T'narrowness of t'North: They scorn muesli and avocados. They're poor, gritty and somehow authentic. Or are they?

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THE NORTH is having one of its periodic funny 'turns'. Flat vowels and outside toilets are everywhere. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of J B Priestley; on Sunday Victoria Wood's television film Pat and Margaret was broadcast to rave reviews; soon Alan Bennett's dyspeptic, gloomy diaries are to be published. Once again everything north of Newport Pagnell services has become withering, strange, salutary and funny.

For the English this is a familiar state of affairs. Economically and culturally, London and the South-east have been so dominant for so long that the industrial and eccentric North has been typecast as the essence of provincialism. Up there they are different to the point of exoticism and, in spite of the best efforts of motorway builders and, sporadically, of InterCity 125s, somehow the sense of distance and alien habits endures.

'You couldn't get abortions round here then,' says one of Wood's characters, lost and resigned somewhere in the drab Lancashire of that great comic's imagination, 'We didn't have muesli till last year.'

The joke is that, somehow, the motorways, the railway lines, even the phones and faxes, don't quite get through. Around Birmingham there is some kind of hiatus. Muesli in Lancashire can still be seen as an upstart innovation, avocado pears as a frivolous affectation. Like all the other aspects of the contemporary northern myth, this is not really true, but it works. More clearly than ever, we (I use this pronoun nervously; I am from Lancashire) can see them and they can see us, but the visions do not blend.

And that means, of course, that the jokes still work. Coronation Street, with its consistently brilliant and crazy scripts, is still a place that is emphatically not in the South, and the weak-minded southerner, exhausted by pretence, can still look north for hard-headed reality.

'I was born and brought up in Leeds,' writes Bennett, 'where my father was a butcher.' 'Butcher' contrasts sharply with the 'writer' that Bennett became, and the hard monosyllable of 'Leeds' signals something bleak, unprivileged and gritty to a metropolitan audience, a bleakness that goes with the cultivated flatness of the sentence.

Bennett then captures brilliantly the tug of conflicting authenticities. He describes his literary destiny as torn between two different authorial voices - 'metropolitan (speaking properly) and provincial (being yourself)'. On the one hand there is the yearning for respectability, on the other the demand that he does not betray his gnarled, honest, northern roots. And the conflict raises the impossible question of who, exactly, 'yourself' is supposed to be.

There are, I think, three aspects to the continuing cultural differentiation of the North - depression, authenticity and surrealism. The depression springs from a sense of being marginalised and deprived. The good life, the fun, the wealth, the excitement always seem to be happening elsewhere. Any number of novels of the Fifties use northern society as a paradigm of constriction and oppression and - most notably in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim - escape to London means freedom.

This persists, though not in the internationalised literary mainstream. The comedy of both Bennett and Wood, however pro-northern in sentiment, could not possibly work without an underlying anti-northern awareness of small-mindedness back home. Wood's film, for example, included a strong revenge theme directed against the oppressive mother, played by Thora Hird. Always, in the North, it is the mother, perhaps because the continuance of the northern matriarchy is real. Bennett, for example, writes of 'that unerring grasp of inessentials which is the prerogrative of mothers', a sentiment whose generality does not quite conceal its distinct northernness.

In Bennett's case the sense of northern marginalisation from the smart, successful, southern world expands to become the generalised inferiority of the bright but weak and introspective scholarship boy. He is, perpetually, the one who was bad at games, the pale weakling trying to hide on the touchline, the image of the northern boy who flees south or farther - Camden and New York in Bennett's case - to find his own type.

Authenticity is the most politically correct, popularly endorsed and most irritating aspect of the modern myth of the North. Grindingly adopted by Roy Hattersley and other professional northerners, this views the North as more real, more true than the South. It is currently being sumptuously celebrated in the praise lavished on J B Priestley and the explicit sense that here was a writer too good, too true, too authentic to be included in the fashionable literary histories written by southerners.

'His popularity with the public,' writes Beryl Bainbridge, 'may in some measure have accounted for his unpopularity with the literary establishment.'

Vincent Brome, his biographer, says he 'did not give a damn about literary style and desired nothing more than entertaining average, decent people, whose tastes resembled his own'. Michael Foot comes right out and says that Priestley's bluff northern solidity was the best of England: 'If a decent England survives for our grandchildren, he was one of our indispensable protectors.'

This is awful stuff, literary variations of 'I call a spade a spade', the prissy, camp elevation of the banal to transcendent virtue. Predictably, the only way the North is ever used in political rhetoric is as a haven of hard-headed common sense; Parliament is full of MPs whose only conception of ultimate value is that their vowels are flat and their origins northern.

But it is so easy, so seductive. Even Nikolaus Pevsner, in his great Buildings of England books, speaks of leaving 'the best of England' behind once he has finished with the North. He cannot have meant the architecture (he prefers the buildings of East Anglia), he meant the Englishness of the place.

Somehow, even to great souls like Pevsner, it just feels right to assert that this rugged landscape and these blackened, hard-working towns contain more of the essence of England than anywhere else. Wood, in spite of her exquisite acidity, still clings to this belief - her Margaret, slaving in a motorway service station, is a truer soul than Pat, a Hollywood soap star. North-good, South-bad is a moral polarity all but impossible to reverse. In the ideology of authenticity, leaving the North, especially for Hollywood but equally for Guildford or Camden Town, is automatically a self-betrayal.

But surrealism is probably the finest aspect of the contemporary North. 'A phone number in the paper for Pat Bedford]' cries Thora Hird in Wood's film. 'She'd be inundated with trouser fumblers. You remember what happened to Mrs Anglesey in the Post Office window. And she was only trying to sell a divan.'

And Bennett's play Enjoy starts with mad fragments of inconsequentiality that conclude: 'It's where they commit suicide and the king rides a bicycle, Sweden.' This is not quite surrealism in that the words are intended by the speaker to make perfect sense. Swedes do kill themselves and the king did ride a bike. It is just that the context is so narrow - confined to the tiny worlds and bizarre perceptions of the characters - that its effect on everybody else is surrealistic.

That is the point. The North is a word for a narrowness that recasts reality. Immediately you place its strange conventions alongside those of the wider world, terrible, revealing disjunctions occur. Wood's Lancashire becomes a warped place full of limp, ineffectual men who still drive Ford Anglias, ferocious dragon mothers, appalling, degrading illnesses and balmily genteel, Ortonesque social conventions. Bennett's Leeds is a home whose hermetic oddities expand to become all private strangeness. This family, this place is weird, he says, but, on closer inspection, all families, all places turn out to be weird.

That this works at all is something of a consoling miracle. Few countries have been as assiduous as England in pursuing a goal of national homogenisation and none has been so receptive to the import of cheap Americana. Priestley saw and lamented this latter phenomenon, calling it, oddly, 'Blackpoolisation'. This is odd because the southern chatterers now tend to see Blackpool not as America but as a cherished emblem of a vanishing Englishness. The authentic, professional northerners succeed only in drawing attention to this homogenisation by creating a glib, postcard North.

But the North of the imagination, surreal and depressed, has survived because something in us needs to divide the country into competing identities. We need provincialism as a metaphor for the insistent feeling that we don't really want to be at the centre, that this is not home and that somewhere else might be. And that, speaking as one who has lately found his A's lengthening ominously, is as consoling, these days, as it gets.

(Photographs omitted)

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