Tour de France 2014

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The North (and almost everything in it)

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The NME always seemed impossibly glamorous to me growing up in the bleak, fucked up Leeds of the late seventies. We had little glamour in the city: Revie’s Leeds United were long gone, replaced by a series of dysfunctional teams that could never fill their stylishly brutal boots. The city centre was a ghost town with fountains perpetually filled with spectres of foam. The North seemed to have nothing going for it and as usual, London was the centre of attention.

Music was one of the ways we could escape the harsh reality of Britain and when music started to become important to me, so did the NME. It was a window into another world, speaking of bands making the big time, fantastically hip scenes that I could only dream of being in, the glamour of touring the UK and beyond and a mythical London that boasted Carnaby Street and The King’s Road. I’ll talk more about myth making later but these were imagined narratives for me that were anything but dark and satanic.

My favourite NME writer was Paul Morley. At the time I knew little of him except he got all the top jobs, wrote the most provocatively and was always at odds with everything, always challenging and probing. He would never review an album, he would pontificate endlessly about philosophy and then write a paragraph on the record. He would provoke and piss off artists with his own seemingly pretentious approach, but he did set the NME apart at the time, seizing the high intellectual ground from the plodding rock journos on Sounds or the inanity of Smash Hits.

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Morley was destined for great things and went on to found ZTT records that, amongst other things, made Frankie Goes to Hollywood famous. These days, Morley can be seen, heard and read across all media forms as a serious writer, observer, reviewer and all round ‘cultural commentator’. Like him or not (and many don’t), his views are well-considered and always demand consideration.

The North (and almost everything in it) is Morley’s latest book –  a weighty tome that although I bought it a few months ago, I’ve only managed to read the first quarter. But I’m not anxious about that, honest. Sometimes big books challenge the reader, daring them to come and have a go if you’re hard enough and there’s no doubting there’s a little of that with this book. The number of pages and scale of ambition screams SERIOUS WRITER!! But the macro experience is much more intimate, drawing the reader in to snapshots, narratives, factoids, lists (Morley loves lists) and a style of writing that can take some getting used to. The combination of stream of consciousness and hard facts set the tone for a philosophical but factually driven journey of how the North is the North and what that actually means to people who live in the North and those that don’t.

We made the short journey to Ilkley (Victorian spa town near Leeds) to hear him talk about his book and his relationship with the North as part of the excellent Ilkley Literature Festival. The event was a well attended, genteel gathering at the appropriately faded glamour of a large hotel in Ilkley. The format worked well with interviewer and questions although I wasn’t entirely convinced that the host had read the book (and who can blame him, it is mahoosive), but perhaps I’m being unfair.

Morley comes across as a suitably dour, erudite Mancunian who grasped his chance at London NME fame at the right time, but never forgot his roots. I was interested in his assertion that he ‘never went to work in London, but at the NME’ and his affirmation that he ‘took the North with him’ and didn’t leave it behind. I liked his thinking there – I work in both Leeds and London and the North/South divide is a well-worn and tiresome discussion most business people are fond of exploring endlessly. Morley contends that the North South divide is an ideological construct, created to keep Northerners in their place. Conversely, he takes the North with him wherever he goes, as state of mind not just a geographic location. I’m aware as I write that sounds incredibly pretentious, but it’s altogether a more progressive discussion.

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I was also taken with another of Morley’s ideas: people and cities can be architects of their own fame. He explored the theme of myth making in the North and charted the rise and renaissance of Manchester’s music scene right back to The Sex Pistols appearing at The Free Trades hall in 1977. Of course, we have no idea if any of this is really true, but we make our own myths and they in turn become reality, part of the narrative of where we live.

There’s a lot to like (and dislike) about Paul Morley, but it’s no dispute that he is good value for money. For his followers, he is a Northern provocateur camped in the belly of the capitalist beast, prodding, annoying, carping. For his detractors, he is a turncoat living not in his beloved North but in the cosseted comfort of a W1 flat, drinking lattes all day long and eating sun-dried tomatoes.

Of course, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle but we do need more people like Morley stirring it up in a stereotypically Northern way. I came away challenged to think about my own Northernness in a different way and my own perception where the North begins and ends, both physically and metaphorically. The North is both a comforting, recognisable account of a physical place we all know but also a challenges our pre conceived ideas of what The North is and can be.