Thursday, January 23, 2020

Northern lights

Admittedly, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the authors shortlisted for a north-specific literary award would argue for the importance of a north-specific literary award. But it's nevertheless telling that all six writers up for this year's Portico Prize, the winner of which is due to be announced today, appear to agree with its CEO Thom Keep that the publishing industry remains depressingly and damagingly "London-centric".

Keep argues that this parallels the south's "fundamental disconnect with the north" in political terms - a point on which the prize hopefuls are also pretty much unanimous. It's not a divide that Adelle Stripe foresees being bridged any time soon: "We'll be used, rejected and forgotten about like we always have been. Central government is no friend of ours." The concept of a "northern powerhouse" is repeatedly given short shrift - Stripe talks of "empty promises", Jessica Andrews of "a clever piece of jargon rather than a true vehicle for change" and Glen James Brown of "a hollow bit of sloganeering on the part of a government that, for all its bluster about the north being able to take on the world, for all the stage-managed photo-ops of Gideon and Boris in their hard hats and hi-vis, has ripped the guts out of countless communities via a decade of austerity". Ray Robinson puts it the most poetically, though: "I think Westminster is just blowing rainbows up our arse."

Asked what characteristics might be considered to constitute the "spirit of the north", Andrews suggest "a joy in spite of everything" and Stripe "stubbornness, resilience and black humour". Graham Caveney also identifies resilience as key, alongside "conviviality, humour, community" and a number of "less heroic qualities" including "suspicion of change, nostalgia, sentimentality".

In those terms, Brown and Benjamin Myers exemplify their own northernness by expressing concern that the character of the north is changing for the worse. Both are justifiably baffled and dismayed by the fact that former mining towns and villages are now voting for the Tories, the lessons of the 1980s apparently forgotten. For Andrews, the atomisation of society has made it more imperative for "working-class communities come together in solidarity to fight for our hospitals, our schools, our jobs, our libraries and our hope" - though of course also more difficult for them to do so.

Perhaps most intriguingly, though, there is scepticism about the value of talking of a single monolithic "north". Brown claims that "there are as many norths as there are people living there", while Robinson ventures that "the north is so diverse in every aspect that the only thing that really unites us is a strong aversion to the south". Stripe agrees: "in reality it's a diverse area, with distinctive character and landscape from town to town. The nuance is often lost in translation." Hence the value of the Portico Prize in promoting works that offer not cliche and one-dimensional stereotype but the sort of sensitive, subtle, complex representations that the area and its inhabitants deserve.

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