Simon Hoggart

The great divide

The great divide

Watching North and South (BBC1, Sunday), I reflected how much life had changed in Mrs Gaskell’s location. Some years ago I was doing What the Papers Say in Milton — sorry, Manchester — and during a delay I overheard the crew talking about restaurants in the wealthy commuter towns that fringe the city. One of them described a ‘plank steak’, a fillet too big to fit on its platter, which hung over the edge. They then moved on to a discussion of the best vintage champagnes. (See this week’s wine club offer if you need any help there.)

This debate took place in the glory days of television when money sluiced around the studios like water in the last reel of Titanic. These days they’d be more likely to discuss which sandwich bar made the best cheese-and-tomato. But it brought home again that the differences between North and South are more subtle than we think, especially now the mills have closed, and people in the North are quite as aspirational as they are in Islington or Edgbaston. I wouldn’t care to live in, say, Moss Side, Manchester, though I doubt that it’s any worse than Peckham. If there still is a dividing line through the country, then it’s a very vague one, easily crossed. (Though I liked Bessy’s description of the North-west, one which I suspect would be true today: ‘If there’s a remote possibility of finding offence, we will. We’re very good at that in Milton.’)

Margaret Hale is the anti-Bridget Jones, a young woman without that obsessive and annoying solecism. Meeting the mill-owner John Thornton, Margaret is appalled that he is kicking a mill-hand to a pulp for smoking and so threatening everyone’s lives. Bridget would have worried that her lipstick was smudged.

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