‘The shortest way out of Manchester,’ it used to be said, ‘is notoriously a bottle of Gordon’s gin.’ But that was a long time ago, when ‘Cottonopolis’ was the pivot of the Industrial Revolution, the British empire was expanding and life was cheaper. They tend not to drink gin any more in the bars on Deansgate. It’s cocktails, a tenner a pop. The hub of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is a much-changed city.
Now they’re queuing to get in, even though the super-duper HS2 rail link may go no further than Crewe, which is in Cheshire, and only southerners think Cheshire is in the north. Andy Burnham is the latest chap to set his cloth cap at the rainy city. The MP for Leigh, more often associated with Liverpool on account of his choreographed support for Everton FC, wants to be mayor of Greater Manchester. My word he does. Westminster ignores us, was the gist of his opening salvo to Mancunians last week, and he has plenty of powder left to fire up a few more cannons.
‘It’s hard growing up in the north,’ says Burnham, as though he had felt Squeers’s rod at Dotheboys Hall. ‘If you say you want to be a doctor, lawyer or MP you get the mickey taken out of you.’ No you don’t, you chump. You stand on the same ground as others in the east, the west and the south.
They have schools in Manchester, as the mayor presumptive may soon find out. The Manchester Grammar School is garlanded with honours. There’s a fine university, too, which has supplied 25 Nobel laureates, including Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr. There’s a major airport, which brings in many of the city’s 350,000 students.
Has Manchester ever been more fashionable? Not even when Rolls met Royce in 1904, around the time that the Hallé Orchestra lured Hans Richter away from Vienna to conduct them at the old Free Trade Hall, nor even when Denis Law and George Best joined forces with Bobby Charlton at Old Trafford 60 years later to give English football its starriest cast, has the old city seemed so alluring to outsiders. When the football returns in August, the city’s clubs, one the richest in the world, the other among the most famous, will be led by Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho, who have managed the greatest teams in the world. So much for Burnham’s ‘uneven distribution of resources’.
In other ways, of course, there has been an uneven distribution. The trouble is that Manchester is a city that has, in truth, become too fond of itself. Mancunians used to laugh at the chippy folk 30 miles to the west, but now there is hardly a fag-paper between Manchester and Liverpool when it comes to self-congratulation.
‘The musical capital of the world’, Burnham called it, with a confidence bound to raise titters in Berlin, Paris and (whisper it) London. But that is how Manchester likes to present itself these days, at the heart of a booming ‘youth culture’ in which pop is the greatest boon of all. The thing about pop culture, however, as he would do well to bear in mind, is that it has a built-in obsolescence. For Burnham to tell the world that he likes the Smiths, who split up three decades ago, is like Harold Wilson telling voters in 1964 that he enjoyed tapping his feet to the Andrews Sisters. It makes a chap look ridiculous.
And Burnham does sound ridiculous when he talks down the career opportunities of northern people. Nobody lives in mud huts, not even in Leigh. Lancastrians and Yorkies have not been shy about getting on in society, even if their idea of society does not correspond to the one in Kensington and Chelsea.
A fair crack of the whip? People living in other parts of the kingdom may think that northerners own the whip like a lion–tamer. Think of the comedians who have come from Manchester and other parts of the red-rose county: George Formby, Frank Randle, Al Read, Gracie Fields, Eric Morecambe, Les Dawson, Bernard Manning, Steve Coogan, Peter Kay, and Victoria Wood. And that’s before we get to the chippy city on the Mersey, which contributes a chapter of its own.
Light entertainment on the box has been shaped by northern types and stereotypes: Shameless, The Royle Family, Phoenix Nights, Dinnerladies. The plays of Alan Bennett, Alan Plater, Colin Welland, Alan Bleasdale and Jimmy McGovern. Actors by the lorryload. It isn’t possible, if you have a television or a radio, to avoid Maxine Peake of Bolton, so heavily has she been promoted as Everywoman. She’s a fine actor, but there is no law that states she has to be in everything.
The news is reported and interpreted by northerners like Nick Robinson and Michael Crick. Indeed old Cricky has rediscovered his flatter northern tones since he left the BBC for Channel 4, so he slips in and out of character like a ventriloquist. Stuart Maconie, Owen Jones and Paul Mason have all enjoyed prosperous media careers by providing a northern perspective.
Paul Morley, one of those ‘cultural commentators’ beloved of lazy arts producers, actually wrote a book called The North three years ago. It was essentially a memoir about pop music and football, so it is one for Burnham when he lowers his lamp. For others, eager to learn something about the north that existed until 40 years ago, a north that may still be found if you are prepared to ignore the well-trodden path, it does not make essential reading.
Of course there is a separation, even a division, between north and south. The history and geography of our island, like the history and geography of all nations, means there must be. But it is not right to think of Manchester in terms of Munich or Hamburg, great cities in a truly federal nation. German differences, of speech, custom and dress, are far wider than our petty regional variations.
There are other differences in England that predate the Industrial Revolution. The cultural divide between east and west, based on Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norman influences, is no less important than north and south; and just as interesting. The music of Vaughan Williams of Gloucestershire, Elgar of Worcestershire, and Britten of Suffolk, speaks to English people with a profundity and a sense of place that the battalions of popular culture will never diminish.
You may find that sense of place, as opposed to the thin regional identities so dear to mayoral candidates, in the poetry of Hardy, Housman and Larkin. Burnham, who read English at Cambridge, surely knows as much. There is such a thing as the soul of a nation, and it is more often to be found in places like Wenlock Edge than Moss Side.
So rise up, all you good folk in Norfolk and Dorset, Shropshire and Cornwall, and demand to see your lives represented as fully as those lippy, put-upon northerners. Every day, in every way, there are thousands of tales waiting to be heard.