At a recent dinner party, I made the mistake of casually letting slip that I hail from Lancaster, in the north west of England. A shiver passed through the room, accompanied by horrified gasps from round the table. One brave soul broke the stunned silence: “gosh, you don’t seem northern”.
Such a response is not uncommon in my experience. Perhaps it is my lack of northern flat vowels, but more often than not I suspect it is because I do not accord with the unfair perception of northerners held by my southern friends. Am I supposed to be a dishevelled and inbred small-minded luddite, subsisting solely on potatoes and living in squalor, simply because I come from the north?
In fact, my northern heritage is a source of great pride. I am glad I did not grow up coddled and cosseted in Clapham. Instead, my childhood was spent in Cumbria’s Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales. Long days on the mountains and moors, armed with little more than a Babybel and — no doubt soon to be soggy — ham sandwich. It instilled in me a love of the rugged and rustic; a romanticism which inspires me still, and is probably responsible for the fact that I am writing this from the (relative) safety of my tent on the West Highland Way, a 150 kilometre trek through Scotland, as the storm-wind threatens to blow me across Loch Lomond and turn this into more of a sailing expedition than a hike.
Of course, the south is beautiful in places too; but it is always so picture-perfect, so tranquil and ‘English’ — the kind of landscapes which lend themselves so perfectly to chocolate-box packaging. In the north there is real wilderness: vast expanses of moor and rough heather; craggy and fang-toothed mountains; lakes filled with still black water that belie abyss-like depths. It is no surprise that so many writers and artists have been inspired by such a landscape. The south may be pretty, but here there is a deeper and more complex beauty — a harshness in which the beautiful touches the sublime.
Whilst the northern stereotype held by my southern friends might be unfair, there is some truth in saying that life is different in the north. We are shaped by the landscapes in which we live, and perhaps some of that roughness is responsible for the brusque, plain-speaking, directness we northerners are known for. Londoners might perceive us as unsophisticated, but we are just as horrified of them — with all their convoluted and jargon-laden meaningless corporate speak. And don’t get us started on politicians. In fact, I am rather prone to thinking that most of the troubles which so concern the ‘Westminster Bubble’ could be quite straightforwardly solved by two northern women over a cup of tea and slice of Battenberg cake — guided not by abstract ideals, but down-to-earth common sense.
It is worth noting that Rishi Sunak — despite being MP of the stalwart northern constituency of Richmond, North Yorkshire — has recently scrapped HS2. Like many northerners, I have long had my doubts about the purported benefits of the line. However, the U-turn on the policy is just another demonstration of Westminster’s ambivalence toward the north. Sure, we contribute much less to the UK’s GDP than the south, but in part that is a consequence of policy decisions such as this. Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool were once the powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution, and huge amounts of skilled labour remains there. ‘Levelling up’ would in fact require very little, financially speaking — a new direct rail line between Leeds and Manchester, for a start, and greater investment into adult retraining schemes could follow.
Instead, the north is being left behind, and that is not fair. My advice to northern ministers would be to get themselves out on a good day out on the Lakeland fells. It is hard to beat sandwich and packet of crisps at the summit; and I’d imagine it would do them a great deal of good. It might just put them back in touch with reality. It feels a long way from Clapham up there — and thank God for that.
Illustration by: Otto Heffer