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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The North of England Home Service

Gordon Burn

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To purchase The North of England Home Service

Title: The North of England Home Service
Author: Gordon Burn
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 221 pages
Availability: The North of England Home Service - US
The North of England Home Service - UK
The North of England Home Service - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : nostalgic wallow, expertly done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 22/4/2003 Lewis Jones
The Guardian . 17/5/2003 D.J.Taylor
The Independent . 3/5/2003 Sean O'Brien
Independent on Sunday F 18/5/2003 John Tague
The Observer . 27/4/2003 Tim Adams
The Spectator . 17/5/2003 Robert Edric
The Times . 3/5/2003 Chris Power
TLS A 9/5/2003 M.John Harrison

  Review Consensus:

  Generally impressed -- though not all entirely sure what it's all for

  From the Reviews:
  • "The North of England Home Service is thus not only an exercise in nostalgia, but also a meditation on its nature. It achieves a meta-nostalgia -- nostalgia for nostalgia itself, which has never been what it used to be, though Burn has here set a new standard for it, creating a sort of proletarian Brideshead Revisited." - Lewis Jones, Daily Telegraph

  • "Delicately written, with all the eye-catching detail that gives Burn's non-fiction its allure, the result is rather short on human interaction. By far the best scenes (...) come when the historical fog recedes for a moment to allow Ray and Jackie to stumble hesitantly into the light." - D.J.Taylor, The Guardian

  • "The history he presents, using a mixture of the actual and the imagined, and at times wielding an Orwellian eloquence, is worth the price of the book in itself. (...) Suddenly running out of pages, the reader may wonder what The North of England Home Service has been for. The book reads like a documentary poem: events, names and atmospheres are valued for their own lost sakes rather than as the furniture of narrative." - Sean O'Brien, The Independent

  • "In fact, so inept is this novel, so clumsy in its basic technique and frustrating in the treatment of its subject, that it has the cumulative effect of throwing Burn's past achievements into doubt. Is this really the work of a writer who won a Whitbread First Novel award ? The North of England Home Service is a hurried, shabby work that leaves its reader dulled, disappointed and puzzled as to why Burn's evident writing talents have deserted him so categorically here." - John Tague, Independent on Sunday

  • "The author moves in this landscape with an uncompromising documentary intelligence. He interrogates its symbols (...) with a virile curiosity and an edgy sense of political history. Nothing, not a joke or a jogger, is let off lightly. It is a book that feels as if it were written on foot, every sentence exhibiting a lifetime of close observation and streetwise wit. (...) Burn risks overwhelming his story with 'back story'. The result leaves tensions unresolved and relationships unfulfilled; this is undoubtedly part of his point but, like its richly imagined characters, it is a novel that lives most fully in the past." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "But the true blight of this impressive and quietly raging novel is the blight inside, the death of hope and expectation, the blight of a nation consumed by its need for easy gratification, and, above all, the blight of people suddenly unsure of themselves and of their own true place and purpose in the world." - Robert Edric, The Spectator

  • "But Burn, an astute commentator on the topographical shifts and attendant social ramifications caused by the collapse of heavy industry in the North East, is far too intelligent a writer to endorse a simplistic binary opposition between a golden past and tarnished present. Instead he makes individual human relations his primary concern. In a book thick with intelligent metaphor, the use of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is its only sacrifice to the blatant." - Chris Power, The Times

  • "The story that emerges isn't so much Ray's or Jackie's as Britain's: heritage-era Britain, Britain as Retro Land, unable or unprepared to find a new self to be. It is a story, too, about how real stories aren't made: how they surface somehow, from the million-tiled non-narratives of daily life. To call it a "palimpsest", a wall of lapped graffiti, would be too static a description of the way something emerges out of everything, how the specific makes its lithe way out of the general, out of what Burn calls "the mysteriously connected random flow that constitutes life". (...) The North of England Home Service is a hypnotic assembly of glimpses, anecdotes, recollections, pictures; but as you read, you never lose sight of the images that put you on the edge of your seat on page one." - M.John Harrison, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The North of England Home Service is set in the present, but is dominated by the past. The central character is a comedian, Ray Cruddas, whose days in the spotlight are over and who has returned to the area he grew up in, in England's North East. His hometown has changed radically since his childhood, but the past isn't that easily replaced -- and many, Cruddas included. clearly miss aspects of it. Cruddas cleverly cashes in on this, with Bobby's:

the nostalgia enterprise he had launched eighteen months earlier -- its slogan was 'The kind of club that takes you back even if you were never there originally'
       With Cruddas also providing some of the entertainment -- his largely over-the-hill comedy routine providing another flash from the past --, it's a smashing success (though not on the days that are the focus of the novel, when the spread of foot-and-mouth disease is wreaking yet another sort of debilitating havoc on the area).
       The other significant figure is Cruddas' factotum, Jackie Mabe, who used to be a boxer until he blew out his knee.
       Burn focusses on the everyday routine of Cruddas and Mabe, describing it in close detail before returning to and expanding on their pasts, setting the scene of the present before fully revealing how they got there. Cruddas rise (and gentle decline) -- from his BBC auditions to becoming a small-time radio personality through his lucky breaks (including finding favour with Margaret Thatcher) -- are nicely chronicled. So are Mabe's, and his relationship with (real-life) boxing figure Jack Solomons.
       Burn handles both past and present expertly, with a great eye for the telling detail. He also bridges past and present beautifully: the novel is filled with layers of transition, revealingly laid on or pulled off to very good effect.
       It is a novel of changes and nostalgia, of hanging onto a past and trying to adapt it to the present:
     The prettifying of industrial relics -- turning miners' helmets and steel-toe-capped boots into garden ornaments -- was only a domestic version of the glut of ambitious landscaping and reclamation projects that had been instigated in the countryside around Rusty Lane in recent years.
       The lost worlds -- Jewish London, the late 60s boxing scene, much of English working-class life -- are nicely presented. Melancholy is pervasive, with a sense of irretrievable loss all about, and the constant effort to find (or create) a sense of home, tradition, and comfort.
       The characters are marvelously drawn, from Cruddas' immigrant new wife (who still insists on working as a cleaning woman) to his mother to some of the real-life personalities that appear in the book. Cruddas and Mabe, in particular, are very well realised.
       The focus of the book is on the mundane, the day-to-day lives of these characters and the changing world they inhabit. The events seem, for the most part, almost unremarkable, but by grounding the characters (and the places) so firmly in the pasts they can not shake off (or live up to any longer) Burn has created a rich and vivid work. It is a patient book, and all the more powerful for it: Burn doesn't try to overwhelm the reader but still manages to pack an impressive punch.
       (Note that The North of England Home Service is a very English book. Burn's writing helps it transcend the strict limits of these times and this place, but some readers may find some of the language and references mystifying.)
       An impressive achievement.

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The North of England Home Service: Reviews: Other books by Gordon Burn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Gordon Burn lived 1948 to 2009.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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