Notebook: Spot the Northern Town competition

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WHICH IS the most provincial city in Britain? Or, to put it more precisely, the inhabitants of which city in Britain know least about any other city or place in Britain? My money would be on London. This is not a particularly new thought, but it came out for another spin on its bike on Wednesday when the front-page of The Independent advertised Deborah Orr's fine new column inside the paper - that day about Scottish land reform - with the words: Haway the lairds.

A puzzle. The piece was about Scotland. "Haway" is a Tyneside expression of encouragement, the traditional shout of football crowds to Newcastle United players ("Haway the lads, come on boys!"), and unknown north of the Tweed. Even as a piece of world-play immune from geography and dialect, it did not make much sense. Ms Orr's piece was an anti-laird cry from the opposite terraces ("Stick it to those feudal superiors, break their legs!").

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At lunch that day, dipping bread into the olive oil, I was grumbling about this metropolitan solecism - grumbling mildly, pedantically and I have no doubt irritatingly - to three colleagues from the Granta office (in London), when the subject changed to Peter Mandelson, as it often does, and how many houses you could buy in Mr Mandelson's Hartlepool constituency for the price of his own in Notting Hill. I wondered if we were all quite sure where Hartlepool was.

Nobody knew. "Up north" was the closest they could get.

But west coast, east coast, somewhere in the middle?

Nobody knew.

North or south of Newcastle, east or west of Manchester, north or south of York?

Nobody knew.

Well, have a guess then.

Only one taker for this: "I always imagined it was near Liverpool."

My colleagues are clever people, endowed with curiosity, educated at England's most ancient universities, and much more knowledgeable than I am about many things. The structuralism of Roland Barthes, the complete works of George Eliot, the American musical, the Russian novel - they could give me a hiding in any of these. But they were all raised south of the Wash. "The North" to them was a mist that fell over the country somewhere about Milton Keynes and receded only on the approach to Iceland.

The spatial relationship of Sheffield to Leeds, Inverness to Aberdeen, Newcastle to Middlesbrough, all were as mysterious to them as the source of the Nile would have been to a European explorer circa 1850.

Is there a reverse ignorance? I do not think so. If you grow up in the North, you learn about the South for all kinds of reasons. London is there, the newspapers and television come from there, it is the place between you and continental Europe. You need often to go to it or through it. You cannot escape it.

There are compensations, though, for coming from the mist, of which a well-founded smugness about southern provinciality is certainly one. Northern readers with southern partners, friends and colleagues may like to reaffirm their superiority with the help of a blank sketch of Britain. Ask them if they can take their pens and mark the location of Hartlepool, and also Barrow, Jarrow and Dundee.

I wish I could offer a prize for the closest results, a sort of spot- the-northern-ball competition. Instead, how about this. Name the authors of The Man from the North, North and South, Northward Hoe, Our Friends in the North, All Points North. The first reader's letter which does this successfully wins for its writer a second-class return to the Mandelson constituency and a handshake with the Member himself, if you can find him there (Oh, all right, a bottle of Scotch).

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THIS WEEK, more than 20 years after his death, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein was "revealed" as an imperialist and racist. In 1947, the field marshal made a two-month tour of Africa and then submitted his Grand Design for the continent in a secret report to the prime minister, Clement Attlee, which was embarrassing to the government even at the time and has just been released by the Public Record Office under the 50-year- rule.

Montgomery wanted to perpetuate and strengthen white rule in Africa, to suppress communist-inspired independence movements, and to attract a new breed of energetic white settler to replace the indolent, over-servanted class who were already there.

The sentence in his report that has attracted most publicity runs: "There will be many people in the UK who will oppose such a plan on the grounds that the African will suffer; there is no reason whatever why he should suffer; and in any case he is a complete savage and is quite incapable of developing the country himself."

According to some newspaper pieces, these thoughts have delivered a "body- blow" to Montgomery's public standing. Lord Chalfont, one of his biographers, thinks that his reputation has been "irredeemably damaged... I find it very disappointing and depressing".

This is surely wrong. Whatever his military skills, Montgomery was well known as an unpleasant man (as Lord Chalfont concedes) and prone to what is now known as robust language, to show just what a robust little chap he was. But, more than that, do we really imagine that his views, perhaps couched a little more circumspectly, were so remarkably uncommon among men of his generation 50 years ago?

Montgomery was born in 1887. For at least the first half of his life, the superiority of the white race was a given and, as an ideology, probably reached its peak during his adolescence. When Montgomery was 11, Rudyard Kipling was urging the United States to "pick up the white man's burden, send forth the best ye breed".

Even 40 years later, the idea that non-white colonies could successfully fend for themselves was still relatively rare. In 1941, a celebrated English writer wrote of India that without British protection and administration it was "hardly even capable of feeding itself"; that it depended on a framework of British technical experts who "could not be replaced within five or ten years"; that its old British administrators needed to be retired in favour of younger and more energetic men (but still Britons). If Britain pulled out, this writer wrote, the result for India would simply be re- colonisation by Germany, Russia or Japan and "a series of enormous famines which would kill millions of people within a few years".

The writer? George Orwell, in one of his most famous essays, "The Lion and the Unicorn". This is not to equate Orwell with Montgomery. Orwell believed that India should be offered independence, which it would wisely decline and opt instead for partnership in a new kind of equal empire.

Still, he did not get it right. India opted for full independence only six years later, and managed to run itself at least no less successfully than under British rule. And although he was correct about a future starvation - a great famine did come to Bengal two years late - the millions it killed died because of British rather than Japanese maladministration.

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I HAVE a borrowed book at home that a friend bought recently from a second-hand shop. It contains magnificent photographic plates, which show the benign, progressive influence of Britain in every corner of the world.

Underneath a picture of some wigwams in Canada, the caption says: "Nothing but their [the natives'] inherent incapacity prevents their attaining complete equality with the white race. But the disability exists, and all that the most philanthropic can hope for the native races of America is their gentle diminution, followed by their peaceful extinction."

The book was published in 1895. Montgomery would have been eight. The true shock of the Montgomery disclosure is that it seems to have caused a shock at all. It betrays an alarming ahistorical notion of whom we have been and what many of our forefathers believed.

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A JOKE just in by electronic mail from Delhi. Q: What do they call the Indian version of Viagra? A: The God of Small Things.

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