I have loved Northumberland since first coming here for holidays when I was a little girl. It is not given to many of us to achieve our heart’s desire, but a little less than two years ago I did just that, and found myself, astonished and delighted, actually living here. I am where I want to be: in the most beautiful county in Britain, among the nicest people in the world, and far, far from the madding crowd.
So I would like to tell you that I’ve been getting ready all my life by reading everything there is from or about this part of the world. But it wouldn’t be true. I’ve never read Catherine Cookson, for a start, the South Shields-born chronicler of hard lives on Tyneside who was for many years one of the most-read authors in the UK. Newcastle upon Tyne – a really rather good city, just the right size, with a fantastic university and brimful of the aforementioned nicest people in the world – has tended to get a bad literary press, with a heavy emphasis on gloom and despondency. You should not entertain the idea that this is the only mood here, or even a dominant one. Believe me, a novelist could just as easily write of the harrowing bleakness of, say, Gloucestershire. You can watch Our Friends in the North, but please do so for the peerless performances and the unmatched cast (Gina McKee, Mark Strong, Christopher Eccleston and DANIEL CRAIG – yes! Daniel Craig with a fairly Geordie accent!), not to add to your already-in-place sense of eeh-but-it’s-grim-oop-north. While you’re at it, you might as well watch Get Carter, if only to admire Michael Caine’s mascara (you probably already know that Ted Lewis’s book, Jack’s Return Home, which underlies Get Carter, was not set here: in fact, it’s not set particularly anywhere other than a vaguely generic north of England. Lewis’s Carter changes trains at Doncaster, opening the intriguing possibility that all that jangly music and brutality should be happening in Hull).
Almost the only novelist I have come across who bravely asserts the gleaming pleasures of our terrific local city is Joanna Trollope, whose The Other Family is absolutely spot-on in recognising the Newcastle self-confidence which – shock horror – is not in thrall to London (a city several hundred miles away that blights us all with its ignorant and arrogant belief that it is the only place that matters).
So much for the urban landscapes of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Tyneside. Stretching out, up long white sandy beaches and across ravishing hill country, from the Pennines in the south to the Cheviots on the north, if Northumberland is your undiscovered country, start making plans now to make up for lost time. Lots of lovely places to stay – our absolute favourite is Southlands Farm Cottages – and places to go. Limber up now with some reading.
The only bibliophilic problem with wild unspoilt country is the tendency to Jilly Cooperise it. Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree is quite good fun as romantic novels go: a sub – okay, sub-sub-sub – Wuthering Heights with less irritating protagonists (if anyone ever asks you what ‘damning with faint praise’ means, you can use, ‘oh, well, they’re less irritating than Cathy and Heathcliff’ as an example). One of the very few disadvantages of living in wild border country is that it brings out the Romantic Novelist in far too many people. Yes, this is where the notion of clearly defined boundaries tended to be for sissies and yes, this is where the Tudors seriously considered rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall to keep the Scots out: but everyday life here is not wall-to-wall bodice-ripping (*sigh*). We must talk about historical fiction one of these days, in fact, and ponder the tendency of town-dwelling novelists to imagine that the most frightful things happen just outside suburbia. For the time being, I will simply remind you of RD Blackmore (about whom there is a myth in my family that he is related to us: a myth entirely without foundation), whose very fervid goings-on on Exmoor among the Doones and the Ridds were conceived in – oh, the bathos – Teddington.
I have just been lent Anya Seton’s Devil Water. Seton was an American romantic-historical novelist so I am leaning towards fearing the worst. Her subject is the terrifically romantic Earl of Derwentwater, who was indeed a local boy (who did not come to a good end) but I am holding out hopes that in the book he might spend a pleasing amount of time hanging around in Hexhamshire, where the really rather fabulously named Devil’s Water runs into the Tyne. I have fond memories of learning to swim in the Devil’s Water, which you have to admit is a hell of a statement and works both for strangers in these parts – a really seriously cool name for a stream – and for locals, who can admire my childhood hardiness in ice-cold waters.
Lovely David Almond is from here and every bookshelf should have Skellig on it. Paul Torday – who sadly died very recently – was also a neighbour, a fact I had suspected before I knew because of his habit of appropriating local village names for his characters (Stephen Gunnerton).
For my non-fiction shelf, I’ll settle happily for Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver: Thomas Bewick. Bewick lived and died in this part of the world. A gifted naturalist, he revolutionised the art of engraving. On the off-chance that you haven’t read any of her biographies before, let me tell you now that Jenny Uglow is the perfect host who will introduce you wisely, kindly and entertainingly to whomever she chooses to study.
There is, sadly, no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare filled in any of his missing years (week 24) in the North East. In fact, his portrayal of Harry Hotspur as the sort of chap who says ‘Zounds’ and ‘What Ho’ (honestly he does: Henry IV Part I) makes it seem a tad unlikely that Will hung out with many Geordies. His loss. Come and see for yourself.
PS The NorthernReader Walking Book Club strides out this Friday, March 14, at 10.00hrs from Wall Village Hall (NE46 4DX). Coffee and cake at St Oswald’s Tea Rooms at the top of the Fell. Do come and join us.