…by which I mean Paul Morley’s book “The North (and almost everything in it)”. And I’m not even going to attempt a formal review because that frankly isn’t the sort of approach I feel you can have to such an idiosyncratic and wonderful work!

north pb

I’ve already declared here my rather obsessive love of Morley’s writing, ever since I first stumbled across his pieces for NME in the late 1970s/early 1980s and his memoir “Nothing” would definitely be one of my Desert Island Books. “The North” in many ways is a companion volume/prequel/sequel to that book as there is much autobiography and I think it helps to have read “Nothing”. Nevertheless, Morley’s range is more sweeping here, covering not only *his* north, and the town he grew up in, but also the history of the region. It’s a heady mix of autobiography and history all filtered through Morley’s unique vision and wonderfully individual writing.

The book is structured unusually in that it goes in two directions at once. There is the main narrative, which encompasses Morley’s growing up and coming of age in mainly Stockport and Reddish, as well as looking back to the very early evolution of the north and the tribes that settled there. This progresses forward in a relatively linear manner (nothing Morley ever writes is straightforward and you will have to deal with constant, often fascinating, digressions). Running alongside are listings of dates and notable events, starting in 1976 with a young Morrissey writing to the NME and going backwards in time, covering anything of interest you could think of, from the births and deaths of notable northerners, war events, thoughts of J.B. Priestley, the Industrial Revolution, all the back to when the great cities of the north were just settlements or didn’t even exist. There is a paean to L.S. Lowry and an extended celebration of Liverpool, scattered with lyrics and references (many of which I *got*, but some of which I’m sure I didn’t.) The forward narrative ends up, inevitably, with the tragic suicide of Morley’s father Leslie in 1977 and with Paul himself leaving the north for London. The backward narrative stops in the early 1500s when the north as a unit really didn’t exist.

If you’ve read “Nothing” this book will update you on some changes in Morley’s life since then. His mother, Dilys, has sadly passed away; his daughter Madeleine has surpassed him academically; and yet he is still trying to deal with the death of his father. Sadly, Paul was still left with unanswered questions he hadn’t been able to ask his mother and it’s an understandably difficult subject to approach your mother about.

Morley’s writing captures brilliantly the confusion and uncertainty of growing up, trying to find yourself and your place in the world. In many ways the book is a search, a quest to discover what it is that made Paul Morley what he is today. It’s a process I recognise in myself: as you get older you look back more to events in your past you simply lived through at the time, to try to make sense of how you got to this place and to be who you are, and it’s very engagingly done here.

The breadth of Morley’s knowledge is quite breathtaking; despite his acknowledgement of the Internet as being a source for much of the facts in this book, his weaving of them into the book’s narrative is a measure of his skill as a writer. I just love Paul Morley’s imagery, his amazing way with words:

“Compared to Bramhall, there seemed to be whole parts of Brinnington that had just gone missing, or had never been there in the first place. Most of the people living there found ways to deal with where they found themselves, even as it seemed to be disappearing into a hole the shape of a broken window, a portal through which you entered another dimension.”

His lyrical portrait of Lowry has made me want to go back and look at his work afresh, and Morley comes up with a wonderful description of the artist (which could almost be applied to Morley himself!):

“He creeps through his own life and the lives of others, compiling fragments, morsels of experience, searching for answers about death, disappearance, the past, why we live, why we die, where we go, where we come from, the oddity of everyday life, the pinched dead-eye ordinariness.”

The book is also something of an education and an eye-opener, with its potted histories of, and wonderfully phrased comments on, people and places I’ve never heard of. For example, of artist Trevor Grimshaw, who died in a fire, Morley states:

“The smoke of infinity he set his north inside gathered him up, as though he had known all along where he was heading and was using his paintings to predict that his end would involve light and murk and ash, and a final, comprehensive veiling of compressed energy.”


And what’s not to love about someone who can describe their strict paternal grandmother’s house as smelling of “a blend of boiled sweets and dismay”?!

As I’m almost contemporary with Morley age-wise, so much of what he describes during his growing up years resonates with me – the grimness and tattiness of the 1960s/1970s in the provinces, the transition into a modern world that now looks incredible quaint, the awful fashions, the feeling out-of-place at a Grammar School (I also came from a financially challenged background and somehow passed the 11-plus, but like Morley never felt I fitted in).

“In four years of Latin I learned perhaps one fact: boredom is an extraordinary thing, somewhere between a time machine and a near-death experience, in which you become increasingly aware as a distant light beckons you that words are mere sounds containing only the meaning you can muster up from within your fear that nothing makes sense.”

Whilst acknowledging that he was desperate to get away from the grim north and all its associations, Morley laments the loss of a way of life. At the end of the book he suddenly comes bang up to date with an oblique commentary on how the north has changed, how the rough edges (like those everywhere) are being smoothed over by corporate identities, how the modern world has removed us from our outside environment which has almost become static while life continues inside houses and on gadgets – and the contrast is quite a shock.

“There had been a material improvement in people’s lives, an invention of new traditions, a creation of relative comfort, but there was also a cost, a kind of imprisonment in a mental and physical landscape that was now feeling old and drained, with the only signs of modernisation emerging from inside the houses, and cars, and buildings, from inside the screens that were being carried around by people.”

Nothing I say can in the end really do justice to the wonders of this book which defies categorisation. This is, ultimately, Morley’s own personal north and much centres around that pivotal event in his life, the death of his father . Occasionally frustrating but mostly brilliant, packed with knowledge and thoughts and poetically charged words, it’s another one-off from Paul Morley and a rare 5-star read for me. “The North”, now nestling on my bookshelves next to “Nothing”, has become another Desert Island Book.