Thursday, 8 January 2009

New Year, Old Myopia

Kate Kellaway's article on place in literature. Apparently, setting a novel in Hounslow or Willesden is a radical departure from the Hampstead convention. Except Kellaway tries to defend the Hampstead convention by making out that its critics (J.G. Ballard, a Hounslow-and-Willesden man himself, is one of these) are actually promoting an anti-woman agenda. (!)

Of course, the eye of this article only shifts away from London and its immediate environs about halfway down, when we're given examples of regional fiction which are either so blindingly obvious as to scarcely need mentioning (anyone writing an article on literature for a serious newspaper should know better than to try and present Niall Griffiths as an obscure author) or simply not regional. Phillip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, for example, is the product of a southern-minded, if not precisely southern, author looking to show that he can 'write the north'. The thing about The Northern Clemency, however, is that it packages its content with the London-based reader in mind: as a record of the Miners' Strike, for example, it is very much of the persuasion that the strike requires a framing of quaint, Full Monty-ish, otherness rather than (as in the case of David Peace's GB84) becoming the metanarrative in itself.

Reading M. John Harrison's Climbers, and A.L. Kennedy's well-founded remarks in Kellaway's article, I'm led to think that the real regional novel needs to make as few concessions as possible to a demand for the staged regional picturesque. Climbers uses its locational details in a way that would seem deictic or anatopic to the non-northern reader; that is, all place names ('Stand Edge', 'Holmfirth', 'Ellesmere Port') are unframed and stand-alone. Descriptions of, say, the industry of the Cheshire plain are made with reference to a knowledge that is already familiar with that place: Harrison rebels against the pressure of the industry to situate the non-provincial reader, implicitly arguing that the north-west is only as in need of locational explication as, for example, Regent's Park. One finds the same in many of Mark E. Smith's lyrics (my favourite? 'They talk of Chile/ while driving through Haslingden', from English Scheme.) One might even note that the Lakes Poets tended to treat their settings as givens, rather than write 'I drove up the M6 for four and a half hours/ got stuck in traffic on the toll bit near Birmingham/ listened to Radio 4 on the way/ made knowing remarks about Withnail and I/ then wandered lonely as a cloud.' That's what people like Hensher don't do, and I think that this detail is more important in the scheme of English cultural politics than is commonly admitted.

Anyway, I've covered most of this before. It's actually coalescing into a proper, grown-up article now - has anyone heard of a Journal of Northern Studies I can submit it to?

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