Friday, February 29, 2008

The Sound of Young Huddersfield

  • Simon Armitage. All Points North. London: Penguin Books, 1999 [1998].
One can't read pop books all the time. A book I'd bought online after returning from England last fall, but which only arrived in the mail recently (via the slow boat from England), was this little oddball. It's a highlight of the short shelf of (semi) recent books about the North. It's illustrated on the cover by a Martin Parr photograph of an old couple sitting glumly in a cafe, which pretty much sums up my aesthetic worldview. If there were a thousand of these books, I'd read them all. Sadly, there are not.

All Points North (from which this post's title was stolen) is more phlegmatic, more impressionistic than the partisan enthusiasms of John Grundy's Northern Pride: The Very Best of Northern Architecture or Stuart Maconie's seven-eighths-brilliant Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. It's about the author's life in insular Yorkshire, starting in Huddersfield and then in a widening ring as he discovers the world. The book thumps with exciting (to me) placenames: Staithes, Emley Moor, Elland, Keighley, Crimble Clough, Ravenscar, Scisset, Penistone, Marsden, Bridlington, eventually across rivers and ranges to places like Rochdale, Manchester, Grimsby, and London.

Armitage is a poet by trade, and has a deep demotic feel for his native region -- which is a bit of a trademark of Northerners; they feel place more acutely than soft southerners, or suburban Americans for that matter. There sure aren't any books like this about my suburbs.

He not only has a good eye for the landscape of trains, motorways, stone walls, terraces, probation offices, and so on, but a keen awareness of the humorous truth of Northern cliche: the grimness, the self-deprecation, the amusing stupidities, the embarrassment, the attitude, the bitter wit. We get amateur theatrics, quail fighting, Alan Bennett, and this: "Inside the building, above the taps, there's a notice saying PLEASE DO NOT WASH FOOTWEAR IN THESE SINKS, signed by the Chief Technical Officer of Ryedale District Council, and above the hand-dryer there's a plaque commemorating the 1989 Loo of the Year Award, presented to Helmsley car park." That's the Britain I love most.

On John Peel:
His comments and quips and mumblings were just as important as the music, as were his technical hitches, which included playing at least two records per night at the wrong speed, and talking at great length about somebody's new single before playing the B-side. Such cock-ups usually ended in Peel apologizing through a burst of laughter as he dragged the needle across the vinyl and flipped the record over, or cranked the turntable up to the right speed. I still can't listen to the twelve-inch version of Atmosphere by Joy Division without anticipating the moment when Ian Curtis changes gear from 33⅓ to 45 r.p.m., about three seconds into the opening line.
At Headingley, watching cricket:
viii) Some bright spark on the Western Terrace shouting, 'I'm Spartacus,' followed by thirty or forty shouts of 'I'm Spartacus' as security guards try to identify the man responsible for throwing a plastic beer bottle on to the field at deep square leg.

ix) The spontaneous chant of, 'Three pounds an hour, you're earning three pounds an hour' to the tune of 'Guantanamera', as security guards move in to eject a man from the Western Terrace for shouting 'Fuck off you Aussie cunt' as Matthew Elliot raised his bat to the sky in celebration of his second Test century.
At a social-services training exercise:
In an exercise designed to put us in touch with our body language, we were all invited to select a sealed envelope that contained a word describing a human emotion. Turning to the colleague on our right we then had to demonstate that emotion usuing facial gestures only. The colleague had to identify the emotion, and then it was his or her turn, and so on.

Finding the word LOVE inside your envelope, you turned to the tall shy man who'd taken the seat next to you, and in the spirit of the occasion, beamed lovingly at him, summoning up all those achingly precious moments of devotion and desire, and shutting out the image of the pale, bespectacled and bewildered man only six inches from your lips. Just at the point where you wondered if you might have to actually kiss him, he nodded his head and asked, 'Is it HATE'?

There was a moment of tense silence, before he further misinterpreted an expression of dumbfoundedness for one of agreement, and went on to announce, 'It is HATE, isn't it? I thought so.'
During a trip to the US:
New York, New York. Internet, the Yorkshire Post. Robert Ancliff of Bradford was left with 'a sour taste in his mouth' when he read the note left by his milkman on his doorstep. The previous day, Mr Ancliff had typed a polite letter of complaint, asking what had happened to the extra pint of milk he had requested. The handwritten reply read: 'I did get your milk delivered. It must have been stolen, so kiss my f****** a***.' The milkman has quit without notice and has not been seen since. A company spokesman has apologized, and Mr Ancliff has been given complimentary milk for his trouble.
This is a very sweet, funny book. I wish there were more like it.


Levi said...

Wow, I've actually been to Huddersfield! I spent a couple weeks in Holmfirth with my high school jazz ensemble on a sort of one-sided exchange visit, and Huddersfield was the nearest thing to a city. Man, that takes me back . . . thanks Fnarf. That book sounds great.

Speaking of The North, have you listened at all to any of Ricky Gervais's podcasts, featuring the ravings of that lovable Manc Karl Pilkington? Such good stuff.

brogues said...

Lovely post! Armitage is so right about the non-musical parts of Peel's show. One of the proudest moments of my life was having John Peel attempt to play 2 records I released in a neat segue only to play the 2nd one (Mahogany) at 33 instead of 45. Happy days! He said he'd play it at the right speed the next night but I think he forgot or, maybe, didn't like it at the right speed as often happened. Maybe that's one reason why I have hundreds of the blighters in my garage? :)