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October 17, 2007

On being from "the North": Pies and Prejudice: in search of the North - Stuart Maconie

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Pies and Prejudice: in search of the North
by Stuart Maconie
Pp. 338. London: Ebury Press, 2007
Hardback, £11.99

When I was growing up the wisdom I received about the South of England consisted of a limited number of hostile propositions:
1. It was entirely covered with cheap modern houses. If not all "prefabs" then they were as flimsy as to make no difference.

2. Of all the places on the entire planet it was extremely and uniquely unfriendly. You could live next to somebody for twenty years without them speaking to you and when people died down there they often lay unnoticed for days or weeks (I'm not entirely sure which) before the smell became unbearable.

3. Southerners told lies constantly, habitually, even when there was no benefit to them in telling lies. They didn't even realise they were lying and often thought they were being modest or polite.

The first one is harsh, the other two are fair enough ("pleased to see me" is bad enough, but why bung in the adverb "awfully" unless you’re being sarcy?). What they didn't tell me was that Southerners were quite ignorant and arrogant in their attitudes to the North. On the evidence presented to me I imagined that, just as every Frenchman would fervently wish to be English, so every southern English person would regret bitterly not being Northern. After all, we had the best countryside, the best football and cricket teams, the best sense of humour, music, food etc.

Fifty years after this childhood socialisation I used to take the Bens and Sarahs of Hertfordshire and Essex on university field trips to the North and would invariably discover a) that most of them had never been there and b) even those who had, had spent more time in France, Spain and the USA than they had in the North. I have well educated, well-travelled Southern friends even now who have never been to Durham which, since it is easily England's most spectacular city (and a "World Heritage Site"), seems a little odd. Are there 60-year-old well educated Italians who have never been to Venice?

I am an unusual and extreme northerner in that all my ancestors and relatives are from Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire, but I grew up in Lancashire. Arguably, this makes me more "from the North" in general than most northerners who are usually specialist Geordies, Lancastrians or whatever. Until I became an undergraduate I'd barely met a Southerner and the only part of the South of England where I had been for more than a very brief visit was Cornwall (which wouldn't really count if you are to believe the Cornish). The North, as it was explained to me, was very well defined and consisted of six historic counties: the four I had connections with plus Cumberland and Westmoreland. There were - to use an old Soviet expression - "candidate members" such as the Peak District and the Wirral, but they were doomed to a form of Limbo because there was no procedure for their admission.

Anyway, I have remained sufficiently obvious or assertive or whatever about my regional origins that this year people have frequently remarked to me that I must read Stuart Maconie's book, Pies and Prejudice. Well, now I have read it and I don't much like it.

His North overlaps with mine, but it isn't mine for lots of reasons. The most fundamental of these is that he is a leftie of the soft, old variety. He is routinely sentimental about the "working" class, makes scurrilous remarks about established institutions, talks about Marx and Engels as if they were both interesting and important etc. Under the rules of free speech I wouldn't really object to that, but I obviously do have a problem with his insistence that these are all definitively northern characteristics.

The "North" must not become the cultural property of hairy little poly lecturers and, since Maconie thinks that resistance to Thatcherism was a distinctively northern trait, I must inform him that my own constituency (Pendle, formerly Nelson and Colne) was one of seventeen contiguous constituencies at the heart of the North of England which returned Conservative members under Mrs Thatcher's leadership. I heard far more strident condemnation of Arthur Scargill and the miners in the North than I ever did in the mealy mouthed and embarrassed South. Such condemnation tended to be sotto voce in Durham, but not in Lancashire.

So I do feel excluded, a bit like a member of the Irish gentry on being told that you have to be freckled and play hurling and grovel to the Bishop of Rome in order to be a "real" Irishman.

And, ideology apart, Maconie's Lancashire is just not mine. Mancunian pop groups and Liverpudlian fashion sense matter to him. I don't mind them - I even, in a patronising kind of way, like the idea of Manchester being a world capital of popular or youth culture, but I couldn't care less. Conversely, I do care about Lancashire cheese (of which there is a wide and brilliant variety) whereas Maconie says (p. 140):

I have to say that I'm with Orwell on Lancashire cheese; anaemic, crumbly and tasting faintly of soap . .
It is surely relevant that Orwell stayed in Wigan, Maconie's home town which is, according to one designation, in "Greater Manchester" and serve 'em right. To be fair, that description does fit the kind of Lancashire cheese which is sold in supermarkets, but it bears no resemblance to the stuff I was brought up with.

When I reflect on my original impression of "the South" I have to admit that most of it applies to South Lancashire, a flat place of shabby brick houses. We have in Lancashire a range of intra-mural prejudices at least on the scale of our external ones. It is normal in Burnley, Colne and Nelson to despise Scousers and Mankies, not to mention "Egg Chasers" (Wigan), "Trotters" (Bolton) and "Bastards" (Blackburn). This last one lacks imagination, I grant you, but makes up for it in venom.

According to Maconie, they call us "woollybacks" though I have never heard that expression. One has been called a "hillbilly" and a "Dingle" (which is, apparently, a reference to a (the?) rural underclass family in Emmerdale).

And, of course, we all join together in our contempt for the "Tykes" of Yorkshire. Maconie offers rather a good Yorkshire joke. It's about a man who retires and his wife organises a trip to Las Vegas. It goes superbly and includes what is regarded as Bob Hope's greatest ever performance. When she asks him if he's enjoyed it, he replies (p. 177):

Ah well, I suppose it were alreet for them as likes laffin.
But we even join with them in expressing our contempt for the 3SBs: the soft, sad, southern bastards. And with most of those in our incredulous conversations about what a dump London is.

This great soup of layered and conflicting prejudice is part of our culture and its expression is a popular form of art. For the most part it makes life more meaningful. Of course, it has its dangers: the idea that people from Blackburn are "bastards" or that southerners are soft and sad is taken seriously by some stupid people.

The correct way to treat one's prejudices is to assume that they are true but not serious. What is clear, despite Sir John Hall's attempt to raise the consciousness of "the Geordie Nation", is that there is nothing nationalist or secessionist in these sentiments. We northerners are not Catalans or Scots or even Cornish; we regard ourselves as thoroughly English. We contest Englishness with the rest of the country, regarding ourselves as the superior or authentic version. The Pennines are the real English countryside and when it comes to the "English sense of humour" then we're funnier than you are.

I didn't know who Stuart Maconie was, but he is prominent on Radio 2 and has had his own television programmes. His fame is probably his main problem as a writer. I was once asked to review four books of this kind where the author "explores" a place, wanders round, quotes some previous writers (J. B. Priestley is compulsory if it's England) etc. (I had written one of my own).

Two of the books were good, one was excellent and one was rubbish. The excellent one was about Scotland and it was written by a young Scot returning home after some years abroad; it was original, atmospheric and provocative. And I can't remember his name! The rubbish was by Beryl Bainbridge and published by the BBC as the "book of the series". It was bland, familiar, lazy, poorly informed stuff. That isn't necessarily a reflection on Ms Bainbridge's talent (or Mr Maconie's), but on what happens when you write for a "mass" market. You would think that having resources behind you would at least eradicate obvious mistakes, but Maconie's book is laced with simple factual errors.

He has a hang-up about being northern. Or perhaps two. The first is that he is losing it living in London and, in an opening passage, he worries about having sun-dried tomatoes and a capuccinno machine in his house. (On reflection, I have neither. That is actually because nobody in the house likes those products, but you could argue in favour of embarrassment about them because they are inauthentically Italian if you wish to chase the elusive idea of authenticity. But because they mitigate your northernness? Give me a break.)

The second is that southerners don't value us properly. True - and good. If even 10% of them came crawling all over Northumberland and the Forest of Bowland it would be a disaster.

He is entitled to his hang-ups, but his expression of them does tend to confirm rather than deny the existing fatuous Southern stereotypes. This is the North of Brassed Off, Billy Elliott and Monty Python's "you had a cardboard box? - you were lucky".

He does get round to acknowledging that there is a great deal of wealth, but he does it in relation to Cheshire - another stereotype. He ought to browse through the delicatessens, jewellers and dress shops in the main street of my North Lancashire village. Does he know (do you know, dear Reader?) that five of the six constituencies with the highest levels of owner-occupation in the UK are in Lancashire (the other is in Cheshire)? Or that disposable income is currently higher in the North than it is in the South?

Pies and Prejudice does get better as it goes along, however, as the ideology and the stale, pre-packaged thoughts fall away. The trouble is that he starts with Liverpool, Manchester and Wigan, which he knows all too well. By the time he gets to Durham and Cumbria the writing is fresher and more affectionate. Also, there is the kind of sympathetic conservatism you often get from the old left - it includes a love of the countryside and a distaste for a certain kind of trendiness.

A Paradox of the North: the main reason for being proud of the North is also a reason for doubting whether you can really talk about the region as a whole. For a place about the size of Belgium, it is wonderfully diverse. You only have to look at one of those demographic maps which show the highest density of people as the darkest colours. We have Greater Manchester and the West Riding which are heaving masses of people (though not without beautiful landscapes), but we also have Bowland and the North Pennines which are all but uninhabited.

But the diversity is much more subtle than that. I come from a cotton-weaving hill town where more women had regular jobs than men, where nearly everyone owned their own home and where the last strike anyone remembered was one called by the owners back in the 1920s to protest a lack of protective tariffs. My first work-mate was "Big John" Hodgson, a clog-wearing, free-thinking high Tory who, it was said, "could lift a cow" (pronounced "ceow"). In Colne everything is the opposite of what it is in Barnsley.

Equally, Wordsworth's "mountain republic" of yeoman shepherds in what is now Cumbria is as different as one could imagine it being from Northumberland, the land of fortified homesteads and the great aristocratic estates of the Percies, the Grays and the Tankervilles.

But there remains, of course, that subjective sense of identity wrapped up in the sense of self. We are normal, honest folk. We look you in the eye and tell you the truth. We speak the language properly; we don't bray and whine and mutter as you do. And we rather like your man Tennyson's notion that we are "tender, dark and true" whereas you are "bright, fickle . . . " and trivial.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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I completely agree with everything you say, I've not lived in the North but everyone I talk to agrees it's friendlier and generally more outgoing.

People also say it's more violent in the North but that's probably not true anymore as my experience of the South from first hand and friends experiences make it seem very violent. For example my brother was attacked without provocation (from behind I might add) in Swindon outside a club.

The problem stems down to the insecurities of Southerners which is probably developed through an insular way of socialising that mainly involves meeting people through friends and so this invisible barrier appears where anyone outside their social circle is deemed a threat and untrustworthy. This also has a side effect of people teaming off into cliques.

If you find yourself unlucky enough to not have a big social circle with little oppurtunities to making one or are new to the country (foreigners for example) it can be very difficult to meet people, especially girls.

I think this also why binge drinking has got so bad in the south, possibly worse than the north or at least just as bad. One of the reasons people drink alcohol is because it makes them feel more socially comfortable but it's got to the point where some people need to get completely wasted to the point where they can't even have a conversation and then prefer to meet the opposite sex through the dancefloor or if a guy is so wasted he will have the confidence to chat up and girl.

Even then among so many young men (and some old) in the South meeting girls in particular has almost become a sport where if you 'pull' you're deemed to have 'gotten lucky' and usually it ends up as a short-term fling. Part of the problem is girls assume you want sex as soon as you meet them and the whole interaction to them is geared around how sexually attracted they are to you at that point in time on top of the big obstacle of finding it difficult to trust you. Never has the word stranger been so applicable as it is to being a stranger in the South of England

Then eventually when these young playboys/playgirls get older they realise it's time to settle down but spent so much time messing around that they find it hard to trust even their other halves (wife, husband).

I'll be moving to China this year to teach English and enjoy a new found life of strong friendships and relationships based on trust, not fear!

This post has gone on so long that it's starting to turn into a book so I admire you for reading this far and who knows I probably will make a book out of it, even if I am a conceited bastard (according to some).

Posted by: Oliver at January 4, 2008 03:32 PM
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