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New works seek to tell the story of the contemporary North East

From surfing and shopping through politics, community and identity, an ambitious new series turns a spotlight on the contemporary North East to uncover the stories that are rarely told outside the region.

New Narratives for the North East is a series of 20 podcasts, essays and creative writing commissioned by New Writing North with the North East Cultural Partnership supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

The original works are now published on the Durham Book Festival website as part of the digital festival which runs until 18 October. Durham Book Festival is a Durham County Council festival produced by New Writing North with funding from Durham University and Arts Council England and support from BBC Newcastle.

There, writers including David Almond, Carmen Marcus and Alex Niven take on some of the major concerns of the region, getting under its skin to find what makes the North East people tick, and giving voice to those who feature all-too-infrequently in the mainstream media.

New Narratives for the North East was launched following major political events for the region, including the Brexit vote and the 2019 General Election. The commissions were made during a global pandemic in which the North East has been amongst the worst hit in Britain. Yet, the pieces capture not just this startling moment in time, but something deeper and more lasting about the contemporary North East.

The series offers a kaleidoscopic view of the region, zooming in, to focus on real lives and unique places. Lisette Auton considers the 25% of people in the North East who are disabled and wonders why they are not taking up space in the region’s culture. Mim Skinner introduces the reader to the regulars in her Chester le Street community café, reeling from the shock of lockdown but finding support amongst one another.

As Andrew Hankinson looks at the Metrocentre, once a shining emblem for the region’s transition from heavy industry to services, so Alex Niven surveys the North East as birthplace of the railways, whose progress has since been derailed. Richard Benson examines the very identity of the region – innovative, practical, problem-solving, but perhaps a little modest – exemplified by its globally-important (world-beating?) but little-discussed offshore renewable energy industry. ‘What other region could be represented by an iron angel with its feet on the ground?’ he asks. Richard T Kelly wonders if we have unheralded allies at the heart of government.

Elsewhere, industry gives way to vast expanses of wilderness. What if we built a new country in this wilderness – considers JA Mensah, in a work of fiction –  what would its founding principles be? The sea, and the region’s connection to it, runs through narratives of surfing and fishing. Writers consider both the perils and the freedom of living on the edge of things, as well as the possibilities afforded by looking outwards to the sea, to Europe, and beyond.

“They tell us that we live on a tiny crowded island. They try to tell us that we are tiny within ourselves. Tell them to come up here with the skylark, to forget what they think they know, and to look down upon the vastness of the North,” writes David Almond in his lyrical essay, Sing the North.

In every piece, place plays a starring role.

The essays, podcasts and creative writing pieces are available for free as part of New Narratives for the North East at the Durham Book Festival website https://durhambookfestival.com/programme/new-narratives-for-the-north-east/

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