More set and setting

In today’s paper Kate Kellaway has attempted to map literary Britain – ‘to try and get an idea, however sketchy, of where novelists are setting their novels, which parts of Britain are most popular and which least.’

Imagine an American critic doing the same thing. I think he or she would find a continent swamped in letters. It’s natural that US novelists have been drawn to the great flashpoints of New York and Los Angeles (just as it’s natural for people here to write about London) but our American critic would also count writers who have walked less beaten roads: Stephen King (Maine) Donna Tartt (Vermont and Mississippi) Carl Hiaasen (South Florida) Annie Proulx (Wyoming) Upton Sinclair (Illinois) and William Styron (Virginia).

By contrast, Kellaway’s map is almost a wasteland. There are vast swathes of this country that are simply not recognised by contemporary fiction. The conventional wisdom goes that most British fiction is set in London. Conventional wisdom needs to be more specific: most British fiction is set in North London. The author Blake Morrison, who lives in South London, ‘describes friends from north London arriving at his door sweating and angry – as if they had crossed continents”.

Morrison got a lot of attention recently when he published a novel defiantly titled South of the River and set ‘in Brockley, behind Lewisham and Peckham.’ In Britain’s parochial world of letters, this represented a revolutionary broadening of the literary landscape. When Joolz Denby was nominated for the Orange Prize she was called up by a metropolitan journo. He wanted to do an interview, and could he come round? Denby said it might be a long trip, as she lived in Bradford. The reporter asked: ‘Where’s that in London?’

For the novelist outside the capital there are three options. You can be from the Cotswolds and write about wife swapping among the horsey set. You can be from Scotland or Ireland and cash in on the romantic musk that still enshrouds anything Celtic in the parochial mind. Or you can be a loudmouth Northern sentimentalist.

During the 1990s we saw a wave of talented Scottish novelists hit the critical big time – James Kelman and Christopher Brookmyre from Glasgow, Oban’s Alan Warner, and Edinburgh’s Irvine Welsh. The latter of these has mapped out his home city as comprehensively as Dickens mapped out London. The last time I was in Edinburgh I could actually navigate around by remembering passages from Irvine Welsh novels.

Dickens said this of Upton Sinclair:

In his research and interviews he was able to accumulate masses of clear information not only on the workplace and living conditions but also about machinery, transportation, profit margins, sewage, hygiene, prisons, the courts, the hospitals, the political clubs – all the institutions needed to keep a modern city running. He shows not only how the meat industry and the steel industry operate but also how the machinery of power is greased, how the system of graft and patronage functions, how the bosses, the politicians, the contractors, the criminals and the police work hand in glove.

Irvine Welsh was a critical hit until around 1996 when his novels started to earn him major sales success as well as plaudits. Then he was written off. Literary Britain likes its working-class regional writers – as long as they know their place.

I love the North and I love writing about the North. My fiction is aggressively grounded in places I’ve known. I write mainly about Manchester and Salford – I’ve come to appreciate the difference between the Mancunian and the Salfordian – and also Sheffield, and Leeds, which has a magic that is impossible to describe but which everyone who has lived there agrees exists. These are great cities with loads of material for the aspiring writer.

But I knew that if I wanted to write realistically about the North I would have to confront the fact that so many intelligent and creative people wanted to get out of the region and move to the capital. This mass migration south is rarely mentioned by Northern sentimentalists such as Peter Kay, Ian MacMillan and Philip Hensher, who are happy to promote a provincial, anti-intellectual environment that they have long escaped.

Drifting, drinking and temping in Leeds, I met tons of would-be writers, musicians, DJs and artists who couldn’t wait to move down to London. You could dismiss this as social climbing snobbery – but once you’d heard their stories of the evil, curdled places they grew up in, you’d not only wish these seekers luck but lend them money towards their deposits. Because let’s face it, there are loads of places in the UK that you would be crazy to want to live in.

Any place is artistic if there’s an artist working there, said T S Garp, and you can get a good, sometimes a great novel, from the most godforsaken cowtown. Yet there’s a problem for the novelist who writes realistically about place. Kellaway reminds us of the fate of Monica Ali, whose Brick Lane ‘offended the Bangladeshi community – she received an 18-page letter from the Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council, representing 500,000 people, about the ‘shameful’ way she described their community.’

It’s not just religious sensibilities. Britain is supposed to be the land of the stiff upper lip – if only! Now the national character is marked by a visceral oversensitivity. How else do you explain the overreaction of Stockport Council to The Idler’s book of Crap Towns, which listed Stockport as number twelve? This light-hearted comedy book merited a thundering response from council leader Mark Hunter, who said that:

Everyone is entitled to an opinion but most residents of Stockport say they are happy here. We happen to be a national leader in recycling and we would be very willing to deal with all the left over copies of this obscure publication.

I’ve worked in the area and I can tell you that The Idler’s portrayal of Stockport was one hundred per cent accurate – the 192 route is just as bad as the magazine said it is. Hunter’s quote merely illustrates that a sense of humour and a realistic outlook are just two of the attributes that Stockport’s civic leaders do not possess.

But my point is that this was one page in a comedy book. What would be the reaction if someone wrote a bestselling novel about Stockport as it really is? The guy would probably be hung in Grand Central.

The result of this oversensitivity is that more fiction is going to be written as it is now: so vague in sense of place that it could be set in limbo.

Anyway, one of my future projects is a novel set in London and I feel I need to live there before I can write about the city. Moving to London requires health and money: they tell me rental rates are going through the floor. Now, if I could just get over the Condition…



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