northern

I Love The Bones Of You by Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.

Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.

There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.

Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.

I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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D is for Down South

For such a tiresomely Northern writer I have a startling confession to make: I spent nearly five years living Down South. In my defence I was not quite three when we decamped to the East Midlands and just gone seven when we returned to Drighlington having fit in a miserable eighteen months in North Cornwall in the meantime (don’t ask).

I don’t remember that much about it, and certainly if I look at a map of England now I’ll struggle to find the places we lived. Other than a lovely pool of floating lights for diwali in Leicester, what I mainly remember are differences in language. Not long after we moved to a village near Loughborough in the summer of 1981 we had a workman in one day and he called my Nana ‘mi duck’ whereas she of course called him ‘love’. Over his teabreak they had a good long chat about the different dialect words they used, and I listened with fascination. It was the first time I remember realising that there were different regional English varieties.

I knew there was BBC English (the proper one) and American English (a bad habit picked up from watching films) but without knowing the word ‘colloquial’ at that age I thought the way we spoke at home was what colloquial English sounded like all over the country. I don’t remember being an object of interest at school, however, until we moved to Cornwall.

Cornwall in red. The East Midlands is north east a bit, or maybe a lot.

Cornwall is as far away as you can get from West Yorkshire and still be in England. I had the unfortunate combination of being an intruder in established friendship groups, and having a noticeably different accent and unfamiliar vocabulary. I learnt to avoid the troublesome old-fashioned bits that were still current in Yorkshire but apparently not down there: thee and thou, the dost tha and hast tha constructions, saying five-and-twenty-past when telling the time (though I’ve reclaimed that one recently, I never stopped saying it that way in my head). The East Midlands workman notwithstanding, I was baffled as to why my classmates would pick up some of my perfectly normal utterances as catchphrases and use them out of context.

It took me years to untangle which bits of my ‘not proper’ vocabulary were general UK slang and which were Yorkshire dialect, in fact I went to university unaware that some of the words I used wouldn’t generally be understood. Which led to interesting conversations with Geordie OneMonkey when we first met, but that’s another story.

D could also have been for dogs, Drighlington, dancing, or detective stories but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Airedale by Dylan Byford

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Outside London, it’s pretty rare to find English sci-fi set in a real place. I can think of one or two set in Manchester, and Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series set in and around Rutland, but beyond that I’m struggling. It’s fair to say I was intrigued when I spotted one of the first novels from new crime publisher Northodox Press was ‘a near-future thriller’ set in a place I used to live: Airedale.

If you’re a dog-lover you might be familiar with the terrier of the same name, but I’m guessing that outside Yorkshire (probably even inside most of Yorkshire) the name won’t conjure up a place for you. As you might have guessed, it’s the dale (valley) where the River Aire runs, and these days houses Leeds commuters, many of them living in buildings that forty years ago were textile mills. There is also a UNESCO world heritage site, the mill village Saltaire. Dylan Byford has cleverly taken this geography and history and extrapolated it into a messy future. An unspecified time when another industry is disintegrating in the periodically flooded dale leaving empty warehouses and unemployment, Saltaire exists in a protective bubble, and northern politicians look to Durham rather than Westminster.

Airedale is a cyberpunk police procedural featuring politics, subversion, riots and local businessmen. It’s full of wonderful details of integrated technology and state surveillance, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Haz Edmundson is a contractor working for the police, what we might call a forensic computing expert who doesn’t usually have to deal with dead bodies. Except tonight, when for one reason or another he’s there when the body of an activist is discovered and he can’t let it go when it’s officially marked as an accidental death. How far is he prepared to go to uncover the truth? And who can he trust?

Haz is a wonderfully human character. A hopeless, unreliable, scruffy single dad who’s good at his job but not hard-boiled enough to deal with death in a detached way. He’s also apt to ask the wrong questions at the wrong moment, and land himself in trouble. I would happily read more books about him. If he can hang onto his life or his job long enough to star in them. There were a couple of interesting strands that weren’t fully followed up, in my view, and I don’t claim to completely understand the conclusions but I had a fabulous time along the way. Except for the bit near the start that’s really not for the arachnophobes (grit your teeth and race through it, it’s only half a dozen pages and only one of them is horrifying).

I didn’t pay for my copy because I won it in a draw on Twitter but other than them once reading (and rejecting) the manuscript of a crime novel of mine set in Newcastle, I have no relationship with Northodox and I don’t know Dylan Byford either. If you like William Gibson but have always wished someone would write in a similar vein but with uncool characters in small town Yorkshire (it can’t just be me), you are definitely onto a winner here. Similarly if you enjoyed the Greg Mandel series from Peter F Hamilton (I reviewed the first and second books a few years ago), or if you’re a fan of British police procedurals and you have an open mind on the SF elements. It does have a great sense of place, and I was initially attracted to it because of the setting, but I was hooked from the first page and the setting soon became the icing on a fine cake. Highly recommended, whether you know where Airedale is or not.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Learning to write about climate change

I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about How to Start Writing the Climate, a series of four workshops run by Linda France for New Writing North. Prospective participants had to apply with a sample of their writing, and it’s always a boost to be selected in that way, whether it’s for an anthology or an online gathering. As I write this in mid-June we’ve had three of the four workshops, with another short piece to write before the final one in early July.

Since I write in various genres including sci-fi, it would be easy to see climate change as something I could (should?) tackle in a particular way. The books I’ve read that had it at their heart have all been sci-fi (I recommended a few a while back). It’s a common theme, usually used in a dystopian way – societal breakdown due to food or water shortages, damage to infrastructure through storms or floods – and set in the future. The trouble is, we’re living through it right now and it could (should) crop up in every genre except fantasy, because it is the realest of real.

I say that, but it even has a place in fantasy. My semi-rural fantasy novel set in northern England in 2018, the one that got me onto the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, has a strong ‘green’ theme: pollution, fracking and ecosystem damage, as well as changing weather patterns and political responses to the climate emergency. It’s still SFF though, still a niche readership (if it’s ever published) and all about impending disaster – the North Sea has decided people can’t be trusted with the land so she decides to reclaim it. I felt that climate change, its effects and possible mitigations, people’s fears and plans relating to it, ought to crop up, however subtly, in all genres. Just like environmental considerations ought to crop up to some extent in all policy and planning. Hence my desire to attend these workshops.

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The North Sea in calm mood in 2015

The trouble is, if it is a topic with strong emotional pull – a topic where there are fears and arguments in the background – it’s hard to know where to start. I also found it was hard for me not to stray into near-future SF, or into some kind of hectoring, doom-laden vein. On top of all that I’m not an expert, just a Guardian-reading citizen who’s looking to live through this. All those mythical target dates (this by 2030, that by 2040, the other by 2050) should be comfortably within my lifetime, I have a stake in this. Maybe not as much as if I had children, but still…

Linda started off by acknowledging these difficulties and trying to help us through them. We had a delve into why we write at all, why we want to write about climate change, and why it’s difficult. The delve included some free-writing sessions, where you write for a set time without stopping (if you get stuck you write e.g. ‘I’m stuck, I can’t think of anything, how annoying’ etc until you break out of the rut). I’ve often found these useful for freeing up the mind, or rather, sneaking ideas past the self-censor, and it helped here too. I gained a tiny insight into what my personal angle might be, the motivation that could see me through. I also did a mind map which I augmented over a few days, and that gave me some bare topics but also phrases I jotted down like ‘no plastic tat’, ‘ok if you’ve got good quality belongings to start with’, ‘it’s expensive to be frugal’.

Then we talked about who the audience might be, and I faltered. There’s a mix of poets and prose writers in the group but we’re not talking documentary style, factual writing. Primarily we’re looking to inform as we entertain, with poetry or fiction or creative non-fiction (true events written in a storytelling narrative style). I can’t imagine that any reader of the sort of literary journal I might aspire to be published in will be unaware of climate change or what they can do to slow down or mitigate it. They might not be prepared to make the changes they recognise as necessary or they might not be able to afford to (I once explained to an earnest middle-class student that normal people aren’t deciding between the recycled brand and the standard big-name brand that costs the same, they’re deciding between the recycled brand and the value brand which costs half the price. He didn’t seem to get it). But fundamentally, I’m not telling them anything they didn’t know and I’m unlikely to change their behaviour. Two things, then: one, I can at least reflect reality better if I weave some thoughts on climate change in; two, I can make it specific and bring it closer to home.

The view from my front door when the moor was on fire 2 years ago

While I think it is true that at some level we must all know what’s going on by now, and what we can do (would like to do, are prepared to do, ought to do) about it, it still sometimes seems far away if you live in a comfortable inland area of a developed country. There’s talk of droughts and sea-level rises and melting glaciers but I live in a pretty rainy part of northern England where people still laugh at southerners and their summer hosepipe bans. We’ve had some devastating moor fires over the last five years but it’s easy to focus on people’s carelessness with cigarettes or barbecues, rather than how much more likely these fires are if the moor gets drier than normal. So maybe Climate Change the big scary topic is familiar, but specific ways it’s affecting northern England and its weather and wildlife will be unusual enough to make someone pause.

My next problem involves starting out on climate change and ending up on biodiversity loss, extinctions and habitat destruction. I worry that, although the two are connected, I’m straying off topic. However, if there’s one thing I learnt from my repeated reading of Douglas Adams (sadly I don’t seem to have learnt how to write good comic fantasy), it’s the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. By which I mean, if I write with the intention of writing about climate change and how I feel about it, then if it ends up being about reduction in butterfly numbers and changes to migratory patterns that aren’t all directly caused by climate change, that’s ok. Feeling a connection to nature, which many people have discovered or deepened during the pandemic, makes us care more about our impact on the planet, and by extension, man-made climate change. Expect more birds and trees to crop up in my non-SF stories. And butterflies, of course.

A butterfly photo I took at Tropical World in Leeds, before I even had this blog

If I’ve given you something to think about, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I loved this novel set on Teesside and I wish I hadn’t tried to read it when I’m struggling to read fiction. It took me two months to get through and by the time I was near the end I couldn’t quite remember details from the start. However, I do know I was hooked by the second page and I recommend it without hesitation. There’s a housing estate being gradually knocked down and replaced, in or near Middlesbrough. We learn of the interconnected stories of a handful of its inhabitants from a variety of viewpoints, and through it all is woven the local legend of Peg Powler.

It’s not as simple as a novel written as a continuous narrative, but neither is it a collection of stories. It begins with a series of letters from the 1990s, but includes journal entries from the 1980s, transcripts of interviews in 2015 and 2016, as well as what you might call straightforward narrative. Through the different points of view and their memories and flashbacks the interlocking stories of the main characters build up in layers, from the 1950s to 2016. It has some pretty dark threads but also humour, love, belonging. It is excellent on the complicated nature of family relationships and the feelings people have for the place they grew up. It is full of the ordinariness of everyday life, wrapped up with some fairly extraordinary goings-on.

Overall it is a pretty bleak tale I guess, but maybe that made the moments of beauty or hope all the more precious. I thought it was brilliantly constructed, though Peg (or her story) didn’t appear as much as I’d expected. Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales – now if that sounds appealing, go read Ironopolis. And if you’re not sure, read it anyway.

Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

All Points North by Simon Armitage

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This book had been sitting on my To Read shelf for weeks when Simon Armitage was announced as the new Poet Laureate, so it seemed only right to take it down and start reading. As you might expect from a Poet Laureate, he’s best known for his poetry and there are a couple of excerpts of it in All Points North, but only as they pertain to broadcasts or events he was involved in. On the whole, this is memoir and observational humour, as if Alan Bennett had grown up on the wild edge of Yorkshire in the era of Joy Division. Released in 1998, if the book came out now it would most likely have been a blog first.

There is ‘genuine memoir’ if you like, nostalgia and childhood memories, tales from his time as a probation officer or appearing in local panto (transplanted to the coast for an am dram conference), and the more recent that could be categorised as ‘scenes from the life of a poet’, like a visit to a film set or making BBC radio programmes. All of this reveals his poetry background: the creation of atmosphere, the lyrical descriptions of the everyday, the skirting of pretentiousness without ever quite falling in. There are also bits of local news deftly retold, snippets, fragments, snapshots, anecdotes from the pub that in another context or told in another way would be nothing.

Being, as the title suggests and his origins dictate, northern in character and largely about the north, the book is infused with dry humour and a keen sense of the absurd in the mundane. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue where the insurance firm phones (twice) to check he really is a poet (“Are you well known?”). The bulk of the book is written in second-person, as though he’s sat outside himself reminding another self of his actions and memories, which causes the odd tangle of position (who, then, is ‘we’?) but if you’re happy to accept that it makes for an interesting style.

I loved it and kept laughing loudly on the train as I read, but I would imagine All Points North to have particular appeal or relevance to those who know or love West Yorkshire, maybe also to those who know or love someone from West Yorkshire. If you read it without any prior exposure or knowledge, you may well come away with the wrong impression.

How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

Quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, so full of love and sadness I felt like I might burst, so painful in places I had to look away.

Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck lives by the sea with her fisherman dad, who takes her to school every morning on the front of his bike. It’s not a Raleigh or a BMX, just a bike, and therein lies one of the truths at the heart of the book: Ellie Fleck’s family is not like everyone else’s, and all the kids in her class can tell. Most of them, as is the way with kids, punish her for it.

Set in the 1980s at the edge of the North Sea the story teeters between worlds: land and water, innocence and experience, all mod cons and an older way of life, boring everyday facts and the deeper truth of stories. Ellie has been filled with and shaped by stories, whether sea stories from her dad, ancestral stories from her Irish mum before her breakdown, or saints’ stories from church, so it seems natural that in this motherless world (“She’ll be better by Christmas”) Ellie surrounds herself with stories to get her through. But just because a wolf’s in a story, doesn’t mean it can’t bite.

Carmen Marcus had already acquired a reputation as a poet prior to writing this, her debut novel. This background is apparent in her use of language; I loved the repetition of words like thudtickticktick that (in context) conveyed so much and helped to describe Ellie’s world so vividly. Some of the imagery will stay with me for a long time, too – there’s a wonderful blend of fairytale and the natural world, sprinkled with small, child’s-eye details like the behaviour of a dunked biscuit, and just enough (hedgehog haircuts and ski jackets) to set it in its time and place.

Ellie’s a complicated character in a complicated situation and there’s no black and white of who should have behaved how, but the way the circumstances are explored (and the way several points of view are used within the book), the reader is fully caught up in the story of Ellie and the story she’s creating. It’s not an easy read in terms of subject matter, Ellie’s mum in particular is not in a good place, but it’s a powerful one and it delivers moments of magic to soothe the gut-punches.

Because of the central elements of fairytale and sea, I can see How Saints Die particularly appealing to fans of Kirsty Logan, but I’d recommend it to anyone who can take a bit of magic in their fiction and thinks they could find some fellow-feeling for a confused child.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s own introduction to the novel from her Read Regional appearances earlier this year: http://newwritingnorth.com/projects/read-regional/carmen-marcus-how-saints-die/

Writing a script with a partner

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JY Saville and Rosalind York at Chapel FM

I wrote about writing with a partner, for the New Writing North blog, so if you’re not sick to the back teeth of me banging on about Lavender Ink (the radio drama Roz and I wrote for this year’s Writing On Air), you can read about how we went about writing it, here.

Marvel at our logical approach, learn from our mistakes, celebrate our continued friendship, then listen to Lavender Ink itself (there’s a link at New Writing North or you can go straight to Chapel FM). Feedback, as ever, gratefully received.

Oh, and for those who read last week’s post which mentioned the renewed search for a day job, I’ve found one, so come next month I won’t have to worry about the Earl Grey supply drying up for a while.

Coming up to Writing on Air time again

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Less than a month till Chapel FM has its annual Writing on Air festival. Roz and I have been busy honing our script, which is called Lavender Ink and is described thus in the brochure (Roz going by her everyday name not her poetry name Rosalind York):

On the morning of Pat’s wedding, at least her mum’s happy. Until she remembers those letters. A 1960s drama from Rosalind Fairclough and JY Saville.

I’ve been influenced, as you might expect, by a blend of the Angry Young Men and Alan Bennett, though you’ll have to tell me whether that comes through, when you listen to Lavender Ink on March 16th. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you again later.

Embracing the Accent by JY Saville

This is a post I wrote this week for a new blog telling the stories of working class writers – I can recommend following it if you’re at all interested in writers or class experience.

Mine, inevitably, is about accent and dialect and is illustrated with a photo of my Nana and her sister.

No Writer Left Behind

Who would have thought the Daily Telegraph would play so prominent a role in the resurgence of my accent? It was during Louise Doughty’s year of writing a weekly column about short stories for them, when they ran a monthly writing competition and hosted a sort of discussion and exercise forum on their website. The Short Story Club had been running a couple of months already when someone (probably my mum) told me the Telegraph was having a writing competition. I entered, but only lurked on the fringes of the online club until May when I plucked up the courage to join in.

At school, we were warned that regional accents were looked down on. Anyone who wanted to get on in life needed to speak in standard English and preferably received pronunciation.

Speaking with an accent was akin to dubious sexual practices: try not to do it at all…

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Literary fiction and why I avoid it

I can be something of a snob sometimes, particularly the inverse snobbery of the chippy northerner. I dismiss entire author lists as a bunch of poncy southerners and expect to leave it at that – why would I need to provide further explanation or analysis? I’m not saying it’s a great character trait, but I do admit to having it. However, listening to Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme Where Are All The Working Class Writers? some of the people she spoke to talked about middle class literary novelists having a different mindset from someone with a working class background, and also about the concept of not seeing your own life reflected in fiction in bookshops and thus being put off reading it. I wondered if some of my antipathy towards literary fiction was grounded in that feeling.

I have never read any Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Will Self or Julian Barnes. Not because of the author (well, maybe in the case of Will Self) but because none of their books have appealed to me. It’s not just old white men though, the same goes for Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy. In fact I had a look at the Booker Prize longlists 2010-2017 and I have only read one of the books on them; for the other 103 books I hadn’t even read any books by the author. That one book was surprising, it was Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, shortlisted in 2011. A novel by a Canadian author, with characters and settings from America, France, Germany and mainly set in the late 1930s and the second world war, it could be argued that Half Blood Blues is less connected with my mindset or reality than anything by McEwan et al, yet not only did I choose to read it but I really enjoyed it. Is it just that the usual suspects are neither familiar nor exotic enough?

I have read and enjoyed five AS Byatt novels, and there’s no getting away from their classification as literary fiction. Does the fact that she’s originally from Yorkshire, and each of those books is partially set in Yorkshire, make that much of a difference to me? (Probably, though I’ve enjoyed plenty of Ben Aaronovitch and Robert Rankin books set in London)

It can’t be a complete aversion to a stratum of life: I’ve read plenty of upper/middle class novels by PG Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Trollope. Each of those has humour though, often laugh-out-loud, and even though Trollope is Victorian Literature now, he was a popular novelist in his day. None of them are highbrow.

I don’t want to read the same kind of book all the time (hence Anthony Trollope, sci-fi, crime, fantasy, PG Wodehouse, historical fiction, etc) so even if some of it had some connection to my life, most of it wouldn’t and it can’t be that reflection of life that I’m looking for. Most of what I read, however, has what you might call plot.

I’m reaching the conclusion that what puts me off literary fiction is the label as much as anything else. I see a novel under that heading and I expect it to be full of dull wealthy people, sighing and arguing and having affairs and mid-life crises, probably in a place they don’t describe because Everyone has been there (except I probably haven’t), and really nothing much happens and nobody laughs. I read the synopsis with all that at the back of my mind and a description I might be half-interested in without that bias puts me off immediately. So yes, it’s mainly personal prejudice, and it’s yet another argument for not splitting the fiction in bookshops and libraries into all the fiddly sub-categories.

To the far north, in search of Penguins

Major excitement (and writing vaildation) this week as I found out I’ve been lucky enough to get a place on the Penguin Random House WriteNow insight day in Newcastle. This means, among other things, I get to talk to an editor about an extract of the semi-rural fantasy novel which they’ll have read in advance. I’m sure you can imagine the walking on air/dancing on lino that’s been going on here. Penguin books had a similar status to the BBC when I was growing up so even without making the trip north, meeting anyone or getting any further along the route to mentoring, I feel like I’ve won the pools and been anointed with the sacred oil of authorhood, extracted from the typewriter keys of earnest 1950s writers in suits.

Back in June I rather cheekily asked if from a London perspective their criterion of being ‘socio-economically marginalised’ meant that simply being northern was enough (and since then there continues to be evidence of the north-south divide, such as in premature death rates) but to their credit they gave me a considered answer:

They also said they’d consider applicants as eligible “If you define yourself as working class/ from a working class background”. We can argue about class till the cows come home, whether going to university catapults you into middle class territory regardless of accent, outlook, or what your sister does for a living, but there’s no denying my background, my roots, and the words I write with a loud northern working class voice (just look at the class tag here on the blog, for a start).

As Mark the artist pointed out while congratulating me, this surely highlights the importance of being true to yourself. On the face of it a combination of politics and urban (semi-rural) fantasy set in northern England in the wake of Brexit doesn’t sound like it would have mass appeal and I’ve worried a few times that I’ve sunk so much time and energy into a novel that no-one will be interested in. Yet that’s the novel I sent them an extract from and a synopsis of, and that someone has presumably seen potential in. The lesson to take away from this is: write with passion and originality, and you’ll get there (somewhere) eventually.

Accents and globalisation part 1

OneMonkey and I have been listening to Journeys in English this weekend courtesy of Leeds library’s audiobooks download service. It’s Bill Bryson’s BBC series from 20 years ago about the history, use and future of the English language. The time lapse since the series was made was interesting in itself, with the (then) new word cyberspace having already fallen out of favour for instance. The programme also talked about the fears of dialect loss, the ultra-standardisation of English (possibly along American lines, but that’s another story) from people moving around and being influenced by the TV etc. It generated a lot of discussion between us, we paused the thing so often it took about half an hour to listen to the final five minutes, but I’ll try and stick to a couple of topics over the next couple of posts.

One of those was how much our speech had changed in twenty years. We now live a few miles from where most of my family’s from, coincidentally directly across the valley from the hamlet one of my great-great-grandfathers left 160 years ago to find work in the slightly more built-up and industrial bit I’ve left behind. Nevertheless, twenty years of OneMonkey and I influencing each other’s accents, not to mention stints at 3 universities surrounded by staff and students from different backgrounds, and we both sound different from our teenage selves, particularly OneMonkey whose Geordie accent has all but gone as he’s slowed down and enunciated to allow non-native speakers a chance to understand him. He never uses the word ‘geet’ (here rendered for the well-spoken Yorkshireman as usual) whereas in 1997 it was in practically every sentence – for those unfamiliar with the word, imagine using it for emphasis as you would ‘dead’ i.e. dead good, dead late, dead hungry. My grilled bread sounds much more like ‘toe-st’ than ‘turst’, which not everyone will see as a bad thing.

Have a think about how your speech has changed in the last twenty years. You probably say tweeting and texting a lot more than you did then. Have you lost any dialect phrases? Learnt any new ones? Has your accent got stronger from moving back home, or weaker from moving away, or been influenced by your favourite TV programme? (Notice I didn’t say ‘TV show’ there but I did use TV not telly. I find myself saying movies instead of pictures sometimes…) Is the change gratifying, worrying, or just interesting? Feel free to answer some or all of these questions in the comments below. Or tweet me @JYSaville

 

Week 18: in which I’m not allowed to get big-headed

Where to start this week? I’ve got Twitter fiction in Mslexia, I’ve had a bestselling author send my blog traffic through the roof, and my mum told me off for not making the link to my guest post on the Women Writers School obvious enough.

We’ll start there first in case you, like my mum, were desperate to read that guest post and just couldn’t get to it. It’s called Northerners! Know Your Place, and is at http://womenwritersschool.com/northerners-know-your-place/ (and like most of my other stuff, is accessible via my About page). As you may expect, it’s an article about why I set so much of my writing in the north of England. I may come across as slightly deranged and/or obsessive, but it doesn’t seem to have done me too much harm so far. Honestly, it hasn’t. Ahem.

Many of Kit de Waal‘s Twitter followers visited over the weekend to read a blog post I wrote a few months ago, about class/wealth being a barrier to writing (beyond the hobby level), so if you haven’t already read that you might find it interesting, and if you have already read it you might have missed the follow-up post I wrote this week.

Staying with Twitter, after winning a Twitter fiction competition recently I’ve now got another mini-story in Mslexia magazine, which is quite exciting (and a bit of a surprise – I’d tweeted it to them as part of a challenge, but I don’t actually subscribe so the first I heard was when a friend had spotted it in print). Here’s the story – writers, don’t take it too much to heart:

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A writer praises the North

Since I know you don’t get enough of me writing about the North, and writing, and northern writing, there’s an article of mine over at Women Writers School about that very thing.

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An anchor I saw in Cumbria, not the one that tethers me to the north

You’ll recognise it by the photo above, and my unbridled enthusiasm. And the mention of Luddites. Some of the other writers that Laurie Garrison has invited to add to her Literature and Place theme have covered exotic places like San Francisco and Bhutan so you can be an international jet-setter from the comfort of your armchair.

As ever, thoughts welcome. Do you love all my references to northern this, that and the other or do you sigh every time it comes up? Does fiction set in a place that’s familiar to you have an additional hook, or do you like reading yourself into places you’ll never visit? If you’re a writer too, is there somewhere that has that magic for you?

Week 17: involving many books

Just after last week’s update I won a Twitter fiction competition, and today my parcel of prizes arrived. There’s still something so exciting about getting things (particularly books) through the post.

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Unfortunately (and indeed, shockingly) I wasn’t quite the comedic genius I assumed, last week, and Newsjack didn’t use either of my sketches or any of my one-liners. However, I haven’t let it put me off and I’ve sent in two more sketches today and am mulling over one-liners for tomorrow’s deadline. This week’s episode is the last in the series so it’s my last chance for a while. I am emboldened enough to consider entering the Sketch in the City competition for writers in the north though, so something good has come of this.

Speaking of the north (as I so often do), check back here in a few days for a link to an article I wrote about taking my inspiration from the northern landscape, history and people (which of course includes my home and family). I managed to get another chapter or so of the semi-rural fantasy novel written this week, which is set all across the north of England. I’m enjoying all the background reading I’m doing for that, The Marches by Rory Stewart being the most recent (sh, don’t tell anyone I’m reading books by Tory MPs). The Library of Mum and Dad furnished me this weekend with a local history book belonging to my 2xgreat-grandfather, however, and I’m looking forward to delving into that soon.

Week 16: Comedy Gold

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Thanks to a refresher from re-reading the BBC Academy radio comedy pages (though not from reading the pictured pamphlet, which I only remembered as I came to write this post) I’ve written two sketches for Newsjack this weekend that not only made me laugh, but made OneMonkey laugh too. I have yet to hear whether they made the producers of Newsjack laugh, but one can only hope.

I can now reveal that the northern-themed writing I alluded to before Christmas is a guest post in the Literature and Place slot at Laurie Garrison’s Women Writers School, and you should have less than two weeks to wait till you can read it. In the meantime if you’re of a sci-fi bent you could read a new review I’ve written for The Bookbag, for an Alastair Reynolds novella, Slow Bullets.

Before I race off to write one-liners in time for tomorrow morning’s Newsjack deadline, have I mentioned the rather wonderful RS500 yet? They’re working through Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 album list, inviting an essay or a piece of fiction related to each one, and so far they’re at 252 so almost halfway but I only heard about them recently. While I may dislike many of the albums on the list, and bemoan the exclusion of some of my favourites, I applaud the harnessing of musical passion to a writing project like this, and I encourage any and all of you with a love of music to read, absorb, and contribute.

What was read where last year?

Libraries. Data. Data on library books. You know I can’t resist. I was excited (yes, really) to find the top 100 most borrowed books in UK libraries 2015/16. A couple of years ago I wrote about the top 10 most borrowed books at Leeds Libraries and wondered whether there was much variation in different areas, so imagine my delight when I saw the regional breakdowns.

Since they’re the places where me and my immediate family use libraries, I immediately delved into the lists for the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber and it looks like my earlier musings may have had some foundation. The Yorkshire list has way more instances of Barnsley author Milly Johnson’s books (3 in the top 10) than the national list, where she first appears at number 12. In the North East her most borrowed book is at number 72.

Interestingly, the UK number 1, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, is at number 3 in the North East and number 7 in Yorkshire. Even more interestingly, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, seventh most borrowed book in the UK, is at number 42 in the North East and isn’t in the top 100 at all in Yorkshire. Both of those books seemed to be constant in the books pages (and beyond) of national newspapers, discussed on arts programmes and the like. Did everyone up here buy the books instead of borrowing them, or are we more resistant to hype, or does the media frenzy only ever reflect metropolitan tastes? Discuss.

I haven’t read either of them, in case you wondered, but nor have I read any Lee Child or Milly Johnson. In fact you have to go down to number 13 on the Yorkshire borrowing chart to find an author I’ve read (Michael Connelly) and the only book of his I have read, I wasn’t that keen on. It turns out I haven’t read a single book on the Yorkshire list, the North East list, or the whole UK list. How unlike me to have minority tastes.

Living in a Cultural Void, or Whither Public Transport?

Looking at job listings on the Arts Council website the other day, I was struck by how many were in London. To save time wading through all those distant vacancies I thought about filtering so that only Yorkshire listings were shown, then I saw jobs in Hull and Rotherham (East and South Yorkshire respectively, whereas I’m in West) and I wondered if I needed to look at North West as well, since Manchester is probably easier for me (no car) to get to than either of those. Lucky Londoners, I thought, all those theatres, museums, galleries and the like right on their doorstep. Then I remembered a friend who used to live in Enfield (about 10 miles north of where I as an outsider think of as London, all those famous buildings by the Thames) saying he rarely went in to the city itself as it was quite a trek, and decided maybe I was doing many Londoners a disservice. They might be in no better position than I am, ten minutes’ walk from a train station, not so far from Bradford and Leeds. Armed with the measuring function on Google maps, and the journey planners for National Rail, Transport for London, and West Yorkshire Metro I had a bit of a look.

Starting with London, Enfield is about 8.5-12 miles as the crow flies from places I recognise on a map as having venues you’d want to visit for concerts, theatre, exhibitions etc. Because of London’s joined-up public transport system (particularly the Underground) that means it takes about 20 minutes to cover the 10 miles to the Tate Modern art gallery, half an hour to the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Barbican, and about 40 minutes to the distant Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gig venue that’s stuck in my mind from many lists of tour dates I’ve heard read out on the radio over the years.

I’m lucky to live on the outskirts of a small town with its own literature festival, and we get the odd national tour in our concert hall too (Billy Bragg was here last year). Beyond that though, it’s about 6 miles (as the crow flies from my local station, half an hour on the train) to the Hockney gallery at Saltaire, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth a visit anyway. Then you’re into the same sort of distances as from Enfield to central London: 9 miles to Bradford (theatres, galleries, the National Media Museum, the Bradford literature festival) or to Haworth for the Bronte pilgrimage, 11.5 miles to Harrogate for the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Here’s where we differ though, it takes half an hour by train into the centre of Bradford, then easily another quarter of an hour to walk to the Alhambra or Media Museum, or to the university venues for the literature festival. Haworth has a railway station, but only for steam trains so from here you’d have to get a bus, and the journey planner reckons on just over an hour. Harrogate also has a station, but from here you have to go into Leeds and back out again so it’s marginally quicker by bus, again about an hour.

It’s not all bad news though because Leeds, 13.5 miles as the crow flies, is only half an hour away by train. Of course you’ve then got a 15-20 minute walk to the Royal Armouries, the Tetley, the West Yorkshire Playhouse or the Grand Theatre, and many Leeds-based events actually happen in the student-dominated area of Headingley (just less than 12 miles from here, but as you have to go into Leeds and back out again by train, it’s quicker by bus. 50 minutes this time) but it still counts as our nearest big cultural centre. It’s where we go to gigs, anyway.

For that job in Rotherham (just under 40 miles away) it would take me about 2 hours on the train. On the plus side Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, is also 2 hours away by train even though it’s just over 60 miles from here. Wakefield, for the Hepworth gallery, is just over 20 miles away and an hour by train. York (National Railway Museum, theatres and concerts, as well as general historical loveliness) is nearly 30 miles away but only an hour and a quarter by train, not much different from Manchester with its various galleries and museums at a distance of 35 miles (hour and a half by train). Newcastle, more than 70 miles away, begins to seem reasonable at two and a quarter hours by train plus a bit of a walk to the Theatre Royal, the Sage, the Baltic, the Laing Art Gallery and various museums. I’m still not tempted by the bargain time of three and a quarter hours for the 180 miles from here to the British Library though, and I wouldn’t live in London for the world.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t looked at costs for any of these journeys, though national rail travel is likely to be more expensive than local bus or (at a guess) London Underground. Buses will take longer than the timetable says, some days are worse than others, and if you start feeling sick after more than about half an hour on a bus (like OneMonkey or I) you’re even more limited. I took midweek, 9.30am onwards, as my sample, and I haven’t considered that for some of the places you might want to visit there are only 2 or 3 trains a day, or no public transport in the evening (which might be a pain if you’re trying to get to the theatre).