‘This is the story of simple working people – their hardships, their humours, but above all their heroism.’ The epigraph which introduced the 1939 screen version of The Stars Look Down – the words are possibly those of A.J. Cronin, the novelist, rather than of Carol Reed, the film’s director – signalled a remarkable turn-around in attitudes to the miners, as well as prefiguring what was to be the leading idiom of British wartime cinema. The success of the film itself (fear of censorship had held it back for three or four years) encouraged a spate of ‘grimly honest’ realist dramas. As Graham Greene remarked of one of them, the colliery winding gear, silhouetted against the sky, the pit disaster and the warning siren became as cinematically familiar as the Eiffel Tower or the Houses of Parliament. A.J. Cronin, the best-selling novelist whose fictions probably did as much as the Beveridge Report – and certainly more than the Thirties poets – to secure Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 election, had served one of his medical apprenticeships in the Rhondda valley; amputating the leg of a miner trapped in a rock fall had been his initiation in this work and it seems that the disaster in the Scupper Flats, which is the climax of The Stars Look Down, though set in Co. Durham rather than South Wales, was based on a real life rescue operation in which, as the local doctor, he was called on to take part. The Stars Look Down, showing the ways in which human greed put the miner’s life at risk, helped to turn nationalisation from a Fabian dream into something approaching a popular cause.
The heroic narrative in which the miner appeared both as the symbolic victim of capitalism, and as the indomitable survivor, was not peculiar to Britain. Germinal was the great literary original, and the prophetic lines which close the book, a black avenging host preparing to stand up for their rights, the seed-corn of the future ‘slowly germinating in the furrows’, anticipates the epiphany of The Stars Look Down. Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931), one of the first talkies, a narrative built around a terrifying pit explosion in which the rescue teams, recruited from both sides of the Franco-German border, serve as a kind of allegory of human solidarity, was a progenitor; and Hollywood played a big part in putting British ‘social consciousness’ drama on the silver screen (The Citadel, the first of Cronin’s novels to be filmed, was an MGM production of 1938; How Green Was My Valley a Darryl F. Zanuck film of 1941). But there was good reason why this narrative should have a special resonance in Britain. The country owed its manufacturing greatness to steam power and machinery and at the peak of this activity a million men, no fewer than one in ten of the male workforce, were employed in the mines. Then, the coalfields had been the scene of this country’s only epic class-confrontation – the General Strike of 1926, a seven-month Calvary for the miners, a nine-day wonder elsewhere. It was also from the coalfields that the first Hunger Marches had set off. Finally, the frequency and magnitude of pit disasters made the perils of the miner’s life headline news, and lent credence to the charge of ‘blood on the coal’.
In the inter-war years, when so many of Britain’s new industries seemed to dispense with the need for heavy physical labour, and when so many of the older ones, like cotton textiles, fell under the hammer, the miner also came to occupy the symbolic space of Vulcan at the forge. For George Orwell, in his sulphurous account of underground labour, ‘the line of halfnaked kneeling men’ looked as though they had been forged out of iron. Famously, he thrilled to the spectacle of their wide shoulders tapering to splendid supple waists, their ‘small pronounced buttocks’ and sinewy thighs ‘with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere’, their ‘huge’ shovels being driven under the coal ‘with stupendous force and speed’.
The Martyrdom of the Mine was an ancient image, descending from those line drawings of skeletal hurriers which illustrated the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842. Just as strongly archetypal, stemming perhaps from the great Durham lock-out of 1844, was the pithead confrontation of masters and men. The discovery of the coalfield ballads, a phenomenon of the Fifties, and the very basis of the Folk Club movement, powerfully renewed these memories, and cast them in epic form (Arthur Scargill’s first job, when he joined the Barnsley Young Communist League, was to be made ‘Ballads and Blues’ secretary). Aneurin Bevan, a glittering representative of the South Wales coalfield, and the most accomplished orator of his day, made the mining industry a vivid presence in the world of high politics. ‘Unimaginably brave and resilient’, ruthlessly exploited, alternatively seen as a helot and an ‘elemental’, the miner, engaged in ‘the difficult and dangerous job of coal-getting’ was as representative a figure of industrial Britain as the sharecropper of Dust Bowl America, or the peasant of la France profonde. Such images, embedded in the national unconscious, and springing to life in times of crisis, were sufficiently potent to win the miners an astonishing breadth of public support during the national strike of 1972. Harold Macmillan, who as MP for Stockton in the Thirties had referred indignantly to the ‘Passchendaele’ of the South-West Durham coalfield, gave moving expression to these feelings, in his last public speech, when intervening on behalf of the miners during the strike of 1984-5: they never gave up, he said, recalling those who had fought alongside him in the trenches, and speaking of them as though they were still alive. As late as the autumn of 1992, when Middle England rose in revolt against the annihilation of the industry, the miner’s labour was identified so completely with the cause of manufacturing industry that a newly-elected Conservative government found itself in deep trouble with its own supporters when it tried to enforce wholesale closure of the pits.
In recent years, these heroic narratives have been overtaken, or overlain, by a new imaginative complex in which militant masculinity is the villain of the piece and the mining communities have become a relic of patriarchy. Politically they are one of the heartlands of that ‘old Labour’ from which Mr Blair is attempting to extricate his party. Ecologically, they are associated – as in the monstrous, smoke-belching Nowa Huta – with the manufacture of toxic poisons. Broken-backed, since the defeat of the 1984-5 strike, marooned in desolate landscapes, the ex-coalfield communities are seen as the breeding grounds of delinquency and drug abuse, attracting notice through murder cases rather than strikes. Beatrix Campbell, in Wigan Pier Revisited, a book published on the very eve of the 1984-5 strike, presciently rehearsed some of these themes, arguing that the famed militancy of the miners was premised on the exploitation of women. She has amplified and generalised the argument in subsequent writings. A refusal to mourn the passing of the pits in Ashington, Northumberland fairly represents her distinctive voice:
Ashington man was the archetypal proletarian, the arehetypal patriarch ... As in the Army and the Stock Exchange, men’s companionship did not produce social cohesion; if fostered power and privilege for men within their own class and community ... No day matched Sunday for desolation. Up with the children, the woman kept them quiet while the man had his lie-in, made the dinner while he sank a skinful at the pub, kept the kids quiet while he slept it off, made the tea, put the kids to bed while he ended the day down the club ... Miners’ clubs along the north-east coast were the cathedrals of their communities, the space where men had their pleasure and their politics. Their homes, however, remained some of the worst in Britain.
Mark Hudson’s Coming Back Brockens – subtitled ‘A Year in a Mining Village’ – extends this anti-heroic narrative, though from the standpoint of a travel writer and a man of letters rather than, as in Beatrix Campbell’s case, that of embattled feminism. The book was handsomely reviewed when it first appeared last year, and it has now been given the accolade, and the financial reward, of the AT&T non-fiction prize for 1995 – ‘the biggest literary prize in the UK’. People shrink under Hudson’s investigative gaze; incidents lose their epic character; idols turn out to have feet of clay. The self-improving ethos, and with it the grand narrative of what Hudson refers to insistently as ‘the raising of the Working Class’, has disappeared without a trace (we are twice told that there is not a single bookshop in East Durham, only the paperback shelf in the Asda store). Solidarities, if they ever existed, were short-term affairs. Both the union and the local council seem to have been conducted as fiefdoms, with beer-treating, pint-buying sessions to lubricate the wheels of the electoral process. The Labour Movement itself (with a capital ‘L’ and a capital ‘M’, as Arthur Henderson, a County Durham architect of the modern Labour Party, once put it) is no more than a ghostly presence. The Durham Miners’ Gala, to which Hudson devotes two set-piece descriptions, has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. Horden colliery closed in 1986, though the union committee meets every Wednesday in the Miners’ Hall to process death benefit and compensation claims. The Big Club, Horden’s ‘legendary workingmen’s club’, turns out to be virtually shut up, save for a doorman levying a toll of tenpence a time to deter non-existent visitors, and a dwindling band of cantankerous septuagenarians. In grained with nicotine (throughout this book cigarette smoking serves as a negative signifier), the club exhibits the kind of desolation ‘only found in all-night mini-cab offices’. Early in 1994 it was sold up and gutted prior to redevelopment as a multi-bar complex aimed at the youth of the area. When Mark Hudson visited him. Charlie Kemp, leader of the ‘Broad Left’ radicalising faction in the Seventies National Union of Mineworkers, was busy looking at the Financial Times index on Ceefax (he had spent his redundancy money on buying stocks and shares and had invested shrewdly); the village’s lone Communist, no longer working in the pit, was studying for a sociology degree, and wrestling (not very happily) with the mysteries of Durkheim.
A particular disappointment is the author’s grandfather, Percy: the attempt to recover local people’s memories of him was Hudson’s ostensible rationale in taking up residence in Horden, and engaging in the research for this book. In his father’s talk, Percy was a great trade-union man, a passionate socialist and a great talker, intent on ‘putting the world to rights’. He is now remembered in Horden, by those few who still remember him, as a ‘quietish sort of fellow’ who made a point of never getting involved in controversy; a fixer in the union and on the council rather than a campaigner (no one can remember any causes he took up); a man who was frightened of talking politics at home, because his first wife Jenny objected to them. Percy, we learn, was ‘very narrow-minded’. He had kept his son and daughter at grammar school, thus enabling Mark Hudson’s father to make his escape from Co. Durham, but he seems to have had no intellectual interests of his own. So far from being a working-class hero. Hudson concludes, he was ‘just a bloke with a collarless shirt and a cloth cap who liked his garden’.
In a kindred vein, Hudson plays with the idea of the death of the past – both the recent past and the ancient past – and the impossibility of making meaningful connection with it. His investigation of his own family history proves singularly unrewarding – few people remember his grandfather Percy, even though he was a big figure in the village and only died in 1966 – and he ends up feeling angry with his forbears ‘not only for having left so little of themselves ... but because the life they lived had been so easily reduced to nothing more than an old man’s memories of snacks’. The village seems to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia; where folk memory ought to be there is nothing more than tit-bits. The big riot of 1910, a by-product of the ‘People’s Budget’ election, when the Horden Colliery Social Club was burned to the ground, when troops were sent in to restore order and when five men were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, was already forgotten (Hudson tells us) in the Thirties, when it still lay within the field of living memory. Even the 1984-5 miners’ strike, passionately supported in the village, is now, it seems, on the way to becoming a blank. ‘It was all such a short time ago, but how little evidence there was of that zeal and passion in Horden today. Like the enthusiasm and loyalty many of the men had undoubtedly felt towards Arthur Scargill during the course of the strike, the zeal of the women had all but vanished, even as a memory.’
Coming Back Brockens is cast in the form of a quest narrative, a voyage of exploration and discovery which has as its object the delineation of ‘What Horden is really about.’ Hudson does not go in for lay sermons, in the manner of Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, nor yet for self-exposure, a leitmotiv of Clancy Sigal’s Weekend in Dinlock, where the narrator is a protagonist in the story. He prefers to position himself as a dispassionate recorder. Hudson has a traveller’s eye for detail and a topographer’s interest in place-names (he is good on the etymology of the weird and wonderful titles adopted by the individual collieries). Gobbets of technical or historical information are off-set or mixed up with stories, so that the reader can more easily digest them. He enjoys mimicking the dialect and goes to great pains to reproduce its lilt and cadence in an invented orthography. Descriptions of the miner’s work are rendered in ‘pitmatic’, the dialect of the pits (the title of the book is taken from the terminology of bord-and-pillar working). Hudson is a keen listener, and the book proceeds through dialogue and quotation rather than set-piece argument and description. He has a good ear for the flotsam and jetsam of colloquial exchange; he is also an eager collector of tittle-tattle and one of the values of this book is the way it acts as a repository for local gossip, though mostly that of the older men
The curious effect of all this is to make Horden seem more, not less remote. As the book unfolds the writer finds himself progressively more alienated from both the village’s past and its present. Trading on consanguinity, and using the family name as a kind of open sesame to interviews, he yet betrays no sense of fellow-feeling with those whom he encounters. As the family’s grand narrative disintegrates, the ‘tenuous links’, as he expressively calls them, which connect him to Horden (until undertaking this book, he seems never to have visited it) look increasingly threadbare. In a year’s residence he does not seem to have made a single friend, nor to have found any kindred spirits with whom to compare his impressions. What begins as a quest narrative ends up as something like an extended obituary, in which not only the past but also the present registers itself as in some way dead. The book’s dust-jacket, showing the torso (apparently) of a miner – gnarled hands, heavy boots, shapeless trousers – headless and therefore mindless, as in the pornography of the female nude, contrasts singularly with the photograph of the author on the spine: a head and shoulders portrait with high cheekbones, sensitive nostrils and withdrawn, secretive eyes.
It seems to be the nature of his project that Horden should be a quintessence of otherness, as remote from the quotidian life of Southern England as the Gambian women who were the subject of Hudson’s previous prize-winning book. Horden appears as a kind of tribal reserve, inhabited by a race of primitives. Caught in a time-warp, the people disport themselves in ignorance of the world outside. They hang onto consumer society by then fingernails, believing that Safeways and Boots, the big stores in Peterlee, are a kind of ultimate in sophistication Moronic types and sub-human, simian physiognomies figure quite largely in his narrative: here a man whose face looks as though, like a red potato, it would burst; there a misshapen woman, dragging ‘bawling’ bairns beside her. He notes the ‘Neanderthal’ appearance of the denizens of a difficult housing-estate.
Hudson is particularly severe on children and young people, and after describing them in various unpleasant postures concludes that ‘Biffa Bacon’, Viz’s grotesque Northern yob dressed in shorts and bovver boots – an invention, it seems, of Newcastle wits – is not a caricature of a certain type of working class life, but ‘a perspicacious piece of social realism’. In a shopping crowd at Peterlee, where there were ‘a fair number of people it didn’t seem wise to stare at’, he notes ‘feral’ young men slinking their way in twos and threes, pursuing their dark errands. The young girls at Horden youth centre would like to exterminate the elderly. Motorcyclists, ‘their expressions darkly and grimly closed off’, slump helmetless on the pavement. Outside the wine-bar, on a Friday night, lads and lasses ‘plied their mouths with great slithering chunks of pizza’ while at the brick busstop ‘dozens of couples could be seen groping in the glare of the car headlights.’
Northern diet is a subject of particular disgust, as it was for Edwina Currie during her period of office as Junior Health Minister in Mrs Thatcher’s government, and as it is for the Statistical Office’s Regional Trends in their reports on the incidence of the killer diseases. The people, whippet-like in the past, are today obese. In the pages of Coming Back Brockens they appear as a race of gluttons, eating food in the streets with their fingers, stuffing themselves with carbohydrates, making a religion of their fry-ups. The ‘dense, smoke-filled interior’ of Sparks’ Bakery, ‘the most congenial of Peterlee’s three cafés’, is hardly more appetising than the stand-up snacks outside Horden’s solitary wine-bar:
The girl who’d served me at the counter had an oppressed, benumbed air, as though she were on a day release from a labour camp, while behind her, a young woman who was supposed to be defrosting a sack of peas and carrots was describing her previous night’s hilarity to an older woman. ‘We were on wa backs!’ she crooned. ‘Oh aye,’ said the other. ‘We were wettun waselves!’ ‘Charming.’ The young woman opposite me who had achieved the kind of glamour to which the girls who work in banks and building societies and travel agents of Peterlee aspire ... tight skirt, elaborately streaked and crinkled perm, overzealous attention of the sun-ray lamp, boatloads of make-up – the sort of girl who in London would be lunching on two lettuce leaves, if at all, was tucking into a plate of chips and gravy. People here ordered chips as a kind of cultural rite. ‘I’ll just have chips,’ they said, as though this were a gesture of tremendous originality.
Alan Clark, a judge of the 1995 AT&T prize, and the chief advocate of Coming Back Brockens, argued that it was ‘the most fun’, and that choosing it in preference to its rivals – Juliet Barker’s The Brontës and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – would set the cat among the pigeons. Was it really such a maverick choice? Might it not, rather, owe its appeal to a family resemblance with other popular literary modes – post-holocaust science-fiction, say, in which, when the story opens, half the planet has already been wiped out? Or the terminally desolate landscapes of Martin Amis’s fictions, where social and environmental decline reciprocate one another’s effects? One quite well-developed genre or sub-genre of travel writing in which Mark Hudson’s book could plausibly be placed would be the journey through ruins, the exploration of geographical and social wastelands. Some, following in the footsteps of Paul Theroux’s Kingdom by the Sea, see the Northern towns as horrors. Others, indignant at the haemorrhage of jobs and skills, chart the progress of disindustrialisation. Ian Jack’s Before the Oil Ran Out and Robert Chesshyre’s The Return of a Native Reporter are fine examples: picking over the debris of the factory system, they find their pathos in the spectacle of ghost towns. And then there is the literature on ‘sink’ housing-estates, which in contemporary demonology occupy the symbolic space accorded in the past to the slum. Beatrix Campbell’s Goliath, subtitled ‘Britain’s Dangerous Places’, taking as its starting point the joyrider riots of 1991, and as its subject such criminal activities as ram-raiding, is an influential example, a picture of male violence, compiled in quite large part, it seems, from a police perspective, which anticipates some of the more Gothic passages in Coming Back Brockens. More generally, there is the literature on the corruption of the innocent which takes its cue from Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy and which is apt to picture every form of mass consumption as degenerate. Here – as in the writings of Jeremy Seabrook – it is the prosperity of the working class, rather than, or as well as, the poverty, which is the focus of anxiety.
In any of these literatures, the North of England is apt to fare badly. As the original home of many of this country’s staple industries it is peculiarly vulnerable to the charge of being economically moribund. Gastronomically, the people are accused of being overweight and addicted to an unhealthy diet. Environmentally, the North was the great victim of the planning disasters of the Sixties, having more than its fair share of multi-storey car parks, express throughways and ‘peripheral’ council estates. Medically, as the statistics on lung cancer, heart disease and infant mortality never fail to record, it lags behind the rest of Britain. The people of the North famously smoke more and die younger than those of the South, and they are also – as the Labour Party is discovering in its attempt to promote all-women shortlists of Parliamentary candidates – more wedded to patriarchal ways. Even the scenery of the North, the hardness and the harshness which made so striking a contrast to the enervating softness of the South – Wuthering Heights v. Thrushcross Grange – seems to have lost its allure. An age which has made a fetish of the cottage garden and the village green, and which has promoted the Cotswolds as England’s imaginary heart, has perhaps less taste than Emily Brontë for the wild solitudes of the moors; indeed Charles Jennings in Up North, his ‘travels beyond the Watford Gap’, an only half-humorous exploration of regional difference, complains that the North is deficient in open space.
In the current denigration of the North, whether at the hands of writers or of avant-garde photographers, it is difficult not to notice the play of ancient tropes. At the simplest level there is an Arnoldian contempt for the narrowness of provincial life and a corresponding certainty that the culture of the metropolis – defined, these days, in terms of lifestyle rather than classical education – is a very emblem of sweetness and light. The youthful predators who stalk the pages of Coming Back Brockens and Goliath seem lineal descendants of the mindless hoodlums of Clockwork Orange. In the vilification of ‘sink’ estates one can sometimes hear echoes of that old Communist Party and Marxist fear of the lumpenproletariat – the supposedly animal-like lower depths; while the so-called ‘underclass’ has remarkable resemblances to those whom Charles Booth, in his multi-volume London Life and Labour, labelled as the ‘vicious’. Under any of these optics, the people become objects of disgust, at best yokels and buffoons, at worst hooligans and wreckers.
Beatrice Webb was a much grander person than Mark Hudson, and so perhaps was more ready to rejoice in the experience of difference. When, as a young woman of 25, she made her first pilgrimage to the North, in November 1883, she was in revolt against the butterfly existence of metropolitan high society, and more open, perhaps, to the rugged appeal of plainness and simplicity. Even so, the comparison between Coming Back Brockens and Beatrice Webb’s stay in Bacup is an instructive one. She, too, was moved to make her journey, she tells us in My Apprenticeship, because she had listened so often to her mother’s stories of old Bacup life. She, too, made her first port of call the visit to distant kin. She, too, went in some sort in search of ‘roots’. Spiritually and vocationally, however, she belonged to a very different world from that of the contemporary travel writer. Yearning for religion, but oppressed, in the manner of Late Victorian freethinkers, by inexpungeable doubt, she was greatly moved to find herself in the midst of what she described as the old Puritan faith. She enjoyed the ‘delicious tea and homemade bread and butter’ of her kinsfolk and felt herself ‘completely at home’ with them. In the person of the ‘gentle and amiable John Aked’ she entered, too, into the first of her intense relationships with working men. The journey to Bacup, though she calls it ‘sentimental’, was also, by her own account, the launching-pad for her lifelong work as a social investigator; as her diary entries show, and as her work on trade unionism and co-operation illustrates, it was a continual point of reference.
Beatrice Webb’s delight in the North was of a piece with that of other soul-seekers and spiritual vagrants of her time, the Fabian women novelists, for instance, who in their fictions fantasised about going to earth with a Northern farmer. Margaret McMillan, settling in Bradford, that cradle of the independent Labour Party and 1890s British socialism, gives a similar testimony, when describing how she embarked on her life’s work as an apostle of children’s nurseries. What she remembered about her arrival in the city was the warmth of comradeship, the sense of having arrived home, ‘It seemed that we had been looking for them all the years – and here they were! This was home! They were as kindred, not friends only. (They always called me “Our Margaret” ...) They had been there all the time and we had not known it. Now one wakened as in one’s own house on a sunny morning.
In the 1840s, the time of Mrs Gaskell and the Anti-Corn Law League, when the Condition-of-England question, and the rights and wrongs of the factory system, were the subject of a tremendous national debate, the division between North and South was conceptualised in terms of an opposition between the industrial and the agricultural interest, the first located in the manufacturing districts of the Midlands and the North, the second in the southern shires. The opposition between church and chapel, an increasingly potent one as the century progressed, followed similar lines, with a newly-militant Nonconformity rampant in the North (Matthew Arnold takes up arms against it in Culture and Anarchy), while Anglicanism cultivated the Barsetshire parishes. Politically, as students of electoral geography have shown, the North-South divide was almost as apparent in Mid-Victorian times as it was to be in the Eighties. Co. Durham, from 1832 onwards, was solidly Liberal territory; the Northumberland miners were Mr Gladstone’s ardent supporters, their loyalties quite untouched by the Home Rule split of 1886; and the steadfastness of the Lancashire cotton operatives, standing by the antislavery cause, notwithstanding the impact of the American Civil War on their employment, entered into Liberal-Radical mythology.
The North was a citadel of self-help, and one reason it was so appealing to the socialists of the 1890s was the spectacular contrast between the dependency culture of such places as the East End of London, and the spirit of independence in the North. The institutions of collective self-help had their headquarters there. The Manchester Unity, founded in 1822, was one of the two great friendly societies, with 4351 lodges and 617,587 members in 1886. The Oddfellows, the third of the great orders, held its ‘Grand Master’ sittings at Leeds. The mill town of Preston, Lanes was the original nursery of the temperance movement; the penny savings-banks were no less beholden to West Riding thrift. Down to the Twenties, the co-operative movement was an essentially Northern affair and indeed in the first years of its existence, the 1860s, the Co-operative Wholesale Society was known as ‘North of England Co-operative Wholesale Industrial and Provident Society’ (the headquarters, then as now, were in Manchester). Beatrice Webb, who became one of the first chroniclers of the movement, was fascinated by its moral and social complexion. She noted that Hebden Bridge, where the fustian worker’s co-operative, founded in 1870, was ‘something of a showpiece for the Movement’, where the well-born sympathiser felt at home. ‘Young Oxford men are down here,’ she noted in her diary. ‘They and the CO-operators form a mutual admiration society.’
The North was also a home of the autodidact and on the side of what was called in the early 19th century ‘the march of mind’. It was hospitable to the Mechanics Institutes and to those scientific spectacles and displays which preceded the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1850, according to figures drawn up by the secretary of the Manchester Athenaeum, of the seven hundred mechanics’ institutions, literary institutes, mutual improvement societies and kindred organisations in the British Isles, over a third were in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The Free Library movement also began in the North, and it was not until the 1890s that it began to establish a toehold in London. It was of a piece with this that the University Extension movement of the 1870s – a gentle, English form of Narodism – should have found its early constituency in the North, as the Workers’ Educational Association was to do in the days of Albert Mansbridge and R.H. Tawney. One figure who it brought to Sheffield was Edward Carpenter, the great English advocate of Simple Lifeism. Transported from The comforts of Cambridge to Millthorpe, a village in the Derbyshire hills, he wrote of the change as of a deliverance: ‘All the feelings which had sought, in suffering and distress, their stifled expression in me ... gathered themselves together in a new and joyous utterance.’
In the Sixties, as in the 1880s, the discovery of the North had about it, at least for the filmmakers of ‘new wave’ British realism, an element of cross-class romance, and indeed on the part of both Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz it was a deliberate attempt to find a new social basis for narrative. But it was the pleasure principle rather than the work ethic which gave the film-makers their excitement. Arthur Seaton, the hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is an unashamed hedonist, out to have a good time (‘All the rest is propaganda’) and about as remote from the self-improving working man of the 19th century as it would be possible to imagine: it is fitting that the high point of the drama, as it appeared on the screen, should have been a set-to at an urban fair. The film version of A Taste of Honey invents a street carnival to take the drama out-of-doors (in Joan Littlewood’s original production, the entire action took place in an indoor set), while Get Carter! – a brutal crime melodrama set exotically in Newcastle-upon-Tyne – takes time off from its sex-and-violence fantasies to dwell lovingly on a Kalamazoo band. Coronation Street, Britain’s longest-running soap opera, and one of the more enduring legacies of the Sixties ‘discovery’ of the North, falls firmly within the ambit of the ludic, staging its dramas not at the pithead or the factory gate but at the Rover’s Return.
Improbable as it may now seem, the North in the Sixties – anyway the early Sixties, when Harold Wilson made his appearance as the great iconoclast, when the Mersey Sound first captured the nation’s record-players and when Z-Cars put Liverpool in the front line of crime-busting – was definitely Mod, and on the side of radical change. It offered itself as an idiom for the degentrification of British public life. In place of an effete establishment it promised a new vitality, sweeping the dead wood from the boardrooms, and replacing hidebound administrators with ambitious young go-getters. In place of the polite evasions of circumlocution and periphrasis, it made a fetish of bluntness. In the sphere of town-planning, the Northern cities were the great sites of comprehensive redevelopment and of gigantesque schemes, such as those of T. Dan Smith, in which all things were made anew. Through the Lawrence revival and the Lady Chatterley trial Northernness was associated with the cause of sexual frankness, the practice of post-Victorian morality, and the desacralisation of marriage. Socially, too, Northernness came to stand for a new and emancipatory openness. The scholarship boy portrayed by Richard Hoggart was almost by definition a Northerner; so were many of the new-wave academics, communicators and persuaders. The Northern voice, as cultivated by the TV compère, was a classless one, an indigenous alternative to the starched accents of the Pathé news-reader and the BBC announcer. As projected by the Prime Minister, a professional Yorkshireman whose accent allegedly thickened when he had a Labour Party Conference to address, it was also a gauge of authenticity.
At the same time, but in another idiom, Lowryesque rather than futurist, the Sixties discovery of the North heralded the appearance of a new aesthetic: what might be called urban pastoral. In ‘new wave’ British cinema, as the commentators point out, location was all, while the directors themselves, in revolt against the artificialities of the studio, lingered obsessively on grainy dissolves. In The Entertainer, a crumbling Northern seaside music-hall is England in a state of collapse. A Taste of Honey, ‘bringing beauty out of squalor’, finds a poetics in the canalside run, binding the sequence together with a soft and playful version of an old-time children’s street song. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with the aid of a jazz clarinettist, makes a cobbled walkway lyrical. A Kind of Loving compensates for the bleakness of its story by panoramic views of tall factory chimneys.
In the Eighties, in the first shock of disindus-trialisation, and with an electorate increasingly divided on regional lines, the North was turned from an avatar of modernisation into a by-word for back wardness. The very qualities which had recommended it to the ‘new wave’ writers and film-makers, now served as talismans of narrowness. The rich associational life, such as that of the working-men’s club, was seen not as supportive but as excluding, a way in which the natives could keep newcomers and strangers at bay. Similarly pubs, though warm and friendly places to the regulars, took on a quite different character when viewed from the perspective of health-food fanatics and associated with the horrors of beer gut. The solidarities of the workplace were reconceptualised as a species of male bonding, a licence for the subjection of women. In another set of dialectical inversions, the modernisations of the Sixties were stigmatised as disasters, imprisoning the population in no-go estates and tower blocks: Something Funny Happened on the Way to Utopia is the expressive title of the Amber Films drama-documentary on the Newcastle schemes of T. Dan Smith.
It seems unlikely that doomster surveys, such as Mark Hudson’s, will hold the ring for ever. The next generation of travel writers may have a different tale to tell. Instead of gales blowing down the hilly streets, as they do in Charles Jennings’s Wigan, or the North Sea ‘fret’ biting at mini-skirted legs, one of the many bleak images in Coming Back Brockens, it is possible that the weather will cheer up, or at any rate, re-emerge as bracing. If precedent is a guide, we can expect the ‘sink’ housing-estates to produce as rich a literature of reminiscence – and as vivid a music – as the old-time slum, one which takes its cue not from the police or the social workers, nor yet from the voyeurism of journalists and travel writers, but from the experiences and fantasies of those who are growing up there. Then again, to offset today’s journeys through ruins we can expect a quite different set of narratives from the second and third-generation immigrants in the post-industrial North. The Sikh supporters of Blackburn Rovers who figured so prominently in the recent Championship ecstasies, or the Manchester schoolboy milliionaire who has made a fortune by trading in fashion accessories, will clearly have a different story to tell from the redundant miner.
Perhaps, too, the next generation of travel writers will have more of an eye for what is new and developing – picking up, say, on the ‘black’ economy and the dynamism of cowboy operators and sub-rosa businesses; logging the emergence of Hebden Bridge as the Glastonbury of the North, and the Nissan plant at Sunderland as its Dagenham. The ‘deserts’ of dis-industrialised landscape may come to figure, like the abandoned railway track and marshalling yards of the metropolis, as ecological corridors and wildlife sanctuaries, bringing the country into the city, as has happened with the Derwent Valley trail at Gateshead. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, always (Bill Lancaster argues in Geordies) a centre of consumption rather than production, and today Britain’s third largest shopping centre, may appear a place of pleasure and delight, as it does to those who make a ‘happy hour’ paseo of the Bigg Market and a carnival of Friday and Saturday nights. Space might be found, too, for that strange twist in the property cycle which is converting Manchester. Newcastle and Leeds into a paradise of low-rent accommodation, and for that reason a student Mecca. Perhaps there is a portent in the University of Teesside, which has recruited a vast student population, which advertises itself not on the strength of its science labs but of its moorland and coastline vistas, and which houses quite a proportion of its intake in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, a decaying but once elegant seaside resort, where Victorian terraces and villas are let as seaside flats.
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