Last year, I used to come home to the North. This year I’m working in London mostly, and I miss it. I miss being able to come back each weekend, though maybe not so much the woozy tiredness during strange changes of train up the long platform at Stoke, often late at night, into the brighter light of the Northern rail carriages, their quiet journeys (or not so quiet if there’d been a match on in the Midlands) through Sandbach and Macclesfield, walking home in the mostly dark through the small village my parents moved to a few years before my father died.
The pandemic had changed things, of course. I did the first lockdown up by the woods around Alderley Edge, seeing my psychotherapy patients over Skype and finishing the book I’d started writing after my father’s death, a book about grief and wild nature, creativity and renewal. The first in a series of odd things I noticed happening after he died (and there was the virus, Brexit and Trump), was around sitting in bed, figuring out how I felt, I suppose, and repeatedly watching videos of nuclear accidents on YouTube, like the meltdown at Chernobyl. The book ended up being called The Reactor.
They call it the Zone in Chernobyl (a Zone in several parts in this case, like the rings that close around a bullseye, of which the central one is the Zone of Permanent Exclusion which won’t be resettled for 1,000 years or more). The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Zone of Alienation is another good official name. Dead postmodern. In fact, in that peculiar, stone-dead-postmodern way, fact and fiction loop around each other these days, like waste matter circling a drain. The phrase ‘the Zone’ comes from a Russian science fiction story called Roadside Picnic, written in 1971 about 15 years before the reactors exploded in what was, at that time (before another sort of meltdown), the Soviet Union.
Roadside Picnic is named in that way because the strange areas of activity it describes on the Earth (the Zones) were said to be the produce of alien visitors, who left behind patches of ground which could dissolve parts of bodies or reverse the laws of physics. The dead buried in Zonal cemeteries begin to shuffle home, quietly and harmlessly, including the father of the story’s main character, and are generally destroyed by the authorities.
Here’s the thing, though. I’ve been wondering, are we not living in the Zone as well?
Radioactive rain from Chernobyl did fall on the North West (and sheep in North Wales were failing radiation tests until the mid-90s), but that’s not what I mean. And I don’t think I’m talking about the effects of radon either, the radioactive gas which builds up in granite areas like the Peak District or the Yorkshire Dales and causes havoc as it slowly leaks into houses.
I’m talking about the period in which, into the bombed out, fractured cities, the estuaries and haunted moors of the Northlands, visitors seemed to come (as babies in this case, in hospitals) and bring with them extraordinary music. Now there are those of us, brave souls, who return to this Zone, like the scavengers of Roadside Picnic, seeking holy relics of that visitation: hoping to return to the normal world with fragments of a Beatle, some trace of Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, a Buzzcock or The Fall. The work is unimaginably hazardous, but the prices one earns for returning to the Southland carrying just one lock of Mick Hucknall’s hair will keep a scavenger family going for a year.
I think something that kept snagging me when I was trying to write about grief, and about my relationship with where I came from, the land of my fathers, was a question like ‘how do people transform experiences of annihilation and despair?’ I think with music, at its most magical, transcendent, and unpredictable, like the artists who came out of the North in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, like the artists who made the North light up globally for a moment, for more than a moment, as an area of land where something extraordinary was happening, there has to be one sort of answer.
The body, which can sing, which can set machines and instruments in motion to create music, which gets into people’s heads and hearts, is a body that absorbs that terrible energy and, for a time at least, transcends itself and its surroundings. A body that glows.
This last half-year I’ve had to start paying council tax in London for the first time, and it forces me to accept that my official address has changed. It aches sometimes. I’ve never had much of an accent (blame that on my grandmother’s best telephone voice, shades of Mrs Slocombe, perhaps, used for her customers at Boots on Cross Street in Manchester), but the North is in my bones, though where that area of influence starts and ends is hotly debated. From a vantage point in Newcastle, of course, Cheshire is a sort of flattened Midlands.
I am thinking of the title of Ian Penman’s extraordinary book about music and culture, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. I go to lots of places in The Reactor. I did end up seeing Chernobyl from across the border in Belarus and I went to the exclusion Zone around Fukushima in Japan. Writing a book for the first time, and writing about my life in the wake of my father’s death, seemed like a kind of striking out on my own. But once it was finished, there it was, pages crackling with the music of the North. I was home.
By Nick Blackburn
Main image: Nick Blackburn by Christa Holka
The Reactor by Nick Blackburn is published by Faber and available to buy from January 20, 2021. You can pre-order here.