Hear the one about the ‘professional Southerner’? Of course not, says Michael Henderson, so why does the media keep trotting out this tired old cliché about Northerners?
John Prescott is at it again. Embold-ened by his first assault on television, an ‘examination’ of social class that was unaccountably aired by the BBC last year, the man we must refer to as the former deputy prime minister has been invited back, this time (yawn) to help viewers understand the differences between North and South.
Having seen a bit of the first programme, which revealed rather more about Prescott’s notorious chippiness than the defects of his putative targets, I trust readers will not mark me down for missing the follow-up. Life is short. Yet, even if one were granted all eternity to reflect on the follies of mankind, half an hour of Prescott would remain 30 minutes one could never retrieve.
There are things to be said about the North-South divide (as well as about the one, hardly ever recognised, between the Eastern and Western parts of our disunited kingdom) but it would take a latter-day Jack Priestley or Ian Nairn to do the subject justice. Michael Parkinson or Melvyn Bragg could pull it off. Jeremy Paxman might make a decent fist of it. Prescott, who wears his cod-proletarianism like a suit of armour, makes a most unlikely witness.
That was the majority view of the television critics, though, sad to relate, Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph trotted out that shop-soiled phrase ‘professional Northerner’ as a stick with which to beat the hapless guide. Prescott is no such thing. At least, speaking as a Lancastrian who is happy to live in London, I hope he’s not. Professionalism implies accepting payment for work done, and if Prescott was paid 2/6 a month to represent the North that would still be a tanner too much.
Professional Northerner: what on earth does it mean? The phrase has been applied to so many people down the years, usually by journalists who have little or no first-hand experience of Northern life, that it has lost any meaning it may once have had. Contrary to what you may have read, most Northerners (for the sake of argument, let’s take the Trent as the border) do not live in terraced houses, or pronounce the letter U as ‘oo’ (it’s a hard vowel), though they do eat ‘dinner’ at lunchtime. Nor do they hate the South, though they are entitled to nurse a few grudges about some of the folk who live there.
Brian Sewell, for instance. Sewell, a bracing writer on the visual arts, popped up on Prescott’s programme to perform his well-oiled party piece. Northerners, he said, in that absurd fluting voice which brings to mind Kenneth Williams sucking a bag of plums, were too often ‘inarticulate and hard to understand’. Like David Hockney, I suppose, or Henry Moore. Come on, lad, pay attention in class. As we say in Lancashire: ‘Up here for thinking, down there for dancing.’
Hockney, as it happens, was once exposed (in a Telegraph news story) as another PN, probably because he was born in Yorkshire, the county to which he has returned after spending four decades, on and off, in California. Funny. Lucian Freud has spent all his days in London yet nobody refers to him as a professional Londoner.
Similarly, Alan Bennett is often called the ‘Yorkshire playwright’. While it is true that he was born in Leeds, and has revealed an unrivalled mastery of Northern speech, heard to winning effect in his television dramas, his best-known stage plays were set in a Home Counties public school (Forty Years On), Moscow (The Old Country), Prague and London (Kafka’s Dick), Brighton (Habeas Corpus) and Hanoverian England (The Madness of George III).
His smash hit The History Boys takes place in a Sheffield school, true, but it could have been a school in Camden Town, because it is a play about education (sentimental and otherwise), not the Broad Acres. Still, when his latest play, The Habit of Art, opens next month at the National Theatre, don’t be surprised if some observer intuits a connection between Bennett and W.H. Auden, one of the play’s characters, who happened to be born in York. If form counts for anything it may be Tim Walker, the sophomore theatre critic, who wrote recently (while cowering behind his programme, no doubt) that a production of Othello by the Northern Broadsides company featured ‘regional accents’. After you with that hankie, dear!
Things have changed in that regard, thank heavens. Back in the Fifties, my mother vividly recalls, the people she worked with in Sussex were shocked to the quick by the voice of Fred Trueman, the Yorkshire cricketer, in a radio interview. They had never heard anything like it. Now, if anything, the boot is on the other foot. The airwaves are full of broadcasters who, in order not to sound ‘posh’, assume unnatural, mock-prole voices, and a man like Ed Stourton, who speaks with admirable clarity, is made to walk the plank because he doesn’t fit in.
As a Northerner (though far from a professional one), it is easy to understand why people in other parts of the country are left cold by some attitudes exhibited by some in the North. Yorkies can bang on a bit, Mancunians have become a cocky bunch and Liverpudlians are swift to take offence at jibes that others would brush aside. But most Northerners would recognise that picture. As Ken Dodd, the greatest scouser alive, quipped when Liverpool was proclaimed one of Europe’s cities of culture last year: ‘It’s grand. We’ve got night classes in graffiti.’
If you want to know why the PN phrase sticks in the craw of a deracinated Northerner, let me posit an alternative view. Charles Moore is probably John Prescott’s inverted mirror image. An elegant, fastidious writer, as readers of this magazine need no reminding, Moore’s experience of English life has been shaped as surely by Southern influences as Prescott’s has been by Northern ones.
Educated at Eton and Cambridge, Moore has spent his working life in London and Sussex, where most of his friends and colleagues also live and work. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a lot right with it. Yet, glimpsed through a Northern filter, it appears to be just as narrow a background as Prescott’s.
Does the narrowness of that social world make Moore a professional Southerner? I would argue not. His soul (if we can use that word) was forged in a different foundry. He likes riding to hounds. Others, lacking his intellectual gifts, prefer to quaff pints of mild on their way to watch rugby league. But when David Storey quarries a realistic novel out of that world, as he did with This Sporting Life, it’s a bit rich to call him a professional Northerner simply because he has made a career writing about the world he grew up in while choosing to live in North London.
John Prescott makes a poor Northerner, professional or amateur. The phrase demeans the North, and exalts him. He is simply a buffoon, and they exist everywhere.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 24, 2009