Wednesday, 31 July 2013

North East England: desolate and void?

We’ve all done it: got on our feet, opened our mouth, heard the words come tumbling out and wished the ground would open and swallow us up. I don’t suppose Lord Howell meant to disparage the North East in his now infamous remark about fracking, though that seems to have been the effect. ‘There are large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part [sic] of the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody’s residence where we could conduct without any kind of threat to the rural environment.’

But as psychoanalysts are fond of reminding us, you may not say what you mean, but you always mean what you say. In an unguarded moment, a whole set of attitudes towards the North East is laid bare. It shows how, in the southern mentality, the ‘idea of north’ is of a remote, strange and essentially alien place, a liminal borderland between what we know and feel at home in, and what we don’t know and are subliminally nervous or even afraid of.

The trouble is that it is a very confused perception. There is certainly ‘desolation’, but it is found not in the remote country but in deprived urban areas that are the opposite of uninhabited: densely populated environments where people feel forgotten and abandoned by a those in power who are supposed to care for the weak and voiceless. By contrast, the remote fastnesses are in no way the 'desolate' degraded places that no-one cares about and which are therefore available for exploitation. Far from it. For it is precisely these landscapes that constitute the North East’s wonderful treasury of national parks, heritage coasts, areas of outstanding natural beauty, historic buildings and a great deal more.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea of desolation. The Idea of North is the title of a brilliant book by Peter Davidson. Its elusive discipline of topographics links geography, culture, landscape, literature, art, social anthropology and the history of ideas. And it turns out that this Howellian southern fantasy about the north is in fact close to a widespread ‘myth’ that is found across many different cultures in which ‘north’ with its connotations of remoteness, darkness and cold is an eloquent symbol of what is alien, chaotic and threatening. ‘Here be dragons.’

Some make friends with it and embrace it. For example, W. H. Auden, a midlander, fell in love with the North Pennines as a boy. He was haunted by the wild astringent fell country with its untamed climate and the ghosts of its long-dead industries of fluorspar and lead mining. He would have said that the toughness and desolation of ‘north’ was precisely what pulled him irreversibly into its gravitational field,  'the solace of fierce landscapes'. He found his poetic voice in County Durham, at Rookhope in Upper Weardale where, idly dropping a pebble down a disused mine-shaft, he had a flash of recognition about ‘self and non-self’ and with his new-found awareness began to write. Would he have become a great poet without the North?

As a Londoner, I can echo Auden’s love for a part of England that is not only ‘North’ but is also ‘Not-South’. I wrote Landscapes of Faith: the Christian heritage of the North East as a tribute. But as I said in the book, we must be careful not to romanticise either the landscape or the people and communities who have been shaped by it. It’s important that we speak accurately about the North East and not be seduced by easy cliché. It’s interesting that much of today’s response to Lord Howell has been to cite the canon of Northumbrian beautiful views rather than probe more deeply into what lies under the skin of the North East. The opposite of desolation may not always be consolation. With its complex history shaped by power and conflict, wealth and poverty, privilege and servitude, faith and politics, industry and its decline, there are more ambivalent readings of the region, and these too are aspects of its character.

I don’t know if Lord Howell in some obscure way has intuited this.  Possibly not.  But it is how we as North-Easterners react to this unexpected opportunity to put ourselves on the map that perhaps tells its own important truth about this region and those of us for whom it is our much-loved home. 


  1. Your observations about the deeper meaning of 'desolation' are very telling. As you rightly say there is real material desolation in some of the North East's urban patches: but so too I think psychological/spiritual desolation among countless people across our region, indeed across our country.

    Having said that I do think you are being excessively charitable to Lord Howell. My strong suspicion is that the 'noble' Lord, who is a strong advocate for 'fracking' has been frightened by the anger shown by people at Balcombe in West Sussex(where the fracking contractor hopes to prospect for oil), and has contrived to try and placate Balcombe by his suggestion that fracking should instead come to the North East. Trouble is, the likelihood of finding oil here is, apparently, remote.

  2. It was interesting to see that rather than apologise and let the matter die down, Lord Howell stated that he meant the north west! I was somewhat moved when I saw the reaction on social media, with many people both northerners and southerners coming together and talking about the goodness of the north east. We may not have a perfect land full of perfect people, but it is ours and we are proud of it. Incidentally in celebration of my pride in the north east, I thought I would treat you to a Flickr set I created this week, some of the pictures I'm guessing the Dean will appreciate of the Cathedral.

  3. Thanks for informative comments. Dad may be right that I was being too forgiving: 'I really meant North West not North East' digs the hole still deeper, because it shows such a risible lack of knowledge about north of.... where? possibly not even as far as Watford. Gareth: no, the North East is not some utopian paradise, but it is a good place as you say, with a strong pull on the affections and loyalties not only of those born and bred here but also of us southern incomers who have been welcomed here and never want to leave. I love your photos. Some of them show how recent planning decisions have permitted grandiose structures to put at risk the intimate character of this small city.