The many countries of the North

Is the North (of England) a different country? In a special issue of The New Statesman, published last week and now available online, it turns out to be lots of different countries. The one Philip Hensher grew up in is nothing like the one depicted in two recent accounts, Paul Morley’s The North (and Almost Everything In It) and Morrissey’s Autobiography (which the singer insisted that Penguin publish as a “Classic”).

It’s “not all Coronation Street and popping the kettle on”, says the headline on Hensher’s piece. He himself writes:

“…  the most striking thing that the traditional view of “the North” leaves out is any sense of the Northern gentry and the middle classes. The distinction between the warm, neighbourly pop-the-kettle-on North and the cold, telephone-first South is not, in fact, a geographical one, but a social one, between proletarian manners and bourgeois manners. You will not get much of a welcome if you pop next door for a quid for the meter in the Tory Valhalla of Harrogate. What! There are Tories in Yorkshire? Well, of course. Some of them have never even seen a whippet under the tea table.”

There’s plenty more, just as spirited, from others intent on dispelling stereotypes. The radio presenter Stuart Maconie, author of Pies and Prejudice, offers this advice to any hacks sent to sum up the North:

“Don’t go to Harrogate, Hebden Bridge, Durham, any part of the Northumberland Coast, the Lake District, the Eden Valley, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay or Hadrian’s Wall. This is not really “the North” as we all understand it and will only confuse your readers. Keep it urban, keep it polluted, keep it depressed. And don’t be afraid of any comeback from actual Northerners. You can always put this down to ‘chippiness’.”

Other contributors include Will Self, “a Southern sod” discovering the North on foot, Kevin Maguire (“hewn from a mining family but plying the cushier trade of journalism”), returning home to South Shields, and Ben Chu on growing up Chinese in Manchester. More background reading before you order your visa? There’s an excellent primer from Frances Wilson (“someone of no fixed abode”) on Northern fiction.

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