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.