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Alex Niven “There’s a complex and intellectual cultural history in the North”

Alex Niven’s The North Will Rise Again looks at the North’s cultural history of modernism, progressivism and radicalism. Sean Morley speaks to Niven about Brian Ferry, regional devolution – and how the North invented sci-fi.

Redcar Steelworks Teesside

Redcar Steelworks, Teesside

The form of the book is unusual. At times analysing moments of political and cultural upheaval in recent history, at others profiling artists across the 20th century, and at others a memoir of life growing up in the North East. How would you describe the The North Will Rise Again as a project?

I got the contract for the book in the midst of the second or third lockdown. The form of the book arose from that context. I was confined to my home, so I couldn’t go to libraries. I couldn’t do a travelogue of visiting various different places.

That’s why it was delving inwards and backwards. Those factors meant I was thrown back into myself – into the historical or cultural history angle, using research I’ve already done in my academic day job, and the memoir element, writing from my own memories.

But as I make the case in the introduction, to get to the future you have to go back into the past to work out how we got to where we are. That’s a deeper and better way of working out where we go from here than doing a journalistic survey of [the] Red Wall and Brexit. These things become outdated quite quickly.

This book delves inwards and backwards into the last few decades. Some glances further back, but mainly 50s and 60s to the present, looking at various attempts to revive or regenerate the North which have all if not failed, then only been partial successes. If we look at how these various schemes for reviving the North went wrong, we might, at the very least, learn to fail better.

To me, the North is teeming with contradictions. Its history and culture are fundamentally radical, but it’s also steeped in such a fierce 'crabs in a bucket' mentality. Is it possible to reconcile those contradictions when talking about Northern culture and Northern identity?

You have to acknowledge that when you’re dealing with questions of identity, whether it’s gender or race or class, you’re always going to be reducing a much more complex reality to a simplified shorthand or definition. In the book I use the example of throwing a net into the ocean of collective identity and hoping that something valuable is dragged to the surface.

I would make the case that the North is absolutely full of contradictions, exceptions to any kind of rule that you might formulate about a collective identity. Nonetheless, I think the political consequences of saying, “The North is endlessly complicated and we’re never going to reconcile its nuances and complications and contradictions,” leads to a disempowerment that gets in the way of political solutions to regional inequality – namely, the formation of concrete political structures to balance out the geopolitical dynamics of our overwhelmingly London-centric country. That’s not anti-London prejudice, that’s just how the economy is structured.

I make the case in the book that in spite of all the contradictions and in spite of the endless nuances in the North, there is a need for some kind of acknowledgement that there is a collective identity and that this should have political expression in the form of institutional empowerment of the various parts of the North, or the North collectively.

The North Will Rise Again Alex Niven

Some of your examples stretch back to artists living over a 100 years ago. How do you make the case that a poet from the 1920s is relevant to questions of Northern culture in 2023?

Any time you confront questions about the North, Northern identity and Northern culture, you are trying to get beyond certain stereotypes which are often quite negative, particularly in the North East, where I’m based. The cultural stereotypes of the North East, especially in the national media, rely on caricatures of clownish drunks. There’s not only a complex and intellectual cultural history in the North, but in some ways a more complex, more intellectual, more modernistic culture here than the centralised conservative stereotypes of Englishness.

In poetry, the traditional, canonical English poets of the 20th century tend to be quite boring and simplistic in terms of the way they structure their poems. Whereas some of the poets, architects, musicians based in the North in the latter decades of the 20th century – they’re the ones with out-there, progressive cultural material.

Going beyond those stereotypes empowers people culturally and politically, because you bring home to them the full complexity of their cultural history.

My favourite claim in the book is that sci-fi comes from the North.

Sometimes it’s good to go with a provocation or hyperbole. Clearly, sci-fi is not just confined to the North…

Every region’s having a go these days...

Yeah, every region’s having a go.

But I thought it was striking, particularly the coincidence of both Brave New World and Blade Runner being inspired by industrial Teesside, that was something that needed bringing to the light. I wanted to bring those narratives together, along with Yevgeny Zamyatin in Newcastle and Anthony Burgess in Manchester.

Part of what I’m trying to do there is combat this stereotype of backwardness, that it’s the place of rubble and ruins and decline. There’s this inspirational recent history of the North being used to construct these incredibly visionary works of art that leap energetically into the future.

Bryan Ferry on Top of the Pops 1973

Bryan Ferry on Top of the Pops, 1973.

But in the end, even these countercultures got absorbed into the dominant cultures of capitalism too, right?


I think the key example in the book is Brian Ferry, a figure who embodies coming from a high intellectual art school tradition in the 60’s and in some ways giving rise to Roxy Music. But in another sense Ferry’s also a precursor of celebrity culture, a kind of Thatcherite culture – personally quite conservative, ultimately interested in becoming a quintessential, pseudo-aristocratic guy in his personal life and the aesthetic he increasingly tended to with Roxy Music.

He’s an example of that shift from that free-wheeling hippies 60’s art school counterculture through to the 70s and 80s, where you can see consumerism and Thatcherism beginning to take over. And, ultimately, the cultural effects of that were pretty bad.

While this isn’t a book of policy proposals, you do bring up the need for institutional solutions to the North’s political marginalisation. What might these solutions look like?

Some major reorganisation of the way the country’s set up is really necessary to balance this fundamental dynamic where overwhelmingly the economy is centred on London and the South East.

In order to balance it out you need to radically overhaul our system of governance. We live in quite an archaic, almost postmedieval, country called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a weird soldering together of medieval kingdoms which maybe worked for a period of time but don’t seem likely to last the distance.

My conclusion is some form of regional devolution. These ideas have become increasingly current, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll amount to anything or [whether] this was just an aftereffect of the 2019 election and mostly bogus talk about 'levelling up'. Nevertheless, I think there’s a chance that we will get demand translating into reality when it comes to some kind of major devolution of power. It’s already happened with the metro mayoralties throughout the North, but I would call for something a bit more radical than that. You need something like federalism to balance out the dominance of the South East and of London.

Perhaps a kind of Great North Assembly, or perhaps the federal units like the proposals in the early 00’s for a North East Assembly that would exist alongside a Yorkshire & Humber Assembly. They were defeated in a referendum but there’s no reason ultimately why that campaign shouldn’t be revived. Scottish independence would be a good parallel example, where you’ve had referendums, some of which haven’t worked, but this doesn’t mean people have totally given up on Scottish independence.

We’re heading for some kind of major constitutional reform and within that the simple argument I would make for regional inequality, and balancing out the centre-margins dynamic of the country, is that you need to go big or go home.

Learn more

Alex Niven’s The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands is out now.

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