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Challenging Narratives About The North: 'Pity' by Andrew McMillan at the Southbank Centre

Photo by Sophie Davidson, courtesy of Southbank Centre

2024 is the year of The North. With many new books coming out featuring Northern dialects, previously under-represented voices are now coming to the forefront. Among them is Pity, poet Andrew McMillan’s debut novel, set in his hometown Barnsley. On its publication day, McMillan sat down with fellow poet Owen Sheers for a discussion about the novel in the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The walls were lit up pink to match the book’s cover – its pink accents, contrasted with the foreboding black of the mines, echo the famous ‘Pits and Perverts: Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners’ poster, fitting the novel themes perfectly.

But first, Fatt Butcher. The award-winning cabaret artist introduced the evening, draped in a stunning gown with the colours of the non-binary flag. They said that we may have heard of them from featuring on The Voice last year, but if we hadn’t, we could be “fatt virgins” tonight. Butcher sang ‘Make Me Whole Again’, and after such an impressive opening, McMillan worried about following up this performance – as if publishing a debut novel isn’t already daunting! 

Pity is McMillan’s first novel, but certainly not his first book beginning with a ‘p’, as Sheers joked. McMillan is the author of poetry collections physical, playtime, and pandemonium, all of which are critically acclaimed. The night started with a reading from one of the lyric interludes throughout the book, which is where McMillan’s poetic voice shines through the most. He describes the miners going out to work each morning: “And beneath their feet, a mile down, history; waiting to be hacked into chunks and pulled out.”

The novel spans across three generations of a mining family, focusing on brothers Alex and Brian, Alex’s son Simon, and Simon’s relationship with Ryan. In this way, Pity is polyphonic, set in only one place but featuring many characters. Speaking about his writing journey, McMillan said that this approach helped him avoid the “claggy” feel of simply relating his personal experiences of Barnsley. He was told that the hardest part of writing a novel is how to write it – which seems facetiously obvious, until you realise that you really have to “find your own way into it.” For McMillan, this was through an experimental plethora of voices, including not only the “insider” perspective of the characters but also the “outsider” view of a research group making field notes on Barnsley throughout the novel. McMillan, who now occupies a grey area between insider and outsider of his hometown, thought it would be interesting to portray the “inherent awkwardness” of how a place is perceived in totally different ways. For Barnsley, this feels pertinent – a South Yorkshire town with many narratives prescribed onto it that need to be called into question.

Pity’s title comes from ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s 1633 tragedy that McMillan studied for his A Levels at Barnsley College. Thus, Simon’s drag name — Puttana Short Dress — comes from the character Putana in the play – there are many other references in the book, “in case anyone wanted to do a thesis on it…” Although McMillan strayed from his original idea of writing a contemporary version of the play, the title remained flawless – it took him far too long to realise that the word ‘pit’ is in ‘pity’. Moreover, ‘pity’ means something like ‘shame’ or even ‘sin’ in Yorkshire – fitting for Pity’s characters exploring their queerness in an oppressive atmosphere.

Mining isn’t the only excavation happening in the book – the characters dig into the layers of themselves. Simon’s father Alex must wrestle with his sexuality, and Simon discovers himself through his drag act – by becoming someone else. Ryan and Simon must also navigate their relationship not only between themselves but through a “menage à trois,” in Sheer’s words, with the rest of the town. “My greatest fear in life,” McMillan confessed, “is to be perceived.” He’s aware this goes against the very act of being on stage, but there’s a reason his therapist was “very excited” about this novel – surveillance is everywhere. There is “never a straightforward gaze” in Pity. While Ryan watches Simon through the screens of security guard cameras and subscribes to Simon’s OnlyFans page, the town keeps its eyes on anyone who might be stepping out of line. No one is free to truly be themselves.

Was Pity meant to be published exactly forty years after the miners’ strike? No, it was a “quirk of the calendar,” but the anniversary calls attention to how fresh Barnsley’s scars still are. McMillan was born only a few years after the strikes, and he talked about how the younger generations have “collectively inherited” this trauma through “osmosis” – it’s why everyone in Barnsley is still furious about the past; it lives on. The most prominent haunting figure of mining towns is, of course, Margaret Thatcher, and the novel interrogates this through Simon creating a drag version of her. Thatcher herself was a kind of drag act, in a Judith Butler line of thinking – she had to perform masculinity, which becomes especially apparent in Pity, a book dominated by men. What does it mean, then, for Simon to bring her ghost back to Barnsley?

It might be too predictable, being from Barnsley and writing a book about the pits. Yes, but “you have to reckon with it,” McMillan asserted. We are still living in Thatcher’s legacy – McMillan grew up under Section 28, and now we are seeing its revival, targeting trans people this time. Fatt Butcher expressed their anger at this at the end of the evening, encouraging us to sing along to ‘What’s Up?’ because, truly, what is going on. History seems cyclical, and this is why it’s so important that we “reckon” with the past, instead of believing that certain stories have been “done to death,” as McMillan states.

In a climate where both the main right and left wing political parties in the UK are infuriating, it’s hard to feel — especially as a marginalised person — like you can be genuinely represented. Pity, then, seeks to represent The North in a new and more authentic light. The North, like all other things with attached stereotypes, cannot be boiled down to one depiction – it’s multitudinous. I talked with McMillan after the event about how excited I was to read the novel, having also grown up queer in a Yorkshire town. But I’m from North Yorkshire; Barnsley is South. As Pity aims to show, all our experiences are completely different – we cannot prescribe any one narrative to a place. It’s up to us to excavate our own stories.

Pity, published by Canongate, is out now.


Written and edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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