‘I got tired of living life as a regional variation of something I don’t even like.’
Regional, the almost title track of The Regional Variations, is about someone from the city retreating to the countryside and watching from a distance as cities fall apart; I wrote the lyrics in 2006 while living in Glasgow. It’s strange reading them now from my new home on a clifftop in the Outer Hebrides, where my daily news feed (now there’s a phrase I would never have used in 2006) alternates between Brexit, Donald Trump, and impending environmental catastrophe. This winter we’ve been stockpiling canned food and planning for power cuts (this is mainly just weather related and quite normal for Hebrideans, but still).
Actually Regional is only partly about civilisation crumbling. It’s mainly about growing up in the north of England, and how I felt about that. The title The Regional Variations, namechecked in the lyric, was an attempt to reclaim a term that had always annoyed me, ‘regional variations’, as seen in TV listings. The way the word ‘regional’ was used always seemed to imply it was less important, less interesting, than what was happening elsewhere (ie: London). Add a ‘the’, though, and it suddenly sounds like a piece of classical music, like Elgar’s The Enigma Variations (in my head, anyway).
I grew up in Houghton, a village near Carlisle. I always wanted to make art – music, theatre, books, anything I could turn my hand to – and as a teenager I remember feeling, a little resentfully, that the place where I lived had no obvious cultural identity of its own. I remember, very clearly, that there didn’t seem to be any famous writers, artists, musicians or filmmakers from Carlisle – even now, the brief ‘culture’ section on the city’s Wikipedia page doesn’t name any. According to newspapers, magazines and the TV, most of these people seemed to live in London. Even the cultural identity of ‘the north’, something I was increasingly drawn to in my search for meaning and belonging, didn’t really relate to Carlisle. The northern English writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians to whom I related were from Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle. These cities, not Carlisle, were the ‘cultural north’ of England. (Tellingly, whenever I told people I was from Carlisle they would say ‘I went through there once’ – Carlisle felt like a place you passed through on the way to somewhere else). I wanted to leave as soon as possible.
I was probably unfair in my rejection of Carlisle – if I felt it lacked a cultural voice, perhaps I should have stayed and tried to help give it one. But instead I adopted Scotland as my home, partly because my mum was from Glasgow and I spent most of my summer holidays in Scotland, but partly because it seemed to have its own distinct culture.
The irony is that I still felt like an outsider, a different kind of regional variation, because I hadn’t grown up in Scotland so didn’t quite belong. Mostly I have learned to embrace this, modelling this aspect of my life on the Scottish writer Nick Currie (aka Momus), who has spent much of his life in Japan, precisely because its culture is so alien that he knows he will always feel like an outsider there, a feeling he says he enjoys. But I also brought the chip on my shoulder with me. I soon realised that at least part of the reason I was drawn to Scottish culture was that Scots seemed as irritated by London as I was. An earlier version of Regional, called Here, is considerably more chippy about this, and even includes the line ‘If anyone here is from London, you can piss off back to London, you are not the centre of the universe.’ (For a much more nuanced take on this theme, see James Robertson’s brilliant poem The News Where You Are.)
Anyway, this formative experience has made me very interested in the complex ways in which the culture of a place defines us, and in how much control we have over how we define ourselves within a dominant culture. I later discovered that my attitude towards London as a teenager was mirrored not only by Scottish attitudes towards London but also by the north of Scotland’s perception of the ‘central belt’ (another loaded term) of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and even by the attitude of the west coast of Lewis towards Stornoway (in fact there’s a term here for people who grow up outside of ‘the town’ – you’re a ‘maw’). It turns out that you can feel like an outsider, and be annoyed about it, pretty much anywhere.
One of the things that most interests me about Uig, where I now live, is the tension between the way it is regarded elsewhere (exoticised as a remote, empty place, far from the centre of things, on the edge of the world etc – ie: exactly how I would have seen it a few years ago) and the way it is regarded by people who live there. Uig is only far from ‘the centre’ if you define the centre as London, Glasgow or Edinburgh and are travelling by land. In terms of shipping lanes, though, the Hebrides have been a gateway to the world for thousands of years – on the cultural route between Scandinavia and Ireland, in particular. One of my neighbours, Malcolm Maclean, likes to show visitors a map in which Lewis is shown as a gateway to the north Atlantic – with the ‘mainland’ (again, another loaded term) on the periphery.
Malcolm was interviewed by Madeleine Bunting for her recent book about the Hebrides, Love of Country, which I spent a lot of time buried in after I moved here. Much of the book explores the various ways in which powerful people project their own views of the world – their own fantasies about it – onto places whose inhabitants have an entirely different view of their home, their culture, and their history (it is particularly tempting to do this with islands, given how potent they are as metaphors – see Malachy Tallack’s book The Un-discovered Islands for another good analysis of this subject). A central theme of Love of Country is the role the Hebrides have been forced to play in British (or rather English) colonial identity – the Hebrides, in her analysis, have long been thought of as an outpost of the British Empire rather than a place in itself, and sentimentalised, exoticised and patronised for centuries because of this.
I thought of Madeleine’s book when reading Brexit is a collective English mental breakdown, a provocation by Nicholas Boyle in the Irish times which argues that England has never, until quite recently, had to think of itself as a nation on equal terms with other nations. As Nicholas puts it:
The EU challenged England not to give up a national identity, but to acquire one – to give up the illusions embodied in a United Kingdom that never was a nation, but was always a device to conceal England’s colonial relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland. Instead the EU offered England the opportunity for equal partnership in a common endeavour, which is nowadays all that nationhood can mean. On June 23rd, 2016, the English rejected that offer and opted to continue living the fiction of splendid isolation that sustained the UK and the British empire before it, and to continue denying the Scots and the Irish a will of their own.
In hindsight, I wonder whether some of what I felt about Carlisle as a teenager was connected to my youthful unawareness of this aspect of English culture – a culture whose colonial history has left it with a tendency to think of itself as a ‘default culture’, like Grayson Perry’s ‘default men’, middle class, educated, white, heterosexual men who think of their own identity as the norm and everything else as ‘other’, and so are often blissfully unaware of their many cultural assumptions, their power and privilege, and their tendency to dominate, control and patronise. Default men are taking something of a battering at the moment, and about time too. The cultural assumptions of the most powerful people in our society should always be challenged.
I am, of course, a default man myself. How did I not realise this when I was growing up? Like a lot of alienated young men I was so busy feeling like an outsider that I didn’t notice how mainstream culture, all over the world, was overwhelmingly about people who looked like me, preoccupied with white, male concerns and full of white male protagonists and heroes. I thought I related to Luke Skywalker because he lived on a farm and longed to escape, not because he was a blue eyed white boy with a sense of entitlement. (Some men, of course, are not taking this realisation very well.)
In hindsight, perhaps this was why I was so fixated on the term ‘regional variations’ as a way of expressing how I felt about the world. It wasn’t that I felt like an outsider, exactly. It was more that, on some subconscious level, I could see that mainstream culture was my culture (white, male, heterosexual) but that I didn’t feel like I was personally benefitting from that. Which is quite embarrasing. This morning I re-read the lyrics to Regional and realised something that shocked me a bit – that, without changing a single word but simply by reading it differently to how I ever intended, it could easily be an anthem for a rural Donald Trump voter who detests middle class liberals from the city, a survivalist maybe. As a Guardian-reading, left-wing liberal, I didn’t see that coming. People aren’t so different after all, eh?