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Natalie Haynes: London gazes out at the rest of the country – and barely recognises it


When Lord Howe, former chancellor and dead sheep, went on Today yesterday, he seemed surprised to discover that he had once said, in 1981, that Liverpool might be best left to "managed decline".

I would guess the people of Liverpool were rather less surprised, since anyone who lived north of, say, Berkhamsted in the 1980s was well aware that we were living through managed decline, whether it was described as that or not.

The cabinet discussions following the Toxteth riots went further still. Howe added that since Merseyside was going to be "much the hardest nut to crack, we do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North-East". I like to think that "even" reveals just what a shocking thought it was to suggest that the North-East might, in some way, be promising, even if only relative to Liverpool.

Having grown up in the West Midlands – Birmingham, to be precise – I find I can't be even slightly surprised by the contents of the National Archive files which reveal that the Cabinet considered abandoning a major city and its inhabitants to whatever befell them. I suppose it is a sign that we have progressed as a nation that, after this year's riots, no politician would have dreamed of being so dismissive. Or perhaps George Osborne spent August muttering that we should abandon Croydon, and we just won't know about it till 2041.

I love London, and have lived here for most of my adult life, but sometimes the attitudes of those who live here towards the rest of the country are frankly baffling. Did Howe (born in Wales but educated in the South-East before moving to the capital) really think that Liverpool was beyond redemption? Or was it because Liverpool is so whiny anyway, as his fellow Tory MP Boris Johnson once pointed out, that you might as well give them something to cry for?

I don't think metropolitan types are trying to be malicious when they dismiss the rest of the country as irrelevant, but it does show a lamentable lack of perspective. Earlier this year, I went to the opening of the new Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. It's a terrific place, not least because it keeps its Hepworth sculptures behind lockable doors, which means the thieves who stole a Hepworth from Dulwich Park recently would have less luck further north.

The gallery has masses of new flats built nearby, which looked completely uninhabited. A London-based art critic asked me if I thought the flats would soon be filled. I said that new-build city-centre blocks seemed to be less popular outside London, and plenty of them stand empty in Birmingham. "Birmingham," she replied. "Is that north or south of Wakefield?"

This ignorance is, to my mind, as slappable an offence as not knowing basic mental arithmetic, or how to spell your own name. I half-blame the pernicious rise of satnavs for ensuring that those who can't be bothered need never look at an actual map ever again. It should be a cause of deep shame not to know at least cursory details about where you live, and that extends beyond your own street. Being ignorant of the rest of the country doesn't make you unbearably precious and sophisticated; it just makes you ignorant. And unbearable.

The consequence of this map illiteracy is that all too many metropolitans view the country as two places: London, and not-London, as though the 54 million or so people who don't live in the capital are one homogeneous lump who occasionally appear on the news when one of their factories gets closed down. Even the ever-cautious BBC isn't immune to this condition, in spite of its best efforts to deny it. It is a source of occasional mild fury to me that it routinely removes London from the weather forecast. The map will show plenty of valuable and important parts of the country, like Oxford, Coventry, or Ormskirk, but will coyly omit the city where almost eight million people live. I do know where London is, luckily, but the presumption that either everyone does, or that no one needs to know the weather in the capital so long as they know if it's raining in Leamington Spa, is just perverse.

But earlier this year, the BBC moved Radio 5 Live to Salford, as part of its strategy to take more programmes to the regions. Instead of being properly grateful for the relocation, licence-fee payers collectively wondered if it was really good value for money to move a rolling news and sport channel 200 miles away from London the year before the Olympics are held in London.

And the nation wasn't even appropriately grateful for the jobs in Salford, because not everyone who lives outside London lives in Salford. A few of them live in Birmingham, which has seen most of its BBC output shunted to Bristol.

But the arts have been thriving in the regions with new museums and blockbuster exhibitions. So let's hope that Lord Howe and other Mersey-intolerants make it up the M6 in June next year, when Tate Liverpool will be featuring the Turner, Monet, Twombly exhibition, showing beautiful flower paintings which have never been seen in the UK before. No, not even in London.

There is a new shrine for bibliophiles

The Bodleian Library has completed the transfer of books to its new storage facility in Swindon. The new warehouse has 153 miles of shelving, with space for eight million books.

After all the fuss that was made earlier this year when the planet's population swelled to seven billion, the fact that there is currently one book or map or obscure journal in a warehouse in Swindon for every thousand people on Earth has gone unremarked.

Yet I know which I find the more impressive achievement, and, until we can file people under the Dewey Decimal System, it's the library. And the driving: if you order a book from the stores by 10am, they will have it in a reading room in Oxford by 3pm on the same day. I can't always get a pizza delivered that quickly.

A tribute to the loved and the lost

In a year of too many obituaries, I fear that some names have been lost from among the big hitters (Gaddafi, Bin Laden, Savile, not a list I'd ever anticipated). So I'd like briefly to remember the people whose loss I shall feel most keenly. Peter Falk was both Columbo and the grandfather in The Princess Bride, either one of which would accelerate him into any heaven you believe in. Harry Morgan was Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H, and was on my very short list of dream grandfathers (along with Falk). George Baker was the perfect Inspector Wexford. And Mark Hall co-founded Cosgrove Hall, the animation company that created Chorlton and the Wheelies, Count Duckula and the peerless Danger Mouse.