steepholm (steepholm) wrote,
steepholm
steepholm

Life by the Slice

Hearing the sad news of Alan Plater's death reminded me of some thoughts I had in Bolton about my relationship with writing from, and about, northern England.

Bolton, as my host pointed out to me, was the long-term home of Bill Naughton, a less celebrated writer than Plater, and perhaps best known today for having written the play on which the Michael Caine film Alfie was based. For schoolchildren of my generation, though, he was more familiar for his collection The Goalkeeper's Revenge - a series of gritty tales of northern working-class lads with names like Spit Nolan. Along with the books (and subsequent films) of Alan Sillitoe, Barry Hines, Keith Waterhouse and Stan Barstow, and the dramas broadcast on Play for Today through the 1970s, these gave me a strong cumulative sense of The North as a place as mythical as the Wild West - a world of manual labour, frothy beer and short vowels, tea and hardship, pits and cotton mills (depending which side of the Pennines you were on).* By the time I actually came to see Lancashire the mills had all been converted to museums and apartments (c.f. that episode of Life on Mars), which added to my sense of it as a kind of storybook world. As for the pits - well, I actually lived in Yorkshire throughout the miners' strike, but in York itself, which perhaps doesn't count. I never saw a miner, to my knowledge, and it wasn't until I came to Bristol that I found myself living in what had been an actual mining area. It's not that Yorkshire felt like a museum, exactly - and Doncaster in particular seemed to be full of scary people, to judge by the ones who got on and off the train there, who oozed a kind of violent northernness that I didn't know how to cope with - but neither did it have much in common with the malnourished, black-and-white world of Kes.

Now I look into it, I see that the stories in The Goalkeeper's Revenge are actually all set in the 1930s. Did I notice that when I read them at school? I don't remember doing so, which is perhaps telling. Mythological places have no chronological time, after all. In fact, I suppose that my attitude to the North (or perhaps the way in which it was used by my teachers) amounted to a kind of orientalism - or borealism, maybe - to which historical change, or indeed flesh-and-blood northerners, were fairly incidental. The point was that the idea of the North encapsulated certain qualities valued by those who selected the books we were to study: the qualities of a life unwarped by capitalist greed - honest and communitarian. Personally I found it all pretty unappealing.

The irony is that these stories were fed to us as slices of Real Life. Being Real was a significant part of their function, in fact. Indeed, I came away with the impression that the black-and-white life of the North was considerably more Real than my own lower-middle-class life in a Hampshire market town, and also that the working class children I knew at school weren't as truly working class as northern kids, because their dads worked on farms and at the brewery rather than down a mine. What was intended as a lesson in what Real Life was like, had the ironic effect of making both the North and my own environment seem slightly less real, in different ways.

* Writing this I've become conscious for the first time that I see Lancashire as a female county, and Yorkshire as a male one. I wonder why? Perhaps it's to do with their positions on the map. Lancashire is on the distaff side of England, and its identity is appropriately bound up with textiles, while Yorkshire is associated (in my mind at least) with coal and steel, spear-side trades of delving and cutting. Then again, the Lancashire accent (outside Manchester at least) has much more pitch variation, which is generally the case with women vis-a-vis men. I don't know - does anyone else make this assocation?
Tags: books, maunderings
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