What a weird and difficult book this is. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history, part miscellany or fact book and a patchwork of autobiography, fiction, prose poems and (without shame) the results of Google searches.
Taking its cue from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, it aims to create an impressionistic portrait of the North of England, its character, its characters and one character in particular: the music writer, Paul Morley.
You know Morley’s style: impressionistic, verbose and packed with lists of words or pairs of words. If you like it, persevere with The North. If you don’t, stay away. You won’t be won over by his equivocal, meandering sentences built on those lists and undermined by his self-awareness of his own unreliability as a narrator and you certainly won’t like it strung out over 600 pages.
It’s hard-going. I had three days free to be able to give it enough attention. I drifted off. Frequently. I forgot the point of passages by the time they’d come to a conclusion. Often. It has no plot and what structure it has is undermined so often as to make it irrelevant.
It’s partial despite its vast scale. Although its subtitle promises ‘almost everything in’ the North, it’s only a North which Morley knows and which spreads out from Cheshire and Manchester. You won’t learn much about Northumbria for instance.
It’s confusing. The unreliable memoir inches forward at less than a snail’s pace and often doubles or triples back on itself as if Morley has to circle his own past to approach it while, at the same time, a reverse chronological sort of history of Northern celebrities, writers, musicians, architects, artists, politicians, industrial developments, administrative changes and archaeology is wound throughout the text in uneven fragments.
Among other things you will learn about the invention of Yorkshire puddings and Eccles cakes, the emergence of the ramblers’ movement, the foundation of Jodrell Bank, the family history of George Formby, the development of cotton-spinning, the Anti-Corn Law League, the reason Les Dawson was able to gurn and the reason he felt frustrated with his own career, origins of place names and the stories and personalities behind prominent Northern buildings.
To confuse things further, occasional black and white photos of some of the people and places referred to crop up seemingly at random and certainly nowhere near the passages mentioning them.
So, yes, it is hard work.
But in the memoir sections, his writing comes alive when he talks about things he really remembers and cares about: cricket, the Stockport air disaster or his youthful gig-going. He writes clearly and regretfully about his time at Stockport Grammar School and the way he was pigeon-holed wrongly as a malcontent with long hair when he was neither particularly naughty or mischievous. His father’s suicide is told with heartbreaking simplicity:
He died in his car, but not in a car crash, crossing a final one-way border separating him from me, turning blue in the face thinking that having to survive one more stunning day, one more hour, one more minute and, in the end, even one more second was more than he could cope with.
And sometimes in the non-memoir sections his overblown, overwritten, over-listed style also comes to life. He follows an excellent chapter on LS Lowry with a series of pen portraits of Northerners who’ve altered the world around them to create his own literary version of a Lowry painting: smudges and smears of people.
The section on Liverpool is a breathtaking, breathless prose poem where narrative, grammar and tenses are abandoned so that every other sentence begins with the word ‘Liverpool’ followed by scraps of facts, lyrics, poems, film titles, quotations, names and memories. It’s an unstoppable and exhilarating rush of words, ideas and images.
There’s much else to admire. Having previously told how 1970s town planners covered part of the Mersey with a shopping centre out of a sort of shame, he describes the river at Liverpool as ‘now very much a strong and determined adult, possibly with vague, horrible memories of how it was trapped in the gritty dark underneath Mersey Square.’
If you plan to read it, be warned that it’s a 552-page-long digression and digresses even from its own digressions. Morley takes inspiration from Laurence Sterne, quoting approvingly Sterne’s statement that ‘Digressions, incontestably are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading!’
The main difference between Tristram Shandy and The North, though, is that Sterne’s non-novel is funny, often laugh-out-loud funny. Morley has moments of humour but it’s not a funny book. It’s fascinating, infuriating and remarkable, but not funny.
He also sees in Sterne a defence of his often verbose style: ‘clear prose can sometimes indicate the absence of thought. Sometimes careful disorderliness can be a truer method of composition.’ He sees Sterne as the pre-modern post-modernist and the father of a technique that in pop music is known as sampling and in art and literature as ‘collage, montage, bricolage and pastiche.’
Morley’s modern take on it is not to be ashamed of relying on Internet sources for his facts and figures. In fact the essay pleads for acceptance of a new form of art, literature and history based on interpreting the accumulated knowledge of the Internet. The novel is anyway, Morley argues, a map of the mind, ‘an individually directed assortment of received ideas.’ The Internet he claims, is fast becoming the place to find those received ideas as libraries, universities, monasteries were in the past.
There’s merit in that argument and it’s undoubtedly a reflection on my own prejudices that I sometimes felt the research, though thorough, was lazy. It is something new, certainly, but is it a new form of literature as he claims? I’m not so sure.
It is a remarkable achievement and an absorbing one. Could he have written something shorter and easier? Without a doubt. Could HE have written something shorter and easier? Undoubtedly not. It’s a labour of love, a labour of life and is what it is. Like Morley and the North of England he comes from and represents, take it or leave it.