On Newcastle: Richard T Kelly on Teaching Novel-Writing in His Birthplace
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Richard T Kelly, tutor on Faber Academy's Writing a Novel course, writes about teaching in Newcastle.
I’m from Newcastle and that doesn’t change, even though I’ve spent most of my working life in London. Newcastle for me is the place to be, that ‘great good place’; and while natives and migrants alike must watch out for what Sean O’Brien calls ‘the besetting northeastern sin of sentimentality,’ I do believe Newcastle people are well justified in their widely held sense of local pride.
This year I accepted regular teaching work in Newcastle, and so now every week I take my favourite train journey in the world, one of which I can’t believe I’ll ever tire, from King’s Cross to Newcastle Central. It’s the same ride Michael Caine goes on in the credits of Get Carter (1973), a film that was rather lost for two decades, though my dad always remembered it fondly through those years; and not for any of its bitter violence but because it features a cameo by a fixture of his youth, the ‘Pelaw Hussars’ juvenile jazz band.
Sometimes on the train I might feel a bit Michael Caine, inasmuch as you’ll find me in my seat wearing a black macintosh and reading a paperback. But then Caine’s Jack Carter didn’t care for Tyneside one bit, whereas the last stretch of the ride always gets me peering through the window, like an excitable bairn, at the scenery flying by – through the County Durham coalfield, past Durham city’s magisterial Norman cathedral and Low Eighton’s Angel of the North – until we slow to a reverent process over the River Tyne, such as to survey the fine panorama of Newcastle quayside, its cynosure the radial green-steel arch of the Tyne Bridge.
In his marvellous poem ‘Newcastle Is Peru’ Tony Harrison (from Leeds, but longtime resident of Newcastle) has a great line about the old industrial waterfront on the Tyne: ‘Shadow girders faced with sun / shimmer like heaped bullion.’ Harrison reminds us, if we need it, that Newcastle was once such a force in coal and ships and the heaviest engineering: carboniferous capitalism at full blast. But then came the deindustrialisation of the late twentieth century, forcing the city – the whole northeast – to graft for new livings. The shimmer of Newcastle Quayside now comes off hotels and apartment blocks, bars and restaurants made from former bonded warehouses. Arts and culture, too, have their strongholds there: the Sage and the Baltic and the Live Theatre.
For my walk to work from train platform to campus, I can go via the Georgian splendour of Grey Street, or through the Bigg Market; and, a little guiltily, I tend to favour the latter. It’s a locus of Newcastle’s legendary hedonism, all overspilling pubs and takeaways, lads and lasses on the lash, street scenes playing out in doorways unless those doors are manned by bouncers. Keep going and you’re at the vertiginous Grey Monument, from which Tony Harrison once imagined a survey of the city; then the shopping thoroughfare of Northumberland Street, then Newcastle’s two universities cheek by jowl, its Civic Centre in-between. Past that and you’d soon get to West Jesmond and South Gosforth, where the lawyers and accountants and senior public servants live.
Yes, Newcastle has handsomeness to spare; but if you walked for ten minutes off my itinerary, westward to Elswick or east into Walker, then you’d soon be amidst some very visibly deprived and struggling areas.
In my 2008 novel Crusaders, a thirtyish Anglican clergyman from Durham called John Gore takes the train to Newcastle in the autumn of 1996 so as to begin the work of establishing a new church congregation in a ward of the city’s west end. (I named it Hoxheath, for all that it resembles Elswick; but I needed to rejig the topography a bit, and I didn’t want people telling me off about how this church and that school in Elswick aren’t really so near one another.) The Reverend Gore’s mission is a sort of return engagement with a place he (wrongly) believes he knows well, and as the story goes along he’s loaned an unlikely hand by a locally respected if physically daunting fellow named Stevie Coulson, who works in nighttime security: shades, then, of Jack Carter’s livelihood, plus the economy of the Bigg Market.
When Crusaders was first published I was glad to see that it revived a bit of a discussion about the literature of the northeast, which is not as deeply and widely known as it ought to be. How many littérateurs know Kiddar’s Luck by Jack Common, or the writings born of Newcastle’s Morden Tower scene in the 1960s? Have they read Julia Darling and Gordon Burn? The great pulse of crime fiction might mean more are familiar with Andrea Badenoch, or Mari Hannah. And I’ll guess that a good few of you have lately sampled Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts and Penance.
Newcastle is a great city of voices that speak fairly freely: it has its own renowned vernacular and musical patterns of speech, and a lot of what the poet Basil Bunting called ‘unabashed boys and girls.’ But the artmaking fostered by this place has all the qualities of daring and finesse and high seriousness, too.
As I said when I came in, I am so pleased to be teaching writing in Newcastle now. When I teach, I’m always hopeful of passing on some concretely useful tricks and advice, not to mention the vital aid of encouragement. But, of course, I’m benefiting myself, too, by hearing new voices I haven’t heard before. Newcastle is always changing, and I will never have enough of it. In Newcastle just as would be in Peru, everyone round the table of a writing workshop is doing something different and particular, uniquely themselves. And no teacher of novel-writing would dare tell tyro novelists that they must squeeze into some preconceived notion of what a novel is. Imagine having tried that on with Italo Calvino or Angela Carter, with Russell Hoban or Russell Banks, Teju Cole or Kathy Acker or Nicholson Baker, Jenny Offill or Helen Oyeyemi or Emily St. John Mandel. Writers in Newcastle wouldn’t be having any of it either, and so every time we sit down to work together it’s in the spirit of newness, coming down the track at us whether we’re ready or not.
Richard T. Kelly is the author of four novels published by Faber: Crusaders (2008), The Possessions of Doctor Forrest (2011), The Knives (2016), and The Black Eden (2023). His varied non-fiction publications also include Alan Clarke (1998), Sean Penn: His Life and Times (2004), and Keegan & Dalglish (2017). Previously an editor for London publishers including Faber and Penguin Random House, he has also written scripts for stage and screen, has edited two anthologies of P.G. Wodehouse, and is a contributing editor to Critical Quarterly and a regular feature writer for Esquire magazine.
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