Mike Savage on Paul Morley’s ‘TheNorth
I have prepared these notes as part of my discussion with Paul Morley on September 3rd at the CRESC conference at Manchester. Perhaps they might be of interest to others. Comments welcome!
Paul Morley’s book, The North, represents the most impressive popular reflection about ‘Northerness’ which currently exists. At a sprawling 582 pages it ambitiously mixes snippets of personal autobiography, with extensive vignettes of iconic northern people, and selected urban biographies, focusing especially on his Stockport and Manchester boyhood but also ranging further afield to Liverpool and occasionally into Yorkshire (though rarely into the Geordie heartland of Tyneside). The book is easy to dip into though perhaps harder to read from cover to cover, but this, is a very real sense, its point. The North, in Morley’s hands, is not just an easy going pastoral for southerners to enjoy at the weekend after a hard week’s stint in the City of London. Nor is it simply an opportunity for northerners who now moved south to give a sentimental and nostalgic rendering about their origins. Rather, the North is spiky, disconnected, cheeky and irreverent, sometimes jarring, even offensive. And it is these very qualities that should be celebrated. As I will argue here, they offer a more productive set of terms to understand the stakes of northern-ness today.
Morley’s places his narrative in a strongly personal frame as a means of making sense of his own identity and life story. But it would be wrong to read it simply in these terms, for its wider purpose is also clear. In a context of a powerful metropolitan point of view, with increasing southern English condescension towards the north, this is a massive act of commemoration and recovery. It stakes out the North’s claim to Englishness, tracing how key cultural, social and political movements can only be understood as associated with their northern heartland, and that any account of the nation which neglects these is fundamentally also complicit with a fundamentally metropolitan framing which can only positions the north in its shadow and in fundamentally subordinate ways.
How then, do we construct an alternative, a ‘better’ north? Morley’s starting point is crucial: it is a refusal to essentialise the North or reduce it to a set of qualities or attributes, whether natural, social or cultural. Rather he insists on the way that the north exists relationally, versus other locations and places, and it is only through such mobilities and instabilities that it can be effectively construed. It is for these reasons that he makes his own movements, and those of his family, notably his father, into and out of the north as a key part of his story. He therefore offers an account which is not seeking to revive a ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ North, but to put the North to work, as it were.
And it poses this issue within the context of the impossibility of the English north claiming a ‘national’ base from which to establish its own ‘canonical’ traditions and identities. Over the past two centuries, the main mechanism by which those in subordinated territories can seek to counter the power of the metropolis is to adopt a specific national identity. Thus, the post-colonial critique of imperial power was associated with the rise of nationalist movements in Africa, Asia and South America. Within the UK, Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalism have been powerful vehicles to resist London based idioms. More recently, in various parts of the world the deployment of national idioms has been supplemented by the revival of religious identities which can also be used to mobilise against the view from the metropolis. But neither of these repertoires are possible for the English north which can neither claim a distinctive national or religious identity . Similarly, ethnic identities, though clearly highly significant in parts of the north – as in other parts of the UK – do not themselves clearly articulate an account of the north itself. This is the key issue which Morley excavates here in his reflections on what alternative bases for identification there might be. In order to explore his approach to this issue, let us first clarify his frame of reference.
1: Morley’s reference points
We can take our bearings by considering which figures Morley singles out in the various vignettes in his account. All those who are mentioned on five pages or more of his book are listed in the Appendix. Some perhaps predictable patterns stand out: not surprisingly given the autobiographical focus, the list is predominantly of those who were feted or came to recognition in the time of Morley’s childhood, is nearly entirely male (only Gracie Fields and Queen Victoria intrude), entirely white, and predominantly Lancastrian. But these are easy points to make: to criticise Morley for being his selectivity is to misconstrue his enterprise. As I have already emphasised, he is not trying to give a representative account of the North, but is instead using it critically. In this spirit let me tease out some intriguing additional points.
First and most importantly, it is most unlikely that any reader will know all the figures listed in the Appendix. Some of them, to be sure, are familiar northern icons, ranging from LS Lowry (to whom I will return), to JB Priestley, Morrissey and so on. However, the Labour politician and MP JR Clynes – the last major figure from the Victorian world of cotton textile trade unionism to tread the political stage, or the businessman Edmund Shaa are hardly household names today. The same might be extended to figures such as comedian Frank Randle, the scientist Bernard Lovell, and so on. Even Anthony Burgess is hardly one of Britain’s most feted novelists today and would not necessarily figure on the reading lists of many current book clubs. This is all evidence to the dispersal of any kind of ‘Northern’ canon and the way that figures become lost when not united by some kind of ‘tradition’ which thus might link or fuse them. To this extent, this is a paean to a lost and fragmented world.
A second point also stands out. Many of Morley’s chosen individuals are not themselves northerners. He avoids the sentimental trope of fixing the north in terms of its ‘native’ voices. The north is also composed of those who have commented on the north – George Orwell, Charles Dickens – as well as those such as Daniel Defoe, Bob Dylan, Mark Bolan, or Charlie Chaplin whose connections to the north are at best tangenital. What Morley is doing here, is to elaborate an account of the north which does not fix it, spatially, but sees it as the co-construction of those ‘born and bred’ in the area, but also others too. It follows that the north is the product of mobilities across boundaries, and needs to be placed in terms of the interactions between those living in the north and those outside. Morley’s own position here is of course emblematic, as someone whose career has been based in London and the south, who was indeed born in the south, and who now views the north from inside-outside, as he makes clear (e.g. Morley 2013: 533).
Finally, and even whilst recognising this mobility and fluidity of the north, we can nonetheless see a certain familiar construction of it as oriented towards somewhat individualistic, cantankerous, obstinate, men. Burgess, Lowry, Morrissey, even Priestley and Lennon fit somehow into this mould. And Ken Dodd, Bernard Manning, Roger McGough are all mavericks within their own field. And so on. Doubtless, Morley might see himself – as pop Svengali – in this mould too. But simply to therefore dismiss this construction as partial completely misses the point. There is no alternative to this kind of strategy of counter-mobilisation in order to contest the metropolitan point of view which presents itself as universal, and hence any kind of regional or local perspective as ‘partial’ and hence limited. Morley is not claiming an ‘authentic’ or ‘essential’ north, but is rather using these figures agonistically to claim stakes. He is thus seeking an account of the north which is of the landscape but not conflated with the landscape, one which is not fixed or ‘authentic’ but which is an active part of cultural life and identification. He is thus refusing to simply ‘primitivise’ or ‘naturalise’ the north.
In reflecting on the stakes here, we can adapt Pascale Casanova’s (2002) crucial emphasis about the way that cultural stakes are vested in specific locations. In her account of world literature, following from Bourdieu, she shows how the dominance of Paris within the ‘world republic of letters’ entailed that writers from other locations could only take up their pens through recognising, authorising and contesting the dominance of the Parisian perspective which is also implicitly the world perspective. In our case, the metropolitan point of view is represented through the power of London (including its surrounding hinterland) to define the benchmarks of legitimate and recognised cultural excellence and value. From within the metropolitan perspective, the English north is inevitably deficient. What strategies are there for those located outside its remit to gain recognition? Let us reflect on some possible strategies, using Morley’s account as a prompt. How can one authorise the North, using this relational and contested perspective?
2: Contesting the north
Firstly, we might evoke the sentimental rendering of ‘ordinary’ Northern life – of humble ‘folk’, of ‘community’, and of a context in which people know their neighbours, and know where they fit. Here, the contrast is with the sophistication, complexity and subtlety of the metropolis. Over many decades this motif has massively proliferated. It can be found in Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, in Coronation Street as well as in the social science of community studies (such as Coal is Our Life).
But one only needs to raise this vision to immediately recogjnise that this kind of ‘authentic’ ordinary north is also massively parodied. Alan Bennett’s dramatic world, Monty Python’s ‘four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, and a host of others, including Coronation Street all debunk the idea of any kind of northern community, or rather they play on it only to explore its limits. The northern poet Simon Armitage might also be seen in this ilk. Thus, the motif of northern community exists only to be immediately debunked, one might suggest, so testifying to its instability and limitations. Stuart Macione’s books on the north are a classic example of this approach, in which the north is simultaneously rendered as mythical through its very debunking. Macione’s own promotion of his popular book ‘Pies and Prejudice’ indicates the politics of this perspective.
‘My name is Stuart Maconie, and I am from the North Of England. Some time ago, I was standing in my kitchen, rustling up a Sunday brunch for some very hungover, very Northern mates who were ‘down’ for the weekend. One of them was helping me out and, recipe book in hand, asked “where are the sun-dried tomatoes?” “They’re behind the cappuccino maker,” I replied. Silence fell. We slowly met each other’s gaze. We did not say anything. We did not need to. Each read the other’s unspoken thought: we had become those kinds of people, the kind of people who had sun-dried tomatoes and cappuccino makers, the kind of people who did Sunday brunch. In other words: southerners. A northerner in exile, stateless and confused, hearing rumours of Harvey Nichols in Leeds and Maseratis in Wilmslow, Stuart goes in search of The North.
The north exists here only, as the ‘other’ to the metropolitan south from which this perspective is inevitably based. We can further note that its own irony makes it a more difficult platform to effectively critique without appearing sour and thereby limited. It is precisely this approach which Morley avoids through resisting any kind of ironic referencing in his account and his refusal to stereotype. Morley’s account which proceeds through particularities – of specific cultural figures, landscapes and experiences seeks to avoid any reference to a ‘mythical’ north is necessarily no sooner constructed than it is critiqued.
Secondly, and certainly more arresting, is the more tragic view of the north as a certain kind of lost world. Once more, Morley’s account shares elements of this motif without subscribing to it fully. Arguably, the leitmotif of this framing remains Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin’s astonishing Remains of Elmet (1979). Hughes’ preface runs as follows
The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became “the hardest-worked river in England”. Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.’ –
The point is again not that this is some ‘authentic’ northern vision. Hughes of course lived most of his life outside Yorkshire, and Godwin was born in Berlin and highly cosmopolitan. And what is also evident from Hughes is his awareness that this is a rhetorical rather than an ‘authentic’ move: just as the lost world of Elmet has disappeared so has the world of textile Yorkshire. It is the ways that this loss can be deployed productively in the present which is important, not a simple nostalgic move. This is therefore a powerful refrain which allows questions of belonging and loss a voice, and in ways which can be mobilised for different purposes. Madeleine Bunting’s The plot: a biography of an English acre might be seen as a more personal rendering of this perspective through her account – where she specifically positions herself as a Londoner but also reflects on her father and his Yorkshire acre allows the tension to be a productive and revealing one.
Morley’s book offers a fascinating resource to reflect on this perspective here. As some adverse critics have pointed out, significant parts of the book appear rather tedious. They discuss his own experience of growing up within the minutiae of the Stockport environs. And here, it is sometimes said, that some of the detail might be wearing for at least some readers: are we really that interested in the intricacies of the Nico Ditch, the relationship between Reddish and Stockport, and so forth. Morley’s insistence on local particularity is one of the key messages of his book . But of course, this is the point. If these were areas of London, then such differences between Hackney and Stoke Newington, for instance, would become canonical reference points. Why shouldn’t the South East Manchester conurbation be equally important? Morley is deliberately challenging the reader, most of whom will have no knowledge of Stockport nuances, with their own prejudicial perspectives and lack of interest in specific locations. Through this mechanism he is further refusing a simple essentialising of the English north.
Thirdly, there is also the possibility of drawing attention to the simple ‘othering’ of the English north, in which it is held up as the opposed location to the metropolitan point of view. In Morley’s book, as in much other work, Liverpool is held up as the quintessential site for this operation. In his most lyrical chapter, Liverpool is evoked as the ‘other side’ of English respectability, but also as the ‘other’ which can never fundamentally be known about from outside and is hence fundamentally indefatigable. It ultimately exists beyond the gaze of the metropolis, even whilst it is inevitably implicated by it
A city representing the bleak, brilliant, narrow, open north of England, but on its own, a compression, distortion and extension of the stubborn energy of pioneers, immigrants, outlaws, artists, entrepreneurs, labourers, dockers, sailors, teachers, drinkers, travellers, politicians, thieves poets, celebrities, comedians…. I sat on the bus….. eager to reach Liverpool, which was something else, and undefeated, undeterred, by war, indifference, all forms of hostility, intolerance and condescension (Morley 2013: 390).
This presentation of the north as sheer ‘other’ is important but it also reproduces the very framing that it opposes and is hence ultimately limited by the terms of reference itself. Hence, whilst rhetorically powerful in some contexts, it can hardly stand as an effective response in and of itself.
3: Contesting cultural hierarchy
I want to champion a further perspective on these issues which we can find embedded in Morley’s text. Here, evoking the north is about challenging the ‘rules of the game’, finding alternative ways of establishing cultural value which contest established views and which allow the opportunity to present new kinds of identities, motifs, and perspectives. This is an inevitably fraught and complex process as I want to show, but one which recognises the stakes of identity politics but seeks to challenge them in ways which can, in certain cases, permit the cultural field, and the attribution of value, worth and dignity, itself to be redefined. Let me discuss this with several examples.
Perhaps the most striking example of this move can be seen through the politics of the ‘middlebrow’, represented in Morley’s pages most emphatically by JB Priestley, but possibly also evident in the art of LS Lowry (whose tutorship under the more conventional artist Valette is brought out by Morley). The middlebrow can, of course, be seen in condescending ways, precisely as inferior to the highbrow culture of the metropolitan centre. However, and this is my point, such cultural modes can also be mobilised more powerfully to critique ‘highbrow values’, as indeed they were by Priestley himself, and can thereby open the potential for such a position to generate progressive and dynamic sorts of cultural identities. Lowry’s own career is indicative of this move, in which the values of established and legitimate artists play no part in construing his reference points: he is driven by rules of art which are different from those of the arts establishment, a point Morley brings out lovingly.
A further example might be useful here. Interestingly, despite his love of cricket, Morley does not evoke the figure of Neville Cardus, whose autobiography remains one of the classical northern narratives, the one which avoids both constructing his Manchester roots as sentimental or as abject. Consider, by contrast, the plethora of northern figures, including Morrissey, Terry Eagleton, Hilary Mantel, Andrea Ashworth, and others who explicate the horror of a northern upbringing. Or contrast this with the sentimentality of Hoggart, Robert Roberts (The Classic Slum) and so forth. Both of these repertoires can be seen to be trammelled by the tensions discussed above. In Cardus’s case, his account refuses these oppositions. Brought up in grim circumstances in Rusholme, Manchester, the son of a prostitute, who nonetheless goes onto teach at private school before becoming music and cricket critic for the Manchester Guardian. And from this arena straddling popular and high culture he contests the very terms in which these are understood. Thus, the popular sport of cricket is fully aestheticized and defined as a possible mode of cultural as well as sporting excellence. Whereas the popular appeal of classical music was also championed as something accessible to a wider audience, and attention drawn to northern venues, including the Halle orchestra, as much as its southern bases. Cardus, archetypal ‘middlebrow’, thus challenges cultural boundaries and hierarchies themselves through seeking to redefine the cultural terms of reference.
It is worth noting how he did this. This intervention was dependent on the Manchester Guardian for which he worked for many years, in the days when this was a northern newspaper which also enjoyed national provenance. In short, he relied on an institutional platform – one of the relatively few, arguably – which could itself challenge the terms of reference between the metropolis and the provinces. The Manchester Guardian could see it itself as more serious than its southern rivals, and so it was that Cardus could write from an ‘authorised’ position.
I am seeking here, to make more than a specialised historical claim about the middlebrow aesthetic. Rather, my argument is that the kind of positive northern identities that Morley seeks to elaborate are effective when they challenge the attribution of value itself through identifying with some kind of nascent or denigrated form and championing its value. Thus, rather than accepting the definition of cultural hierarchy and seeking to elevate the significance of northern figures within it, this requires contesting the definition of cultural hierarchy itself.
There are numerous other cases. In the world of climbing it was the northern white, working class men such as Don Whillans and Joe Smith who played a key role in making this a fashionable sport (Perrins 2002). Or we might rehearse the role of northern suffragettes in challenging the exclusion of women from the vote (Liddington and Norris 1978).
This, of course, is precisely Morley’s claim regarding popular music and its power in the northern imagination. Once again, it is necessary to insist that he is not seeking some kind of northern essentialism here, whereby the Beatles represent some kind of Liverpudlian authenticity, but he is rather making the case that the very extension of cultural repertoires which are necessary for renewal and innovation could only take place from venues outside the metropolitan heartland. It is in this way that huge swathes of crucial cultural innovations can only be understood in terms of their association with the English north: popular music (in several waves, ranging from George Formby through the Beatles, and then through punk, and into the 1980s indie and music scene), serious but popular television (from Coronation St onwards, with Granada TV playing a central role, and so forth), comedy, and so forth
I have myself pursued this line of argument in claiming that the emergence of the British social science apparatus itself, i.e. new modes of conducting social research drawing on interview and survey techniques need to be contextualised in their association with research outside the metropolis and on the marginal borderlands of England. I have argued this specifically with reference to the role of the Welsh border (Savage 2010) but the same is true for the English north, with pioneering studies of northern English industries and communities.
4: Northern stakes today
In my final set of remarks I want to bring out one implication of my reflections for understanding the north today. I begin by noting that Morley’s account, premised on his own experience, largely ends in the 1970s and we get little sense of the contemporary stakes of the north. But we might be able to draw inferences. If the argument I have made here about the productivity of the North lying in its capacity to challenge cultural hierarchies, and if we also see this as linked to an infrastructural apparatus which makes this possible, then a gloomy conclusion seems warranted.
Morley’s book excavates the power of numerous popular idioms, and the way their association with the English north allowed them to contest established forms of cultural value. The question today is whether such a dynamic remains significant. Is Morley in fact the last of a generation? I speak as someone born in 1959, one year later, who has also trammelled the English south and the north – brought up in suburban London, finding my undergraduate studies in York an opportunity to explore true urban life in all its messy vitality, then finding my doctorate at Lancaster a remarkable opportunity to work close to the Lake District. But, after many years working in the north, at Manchester and York, I am now working at the London School of Economics. As I have endeavoured to bring out in Identities and Social Change, my own thinking is closely marked by these movements.
However, is such mobility accross the north-south dialectic so salient for younger generations? This is an open, empirical question, but I am not aware of such strong evidence that it is. The north – south divide has been sentimentalised and naturalised rather than become such a key motif for contestation and dispute. If this is true, the reasons for this are no doubt many and various, ranging from the economic dominance of the south, but also the institutional restructuring of large organisations. Insofar as northern institutions have been rendered into figures in league tables, then their distinctive capacity to challenge such hierarchies is less clear. Rather than striving to change the ‘rules of the game’ such institutions, positioned within a more ‘managed’ institutional environment are more constrained. The Manchester Guardian today no longer has a northern identity. Northern universities are all fully integrated into hierarchical circuits of evaluation – in which they lie subordinate to institutions at the metropolitan core – which forces their hand and limit room for manoeuvre and the capacity to challenge the parameters of action.
We might more broadly reflect on the declining significance of national fields of reference. For the metropolite today, ‘otherness’ takes an increasing range of forms, notably those deriving from different global encounters, and the power of the English north is notably diffused. The opening up of national fields and the increasing complexity of cultural interaction (see e.g. Savage and Silva, Cultural Sociology 2013) suggests the possibility that from the perspective of the metropolitan gaze, the English north has a reduced cultural power today.
These are open questions for further reflection and investigation. But I hope these remarks have indicated the significance of Morley’s individualistic yet also highly pertinent account of the English north.
Casanova, P., (2002), The World Republic of Letters, London, Verso
Liddington, J., and Norris, J., (1978), One hand tied behind us, London, Virago
Perrins, J., (2005), The Villain, Hutchinson
Savage, M., (2010), Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the politics of method, Oxford, Clarendon
APPENDIX: INDIVIDUALS DISCUSSED ON 5 PAGES OR MORE IN MORLEY’S THE NORTH
Richard Arkwright 6
W H Auden 7
Mark Bolan 7
Anthony Burgess 25
Lewis Carrol 9
Charlie Chaplin 5
Winston Churchill 7
John R Clynes 19
Richard Cobden 6
Thomas De Quincey 10
Daniel Defoe 8
Charles Dickens 16
Ken Dodd 10
Bob Dylan 7
Frederick Engels 12
Gracie Fields 9
George Formby Senior 9
George Formby 14
Alan Garner 6
James Joyce 6
John Lennon 16
Bernard Lovell 5
LS Lowry 44
Paul McCartney 7
Roger McGough 5
Harold Macmillan 6
Bernard Manning 9
Karl Marx 7
George Orwell 10
John Peel 12
JB Priestley 19
Frank Randle 8
Jack Rosenthal 5
Sir Edmund Shaa 8
George Stephenson 10
Laurence Stern 10
AJP Taylor 7
Queen Victoria 10
Alfred Waterhouse 7
Harold Wilson 17
William Wordsworth 17