When J. B. Priestley visited Newcastle upon Tyne in the autumn of 1933 he witnessed a city experiencing a severe economic depression. ‘Silent rusting shipyards are not an inspiring spectacle,’ he wrote in English Journey, ‘neither are rows of broken-down cottages and forlorn allotments’. What Priestley found on the banks of the ‘blackened and ruined’ Tyne caused him to ponder if the industrialisation of the north had been worth, particularly for the working class, all the ‘steam and filth and din’. The Bradford-born writer was an outsider offering an impressionistic (and at times offensive) account of the city. Nevertheless, his descriptions were echoed in The Day of the Sardine by Sid Chaplin, a novel by an author who had a more detailed knowledge of Newcastle. Some three decades later, Durham-born Chaplin wrote of ‘cobbles smeared with filth and a sea-fret […] more sulphur and fine ash than hell possessed’. He wrote from and about the North East throughout his literary career; if Priestley was a disgruntled tourist then Chaplin was a local.

What the ‘filth’ represents is important to their respective conceptions of what they both saw as an impressive yet neglected city; it is, for them, a symbol of deprivation, capitalist exploitation, poverty. This is not how everyone has read it, however. The architecture critic Ian Nairn for example, writing in 1960 (a year before Chaplin), marvelled at the city’s ‘splendidly sooty’ buildings while bemoaning what he believed to be the misguided removal of soot due to ‘some survival of puritan ideas on cleanliness’. Nairn adored Newcastle, particularly for the way history could be traced across and through its radical city centre landscape. Soot and filth may seem unlikely places to start when reading Gordon Burn’s 2003 novel The North of England Home Service but both play a significant role in the way the history of the city is interpreted in the book. This is an industrial soot, an industrial filth, inextricably linked to conceptions of history, social change, and class. And in Burn’s novel there is a contemporary obsession, comparable to that shown by Priestley, Chaplin, and Nairn, with dirt and waste and what they represent.

The story centres around comedian and faded star of light entertainment Ray Cruddas who helps to run a social club in Newcastle named Bobby’s. The club faces a daily battle with ‘shredded plastic and […] an ever replenished build-up of refuse’, brought on the winds from the nearby Tyne. Its owner Ronnie Cornish is a self-made millionaire who runs, alongside a number of business interests, a company specialising in the making of bricks designed and ‘programmed to look not only chipped and cracked, with the corners rubbed off, but also to give the appearance of being mildewed and streaked with soot marks’. This imitation of the physical surfaces of history is a central theme in Burn’s novel; its characters are searching for a ‘texture and particularity’ seemingly missing from the modern world. In the case of Ronnie’s bricks, the dirt and filth is being reapplied and repackaged; they are part of a wider appropriation of working-class history and the subsequent production of an ersatz, commodified version of it. For example, Bobby’s is modelled on a traditional working men’s club; it’s a theme park of labour history and culture with nods to the Jarrow marchers and industrial folk songs.

As well as dressing up in ‘period’ costume (as miners and mill girls), those visiting this ‘nostalgia enterprise’ bring pictures of their ancestors (rabbit-skinners and suffragettes amongst them) to display on the walls. These are ‘computer-enhanced’ and ‘hand-tinted’ by a local company who specialise in ‘retro-imaging’. Wine is poured from Edwardian chamber pots and drinks kept cool in zinc tubs while mangles, washing stools, and possers are dotted around the main function room. All of this is to evoke an industrial past which has been formative to the regional identity of the working-class North East. One reason, Burn writes, for the success of Bobby’s is because ‘people liked […] to be reminded of simpler, less neurotic (and less dangerous) times’. It employs those who have been made redundant following the large-scale closure of local industries. And part of the novel’s focus is on those who were ‘products of the old industries – the heavy industries – that had created the character and culture of that part of the world’.

So, as I discuss in my forthcoming book The Working Class and Twenty-First-Century British Fiction, this is a commodified and romanticised version of a specific and evocative history – a history reflected in the highly emotive names and places used throughout The North of England Home Service. For instance, there is the name of the club itself. Bobby is Bobby Thompson: the famous comedian from County Durham revered across the North East. He became known for his appearances on BBC northern radio (such as on Wot Cheor, Geordie!) in the 1950s – one explanation for the title of Burn’s novel. And the surnames of Ray and Ronnie provide another link to such cultural traditions: Cruddas and Cornish, respectively.

George Cruddas was a director at the Armstrong’s works in Elswick to the west of Newcastle city centre. His name was subsequently used for the nearby Cruddas Park flats built in the 1960s under T. Dan Smith which featured in the classic TV drama Our Friends in the North. Norman Cornish was an artist from Spennymoor who was often associated with the pitman painters; as he told Burn in an article for The Guardian in 1970 however, it was a title he rejected because, Cornish argued, ‘It assumes that the man who works in a mine or heavy industry is not up to writing or painting or playing music, and of course this simply isn’t true’. So here are names and places which evoke the history of Newcastle and the North East: socially, culturally, geographically, and politically. However, Newcastle is never named as the novel’s location despite everything pointing to Elswick as the setting, let alone the city itself.

Of course, Gordon Burn was also born there. In 2005, four years before he died at the age of 61, he wrote a fascinating piece for The Guardian about his parents and about growing up in, leaving, and returning to Newcastle. He describes finding Raymond Williams’s wonderful 1960 novel Border Country amongst his late father’s books, incorrectly naming it ‘Border Crossing’, unconsciously revealing his own anxieties about crossing both geographical and social class borders perhaps. He also describes how, as a teenager, he dismissed Sid Chaplin as a writer for being ‘too rooted’ and ‘small-scale’; as I argue in Textual Practice, one of the many compelling things about The North of England Home Service is that Burn returns to the social realism of Chaplin to rework the mode for the twenty-first century. As a teenager, Burn felt like a ‘displaced person’ and turned to the vibrant cultural ‘happenings’ in Morden Tower – a medieval turret located  in the city centre’s historic walls and passages that, incidentally, Ian Nairn loved so much. Here Burn, as a ‘diligent, book-sniff sixth-former’, witnessed poetry readings by the likes of modernist Basil Bunting and divulged in Newcastle’s alternative culture. Initially at least, these were the cultural experiences – giving a sense of freedom from, or at least flexibility in, form – which appear to have shaped his subsequent writing.

It was reading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song which gave Burn the impetus and inspiration to write his first full-length book, one which itself would push at the parameters of form and fiction. Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, his most well-known work, is a remarkable piece of non-fiction writing, particularly given its horrific and often sensationalised subject matter. It is about Peter Sutcliffe: the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ convicted of murdering 13 women between 1975 and 1980 across Yorkshire and Lancashire. But it also offers a Richard Hoggart-type analysis of the small working-class community of Bingley in West Yorkshire where Sutcliffe was born. And in different ways, the working-class north has been a recurrent if not central theme and place throughout Burn’s writing. For example, the North East provides the backdrop for some of the passages in his last novel, Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel, and working-class sport and community are central to Pocket Money: Inside the World of Snooker and Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion. But, as already described, it is in The North of England Home Service where the working-class north becomes the central focus.

It is not only a novel about Newcastle and the North East, however, but also one concerned with a shared experience of change, displacement, and return. For example, there are some marvellous passages describing the early life of Jackie Mabe, Ray Cruddas’ assistant, who would cycle from the Fens of Cambridgeshire into London’s East End to fight on one of Jack Solomons’ boxing bills in Hackney. ‘One road, and a flat one,’ writes Burn, ‘from Chatteris going south past the Isle of Ely and the great floating mothership of the Cathedral, riding high in a dead line above the marshes and mud flats and sucking peat fen, past the steam-pump houses and the ruler-straight and geometrically patterned rivers’. Both Ray and Jackie make names for themselves in postwar London as emerging figures in sport and entertainment and Burn draws in vivid, bright detail the Soho streets of the 1940s and ‘50s. However, in the contemporary moment (the novel is set in 2001) Ray and Jackie make for Beckettian figures, like Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot, who, as one character from Burn’s novel states, ‘come together out of necessity and play a game to survive life’.

One element of this sense of survival, and something which leads back to Bobby Thompson, is humour. ‘“You were on the floor so often you should have a cauliflower arse”, Ray used to joke Jackie,’ writes Burn. ‘“If bullshit was music, you’d be a brass band” was Jackie’s habitual comeback to this’. Using humour as a coping mechanism, as a way of gaining momentary control over uncertainty, was one of the many appeals of Bobby Thompson. Therefore, it is telling that Ray’s stage act at Bobby’s involves an impersonation of the man himself: ‘he pulled on a flat cap with a lick of Brylcreemed hair fixed to it, a baggy Fair Isle jumper with a hole in the elbow, a pair of baggy trousers and some soft-soled carpet slippers shiny with grease’.

So it is a novel which keeps returning to Bobby Thompson and to Newcastle and the North East but in 2001 this means an encounter with another, more disturbing type of soot: soot from the burning pyres of cattle during the foot and mouth crisis. ‘During that spring the scenes in the countryside […] were hellish and other-worldly and reminded the people who lived there, especially at night times, of apocalyptic visions and infernal depictions in dark, dimmed old Bible paintings’, describes Burn. In The North of England Home Service, then, there are no positive ways to interpret the modern day production of ash and soot.

It is not easy to categorise Gordon Burn as a writer. To do so would be to miss the complexity of both his writing and his obsessions: be they sport, contemporary art, crime, history, place, culture, the media. But while Ronnie Cornish’s ‘fake’ soot-marked bricks in The North of England Home Service– commodities which are part of an artificial and commodified construction of the past – fail to offer an enabling sense of working-class history, Burn’s writing does provide the textures and particularities of both the past and, crucially, the present which are so often missing from contemporary culture.

Phil O’Brien has written on Gordon Burn for Textual Practice and on Walter Greenwood for Literature and History. He has book chapters in Accelerated Times: British Literature in Transition (Cambridge University Press), on radical working-class theatre in the 1980s, and in Working-Class Writing: Theory & Practice (Palgrave), on Anthony Cartwright, Catherine O’Flynn, and Edward Hogan. He teaches at the University of Manchester and Liverpool John Moores University and is currently writing a book on British working-class fiction.