The North22nd January 2014
Having been tempted by a recommendation from Simon Armitage (Yorkshire poet and author of Walking Home) on the cover of the hardback edition in a bookshop, I got a digital copy of Paul Morley’s The North and set to making my way through it. Anyone seeking something with a linear narrative will not find it here yet it lets one on a lot of the spirit of northern England in its own inimitable way. The mixture of memoir, digressions and side notes takes some acclimatisation and I found the sense of repetition in the book’s early stages a little frustrating in that it felt as if not much progress was being made. Maybe that was because of the description of a young mind’s developing consciousness and sense of place and belonging to there. Later on, things grew more linear when it came to telling of how Morley worked out his place in the world and what trade was to allow him to pay his way in it.
Interspersed between these, there is a reverse chronology of notable events in the north of England, especially when those relating to the development of the place and those who come from there. These include politics, industry and the better known folk associated with these. The interjections complemented any explorations of the conceptualisation of what it meant to be northern English and how the north of England came to be how it is in the main text.
Because I read the book in fits and starts before longer journeys allowed me to spend more time with it and grow accustomed to its eccentricities, a few months elapsed before I finished it during that trip to Edinburgh a few weeks ago. The non-linearity of the narrative meant that that it took some work before I got used to it and the fact that I was reading it on my Nexus 7 made me wish for hardback so that I could see more progress (one came into my possession later so I can dip in and out of it during free moments at home). However, it was the electronic gadget that ensured that the book was with me when I could make time to read it, a common failing of mine when it comes to paper editions of books. Apparently, the inspiration for the book’s structure came from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and it was the familiarity of many of the places described within its pages that drew me along while filling me in on a lot of details that I otherwise would have missed. For one thing, I never realised how fluid the Cheshire-Lancashire county boundary has been over the centuries and there was but a single lesson found in those pages.
After the effort of working through The North, it’s time for a more leisurely read and Ramble On by Sinclair McKay is just that. The story of how recreational walking became what it is for so many of us today may be somewhat familiar to me but there always are other insights and these are to be found here too. Still, I am tempted to sample Tristram Shandy to see just how contorted its narrative is and test how it inspired the flow of The North. For now though, that can wait because it is best to take things easy while life’s events allow you to do so.
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