Janet Street-Porter: North and south are just states of mind

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The Independent Online

Does the north/south divide still exist? A new map of Britain completely dispenses with the Midlands as a region, declaring them "confusing". Professor Danny Dorling, who teaches Human Geography at Sheffield University, has drawn a controversial new map for an exhibition at the Lowry in Salford entitled The Myth of the North, on which Britain is bisected by a line from Grimsby to Gloucester.

Upland Britain is divided from southern lowlands, and northern hills – including Wales and Scotland – from fertile farmland in the south. The map was drawn using social criteria – the life expectancy in the north is a year less than in the south, and there is a clear difference in house prices and voting patterns.

According to Dorling, although there are pockets of wealth around the Vale of York and Cheshire – places where the residents vote and live like their counterparts in the South, overall the north is a region with a homogenous identity. Equally, there are poorer (and socialist) parts of London that have more in common with the north, but the city as a whole is overwhelming true blue and southern in character.

Dorling is the co-author of a new atlas, Identity in Britain, which seeks to prove that the country is more divided than ever before. He has found that there are some areas of Britain where 16- to 24 -year-olds are 50 times more likely to go to university than others, and in poor parts of Britain, the same age group are 20 times more likely to be unemployed and not in further education. Another of his findings was that children aged five from the highest social class generally only spend time with children in the same income bracket or the one slightly below them. In other words, our social mobility is very limited.

Gordon Brown's notion of Britishness – a shared sense of values – seems doomed if you believe Professor Dorling. Visit Birmingham or Bradford, Leeds or Bath and see that local politicians are determined to emphasise that their particular patch is simply the best place to live, culturally, socially, and economically, and sod the rest of Britain.

But does the north – as defined by Dorling – have a special quality? The BBC is spending millions moving departments to Manchester to establish a larger production-base in the north. They didn't consider Birmingham, perhaps reinforcing Dorling's contention that the Midlands no longer constitutes a separate region.

Does this mean that Manchester, with the rejuvenation of Salford, is now the capital of the north? I'm sure Leeds or Edinburgh would disagree – and it was controversial to choose Liverpool as European City of Culture ahead of Newcastle, with its new arts complex in Gateshead.

I spend about a third of my time in the north, and don't think Dorling has got it right. People with money in Britain, no matter where they live, are clannish and full of self-interest. I've never been able to warm to Manchester, whereas Leeds is full of charm. Harrogate seems to have been separated at birth from Kensington and Chelsea, and I'd be happy never to set foot again in the theme park that is the Lake District again.

Once you drive through a landscape where signs proclaim "Watercolours For Sale" you know it's lost any local identity. There's a healthy upper-middle class in Edinburgh, with far more in common with Londoners than anyone from Cardiff or Swansea. Dorling's map is just another excuse for Mancunians to blow their own trumpet, and with their weather, who can blame them?

Trusting to luck won't get you far

I grew up without any role models – but then there were so few successful female businesswomen or politicians in the 1960s. Today, many young women feel that all they need to succeed in life is "luck", with one in 10 schoolgirls thinking they are going to marry someone rich, and will achieve their dreams through taking part in a reality television show.

We need to find a way to tell teenagers that qualifications are essential. But is citing a bunch of Wags the answer? Another female icon, Twiggy, is publishing a style guide for the over-40s. If the only way you can earn your living over 40 is by modelling, rather than by what's in your head, that's no better than being 18 and believing in luck.

* So much for the much hyped price war between our leading supermarket chains – an average family spends around £750 a year more on food than they did 12 months ago because of the rise in prices of staples like butter, milk, wheat and flour. Supermarkets have heavily promoted their environmental awareness – but they are still over-packaging to an unacceptable degree, and all that paper and plastic adds to the cost of groceries and food.

Funnily enough, as the price of commodities continues to rise – brought about by such diverse factors as a wet summer, poor harvests and the fact that the Chinese now eat more dairy products – supermarkets do not make less profit. They rely on our laziness when it comes to doing the weekly shop, and their much-publicised price cuts happen on the margin, affecting non-essential items. I now buy food locally, and only use supermarkets for wine and cleaning materials. It might take a bit longer, but surely small shops are vital to any neighbourhood.

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