Has Paul Morley Killed the North?

5 Jun

Now, before I answer that question, I should perhaps define my terms a bit more rigorously. By ‘Paul Morley’, I mean ‘Paul Morley’s book The North (and Almost Everything in It)’, as serialized on Radio 4 last week (it’s officially published tomorrow). By ‘killed’, I mean ‘brought about the death of’ in the sense of ‘fatally undermined’ in an abstract, intellectual fashion rather than ‘hit over the head with a shovel’ in a more vigorously physical, flesh-and-blood, now-let’s-bury-the-body-in-a-shallow-grave kind of way. And by ‘the North’, I mean ‘the idea of the North as the rebellious Outsider in English mainstream culture’.
     So, to return to our initial question: Has Paul Morley’s book The North (and Almost Everything in It) fatally undermined the idea of the North as the rebellious Outsider in English mainstream culture?
     The answer is: ‘Yes.’ No need for any further defining of terms there.
     Now, I haven’t actually read the book (as I’ve already said, it hasn’t been published yet), but I did listen attentively (with pencil in hand) to the extracts on Radio 4 last week and I have looked at the preview pages on Amazon so I do know a bit about it.
     Morley begins in a poetic vein (‘Here is the north, up here, where all things start… the north, at the top of the page, black marks on a white void, distant and remote, not quite sure what will happen next’) – a good way to conceal a lack of genuine substance, you might feel – and includes resonant quotes from the usual Northern-trademark cultural idols (Morrissey: ‘You’re southern, you wouldn’t understand. When you’re northern you’re northern forever’; Ian Brown: ‘The north is not where you are, it’s where you’re at’). If you like fine-sounding pieces of nothing, you won’t be disappointed. 
     But the real difficulty comes when Morley refers to the North’s ‘stitching together of myriad forms of otherness’. It’s a classic, oft-repeated trope, of course, but when you stop to think about it, hasn’t that last word ­– ‘otherness’ – become rather problematic in relation to the North? The ‘other’ (or ‘Other’) is the label that mainstream society tends to apply to elements that don’t fit in with its favoured self-definition or that it wants to exclude from its idea of itself. Now, if it was once true that the North played fractious, rebellious Other to the English South’s more staid, normative Self, that’s no longer the case. English popular culture – soap operas, football, music – is dominated by the North. Nothing better defines mainstream English culture than the BBC, and half of the BBC’s output is now being produced in the North: almost all of the presenters on 6 Music are distinctively Northern, as are quite a lot of the voices on Radio 3 if you tune in for the live broadcast in the evening. As if to underline quite how establishment the North has become, Morley’s celebration of the North was, as mentioned above, given the Book of the Week slot on Radio 4, as well as coverage on Front Row, before it had even been published. Seriously, how much more mainstream can the North become? The pretence of its Otherness is the myth by which the North lives, but you can’t be a rebellious outsider when you’ve become so institutionalized, hyperdocumented and so unquestioningly celebrated. Isn’t that the definition of an Insider, in fact?

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WILSON’S THE OUTSIDER: IS THAT A MIDLANDER’S HAND I SEE BEFORE ME?

     So, since every ‘Self’ must needs have one to exist, what IS the true ‘Other’ in English culture? I’ll tell you. It’s the Midlands, of course – or the ‘amorphous midlands’ (I must say, I find the use of a lowercase ‘m’ demeaning), as Morley calls this most innovative, most creative and most derided band of the country. That fine Leicester-born writer Colin Wilson knew it when he published his seminal philosophical study The Outsider back in 1956. His subjects included Kafka, Camus and Van Gogh, but it could equally be subtitled ‘A Handbook for Midlanders’.

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