Peering at the road to Wigan : BOOKS

UP NORTH: Travels Beyond the Watford Gap by Charles Jennings, Little Brown £15.99
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The Independent Culture
THE time may come when the environmental impact of P J O'Rourke will have to be looked into, as ever more destinations are invaded by P J wannabes with cynical, naughty-me personas lurching out of bars in pursuit of locals, amusing insights and royalty cheques.

Charles Jennings - "Fresh", as his publishers put it, "from the P J O'Rourke school of diplomatic journalism" - is a witty, self-styled "snotty Londoner" lurching, "relentlessly, condescendingly", from Birmingham to Whitley Bay in search of, well, amusing copy. He gets some great material: old ladies head-butting fruit machines in Manchester; champagne on tap in Blackpool Yates' Wine Lodge ; the Bradford Sooty Museum; a shop in Grimsby called "Pets' Em-paw-rium"; a bust with three heads in Manchester To wn Hall, "clearly... the product of a drugged but intermittently lucid mind".

It is funny, served up in the slick, self-aware style of the moment - things unfathomably this or unfeasibly that and ironically up to the minute. He often hits the nail on the head: in Wilmslow, "everyone looked fantastic, in that consciously perfected way that you don't find in London any more." What is missing is an attempt to answer the question why - the insight and perspective that underscores the real O'Rourke's apparent honcho flippancy and gives it its point.

Jennings saddles himself with an unconvincingly contrived persona, travelling the north for his own enlightenment, in search of a confirmation of his prejudices. "Why am I here?" he yells at the TV in Tyneside. "Because you're writing a bloody book aboutit," you want to yell back. It's like one of those documentaries in a remote place where they try to kid you there isn't a film crew there. It's also like travelling with an initially amusing companion who starts to get on your nerves: you don 't know whether it's you or him.

The problem, he keeps telling us, is "the search for what I more or less arbitrarily thought should be there, coming up against the reality of what was there". Actually, the problem is that he leaves it at that, ducking the question of what the modern North-South divide consists of and why it is there.

Yorkshiremen left him "feeling that I was peering in at them from the outside", which might just be because Jennings doesn't go in for talking to people. After 200 pages he finally asks a barman "What makes York-shire so special?" "Pride," is the answer."Pride in what?" "Pride in being Yorkshire. Pound fifty please" - a perfect opener, but again, he leaves it at that. His wonderful material from northern comics and writers rather puts him in the shade on the precision front; Merseyside comic Robb Wilton: "The day war broke out, the missus turned to me and said, "Well, what are you going to do about it, then?"; Alan Bennett quoting his mother on Viv "spend, spend, spend" Nicholson: " `She's a common woman.' No other explanation was necessary"; Roy Hattersley: " `Careful' is one of the great Yorkshire euphemisms, a word that conjures up all the mystery of the tea-caddy on the Wakefield mantelpiece and all the magic of the ten-shilling note inside it."

As the book gallops to an uncertain conclusion, the airy fecklessness increasingly grates: "Harrogate wouldn't do"; "I wish there was more to say about Scunthorpe but I really don't think there is." Can anyone really get away with saying of a modern Bradford, "Amazingly, nothing much seems to have changed in the 35 years since Billy Liar appeared"?

It's not that I'm being defensive about Yorkshire, but by the final chapter - "Did you know that the Yorkshire Post... is actually not at all bad?" - I'd lost confidence that Jennings was still sending himself up, especially when he revealed he'd once hired a 1930s Morris 8 complete with picnic basket and wind-up record player. Would you catch P J O'Rourke doing that? I ask you - nesh Southern git.