Thursday, 4 November 2010

A sense of place

I have defined myself in this blog as 'a writer in the North' partly because the North East of England is where I set most of my work, and partly because I want to draw more attention to a region which I feel, even in the global economy of the 21st Century, gets less than its fair share of the cake in terms of commercial attention and media exposure.

It used to be worse. When I started writing, although there was a strong BBC drama production presence in both Leeds and Manchester, and of course Granada TV in Manchester, virtually all the publishers and agents were located in London. If you wanted to see them personally you had to take an expensive 600-mile round trip to the capital. Otherwise you were limited to letters and the occasional telephone call - no emails then. The inevitable consequence was that writers who worked in or near London were preferred because they were more accessible and because they enjoyed the networking opportunities which we Northern writers were denied by distance and the concentration of the media and publishing industries in London.

That disadvantage is somewhat relieved these days by the global reach and immediacy of email and the web, though I would argue that the bias still exists. Certainly it remains difficult to meet the movers and shakers personally. For example, I am a member of the Society of Authors, but have been to very few of the Society's events as most of them are held in London.

It's interesting that Northern writers who have become well-known names over the last few decades have almost all used the North as a strong element in their work - I'm thinking Alan Bennett, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, Barry Hines, Alan Plater, Dick Clements and Ian La Frenais, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell. (These are the names that immediately occur to me, and I'm conscious that there are no women in the list - Victoria Wood is the only one I can think of who fits the bill in quite this way.) It strikes me, even as I write this list, how influential for me all of those writers have been. They are the reason I started writing, and I guess that's another factor in my wanting to define myself as 'Northern' in my own work.

Last night my interview with Wendy Robertson was broadcast on Bishop FM on Wendy's programme The Writing Game, which was all about the importance of location to Northern writers (If you'd like to hear a podcast of the programme you can catch it on Wendy's blog, Life Twice Tasted.) My sense of place finds its way on my work in location (even fictional locations are at least loosely based on these places I know), character and speech. As I explained to Wendy, I never write dialect; rather I suggest dialect by the occasional use of words that are easily understood by the context, and by the characteristic syntax and truncations of the North East voice.

But if my characters are largely from my home region, I would hope that my readership was not. I like to think that the work travels well, is easily understood by all English speakers and that the themes, if not universal, are at least universally recognized.

And if they are not, I'd be grateful if you'd tell me.

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