November 14, 2012, by aezna

Literary norths

Recently, I’ve been reading a collection of essays, The Literary North, edited by Katharine Cockin. Reading the book in Nottingham has prompted a bit of reflection upon the role of the definite article in the title, as well as the ambiguous status of its governing noun, for the River Trent is often taken to mark the southern boundary of ‘the North’ as a geographical region. Am I reading this in the North? I keep thinking. However, most of us know that any dividing line between ‘North’ and ‘South’ is as much a matter of cultural imagination as of physical geography, and there are plenty of other ways of defining the North. In some accounts, the North proper begins only beyond the Don or even the Humber; more generously, it is everything above a slanting line drawn between the Severn estuary and the Wash (such a line neatly intersects the famous Watford Gap service station on the M1, another quasi-mythical marker of northernness). But all of these definitions manage to imply that the North is a peculiarly English possession, that northernness and Englishness have a special, if sometimes fractious, relationship. Does the North also include (parts of) Scotland or terminate neatly on reaching Gretna, Jedburgh, or Eyemouth? I wonder. What might North Wales possibly mean?

I’ve also been thinking about my own identity (if that’s what it is) as a northerner, having grown up in the north of Ireland, or rather Northern Ireland. I even persist in speaking with a Belfast accent, though the edges are becoming a bit frayed nowadays. For historical and political reasons too tortuous to go into here, ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘the north of Ireland’ are not at all identical, they do not share an identity. The northernmost point on the island of Ireland is Malin Head in Donegal, one of the twenty-six counties of the Republic of Ireland, but also only a short drive across the border from the static caravan in Portstewart where my family used to spend summer holidays. In Ireland, then, the physical and political geography of north is especially convoluted, even topsy-turvy: where Donegal is concerned, the north is, in a sense, in ‘the South’. My habitual tendency to use the phrases ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘the north of Ireland’ interchangeably to name somewhere I used to call ‘home’ is an index of the shifty ambiguity that inheres in the very idea of north. It’s also, for some in Ireland (or Northern Ireland), an indication of shilly-shallying, of not knowing which side of the fence your bread is buttered on.

Despite the proverbial directness and prosaic, down-to-earth character with which northernness is commonly associated in British culture, it’s also a frustratingly slippery term that carries with it a certain elusive mystique. As Peter Davidson notes in his fascinating study, The Idea of North, north is much more than a cardinal direction: it is a mobile concept, always relative and so always shifting location, evoking desire but flitting out of reach as soon as it is approached. Katharine Cockin says as much herself, in her introduction to The Literary North, when she observes that ‘the North is not fixed, but is rather still forming, or becoming.’ Nonetheless, in order to speak of ‘the North’ distinctions have to be made and boundaries drawn; the process of becoming must be arrested, at least temporarily. The Literary North does this by restricting its attention to the north of England (though parts of the Midlands are incorporated as necessary) and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when industrial manufacture consolidated a particular and enduring version of northernness. On the whole, these spatio-temporal parameters make for a welcome cogency across essays that discuss Mrs Gaskell and Ewan MacColl, the North-Eastern Daily Gazette and the poetry of Philip Larkin. At the same time, though, I’ve been wondering about the coexistence of multiple, often conflicting literary norths – something to which The Literary North attests even as it attempts to contain such disparity – each with their own distinctive cultural, geographical, and aesthetic inflections.

Writing from New York in 1947, W.H. Auden lays claim to ‘the North, my world’; and in ‘New Year Letter’ he locates that world, with a mixture of exactness and impressionistic suggestion, in the north Pennine moorlands:

An English area comes to mind,

I see the nature of my kind

As a locality I love,

Those limestone moors that stretch from BROUGH


There is my symbol of us all.

In these lines, the north is at once a personal world, a delimited region, a metonym for Englishness, and a universal symbol uniting all humankind. Such equivocations may reveal a good deal about the ideologies informing Auden’s verse but they also underline the rich polysemy of ‘north’ in literary and geographical imaginations. Equally powerful and enigmatic is Derek Mahon’s very different version of the north, which is decidedly unEnglish in its metaphysical starkness. In ‘An Image from Beckett’, the speaker is granted a bleak epiphany – ‘A northern landscape/ And a huddle/ Of houses along the shore’ – that comes to epitomise the brief flicker of lives in a dark, indifferent universe; whilst ‘The Sea in Winter’, set on the north coast of Ireland, appraises ‘the heroism and cowardice/ of living on the edge of space’. Different again are Jen Hadfield’s Shetland poems, which often strike off correspondences with Canadian and Scandinavian versions of north, but more usually suggest that northernness is a quality of language or a kind of weather, or both. So, in ‘Glid’, sun-dazzle between showers leaves the northern landscape ‘skewered with light’; and ‘Hüm’ means not only ‘twilight, gloaming’ but also ‘To be blinded by rain/ from the north.’ Even just these three, broadly contemporary poetic examples give a sense of the plurality of meanings that ‘north’ can comprehend, and the diversity of literary uses to which it may be put.

I understand that ‘The Literary North’ is now offered as a taught MA module at the University of Hull, where Katharine Cockin is Professor of English. Perhaps it would be more difficult to specify a syllabus for the idea of literary norths sketched above. Its value and interest for literary geography may lie both in its labile character, the variety of historical and geographical torsions to which it is subject, and in its resonance, implying a proliferating network of fractured relationships rather than a coherent object of knowledge.


Neal Alexander

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