Guardian Books £8.99 (300pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
True North, By Martin Wainwright
Friday 09 July 2010
Drawing on his 22 years and 10,000 articles as northern correspondent for The Guardian, Wainwright has written a rolling paean to "England's better half". To forestall a predictable response from the area he characterises as "the soft world of the home counties and jessiedom generally", he concludes the book by offering a possible alternative title: The Sun shines out of the North's Arse. "Do your worst," he tells Southern critics, "because it does."
Wainwright begins his northern diorama by examining the origins of the clichéd view of the area as "dark, grim, cobbled and the rest of it". This was true until fairly recently. In 1971, 25 tons of soot fell each month on every square mile of much of Leeds. Wainwright notes, "it was good for the roses" though he fails to add that the mucky atmosphere was also responsible for the excellence of Yorkshire rhubarb. The changes wrought in the "new north" are exemplified by another cliché, which Wainwright knowingly utilises. "Haven't I been restrained in not mentioning that mighty changer of the north's image until page 81?" He means the arrival of Harvey Nichols in Leeds.
Shuttling between the north old and new, Wainwright is able to enjoy the best of both worlds. He expounds knowledgeably on cloth caps (the last British maker has shifted production to China), fish and chips, black puddings and Arthur Scargill, who in private was "reasonable and agreeable". He also trumpets the achievements of luminaries from playwright Barry Rutter, who annoyingly "always refers to himself as Rutter, as if Barry were some annoying affectation", to supermarket magnate Sir Ken Morrison.
Wainwright's greatest strength is his delight in detail. On page 174, we not only learn Whitby's alum industry was based on a secret filched from the Vatican and utilised an important ingredient from the soft south (urine transported as ballast by coal ships returning north) but also that the author of walking guides, Alfred Wainwright, "trapped in his miserable marriage", suggested that collapsed copper mines on Cumbrian fells "might be places to dispose of unwanted wives".
He criticises the sentimentality that is an enduring trait of the region. Some might say he is prone to this failing when he rhapsodises about "the pleasant, relaxed and friendly reality of life here". A more significant flaw is that his subject is too big for his canvas; too many aspects of the north are merely mentioned in passing.
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