Acid and Phlegm: Ingredients of a Future North

Beth Ansell reviews The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands by Alex Niven (Bloomsbury, 2023).

Acid Northumbria under the railway arches, Manchester.

After his re-election as Mayor of the South Yorkshire Combined Authority at the beginning of May, Labour’s Oliver Coppard called for people across the North of England to “join together” to call out the government for their “failure to level-up our country”. While not the only one of Labour’s newly elected or re-elected mayors across the North to cite the electorate’s anger over the lack of levelling up, he seems the only one looking beyond the scope of his own combined authority for a way forward.

In The North Will Rise Again, Alex Niven recognises that the people of the North must come together if there is any chance of overturning the decline and decay which has become the norm in so much of the region since the collapse of the industries which created it. However, he argues that the North requires something much more radical than just ‘levelling-up’ to truly thrive.

To show us what that something is, Niven guides us through several decades of recent history, pinpointing occasions where a turning point for the North seemed within reach. It is a varied list. From modernist literary and civic movements in the 60s, to the late 80s/early 90s boom of garish American-style capitalism in the shape of giant out-of-town shopping malls, to the musical awakening which culminated in the mid-90s with the ‘Madchester’ movement, and finally to the atmosphere of hope for change fostered by New Labour. Despite their potential, these movements never managed to be anything more than brief periods of “fleeting luminosity” for the North. None was based on solid enough foundations to create a sustained revival.

For Niven, the idea of a ‘Northern Psychology’ is at the heart of all of these failed attempts of the North to reinvent itself. The idea is amusingly characterised an oscillation between brash overconfidence and terminally low self-esteem. This, he argues, fuels the tendency of the episodes of Northern brilliance to self-destruct, preventing any lasting change.

Before moving to Scotland three years ago, I had lived in the North of England my whole life. The notion of a kind of Northern Psyche is familiar to me. In my own hometown of Sheffield, brash, hyperlocal pride combines with a fatalism about the future to create a damaging form of comforting nostalgia. This is perhaps most apparent in the huge popularity of local artist Pete McKee. His distinctive cartoons depict old working class men in flat caps and women in headscarves, and homegrown musicians Alex Turner and Jarvis Cocker drinking pints of bitter together in the pub. McKee’s pictures adorn living rooms and terrace ends across the city.

Worryingly, this nostalgia is creeping into policy making; in a recent anti-litter campaign, Sheffield City Council adopted the McKee style to decorate public bins around the city, with cartoon waste depicted alongside the demand in the local dialect to “Purrit int bin”. Unlike in Scotland where cliches of an identity gone by are packaged up and sold to tourists, the North’s recent past is being sold back to its own citizens, stifling their ability to imagine new ways of being.

Regional cultural attitudes across the North serve to further entrench this mindset. As Niven references, the (justified) bitterness of the populations of former mill towns and mining villages towards the region’s major cities – the main beneficiaries of the regeneration there has been across the North in recent decades – is a barrier to Northern unity. Whereas in Scotland, a historical claim to nationhood can at least unite in spite of similar issues, the North’s collective identity – whatever that might be – has not yet proved strong enough to overcome its regional rivalries.

Niven’s solution to this malaise and mistrust is to get weird. Reflecting the sort of unsettling yet captivating psychedelic mood which underpins the whole book, he argues that the North already has the tools necessary to reimagine itself. Its bleak landscape, backstreets, and futuristic industry have been the inspiration and catalyst for so much radical art, music, science fiction, and poetry, and once again we must draw on this sense of place to break free from the curse of our psychology and imagine a new collective future for the North. Niven calls this movement “Acid Northumbria”.

Reflecting on this, I think back to Sheffield once again. On the flat end of a terrace on Snuff Mill Lane used to gaze down five strange, spindly, otherworldly creatures, creations of the street artist who goes by the name of Phlegm. To me, this work embodied the spirit of Acid Northumbria, drawing on the city’s industrial landscape to create something completely radical and new. It has recently been painted over. A random assortment of cartoon images by McKee knock-off Luke Horton now cover the wall; the logos of the city’s two main football teams, a famous local nightclub, two long-demolished cooling towers, and perhaps most bizarrely, a stopwatch displaying the city’s ‘0114’ dialling code. I can’t help but think that Niven’s dream of Acid Northumbria is a long way off.

The Phlegm artwork on Snuff Mill Lane, Sharrow, Sheffield.

Beth Ansell is a philosopher and athlete from the North of England. The following photographs are be Lauren Ansell.


Acid Northumbria above the railway arches, Manchester.

George Orwell quotes on the windows of a new luxury apartment block, Neepsend, Sheffield.