The other week, travelling by train from London to Lancaster, I was blessed with the experience of sitting across the aisle from two London lads, laden with beer, on their way to Blackpool for a piss- up. It was their first time up North. "Where's the mills?" they kept shouting. "Are we up North yet? What's this? Warrington? Is that in Sheffield? Why isn't it raining?" Every time our friendly train manager announced his presence, they fell about in gales of bellowing laughter because he had a Wigan accent. It was still killing them when they changed at Preston.
They were nice boys, if loud, and their laughter was fond. Let's hope things came up to expectations. No clogs or shawls, I'm afraid, but we can still muster some lovely picturesque cobbles and alleys. I hope the rain obligingly showed, lashing the seedy Golden Mile, and that the girls had fag-dangling mouths and curlers in peroxide hair.
The thing about a stereotype is that you can always find examples to prove it's true. The other thing, of course, is that it's a truth, not the truth. But we love to simplify. I have been writing for years and my novels are set all over the place, but now that I've written one about a family's progress through almost an entire century in my home city of Manchester, the sigh of recognition from people in the publishing industry is almost palpable. Ah, at last! A category! Northern working class family saga! Now we all know where we stand. This is great from a marketing angle, but it's slightly bemusing to suddenly find that everyone who wants to talk to me about the book wants to focus on the fact of my "northern-ness". It seems I've acquired an identity.
I've lived more out of the North than in it, as it happens, but never mind. I know from living in other places how people who've never been there (and a few who have) like to see it. Ergo, North comes in two types, Hovis and Grim.
Hovis is sweet little boys with hobnailed boots and caps too big for their heads, plucky factory girls with gorgeous hair making good, bullying mill owners with caddish sons, honest working men, the nobility of labour, Gracie Fields singing Sally, and matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs. Hobson's Choice resides here, as does Catherine Cookson, and to some extent Walter Greenwood's Love On The Dole. Hovis is the old tradition, and very fine some of it is. It isn't trendy, however, and some good writers have got stranded here and never emerged. A few years back I looked for Louis Golding's Magnolia Street, an excellent book about the poor Jewish quarter of Manchester. The library finally got me an old paperback with a romantic cover, all gold embossed fancy lettering, the kind of thing your average literary fiction reader passes over without a glance. Who else languishes here, all unseen? But Hovis did exist, and I do believe that once upon a time in the north one or two people did actually get happy. But for a writer to portray happy northerners is to run the risk of falling into the dreaded `Heartwarming Shite' category. (Ee it were tough but we were 'appy!...)
Grim is far more respectable. True Grim was foreshadowed by Kitchen Sink of the late Fifties/early Sixties. Some fine stuff here too from the likes of Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving), and Sid Chaplin (The Day Of The Sardine). Northern working class fiction always translated well into drama, and some books have been superseded by their film versions. This was when I first saw on screen people and landscapes I recognised. A Taste of Honey rang the most bells - the girls' school at the beginning could have been mine. And so did some very early Coronation Street, before it turned into a silly sitcom. Ena Sharples really did look like my grandma, hairnet and all. Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar caught the grimness, but the humour too, and his wonderful, forgotten There Is A Happy Land is one of the best books about childhood ever. …