Bad News From Winterfell

I have just read a crime novel by the excellent Sophie Hannah in which the villain is so fixated on a particular English city – a ‘land of lost content’ – as the Housman poem Hannah quotes has it – that the antagonist’s romantic dreams turn into murderous fury. The book had an impact on me, partly because place has great resonance in my heart too. What is it that makes us fall in love with certain places? What is it about certain places that generate inspiration and magic?

Then I read of this week’s controversy – if the UK literary world can be said to generate such a thing – around the Granta 20 Under 40 lit list. It began when Granta’s US editor John Freeman remarked, of the shortlisted writer Sunjeev Sahota, that he ‘had never read a novel until he was 18 – until he bought Midnight’s Children at Heathrow. He studied maths, he works in marketing and finance; he lives in Leeds, completely out of the literary world.’

Oversensitivity is not a completely southern sensibility and the bannermen of Northern literature went ballistic. The Guardian’s Northerner blog said: ‘The more I read it, the clearer it says: Leeds is un-literary, it does not register on the literary landscape, and it is remarkable that anyone from Leeds could possibly produce anything literary at all.’ A letter from an angry woman in South Milford added that ‘Some of those born in Leeds, or with strong connections to the city, include Alan Bennett, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jack Higgins, Keith Waterhouse, Helen Fielding, Tony Harrison, Arthur Ransome, Alfred Austin, Caryl Phillips, Kay Mellor – and even JRR Tolkien conceived of The Hobbit during his five years lecturing at Leeds University… I can see that John Freeman is saying that Sahota doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a writer, but to suggest that Leeds is out of the literary world when it is a hotbed of literary talent is clearly unfair.’ Harrumph!

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of these correspondents that Freeman could have simply made a throwaway comment, with no offence intended to our fair city. And like the humourless county councils who issue indignant press releases with every new edition of Crap Towns, the bristling defensiveness undermines our cause. An investment in regional identity will do that. Robert Conquest, quoting an interview with Dylan Thomas from ‘a time more verbally puritanical than ours’ reports that Thomas, when asked his views on Welsh nationalism, replied with ‘three words, two of which were ‘Welsh nationalism’.’ Irvine Welsh, although a committed anti-imperialist, regularly mocks the silliness of Scottish nationalism in his novels. And Oscar Wilde did not waste his talent in a lament for the decline of Irish identity. The problem with the North is that we have too much identity and not enough of anything else. We can’t spend fifty years exporting a comedy cloth cap Alan Bennett style of literature and then complain that we are not taken seriously.

Quoted on the Northerner blog, Kevin Duffy, founder of Hebden Bridge independent Bluemoose, criticises London gladhandling: ‘When big money advances are thrown at wunderkinds and celebrities, usually unearned, then the literary ringmasters have to keep spinning in order that those writers they’ve heavily backed keep getting their gongs and the media attention that follows.’ But I would say that kind of Tammany Hall literary politics has an analogue in the independent/underground world. The logic is: we’re independents, everyone’s against us so we need to praise and plug each other’s stuff relentlessly, regardless of quality. (For an example, the Northerner blog basically consists of a rave about Bluemoose written by Bluemoose’s online editor.) Whatever the scale, critical thinking goes out the window. The fact is that literary worlds exist because writers like anyone else are into community and tend to cluster around their own kind – although I would argue that a bolt of solitude never did anyone any harm and that it’s important to spend time with people with whom you have nothing in common.

And yet, and yet, and yet: there is a good point made here. The Granta list was indeed underwhelming, to the extent that even tame broadsheet critics could summon only customary praise. The list is so UEA lite that even the news that Granta has a US editor raised my eyebrows. Publishing like everything else that matters is congealed around North London enclaves. And there is an unspoken attitude that everywhere past the M25 is a kind of wasteland, howling with wind and ghosts. The idea that Leeds of all places can’t inspire great fiction – this beautiful city with its perfect fusion of the urban and the rural – is philistinism crystallised. The South is full of dull commuter towns and London is full of shitty boroughs with nothing going on. When I first went to university in Yorkshire I was struck by the multiplicity of upper middle class southern accents. The county was full of young people who had escaped tedious coastal suburbs to the urban north. Owen Hatherley, in his marvellous long essay on the Pulp Sheffield rock band, argues that this mass migration north happened because lonely teenagers escaped the drear of Andover or Little Holling through northern music like the Verve, Pulp and the Smiths.

All I’m saying is that sitting on the sidelines and cursing our chances gets us nowhere. It’s like politics: people complain that the North is hardest hit by the recession and hardest hit by the coalition’s voodoo austerity strategy. True. And worth saying. But self pity is not a strategy. An endless discussion of the nature of the problems doesn’t solve the problems. Accept it, deal with it, try and work it as best you can.

And remember TS Garp’s line that any place can be artistic if there’s an artist working there.

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4 Responses to “Bad News From Winterfell”

  1. Robin Carmody Says:

    Speculation: might it be that the bands from the generally more socialist parts of the UK responded to and identified with by middle-class southern teenagers frustrated by and alienated from their own surroundings have actually been more popular among the unwilling, discontented bourgeoisie than in the actual North, at least among its working class? As a culturally (if not financially) bourgeois southerner who can relate utterly to the phenomenon you describe, it seems to me now in my thirties that this was a classic example of middle-class revolutionaries putting their faith in the working class to carry out a revolution for them which most of that working class was perfectly happy to leave alone; while “we” were wishing ourselves in a place where we could mix with people who were what we were too gauche, unhip and provincial to be, much of the actual northern working class, at least in its smaller towns, was happily listening to SAW-type pop, Jive Bunny, the sort of commercial dance music released on All Around the World … the sort of thing we were running away from when it was played in Weymouth or wherever would have by no means escaped us had we made that leap (I was never able to).

    I always think here of Shaun Ryder’s comment about the Smiths, that it was only students (often from the South) who went to bands, he and his mates went to clubs which never played their records. Much of the Manchester tradition that I can respect and relate to *now* has to do with a long-term affinity to the radical end of black American music, taking hip-hop and making it their own, and I can think of that in the context of the city’s long-term rejection of both elitism *and* passive one-way consumerism, the idea that a closeness to America doesn’t have to be Lew Grade bringing over Pat Boone or Bobby Vee, it can be the Bernsteins bringing over the greats of rock’n’roll, soul, blues and jazz. And that is something that middle-class southerners escaping to the North never really embraced; they seemed to carry with them a resistance to and a dismissal of black American music really indistinguishable from the parental attitudes they affected to have thrown off (which, of course, brings us back to the central point of “Common People”). So that love of the northern working class would always be, to some extent, unrequited. As a south-coast teenager I was on the side of Pulp while my cousins went to bat for Oasis (whose instinctive plugging into mass emotions I will never be able to embrace – even if I think those mass emotions may be justifiable, I always tend to steer clear); I thought I was standing up for socialist values against hopeless lumpen counter-revolutionaries, but who was really closer to mass northern working-class sentiment? Most of the working class *is* counter-revolutionary, which is the hardest lesson an erstwhile southern lower-middle-class romanticiser of the Noble Savage will ever learn.

    I think you’re a bit hard on Alan Bennett here. I know it’s easy to dismiss his Eeyore persona, and to that extent he doesn’t always make it easy for himself, but there is a real social bite and anger behind what might appear an Uncle Tom facade to some. He once described himself as politically left-wing but socially right-wing, and perhaps that emphasis on respectability may be frustrating and even seem politically inconvenient to you? But I don’t think we should dismiss people simply for reflecting the attitudes of their time (in his case, the last pre-rock’n’roll generation); much of what he has to teach us is permanent, and bigger than a lot of what has been washed up on the beach in between.

  2. Paul Murdoch Says:

    “..it seems to me now in my thirties that this was a classic example of middle-class revolutionaries putting their faith in the working class to carry out a revolution for them which most of that working class was perfectly happy to leave alone.”

    ‘Carry out a revolution for them’?
    Not sure you’ve been walking around with your eyes open…I think many ‘middle-class revolutionaries’ think they’re in the throes of desperate struggle right now. A struggle which appropriates the language, traditions and mannerisms of old-style working class politics but which is, thanks to the transformative ‘dialectic’ of privilege and intersectionality, a struggle which dispenses with class and economic justice altogether in favour of an endless non-determinable battle of semiotics.

    Any hint of a ‘Northern working class’ aesthetic serves only as mood music, appropriated in order to provide an ersatz authenticity for people with no affinity with or tradition of labour or liberation movements. Their only contribution to class based politics is a radical process which allows them to disavow traditional notions of class identity and self-define as oppressed; white middle-class graduates seem especially adept at this and the more expensive and elite their education, the more oppressed they appear to be.
    Others, of course, take the alternative route; the self-abasing, privilege checking, progressive-stacking direction…which might even have proved laudable were it not for the rank narcissism and vanguardism at play. This whole “look at me and my oh-so-progressive and self-denying” politics is stomach turning.

    What middle-class ‘revolutionaries’ need and have always needed is a degree self-awareness which always seems out of their reach. I’m not sure if their traditional approaches with respect to the working class -which are located somewhere between the two axes of vanguardism and dilettantism- are consequences or causes of this self-awareness deficiency. What they should bear in mind though is that it’s a useful room of thumb to assume that if your words and actions would, generally speaking, cause large numbers of reasonable, objective observers to conclude that you’re a deluded self-loving dick, then you’re a dick. You need to take note and reexamine what you’re up to.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Paul

      Do you want to do a guest post on Thatcher’s death?

      • Paul Murdoch Says:

        I could but to be honest it’d just turn into a rant and only then if i sit long and hard an try to get back into a caste of mind I abandoned decades back. My lad told me the news when I got in from work and I felt nothing. If I try to dredge up my feelings from 20 years ago, I can do no more than conjure up vague intimations of visceral impotent rage. The way i used to feel about her wasn’t healthy at all, and if I’d known at the time she’d go on to die a peaceful death I’d have felt cheated. She was obviously going to be first against the wall in my personal revolutionary fantasies.

        I’m not even sure why I felt nothing. Might have been the passage of time, might just be that I recognise that the toxicity she used to inspire wasn’t doing me much good; it may even be that At some level I recognise she won…because above all, she did win…and she didn’t do it alone. “Thatcher”, to me, signifies a process; a continuing and intensified process which changed this country for the worse ; whose consequences forced rampant individuation and robbed great swathes of the working class of dignity and any sense of self worth.

        I didn’t read many pieces on her death. The one that struck me most was Russell Brand’s piece about the old withered husk she’d become, watering the roses. “Thatcher” had obviously left he building long ago and whatever they stuck in that box wasn’t really worth all the noise.

        I still think the single most telling fact about her was her friendship and support of Pinochet. Do you need to know more?

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