In search of a vanished land #bookreview


There are *sooooooo* many books out there nowadays that it’s really hard to keep track of the things you might be interested in; even harder to come across those books that you didn’t even know you might want to read. That’s one of the things I love about the randomness of charity shop finds; I’m very blessed to have a lot locally, and they’re often a source of the unexpected or serendipitous. “The Debatable Land” is a case in point: it turned up in one of our local shops a few weekends ago, and I recognised the author’s name and was intrigued by the title so I picked it up. Graham Robb is the author of “Parisians”; another charity shop find which lurked unread on the shelves for years and which I fear I’ve donated back again. Annoying, that…

Any road up, let’s explore “The Debatable Land”! The book’s genesis took place when Robb and his wife Margaret moved north to be nearer to his mother in Scotland. They ended up near the border, with Carlisle the closest big town, and while settling in Robb began to explore the landscape and find out more about the history of the place. Because tucked away in the north-east of the country is a small area known as the Debatable Lands; a place which was a kind of no-man’s-land, belonging to neither England nor Scotland and with its own set of rules and morals. As Robb and his wife wrestle with the extremes of the northern climate, as well as getting to know their neighbours, he delves deeper into the legends of the reivers – local outlaws/bandits/Robin Hoods/criminals, depending on your viewpoint – and a fascinating history it is.

The Debatable Lands were originally a neutral territory (at a time when England and Scotland were very separate countries); a place where no one was meant to settle, and anyone could graze their cattle. The area had its own legal system (March Law) which resolved disputes and the system worked until the middle ages, when interference by the two countries allowed local clan groups to take over. These groups fought off any attempts by the two government to take away control, and raided the neighbouring areas of both countries frequently (earning the name of the Border Reivers – a word for thief or ruffian), building up considerable fortunes. However, this state of affairs couldn’t really continue forever, and as England and Scotland began to move closer to a union, James VI and I took strong action against the clans, breaking much of their hold on the area.

Robb covers all of this history in detail, roaming the land around his house, identifying landmarks and historical areas where the Reivers lived and raided. And the book is beautifully illustrated with maps, drawings and photographs of the various locations which really bring the narrative to life. He’s happy to debunk the myths perpetuated (particularly by writers such as Sir Walter Scott) and bring some realism to the history of the area and its people. Interestingly, towards the end of the book Robb attempts to trace the events of the missing early centuries, where there is, naturally, no record of events. By re-interpreting Ptolemy’s ancient map of Britain, he finds records of the place existing in these times; and he uses this knowledge to tie the locality into a Northern route for the battles of the legendary King Arthur. These discoveries are particularly intriguing, and I would perhaps have liked to see them given more prominence.

The Debatable Lands (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

All of this made fascinating reading, but I did have some slight issues with the book. The narrative is a little choppy – Robb jumps from personal events and investigations into the results of his findings, which would be fine, except that those finds are not presented in a linear fashion so the whole story of the Debatable Lands loses coherence. The final section, in particular, has a slightly tagged-on feel and is coloured by politics; indeed, as the book progresses, the issues of Scottish Independence and Brexit are a constant sub-text, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but I felt that it affected the cohesion of the book slightly. And I actually would have liked to read more about Robb and Margaret’s adventures in moving north to such a climatically extreme area, as those bits were particularly interesting.

So in the end this was an absorbing read, but not an outstanding one for me. Robb is an interesting author, and he writes really well (and also obviously researches really well, as some of his findings and deductions about the Debatable Lands were really engrossing). What I think the book needed was a bit of restructuring and a bit of editing to make it form a more unified whole; it rambled a bit in places (and I should know about that…) and lost impact because of the structural issues. Nevertheless, the whole topic of the Debatable Lands is absolutely fascinating and this is a good enough place to start exploring! If I ever move north again, I’ll have to try to pop over to have a look at the place! And I *really* wish I hadn’t donated back that “Parisians” book… šŸ˜¦


More words from “The North”


Inevitably, when reading Paul Morley’s “The North” recently, I ended up with a sheaf of bits of paper sticking out of the book, marking quotes and passages I loved. I couldn’t really stuff them all into the review, so here are few more of my favourite bits from the book!

Halifax Mill Chimneys

On the traditional images of the north:

“The north all wrapped up and firmly in its place as a combination of nostalgia and obedience to the notion that the north is summed up by a cloth cap, an Eccles cake, a bangin’ tune, a witty catchphrase, a no-nonsense hard man, a once-vital political struggle, a stick of rock, a vast ocean of coal under the ground, a stagnant canal, meandering backstreets, clinging on to a narrow layout first established in mediaeval times, the careful brick detailing on an everyday railway tunnel, a comedy double act, an outside toilet, a deep gorge, a rags-to-riches story, a situation comedy, ghosts forever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole, a smoking chimney in a pre-clean-air-act sky.”



On the wonder of the world seen through a child’s eye:

“A matter-of-fact zebra crossing and a metal garden gate in a certain shade of green can for a while introduce a young mind to the spiralling miracle of existence; and the zebra crossing can give you a certain amount of power, stopping cars in their tracks, and the gate can be opened, leading to the creation of a brand-new moment where something unexpected could happen. There were plenty of corners to turn, and places to visit at a later date, and high brick walls, fences and hedges that hid from view what might be nothing special, but what might be astonishing. The hidden remained astonishing, until I knew for sure that it wasn’t. I learned from an early age to relish being lost, because then I would find new areas that I had not yet surveyed.”


His fertile imagination can just throw out brilliant ideas here, there and everywhere:

“For Priestley, the idea that people’s actions are dictated solely by their conscious selves was akin to the equally fallacious assumption that ‘what can be seen of an iceberg is all there is of it’. Priestley of Bradford thus becomes the missing link between Charles Dickens and J.G. Ballard”

Alan Garner

Morley is aware of the power of books over the young, developing mind and of his discovery of author Alan Garner he says, “He wrote enticingly about the areas around where I lived as though they were next door to the lion, the witch and the wardrobe, where unicorns roamed through a warren of pasty, rayless streets, as if they were wonderful hidden places you might reach using a time machine that was all in the mind, where a shadowy line between reality and fantasy could be crossed using nothing but words and will and the maps his books became, describing a dying land that needed to be saved.


Some thoughts on The North…


…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.

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