‘The North,” declared The Fall’s Mark E Smith, a classic specimen of a particular type of northerner, in one of his band’s most clamorous anthems, “will rise.” Unhappily, during the past few days the North has looked more likely to collapse into a palsied heap. Not only has the lowering of the unemployment rate shown marked regional variations, mostly in the north of England, but it now appears that even global warming, previously thought of as an indiscriminate climatic scourge, has been hard at work separating one part of the country from another.
According to a survey carried out by scientists at the Grantham Research Institute and the University of Warwick, and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, temperatures in the south of England have risen much faster than in the north. The paper’s lead author, Dr David Stainforth, has remarked that “in Britain, climate change will feel very different if you live in Northumbria than if you live in Oxfordshire”. The latest statistical data confirms that the hottest days of the year are now a good 2.5C hotter in the south-east of England, but have risen by only a meagre 1C in the North-east.
It is difficult not to feel that there is something horribly symbolic about these findings, and that, seen in the round, they offer a dramatic example of nature (albeit a nature subverted by human agency) adding to the existing separations of culture, politics and even psychology. At the same time, there are substantial distinctions to be made. To divide England up into two geographical building blocks known as “the North” and “the South” is absurdly reductive. It assumes, for example, that there is some hard-and-fast boundary – the river Trent, perhaps, or some phantom ley line traversing the Northamptonshire plain – that, mysteriously, conditions the attitudes, the political preferences and the employability of the people who live either side of it.
It also implies a homogeneity to English life that manifestly isn’t there – its logical extension, after all, is that a Suffolk farm-worker and a Gloucestershire small businessman living hundreds of miles apart from each other are somehow spiritually conjoined – while ignoring the spatial particularity of the debatable lands to east and west. In this context, I can remember once at university being told by some truculent northern ingrate, who may have come from Doncaster, that I was a “fucking southerner”, and pointing out that were you to lay a ruler horizontally across the map of England, Norwich is actually further north than Birmingham.
On the other hand, no social historian, or political analyst, or linguist, who casts an eye over the past century or so of English history can ever quite deny that there is a profound behavioural chasm between the person who lives in Henley-on-Thames and the person who lives in Durham, and that its roots lie not merely in the latter’s habit of not voting Conservative but in a complex tissue of cultural affiliations and moral stances that can be detected in nearly every form of high and popular art.
The variety hall critics of 80 years ago noted the difference between “northern comedians” (sympathetic, inclusive, inviting the audience to laugh with them, poking fun at themselves) and southern gagsmen (brisk, smart-alecky, wanting the audience to laugh at someone else, poking fun at other people). But the same distinction applies to “northern” popular music, which, whether recorded by the Beatles, the Smiths or the Gallagher brothers, makes a positive virtue of its dolefulness and its sexual fatalism. You doubt whether Joy Division could ever have come from Crawley.
Then, of course, there is the whole question of cultural attitudes, and the way in which – given the difficulty of establishing that these entities exist in the first place – the north perceives the south, and vice-versa. One of the most enduring characteristics of the pre-war London literary world was its hostility towards that great northern sage, J B Priestley. Anthony Powell enjoyed annoying him with the introduction of some patently dimwit character who then emphasises his dimwittedness by expressing a liking for Priestley’s books. Graham Greene once received a libel writ for caricaturing him as the sub-Dickensian popular novelist Q C Savory in Stamboul Train.
What exactly had Priestley done to deserve this opprobrium? Part of the explanation, alas, lies in the fact that he was a bluff, assertive, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman with a flat Bradford accent. In much the same way, my father used to observe of his time in the RAF during the Second World War that there was never any danger of not knowing what to do in any given military situation as the people from Yorkshire knew everything and what they didn’t know the people from Lancashire did.
The significant thing about this dislike is not merely that it was reciprocated in spades – this was to be expected – but how often the northern counter-attack took on a moral focus, with northern bluntness, plain-speaking, spade-calling, toughness and healthy moorland air being turned into dazzling emblems of ethical superiority. George Orwell remembered travelling by car through the East Anglian countryside in the 1930s with a Yorkshireman who remarked, as they passed through a village full of picturesque cottages and shining greensward, that it was all very beautiful, but the people who lived in the cottages were absolutely worthless. This, Orwell diagnosed, was straightforward northern resentment of the “soft” South given a self-justifying moral twist. The East Anglian might have lived in a picture book, but the northerner in his wind-blown hovel was the better man.
Practically everyone who comes from a definable locality with its own customs, manner and accent will at some point have found themselves mocking someone else on straightforwardly “regional” grounds. I will cheerfully own to having stood in the lunch queue at the college canteen chanting “Ee, Sidney, ah do lakh a nice pie” as various overweight Lancastrians loaded up their plates with pastry, and being lampooned as a “carrot-cruncher” in return. But then to the Yorkshire NCOs my father was a “swede-basher”. All this is probably an integral, and in some ways necessary, part of what it means to be English, even in a world of multiculturalism and polyglot schools, and when one of the commonest sounds in a northern city is the muezzin’s call to prayer. Although politicians continue to talk about the “North-South divide” few of them realise that its manifestations are as much behavioural as economic.
Whatever the changes in the political map, however many jobs are created in run-down mining villages, you suspect that the North is set to continue with this centuries-old exercise in self-mythologising – and that these variegated shifts in the nation’s temperatures will make it even keener on its innate self-worth.