Monday, 9 March 2015
Of The North
Chris McDowall, the creator of Into the Odd, recently joked that Liverpool was like the Florence of the Old School Renaissance with both Yoon-Suin and Fire on the Velvet Horizon coming out in such quick succession. Now, first of all humility compels me to demur, but also I live in Newcastle nowadays, and half of the creative energy behind FOTVH comes from New Zealand. So I think making Liverpool the Florence of the OSR is perhaps a little inaccurate. But still, if you include Chris, who lives in Manchester, I think we can make a play for the North of England being at least the Tuscany of the OSR - can't we? Can you at least give us that?
The North of England is seen by the rest of the country as a miserable place. It's like how most Americans seem to view the Deep South. Except whereas the Deep South is slavery, mint juleps, cotton fields, devout Christianity, Walker Evans, and dogs gasping for breath in the summer heat, "Up North" is flat caps, whippets, coal miners, bleak grey skies, unemployment, Roy 'Chubby' Brown, and hen nights in Blackpool featuring "Drunk and Gorgeous" t-shirts and cock-shaped lollipops.
But in spite of this the North of England has always been its creative heart - certainly since the Industrial Revolution. You only have to list the ridiculously large number of world-conquering musicians who've come from the comparatively tiny slice of land that is Liverpool and Manchester, the poets and writers and artists and actors, the sportsmen, the comedians. Factor in Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, and the innumerable towns lying in their orbits, and you can make a strong case for the North of England being pound-for-pound the most successfully artistically creative area of the world of comparative size since the Second World War.
Why is this? On the one hand the North is a very beautiful place, and large swathes of it are very wealthy; most Southerners imagine it as bleak and impoverished because they never go there. Drive ten minutes from Byker, in Newcastle, which is one of the poorest places in Western Europe, and you're in the Elysian Fields of Ponteland rubbing shoulders with barristers, actuaries and footballers who live in 16th-Century manor houses with packs of Irish wolf hounds and horses. And while the North suffered more than most areas of the country in the 1970s and 80s, most of its cities are now undergoing genuine renaissances (Liverpool in particular is simply unrecognisable to how it was when I was a lad; in the dodgy side streets 5 minutes away from the city centre where you simply couldn't park in 1987 without your radio and hub caps being nicked, there are now trendy gourmet burger restaurants full of blokes in pseudo-Victoriana-wear with moustaches and smoking e-cigarettes, and speakeasy-type bars with blacked out windows which only let cool people in and serve Old Fashioneds with massive ice cubes. There's a set of traffic lights in Toxteth where I vividly remember my mum getting robbed as we pulled to a stop; it's now the heart of student town, full of flocks of girls in leggings and lads with slicked-back hair and their t-shirt sleeves rolled up to show off their gym biceps.)
And yet on the other hand many parts of the North are bad places to live. I didn't grow up in a former pit village in County Durham, or the Clockwork Orange world of Speke or Kirkby, but in the town where I grew up it's safe to say there wasn't much going on. When I tell people I'm from Wallasey I normally get a blank stare: it's the kind of place you only know if you're from there. I usually describe it as being pubs and houses. That's all it really is: 50,000 people and a heck of a lot of beer. "Culture" in Wallasey is getting a Chinese meal-for-two for £10 from Asda. It's nice enough, but if you're a kid growing up there you have to make your own fun.
And that's the key to it really: that's why the North is a hotbed of creative energy. It's because for a lot of kids there's fuck all to do except make music or write poetry or whatever. When you're living in a terraced house where it's always either raining or about to rain, and where the only colours around you are drab browns and greys and colours that look like them, you have to go the extra mile yourself. Your imagination hones itself. Some people turn to football, some turn to pop music, others apparently turn to role playing games. I'm not sure that this is the only reason why I came up with Yoon-Suin (the fact that I fucked off somewhere else in England and then across to the other side of the World may also have something to do with that), but I'm sure it's significant. So if you're looking for somebody to blame for this flowering of OSR stuff... put it down to the rain, economic stagnation, and the alchemy of D&D's effects on a bored kid's brain.