writing

Calling Westminster, can you find The North on a map?

On my Twitter profile I summarise myself as ‘Writer. Reader. Northerner. Rocker.’ and anyone who’s been around this blog a while can testify that most of my ramblings and rantings fall into one (sometimes several) of those four categories. Today’s rant will mainly be about the north (like the one I had back in 2010 about the BBC programme about northern culture. This one involves the BBC too, tangentially); southern or overseas visitors may prefer to leave now.

Last week the Deputy PM launched a thing called TechNorth, which apparently is going to result in a ‘northern tech hub’ like the one in East London (TechCity), only incorporating Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and the Tees Valley. So far, so what? Well ordinarily I’d shrug and ignore it, but it’s not the thing itself that’s riled me so much as the way it’s been put across (and indeed, reported by the BBC). It’s a bit like those chaps down in Westminster think The North is a culturally uniform, tightly-compressed area with everything in common and no diversity of problems at all. As if Leeds isn’t already doing really quite well thank you, and The North East isn’t suffering from years of under-investment and the collapse of traditional industries that will take more than a token tech hub to put right.
Map of mainland UK

Let’s start with a brief Geography lesson (and it’s not like I know this stuff, I looked it up on a map the same way a policy wonk could). How far apart do you reckon Liverpool and Newcastle are, as the crow flies? Would you refer to a world-class tech ‘cluster’ if it included both Edinburgh and Aberdeen? Actually that may be a bad example because Scotland also seems to suffer from the undifferentiated lump syndrome in Westminster so let’s try this: how about if it included Bristol and Nottingham? To put it another way, according to the AA distance calculator Liverpool is closer to Oxford than it is to Newcastle, Sheffield is closer to Cambridge than to Sunderland, Newcastle is closer to Edinburgh than to Sheffield, and Manchester is closer to Aberystwyth than to Newcastle.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the quote on the government website claims TechNorth will be “a world-class tech cluster spanning 5 cities in the North” then mentions six northern cities and a cluster of towns (Tees Valley). The BBC goes one better and ignores Sunderland and the Tees Valley altogether, mentioning only Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle in the article I read.

OK, so it looks like they’re not sure where these places are or which ones we’re talking about, but what about comparisons to TechCity? “The government says it will spend the same amount on TechNorth as it has on Tech City” says the BBC article that admittedly I’ve just claimed isn’t perfectly accurate. However, let’s assume it got that bit right. A bit of poking around on the internet has failed to provide me with a figure, but that’s not necessarily important. TechCity is based in Shoreditch, East London (and this is where I confess that my knowledge of London is about as solid as Westminster knowledge of The North, but I’ll do my best) which I gather is part of the borough of Hackney, population c.214,000 and an area of 7.4 sq miles. If I point out that Sunderland, the least populous of the 6 cities, has a population of 276,000 can you see where this is going? They’re going to invest the same amount of money in a population of 3.74 million spread over c.940 sq miles as they did in one small part of London. This is The North, of course, and things are cheaper up here (though probably not at Harvey Nichols in Leeds) so perhaps I’m being unfair.

Grumbling quietly to myself (and OneMonkey) for a few days, it was almost as if Number Ten was listening, because before I’d finished writing the foregoing rant, our esteemed leader had taken himself off to Leeds to announce HS3. Apparently it doesn’t matter that The North is a rather large area because the government are going to connect it all up with high-speed rail and make it feel like everywhere’s practically next door. Except of course they aren’t, and I’m not sure it would be a good idea if they did. What they actually seem to be proposing is knocking a small amount of time off some of the intercity journeys, so that Manchester to Newcastle would still take longer than Leeds to London.

What no-one (except most of the people commenting on the BBC article) seems to have spotted is that in the modern world it shouldn’t be necessary to physically travel to a different city to work there. In fact from an environmental (and city overcrowding) point of view it might be good to move away from that idea. Perhaps it’s simply that the Westminster crowd can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live and work in a city, in the same way that I just don’t get why anyone would want to live or work in London, but I know I wouldn’t be alone in rejoicing if I could be set free from commuting into a city every working day. Give us rural broadband, spend a bit of money maintaining the existing train lines and reopening a few stations that fell under the Beeching axe. The current proposals are patronising, badly thought through and have an air of ‘Crumbs! There’s an election soon – when did we last take any notice of The North?’. Such is my opinion, anyway, but as those outside the M25 might have spotted, northerners are a varied bunch.

A collection of recent reviews

Now that the Ilkley Literature Festival is over for another year, and just about all the reviews seem to be up at The Pickled Egg, it seems like a good time to list the ones I wrote in one handy place (though they are of course linked to from my About page, along with anything else of mine you might want to read). Before anyone decides this is a bit parochial, 3 of them are book reviews so not location specific at all, and even the 2 event reviews involve authors that (at least for UK readers) are likely to come your way at some point.

So here they are, book reviews of Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera (linked short stories set in Sri Lanka), Bricks & Mortals by Tom Wilkinson (meanderings through the history of architecture), The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond (novel set in 1950s/60s Tyneside), plus the review of David Almond’s talk about The Tightrope Walkers, and the review of Bryan and Mary Talbot talking about their new graphic novel Sally Heathcote: Suffragette.

And while I’m here, this is a lovely review of the Ilkley Writers event that I took part in, by Nikki Mason. She wasn’t a member of the group at the time…

Sixth annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Whose word-enhancing art are you going to appreciate today? Five years ago I tried to boost the profile of artists quietly providing book covers and magazine illustrations. In the last few days, by coincidence, I’ve had my attention drawn to this vote for artwork (suitable for a future book cover) at Spark. Hard to choose, but I particularly liked Monsters and Marvels by Luke Spooner, Snake Bones by Rodrica Cogle, and The Carrot is Mightier Than the Sword by Sean Greenberg.

It’s also been a week for comics exposure, what with Dave Gibbons being created Comics Laureate in the cause of literacy, so in case it’s not your usual medium why not check out some freely available volumes? There’s The Only Living Boy at NoiseTrade, and a whole graphic novel list at Free Online Novels (including 2 written by me, with fabulous art by Mark Pexton, which you can get here).

MOOCs and my continuing education in writing

I’ve mentioned MOOCs (massive open online courses) here before and just to prove I do listen to myself occasionally, I’ve now followed that up with a short essay, MOOCs, a piece of the higher education jigsaw as my entry to this year’s NUHA foundation blogging prize. The NUHA foundation being an education and development NGO, all the essay titles were kind of education-related (one of my favourite topics) so I couldn’t resist entering.

Apparently, part of the voting comes from how much comment and debate the essay sparks off so if you feel like participating in the conversation, you know where to find it…

We came, we read, we conquered

Conquered our nerves, at any rate, for last night ten members of Ilkley Writers stood on a stage before a huge (no, really – scarily so) audience and read stories specially-written for the occasion. It was the first time I’d been in quite that situation, not only being judged on my performance but also the content. Amazingly it was a fantastically enjoyable experience (once I’d assured myself I wasn’t going to trip on the steps or knock the microphone over) and it was great to be part of the audience for the other 9 readings, hearing the stories with the fresh ears of the people behind me as they gasped or laughed at lines they were hearing for the first time, and watching the atmospheric black and white film of the moor playing in the background. Afterwards, the applause and the excitement as we congratulated each other and basked in the praise both individually and collectively coming our way from members of the audience were intoxicating. I have a feeling this might be the start of something.

Ilkley Writers literature festival fringe flyer 2014

Introducing my first SF collection – and it’s free if you want it to be

As promised last week, a treat (I hope!) for sci-fi and fantasy readers. A dozen stories in the realms of speculative fiction, some previously published, some you won’t have seen before, all nicely packaged as an ebook which you can download here. As with my (non-genre) novel Wasted Years, it’s pay what you like, which means you can even have it for free.

This is the rather snazzy cover that OneMonkey put together for me:

Cracks in the Foundations by JY Saville

Wasted Years available for free

During the last couple of years you’ve been able to download my comics for free, but I had a novel and a short story collection for sale on Amazon. To redress the balance slightly, Wasted Years – the novel – can now be downloaded here instead, and you can pay what you like via Paypal – yes, that means you can have it for free if you want. It’s available as an epub file (easily convertible to other formats) under a Creative Commons licence.

Cover of Wasted Years by JY Saville

If you’ve ever enjoyed any of my fantasy or sci-fi output (or haven’t yet, but think you might) then you may want to check back here in a week as you could be in for a treat.