Bunch Of Fives: Alex Niven | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Tyneside author Alex Niven discusses the North of England and celebrates the launch of his book at The North Will Rise Again event at The Lubber Fiend, Newcastle on Saturday 2nd March

From 3-5pm Alex will be joined by Mancunian author Isaac Rose for a panel discussion to talk about both The North Will Rise Again and Isaac’s book The Rentier City: Making Modern Manchester. Then from 7-9pm there will be performances from North-East outfit Marginal Gains and Manchester’s Lady Lamp.

Ahead of the event, Alex gives us his bunch of fives…

As anyone who has ever lived in the North East knows all too well, we are a region bedevilled with stereotypes. From the cosy Northumbriana of the tourist industry and the local historians to the media archetype of the boozy Geordie bimbo/himbo, North East culture is often packaged as something simple, intellectually humble, even a bit backward and gormless. This all serves to put us, as they say, back in our box. But in fact, as is apparent from even a quick look around the region’s contemporary music and art scenes, the North East is a place where people tend to think outside the box – a place where marginality and an unusually jagged history has given rise to a pervasive culture of stubbornness, rebelliousness, idiosyncrasy and outright batshit psychedelic weirdness. It is this way of regional being – which we might call ‘Acid Northumbria’ after the late theorist Mark Fisher’s notion of Acid Communism – which has the potential to liberate us from the Geordie Shore and Red Wall stereotypes (and, just possibly, point the way to a better, fairer, more empowered future in a political as well as a cultural context). If Acid Northumbria is indeed a thing – and I think it is – then here are some of its key historic figureheads …

Thomas Spence
An early, ideological proponent of bizarro Northumbrian militancy, Spence was a key figure in the political counterculture of the late-eighteenth century. Unlike more mannered bourgeois figures of the period, Spence gave precisely no fucks for established traditions of political theorising – hawking his treatises about common land ownership (provoked by threats to enclose the Town Moor in the 1770s) on the streets of Newcastle and London, writing pamphlets with titles like Pigs’ Meat, The Giant-Killer and The Constitution of Spensonia (A Country in Fairy-Land Situated Between Utopia and Oceana), and selling a weird stimulatory drink called saloop to passersby to try to stave off the severe poverty he invariably found himself in. One for the radical history heads. 

Connie & Tom Pickard
In 1964 this young hippy couple started the Morden Tower poetry readings in a forgotten section of the Newcastle town walls. Amid a fug of multi-coloured, multi-flavoured smoke, and against a backdrop of diverse countercultural shenanigans, the venue became an epicentre of the explosive Sixties poetry scene, playing host to Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and inspiring local poet Basil Bunting to write the poem of the century (Briggflatts, which uses layered modernist techniques to create an epic template for Northumbrian identity). Connie ran the Tower for many decades, while Tom developed into one of the finest, funniest, most politically strident poets on these islands (see his greatest hits collection Hoyoot for choice examples).

Alan Hull
Anyone who saw the 2022 BBC documentary about the Lindisfarne lead singer will have learned – perhaps to their surprise – that Hull was a gifted, cerebral writer who hallucinated songs based on Edgar Allan Poe short stories just as often as he got caught up in the pub-rock mode of ‘Fog on the Tyne’ (itself a weirder, more literary work than is often assumed). Aside from underrated Lindisfarne acid-folk digressions like ‘Lady Eleanor’ and ‘Clear White Light’, Hull’s two solo albums of the mid-Seventies – Pipedream and Squire – are the lo-fi masterpieces the Beatles never got round to making. There is great poignancy in the fact that Hull’s singular musical and political project was never fully acknowledged prior to his premature death in 1995 (though it has been reduced to cartoon Geordie stereotypes often enough).

Tish Murtha
Murtha’s photography is sometimes mistakenly located in a tradition of ‘kitchen sink’ realism that can elsewhere serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of North-East bleakness and grimness. But she is better viewed as a pugnacious creative maverick whose work highlights the subversive playfulness of the backstreets of late-twentieth-century Newcastle. An important example of a North-East working-class sensibility that does not conform to the popular stereotype of just so many hard-working, straight-talking, quietly (or loudly) patriotic men, Murtha’s determination to highlight the anarchic everyday surrealism of the region – and her refusal to follow the rules – makes her an Acid Northumbrian par excellence. Like Hull, because she did not and does not fit with received ideas about the North East character, Murtha’s artistic achievements have been chronically overlooked and underrated. 

Richard Dawson
Perhaps the most notable contemporary carrier of the Acid Northumbrian flame, Dawson’s thrillingly outré post-folk experiments – not to mention his barnstorming, sufi-esque live performances – are an ultimate riposte to claims that North East art is cosy, genial and simplistic. Whether he is exploring the medieval roots of Northumbria on albums like Peasant or via his work with the band Hen Ogledd, singing of surreal visitations by horse-headed figures and drooling minotaurs in everyday settings, or simply narrating vignettes about studying for a BTEC in Engineering at Tynemouth College, Dawson’s music destabilises North East existence at every turn and reimagines it as something rich and strange. In a cultural sphere (i.e. the music industry) where artists are relentlessly pressured to compromise and to align their identity with the demands of the market, Dawson has managed to develop a vigorous, even heroic version of Acid Northumbrian autonomy.

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