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Northern Exposure – John MacMillan examines what does it mean to be from the North?

Northern Exposure – John MacMillan examines what does it mean to be from the North?

Northern Exposure; What does it mean to be from the North?

Despite being the most Southern of the team at AG, I have lived in the North all my life, born in Stockport and proud to live in the Peak District. But what does it all really mean?

 

The North is a mercurial territory, and ‘Northernness’ itself a mystifying thing that’s quite hard to pin down. We know where the North (of England) ends – that’s Hadrian’s Wall, of course; well, give or take. But arguments as to where it begins rage quietly in the background all the time (and something we also addressed in a previous blog). Anywhere upwards of the Watford Gap, goes the age-old joke, if you’re from London.

 

Research last year conducted by Liverpool University suggested that the North now begins somewhere in Leicestershire, having moved south slightly from Derbyshire. To a Northerner from Lancashire or Yorkshire, both those places seem to be more the Midlands… but aren’t Midlanders really just Northerners anyway? It would take you the best part of two hours to drive from our Head Office in Preston to Sheffield, our most southerly office. Sheffield is indisputably in the North, yet skirts those Peak District lands, the Nottinghams and Chesterfields which form the gateway to the Midlands.

 

If the boundaries are blurred, then Northernness as a concept is perhaps even harder to pin down, at least from the outside. If you’re Northern, you know it. If you’re not sure, then you probably aren’t. There is a rumour that Northerners are warm and friendly, and we are. Or some of us, at least. We’re not exactly all dancing around like Munchkins; there is still a fairly large contingent of people who will rip you off or rough you up or be generally as horrid as criminals are in London!

 

Up here in the North we genuinely smile at strangers on the street; often even talk to them. I remember one of my first trips to the capital, to see Man United play in the FA Cup final at Wembley. A contingent of United fans were standing in Euston station, asking passersby how best to get to Wembley. We were roundly ignored, much to our puzzlement. It’s often said of Man United “Hated, Adored, but Never Ignored”, this certainly wasn’t my first experience!

 

We have space to breathe, in the North. The air’s a lot clearer than it used to be, thanks to various environmental acts and, oh, the fact that most of the heavy industry the country used to rely on us for has long since closed down. We can get a decent-sized place to live. One of a Northerner’s favourite TV shows is the famed comedy programme Location, Location, Location, which features Londoners with more money than sense cooing over properties the size of our toilets (which are all indoors these days, by the way) and which cost four or five times more than our actual houses.

 

I am being facetious, of course. But it does feel that there is a thing we can call Northernness, which might comprise warmth, and friendliness, and humour and grit, but which is much more than the sum of those clichéd parts, and much harder to properly define.

 

For many – though by no means all – Northernness has involved a sense of marginalisation, abandonment and peripherality, which has often been accompanied by experiences of misrecognition, and stereotypes projected from outside. These have involved portraying Northerners as, variously, uneducated, opinionated, mean with money, unsophisticated or conservative. Struggling Northern towns and cities like Hull, Scunthorpe, Barnsley and Morecambe provide the punchlines to unfunny jokes about ‘poor towns or run down seaside resorts’ by Question Time panellists who’ve never actually been there. Sometimes these are not jokes at all but firmly held beliefs, which is even worse.

 

After all, it can be grim ‘ere up North! At first it was grim because of the industry that roosted here like dark ravens, the sooty chimneys of Dickens’ Coketown (a thinly disguised Preston), the blackened faces of the miners, the clang-and-heat of the Sheffield steel forges, the hypnotic rattle of the cotton looms. And then it was grim for a very different reason, because the industry was torn down. Grim because of the grit; and we have grit because of that grimness.

 

So much of Northern culture – historical, social and political – has sprung from our weather. The Smiths were The Smiths and not the Beach Boys because they were born into a land of dripping raincoats and stone doorways that you huddle into. English films – from Billy Elliot to The Full Monty – are drenched in the melancholy of rain. And what comes of all this dour, dull weather? Resilience. Resolve. Gritting your teeth. True Northern Grit.

 

Grim… grit… here’s another one for you. Graft. That means hard work. A typeface for the North. Because being heard is something the North struggles with. When we complain that we’re being left behind, we get thrown bones such as the Northern Powerhouse project, an admittedly ambitious plan to boost the economy of the North, put into place by the Conservative-Liberal coalition, much lauded and trumpeted, and then quietly… well, if not abandoned, then at least put on the shelf with the other exciting new initiatives that were going to transform the North.

 

The North is a place made up of individuals, bound by an ethereal quality that is at once a myth and, conversely, as real as grit and graft. Northernness is perhaps something everyone here has, and is, but in subtly and uniquely different ways. The North makes us, and Northernness is what we make it. So, raise your glasses please, to the North: where we do – and can be – whatever we want!

 

John MacMillan

 

 

 

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