I am septentrional, a Novocastrian, a Northerner. I’ve never made much of a song and dance about it because I see scant virtue in banging the little tribal drum of where the stork happened to arbitrarily drop me all those years ago. That said, I felt a small territorial fire spark into life in my belly the other day as I was watching the BBC news. They were interviewing the TV journalist Stacey Dooley, known for her hard-hitting documentaries about the plight of abused and exploited children and women in developing countries. Dooley cannot be called a presenter who works in the service of the subject of the documentary, as from the start of each programme her heavily stylised image (Rolex watch and all) and supposedly ‘working-class’ Lutonian accent takes clear centre-stage.
Anyway, Dooley was talking about how she got her break in the business, a patronising TV producer executive told her to just be herself, he didn’t want another over-privileged cishet white boy like Louis Theroux, Giles Coren and Dan Snow (an aspirant aristocrat who has lived his whole life in London, but felt qualified to parachute himself into the ‘No, thanks’ camp of the Scottish Independence Referendum). Now, I’ve no doubt Dooley is just being herself and does offer a contrast to the upper middle-class homogeneity of other documentary presenters, but she lost some respect from me during this interview for BBC news. She did it in an unthinking, split second. She was talking about a home-grown documentary she made on domestic violence, which was, in her own words, filmed at ‘Elephant and Castle and up North’… I don’t mind an area being singled out as a hotspot of domestic violence (name and shame the lot of them, is my feeling) but something almost floored me about the sweeping suffix to that statement ‘and up North’.
I understand how a borough of London can be identified as a hotspot for a certain crime (when compared to other boroughs), but how can a vague, nebulous and large portion of England and Scotland be dismissed and written off as the stronghold of atavistic, spouse-beating thugs? This sort of lazy, reductive, sweeping talk should be called out when it is heard, and most people who utter it, like Dooley, do so completely unselfconsciously, it’s a logical automatism – it’s grim up North and so they drown their sorrows and take out their frustrations on their partners and spouses, of course. But where does the North even begin, it’s ever-changing according to the position of the person who perceives it. By self-identifying as a Northerner, am I not complicit in this whole silly game of my own relegation – am I not saying that I am North of whatever centre of action happens to be looking upon (and most likely judging) me? The same applies to the South, of course.
What I wanted Dooley to say was ‘at Elephant and Castle and [insert specific Northern town]’, because we have our proper nouns, just like you do and if you were to show us the basic respect of using them, then perhaps we might not all be collectively arraigned as criminals. I am beginning to think that place is used as a means of dividing and conquering people, that preconceptions exist and you can do nothing to dispel them. In poetry, for years now, I’ve been struck by how place is more a cynical marketing ploy. A poetry collection is more likely to sell well if the author is from an unusual or romantic place (say, a small island), or else London. For some people place is a really fluid thing, and they fit in wherever they go and they can work place to their advantage. Others are able to carve out a niche for themselves out of the distinctiveness of their region. I’m thinking particularly of people who moved to Scotland and were accepted as Scottish artists as well as artists from their hometowns. I lived there 10 years and never achieved this feat, once getting turned down for a Scottish anthology because I no longer actually lived in Scotland, although I’d spent most of my adult life there. In Belgium, I’m thought of as Irish and I don’t quite know how that came about, because I didn’t spread any myths about myself. My being in Belgium certainly hasn’t added any cachet to my name as a poet, in fact it’s resulted in confusion on both sides (a UK deserter and an interloper in Belgium). But perhaps the confusion is all mine – I’ve never learned the trick of projecting and working my vernacular and adopted national identity. It’s largely a guise, a mask, like all things, and I’m not in the mood for dressing up. Even famous nomads like Kenneth White seem to have found a home, but I’m still searching.