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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

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