For a brief period some years ago, I appeared quite regularly in the pages of Private Eye. As you can probably imagine, these references were rarely complimentary. In fact, they were meant to offend, and offence was generally taken. Various derogatory epithets were deployed, referring to perceived aspects of my character, personality and appearance. And when they ran out of personal slights, they went for what they considered to be a particularly wounding charge. They called me a “Northerner”.
I was the editor of The Independent at the time, and the magazine – brilliant in many ways, but which has cultivated the lofty air of the senior common room at a minor public school – thought it beyond the pale that someone from north of the Wash should be elevated to such an august position. By using the term “Northerner” they were trying to invoke images of Coronation Street, whippets and Lancashire hot pot, and hoping to create the impression of a Barbarian at the gate.
One of their readers took the cause up on my behalf, writing to the magazine’s letters column the following week, observing: “Sir, I wasn’t aware that to call someone a Northerner was a term of abuse.”
But, in the week that Sir Ian McKellen said that he wouldn’t define himself as a Northerner – despite being born in Burnley and living most of his early life in Bolton – I found myself questioning the very idea of whether I am still a Northerner, or indeed what that actually means. Is it just a place you were born? Is it a set of values? Is it a romantic attachment?
Sir Ian explained that, as he has lived for the past 50 years in London, and rarely returns to the town of his youth (even though there is a drama faculty at Bolton school named after him), he has willingly renounced the right to call himself a Northerner.
“I’m just myself,” he said, and no one can argue with that. I, too, have lived most of my adult life in London, so should I consider myself just another stateless metropolitan type?
I don’t think so. Every time I go over the Thelwall Viaduct on the M6 and see the low-rise hills of Lancashire extend into the distance, I feel a pang of belonging. I feel proud of being born a Mancunian, and of the city’s cultural, social and industrial heritage. I am partial to Lancashire hot pot and I do like whippets, as it happens. I was brought up on the works of Stan Barstow and David Storey, and I still have that romanticised idea of the goodness, kindness and earthiness of Northern people.
For these reasons, and a few others besides, I’m not ready to hand in my Northern passport just yet, and I’m surprised that Sir Ian is.
At a time when regional identity is high on our national agenda – the more-emotional impulse driving the battle for Scottish independence is to do with identity – it seems to me to be important to have a sense of attachment, of where you belong (not necessarily where you live) and what your heart feels.
So call me a Northerner. I won’t take offence.