The North: Paul Morley goes back to his roots

Paul Morley, champion of the English north. Picture: Robert Perry
Paul Morley, champion of the English north. Picture: Robert Perry
Share this article
Have your say

So, what famous people were born on your birthday, apart from yourself, obviously? I can claim a fine writerly foursome – Tennessee Williams, the poet Robert Frost, Erica “Fear of Flying” Jong and Watergate reporter Bob Woodward - but finding one born on the same day, same year is more tricky.

There’s Coco Austin, but she’s not a writer. In fact she may not be an actress – her stated profession – as you and I understand the craft, given that the movie with which she’s most associated rejoices under the title Black & Stacked II. So thank goodness – and 26 March, 1957 – for Paul Morley.

We’re linked by more than just that day. In 1976 we both answered an advertisment in the New Musical Express: “Wanted: Hip young gunslingers.” Morley got the gig and was soon hanging out with rock stars; I went back to covering Rotary clubs and golden weddings for the Dalkeith Advertiser. But, you know, I should stop referencing myself in this piece like I was … well, Paul Morley.

According to fellow NME-er Mark Ellen, Morley typically would write 9,000 words on the American band Devo – “the first 5,000 of which would be Paul in the cab en route to the interview worrying about his sexuality or the state of the world.” Use of the “I” word in rock writing became ludicrous, reckoned Ellen, who promptly launched Q magazine where it was banned.

Some called Morley’s style pretentious; he insisted he was merely being provocative. It was influenced by French philosophers (Barthes, Derrida and Foucault – not a Top 50-scraping single between them) and also the Frankfurt School (dissident Marxist social theoreticians – what was their last good album?).

Today, he chuckles at the memory of daft, daring youth. “The world and my sexuality? Sounds good to me. If I remember right the Devo piece had to be split into two parts it was so long. That was my first trip to America, which it seemed churlish not to mention. There would have been jealousy involved. I remember Mark thought he was getting The Police in Bombay but that one went to me, too, because the paper wanted those 5,000 words from the cab, rather than a gig review. But there was also a battle of ideologies, which I’m sad to say, I lost.” Q begat Mojo begat Word, all begun by Ellen. “Because of Mark, rock writing is now all four-star reviews, 200 words. It treats music as a hobby, like trimming your privet. The magazines are like autopsies. And they want to explain away the mystery.”

In any event, Morley gave up rock writing at 24 to pursue more interesting things, which his turtleneck pullover confirms. It’s attire you’ll know well if you watch The Late Review; that is, if you can track down the arts round-up, recently ghetto-ised to BBC4. Morley has stayed loyal to the programme, which is why he’s in Glasgow sipping vodka and tonic before the latest edition. He’s the best thing on it, I reckon, and most of the female intellectuals seem to have a crush on him. “Really?” he says. “I thought it was the blokes.” Earnest cultural discussions have always been mocked; indeed I’m hoping the turtleneck is a kind of homage to Monty Python’s 1970s spoofs. “Another minor provocation, perhaps,” he smiles. I ask if he read TV reviewer AA Gill’s recent hatchet-job on him (“One of the most reliably and unknowingly hilarious talking heads”). He says he did, that he wasn’t wounded. “It’s good the show is still being noticed but there’s a sadness to the fact he [Gill] writes from behind a newspaper paywall, exiled from the currency of modern life. It’s very poignant to think of him banging on the other side, screaming his head off.”

You wonder what Morley’s critics will make of the belting 582-page history-cum-memoir, The North (And Almost Everything In It). This is the north of England rather than our north, although he likes Scotland for all the scratchy bands, Orange Juice and the Associates included, who ever sent him hopeful cassettes. It’s not really the whole swathe, as he stops most of the time in the north-west; Manchester and occasionally narrowing down some more to Stockport, narrowing again to Reddish, and further still to North Reddish. (Early on, Morrissey was particularly keen to establish that Morley wasn’t from South Reddish, a different place altogether). For a moment, the author pondered all 582 pages being about the Reddishes. “There’s lots of books like that for the south with particular places being celebrated. It seems slightly prejudiced it doesn’t happen in other parts of the UK.” Chippy? Oh yes, he’s happy to entertain quite a few northern clichés.

But then the book fans right out again to list what his north – “a dream north, rather than a geographical one” – has given the world. Great writers, painters and musicians, obviously, plus the noted philosopher Tommy Cannon and the even more noted Bobby Ball – but also Vimto, karaoke, the super-dense bricks that hold up the Empire State Building. It’s a super book for lists (all the celebs who ever turned on the Blackpool illuminations) and for chaotic juxtapositions, and Morley, who in this was aiming for “explosions in your head, kind of psychedelic”, smiles when I reel off my favourites: JB Priestley and Jimmy Savile, WH Auden and Sooty, Harold Shipman and Ronnie Hazlehurst, the splitting of the atom and - Eureka! – the creation of the Jelly Baby.

He couldn’t have written it 20 years ago. “That was when I was racing away from an idea of the north. It was all around me and I’d contributed to it to an extent, because of my experiences and memories regarding Joy Division, The Smiths, etc.” He’d been in London for a few years and still lives there. “As happens in the south, they can fix you.” He mentions Anthony Burgess, who was self-conscious about his northern roots and changed his accent. “I wanted to keep mine but you can be condescended to, end up a professional northerner.” Tell us about 1976 when you were one of the 44 who saw the Sex Pistols play Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall; that was the one which kept coming round for Morley.

“But then I thought, rather than tugging my forelock, stamping my clogs and oooh, me bum’s on fire, wouldn’t it be great to write one of those unbelievably epic considerations of the north, from the point of view of all the northerners who contributed to the idea of epic writing, guys like Burgess, Thomas de Quincey and Lewis Carroll. I wanted my book to be an exaggerated celebration of the north’s innovative qualities, featuring a great babble of voices. Tristram Shandy was an obvious influence. That was so far ahead of its time it almost predicted social media, the internet. It’s 200 pages before he [Shandy] even turns up.”

Morley’s babble includes John Lennon and Ena Sharples and Ted Hughes and Viv “Spend, Spend, Spend” Nicholson but it’s more than 200 pages before the Sex Pistols appear, and even then our chronicler is distracted by the stoutly impressive municipal architecture. He spends less time with The Fall’s Mark E Smith than you might expect and more than you might imagine with George Formby, LS Lowry and Bernard Manning, who had to share a bed with his five siblings and because of bed-wetting, learned to swim before he could walk.

Morley himself flits in and out, first as a boy of seven, “bony, nervy, fair-haired”, who collected stamps, fired a cap gun, was occasionally bullied and embarrassed by his parents’ poverty, liked football (Manchester City, at that stage underdogs) and spent a lot of time underneath his thinking tree or deep inside his favourite hall cupboard-cum-space capsule. He has written about his father Leslie, and the latter’s suicide, before. Nothing was about an obsession with death, not just that of his father but Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, who also committed suicide, and his original pop hero Marc Bolan who died within a few months of his dad in 1977. Leslie turns up here as a man of the south who never settled in the north, and seemed permanently disappointed: with not being middle-class and living in Cheshire, with not owning a Triumph Herald, with Morley’s slump in school performance.

“Basically, I became a dunce,” he admits, and this would have a bearing on the development of the notorious Morley purple prose. “It made me, almost to a fault, do the classic northern thing of wanting to show off. Burgess did that and I always loved him for it. When you’re treated as stupid you go over the top to demonstrate you’re not.” He shows off in The North but mostly to dazzling effect. He riffs on Manchester Central Station with the help of Frederich Engels, Ian Brady, Adolf Hitler, Charles Stewart Rolls, Frederick Henry Joyce and – turned away from its restaurant – The Beatles. A long list of northern wits concludes with Danny Boyle, mastermind of the London Olympics opening ceremony – “in many ways the exuberant climax to over a century of sly, protesting, twinkling Lancastrian music-hall mischief-making.” The final sentence is almost as long as the one with which Jonathan Coe ends The Rotters’ Club.

But the most poignant and maybe the best writing in The North is about the father-son relationship, which starts out as almost a non-relationship until they bond over football. Sometimes his dad didn’t have money for petrol, or even for the bus fare, so on the walk to games there was time to talk. Morley writes of Leslie: “He seemed to have so much he wanted to say about how he was so much better than someone who always seemed to be down on his luck, but no way of saying it so that people would listen to him.” His son has never wanted for outlet, with full amplification. You sense the old man would be very proud of Morley for having written The North, that it maybe would have endeared him to the place some more.

• The North is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20.