To mark the relocation of some of its departments to MediaCityUK in Salford, the BBC announced last week a season of programmes celebrating “the culture, history, life and architecture of northern cities”. Writing as a northerner, I find both the relocation and the programme plan heartening.
But if the BBC had moved Broadcasting House, or Television Centre to the North, that would have been even better – akin to the puckish ploy of Tony Benn, who as a cabinet minister in the 1970s displayed a map of Britain upside down on his office wall. Where the visitor sought London, the supposed focal point, he or she would have found the North, which at the time still signified industry, trade unionism, working-class cohesion, nonconformism and other qualities dear to the heart of Benn. Today, the industry and associated society has gone, written off by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and northernness is slowly dying.
The northern voice, for example, is dying. It was determined by a communal existence, and so was not attention-seeking, but economical to the point of terseness; it was informed by industrial hardship, and so it was melancholic. The recipe involves putting these things together, then adding a dash of humour and surrealism. What you end up with is the northern droll. Les Dawson, from Manchester, was one: “There was a knock on the front door. I knew it was the mother-in-law because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps.” In the 1950s, radio shows of the baleful Al Read, Salford-born sausage manufacturer and comedian, a wife asks her idle husband, “Are you going to cut that grass, or are you waiting ’til it comes in the ‘all?” The Liverpudlian Ken Dodd is still at it. He called the millennium the “aluminium”, and took aim at the number one metropolitan folly of our times: “Have you been to the Aluminium Dome? They’ve got an exhibition there that shows you how VAT works.”
In his book, Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love, Charles Nevin argues that the once omnipresent northern droll was in practice always Lancastrian, and it’s true that one of the last drolls still plying the trade is Morrissey, who is Mancunian. But another is Alan Bennett and he’s from Leeds. Unfortunately Bennett is pushing 80 and Morrissey lives in Italy, and the dominant tone in British entertainment and life in general for years has been the London tone: loud, brash, cocky; the barrow boy rather than the industrial worker, the cabbie rather than the train driver. It’s the eclipse of Michael Parkinson by Jonathan Ross, of Emmerdale and Brookside by EastEnders which, incidentally, celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. Ugly people scream abuse at each other amid terrible decor. I suppose it’s a formula that couldn’t fail, and its equation of entertainment with strident individualism has lead naturally to the sadism of reality TV, itself a reflection of an atomised society more southern than northern.
The triumph of the City has been the triumph of London. Once, the arrogance of a City gent might have been tempered by a short walk from his workplace to King’s Cross station, where he would have seen the coal trains arriving and unloading endlessly, and he would have known that the softness of his existence depended on the hardness of the North.
If the City gent had then walked a little way west along the Euston Road, he would have come to the twin stone lodges that flanked the Euston Arch. The Arch is in pieces now, although there are plans for its reconstruction, but the lodges remain, and here are carved the names of the towns accessible from Euston (albeit sometimes with a few changes of train).
Forty years ago, those names would have triggered a series of chastening associations in our educated City gent’s mind. Preston – that was Coketown in Hard Times. Manchester – cradle of industry, depicted as Milton in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Stoke – The Potteries, Arnold Bennett territory. Nottingham – lace, mining, D H Lawrence. Huddersfield and Bradford – textile towns, combined into “Bruddersford” by J B Priestley in The Good Companions.
And Bradford was also Dufton in Room at the Top by John Braine, one of the last phase of northern books, those of the 1950s and 1960s attesting to the collapse of the social rigidities associated with industrialisation.
Most of those place names today will signify little more than football teams to many people. When James Alexander Gordon reads the classified football results at 5pm on a Saturday, it sounds to me like a beautifully modulated roll call of the dead. And, of course, many of the best players and managers are foreign, and the names of the stadia often occlude their geographical location. Newcastle, now playing at sportsdirect.com@stjames’park, have floated off into the ether. Where Sunderland once played at Roker Park, they now play at The Stadium of Light, which is at once pompous, boringly generic and copied from the name of the home ground of Benfica.
Where Middlesbrough played at Ayresome Park, they’re now based at the Riverside Stadium, located in a wasteland on the banks of the Tees where once stood the centre of world iron-making. (Incidentally, I think the BBC should look again at MediaCityUK. I prefer the brazenness of “Salford Media”).
Last year, Faber and Faber published Ten Storey Love Song a novel by Richard Milward set in contemporary Middlesbrough. A woman I know who works for New Writing North, one of the too-few organisations promoting northern writing, said, “It caused a terrific fuss up here.” Well no wonder. The northern novel with a contemporary setting hardly exists, and is not much discussed insofar as it does, whereas if you write a book set in Africa or India you’re heading straight for the Booker shortlist. The troubles of the North are not fashionable troubles.
When was the last time anybody set a novel in (to take just the Bs) modern-day Bury, Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton, Bradford or Bingley? Then again, what’s the difference between any of these places and Luton? Globalisation, Americanisation, homogenisation of high streets, the rise of the internet have all combined to abstract us from the physicality of our geographical settings – and the North was all about geography. We celebrate diversity of race, but not diversity of place. Most of us live in a sort of notional Los Angeles, and so the northern rain, the redness of the house bricks, the lumpishness of the landscape, seem anomalous, faintly perplexing in the way they insistently reassert themselves whenever the computer screen is switched off.
Oh, I left out centralisation. It’s incredible to think that an apprenticeship in local government was the standard prelude to a ministerial career. Think of Joseph Chamberlain, high flying beneficiary of the “Birmingham Machine”. I once wrote a historical novel set in Halifax in the early 20th century. I gathered from back numbers of The Halifax Courier that the leading celebrities of the town (as proud and independent as a little city state; a place where you could post a letter in the box on the tram at midnight) were the mayor and the councillors. Today, for all the talk of localism, neither of the main parties wants to resuscitate local government.
Let me acknowledge that I don’t believe I would have been suited to life in a factory or a mill. Given a choice of workplace, I would always go for somewhere a bit less dark and satanic. But I think I would prefer a senior position in a factory over one in a call centre or a coffee shop. A resident of Manchester recently told me that “We live in the city that invented industry, and however much it changes, that pride is in our DNA, and it’ll be there for ever.” I don’t know about that. Wherever northern cities are talked up, as in the glossy magazines available on the trains heading that way, the emphasis is always on new eateries, but I think we have all got over the novelty of being able to buy a croissant in Cleckheaton.
The ruling principle is a sort of vacuous cosmopolitanism. In York a few years ago I went into a restaurant – a kind of noodle bar – where clocks on the wall told you the time in Paris, New York and… possibly Beijing. But no clock told you the time in York. The other aspect of northern life pushed in the magazines is youth culture, and that’s the big thing that happened in Manchester in the post-industrial era: the rise and fall of the Happy Mondays and their bell-bottomed mates. It’s not enough really, much though I love the Stone Roses.
Northernness is not quite dead yet, and its distinctive tone has been taken on by the immigrant communities, but it is living on borrowed time. The BBC should be a spur to its revival, as should any incoming government. We need its virtues – its matter-of-factness and communality – now more than ever. And we don’t want to be a nation of EastEnders, do we?
Andrew Martin, The Independent, Sunday, 14 February 2010
Main Image: writer Richard Milward by Sarah Lee.