Ben Myers 

Mapping the fictional north

Ben Myers considers the lop-sided geography of northern novels and drama - West Yorkshire with standing room-only for writers while Durham and even the Lake District trail far behind
  
  

Living in West Yorkshire it's easy to get a false impression of how The North – those capital letters are deliberate – is represented in literature. Within a ten mile radius I'm reminded of the enduring legacy of the Bronte sisters, the work of Sylvia Plath who is buried nearby or the omnipresent Ted Hughes, whose stanzas seems to document every footpath or landmark I come across.

Down the road there's Simon Armitage and over in Ossett (via Japan) David Peace. There are the region's dramatists - J.B.Priestley, Alan Bennett, Andrea Dunbar - the generation of realist writers that included John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow and David Storey and contemporary scribes ranging from Jeremy Dyson to Joanne Harris and recent Not The Booker winner Michael Stewart. That's just one county.

It's a false perception, of course. The north is no more a cohesive whole than the south is, and is instead a series of interlocking territories, some of which remain bafflingly, hugely overlooked and under-represented in literature. I can't help noticing just how much all of the above are united by their 'northernness' (a tricky term to define, but one that is easy to sense) and how much sense of place features of their writing in a way that could not always be said about their southern contemporaries.

My last novel, an account of a real-life troubled musician, was primarily set in South Wales and London but also took in Japan, Thailand, the US, Canada, Germany and beyond. That's perhaps why my forthcoming novel Pig Iron is set in and around the city, villages and countryside of my home turf of Durham, one of those aforementioned places that's not as prominent on the literary map as it should be. Because only when you return to the place that you grew up do you fully become aware of that which makes it unique: the hidden histories, the dark secrets, the oddness of the things never noticed in the first place.

I don't believe there is such a thing as a regional writer, only writers who chose to illuminate the minutiae of their locale. As a reader there's always thrill in recognising familiar territories in literature, and it is the writer's role to create alternative histories for these places. Through fiction the writer can explore deeper truths in narrative where feeling takes precedence over fact. Fiction allows this.

I feel affronted that huge parts of the North have not seen justice in print. Why, for example, is Cumbria only ever associated with William Wordsworth and Alfred Wainwright, John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter - none of who actually wrote novels as such. Save for a small number of exceptions – Hugh Walpole's Rogue Herries books or Sarah Hall's Haweswater – I wonder why this awesome place is not spawning awe-inspiring fiction?

When I think of Lincolnshire meanwhile, a county I only ever seem to pass through on the way to somewhere else, I think not of great historical battles, but of the writing of Ted Lewis and his novels set in places like Barton-upon-Humber, Mablethorpe and, in the case of his most famous work Jack's Return Home, (filmed as Get Carter), Scunthorpe. Lewis' strength was recognising that anywhere can be remarkable if the story is good enough - that there is no such thing as normal. That ordinary is just a mask.

These representations of the northern hinterlands need to be celebrated. 'Regional writer' is a criticism; a good writer should be able train their narrative magnifying glass without allowing themselves to be parochial. Universal stories can found everywhere - it is how we tell them that counts. As a writer I hope to add my contribution, however small.