Paul Morley’s Lost Kingdoms
By Max Dunbar.
The North (And Almost Everything In It) Paul Morley, Bloomsbury 2013
George Orwell said that ‘As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.’ Like so many of his lines, this is very open to paraphrase and can be said of practically any belief system or cultural movement. Let me make my own paraphrase of Orwell’s line and say that the worst advertisements for the North are its enthusiasts – particularly in the pop-cultural commentariat. This is why I never read anything by Paul Morley before, always having the impression that everything he wrote was overlong sentimentalised trash. But a close friend worked with him at the NME and had fond memories of the guy, citing his generosity and warmth. And a definitive book about the North is an interesting project and I was curious about how it would play out. The idea is a lyrical non-fictional exploration of the history and geography of Northern England. So far so good.
The book has two basic flaws. The first is its length. This is a hardback that clocks in at 582 pages. That’s a lot of Paul Morley. And Paul Morley writes sentences like ‘I found it, my north, smoking and babbling, battling and loving, scattered and glittering, lush and brisk, nattering and trusting, plain and fancy, high up and low down, forgotten and fantastic, rickety and plush, conspiring and cracking, rich and poor, poorer and poorer, mean and generous right where you’d expect, but also in less obvious places.’ The driver is obviously a soaring flight of fantasy, but it doesn’t always work on the page, particularly when Morley’s streams of consciousness so often end in bathos (‘When I did watch the film, I felt I knew the place I was seeing – the shabby backstreets, bunched-up terraced houses showing no hint of anything whimsical, the cryptic array of walls, steps, bridges, alleys, waterways, towpaths, lamp posts, cracked concrete slabs angled and crooked under boisterously gambolling stone-grey clouds… much more than I did the Isle of Wight.’) Whole pages fly by in run on sentences of these kind. The book is also padded out to a ludicrous extent with historical minutiae in straight narration, journalistic accounts of industrial and social development, included to provide the sense of what Henry James called ‘a treasure-house of detail’ but, again, since Morley doesn’t have the discipline to separate what fascinates and what doesn’t, these passages so often come off as pseudo-portentous and silly, and carry the hollow perfunctory air of a local newspaper with space to fill (in a paragraph about the opening of Forton Services on the M6, Morley tells us that ‘In spite of the ambitions of Top Rank, when Which Motoring visited Forton during a survey of motorway service areas, they found the quality of the food ‘only fair’.) I don’t want to be too hard on Morley, I get the sense that he’s a really nice guy, I can imagine having a pint with him and there are truly great passages in The North. But because he lacks that self discipline, as a writer Morley is like Icarus without the wings.
The other problem with the book is Morley’s focus. Of the entire region he focuses mainly on Stockport, where Morley grew up. Many people who know the town might ask why it deserves the greater part of Morley’s attention. Also, early on Morley tells us that ‘I have not lived in the north since the late 1970s’. He left before your present reviewer was even born. It slows the book down: by the time you get to page 273, young Master Morley has just turned ten. And this means that when Morley writes about the north, he is writing about the lost kingdom of clichéd social history. His book is a stereotype bingo session: Woodbines, George Formby, Eccles cakes, A Taste of Honey, Crackerjack, Victoria Wood, Andy Capp, the Smiths, Mark E Smith, the Beatles, punk rock (which I believe was a London movement, but by this point, who cares?) We need something new. Morley offers us a feast of nostalgia. His full title is The North (And Almost Everything In It). To paraphrase Philip Roth: the amount we don’t know about everything is astounding. Even more astounding is what passes for everything.
In this, Morley raises a good point, perhaps unintentionally: why is it that so many successful people turn their faces against the north? Historian A J P Taylor said that ‘If I had stayed in Manchester, I would never have achieved anything other than a few academic books’, Burgess got out in 1940 and never returned, and John Lennon, leaving Merseyside to New York, said of his home city that ‘Liverpool is just the place where I was brought up. It’s like anywhere… I love the concept of it, but I don’t live there.’ That is it. Morley is great on historic, and contemporary, examples of anti-Northern snobbery. He claims that a parliamentary commission turned down a test drive of George Stephenson’s Rocket because they could not understand his accent, and quotes the Duke of Wellington’s dismissal of the railway line because ‘it will only encourage the lower classes to move about.’ But the constant peddling of a cloth cap and whippet image of the North, as practised by Peter Kay, Terry Christian, Vernon Kay, and Morley himself, is its own form of condescension. It ignores the talent and intellect and creativity that exists in the North and diminishes our standing on the national stage. The literary row that erupted when Granta’s US editor John Freeman said of a promising young author that ‘He lives in Leeds, completely out of the literary world’ was a classic example of this. You cannot sell your region as an Alan Bennett theme park for fifty years and then complain that no one takes you seriously.
Many people who left the north did so to escape the closed provincial communities they were born into. The curse of low expectations (‘Banish all such dreams, the life thy fathers led is good enough for thee’) that crushes human beings, generation unto generation, is acknowledged by Morley but never really explored. He writes of ‘a Stockport where amnesiac teenagers like me could feel at home.’ Some hope. It’s not always easy to fit in if, like Ossie Clark, you ‘liked cats and flowers and walked a certain way.’ Brainy people who can make a contribution leave the small town because they are sick of being bullied in its playgrounds and glassed in its pubs. The lost kingdom of the north carries with it a mixture of pride – ‘We built this country and these southern bastards couldn’t run it without us’ – and resentment: we never asked for anything and then acted surprise that we never got it. The urge for self reliance, and yet the urge to belong. What Irvine Welsh called ‘the constant antagonism in a working class head.’
William Faulkner said that a writer must be able to see the world in a grain of sand. Morley can barely see a grain of sand in the world. The industrial decline and unrest of the 1980s barely merits a page. The North’s fightback and renaissance in the 1990s and the 2000s does not interest him either. The rave movement is not mentioned at all. He talks about the north-south divide but my feeling is, right now, the divide is not between north and south but city and province. By the time I came of age in 2000 the universities of Yorkshire rang with southern accents. The mass migration flows both ways. Owen Hatherley, in his long essay on Sheffield’s Pulp rock band, describes how multitudes of young people growing up in soulless southern dormitory towns escaped into the lush and lyrical cities of the North.
I’m a romantic and a Northern partisan and so, having lived through Morley’s nostalgia for many pages, you might allow me some nostalgia of my own. Jumping the train into town as a teenager, dancing all night at the Venue and dicing with death on the 192 home. Climbing on the roof of our halls of residence at midnight with my friends and tins of beer. Riding in my dad’s car through the glorious winding roadscape of the Snake’s Pass. Walking the Transpennine from Levenshulme to Chorlton on a spring Saturday afternoon. In and out of friends’ houses on happy terraced streets. Parties in quarries. Suited and booted for the Paddy’s Day pub crawl. Walking through the treelined avenues of Leeds Hyde Park on a summer’s evening, the air fresh and busy on your face, and a sense that anything is possible.
Near the end of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, the reclusive protagonist Michel takes a job at a remote research lab north of Galway. Walking around the lake, Michel’s new boss tells him that ‘There’s something very special about this country. Everything seems constantly trembling: the grass in the fields or the water on the lake, everything signals its presence. The light is soft, mutable. You’ll see. The sky itself is alive.’
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 29th, 2013.