Bloomsbury, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The North (and Almost Everything in It), By Paul Morley

Mancunian bias, dodgy theories – but this groaning table of northern relish has flavour to spare

Paul Morley grew up in Reddish, which is on the edge of Stockport, which is next to Manchester. The reader is not permitted to forget this, nor the fact that Morley was born down South and also worries that his northern upbringing may actually have taken place in Cheshire, which he regards as a bourgeois air-lock leading to and away from the North, and thus perhaps not in itself echt North.

Such anxieties of definition seem to prompt his efforts to establish the North as different in kind, history, language and attitude from the South. Neither Morley's sense of things nor the Matter of the North are settled yet, and The North (and Almost Everything in It) is an attempt to unify history and memoir.

The result is fascinating, often funny and occasionally inspired, but also overlong, padded out with inserted captions dealing with northern facts and faces. There is the odd howler among the sprawling info. Coronation Street might originally have been Florizel Street, but Florizel appears in The Winter's Tale, not Twelfth Night. More damningly, Morley shifts the incomparably glum river-town of Goole into West Yorkshire, mentioning that the Don joins the Ouse there, but not that both are assumed into the mighty Humber, which makes Morley's beloved Mersey look like a feculent trickle.

The North also suffers from an autodidact's want of perspective, which Morley at times confuses with wit. When the Wigan comedian Frank Randle was told by southern critics that he lacked polish, he replied: "What do you think I am, a coffin?" That's wit – the friction and play produced by the marriage of unexpected elements. On the other hand, Morley proposes "there is the combination of the geology of the north and the... earthiness of the people to produce voices that seem to follow and be followed by the shape of the earth... In the south your voice leaves the ground, your accent fights away from the earth, as if you are using how you speak to avoid the dirt under your feet, which represents the planet." Even if tongue in cheek, this is nonsense.

If applied to two languages, rather than two varieties of English, the argument would clearly be racist. You don't need to be better or more "real" in order to be different. To claim more is to valorise the very provincialism from which Morley sees the North as in part emancipated. Yet to ask Morley to be clear may be barking up the wrong tree: he's often at his best in near-ecstatic chains of association, his own kind of prose poem, where his phrase-making powers can simply get on with it, among "mint-condition mysteries", "the mill-shocked layout of the streets", the "cabalistic psychic trigger" ascribed to the Sex Pistols as they appeared in Manchester, an event before which, as in the ruins of remembered holidays in Margate, "nothing was due to happen but an evacuation of the spirit and a squandering of energy".

Morley is a journalist, strong up to 800 metres but sometimes struggling over longer distances. This perfectly honourable condition lends power to some of the book's episodes but makes it structurally problematic. At one point, Morley notes that we live among contradictions. The best of his meditative accumulations and excavations of meaning – such as the pages on Lowry and the Stockport viaduct - do in fact derive their life from this.

Yet the book's basic contradiction escapes him: at bottom he thinks the North is Manchester. For Morley, everywhere else north of the Mersey-Humber line is a more or less remote satellite of the brilliant pandemonium of Greater Mancworld, over which the spectre of Morrissey hangs like an amateur god made of smoke and sorrow. Whisper who dares: there may be those who don't think Manchester, wonderful as it is in its energy and architecture and renewed self-belief, actually belongs in the North. Like Liverpool (heresy!), it may be somewhere else, the Isle of Manc, groggily adrift between the quasi-North of Sheffield and the entrenched Midlandness of the Potteries.

Rock journalism, as Morley points out, is a profession requiring neither qualifications nor experience. Those who grow up in the trade either expand their frame of reference (like Morley himself) or remain imprisoned by it. Part of Morley knows that cotton, the Industrial Revolution, the Corn Laws and the Depression are of infinitely greater significance than The Sex Pistols, or the music made by those who heard them at the Free Trade Hall in 1976. Yet he also knows that from the day he bought his first T-Rex single he also bought the glittering, preening, snarling, under-resourced pop-cultural package. On David Bowie: "What makes you great... is not necessarily your individual works, but your very existence and your personality." By this account, Bowie is the grandfather of The X Factor and all the other deathly crap that goes with it, ten miles wide and one inch deep.

Yet the willingness to lay himself open is part of Morley's great attractiveness as a writer. His search for a route out of the confines of home and locality also enables him to re-address his father's depression and eventual suicide. His father appears here as anxious about a status he could never quite attain, as a Heath Conservative with nothing to sell but clerical labour, a mysteriously unhappy husband, a parent disappointed by his son's inability to make sense of his bizarre grammar school. There was, as they say, nothing down for him.

He is recalled with a love the more persuasive for being unsparing. Manchester City's 2012 triumph in the Premier League would have delighted him. Here, though, it's seen as the victory of patient authenticity over the mysteriously fraudulent Manchester United, which is just more of the same essentialist bollocks as the claims about language, not to mention being crashingly provincial. But given how long it took the Blues to get there, it's a forgivable exaggeration.

Sean O'Brien's 'Collected Poems' is published by Picador

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London