The North Will Rise Again by Alex Niven

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Review by Karen Langley

If you’re at all familiar with the mass of political rhetoric spouted in the media over recent years, you’ll have seen the phrase ‘levelling up’ appearing with monotonous regularity. It’s trotted out again and again, when politicians are attempting to placate those who live in parts of the UK which aren’t in the South, offering promises of investment, funding and help in regenerating their area. In particular, this is often used when referring to the North/South divide which so obviously exists in the UK and which successive governments seem to have done nothing to eradicate. But why should the North be in decline and why should it need levelling up? In his new book, The North Will Rise Again, Alex Niven attempts to get to the bottom of the problem as well as exploring possibilities for the future; the result is a bracing, energising and fascinating read. 

The book starts from the premise that the North has always been a powerhouse of innovation, invention, progress and modernity. Why, then, has it fallen so far into decline? It seems, from Niven’s explorations, that there is no one real answer. So instead of taking a simple linear narrative form, the book explores different aspects of Northern life and culture, and Niven opens the book by considering how a part of the country which was dynamic, and at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, has regressed into a post-deindustrialization wasteland.

As well as looking at the North’s industrial heritage, Niven explores the resurgences of creativity and culture which took place during the 20th century. Although the North’s high watermark could be regarded as the Industrial Revolution, there have been points where its profile has risen again. Niven’s wide-ranging cultural analysis takes in the modernist history of the North from the Vorticist magazine “Blast” onwards, through the radical poetical flowering of the Morden Tower poets in the 1960s, the musical success of bands like Lindisfarne, the wider Northern music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, and the attempts at regeneration which have taken place at several points from the 1960s to now. Although these have been periods of optimism, it’s clear that there is never a consistent plan of action to improve conditions in the North, and that’s down to the actions of successive Governments, of whatever political stripe.

By necessity, there is discussion of the various Governmental interventions over the decades, and Niven’s analysis of the failures of these is fascinating; his coverage of why the Labour Party lost its following in what was considered its traditional heartland was particularly trenchant. His narrative is never sugar-coated and he doesn’t pull his punches when exploring the reverses of the North (particularly Newcastle) over past decades; it seems there have been so many lost chances when it comes to giving equal opportunities to those living in areas away from the dominant South-East. 

For better or worse, no one ever outgrows their origins, least of all northerners.

The North… is a very personal book, and all the better for it; the narrative is laced with Niven’s memories of, and experiences from, his life in the North which add a fascinating extra perspective. Born in the North, a founding member of the band Everything Everything, exiled down South for a number of years, and finally returning home to take a new direction in academia, Niven clearly has a strong attachment to his homeland, using the Welsh word hiraeth to describe that longing for return. It’s a feeling with which I can strongly identify, being subject to it myself when it comes to Scotland, and this adds power to his narrative. The book by necessity often focuses on the Newcastle area, from where Niven hails and where he currently teaches at the University; but he explores broadly, pulling in particularly Liverpool and Manchester as well as the wider North generally.

As I said at the beginning of this review, there’s not just one reason for the decline of the North; and periods of optimism such as the forward-looking 1960s made so much seem possible. As well as great industrial strides forward, the North is responsible for huge cultural and civic achievements, such as Factory Records, Richard Hamilton’s art, T. Dan Smith’s optimistic plans for Newcastle’s future and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (the latter of which would not have existed without the 1960s Morden Tower poetry boom). Interestingly, I note that Tom Pickard, one of those responsible for initiating the Morden Tower poetry readings, is mentioned as reading and providing advice on parts of the book’s manuscript, creating a nice chain from Bunting (who was Pickard’s mentor, and whose letters Niven has edited) through Pickard to Niven himself – a lovely little serendipitous linking.

“…the underlying motive for everything I write here is to show how the North can and should be, and for me always has been, a place of endless subtlety, exceptional generosity, fierce loyalty and utopian possibility.” 

But despite the various reverses of the 20th century and the decline of the industries, it seems that a lot of the damage can be laid at the feet of Thatcher and her cronies who spent much of their time in office deliberately dismantling the industries of the area together with people’s livelihoods, showing a rank distaste and disdain for anyone working class and/or Northern. That damage has never really been repaired – so what can be done to help the North rise again?

“…the way things have been done in this country – for several decades, if not several hundred years – is that power, wealth and resources have been deliberately concentrated in one part of the country at the expense of others. This is why, at bottom, a Conservative solution to regional inequality is a contradiction in terms, and why the latest right-wing attempt to doctor the North’s deep socio-economic wounds is already revealing itself to be at best a feeble sticking plaster, at worst a cynical quack cure.”

Well, Niven’s argument is for a more regionalised government of England, one first brokered in his earlier book New Model Island, and this is at the heart of The North… He explores deeply the concept of splitting the country into regional assemblies with more autonomy to self-govern and a fairer share of funding to every area. This is a forward-thinking concept, and one which has gained traction in recent years with the formation of the Northern Independence Party, a semi-serious attempt at a Northern separatist group. Niven applauds the initiative, though in the end he seems to recognise that this kind of massive shake-up of a country entrenched in conservatism is going to be very difficult.

The North Will Rise Again (which, aptly, takes its name from a song by that quintessential Northern band, The Fall) is a fascinating and compelling read from start to finish, weaving in politics, history, sociology, autobiography, and a celebration of all things Northern. It’s brimming with ideas and information, and I’ve really only scratched the surface of the richness of Niven’s narrative. Never dull, it’s a stirring and important book which urges us to rethink how we see the structure of this country and its governance; and even if we are years away from a fairer sharing of England’s (and indeed Britain’s) resources amongst all its peoples and regions, The North Will Rise Again is a reminder that we should never give up hoping for, and fighting for, a more equal world.  

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is always drawn to the North… (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)

Alex Niven, The North Will Rise Again (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2023). 978-1472993465. 320pp, hardback.

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3 comments

  1. I agree that a more regional form of law-making assembly or government for the North and, especially, one with more control of their finances has to be at least a first step towards a degree of self determination for the region.

    However, how to define it, where to draw the lines, where to place the set of government? Will it have a Barnett formula like Wales and Scotland? Will the Midlands, former Mercia, be included? Do Geordies and Scousers, for example, have more in common than just an understandable resentment of Southern and, particularly, Westminster hegemony and superciliousness? I’d be interested to see how Niven might deal with these issues.

    1. It’s certainly a knotty problem and one that Niven explored in his earlier book New Model Island. He’s honest enough here to acknowledge that though this kind of regional autonomy is to be desired, it’s going to be hard to gain and sustain something like this unless localised difficulties and rivalries can be ironed out; and also that the drawing of lines is going to be very complicated. I think his book is more of an attempt to get this sort of thing into regular discussion, because unless it becomes accepted as an option it’s going nowhere. So the book is something of a clarion call, but asks as many questions as it does offer possible solutions.

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