Modern Britain: Full Monty - a tale of two cities

Sheffield - Resplendent in tiger-striped trousers, interior designer Helen Chapman reflects on her clients. "Sometimes I deal with people spending up to £40,000 on one room. Complete refurbishments. I did someone a quote for curtains last week: £4,000. You're looking at real money, people who buy houses for £400,000 and can pay in cash."

Sheffield - Resplendent in tiger-striped trousers, interior designer Helen Chapman reflects on her clients. "Sometimes I deal with people spending up to £40,000 on one room. Complete refurbishments. I did someone a quote for curtains last week: £4,000. You're looking at real money, people who buy houses for £400,000 and can pay in cash."

This is not a widespread perception of life in Sheffield. Like much of the rest of the north of England, it is weighed down by an image of grim post-industrial decline. In the popular stereotype of the North-South divide, the South prospers and the North, overrun by ferrets in flat caps, lurches in Lowryesque gloom from one misery to the next.

Its problems are generally illustrated by gritty black-and-white photographs. Colour stops north of Nottingham. Hunger marchers still trudge round every sleet-soaked corner. The road still goes to Wigan Pier.

Sheffield has become a fund of bad news stories over the past few months - struggling schools, teenaged mothers, troubles at the National Centre for Popular Music. More long-term, the city is trying to put behind it the full horror of The Full Monty, the Blair-endorsed film about triumph in adversity and redundant steelworkers in jockstraps that used Sheffield's most derelict areas as a backdrop. Post-industrial Sheffield is trying to reinvent itself through sport and leisure. Cutlery works have been turned into designer apartments; steelworks have been replaced by business parks whose staff fax in their lunch orders to local pubs.

Sheffield offers a tale of two-cities-in-one - Manor Park poverty and Totley affluence. Its lone non-Labour parliamentary seat, Hallam, has the highest concentration of professional qualifications of any constituency. It is effectively Britain's most middle-class area. Traditionally Tory but since 1997 Liberal Democrat, it is a world of golf clubs, townswomen's guilds and violin tuition. It comes alive every schoolday afternoon when mothers join the Range Rover run to pick up their children from school to ferry them home to their £275,000 stone-built homes. Hallam is the home of the University of Sheffield, where politics professor Patrick Seyd casts a wry eye over stereotypes. "To clarify the North as poor, unqualified and unemployed is to miss the point," he says.

The North-South divide is a crude distinction. There are obvious differences in terms of property prices, job availability, ownership of PCs in households and so on. But there are huge differences within an area.

The Yorkshire Tourist Board is anxious to tap this alternative North in its rebranding of the county as a place of conspicuous sophistication. It is targeting its latest advertising campaign at "affluent achievers aged 25 to 45 in London and the South-east" - by turning the usual Yorkshire stereotypes on their heads.

A photograph captioned "Yorkshire Pudding" shows two elegant women sharing a summer pudding at a swish restaurant in Harrogate. "People have a misconception that Yorkshire offers no more than whippets and flat caps," says David Andrews, the tourist board's chief executive. "There's more to a break in Yorkshire than ingrained prejudice might imply."

But has this rebranding come too late? Patrick Seyd sees Northern stereotypes as a fortress of identity. "In a sense Northerners have themselves to blame for the stereotypes. They've wanted to maintain the caricature of themselves out of a sense of rivalry with the South. It has suited them as a way of asserting their uniqueness and difference. If we'd had meaningful regional government, it would have been easier to get rid of the caricatures."

Half-a-mile down the hill from Prof Seyd's office, through Broomhill, which John Betjeman described as "the prettiest suburb in England", is Ecclesall Road, an upmarket parade of shops, restaurants and cafe bars. A car showroom displays Rovers costing £31,000, which will buy two three- bedroomed terraced houses across the city in Pitsmoor. The Aga Shop, dedicated to the icon of comfortable middle classness, shares premises with Christians, the furniture designers. Owner Grenville Rogers pulls out recently commissioned designs for an exclusive bedroom. "80K," he says crisply. "It's very, very bespoke furniture. We do kitchens at 40K. There's a hell of a lot of money about."

As Gloria Taylor, sales assistant at the Aga Shop, says: "The image of cloth caps - well, it's old hat, isn't it?"

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