Published: Art Monthly, November 2023
Alex Niven: The North Will Rise Again – In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands
Interweaving culture, politics and autobiography, Alex Niven’s new book lays out the history of North England, from the Industrial Revolution to the present day, spanning 200 years of dramatic progress and repeated setbacks. Niven’s story of the North is complicated, no neat narrative arc, a despairingly up-and-down plot. The relentless disappointments might suggest that the region will never fully rise but, seen another way, the many moments of hope, albeit brief, show us that the conditions for change already exist right now. The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands comes out of a love of people, place and the ‘desire to tell the story of my homeland’, says the author, an English literature professor at Newcastle University, who grew up in the Tyne Valley, towards the Scottish border next to Hadrian’s Wall.
The North has so often been spoken for, northerners’ wants and needs disregarded, dissent suppressed, quite often violently: Margaret Thatcher’s war on the miners, the pit closures and Orgreave; HS2, the Birmingham to Leeds leg scrapped in 2021, the Manchester line axed too now, opening up a “North-South chasm” said Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham; the whole Levelling Up initiative, issued by central fiat, and to some extent done to the North rather than by and for its communities. Grounded in the region’s dissident art and culture as well as its history of industrial innovation and invention, Niven’s book provides the North with an optimistic vision for the future, a collective narrative for which northerners can claim shared ownership.
Niven’s narrative begins with the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; it was ‘the North’s creation moment’, the point when ‘Britannia Inferior’, as the Romans referred to the region, became not merely civilised but became civilisation itself, claims the author. The North saw rapid growth of its cities, and small towns such as Leeds and Manchester exploded into sprawling metropolises in a matter of decades, producing new ‘capitals of modernity’, outside of London.
After leading the most radical technological advancement in history, then came Thatcher and deindustrialisation, the managed decline of the North and the erosion of civic life. The North had run out of steam, it was disempowered, its progress arrested by Westminster. In the late 20th century, successive Labour and Conservative governments failed to provide any meaningful new investment for the region. New Labour’s Urban Renaissance programme focused funding on the big cities, neglecting smaller urban areas, towns and villages. The Cameron-Osborne government of the 2010s gave with the one hand and took away with the other, delivering the Northern Powerhouse scheme of the 2010s – nothing more than a superficial “marketing campaign” in Niven’s analysis – while at the same time, implementing nation-wide cuts to public services, ravaging the North.
The current Conservative government has shown a similar lack of commitment to regenerating the region. Appearing in Accrington for a photo-op, current prime minister Rishi Sunak claimed that the North had received more than anywhere per head from the second round of Levelling Up Funding (LUF), but, beyond the headline figures and high-vis vests, analysis from the think-thank IPPR North shows that Levelling Up rounds one and two (October 2021 and January 2023) amount to £69.50 per person in North England, compared to annual council service spending cuts of £413pp in the region over the past ten years. Moreover, half a billion pounds will be lost from LUF projects due to inflation, meaning some projects have been significantly downscaled.
For the past 200 years, Niven argues, the North has been trying to move beyond an unequal, unjust present, constantly projecting an image of progress forward, always coming into view but never quite arriving. The “search for the future” has driven alternative, uniquely northern forms of artistic expression, a ‘rebel modernism’, says Niven. A kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, full poetry, fiction and drama, as well as visual art, music, TV, film, radio, fashion and architecture, all from the North of England, Niven’s book gives voice to radical northern and northern-inspired artistic expression: the Beatles and their suburban Liverpool acid trip ‘Penny Lane’; the ‘Madchester’ hedonism of music label Factory Records; and Liverpudlian architect George Kenyon’s neogothic Newcastle Civic Centre, opened by King Olav V of Norway in 1967, based on a Scandinavian design.
Far from the cultural backwater southern liberals painted it post-Brexit, the North has always been resolutely international in outlook, inspiring and inspired by art from around the globe. American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited Newcastle and gave a reading at Morden Tower, a medieval turret on the city walls that became a venue for literary happenings. Niven quotes Ginsberg: ‘the magic enacted in the Tower articulated the unconscious of the entire city slumbering in the mechanic illusions of the century’. Blade Runner, set in a dystopian LA of the future, took its look and feel from industrial Teeside: ‘There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool’, said its County Durham-born director, Ridley Scott, ‘I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works ... It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful”.’
London and the South East, the seat of the English cultural establishment, has produced a lot of radical expression but also a lot of ‘mild-mannered modernism’, Niven says, citing the Bloomsbury Group. The author quotes Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST, the Vorticist magazine: ‘We assert that the art for these climates … must be a northern flower.’ A revolutionary call to reorient cultural production away from the capital and Home Counties, reversing the centre-periphery binary. Niven elsewhere invokes poet Basil Bunting, who bemoaned provincial ‘Southron’ ‘turd bakers’, who would ‘maul the music’ of his best-known work ‘Briggflatts’, first performed in 1965 in Morden Tower.
Art and culture may provide a sense of identity and strengthen ties to place but the correlation with social progress isn’t exact. ‘Northern culture is the coal of the contemporary,’ an enthusiastic 2022 report from the Northern Culture All-Party Parliamentary boldly declared, ‘a vast seam that runs across the region that underpins wellbeing, placemaking, production and economic growth. Under extreme pressure, it has transformed into something extraordinary with limitless energy and potential.’ Niven, less sanguine, writes that ‘even failed cultural dreams can survive in common memory to give a foretaste of collective awakening’, but adds ‘culture alone cannot reverse deep-seated processes of socio-economic downturn’. At some point, art alone isn’t enough; people crave political representation, a voice in the systems of power and the institutions of governance.
Invoking Antonio Gramsci’s rule of ‘pessimism of intellect and optimism of will’, Niven argues that radical political change is the only sensible solution to the problems facing the North. Homelessness and child poverty are rising, there are more and more foodbanks, civic architecture is crumbling and there have been near total cuts to the arts. Levelling up cannot keep pace with the decline in living standards and hopes of incremental improvements now the real ‘pie in the sky fantasy’, Niven insists. Regional inequality is sustained by centralisation and cannot be cured by treating its symptoms.
According to IPPR North research, the UK is one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the advanced OECD, far more so than similar sized countries, such as France, Italy, Germany or Spain. Take 2019, for instance, when £136bn (94.8%) of the £143bn tax raised in the North was sent to Westminster to dish out. Concentration of both public spending and staff in central government has accelerated since 2010, and UK subnational governance autonomy (local authorities and combined authorities) is lower than in comparable countries: less than Romania and Ukraine, the UK sitting in line with Moldova and Albania on this metric.
In his 2019 book New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England, Niven says that nothing other than the complete break up of England can even-out its jagged inequalities. The author proposes dividing the British Isles into two ‘meta-regions’: a ‘South-East Corner’, centred around London, the South East, east England and parts of the southern and eastern Midlands; and a ‘North-West Triangle’, composed of the non-English nations (Scotland, Wales and a united Ireland) plus the English South West, North West, North East and Yorkshire.
In this latest book, Niven calls for regional devolution over complete independence. He criticises the Swiss model of federalisation and Keir Starmer’s proposal to ‘consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level’, calling for the creation of a Great North Assembly, a devolved subnational authority, uniting the north of England’s 16 million inhabitants. Both proposals seek to empower the North by bringing its inhabitants together, not only around a shared experience of economic decline but crucially also a collective cultural identity: ‘rebel modernism’, magical mechanic illusions, the music of Bunting’s poetry only a northerner could sing. Culture has the potential to help build a powerful body politic. For Niven, the 2004 referendum on the devolution of a North East failed because it would have divided North England under three assemblies – there were two further referenda planned for the North West and the Yorkshire and Humber region – sparking, according to Niven, ‘pointless territorial squabbles based on fine-grained differences in accent and identity’.
Niven makes no mention of meta-regions in the new book. Save for a bibliography and a short endnote, there is no reference even to New Model Island, but I don’t think it’s an attempt to erase the record, to cover up earlier idealism. ‘To clarify, I don’t actually think there should be a hard border stretching from Lyme Regis to Middlesbrough!’ Niven said in an interview about New Model Island around the time of the book’s release. ‘I’m really trying to outline very tentative alternative ways of reimagining the so-called British Isles beyond nationalism; rather than actual, detailed blueprints for governmental and bureaucratic reform.’ Niven actually refers to the meta-regions as ‘sci-fi conjecture’ within the book. By contrast, The North Will Rise Again puts forward a concrete, easy-to-action reform agenda and there is political basis for it from the 2004 devolution referendum. The dream of a new archipelago might build political consciousness and give birth to a groundswell movement, but a Great North Assembly could massively improve people’s lives today, giving the region a real say in government. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive though. To rise again, the North will need both at the same time: Gramsci to realise to change, sci-fi to inspire it.
Alex Niven, The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands, Bloomsbury, 2023, 256pp, b&w illus, hb, pb, £20/12.99, 978 1 472993 45 8.