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Growing up in the countryside, he dreamt of Manchester’s music scene. How did the reality match up?
Critic Alex Niven’s latest book explores the joys and tedium of the North
By Sophie Atkinson
On 15th October 2020, at the peak of lockdown, Andy Burnham is in St Peter’s Square, ringed by journalists. He delivers a speech which is simple but emotionally forceful, occasionally pausing to push his glasses back up his nose.
“Different rules are always applied to the North of England…I think they have been treating the North of England with contempt…The North stands on the brink of being pushed back to where we were in the 1980s, just forgotten and pushed aside. But we won’t let that happen…People are fed up with being treated in this way. The North is fed up with being pushed around…We aren’t going to be pushed around anymore.”
It’s the crescendo of this speech that Alex Niven’s new book, The North Will Rise Again, opens on. The book adopts and expands on an idea Burnham seems to be articulating in that speech: that the North is its own country within England. As Niven puts it, “Burnham’s North seemed to in some way bear comparison with the neighbouring countries of Britain as a whole: Wales, Scotland, even England itself.” In an England dominated by nostalgia for “rural idylls” and medieval structures of government and culture, “the rise of the North in the modern period offered a forceful, even violent counter-theory about the sort of country England was”.
I’m meeting Niven via video call — he’s in Newcastle, I’m in the Mill offices in Manchester. I first knew of him as the guitarist from the noughties Manchester-based indie band Everything Everything, but he’s lived a few different lives since then: he’s a writer, a poet, a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Newcastle and a former editor at Repeater Books. He’s also a former colleague and friend of the late critic Mark Fisher, who penned 2009’s most enduring read, Capitalist Realism, and who, like Niven, articulated political ideas through cultural criticism.
We’re talking about what he describes as the North’s long-standing tradition of faith in the future — as he puts it in the book: “if the North has meant anything over the last 200 years, it has meant progress”. He describes the technological explosion that took place during the Victorian era and the way that inventions and industry triggered the staggering growth of northern towns and cities (Manchester grew from a market town populated by fewer than 10,000 people in the early 18th century to more than 400,000 by the mid-19th).
While it’s easy to locate what we might refer to as modernity in cities like Paris or New York or London, Niven maintains there’s a case for claiming the industrial heartlands of the North — not just Manchester and Sheffield and Leeds and Liverpool, but the smaller cities and towns surrounding them — as the real heart of modernity. “You had these revolutionary and radical developments which encouraged this sense that technology was something that had great potential”, he says.
The book is sharp and interesting on the way the North’s geography and economics shaped its cultural offerings — the way art, architecture, music and films by northern artists were once distinctively future-facing (he cites the chokehold sci-fi had on the region — visible in the video for “Video Killed The Radio Star”, Blade Runner director Ridley Scott’s Hartlepool-inspired vision of Los Angeles and the way Russian engineer Yevgeny Zamyatin wove his experience of 1910s Newcastle into We, amongst others). But perhaps the chapter that is most vivid on the decline of the North and its impact on culture — the bounty of before, the tedium of the after — is the one centred on Manchester.
Naturally, it spends some time on Factory Records, which Niven agrees was pivotal in the city’s musical flowering. “I think the main thing of value in the Factory narrative was that it provided the institutional resources for young musicians in Manchester to create and ensured they didn't have to migrate, that they could stay in Manchester,” he says. This happened not just through Factory itself, but because it could act as a hub for the wider indie scene. “It provided the buildings, the institutions for a large enough portion of Manchester's youth culture and alternative subcultures to be empowered in concrete material ways. So I think that the key thing about Factory, under all the psychedelic stuff and the drugs and the craziness, it was this very important concrete material institution that enabled the production of all this innovative and experimental music.”
In the book, Niven remembers growing up in a tiny village in rural Northumberland in the 80s and 90s and becoming besotted with the idea of Manchester from a distance:
“This will probably sound ridiculous to anyone who grew up in the city, but going by summaries of the Eighties scene in books and sleeve notes by Johnny Rogan, John Harris, John Robb and Dave Haslam, the basic Mancunian topography of Afflecks Palace, Piccadilly Gardens, Rusholme, Hulme and Levenshulme sounded to me like one of the most exotic places on earth…I imagined the built-up North-West to be a place of ineffable urban glamour, bohemian adventure and limitless artistic energy.”
He even dreams of skiving from school for a day or two, taking the train to Manchester, though admits, with typical self-effacement, that he’s at a loss as to what he would have done there as an underage stowaway with 25 quid in his Halifax Solo account.
Careful what you wish for. In 2007, Niven gets to live out his dream, moving to Manchester as part of Everything Everything, a band that immediately attracts attention from record labels. The reality of this, as he tells it in The North Will Rise Again, is bleak in the beige-est way possible. On searching for traces of the earlier musical community that he’d been so inspired by, instead, he’s confronted by 2007-era South Manchester. In his slightly melodramatic telling, this is “a sort of suburban scorched earth filled with young professionals, debt-ridden students, and the scattered detritus of Eighties and Nineties indie.”
This is a bit of a misleading quote, making the chapter — and indeed, book — sound incredibly acerbic. But Niven on the page skews close to the real life version: polite and thoughtful to a fault. He’s eager to stress that his experience of Manchester was a shock because of his love of its pop culture past and because of his own negative personal experiences there, rather than it being some sort of judgement on the city as a whole.
When I ask him about his time there, he says: “Obviously the reality is, teenage dreams never quite live up to the reality. You're sitting in a bedroom in a different part of the North listening to Smiths records, Stone Roses records, reading books about the Manchester scene of the long 80s. Confronting the reality of that, there's always going to be an element of disappointment.” But he also thinks that his disappointment was partly justified — and that if there had been more of a musical community in place and strong cultural institutions to match London’s, that it might have been a more fruitful experience.
In the book, he argues that even though the band became successful in the two years they spent there, Everything Everything wasn't a Manchester band. After all, none of the members hailed from here, the city was a “largely incidental backdrop” — they could have formed their band in any big global city.
But there’s good reason to doubt this conclusion. Even Niven himself concedes that the band could be viewed as the product of the new businesslike Mancunian culture that blossomed after the mid-90s, when the city began to brand itself as England’s music city largely after its musical heyday. Two of the band’s founding members studied at the University of Salford, on one of the new popular music courses. Plus, it sounds like that posthumous branding of Manchester as a musical hub was useful to the band, even if Niven himself found it depressing — he cites an A&R (a record company’s talent scout) being at their basement rehearsals, and another one attending their first gig at Night & Day.
The chapter is doused in a sorrow that feels larger than Manchester being not what Niven expected — he says that on thinking back on his two years in the city, “my abiding memory (aside from agonizing experiences of public transport on the Wilmslow Road corridor) is of a sort of hazy, dishevelled anaesthesia…an impressionistic blur of rainy days, rubbish-strewn yards in squalid terraced houses, peevish rehearsals in disused warehouses in Salford and Stockport”.
I left Manchester to study in London in the autumn of 2006, so shortly before Niven moved there — and maybe things deteriorated rapidly in the almost-year before he arrived. But his experience of the city doesn’t entirely ring true for me. Yes, it was more banal and sanitised than 90s Manchester — how could it not be? But I think there was still a lot to love about the city.
At that point, writer Gwendoline Riley was still living here and writing novels about working as a bartender in the Northern Quarter. Her novels were sharp about the overlap between the sanitised chain-cafe culture of the time and the legions of misfits who lived here. The gig venue and club The Star and Garter — housed in an old 70s brothel, as legend had it — felt like the centre of the universe and their indie night Smile was populated by any number of dishevelled bohemians, who like Niven, had moved here to pursue their creative callings. And there were a handful of great, ramshackle DIY music festivals on the edges of the city, whose names temporarily escape me (post them in the comments).
Since the chapter traces the slow coming-apart of Everything Everything, both musically (Niven isn’t particularly excited by the band’s growing obsessions with the music of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly or by being in a completely apolitical music project) and in terms of friendships, it feels tempting to conclude that like most places, Manchester is only as good as the friends you have there.
The part that does ring true for me, though, is the bit about nostalgia. In the book, he references a satirical blog of the time, Fuc51 (a reference to Fac51, the Hacienda’s Factory catalogue number), which collated examples of cliched Mancunia to suggest that the city was paralysed by its own nostalgia and was a place where “Mancs are still pretending it’s 1988”. With the recent announcement of the Joy Division-inspired bar Disorder, you could argue that in 2023, this is still very much the case (or okay — we’re now pretending it’s 1979). Why does he think Manchester is so obsessed with its past? “I think in Manchester to an extent there's a cultural establishment who are getting on a bit perhaps, to put it politely,” he says, reasonably politely.
Perhaps the nostalgia is about the lack of wealth and lack of social empowerment for a younger generation, he thinks, which is preventing new forms of art from emerging. He also stresses that the unemployment that we have now isn’t in any way similar to the dole culture of the 80s which gave rise to so many revered Manchester bands of that period and that there isn’t the same context for young people to create art now. But this isn’t just Manchester. “It’s a society-wide problem. The young aren’t being empowered to create and that’s resulting in a generational log jam where the elder demographics still have the majority of wealth and cultural power and it’s not being handed on.”
One aspect of The North Will Rise Again that’s particularly striking is its rangy quality: it feels like two books packed in one. The first half of the book is a meticulous examination of how geographical context shaped Northern culture — a drive-by tour of great poets, architects, musicians (read with a notebook beside you — you’re going to want to write some of these cultural references down to investigate further). The second half of the book focuses more or less squarely on politics — mostly exploring the ways in which New Labour failed the North and outlining an argument in favour of Northern devolution. As such — please do me the kindness of excusing this abrupt change of gear. Unlike Niven himself, I can’t seem to find a way of fluidly shifting from culture to politics.
At the heart of Niven’s book is an argument about what would need to happen for the North to “rise again” — and why that will involve much more radicalism than the past decade’s trend of incrementally handing powers to city regions like Greater Manchester. What we need, he says, are big federal style units, so that the North resembles London essentially in terms of population and size. It could be a Great North Assembly or it could just be a German style federalist model. “But I think all of the cultural examples in the book and the political examples really lead to that conclusion, you have to go big or go home. If you don't, it's just going to crumble into these endless intra-regional rivalries between Manchester and Salford, Newcastle and Gateshead, North East versus North West, we're never going to get anywhere like that.”
He talks about the way that various Northern cities and regions need to stop obsessing over minor differences so they mount a coherent response to regional inequality. “If you want to level up, if you want to use that phrase, then you'll have to come up with a radical revision of the way this country is organised and if you don't do that, it's going to be essentially an expensive waste of time.”
When talking about politics, his face lights up when he mentions Burnham. He pre-empts his compliments with one reservation: maybe the metro mayor is opportunistic. “Arguably, nonetheless, I think he has at least a kind of energy and sense of passion and ambition when it comes to the North and a sense, as we've been talking about, that the solution has to be radical rather than small scale.”
What sort of radical changes does he think Burnham has ushered in? He argues his innovations in public transport are a genuine leap forward. Plus, there was the moment that he opens the book on — “That was quite a stark opposition he set up between himself and perhaps the North as a whole and the government in London, which, I can't think of any similar examples of politicians doing that with quite that force.” There are aspects of his approach that do offer some form of hope for the future, he reckons. “If you're going to be hopeful about a mainstream politician in 2023, it's probably him.”
The North Will Rise Again by Alex Niven is published by Bloomsbury and is now available from bookshops and online.