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Lead book review

How do you define a 'northerner'?

No one seems to agree on what characterises a ‘northerner’, says Philip Hensher, and Paul Morley’s latest book leaves us none the wiser

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

The North (And Almost Everything In It) Paul Morley

Bloomsbury, pp.582, £20

Obviously, now that every high street in England looks identical, and everyone under 30 uses exactly the same Australian rising inflection in speech, books of this sort are based on a false and wishful premise. But let us enter into Paul Morley’s game and ask the question he has asked again.

What is ‘the north’ — or ‘the North’ — anyway? Obviously, as a geographical entity, we know (roughly) what we are talking about; we can argue about Derbyshire, but between Yorkshire and Scotland no one is going to dispute what the north is.

Culturally, we may think we know what we are talking about, but all attempts to pin this down founder on the rocks of narrowness and outdated stereotype. Lazily, people sometimes refer to ‘the northern accent’, without differentiating between accents from Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle, Carlisle and Sheffield. These are all distinct from one another, and distinct again from rural accents. Almost all, too, have different versions belonging to the working class and the middle class. In most cases, I can easily tell whether someone comes from Rotherham or from Barnsley, 22 miles distant. The difference between the Yorkshire and Lancashire accent is so marked that it is hard to understand how they could ever be lumped together as typifying ‘the northern accent’.

If that is the case, how much more true is it about something as nebulous and varied as a ‘northern culture’? Even stereotypes vary dramatically, from the taciturn Yorkshire farmer to the weeping adult Scouser, laying flowers at the site of some celebrity’s death. (Some of us might wonder whether the stereotypical Liverpudlian is northern at all, rather than Irish.) And what about the difference between Asian communities in Bradford and those in Bethnal Green? — no longer a Pakistani/Bangladeshi divide, but by now a north/south one; or the distinction between the long established Afro-Caribbean civilisations in Chapeltown in Leeds and Brixton?

I don’t think I have ever read a book about the North which mentioned the Yorkshire gentry, who have done so much to shape the region. But Harewood House and Castle Howard are as clearly in the North as Blackpool. Those terrifying women who run Harrogate with a rod of iron are as specifically Yorkshire types as Les Dawson’s working-class caricatures.

The truth is that all the comparisons between northern manners (warm, inclusive, sing-a-long, put the kettle on, love) and southern (cold, snooty, judgmental, Ottolenghi-favouring) are actually between a working-class culture and a bourgeois one. I don’t suppose the manners idealised by Coronation Street are very similar to those practised on the Yorkshire grouse moors.

So the tendency has always been to deal with low culture and traditional working-class life rather than the manners of the rich. It is still rarer to read much about philanthropy, universities, learning, libraries, museums and orchestras. And yet the tradition of high culture and serious thinking is very old in the North. Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle were all serious universities in the 19th century, at a time when there was nothing much west of Bristol — and Durham, of course, reflects much older traditions.

The same is true of the magnificent public libraries and superb collections of art, while there is a continuing cultural commitment to the amateur practice of the high arts. Next to excellent professional orchestras like the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic, there are numerous amateur ensembles, some extremely good, like Sheffield’s Hallam Sinfonia, and there is a long-standing tradition of amateur choral singing of the highest standard.

Not much of this is covered in Morley’s book, and the most important thing here about Manchester’s Free Trade Hall is that it once hosted the Sex Pistols — no, forget that, that Morley was there and saw the Sex Pistols. He is one of those writers who somehow gets classified as a northerner, despite the fact that he was born in the Isle of Wight. Only one of his parents was from the North, and he himself only lived there in the Sixties and Seventies.

Since then, he has moved south, like any number of professional northerners. I too was born in the south — in London — and moved to the North as a child. I returned to London as an adult, though my parents — one of whom is a Londoner, the other of pure Cumbrian ancestry — still live in Yorkshire. Like Morley, I maintain what must by now be described as a professional interest in the subject, but unlike him, I wouldn’t describe myself as a northerner. Is it just a state of mind?

This book is really about working-class culture in Manchester and Liverpool. The division between Lancashire and Yorkshire hardly enters into the discussion, and Yorkshire as a whole gets short shrift. That Yorkshire Valhalla, Harrogate, is mentioned three times — which is half the citations George Formby’s father gets.

What we have here is a memoir of Morley’s childhood, leading up to his father’s suicide in 1977 and Morley’s departure from Manchester for the New Musical Express and London. He has in fact written another memoir of his childhood called Nothing, and he works hard to give this one a more objective feel. There is quite a lot about Reddish, the part of Stockport where he grew up, and clearly his heart is in this sort of thing:

I would pause, for incredible thought. What to have? Lots of jars and boxes and layers of chocolate bars all laid out in front while the owners loomed over me waiting for me to hand over, say, two sweaty dark brown pennies, which had a certain amount of buying power, leading to the deliciously stunning sugar rush, and how could I ever decide what I wanted like a kid in a sweet shop faced with rows and rows of: dolly mixtures, pear drops, pineapple chunks, Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls, mint imperials, fruit-flavoured Polos, iced gems, Love Hearts, Spangles…

And so on for a full page. (I think that ‘like a kid in a sweet shop’ must be intended as a self-parodic joke). But this is not convincing: there is no way any boy at the time would have been seen dead buying dolly mixtures or Love Hearts — and mint imperials were what you took off your grandma when there was nothing better on offer.

Interspersed with this mostly routine memoir material are vignettes of northern figures and moments in northern history, counting back from 1976 to 1515. Some of these glimpses are interesting; others use the same figures far too often, especially the Radio 1 DJ John Peel, and many have the distinct air of being culled from the internet at short notice:

The anonymous publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life caused a sensation. This was a year of revolution in Europe, and the novel’s socio-political subject matter marked a major new direction in British fiction, especially fiction by women, to which reviewers responded with either excitement or unease.

That, I think, is what is technically known as learning lightly worn.

The truth is that this book — which persuades us that everything comes down to the author’s personal experience of a tragedy, and which goes on about how brilliant at comedy northerners are while not being funny at all — is obviously the work of someone from the other side of the Pennines. We on the manly side, in Yorkshire, are accustomed to look at this sort of production, shake our manly heads and say just this: ‘The big Jessie.’

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