Kate Chisholm

Northern brag

Plus: Radio 5 Live opens up the criminal justice system once more in Raising the Bar

Northern brag
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The last thing we need right now, in these divisive times, is a series that spends all its time crowing about how special the North is, that continually insists it’s the fount of English art, faith and civilisation and also the region where our notions of justice and equality have been forged. The Matter of the North, Melvyn Bragg’s new ten-part series for Radio 4 (Monday to Friday mornings), is not simply a history of the region that spreads north from the Humber river and as far as Hadrian’s Wall, encompassing the Pennines (‘the backbone of England’), Lakeland (‘the crucible of the idea of the transforming power of nature’), Manchester (‘the first industrial city’) and the Yorkshire Dales, but is peppered throughout with remarks that argue for the North’s special status in our island story — in contrast, of course, to the ‘softie’ South. Dames Judi (Dench) and Joan (Bakewell) are brought in, along with Sir Michael Parkinson and Ian McMillan, to tell us how proud they are to have ‘northern’ origins, while Bragg, in a breathless monologue, lauds the northern sense of humour, its landscape, Industrial Revolution and economic prowess — worth ‘twice the economy of Scotland’ (the Scots might have something to say about that). In fact, says Bragg, the story he is about to tell ‘out-histories the history of most countries’.

We expect Bragg, from his superb In Our Time conversation series on Thursday mornings, to educate us wisely and painlessly, with the aid of a shrewdly selected gathering of academics. We trust him not just to give us the facts but to put them in context and help us to see what they mean. The Matter of the North (produced by Faith Lawrence) appears to be driven not by the desire to tell the story but to prove the superiority of Bragg’s native region. The tone of the programmes is odd in another way because Bragg keeps breaking out into laughter, as if embarrassed by his own chutzpah in insisting that it’s the resilient, radical, romantic North that has shaped England.

It’s frustrating because there are within this strangely off-peak series hints of what could have been. The second programme, for instance, on the Northumbrian renaissance, takes us back to the brilliant origins of English art, poetry and identity, via Bede, St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne and Durham. But Bragg begins in Dumfriesshire to view the Ruthwell Cross from the early Middle Ages, covered with carvings of the Tree of Life, in Celtic style, and also verses in old English. His expert guest, Dr Chris Jones, tells us that the poem is written in the first person as if it’s the Cross talking to us, telling us what it was like to bear the body of the crucified Christ, almost as if the poem had been written today. It’s an extraordinary link with our own way of thinking, but it also represents, as Bragg is forced to admit, the coming together of Graeco-Roman, Germanic, Celtic and Christian influences, of the multicultural influences that have shaped us all, not just the North.

Radio 5 Live’s series, Raising the Bar, presented by the barrister Robert Rinder, has been opening up the criminal-justice system to the uninitiated by bringing together lawyers and judges and those who end up facing them in court, giving each of them the opportunity to find out what it feels like to be caught up in the law. On Sunday we heard from two families whose sons had been murdered and by a young man who had been convicted of manslaughter and served four years inside. Also in the studio to take in what was being said were Alison Levitt and Anesta Weeks, both QCs. One set of parents had never seen the CCTV footage of their son’s last moments of life until they were in court and it was shown as evidence. How thoughtless was that, admitted Levitt, who called on lawyers to think of victims as if they were family.

Her willingness to learn from the conversation was inspiring, as was the openness of Jacob who, aged 19, punched a young man in a pointless brawl and his victim subsequently died of his injuries, his parents having to decide to switch off the life-support machine. Jacob spent four years in custody ‘feeling sorry for myself’ and ‘blaming other people’ and admitted that he came out of prison ‘more at risk of committing crime’. It was his probation officer who helped him to see that ‘there were other people in this process who were experiencing more pain and harm than me’, and who persuaded him to ‘meet’ the parents of his victim, although at first not face-to-face. This took two and a half years of careful mediation. Eventually, they did meet and Jacob told them he was sorry. That, though, was not enough for him. He decided to prove what he said by turning his life around and studying to go to university where he is now working for a degree in criminology. Jacob didn’t need to tell us in words what he felt about what he had done; it was all there in his voice.