Simon Armitage’s 1999 essay collection All Points North was re-issued by Penguin to accompany his newer memoir, Gig, last year. I read it just as the debate reignited about whether the proposed high-speed train link from London to Manchester and Leeds would heal or exacerbate the north-south divide. All Points is a generically eclectic mixture of ideas of north, innovative on a number of appealing counts.
It’s largely written in the second person, the better to accentuate the difference between narrator (Armitage, or his literary persona, or a prose-writing variant thereof) from protagonist (his younger selves, including youth growing up amidst trans-Pennine rivalry, and probation officer in Manchester). ‘You were thirteen when you first went to Old Trafford’; ‘Your mum taps you on the back’. From the onset, he lets us know that his version of events, or anyone’s, isn’t necessarily to be believed, when he follows up an urban myth in circulation amongst the probation service with another professional anecdote, then concludes ‘that story isn’t true either’. It’s therefore entirely possible that a smattering of examples of good old-fashioned northern sexism, sometimes attributed to ‘your mate’, are made up too, to make a point – albeit an unclear one. That times have changed? That they haven’t? Various other sorts of fiction are skilfully alluded to: he writes the the script of an imaginary northern-nostalgia TV drama; when Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration is being filmed, he visits the set for the Craiglockhart War Hospital, not on location in Edinburgh, but in a Glasgow studio. His phrase ‘the Leeds of the mind’ reminds us that Armitage’s accounts of, for example, Harvey Nicks, or the DSS HQ Quarry House, are subjective versions of place, recognisble, but different to what say, Tony Harrison’s, or mine, would be; parallel to the Edinburghs of Scott’s or Stevenson’s or Ian Rankin’s minds.
Rather than appearing as stand-alone essays, chapters and fragments are thematically linked into a continuous narrative. So ‘Jerusalem’, the invented Calderdale soap, follows a critique of the region’s status as prime location for television drama. There are transcripts of real TV films and radio features made by Armitage, too, with his poetry interpolated – on homelessness in Manchester; Saturday night in Leeds; the Humber Bridge. Finally there’s a stunning soundscape/voice collage, ‘Points of Reference – North’ (1996-97), which features the printed voices of a range of experts including Patrick Moore, Ian McCaskill when he was a weatherman, and Rowan Williams before he was an archbishop.
Accounts of print and broadcast news items trigger either personal memories or a deadpan retelling of the same-everywhere provinciality of local news. Forays to London, Brazil, Iceland, or 1920 are punctuated with six refrains of ‘Over the Top to Manchester’, accounts of Pennine crossings for business or pleasure experienced as ritual re-enactments of a route. A number of the travel sections start with the preposition ‘to’, a shortcut to the place in question which becomes a form of literary shorthand: To Portsmouth. To Rochdale. To Hull. Riffs on identity, mistaken and otherwise, abound, Armitage exploiting his generic northern surname. On page 118, no less, there is a sequence called ‘Directory Enquiries’, where Direct Line threaten to increase his insurance premium because poet is held to be a higher-risk occupation than probation officer.
In 1999 when All Points was first published, my own points of reference and station stops were a bit further north still. I was preoccupied with matters such as Ossian, and the post-Enlightenment development of the Highlands as a tourist destination. I would quite like to reclaim the term ‘North Britain’, coined after the Union to ensure the Scots knew their place. In many ways – linguistic, topographical, culinary – the northern English and lowland Scots have more in common with each other than the northern and southern English do, or the lowland and highland Scots. I like, too, the idea of being ‘northumbrian’, from (anywhere) north of the Humber.
Since the the turn of the century, my focus has been re-directed south (of the Scottish Lowlands) again. I started to re-read Harrison and Hughes and the Brontes, and seek out literary versions of the region new to me. A preoccupation with grimupnorthness was satisfied but not sated by David Peace’s Red Riding quartet: Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three, some of my formative years, written between 1999 and 2002 with a sparse lyricism.
Channel 4’s 2009 film of the novels, compressed into a trilogy, was full of slowburning menace and menacing abstraction. Only the police beatings that regularly punctuated the action had an unfortunate ring of comedy: maybe because they were performed by uniformed functionaries, they were a bit too much Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition dressed up as Dixon of Dock Green. The real nightmare for me was in the architecture, the concrete jungle: the road tunnel under Leeds city centre, and the gargantuan cooling towers of Ferrybridge Power Station. We drove through the tunnel most weekends when I was young: it was the conduit to the other side of the city and what lay beyond – the Dales, the A1- and therefore a means of escape.
Red Riding and All Points North actually have an architectural feature, or location, in common: the Redbeck Cafe outside Wakefield, a no-place where police did bad things to journalists, fugitive sleuths holed up to sort out child murders and their own demons, and an am-dram troupe en route to a convention in Bridlington stopped for refreshments.
Peace, like Armitage, melds fact and fiction. But the former finds no Romantic redemption in landscape. His poetry lies in the cadences of the minimalist dialogue with which he tells of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, child abduction, organised crime and police corruption. As for the legion of reporters who covered the ‘abduction’ of schoolgirl Shannon Matthews in 2009, scenery only exists for Peace as metaphor for social depravation. When his attention is directed west of the Yorkshire conurbation, it’s towards the legacy of moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, rather than the remains of Elmet evoked in poems and photography by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. Yet there’s also something libretto-like in Peace’s minimalism. He has a Wagnerian grasp of theme, and ability to reprise it by flashback and in different voices. The Quartet could be a Ring Cycle for the end of the twentieth century, except that its geometry seems squarely cuboid as opposed to circular. I’m envious of the scope of Peace’s vision, but not its content. Both Red Riding and All Points sent me back to Armitage’s poetry; to Barbara Hepworth’s statements about the sculptural forms of the West Riding Hills, and to my own unabashed nostalgia for gritstone wall and flat vowel.