You are browsing the archive for the north as an idea.

‘Step up El Presidente Pickles’

July 28, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process


Scotland is easy enough. Travellers from the south meet it at Gretna, Lamberton Toll or Carter Bar, where in recent years the signs have grown big enough to advertise an international frontier. But where does “the North”, meaning northern England, begin?

For me, it starts when the M6 peels off from the M1, or the train charges through Rugby or Retford. I don’t expect many people agree with these boundaries. This is the north as an idea – a highly idiosyncratic one – that pays no attention to physical geography. The Midlands have gone missing. But then the north has always been hazy and tediously arguable, even when it was more obviously defined to the eye and ear by mills, collieries and accents rather than the social statistics of the north-south divide. More and more it seems easier to think of it as a negative, a not-south, with southern England posing as a norm that needs emulating in terms of lifestyle, wealth and opportunity. What begins at the M6 junction going north is the sense of entering a poorer country, in most other ways not markedly different from the one left behind, which, despite the beautiful, uplifting interruption of the Lake District, stretches all the way to Carlisle.

Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Sheffield university, has given this boundary its most detailed expression in a map based on all kinds of social statistics – health inequalities, house prices, mortality rates, voting patterns. As a definition of “the North” it may be ludicrous – Wales is included – and its pernickety line, crossing fields to separate villages from their county towns, reminds you what can happen when difference is assessed purely by human characteristics that are calculable (a head-count of religious identity was the criteria when India was partitioned, splitting Punjab as raggedly as Dorling does Lincolnshire, but with crueller results). But the rough divide looks familiar enough. Above a diagonal line drawn from Bristol to just south of Grimsby, life chances in England are poorer.

In his recent book, So You Think You Know About Britain?, Dorling finds that the difference between north and south in premature death rates was wider in 2010 than it had been in 1921, and that the centre of Britain’s population, the place where in weight it would balance perfectly, is moving steadily south. “What shocked me”, he writes, “was to learn just how relentlessly it had moved south over the course of almost every year of the last century.” Only in the 1970s was the drift briefly halted. Dorling considers England to be split between “on the one hand the outermost commuting suburbs and exclaves of a metropolis [London], and on the other hand the runt of the country that is left over and beyond – the North”.

With one exception, political attempts to change this imbalance are puny. Nothing resembles an industrial strategy. The BBC is moving staff to Salford, whoopee, but in Derby the last train-making factory in Britain has lost a big order to Germany, and may not survive for much longer. The exception, potentially, is the proposed high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham, with its later extension to Manchester and Leeds. Arguments flourish over the business case and the £32bn cost, but the loudest opposition comes from the rural suburbs and London “exclaves” of the Chilterns, which fear the ruination of their valuable countryside and property by extensive earthworks and 250mph trains. And all for what? So that 30 minutes can be knocked off the journey to Birmingham, and 48 minutes to Manchester; the same, of course, coming south.

“Your jobs or their lawns?” is how the north has chosen to answer the southern lobby. The slogan, accompanied by images of a country mansion and a man in a bowler hat, appeared for the first time on the sides of Manchester and Liverpool buses this week.

This strayed into territory that advertising recognises as dangerous, as class-based as the Lord Snooty lookalikes that are always alleged to have lost Labour the Crewe byelection. The founder of one of the Chilterns groups called the campaign “absolutely ridiculous” in its suggestion that southern Nimbys were jeopardising northern growth – these were “fast trains for fat cats”. On the BBC News, the boiler-suited owner of a car repair business in Ruislip refuted the idea that opposition to the line comprised only Country Life readers and the now-mythical City gent.

Is this how the north really sees the south? Of course not: advertising deals in caricatures. But what the campaign has presumably divined, and hopes to feed from, is a gathering popular resentment at southern power. North and south may always have enjoyed a theatrical rivalry, neatly encapsulated in what the Australian writer Donald Horne called the Northern and Southern Metaphors (among other things, the north is “pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan” and the south “divinely lucky, Anglican, frivolous”). For the north, the south has always had its attractions. “There grows in the North Country a certain kind of youth of whom it may be said that he is born to be a Londoner,” Arnold Bennett wrote in 1898, and the same held true in the 60s when Billy Liar nearly left Yorkshire for the uncertain prospects of scriptwriting in London (very soon, he would have needed to travel no further than Salford). But even in the 1960s, those who stayed behind could feel themselves part of a society that wasn’t beholden to the south. They could even feel that their industry propped up the south.

“Your jobs or their lawns?’ speaks to a different mood, of a helplessness and discontent that has still to find a political voice. There is no regional party – perhaps the north is too amorphous for one, or perhaps that’s what Labour, much against its triangulating will, is becoming.

Northern England lacks a political champion. In London, I often get into a train for Scotland. You leave a prosperous metropolis and cross David Cameron’s England until Rugby. At Carlisle, people are still paying student fees, and for their false teeth.

Before Lockerbie, both are free. You are now in the country with the leader known by local satirists as El Presidente Salmondo. Between Rugby and Carlisle is the country known as “the North”, a tract of worried England with no distinguished political leadership, bookended by the heartlands of Britain’s two most skilful operators and optimists. El Presidente Pickles? The thought in itself shows how desperate the need.

Ian Jack,, Friday 24th June 2011. Full artictle title: ‘The north of England lacks a political champion. Step up El Presidente Pickles’

‘The North Is Not History…’

July 7, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

Richard Milward by Sarah Lee

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’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.