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In Search of a New North

Alex Niven

Alex Niven speaks to Tribune about his new book The North Will Rise Again – an attempt to revive a future for the North from its modernist, radical traditions.

Locals and children play on Redcar beach in the shadow of the Corus Steelworks in Middlesborough, England. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

Interview by
Fergal Kinney

The history of the North of England is a history of astonishing visions, great attempts to realise true progress, and painful deferrals of these dreams, so argues Alex Niven, who constructs this argument incisively, elegantly and movingly in The North Will Rise Again: Searching for the Future in Northern Heartlands (Bloomsbury). 

Niven’s intervention is a timely one. At a moment where appeals to an insurgent, anti-establishment Northern identity are galvanised by the right and neglected by the left, never before has it been more urgent to revive the modernist, utopian dreams of those who made the region what it is. And in scouring through the legacies of figures like Andrea Dunbar, Li Yuan-chia, The Stone Roses, Emily Brontë, Delia Derbyshire, Frank Sidebottom, Andy Cole, Ridley Scott and—crucially—Kevin Keegan, Niven constructs a powerful counter-narrative for this nation within a nation. Recently, Tribune’s Fergal Kinney sat down with Niven to speak to him about it.


In your 2019 book New Model Island, you use an argument against English identity to make the case for a break-up of the English regions that would facilitate a stronger, more integrated North. Following on from that, where did the impetus to write this book come from?


It’s a natural development and an extension of New Model Island, which was mostly a critique of Englishness, and at the end starting to–some might say–clutch at straws or gesture broadly at the alternative. It’s easier to critique things and deconstruct how things have gone wrong. It’s much more difficult to gesture at things that haven’t happened yet. I tried to start doing that at the end of New Model Island (in a sort of a sci-fi way).

The NWRA is a  an attempt to be more affirmative, more positive. Even though the geography is narrowed just to the North, it’s treating it with a much wider lens. As usual, with the books I’ve written, they’re quite weird and disparate collections of different subjects, it’s not one of those more sociological or social sciences type books by someone who was a fellow at a think tank. It’s a slightly weird collection of literary, musical and cultural examples and it’s really trying to tackle this question of the past, present and future of the North from the point of view of the North being an imagined community, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase. As a literature academic and someone who has been a creative practitioner, my stock in trade is in imagined communities. Creative examples of northern culture, northern identity and how that intersects with the politics of the North’s past, present and future.


Early on there’s an image of you on the doorstep in Newcastle during the 2019 general election, an image which still generates a bit of a trauma response from me. For me, that result was both shocking but also something I really recognised. That nativism and conservatism in the result, that’s something I have always recognised in the North. Some of the first things that got me thinking politically when I was in my early teens was the racism in places like where I’m from, around Blackburn, the Ribble Valley and East Lancashire, that seemed everywhere. The 2019 result seems to really linger throughout the whole book.


The book is written partly to and for my tribe, which I guess is millennial leftists like yourself. For all that I’m slightly apprehensive when certain elder readers read it that they won’t get it, or they might be anti-Corbyn. Part of the motivation for the memoir element in the book is that you have to be sincere about where you’re coming from. If you’re not, you’re opening yourself up to allegations that you’ve just emerged from a mine in the North or whatever. 

You have to tell your story—not in an individualistic way, but to communicate where you’ve come from. That was my most recent experience and I was trying to tell that story, partly in the hope that lots of readers in the book would recognise that experience. It was a trauma, it’s a trauma we’re still living through on the Left and we haven’t really emerged from it a few years later. We’re still trying to work out how to move on from it. Obviously, the shutting down of the Corbyn project is still ongoing and is likely to linger on, perhaps for decades. 

I think you’re right about this sense of 2019, showing up through those doorstep conversations a kind of engrained conservatism in the North. One of the defining things about the North is that the terrain is very mixed, you can be in a major city and very quickly you can be in the Pennines. It’s rural areas, ex-urban areas, areas on the edge of major urban areas. In a sense, those rural and ex-urban areas have kind of returned back to nature and to a kind of conservatism and small-mindedness that was, to an extent, once counteracted in the days of unionised industrial communities and that culture. 

The slightly wilful vision of the NWRA is that underneath all that conservatism, there’s a kind of radical essence or an essential radicalism and belief that, even amongst conservatives, and even behind the fall of the ‘Red Wall’, there was a radicalism behind that and a sense that the way the country is not how it should be, and that we want things to be different going into the future. Broadly speaking, that is something that defines the North and Northern culture. 


That’s something, too, that links the cultural examples that you explore throughout the book, I wonder what your criteria was for what did and did not fit that vision.


These are things that have meant a lot to me, and hopefully by extension to people of a similar background. It was about grabbing the things that were to hand. I hope they’re all examples of people that have dreamed about a better future for the North, and in lots of cases those dreams have failed – sometimes quite emphatically and tragically. Unfortunately, most of the narratives do fail and that’s one of the reasons for writing it.

Hopefully there’s a thread there of a kind of idealism threading together all of the cultural examples. A kind of belief in radical reform, and that the country is not just slightly flawed and in need of reform, but cause for a radical overhaul of our political system and its cultural offshoots. Particularly in terms of its centre and margins dynamic last week, the IPPR announced that Britain is the most regionally unbalanced economy in Europe. 


One of the central dynamics of the book is this push and pull of darkness and light, like the astonishing early optimism of T Dan Smith or of Factory, but then the sheer scale of the failure.


I think it was Paul Celan who said that art is naming the things that are absent. That’s the best definition of any creative labour that I’ve come across. There’s no point in writing anything or being a writer or artist unless you’re pointing out things that are lacking, or things that you feel, and thereby providing some kind of melancholic expression of that absence or failure. But also pointing to the fact that we need to either do better or fail better depending on how you want to put it. That’s getting abstract, but there would have been no point writing the book if the North had risen again in 2004 (that year’s North East England devolution referendum) or whenever. 


One thing that really impacted me in the book is of your writing about alcohol and the North, and how the North’s outdoor advantages end up being reinforced by a deeper, darker sense of self-harm. Barry MacSweeney, Andrea Dunbar, Mark E Smith, add your own example, there’s this link between idealism and alcoholic self-injury. 


The chapter on alcoholism is the crux of the book in a sense. This kind of endless loop of idealism followed by failure which seems to be a chicken and egg thing. Does this lead Northern idealists like T Dan Smith or Mark E Smith to despair? Even Delia Derbyshire, who is not a Northerner by birth, moved to the North and began to suffer quite badly from alcoholism as her career drifted into a kind of failure. 

Alcoholism is such a difficult thing to understand, it’s one of the things like serious mental health problems that defies reason and defies science in a sense. When you put it beside those hard sociological statistics, in lots of cases statistics vary but in the North East, alcohol-related fatality is twice the rate in London. There’s even worse statistics about drug misuse in the North East being four times worse than in London. You might say that this is some kind of after-effect of this sense of collective failure, that there are all of these hard social disadvantages for northern citizens in terms of educational prospects, employment prospects, just getting on in the world. And that often ends in failure. Alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction, they are in a sense the natural consequences of those social barriers.


What did you find interesting in Bryan Ferry and the quite weird relationship his story has to both modernism and conservatism?


Again, I think a certain older reader might really have a problem with my verdict on Ferry which is quite coruscating! That kind of music, which is very much about surfaces and about style I just personally find difficult. Bowie is a much better example of that style-obsessed approach and I can appreciate it, but I don’t know, it’s nice music to have on in the background. The music itself is not remarkable enough, it’s good time rock’n’roll music and the interesting side is that aesthetic. 

That art school aesthetic that Bryan Ferry took from his art school training in part from Richard Hamilton, who he studied with at Newcastle University in the mid 1960s. I didn’t set out wanting to demolish Bryan Ferry, but one of the things I’ve worked on and hadn’t found an outlet for was this artistic tradition in post-war Newcastle that seems to illustrate this passage from modernism to post-modernism. 

If we are going to understand those terms as real periodic cultural moments, I think that modernism did exist and does exist for us–modernist architecture sponsored by T Dan Smith, the Civic Centre in particular, the poetry of Basil Bunting, Richard Hamilton’s Man, Machine and Motion (1955) which is futurist pop-art about technology and science and is quite accelerationist. And then the post-modernist example of Terry Farrell and Roxy Music, looked at a certain way, did really epitomize this sense of starting off from this modernist tradition of electrified pop music and critiquing capitalism but then really morphed, in the case of Ferry, to being uber-capitalist. 

The Richard Hamilton thing of looking at American pop culture and treating it ironically—in Bryan Ferry’s case, the irony evaporated and he became this consumerist pop idol, paving the way for celebrity culture, and that being reflected in Terry Farrell’s post-modernist architecture, leading to things like the Metro centre as a Mecca of consumerist architecture like the Trafford Centre or Meadowhall in Sheffield. It was all about illustrating that passage from modernism to postmodernism, and within that the evaporation of the belief in the future.


When you write about the New Labour years you write, correctly in my view, that the kindest thing you can say about that 13-year period in power for the North was that its attitude to the region was ultimately really short-termist, and that at worst it really was a total betrayal. I’m curious what that period tells you about the fundamental limits of how the English nation can deliver for its constituent nations.


The New Labour period is still up for debate—we’re still processing it and trying to understand it. I think that the evidence of those years is that even when you have a government full of Northern MPs, in particular New Labour spearheaded by MPs from the North East. Even when they’re putting money into various cultural schemes, I think it just showcases that you need profound and deep structural reform rather than cultural initiatives. 

Even the North East Assembly, as much as that would have been a genuine, deep structural change, it was half-heartedly backed by Tony Blair himself—arguably one of the conclusions of the book is perhaps any real change has to mean some kind of unifying, constitutional entity otherwise the conversation isn’t going to end, that Manchester hasn’t got anything in common with Middlesborough or Sunderland people hate Newcastle people and so on. Any attempt to talk about a unified culture is going to be reductive but politically, that’s the only way you’re going to balance out this monolithic London and South East corner of England, to have some kind of radical constitutional overhaul of the way that the country is structured. 

New Model Island was an exploration of that. Andy Burnham has been talking about a federal model similar to the German state, that it is a very simple and rational way of ensuring parity between different parts of Germany, that each federal unit by law is guaranteed resources and funding. Even with a bit of momentum and will to improve things for the North, New Labour’s achievement was ultimately paltry. Because it was about short-term cash injections, putting money into cultural schemes in inner-urban areas, and not about an actual overhaul of the country. 


Any policy or communication coming from Starmer’s Labour at the moment seems aimed at this mythical white older male voter, and I think it’s very strange given what happened in 2019 that there hasn’t been anything from Labour specifically pitched at the North. What do you think of Labour right now in relation to the North? 


The thing to say about Starmer and Labour at the moment is there’s not been much of anything. The strategy clearly is just to get in power by default because the Tories, after what will be 14 or 15 years in power, are just totally knackered and hollowed out. So the strategy is to get into government by not rocking the boat too much or saying anything. 

The report for the commission of the future of the UK in December was vague, but you can’t underestimate the abolition of the House of Lords, which is a significant and brave proposal. You hear rumours that Gordon Brown wanted it to be more radical than it was and Starmer watered it down, but nonetheless, it’s heading in the right direction. A second chamber articulated in the report would have problems of its own, you can’t really just do that. 

Nonetheless, there is potential there for what is needed for regional inequality. I think it’s going to take something as radical as federalism or something like it. A total overhaul of the British constitution. I don’t think anything serious can happen around ‘levelling-up’ until you do that. It can’t really sustain itself for much longer, it is going to have to be overhauled anyway. Do you want to grasp the nettle and do it or do you want to just sleepwalk into these various compromises that are clearly not serious?

About the Author

Alex Niven is a writer, editor, and lecturer in English at Newcastle University. His books include Folk Opposition, Definitely Maybe 33 1/3, and New Model Island.

About the Interviewer

Fergal Kinney is a freelance music and culture journalist based in Manchester.