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Narrow Road, Deep North

The first time I felt Northern was at the Students’ Union bar of the University of Chester. I’d recently moved there from South Shields and was taken aback when the barman couldn’t understand my order.

‘Do you mean Coors?’

‘Aye, pint of Coors, please.’

There are two syllables in that particular brand of lager: coo-aaz. Not cors. Rhyme it with ‘poor’ – poo-ah. See also: my pronunciation of ‘poem’ – pome, not po-em.

That winter, me and my flatmates (/my flatmates and I) made a map of where we were all from. One lad claimed to be northernmost, hailing from Clitheroe, in Lancashire (‘practically the West Midlands!’, I cried). Another pal, who later moved to Vancouver, lived at the time near Inverness, but spoke with an RP English accent. This messy diagram of the country that we were imagining had many trajectories.

Cartography is similar to plotting drafts of poems. In charting your own north/s, you might be surprised where you end up. In my own work exploring what it means to be from Sheelz, I’ve looked into George Orwell’s family history; Soviet plans to bomb the mouth of the Tyne; and seventh-century monastic scriptures. And yet, like Rodney Pybus, I still wonder at ‘the rusty old saga of the North’ and how valid it all is.

On my upcoming course, I’ll be asking students think about how definitions of north have altered during the course of your life. We’ll look at poets for guidance and inspiration – Julia Darling, Jean Sprackland, Tony Harrison, Sorley MacLean – and there’ll be plenty of time for invention, experimentation and digression. What do we in/exclude when we (ex)claim our northernness? What might it mean to try and penetrate the north as a southerner? Mr Rees-Mogg has tried and failed, as this amusing video shows:

Pitching Narrow Road, Deep North to the Poetry School a few months ago, I was asked to think about how I’d widen the likely niche appeal of its audience. While I am keen to hear from Mackems and Scousers, Monkey-Hangers and Mancunians, I’d also like to engage with, and learn from, non-British northerners. And I’m intrigued by northerners-turned-southern, adopted northerners and those uncertain of – or hesitant about the very idea of – arbitrary geographic labels. Curry sauce or gravy? It’s your call. At a time when so many of us feel un-moored – be it a consequence of the political maelstrom, forced migration or for other reasons – I see this course as an opportunity to get our bearings, no matter which way the compass needle ends up. But paradoxically, sometimes we only find ourselves when things have been, to use the vernacular, totally ballsed-up. I’ll be asking you to confront your biases as a northerner, viewing the furrow you’ve been ploughing from the side of the track.

With our new Poet Laureate being a proud Yorkshireman and the Portico Prize, once described as the ‘Booker of the North’, being re-established this year, the literary weathervane seems tuned to the prevailing winds. But there’s also substantial risk in mythologising the north; of our narratives becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. How do we honour the idiosyncrasies of our northern identities and landscapes without making them inward-looking and exclusive? One way I’ll ask participants to do this is to compose indexes for their own idiolects: personal dictionaries comprised of dialects and phonetic pronunciations, puns and contractions, watermarks for ways in which soundscapes and local phraseology have permeated our speech and written words, mingling with the lingua franca.

Writing in The Idea of North, Peter Davidson encapsulates the slipperiness of the north: ‘The more we try to capture the essential idea of north, for which the phrase ‘true north’ is a poetic shorthand, the more [it] recedes’. I hope that we will never find an overarching definition for the North. Let it be polyphonic and amorphous as the sea frets rolling over Filey and Bamburgh.

Narrow Road, Deep North takes its title from Ken Smith’s majestic poem which contains the heart-palpitating lines ‘The best monuments/belong to the defeated’. I hope on this course that we can think beyond ideas of the north as a damaged, downtrodden entity, for doing so only reinforces ideas of homogeneity, which play well into the hands of lack-lustre political schemes but do little to re-invigorate and three-dimensionalise our actual burns and lonnens, ginnels and gadgies. As Peter Davidson reminds us, ‘Everyone carries their own idea of north within them’. What does yours look like?

Trace ideas of the n/North and northerness, from every direction on Jake Morris-Campbell’s online course, Narrow Road, Deep North. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.

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