From here to Wigan Pier

The North (And Almost Everything In It), by Paul Morley, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 592 pages

In the late 1970s, the New Musical Express was read by every sixth-form existentialist, and its star was Paul Morley – which was unfortunate for me, because I couldn’t stand him. His articles seemed interminable, full of literary and typographical experimentation, and liberally decorated with mugshots of the dyspeptic-looking, unshaven author.

So it was a bit unnerving to encounter in this book nearly 600 pages of Morley ... and, there at the back, the mugshot. He still hadn’t shaved and he still scowled. I had survived his bombardments of the 1970s but it seemed that Morley had only retreated in order to regroup, and now – with several books largely about Paul Morley under his belt, and a measure of fame as a “pop Svengali” – he was back for an all-out assault.

I opened The North at an early page and read: “How those who found themselves in this part of the world adapted, advanced or retreated, faced with all of the real and unreal threats specific to such a location, surrounded by sea, land, distance, internal threats, external enemies, specious, petulant gods, trapped by terrain and compromised by climate, hindered or liberated by ... ”

I closed the book.

After staring at it resentfully for a week, I opened it again, and gradually realised that for all his association with New Wave pop, Morley is like a prog-rocker, with furious arpeggios (those long sentences) framing more lyrical passages. While never quite apprehending the structure of the book (in a postscript, Morley writes that the north is “a hallucination ... a non-fiction dream”, and the same could be said for The North), I relaxed into it. What is essentially a history of the north of England emerges out of digressions from Morley’s recollections of his 1960s childhood in Reddish, a suburb of Stockport, and his sentences come into focus along with his memory: “There was only one tree in our garden, which never produced any leaves and therefore seemed made of the same dull grey-brown earth it grew out of.”

This autobiographical narrative is punctuated with gobbets of northern history clustered under headings beginning, for some reason, with “1976”, and running backwards to the enigmatic termination of “1515”. Let’s take “1937”. One gobbet under that head is a quote from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (published in 1937) concerning the “sinister magnificence” of nocturnal Sheffield: “serrated flames, like circular saws, squeeze themselves out from beneath the cowls of the foundry chimneys”. Another itemises the sexual innuendoes in George Formby’s song of 1937, “When I’m Cleaning Windows”.

There is more about John Peel the Liverpudlian DJ than Robert Peel the prime minister, born in Bury in 1788, who regulated working conditions in factories, founded the modern police and repealed the Corn Laws. Morley cites pop culture as often as a Victorian clergyman would reach for his Bible. So an early passage about how the Normans drew England’s centre of gravity southwards is juxtaposed with a gobbet about how, in 1962, record label Decca rejected the Beatles “because it preferred the safety and convenience of signing the London-based Brian Poole and the Tremeloes”.

In one of the best and dreamiest passages, Morley recounts seeing a small plane crash in Stockport. The only broadcaster on hand to present the news item was another DJ, David “Diddy” Hamilton, who lived nearby in Marple. Somehow Hamilton had to suppress his trademark chirpiness while, behind him as he addressed the camera, Morley observed “a man in a white trench coat sizing up the mangled metal with a fag in his mouth”.

There is an enjoyably subtle mordancy about much of the book: “Stockport, where they made hats because of the dampness in the air that facilitated the production of felt. Then they stopped making hats, because people stopped wearing hats.” Morley often seems a product of the venerable Lancastrian school of drollery, which Anthony Burgess called “the bark of the underdog” (and Morley sees Burgess himself as part of the same tradition: “The missing link between Les Dawson and Vladimir Nabokov”).

Morley is restlessly concerned with the many “norths within the north”, and the identity of Reddish itself fluctuated. Something of a football to the boundary bureaucrats, it could be said to be in Lancashire, Cheshire or Greater Manchester. The most poignant passages in the book concern Morley’s father, who struggled to find any sort of northern identity, having brought the family up from the Isle of Wight, and who, with his “suspect” accent, ended up as a door-to-door salesman “searching for inspiration in the fading, failing world” of 1970s Stockport. He eventually committed suicide.

Morley’s central theme is possibly the question of what constitutes northernness in the post-industrial “aftershock”. What comes next? How to escape the “perpetual downpour” of the northern past? He’s good on the inappropriateness of supposedly up-to-date orange as a colour for Stockport’s buses in the 1960s. This, he suggests, was not a colour scheme likely to interest the very northern painter, LS Lowry, “for whom a bus was dark, more dour and practical, a muddy hard green or jaded red ...”

Towards the end, one enters another snake pit of uncoiling sentences. In the Acknowledgements, people are thanked for shaping and editing the book. My instinct would have been to do more of that, and first to go would have been the original proposal to his publisher, preposterously included as one of the final gobbets. But that would be to de-Morley-fy The North, which, I admit, would probably be a shame.

Andrew Martin’s latest book is ‘Flight by Elephant’ (Fourth Estate)

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