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Peter Davidson, The Idea of North, Reaktion

What is the North? Although it’s almost always that bit further from wherever you happen to be, Peter Davidson’s new study manages to pin down this elusive geographical quality for long enough to offer inspiring new insights and lyrical evocations.

One definition he investigates is that the North is what southerners look to for ghosts and myths, for a sense of unreality. Scotland, for instance, might have stoked the European Enlightenment, contributed early versions of fax, television, and telephone, been the location, even, of breakthrough cloning technology, but metaphorically and literally, because of the centralisation of government and media institutions, it is the South that is the place of Information. Auden’s Nightmail Train was naturally bringing news from the South to benighted North Britain: in that rattling poem, the South is clearly where news happens, the North is only where it goes to.

Paradoxically, the North traditionally contains the authentic (the body, feelings, and the oral), the ‘down-to-earth’, but southerners, like the heroine in Powell and Pressburger’s marvellous Scottish film, She Knows Where She’s Going, are those who seek, make or accept the act of authentication. Neil Gunn’s later novels repeatedly dramatise ideas of knowledge understood across the north-south divide. John Buchan’s novel of an almost-Canada, Sick Heart River, suggests the north is as much a psychological space as an actual territory.

All is not as it seems and in this fashion Davidson lovingly teases out the symbolism within this field of geographical relativity. He gives first a history from classical Greece to the present age of the North’s evolving, contradictory imaginative draw, a pull almost as strong to humankind as the movement of a compass needle, compelled by North’s real, magnetic, namesake. Then he evokes various epitomes of the north. Iceland, for instance, mesmerised William Morris who only visited it long after publishing his saga translations. A few generations later, Auden and the artist Eric Ravilious (an inspired choice of subject) each had momentous visits to the island, Ravilious tragically dying in an aircraft crash off its dangerous coast. Photographs, such as that of an Inuit rock sculpture and of Ravilious’s painting, Norway 1940, contribute to the magic of the book.

Be it discussing the remarkable lingering films of the Norwegian Knut Erik Jensen, the paintings of Vilhelm Hammerskoi and (to me) their pre-Hopper longings, or Glenn Gould’s tone poem of voices on a Canadian north-bound train, Davidson is attentive and often pleasurably surprising. The book introduces little-known but clearly significant poems, films, and paintings again and again, dwelling on them with detail and insight, and he is illuminating on contemporary English poetry, too, showing how Simon Armitage locates himself very specifically in the “north”, characterised as Marsden, a village in West Yorkshire. Perhaps he is generous to the dyspeptic Sean O’Brien, whose poetry so often equates misery with life in a northern town, but Davidson is a gifted prose-writer and his pages on the development of crystal and the chandelier glow and glint almost as much as the subject itself.

Finally, the book ends with a glimpse at Davidson’s motivation, a touching reference to his father’s prelapsarian upbringing in Perthshire before the Second World War. The North as idyll - far, in fact, from grim.

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