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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’.

Richard Bacon, A Series of Unrelated Events

28 May

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Now this is my kind of book. Not only is it short and set in nice big type, it’s written by a Midlander.

Richard Bacon is a broadcaster with a knack for getting into scrapes. His career as a children’s presenter came to a premature end (he was forced to hand back his Blue Peter Badge) after the News of the World gave generous coverage to his drug-taking, and then there was the time he used the word ‘fat’ in relation to the definitely-not-slender members of the Magic Numbers in a Top of the Pops rehearsal – cue another minor media storm. Picking up on this tendency to make career-threatening gaffes, the premise of this modest but endearing and often very funny collection of anecdotes is ‘I’ve made the mistakes so you don’t have to’.

The book is much less salacious than the chapter titles suggest. Headings like ‘Cocaine, and Lots of It’ and ‘Squalid Sex under a Table’ might lead you to expect tales of debaunch to rival Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. In the event, no one snorts a line of ants or dies of a heroin overdose then comes back to life. No one even inserts a telephone receiver up their fanny. But perhaps that’s for the best.

As befits a talented current-affairs broadcaster (David Frost recently mentioned Bacon as a natural successor to himself), the author demonstrates a good eye for social trends and intriguing factoids. I enjoyed learning about the surprisingly high number of women who tweet as their dogs, for instance. There’s only one genuinely ‘serious’ chapter here, which is about trolling. In truth, it feels a bit out of place among all the tales of failing to pull because you’ve left an ineradicable stench in the loo. Even so, I admired this evocative word-picture: ‘In perfectly respectable detached houses, middle-aged ladies, members of Inner Wheel, just back from taking their Airedale for a bracing walk across the Fens, pour their husbands a pre-dinner sherry and settle down in front of the computer for an evening of posting on how Jennifer Ellison should have her hands cut off.’

Bacon is a celebrity, so the text inevitably circles the subject of how well known he is. Cue self-deprecating stories about being politely ejected from a VIP suite containing Chris Tarrant and top-notch nibbles and forced to party next door with Kerry Katona instead (presumably accompanied by a selection of Iceland hors d’oeuvres), etc.

One of my principal motivations for reading A Series of Unrelated Events was to see what it had to say about Mansfield, the ex-mining town where Bacon grew up; I grew up there too. One thing I really like about Richard Bacon generally is how readily he talks about his home town. It reflects very well on him that he alludes to it so often on his 5 Live show – after all, there’s no major kudos in dropping the name of Mansfield on air at the BBC. It’s not like saying ‘I’m from Manchester’, which appears to entitle the speaker to an automatic presenting spot on 6 Music at the very least. Here the first reference to the former colliery town, famous for its pugnacity if for anything, comes via a description of his parents as ‘deeply middle-class and [who] live in a relatively small town’. The image of provincial olde-worlde quaintness that this conjures doesn’t quite capture the essence of Mansfield. When Bacon then goes on to talk about his time working at McDonald’s – ‘It was a quiet Friday evening in Mansfield town centre (by “quiet” I mean there had only been two affrays and three common assaults)’ – he gets much closer to the spirit of the place.

You’re keen to know how well edited the book is, I know. The good news is there aren’t many typos, but someone’s clearly got a bit anxious about the way the author assumes his readers will be as familiar with the topography of the capital as he is: hence Chiswick becomes ‘London’s Chiswick’ and Mayfair becomes ‘London’s Mayfair’. Seriously, who doesn’t know that Mayfair is in London? Next thing you know, we’ll have ‘China’s Beijing’, ‘America’s New York’, etc.

Then there’s the questionable placement of the final chapter, ‘Goodbye Denim’ (there should really be a comma between those two words). This begins: ‘As I write, I am in the final month of the 16–34 demographic.’ The problem with that statement is that, if a footnote on page 181 is to be trusted, the author is already at least 36 years old eight chapters earlier. Is he getting younger as the book progresses? If so, he must be leaving the 16–34 demographic in the opposite direction to the rest of us, and therefore be about to turn 15. Still, it’s nice to end with a chapter about ending – to part with a word about parting, as it were – and Bacon does it very sweetly, coming to rest on an admirable (and very Mansfield) final sentiment: ‘Fuck you.’