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Northern Heroes

Having to be there

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

An editor once asked if I might consider writing a ‘northern novel’, in the manner, say, of Stan Barstow or David Storey. Apparently my credentials for this included my being from ‘that area’ and my possession of a ‘northern accent’. It was a ridiculous idea, I thought. It would never happen. Though I told him, in the fawning manner of any author catching the whiff of a publishing contract, that it was a brilliant suggestion and I would think very seriously about it.

Without realising it, what my editor had in mind was an eleven-year band of literary time from the appearance of John Braine’s Room at the Top in 1957, to Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave (later made into the film Kes) in 1968. He may also have been confusing the authors of these landmark works with those disparate grunters known as the Angry Young Men of the Fifties: John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, John Wain et al, whose railing against government foreign policy and Oxbridge entry rules had absolutely nothing to do with the concerns of the brooding young men in the industrial north who, rather than question the motives of the better-off classes, were taking a long look at what they possessed and deciding they would like a piece of it for themselves.

These calculating, lustful, working-class males were portrayed with brutal veracity in characters such as Arthur Machin, powering through the mud and mist before a baying crowd of rugby league fans in David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960), his thoughts constantly straying towards the widow with whom he lodged. And the precursor to Machin had indeed been John Braine’s Joe Lampton, eyeing the boss’s daughter in Room at the Top, and seeing no reason why there should not be a place for him at the top table of the corporate world, even if it meant foregoing the real love of his life, the much older Alice. And when Alan Sillitoe’s hard-drinking womanising Arthur Seaton appeared the following year in the Midlands’ classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, working his shift in the bicycle factory while longing for a richer and better life, the die was cast for this new breed of English regional male — a type reinforced by the same author’s Borstal inmate Smith, who planned his own gesture against the establishment in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959) by throwing away victory in the long-distance race so coveted by the ‘pop-eyed potbellied governor’ of the institution that had such an iron grip on him.

In the same year as This Sporting Life, Stan Barstow’s Vic Brown came along, doing the decent thing in A Kind of Loving by marrying his pregnant girlfriend Ingrid, and being forced to live with an insufferable mother-in-law on whose prized cream carpet he throws up so memorably after a night on the tiles. And after a string of landmark film adaptations of all these books, Barry Hines’ Billy Casper appeared seeking release from the privations of his raw life through the natural world and his taming of a falcon.

In these seething brawny novels the men of northern England – ‘working class heroes’, if you like – came of age and found their voice. But for any writer of today who might hope to emulate them in fiction, it has to be remembered that these books were fixed in a definable English age, when a post-war social order was realigning itself. The men of that era could see a sexual and economic freedom dawning over a horizon of concertinaed asbestos factory roofs and the metal chimneys of a chemical works ‘joined like bandaged fingers, filter[ing] a thin red mist of nitrous fumes over the river’ (A Kind of Loving). And they paid only lip-service to any notion of duty toward Queen and country and the disappearing empire. For while their parents had been beaten down by war and rationing, wanting only their fags and a bit of telly to ease them through the last years of their lives, their offspring had glimpsed the new order coming, a time of choice in an emancipated and richer world that was theirs for the taking. And bugger anyone who was going to get in their way.

And herein lies the problem for anyone wanting to fashion new fiction from those times: really, you had to be there.

You had to be there because there is rage and loathing in the novels of that brief period, and it came from the gut. And for myself, while I might have been brought up on a council estate, I was born twenty years too late for all that. The social battle was well underway by my coming of age in the 1970s, and the middle-class life – with its comforts and consolations that both bewildered and bewitched Arthur and Vic, Arthur and Joe, and seemed so unattainable to Smith and Billy – had drawn most of us to its flame by the 1980s. And what’s left now of the old working classes seems to be no more than a thin stratum at the bottom of the social heap: demonised benefits claimants and derided single mothers.

So, as a writer, might it be possible to find a different kind of ‘hero’ among this new and maligned breed? Of course, the serious writing that appeared in the 1960s wasn’t all about men and the north. Nell Dunn’s Up The Junction (1963) with its shocking vignettes about working-class London life, showed that the harshness of the new Britain was far from restricted to Yorkshire council estates, and the book’s depictions of female factory fodder in characters such as Rube and Sylvie linger long in the mind in scenes such as that set in the back-street abortionist’s, where a foetus is wrapped without ceremony in pages of the Daily Mirror and flushed down the lav. Therein lay a different battle zone for social equality, if you choose to use that as the basis for your fiction. That campaign was borne into the 1980s in Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street (1982) with its raw depiction of life in the industrially eviscerated north-east. It was explored further by the same author in Blow Your House Down (1984), seen through the eyes of prostitutes walking the wet cobbles of the north in fear of a murderer in their midst. Meanwhile, contemporary working class men found a new voice in James Kelman’s fictional depictions of their booze- and drug-addled efforts to survive in Glasgow, rendered in a Beckettian-voiced social twilight in short-story collections such as Greyhound for Breakfast (1987) and novels such as A Disaffection (1989).

So why return to the past? Well, if I was going to write a novel from the era of the ‘kitchen sink drama’, as it was often disparagingly referred to, the Sixties might well be the era I would try to recapture. Because for those of us who were born into the fag-end years of Arthur Machin’s and Billy Casper’s Yorkshire, even though we are all middle class now and own the houses we live in, and pay into pension schemes and whatever else is needed to maintain a comfortable twenty-first century life, I do believe something lingers in the DNA. There’s something…

In that scene in the film Kes where Billy’s mother is standing in front of the mirror above the fireplace on a Saturday night, putting on her lipstick, I swear I can smell her cheap perfume, and the ale they’ll be serving at the working men’s club she’ll soon be heading to with her bloke. It’s still there, in my head, hovering above time. An understanding of the social ground that was being broken. A legacy of sorts.

So could it be done? My editor made his suggestion a quarter of a century ago and, since then, I have written nothing on the subject. Not a word. But as the years flash by with an increasing and unseemly haste, in my memory there’s still the squelch of Arthur Machin’s boots on a sodden rugby pitch, Smith’s grinning devilment as he pounds out the miles and comes in sight of his reform school, and Billy following the flight of his magnificent bird over the derelict landscape where he lives. To this day these creations whisper in the blood. And maybe, just maybe, a new and faithful version of those great fictions and those transformative times might one day be possible.

Paul Sayer is a former psychiatric nurse and the author of eight novels, including the Whitbread-winning The Comforts of Madness and the Booker Prize long-listed The Absolution Game. He lives in York.

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