Root and Graft

(This piece was written in November 2004 in response to a request from Beeb2’s Culture Show for a take on the NE’s literary scene. It didn’t take. But it roughs out the idea that there is in the UK a cultural unit between the province — which we understand to be producing merely provincial, derivative, old-fashioned or local work — and the countries which make up the UK. According to this argument, London is a region, Northern Ireland is a region, Scotland is composed of several regions — essentially the east and the west of the country — and the North East of England is the next significant centre of literary activity to acquire that status.)

The current literary scene in the North-East is booming for a couple of reasons. One is that everything that is happening now is being built on extremely sure foundations. The work of Alan Plater, Tom Hadaway, Basil Bunting and Sid Chaplin established Tyneside as a significant site for regional literature.

The other reason is that, because of the presence of such significant literary figures in the area, Northern Arts as was (now ACE NE), invested in creating a supportive environment for writers that led to a new generation of writers developing in the region, and, crucially, settling here.

Firstly through the Northern Arts Literary Fellowship, and latterly through setting up the Writers Agency New Writing North (who among other things administer the Northern Rock Awards), the Arts Council has long recognised that this is a flagship region for the arts. The presence of figures like Tony Harrison and Sean O’Brien, and the prominence of someone like Julia Darling, is partly due to that investment.

In the work of Sid Chaplin and its influence on contemporary writers, we see how a region’s literary identity is first formed, and then developed to the point where it acquires national significance. The strong presence of contemporary women novelists such as Pat Barker, Penny Sumner, Kitty Fitzgerald and Debbie Taylor, is now being augmented by writers like Val MacDermid moving to the region.

Tom Hadaway’s impact on the establishing of Live Theatre is just one benefit the area is continuing to reap dividends from. New playwrights like Lee Hall, Peter Straughan and Margaret Wilkinson, have all been nurtured in the city. In the work of Sean O’Brien and others, Newcastle has become a centre for the unlikely medium of verse drama, catching the attention of the RSC among others.

The presence of Basil Bunting led not only to the setting up of the Northern Arts Literary Fellowship (the oldest writers’ residency in the country), but was an instrumental factor in Tom and Connie Pickard starting up the Morden Tower – one of the prime sites for the 60s explosion in poetry readings. As a result the region is filled with poets – including Anne Stevenson, Gillian Allnutt, Linda France.

The role of the universities in funding the Literary Fellowship has in recent years been augmented by the develop of a strong Creative Writing course at Newcastle University which draws on the resource of local writers, but also brings national figures like Jackie Kay, Jack Mapanje, Jo Shapcott and Fred D’Aguiar in to teach and perform.

The area has an almost uniquely supportive environment. Writers turn out for each others launches (two hundred attended Julia Darling’s Arc book, Apology for Absence). They collaborate on performances with each others and with musicians (the university has put on a series of such events, some broadcast on The Verb). There is an unusual cross-fertilisation (novelists writing plays, poets writing novels), and a healthy lack of metropolitan paranoia.

Part of this is due to the compact size of the writing community; part of it is due to the successful grafting of new and incoming writers onto the existing root of writers like Sid Chaplin. A good example of this would be the Newcastle writer Andrea Badenoch, who died this year of breast cancer. Her novels took the crime genre and combined it with an unusual fidelity to place, which in her last book, Loving Geordie, produced one of the best examples of the Newcastle novel since Chaplin.

At some point soon, the country is going to wake up to the fact that the North-East has burst the definition ‘regional literature’ wide open, and is producing some of the finest writing in Britain.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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