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“Morbid nostalgia is the evil twin of technological modernity.” @Alex_Niven @RepeaterBooks #NonFicNov

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As I’ve probably said before many a time, one of my favourite things as a reader is when you randomly stumble across something really wonderful which takes you off on a reading tangent and down a wormhole of exploration. That happened with me recently, when I came across mention of “Newcastle, Endless” on Twitter, which I promptly sent off for, loved and reviewed here. Needless to say, I felt the need to explore more of author Alex Niven‘s work and a quick check online revealed his recent book“New Model Island” (which was mentioned in “Newcastle…”). Lovely Blackwells obliged and it was another book I felt needed to bypass the TBR mountain; I seem to be doing a lot of that lately…

“New Model Island” was published by Repeater Books in 2019, so is writing about a pre-pandemic world; and its subtitle, “How to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England”, reveals just what an interesting work it is. Taking a dramatic starting point of the opinion that England and Englishness don’t actually exist, Niven sets out to explore the void at the centre of the mythologies and stereotypes perpetrated by the mass media. The 20th century cliche of tea, crumpets and cricket is most definitely a construct, and a dig deeper into the past of the humans living on what Niven calls our archipelago of islands reveals a past built out of many different peoples from different backgrounds and with radically different living experiences than the patriotic rhetoric would suggest.

To be English is to feel hemmed in, straitjacketed, resentful of neighbours, and ready to direct political anger at the nearest adjacent target (women, immigrants, benefit claimants, or even just the normative working class) rather than the real source of one’s actual imagined impoverishment: so often the millionaire beneficiary of old or new money, who lives in a large house hidden by trees on the edge of town.

The structure of the book is fascinating; Niven mixes his theories with personal memoir and experience, focusing strongly on his friendship with the writer, music critic, cultural theorist, philosopher and teacher Mark Fisher, one of the founders of Zero Books, who took his own life in 2017. That loss has a dramatic effect on Niven, and as well as drawing on Fisher’s theories, he explores the whole history of Zero books. That history took another turn recently, as Repeater have apparently bought back Zero Books so as to be wholly independent again. Interestingly, I have a number of Zero titles on my shelves and was prompted to dig them out again…

My original Zero books from many moons ago – the Hatherley was the first I obtained…

But I digress. The author, therefore, has a strong political lean to the left (with which I empathise…) and is happy to take on any number of sacred cows (Orwell and Billy Bragg included!) Niven’s historical knowledge of the history of our archipelago is impressive, and he ranges widely, drawing into his discussion anything from Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts” to Alton Towers, where he identifies the void at the heart of England. The chapter on this is perhaps unexpected, but fascinating…

If England really exists, it does so in a highly limited sense that can only be clearly glimpsed at ostentatiously hidden sites like Alton Towers, sites that would probably rather be forgotten by advocates of both the convervative-pastoral myth of Englishness, and the modern liberal fantasy that England is a sophisticated multicultural democracy with just a couple of minor problems.

Having explored that void, he then advances his radical idea of how to restructure our lands, by splitting it into two large and equally resourced administrative areas, with a divide running diagonally from the north east down to Wales, thereby creating a north and west triangle to balance the south and east, where power lies at the moment. It’s a revolutionary concept, but one that certainly makes more sense that the current so-called government’s mealy-mouthed talk of ‘levelling-up” which is basically meaningless.

Towards the end of the book, Niven explores the then current political situation, seeing hope in the coming of Corbyn to Labour, and a possible end to Tory monopoly in sight. Alas, that was not to be, and the last few pages of the book reminded me of a time when I’d dared to hope this country was moving towards a fairer society, instead of what Niven describes as “a confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism.”

Although superficially about a very different topic to “Newcastle, Endless”, it’s clear that Niven’s ideas and beliefs suffuse both works and I found his narrative gripping. No, there aren’t sheaves of post-its sticking out of my copy – there was so much which stimulated my brain that I had to keep jotting down things in a notebook! As a Scot, and therefore an outsider, I perhaps found the arguments easier to appreciate than someone born in e.g. the south east of the country would; but it’s worth approaching the book with an open mind as this will really bring rewards. “New Model Island” is an invigorating and thought-provoking work which buzzes with ideas; and its wonderful blend of the personal and the political means that the book is never a dry, academic work. Instead, it makes compelling reading and puts forward a really fascinating blueprint for a new structure on our islands which would ensure a fairer distribution of control and therefore wealth for everyone. A utopian concept, maybe, but one that really should be considered seriously…

*****

I’ll claim this title for Non-Fiction November, and highly recommend it and “Newcastle, Endless” if you want to have your thoughts provoked! Needless to say, I’ve felt the need to track down two more Niven titles (published by Zero Books back in the day – thank you again, wonderful Blackwells). These sound just as interesting as the two Nivens I’ve read! 😀

“…I was celestially kissed…” @Alex_Niven @CanalsidePress #newcastleendless

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Something a little different on the Ramblings today, as I share my thoughts on a lovely little indie publication which straddles several genres! “Newcastle, Endless” by Alex Niven was a title I stumbled across on Twitter (such a bad influence for books), and I was intrigued. I reviewed “The Book of Newcastle” back at the beginning of 2020, and related in that post my connection with the city via a visit many moons ago. Being an exiled Scot, I’m always drawn north anyway, and I’ve explored the work of the Morden Tower poets too. I thought Niven’s book sounded like it might be an essential adjuct to these readings, and I wasn’t wrong.

“Newcastle, Endless” is published by Canalside Press, and is a beautiful little edition which as well as containing Niven’s verses, also features colour images of the city by Euan Lynn, a prologue from Adam Sharr, and an afterword by Patrick Lynch, Editor and Publisher at Canalside. The poems explore the architecture and landscape of the city, an every-changing one, with the supporting texts focusing on the effects on the city structure of T. Dan Smith. The latter was an idealistic leader of the Labour Newcastle City Council in the 1960s, and although he was brought down by scandal it’s clear that his intentions for the city were sound ones. So the verse is divided into sections, interspersed with extracts from Smith’s autobiography, and the resulting book is a fascinating mixture of poetry, architecture, politics and history.

Niven is a lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University, as well as a regular contributor to a variety of publications and author of another very interesting sounding book I may have to track down. His verse is a variation on the sonnet form, but lacking punctuation, which makes it beautiful and hypnotic to read. There’s also one poem which takes a more tradition ballad form and it’s very moving – this is the opening verse:

Once I was a man of light
The day was early in my head
But now my heart is with the night
And all my dreams are of the dead

Other verses explore city locations such as the Civic Centre, Fenwick’s department store, Grainger Town and the Tyne Bridge. As one of the pithy quotes from Smith points out, we love water and mountains and things which appear to exist ‘naturally’ but are often offended by built landscapes – why is that, he wonders, and are we capable of integrating our constructions into a landscape so that they belong there? I think that’s probably something town planners are still trying to work out (if they actually think about what they’re doing nowadays, instead of just allowing anything interesting to be torn down and any old thing to be thrown up…)

I found “Newcastle, Endless” to be one of those unexpected, serendipitous discoveries, where you find a book purely by chance and it turns out to be quite brilliant. As a meditation on the changes in Niven’s city, it’s moving; the poems are lyrically engaging and lovely; and historical elements intriguing. And as well as being fascinating to read, it’s a beautiful object in its own right, with the images complementing the text and the extra material enhancing the whole experience of reading – I shall have to take a look at the rest of Canalside’s books. Anyway, this turned out to be a wonderful and evocative read which really made me think about the landscapes in which we live. Highly recommended and I’m off to see what Niven’s other book is about… ;D

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