, I had the chance to read The Death of Grass, a revived version of John Christopher’s 1956 novel set in a post-apocalyptic world. The story delves into the consequences of a famine that leads to a series of violent outbursts, fear of outsiders, and ultimately the downfall of society. One notable aspect is the emphasis on the northern landscape as the characters attempt to reach a potential safe haven in the Lake District.

As I read these two novels, I noticed how they both deviated from the typical realism and straightforward storytelling that I usually gravitate towards when it comes to stories set in the north. For example, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, which takes place in Hanky Park in Salford (Greenwood’s hometown), portrays the Hardcastle family’s struggle during the Great Depression with unflinching detail. Another example is the poetry of Geoff Hattersley, who grew up in Wombwell, a village near my own. In one of my favorite poems of his, “The Persuaders,” six friends make their way to a specific pub in Wombwell, passing other pubs along the way that serve as a reminder of all the things villages like theirs have lost over time – their industries, religion, and political certainty.

Six of us are walking in a line, one behind the other.
Up the narrow street that takes us
past The Angler’s Rest and The Ship

The clubs for Conservatives and Catholics
and British Legion and Royal Oak
And The Alma and Little George

And inside the Horse Shoe …

This serves as a reminder that there is no singular way to discuss the northern region; it is not a singular entity, but rather multifaceted. Consider the various perspectives we have been exposed to in the past decade. Okechukwu Nzelu’s use of Manchester to explore themes of race, class, and sexuality with wit and sensitivity in his debut novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, differs from Kim Moore’s portrayal of Barrow, which differs from Malika Booker’s depiction of Leeds, with its obscured histories, which she examines through the lens of poetry. Helen Palmer’s reimagination of Blackpool in a Joycean and carnival-esque manner in Pleasure Beach varies from Zaffar Kunial’s descriptions of northern landscapes, where poems are intricately intertwined with specific locations, and from Gareth Gavin’s hauntingly unconventional portrayal of the north, transforming its post-industrial landscapes into dreamscapes in his Goldsmiths-shortlisted novel Never Was. Additionally, Jessica Andrews’ vivid debut Saltwater portrays Washington as a place where “Boys at school knew the factory was looming over their future, waiting for them to grow into the overalls.” Sunjeev Sahota’s depiction of Sheffield in his novels Ours Are the Streets and The Year of the Runaways diverges from Anita Sethi’s personal journey of reclaiming her identity through the Pennines in her poignant memoir I Belong Here. Each of these narratives could claim to represent the north, but none can do so individually. Perhaps collectively, they can accurately depict the essence of the north.

The way you communicate matters just as much as what you communicate. Because I’ve lived in various places, my accent could be considered generic Northern. But if you say “Barnsley” to a variety of people, it won’t be long before someone responds with a drawn-out “Baaaaaaaaaarnsley” in a condescending tone. It often feels like the generalizations made about the North stem from a distant perspective, similar to the way the “flyover states” in the US are talked about – overlooked people and places, viewed from above instead of being experienced firsthand. This includes the national narratives, the contrast between rugged landscapes and quaint villages, the faded charm of seaside towns, the run-down industrial areas, and the perception of Northern accents and dialects as comedic rather than meaningful. It’s seen as more reactionary than progressive, and monocultural rather than diverse.

Author and Poet Andrew McMillan December 2023View image in fullscreen

Unfortunately, this is frequently the case in the national media as well. Articles about upcoming cultural events or exhibitions often overlook the outstanding art found at institutions such as the Hepworth in Wakefield, the Whitworth in Manchester, the Baltic in Gateshead, and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, among many others. When discussing regional funding, equalizing opportunities, and community art, there is often a phrase used of “giving voice” to individuals. However, the true need is to listen and amplify the diverse voices that already exist throughout the country.

Some of the difficulties faced in the northern region are based on facts and can be measured. The decision to implement austerity measures resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths across the country, and its impact on local services and communities likely continues to cause more harm. When looking at the numbers per person, Liverpool and Barnsley were the most heavily affected by the austerity measures. These effects, including closed businesses and an increase in homelessness, are all too obvious and tangible, and while initiatives like receiving Arts Council funding for Barnsley’s first book festival are positive, these are deep wounds that will take towns like Barnsley decades to heal from. At the end of the previous decade, research revealed that seven out of the 10 places with the largest reductions in government funding were in the north-west, north-east, or Yorkshire regions.

The northern regions are dealing with issues related to infrastructure. As proof of this, we can recall the prime minister’s speech at his party’s conference in Manchester last year, where he announced the reduction of HS2, a significant project aimed at improving connections between the city and the rest of the country. Certain areas are connected by sluggish and struggling train systems, while others have limited bus service after 9pm.

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However, this leads to a diverse literary landscape for individual towns and cities, instead of being lumped together under one broad label. If the last train home is not convenient or reliable, it may be better to organize a spoken word event at a local pub rather than traveling to a neighboring town. The north of England is home to a significant number of excellent small and independent publishing houses. Some, such as Carcanet in Manchester and Bloodaxe in Hexham, Northumbria, have been established long enough to be considered pillars of the publishing industry. Others, like Bluemoose in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire (the first to publish acclaimed author Benjamin Myers and international sensation Rónán Hession), or And Other Stories in Sheffield (bringing international literature to the English market), are like new rocks dropped into a lake, creating ripples of fresh voices from their own unique hubs. Additionally, publishers like Valley Press in Scarborough or Fox & Windmill in Bradford, which focuses on promoting south Asian writers, demonstrate a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a keen eye for selecting quality works.

None of these publishers, or the numerous others I could mention, is publishing work purely about the geographical space they are in, in the same way a London-based publisher wouldn’t just publish work set in London. But their location, economically and geographically, within the community they are embedded in, and their relationships with local bookshops and libraries, give them an identity they might not have had, even if they’d been situated just five or 10 miles up the road. The cultural life of each part of the north changes in the same way accents change: imperceptibly, and then suddenly as you cross the invisible borders from one hamlet into another.

Earlier this year, I, in partnership with New Writing North, founded the Tempest prize, which is named after my childhood street. The goal of this prize is to discover new, unpublished writers from the northern regions of England, not just from major cities but from all areas where people reside. I am aware of the literary privilege I experienced growing up in a household full of books, particularly contemporary poetry books. I also recognize that literature is not confined to certain locations, but rather can be found anywhere, including where I grew up and still live. This understanding led me to believe that every person’s voice, home, street, and town is worthy of being written about and that no one place holds more inherent worth than another. A novel can originate from places like Barnsley (as seen in the Barry Hines classic, A Kestrel for a Knave, and the bestselling works of Milly Johnson) just as easily as it can from Oxford or London.

When the competition becomes available for submissions in the upcoming year, along with the other Northern Writers’ awards, my co-judge and I will not have any specific criteria in mind. Just as there is no one way to write about “northern” or “queer”, the winning entry could be in any genre – science fiction, personal memoir, poetry, or a unique combination of these.

In my new novel, I explore the issue of who has the authority to narrate the history of a place and what that history truly entails. The characters – a drag queen striving to redefine the town’s past, a former miner struggling to move forward with what was left behind, a security guard at the Alhambra shopping centre, a sex worker, a call center employee trying to make ends meet, academics providing an external viewpoint as they conduct a community ethnography and history project, and a young poet covered in tattoos who may or may not be myself – all grapple with this concept.

At the end of their Fieldnotes, the scholars in the book state: “We believe that a place’s own story is more significant than the stories told about it.” However, they then question which specific story the town truly tells about itself. They acknowledge that anyone who extracts snippets of story from the overwhelming chaos of noise and memories is doing so selectively, and that these fragments cannot be taken as the whole truth. The use of mining terminology serves as a metaphor. Oh Andrew, how unoriginal.

There is a complex relationship between the way a place presents itself and the way it is perceived by others. This is further complicated by the dominant national narrative, which often portrays a distorted version of the truth. In this space between conflicting narratives, we find cliches. Writing has the power to help us understand our origins and one of its greatest strengths is its ability to provide fresh language for our experiences. By finding new ways to express the past and process our experiences, a place can potentially shape its own future. This is achieved through the creation of new words and ideas that emerge from the tension between societal expectations, perceptions, and desires.

I am currently completing this task at my parents’ dining table, located in the rear section of the house where I spent my childhood. I just returned from the store, following the same route I used to walk to primary school every morning. The familiar houses and shops, now with different names, and the Longbow Pub that was once the Co-op but is now a Nisa. Across the village is my former secondary school, which has been replaced by a Tesco Express. In the distance, I can see the windmills near where the old mine used to be, rotating like the blades of a large ship. One of the reasons I wrote Pity was to demonstrate what I was taught as a child – that literature is not singular. It is diverse and can be found wherever you are.

Source: theguardian.com