Alex Niven Believes in the Political Potential of Poetry

In light of the failures of mainstream politics across the board, socialist writer Alex Niven wants to inject a sense of hope back into contemporary life. A champion of the North of England, he believes that literature can help.

Detail from the Newcastle Civic Centre. (Martin McG / Newcastle Civic Centre / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Alex Niven’s project is to reinject a sense of belief back into British life. In his seven books on regionalism, music, and poetry written since Folk Opposition (2011), Niven has championed the radical North of England — and more broadly, of radical “outer Britain” in general — as a plausible counterweight to a country centralized more than ever before around London and Westminster, the twin centers of financial and governmental power. Within those books, especially New Model Island (2018), are particular plans and ideas, but treating his books like they’re simply policy papers makes no sense. What makes them exciting is that they’re mythic — and about much more than the issues of the day.

Though he is quiet and restrained in person, Niven writes in what an eighteenth-century critic would call “the grand manner.” What makes him one of the British left’s most valuable writers is that he is never embarrassed. Much English writing today, including on the Left, is cliquey and priggish — terrified of being caught out. Niven’s work is as loud and as achingly sincere as a lay preacher in some rusty methodist chapel. It is motivated by an unfashionable intensity of belief. That belief is socialism to be sure — and something more traditionally devout, too (Niven is a practicing Catholic). But it is also a belief in what literature and culture more generally can accomplish. W. H. Auden, an upper-middle-class Midlander and disenchanted former leftist, once argued that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Niven is constantly trying to use poetry to make things happen.

His latest, The North Will Rise Again (2023), appears at first as his most conventional book, and is his first with a mainstream publisher. It presents itself as a straight-up polemic for Northern modernism, a sort of rallying cry for some putative utopian version of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham to pick up. So, unlike in New Model Island, there is no moment in which Niven finds himself in Dorset and suddenly breaks into verse.

But that apparent simplicity is deceptive, and the book remains deeply personal, sometimes eccentric. Whereas New Model Island was powered by the evanescent euphoria of Jeremy Corbyn’s near-victory in 2017, which made Niven, like so many of us, think that a decisive change in the organization of class and regional power in Britain was not just possible but actually plausible, The North Will Rise Again is motivated by intense grief at the shock of the 2019 election, and the even more drastic immiseration that has followed, with the pandemic and yet another round of punishing austerity.

Looking around for another motivating myth, Niven has come to urban modernism, and an urban North — on the face of it, something of a switch, given that his first book, Folk Opposition, was aimed against the undervaluing of rural and small-town culture by a certain kind of metropolitan left modernism. What seems to have caused this switch is most of all the experience of canvassing in the pissing rain in 2019 — when, outside of urban Newcastle and Sunderland, the aging small towns and outer suburbs of the Northeast thumped the young, multicultural, urban new left in the face. There is one photograph of the author in the book — on a doorstep in that election, waterlogged and downcast.

The common response to this thumping was, for a while, genuflecting toward a typical socially conservative “red wall” voter — a significant part of Keir Starmer’s early reign was based on it, until he in turn was humiliated by the same red-wall man in the Hartlepool by-election. Today, after having been handed a hefty polling lead by the Conservative Party’s self-immolation, Starmer’s party’s appeal is being calibrated to focus groups in Stevenage, a postwar “new town” just outside London.

Niven will have no part in any of this. Politics has failed, for the moment at least, so hope has to be found somewhere else. For Niven, it’s in the culture of the urban North. But politics is always just out of shot, and it can briefly channel the cultural opposition, as seen in the defiance and rage displayed toward the Tory government by Burnham at the height of the pandemic — the only sign of life from the Labour Party that has been recorded since December 13, 2019.

I’ve always enjoyed Niven’s work, but it is always estranging to read it as a Southerner — a representative of the region of the country whose economic model of finance and property has gradually steamrollered everywhere else, and reshaped it in its own suburban image. But writing as a Southerner, the focus on the urban North makes complete sense to me, because I’ve found much of the North to be vastly more urban in its culture and landscape than anywhere in the South outside of London and, to a certain extent, Bristol. I first spent an extended amount of time in Northern cities between 2009 and 2012, at the tail end of the New Labour years and at the start of the long, bleak Tory reign. I was tasked with writing about the architecture of Blairism — the riverside cultural complexes and colonies of “luxury flats,” the jerry-built schools and hospitals constructed through the Blair-era private finance initiative. If the brief was to explore New Labour’s postmodernity, what I actually found interesting and ended up writing about just as much was Northern urban modernity. I was stunned by the iron and glass arcades and markets of Leeds; the opulent, gigantic textile warehouses of Manchester; the sandstone and spires of Bradford; the De Chirico colonnades of the Piece Hall in Halifax; the American scale of the Liverpool waterfront; the epic classical streets suddenly surmounted by steampunk iron bridges in Newcastle.

All this was the product of the first waves of industrial capitalism, when the North became, for a few decades, the engine of the world’s first industrial economy. But just as often, my shock was at the audacious achievements the twentieth century and the built environments mostly bequeathed by the labor movement and by past Labour governments — the municipal socialist hilltop public housing citadels of Sheffield; the neo-Constructivist headquarters of the Halifax Building Society; the glorious, rippling lines of Preston Bus Station; the wildly ambitious concrete skyway city of the University of Leeds; the Scandinavian democratic socialist townscape of the Byker Estate in Newcastle; and the Miesian stations of the Tyne and Wear Metro that link that city to its postindustrial hinterland. Seeing for the first time the place where one of these crashes into the other — when the gracious classical town of Newcastle abruptly becomes, in the east of the city, a multilevel futuristic concrete landscape — was stupendous, unforgettable.

I was so floored by these places because in the urban South (outside of London, of course), we don’t have anything remotely like this. You will not find anything of even remotely the same pride, grandeur, and scale in, say, Luton, Swindon, Southampton, Portsmouth, Reading, Colchester, Ipswich, Plymouth — the pull not only of London, but of the suburbs is just too great. An extreme but useful example is the part of the country where I grew up — the South Hampshire urban area, where the small historic industrial cities of Southampton and Portsmouth have long been effectively converted into shopping malls serving a much more populous, conservative, and wealthy exurban hinterland. Despite the national obsession with a handful of overpraised historic towns like York, the cities in England that most resemble the great noncapital cities of continental Europe — Milan, Naples, Munich, Hamburg, Marseille, Lille, Rotterdam, Barcelona, and Gdansk — are Newcastle, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Manchester, Hull, and Liverpool. The first is a list of European cities that young Londoners visit on holiday. The second is a list of cities in which young Northern Britons flee in order to get jobs in London.

It is also this comparison that reveals the intensity of these British cities’ neglect, and the insulting nature of their shoddy new architecture. Those European cities, different as they all are — from the chaos of Naples to the order of Munich — all have real self-governing powers, and have the real infrastructure to make a truly urban life possible: public buildings and public institutions, along with rapid mass transit systems. In a city like Leeds, one constantly feels a sense of being pulled in two directions: an elation at the grandeur left by the 1860s and the 1960s alongside the youthfulness and multiculturalism of the present city. But with that comes a deep frustration at the lack of public investment (this city of 750,000 people has no rapid transit system), horror at the overwhelming density of cheap and shoddy student flats, and the unavoidable facts of class and racial segregation. But in the immense energy of the place, it is hard not to believe in it, and to feel that when change comes, it will come from here, and from the young working class in cities like it.

Conversely, the North I encountered as a child growing up in Southampton was dark, sublime, and rural. One of my maternal grandparents grew up near Alston, in the far North of England in the heights of the Pennines, not far from where Niven grew up in Hexham. On visits there, I remember no towns or cities, but a scattered sequence of damp, dark villages, and my ears popping as the car drove up and along the hills and mountains, seen through the fog beneath a purple sky. The North Will Rise Again has been criticized for its disparaging of the rural, but it’s worth pausing to look at the exact rural he criticizes. One totemic place that switched to the Tories in the “red wall” is Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s old constituency. Always described as a former mining area, this is wholly deceptive. As Niven points out, its pits had all closed by the 1960s. Almost nobody living now in Sedgefield could have worked as a miner. Alston used to have pits too, mining lead and zinc, but they closed in the nineteenth century.

It is increasingly senseless to define these places by the industry and the labor-movement culture that they once had. Rather, they are defined by an impoverished version of the economy of the South of England — property and tourism, both largely among the retired. There is much less money in this in the North than there is in the South, but there is nothing else. “We have to face the fact,” Niven writes with evident reluctance, “that at this point of the twenty-first century many northern areas are simply vastly less wealthy versions of the southern pastoral heartlands of Middle England.”

Reading Niven reminded me of a common experience among Southern socialists like myself — the annual visit to the tiny Dorset town of Tolpuddle, where, in the 1830s, farm laborers formed an early trade union, only to be deported to Australia until they were later freed thanks to a massive public campaign. In that era, the South was aflame with revolt: whether it was the solid, methodist radicalism of Tolpuddle or the deliberately farcical insurgency of the Captain Swing riots, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset were the centers of resistance to early capitalism.

And then, they weren’t. They lost their battles. The rural laborers were then subsumed into the slums of London; the docks of Bristol, Plymouth, and Southampton; and the factories of the North and the Midlands as Britain became the first country in history to become majority urban. Every year, the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival brings thousands of Southern socialists to listen to music, hear trade union speakers, and generally congregate in an otherwise hostile part of the country. But the fact is that Topluddle has returned a Conservative MP at every election for the past 140 years. There is no reason to think that the future of the Durham Miners Gala, the annual festival that provides a similar role for the North, will not be much the same. Niven writes about the rural North with great affection as well as anger, but the stories he tells here — of the poet Tom Pickard in Alston, and the great electronic musician Delia Derbyshire in Gilsland — are bleak.

The alternative to this is found in rooting through the history of the urban North for moments in which this process was arrested. Newcastle has long since lost its industries — it’s vastly poorer than a big regional city like this should be in a rich country like England — but it has retained its identity and its belief in itself. That identity is what is so striking to a Southern urban visitor. You feel it too in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds — an enduring sense of civic pride, that people know where they are, know who they are, and care about the place where they live.

One of Niven’s heroes, the ex-Trotskyist Labour council leader T. Dan Smith, made it his project in the 1960s to stop the hollowing out of the North, through a Faustian combination of capitalist investment and socialist planning. It failed overall, and Smith was caught with his fingers in the till and jailed — but what he got built has lasted. “For all their flaws,” Niven writes,

T. Dan Smith’s schemes for the post-war North-East had at least been based on the notion that regional renewal would have to depend on a comprehensive new infrastructure — a Metro train system, a new Education Precinct, a Civic Centre to house local government and, most ambitiously of all, a determined social housing programme to provide long-term security (in theory) for the city’s working-class populace.

In Newcastle, Endless, a book of sonnets on Newcastle with photographs by Euan Lynn, published in 2021, Niven focuses on one of these, in the poem “Civic Centre,” capturing the enduring existence and grandeur of the municipal complex Smith commissioned, a beacon of modernist ambition even among the tawdry neoliberal city that surrounds it:

Here above the street it is the future

we see the city as a map of

change diagram of unintended

glissade by arachnids in Marks &

Spencer suits but here and there

everything is open the burgess

the planner the council clerk

all for a minute led a quiet

crusade out of impulse or chivvied by a

phrase read dimly in outline

in borrowed books though recently

the lapses are everywhere the Metro

station shouldering a corpse the stag do

tank the student oubliette yet at sky

height the town is still moving sunk

in the groove between mountain and sea

Poetry, in Niven’s telling, was central to Newcastle’s brief attempt to transform itself into a socialist metropolis. Smith’s city government channeled money into the new organization Northern Arts, and into the Morden Tower, a part of the city’s medieval defenses that, in 1964, was turned into a venue for music and poetry readings. For a time, Morden Tower united working class R&B musicians and experimental poets based at the city’s university. Smith could be something of a poet in his own right — Niven quotes a passage from his 1970 autobiography in which he asks:

Why do you like water or mountains? . . . Think about it, talk about it. Why is it that when buildings are put on the landscape they appear to offend? Yet cows don’t, sheep don’t, dogs don’t, trees don’t, and flowers don’t. . . . Can we do this consciously as human beings? Of course we can. We can give just as much attention to a street lamp, or a litter bin, or a bus station, or a bus shelter, or a house, or the colour of a house, or the colour of a brick.

But the poet who is central to Niven’s North is Basil Bunting. He was, like another of Niven’s enthusiasms — the novelist and painter Wyndham Lewis — part of the modernist literature scene of the 1920s and 1930s, and a friend of the increasingly fascistic American experimental poet Ezra Pound. After decades of his own personal decline, he was discovered and welcomed by the young modernist poets around the Morden Tower, and they inspired him to write his greatest work, the fiercely regional, harshly Northern cycle Briggflatts.

Bunting is the subject of Niven’s previous book, an annotated collection of The Letters of Basil Bunting (2022). To those not already familiar with the poet, it can be a grueling read, as Bunting was very much a man of his time, a sometimes bitter, sometimes preening middle-class dilettante with a tendency to casual racism and self-importance. But there is one sequence of letters of great interest, which come when he gradually and then decisively breaks with Pound over his antisemitism and his support for Mussolini and Hitler. In one of those letters, in 1934, Bunting tells Pound exactly what it is he doesn’t understand about England and about capitalism, recounted through his own memories of the Montagu Main View Pit Disaster of 1925, when thirty-eight people were killed in a colliery in the outskirts of Newcastle. The Tories, Bunting tells Pound, “live by the dregs of the country, always have done. Plus of course what they can get from the bloody middle-clarses with the gent education and what they can scare with newspaper forgeries” like the “Zinoviev Letter” that saw the first Labour government thrown out of office a decade earlier.

But because of this, someone who had only known England from London, as Pound had, did not know England:

You saw England largely from the vantage ground of the nobs who ran the show. If you’d seen it from the prisons and the mining villages you’d have a pretty good idea that whatever the Tories touch is damned, they spread their dirt over it. The other parties are dumb and corrupt and all that, but they haven’t that record. Some of them sometimes have done something good.

Reading these words is a little uncanny, after thirteen years of spectacularly nihilistic Tory misrule, where, again, they have destroyed everything they’ve touched and have been bafflingly rewarded for it by a plurality of the English electorate. Bunting’s eventual response to this appalling situation was to set up a countermyth of the North, which reached fruition three decades later with Briggflatts. Of course, Bunting himself didn’t recognize the role that the youthful modernist culture of Morden Tower and T. Dan Smith had played in his resurgence (he pauses in the ’70s to denounce one of Smith’s modernist projects as “a huge slave-barracks built by a team of lunatics”), but for Niven, these are all inextricable parts of the same project.

Bunting’s return to write his last great modernist epic, the public reliefs and sculpture created by Victor Pasmore for Newcastle Civic Centre and Peterlee New Town, the new public housing estates and the Metro, are all part of the same movement — a heroic moment where people in a place that was falling apart asserted themselves through pure self-belief, and reshaped the place for the better. Could it happen again?

It just might. That is the wager of The North Will Rise Again. This poses the question of what then happens in the case of success. One of Niven’s Faustian heroes in this book is Tony Wilson, the broadcaster and former student Situationist who so inflated the self-belief of Manchester through his TV programs and in his record label and club — Factory Records and the Hacienda, respectively — to the point that he was instrumental in halting the apparently irreversible decline of England’s second-most important city, and transforming it into a center for pop culture, education, science, design, and the arts, much as Smith dreamed of doing in Newcastle.

But by the 2000s, Wilson’s dream had curdled into something much more conformist, a macho urban boosterism that made Manchester into the unofficial capital of New Labour, a city of endemic property speculation that not only refused to build public housing but actively destroyed much of what it already had. Inner Manchester is the only really “successful” city in the North — it has, throughout the twenty-first century, been growing and booming. But as in London, its success is based on the immiseration of the majority, in the dead textile towns of Greater Manchester and in the inner-city housing estates in the shadow of the city center’s shiny new towers.

If Smith’s Newcastle exemplifies the tragic but heroic potential of using “poetry” (or for Wilson, music) to “make things happen,” Manchester is an example of how that dream can be perverted and, instead, used to reshape a city in the image of capital. Niven knows this risk very well, but it is, he suggests, worth taking when the only other option is miserablism, decline, and depopulation.

By believing once again that the English North is one of the great places on Earth, and taking pride in its achievements and dreaming of new possibilities based upon them, it could be possible to make the first step toward actually accomplishing it. As a Southerner, I wish it well.