The North is a state of mind

`When I first came South, it was an odd place. For a start, it was full of the middle classes'
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MRS GASKELL did not, of course, just write Wives and Daughters, which is BBC's current costume-drama Big Bang. She also wrote North and South, a better, less saccharine novel which, one of these days, will make a better, more topical television drama.

Too much of the talk about the North-South divide, prompted largely by the Prime Minister's royal progress, focuses on economic statistics. For Mrs Gaskell, writing in 1855, the principal differences lay in psychology and social habits. These differences may themselves be shaped by economics. But it's wrong to take a deterministic view of human character. Economics is not the be-all and end-all. A century and a half later, after a welter of economic change, today's North is recognisably the same as the one Mrs Gaskell described.

This is odd, at first sight; at least if you live and breathe statistics. In her day Manchester, where she lived and wrote, was still the king of the textile trade. Its Cotton Exchange, and the ring of redbrick towns that fed it with rolls of cloth, helped to make Britain the industrial emperor of the world. Northern manufactures had been heaped in the arcades of the Great Exhibition of 1851, to show the world what the North could do. But, as Mrs Gaskell's heroine, Margaret Hale, found - when obliged to move from Hampshire to Lancashire - she was in a world that was proud of what it did, but also deeply suspicious of the kind of place she'd come from.

I discovered Mrs Gaskell's novels not long after I moved from Yorkshire to London. North and South was the first I read. I was delighted by it, partly because I was still trying to work out for myself what northness and southness meant. When Miss Hale got off the train in the North, her sharp eyes noticed that "every thing looked more purpose-like". The carts had more iron about them, and less leather. The people in the streets looked busier, even if they were on a pleasure trip. Shopkeepers didn't stand at their doorways if they had nothing to do; instead they rolled and unrolled their stock of ribbons. Cloth was admired for thickness and wearability, not fineness and fashion.

I recognised all this. If, today, you get off the train in a northern city such as Sunderland or Sheffield on a Friday or Saturday night, you'd think that all this was in the past. The streets are full of young men and women pouring in and out of the bars, in an Armada of high fashion. But that has always been the corollary of the northern weekday mode - which remains as Mrs Gaskell described it: "The colours looked greyer - more enduring, not so gay and pretty." Those Friday and Saturday nights are the precise equivalent of the annual working-class splurge: the week at Blackpool where, for seven days, you could spend and live with the best of them. Now, however, the splurge takes place every weekend. Everything changes, but somehow remains the same.

When I came South, the first thing I noticed was that faces looked less drawn, and the people were taller. I assumed it was the food. The South was an odd place; for a start, it was full of the middle classes. When Miss Beatrice Potter (later, as Mrs Sydney Webb, the celebrated, even notorious, social reformer) visited the semi-industrial Pennine village I came from, she noted, approvingly, "its fusion of the middle and working class. Upper class it has none." And this was true of much of the industrial North. Most of the industry has now gone. But still, if I arrive at Manchester or Leeds and walk out into the station concourse, I find myself among people of my own height or smaller. In one sense London, Manchester and Leeds have changed out of all recognition; in another, deeper, more human sense, they haven't.

Recently Michael Hebbert, a professor of planning, wrote a thought-provoking study of the capital, London: More by Fortune than Design. Hebbert lives part of the time in Limehouse, part of the time in Manchester. From his experience of both places, he expresses deep scepticism about what the usual statistics of poverty mean. London regularly claims to have almost as much poverty as the North, perhaps even more. But, Hebbert says, he has never in London seen that beaten, despairing look that you can see in the collapsed industrial towns. I agree. If you think Hackney is a sad case, I strongly suggest an afternoon in St Helen's, stranded in the nowhere land between Liverpool and Manchester.

Because it was cheap, my family and I lived in the East End of London in the days before Docklands "redevelopment". Apart from the price, we liked it because it then had something in common with the North. Not textiles, but breweries and working docks. Not the clatter of looms, but the smell of malt from Charrington's and Truman's, and of the sherry and tobacco from the unloading ships.

But there was this big difference. You might be at the bottom of the tree in Stepney or Whitechapel - but the top of the tree was on the near horizon, in the City or the West End. It was there if you could climb up it. Many didn't or couldn't; but its presence was, I noticed, a huge psychological boost.

When Joe Lampton tried to find Room at the Top, in John Braine's Fifties novel, it was still possible to think that "the top" was in his own town (a fictional compound of Bradford, Huddersfield and Halifax). Now, the pressures to move to London to make it to the top are almost irresistibly great. Partly because of the Noel Coward centenary, and David Mamet's screen version of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy, there's been an argument about whether the new writing of the Fifties and Sixties really represented a wide social upheaval - or merely meant that gay writers (like Coward and Rattigan) were driven off the only platform they had by rampant heterosexual alpha males.

One thing is certain: this writing brought a reassessment of what were then still called "the provinces". Even those who weren't from such places made them their base: Philip Larkin in Hull and Kingsley Amis in Swansea are only the most obvious examples. Albert Finney and David Hockney rode in from the North, on the back of the new, generous student grants to go to Rada or the Royal College of Art.

Before long, The Beatles made Liverpool seem like the centre of the world. But this was a false dawn. Liverpool was well into the downhill slide that began when Cunard switched its liners from Merseyside to Southampton. The fisheries at Hull and the woollen mills at Bradford were about to go the same way as the breweries and docks of East London. Today, there is talk of revival. But, when I try to talk to the chief executives of the great northern cities, I find they are in London, chivvying government agencies for more money. If the North still resents the South, it's now partly because of the same feeling that makes anyone who's come down in the world resent his benefactors.

When I came South, I lost most of my Yorkshire accent. Not deliberately; it just happened. But you can hear it lurking in the background. I say "uz", not "us". I still have trouble with datives (is it "give it me" or "give me it"?). And when I'm abroad, and I'm asked, "Where do you come from?", the answer is always: "I live in London, but really I'm from Yorkshire." You can take the man out of the North, but you can't take the North out of the man. I know where the North-South divide runs. Through the middle of me.