Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Life in a northern town

Reading the opening chapters of Gaskell's North and South, it struck me how few books I've read about life in a northern town.

So many of the books I've read, either classic or contemporary, are set in London or the Home Counties. Yet as a born and bred northern lass, I want to read more about the north. In North and South, Margaret's first impressions of Milton in Darkshire are inauspicious:
'For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay. It was all the darker from contrast with the pale gray-blue of the wintry sky; for in Heston there had been the earliest signs of frost. Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all, more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black 'unparliamentary' smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud which Margaret had taken to foretell rain.'
Before I first visited Lancashire, I had an impression of grim landscapes dominated by 'dark satanic mills' and whilst there are undoubtedly many old textile mills here, most of the ones I know are on canal sides, their hard edges softened over time by trees and water. The mills didn't only shape the landscape but also the social structure of the region. Whereas in the North East of England, men's industries such as coal-mining, steelworks and shipbuilding dominated and a woman's place was in the home, in the North West women had more freedom and could work in the mills. This is a huge simplification of course, but you get the idea. I was always impressed by my friend's mother's ability to lip-read - a skill she'd learnt in her youth working in a textile mill.

So, back to books. I'm tempted to drop my Classics Club choice A Tale of Two Cities, in favour of Dickens' Hard Times. It's setting, Coketown, is said to be based on Preston, just half an hour down the motorway from here. I once worked for a textile company in Manchester and, even with the more modern looms, the noise and the atmosphere was something to behold.

I've added Pat Barker's first novel Union Street to my wish list. Following the impoverished lives of seven working class women in a northern town, I suspect it will be a compelling, if harrowing, read.

If all this northern doom and gloom gets too much for me, I can always return to the wonderfully funny Billy Liar. His disastrous turn at the local working men's club makes me chuckle every time I think of it.

Can you recommend any northern reads?


  1. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple was brilliant, and some of Beryl Bainbridge's novels are set up north - A Quiet Life, Harriet Said, An Awfully Big Adventure, The Dressmaker. Afraid Gaskell, despite being my namesake(in marriage only though) is not my cup of tea.

  2. Thank you for suggestions Annabel. I'm always glad to have new books to add to my list.

    I haven't heard of Dorothy Whipple, but I shall certainly look out for her. I couldn't get on with 'According to Queeney', but perhaps I should give BB another try.


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