Books: Pennine pleasures

It's far from grim up north with a poet as your guide, says Pete Davies: All Points North by Simon Armitage Viking, pounds 14.99, 245pp
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The Independent Culture
I once found myself interviewing a council waste-management officer on an asbestos-streaked hillside near Hebden Bridge. The principal trouble with his job, he said, was that all the decisions affecting it were taken far away down south by people ignorant of local conditions, that he lived "in the wild outreaches of the country north of Watford that nobody gives a bugger about".

The "north-south divide" is an inadequate descriptive concept. Those of us who live in the north know that we are not merely divided from the south, but forgotten by it altogether. Every now and then, therefore, someone taps out a message to remind London that an entire other England does still exist.

There are pieces in Simon Armitage's All Points North that prove how exotic and unknown the north can seem, as if Yorkshire were really Kansas or Kerala. I suspect it makes no difference - that London, fat and self- absorbed, will continue preening in its mirror regardless - but when the book is as good as this one, it's worth the candle anyway.

Simon Armitage is a poet from the village of Marsden, just south west of Huddersfield, and this collection has all the resonant precision of a poet's ear and eye. If he's precise, however, he's far from precious, and much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny. Whether he is househunting, explaining the darker complexities of the East Coast Line, or going on tour with an all-male pantomime to Bridlington, Armitage writes with a dry, subtle and acutely observant wit.

Other pieces recalling childhood have the perfect emotional trajectory of the very best writing in the short form (I'm thinking, for comparison, of Sam Shepard's Cruising Paradise) while one quite glorious flight of invention called "Who's Who in Jerusalem" simply cries out to be filmed. Done properly, the result would be like Last of the Summer Wine as seen by David Lynch, something bleakly knowing and surreal.

For all that, this is not only a book about the north. We find Armitage marooned uneasily up the Amazon, taking a bizarre day trip to Iceland, or drifting thoughtfully round the set of Regeneration, the film of Pat Barker's First World War novel. It doesn't always work; the collection falters a little towards the end, where transcripts of a Building Sights film for the BBC about the Humber Bridge and of a rather pretentious, incoherent Radio 4 discussion on the meaning of "north" both feel like padding.

These are, however, two minor bumps on an otherwise exceedingly smooth road. At Headingley or Hillsborough, at the DSS's Stalinist Quarry House in Leeds, or atop the snowy moors with the Avalanche Dodgers on their annual Christmas walk, Armitage finds the perfect phrase with admirable regularity. I particularly liked his red card for Dennis Wise: "A tennis ball on legs".

It's no less entertaining to learn that Direct Line considers a poet to be a higher insurance risk than a probation officer, and also diverting (if somewhat alarming) to discover what training courses in the probation service can involve. Armitage mines his time in the justice system with a melancholy humour.

This is not an idealised north, but a place in which the brash retail magnate and the feckless loser get equal space. After all, as a homeless lad in Manchester says, "Everyone's vulnerable, aren't they?"

Armitage's north is all the better for its acknowledgement of those rough edges. I have stood in the same check-out queues in Huddersfield; I have had a pint or few myself at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, and his descriptions all seem to me most exact and affectionate. Armitage loves his north, without sentiment, and he serves it well. Here's hoping that a reader or two down south will pay attention.