I’ve just finished reading Jon McGregor’s This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happen To Someone Like You (you can find it on-line here). It’s a fantastic collection of short stories that vary wildly in terms of length, form and subject matter, but tied together by a strong sense of place. All the stories are set in Norfolk and the wider East of England/ East Midlands, and he creates a real sense of the farming community and its impact on the landscape, the flat of the fens and the bleakness of the landscape, which also permeates each story.
His book got me thinking about whether a sense of place influences the stories that I have written. If pushed, I would describe myself as being Northern. My parents were brought up in Lancashire, and I spent most of my childhood in Yorkshire, so it seems a fair place to locate myself, even if I have lived in London longer than I have in The North. I wouldn’t say I have a strong accent (Harrogate is sometimes described as “posh Yorkshire”) but some people can tell that it is vaguely Northern. Despite living in London for the past decade, I remain firmly of the opinion that everything is better Up North – my wife used to say that when we were travelling back down from a weekend at my parents, that I grew more miserable the further away from Yorkshire that we were.
When I first started writing, I used to hear my characters speaking in a Yorkshire accent that would have fitted in one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues. This is in part because I was so familiar with his monologues, but also because it was the kind of story-telling I thought I could manage to pull off with my sense of humour. I found it easy to fashion a distinctive voice with by giving them a northern accent – in my own head if nowhere else. This doesn’t seem to happen so much anymore – perhaps because I have developed my own writing style and broadened what I want to write about, but also because I don’t always write in the first person.
I normally lay responsibility for my interest in writing at the door of my Granddad Smith, who used to write short stories for BBC Radio Lancashire. He was a man who used to say “stick a pin in a map of Lancashire and my heart bleeds”. He used to have a jumper with a pattern based on a Lowry painting, and family legend has it that he didn’t speak to my parents for a week when they announced we were moving to Lancashire (this could of course just be exaggeration – maybe it was just three days). I’m lucky enough to have a box of his stories, all written in Lancashire dialect.
I can’t imagine writing in dialect in the way my Granddad did. In part it’s a confidence thing – only being ‘Northern’, rather than ‘Yorkshire’ or ‘Lancashire’, means I think I can do the accent, but can’t really do the dialect as we were never really brought up with it. I think there’s also a point regarding audience to be addressed – would writing in dialect make it more difficult for the audience to engage with a piece? And also does it work on the page, or does writing with a specific dialect/ accent work better if a piece is meant be ‘performed’ as much as it as ‘read’ – for example stories that are written for the radio. One of the pieces of writing I’ve been working on is made of three characters telling their stories in the first person, and I have been trying one of them out in a Yorkshire dialect to mark the voice out as different but also because of the assumptions that, rightly or wrongly, I hope the reader will make as a result (that he’s a working class, salt of the earth type).
But thinking about Jon McGregor’s book, his characters don’t speak in a Norfolk dialect or accent. The sense of place he creates is achieved through description of his characters’ physical surroundings. Which I guess is the same as the way that I do sometimes try to incorporate The North into my writing – if I have to locate a story anywhere, I do try to make it somewhere Up North, in part because it’s what I know and love but also because I would ultimately say that it’s an important part of my identity.