3 February 2003
We went to an event, 'A Writer's Guide to the North', with a good handful of local writers (or a local handful of good writers - Julia Darling, David Almond, Margaret Wilkinson, Andrea Badenoch, Sean O'Brien) reading their own and other people's work, where it reflected on the region or how the region had affected them. We thought it might result in a debate about whether there was any such a thing as a northern voice, or a northern literary sensibility; in fact it didn't, but the question lingers irresistibly.
Simultaneously, the city libraries are canvassing for public votes to choose the book that best represents life in the north east, ahead of World Book Day. You can vote for anything, but they've printed a shortlist of twenty suggestions on the ballot paper, so it's a fair bet that the winner will come from that. I stood at the counter and ran my eye down the list, and I do believe I squeaked when I got to the bottom. Number twenty: The Samaritan by Chaz Brenchley. You could have knocked me over with a blini-pan; I didn't know that anyone still remembered The Samaritan. It was my first real novel, first book with my name on it, published fifteen years ago and long since out of print. It does still survive in libraries, though; I guess people must still be reading it. And it is the book most explicitly set in Newcastle. I think in fact later novels, particularly Paradise, are more directly driven by the physical and emotional presence of the city, but by then I was much vaguer about where we were geographically, I'd gone all coy about naming names. Too much trouble with lawyers, basically.
So: we come to the perennial question, am I a northern writer? In some ways, very clearly and obviously not: I'm southern-born with a southern accent and a southern education; my character, my sensibilities, my aesthetic were formed long before I moved to Newcastle (almost exactly half my life ago, if anyone is counting; this is a good time to take stock). On the other hand, in other ways, very clearly and obviously I am: I live in the north and leave it rarely, much of my work is set here, all my surviving work has been written here and you can't spend your entire adulthood, your creative life in a place without being influenced by its physical and metaphorical landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes (metaphorically all three of these are very different things, as they are in a literal sense also: metaphorical landscapes are hard and unchanging, seascapes are fluid and shifting, cityscapes are artificial. What more do you want, a map?). I could have written The Samaritan anywhere, set that story in any city I chose, though in another city it would have been another book. Paradise I could not have written anywhere but here; it's a response to places, people, buildings in Benwell, it just couldn't have happened elsewhere. That's how I pitched it to my editor at the time: 'Well, look, there's this little wooden chapel just down the hill from me, and an old Methodist church beyond that's been deconsecrated, it's where I go to play snooker; and then there are these guys who preach at the Monument every Saturday, and there's a Polish club round the corner full of WW2 veterans and their Geordie grandchildren; and the local kids are bored with breaking into houses, now they torch them after for the spark of it - and that's what I want to write about, all of that, life in Benwell,' and so I did.
So am I a northern writer? Yes and no. I am, because accidents of geography and romance brought me here, and it has always seemed to make sense to write about the places where I am; but I am perhaps fraudulent to claim it, because it is only accidental and if I lived in the south still I would be a southern writer, I would write about the places where I was and there wouldn't be a lick of the north in my voice.
Put it another way: I don't know. Define your terms, and see if I fit within them. I will go on as I am, regardless. (Oh, and I'm not going to win the library ballot. Catherine Cookson will do that.)
© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.