The Northern Diaspora
Northerners outside the North are often coerced into being somehow more Northern than their stay-at-home counterparts. We can all think of famous people who are, to quote Flic Everett, ‘professionally Northern’. Comedians, usually. But, as Victoria Wood pointed out, the majority of successful British comedians have come from the North. Why is that? What does it mean? Is there a Northern ‘sensibility’? And if we want to dispel clichés about the North but still hold onto the notion of a ‘sensibility’, aren’t we having our parkin and eating it too?
Part of the problem is what we attribute to ‘Northernness’. For instance, let’s say you have a mate from the same town as you who spins a wonderful yarn down the pub. He’s just a funny guy. That’s his personality. Transplant him as the only Northerner to an office in London and at some point you can bet his humour will be attributed to his being from the North. Context is everything. A Geordie friend of mine is repeatedly told that, contrary to his own lived experience, the North East is an exceptionally friendly place. When he moved to Stretford in Manchester he was weekly accosted by Mancunians in the Stretford Arndale who engaged him in amiable chatter until his shopping trips became social outings in themselves. He was told by other residents of Manchester that Stretford could no way be as friendly as he described… A Scouse friend talks of the special dispensation she has in London: she’s not Northern, she’s just ‘Scouse’. I guess because Northerners say ‘ee by gum’ and not ‘ah ey la’… Another friend from Billingham would scoff whenever I mentioned that I was from the North. As far as she’s concerned, Blackpool is practically the Midlands. If a Northern diaspora exists it would have to be premised on some kind of shared experience. I would suggest that such a thing does not exist, but what does exist is a shared position of being interpreted as Northern, and that’s something that happens to you whether you like it or not.
One of my very favourite ‘ex-pat’ anecdotes is told by Morrissey regarding his friendship with Alan Bennett. For a while the two Northerners (Manchester and Leeds respectively) were resident in Camden, North London at the same time, just a few streets away from one another. They struck up a friendship based on Morrissey’s adoration of Bennett’s work, and Bennett’s utter ignorance of who Morrissey was. Interviewed by Time Out Morrissey was asked if he thought that Bennett ‘voiced a particular type of Northern-ness’, to which Morrissey replied:
‘Yes, it’s largely the sodden gloom of the North – the walled-in lack-of-choice North that, really, he loves. The family is a battle-ground and every character trembles on the edge of confession. Sex is on everybody’s mind, but nobody says anything. This, I think, is Alan himself.’
It’s a lovely description, and certainly accurate for some of Bennett’s writing, but it’s also written by a very successful non-resident of the North about another, suggesting that distance is what’s needed to turn a keen eye to the North, or anywhere. It also contains the kitchen-sink blueprint that’s been awfully hard to shake off for subsequent generations. In order to sell the North back to Northerners it probably helps not to live there anymore. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than someone who moves away from their hometown and spends their lives explaining how life was better ‘back home’. Having grown up in a family that could be classified as part of a deeply unsentimental Irish diaspora, I quote: ‘If you like it so much, go back there.’
I’d like to finish with another Morrissey/Bennett exchange. When asked if Bennett was a good neighbour, Morrissey replied:
‘Well, he didn’t turn up with steaming broth or anything like that… I would ask him about the daily obituary columns. I remember one day I knocked on his door and he opened it and I said ‘Peggy Mount’s dead’, and he said, ‘Oh, good – come in.’
Is that Northern? Is it camp? Or is it just really bloody funny…?