21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Original Modern or a New Kind of Ordinary?

Alexander Beaumont


There is a line in David Peace’s Nineteen Eighty Three (2002) that is so resonant that its absence is all but unimaginable: ‘To us all and to the North – where we do what we want!’ (Peace 228). In a series of short articles for Alluvium I use the malevolence and pathos of this line – a toast drunk by corrupt police officers to a chimerical space which, as Christopher Vardy writes in Alluvium 2 (4), ‘act[s] as a synonym for a society increasingly defined by violence and exploitation’ (Vardy n. pag.) – as an occasion to interrogate the peculiar position of northern England in contemporary debates regarding urban, regional, national and state space in the UK. I build upon the suggestive argument that Peace’s representation of northern England imagines an ‘irrevocably traumatic past’ that is ‘transposed into a bleak version of national politics’, by exploring how the region figures in the idea that, as Vardy puts it, ‘after Thatcherism, there is no hope for Britain’ (n.pag., emphasis in original). My hope is to insert a discussion of cultural representations of "the North" into ongoing debates about the status of what Michael Gardiner terms the ‘British state-nation’ (Gardiner 4), whose constitutional cracks and fissures are becoming increasingly visible and subject to interrogation. In these articles, northern England is positioned as a contradictory space that is perpetually under threat of its own negation. Ultimately, I suggest that the ‘state’ that represents the region is a state of schizophrenia, in which it is asked to function as a site of simultaneous recuperation and disavowal, and is burdened with the doubly impossible task of reproducing and challenging British state power, and constituting and contesting residual and emergent understandings of Englishness. 



Northern England is positioned as a contradictory space that is perpetually under threat of its own negation.

[Image by Craig Sunter under a CC BY-ND license]


This first article, completed shortly after George Osborne reiterated his commitment to the project of a ‘northern powerhouse’, takes as its point of departure the city of Manchester’s contradictory status as a unique space on the one hand, and its tendency to function a metonymic stand-in for northern England in general on the other. Manchester is presently being positioned as the spearhead of an infrastructural project that will, it is imagined, eventually incorporate the entire urban North of England; the exceptionalism that the city is currently enjoying is predicated on a uniqueness whose eclipse is already anticipated. To this degree, it is living up to its self-appointed status as an embodiment of a peculiar kind of temporality, a sort of nostalgic vanguardism captured by the phrase ‘original modern’.  

This is not a phrase of my own coinage. It owes its existence to the artist and graphic designer Peter Saville, and refers to the publicity concept that until the riots of August 2011 functioned as the most prominent component of Manchester’s corporate identity. Marketing Manchester, who commissioned the concept, are evidently pleased with it: their website proudly claims that ‘Original modern isn’t a brand or a slogan or marketing jargon, it isn’t a political mantra or a stylishly designed logo, and it isn’t a piece of cultural archaeology or an ethereal sound-bite’. Of course, it is every one of these things, except perhaps a political mantra. However, it has also proved an effective device for selling the city to tourists and investors whose stylish boosterism is of a piece with the gleaming new museums and expanded retail core that in 2010 led the Daily Telegraph – not typically fond of postindustrial British cities – to describe Manchester as the ‘perfect city-break destination’.


Manchester M

Manchester’s minimalist ‘M’ logo represents the diversity of the city and its residents ‘existing in parallel’. 

[Copyright: City of Manchester, used under fair dealing provisions]


The magazine produced by Marketing Manchester for the launch of ‘original modern’ in 2009 clearly communicates the concept’s New Labour sensibility. In their contribution, Will Hutton and Neil Lee of the third-way think tank the Work Foundation argue that, should Manchester reclaim its status as ‘an Ideopolis, a city which can drive growth in its wider city region on the basis of knowledge intensive employment’ (Marketing Manchester 47), it might overcome the effects of deindustrialisation and redefine itself for the twenty-first century. By 2009 this project had represented a significant component of the city’s regeneration strategy for a number of years. As early as 2003 Manchester was being described as the UK’s foremost centre for ‘new bohemians’ in a study based upon Richard Florida’s analysis of the so-called ‘creative class’ (Florida 2002). However, for Anna Minton its status as ‘New Labour’s favourite city’ (Minton 39) renders it an ideal place to study the dysfunctional logics of urban redevelopment as practised by the Blair administrations. Mark Crinson (2007) considers the redeveloped Exchange Square in the heart of Manchester’s retail district to be simply another iteration of the ‘hypocritical plan’ lambasted by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England, and Richard J. Williams points out that this location is indicative of the city’s renaissance generally: ‘new spaces for public gathering abound’, he writes, ‘but it is gathering that has to be kept under surveillance, limited to easily monitored practices of consumption’ (Williams 11). The unease at the wholesale nature of Manchester’s redevelopment since the Provisional IRA bombing of 1996 cannot really be understated: as Owen Hatherley suggests, ‘We are dealing with […] the most complete attempt to redesign an entire city on the basis of an alliance between property development, the culture industry and ubiquitous retail’ in the UK (Hatherley 117). The ‘original modern’ concept is a symptom of this project, and speaks potently of the way in which, as Roger Luckhurst writes, under New Labour, ‘cultural change [was] harnessed to produce subjects that would happily skip and jump around the Edenic post-political garden of Cool Britannia’ (Luckhurst 421).

The reason the ‘original modern’ concept is most interesting is because it seeks to conceal how attempts to transform Manchester both originate and result in logics of ordinariness that, while distinct, are similarly profound. In order for Manchester to become a cultural commodity, the city’s name first had to be reconstituted as a meaningful signifier in itself, since in the postwar period it had tended to function as a metonym for a broader, homogeneous geographic descriptor: the North of England. Stuart Rawnsley has argued that, within the UK, ‘[n]o other region has such an intensified “sense of place”’ as northern England (Rawnsley 3); however, the unspecific settings of postwar novels such as Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947) by Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), John Braine’s Room at the Top (1957) and David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960) – as well as the films associated with the British New Wave – contributed to the perceived placelessness of urban areas in the English North and Midlands. In a similar fashion, a film such as John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving (1962) could be shot in various locations in and around the Manchester conurbation, including scenes filmed in Bolton, Radcliffe and Salford, yet still be set in the West Riding of Yorkshire. And even where films were set emphatically within the conurbation, a pervading sense of parochialism tended to rob them of geographical specificity.



Northen England is in a state of schizophrenia, in which it is asked to function as a site of simultaneous recuperation and disavowal.

[Image by Gordon Marino under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


For instance, in the title sequence of A Taste of Honey – Tony Richardson’s film adaptation (1961) of Shelagh Delaney’s Salford-set play (1958) – the viewer is guided from what Philip Dodd (1990) might term a classic ‘Lowryscape’ featuring chimneys, lines of terraced streets and, somewhere beyond, the countryside, through the centre of Manchester as the protagonist Jo and her dissolute mother move to a new home. Eyeline matches to shots of the city’s historic edifices communicate a clear sense of place. However, in an indication of the social and historical inaccessibility of these monuments to Jo, the sequence turns its back on urban grandeur and is resolved in much the same way as it began: with a composition that speaks potently but far more generally of ‘the North’. As Peter Davidson argues, northern England is a location that has, especially since the nineteenth century, been ‘consistently described in terms of dearth, authenticity and pastness’ (Davidson 199). Quite opposed to the emphasis on cutting-edge design that formed a key part of New Labour’s model of cultural governance, ‘descriptions of the north by northerners’ have tended to ‘return again and again to the trope of urban pastoral, to the close interpenetration of country and town, [and] memory and nostalgia’ (199). In fact, Delaney’s play complicates this assumption in a number of ways; however, in its visual economy at least, Richardson’s adaptation perpetuates this archetypal image of northern England by resolving its title sequence in an image of dearth which relies heavily – if not entirely unreflexively – on the urban pastoral.

At least in part, Manchester’s adoption of the ‘original modern’ identity should be interpreted as an attempt to decouple the city from narratives associated with the region for which it had previously functioned as a metonym, and to transform it into a distinctive commodity that could be marketed internationally. Of course, this strategy of marking Manchester out as a discrete locale, a place in itself, is entirely of a piece with a tendency inherent to late capitalism’s treatment of cultural commodities more generally, especially where cities are concerned. As David Harvey has recently noted:

If claims to uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, and specialty underlie the ability to capture monopoly rents, then on what better terrain is it possible to make such claims than in the fields of historically constituted cultural artefacts and practices and special environmental characteristics (including, of course, the built, social and cultural environments)? […T]here is always a strong social and discursive element at work in the construction of such causes for extracting monopoly rents, since there will be, in many people’s minds, no other place than London, Cairo, Barcelona, Milan, Istanbul, San Francisco, or wherever, in which to gain access to whatever it is that is supposedly unique to such places. (Harvey 103)



According to Christopher Vardy there is no hope for Britain after Thatcherism.

[Image by Zohar Manor-Abel under a CC BY-NC license]


To varying degrees, most of the cities Harvey names are now subject to the homogenising logics implied by the phrase ‘global city’, but as important historic centres of political, cultural and economic activity they have been recognised for their particularity for some time. Until the first decades of the twentieth century the same might have been said of Manchester; however, as far as the postwar period is concerned, I would argue that it has only taken on this characteristic over the course of the last thirty years or so, as a consequence of what Crinson describes as concerted attempts to ‘reach beyond the nation-state [so as] not to be seen as a merely provincial city – now, as much as signs of industrial decline, the major concerns of its city fathers’ (Crinson 213, emphasis in original). The irony is that this period is coeval with the rise of place-effacing logics associated with urban regeneration, and this has had the effect of marking the city with a new kind of ordinariness even as it has sought to escape its earlier associations with the everyday. For as Harvey points out, the more a place is marketed as unique and special, ‘the less unique and special [it] appear[s…] the bland homogeneity that goes with pure commodification erases monopoly advantages; cultural products become no different from commodities in general’ (Harvey 92-93). In short, no sooner had Manchester cast off its metonymic value, no sooner had it become ‘emplaced’, as it were, did the aggressive commodification of urban culture under New Labour lead to it being ‘disemplaced’.

Ironically, to the extent that it is poised between two different logics of ordinariness, Manchester is indicative of the wider dilemma of the urban North of England: its association with the mundane, quotidian and ordinary in the postwar period entails that it is captured within a language of provincialism, of regionality, that precludes claims to uniqueness and specialty. And where such claims have begun to be articulated in the last thirty years – not merely in Manchester but also Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and especially Liverpool – they have tended to result in new logics of ordinariness that are the product of neoliberal forms of urban capital accumulation. This last kind of ordinariness is, of course, one that affects many cities around the world; however, in the wake of the restructuring of the British economy during the 1980s – which created the conditions for the emergence of new modes of accumulation, and thus new forms of ordinariness – as well as the concomitant breakdown of consensus politics and the subsequent rise in populist challenges to the existing constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom, the particular dynamics of ordinariness I have been outlining in this article become strikingly significant. In my next article, I build on the analysis of these dynamics in order to demonstrate the ways in which the peculiar kind of placelessness embodied by urban northern England is becoming increasingly important in the context of the ongoing constitutional dilemmas of the contemporary United Kingdom.


CITATION: Alexander Beaumont, "Original Modern or a New Kind of Ordinary?," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 3 (2015): n. pag. Web. 26 June 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.3.02


Dr Alexander Beaumont is Lecturer in English Literature at York St. John University with research interests in post-war British culture, Thatcherism and the British Left, and contemporary representations of the city. His essay “‘New Times Television? Channel 4 and My Beautiful Laundrette” appears in Thatcher and AfterHe recently published a monograph entitled Contemporary British Fiction and the Cultural Politics of Disenfranchisement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and has essays in Contemporary Literature (55.2) and Maggie Gee: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2015). He is currently working on post-devolution representations of northern England and everyday life.


Works Cited:

Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. London: Penguin, 2000.

A Kind of Loving. Dir. John Schlesinger. Perf. Alan Bates and June Ritchie. Vic Films Productions, 1962.

A Taste of Honey. Dir. Tony Richardson. Perf. Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan. Woodfall Film Productions, 1961.

Braine, John. Room at the Top. London: Arrow, 1989.

Crinson, Mark. ‘Manchester and the “Hypocritical Plan”: Architecture, Shopping and Identity in the Industrial City.’ Thinking Northern: Textures of Identity in Northern England. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007: 193-216.

Davidson, Peter. The Idea of North. London: Reaktion, 2005.

Delaney, Shelagh. A Taste of Honey. London: Methuen, 2008.

Dodd, Philip. ‘Lowryscapes: Recent Writings About ‘The North”.’ Critical Quarterly 32.2 (2007): 17-28.

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. London: Penguin, 2009.

Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class and How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Gardiner, Michael. The Return of England in English Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Hatherley, Owen. A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. London: Verso, 2010.

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso, 2012.

Larkin, Philip. A Girl in Winter. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Larkin, Philip. Jill. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Luckhurst, Roger. ‘Cultural Governance, New Labour, and the British SF Boom.’ Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 417-435.

Marketing Manchester. Original Modern. Manchester: Marketing Manchester Research, 2009.

Minton, Anna. Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City. London: Penguin, 2012.

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty Three. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2008.

Rawnsley, Stuart. ‘Constructing “The North”: Space and a Sense of Place.’ Ed. N. Kirk.  Northern Identities: Historical Interpretations of ‘The North’ and ‘Northernness’. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. 3-22.

Storey, David. This Sporting Life. London: Vintage, 2000.

Williams, Richard J. The Anxious City: English Urbanism in the Late Twentieth Century. Abingdon: Routledge, 2004.



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