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The Smell of Chip Fat at Teatime

Mark Simpson on the search for ‘The North’

(Independent on Sunday, 28 January, 2007)

Stuart Maconie is looking for the north. It’s not really so difficult to find, but we’re only a few pages into his new travelogue Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North and he’s already hopelessly lost. Perhaps he’s spent too long in the south (the blurb describes him as “a northerner in exile, stateless and confused”). Or perhaps he’s visited the buffet car once too often. Whatever the reason, he’s more off-course than the MSC Napoli as he claims categorically, ludicrously, that “the north” (and it should be ‘The North’, by the way, at least in my books) “undeniably begins in… Crewe”.


Possibly, just possibly, to indulge a perfectly likeable Radio 2 DJ with good taste in music and the star pundit of I Love Any Decade You’re Making a Series About, you might say that the North West begins at Crewe. But then, no one is interested in where the North West begins. That’s why Maconie’s travelogue is called ‘In Search of the North‘ not ‘In Search of the Granada TV Region‘.

As everyone should know, The North begins  – or rather ends, if you’re looking at England from the right way up – further south than Crewe, on the other, more important, more attractive, more modest side of England in Grantham, Lincolnshire. On the usefully named Great North Road, and Great North Eastern Railway.

(A helpful hint: if you departed for The North from Euston station or turned left at Watford Gap you’re going the wrong way. Sorry to be pedantic, but The North is, well, north.)

Grantham is the real gateway to The North, partly because the name forces you to speak Northern (it’s definitely not pronounced “Hugh Grantham”). Partly because you can taste the self-reliance and bluff no-nonsense in the air, like chip fat at teatime, even in an air-conditioned coach at the station. But mostly because it’s on the Eastern/Yorkshire side of the country – ie the correct side. And the next stop is Doncaster.

The North isn’t a mythical, imaginary or obscure place. It was clearly mapped out, more or less, in the Dark Ages AA Atlas. But back then it was called the Danelaw: the Danish Viking kingdom which ran the better half of England from the late 9th century until the early 11th century with its capital at Jorvik/York. Roughly speaking, everything above a diagonal line from Chester to London was Norse and horny-helmeted. Everything below it was Radio Four.

Despite what the history books may say, the Danelaw never really ended and God’s own county of Yorkshire remains at the proud, stoic heart of The North. However, as London has grown exponentially over the centuries, the South Eastern boundaries of the Danelaw have retreated further northwards – to Grantham. (Well, would you want Peterborough?).

Now, it’s not really Maconie’s fault that he’s so confused. He’s from Wigan, you see. By a terrible accident of birth of the kind that can seriously shake your belief in a benign creator, he’s a Lancastrian. So of course the poor lad has no idea what he’s talking about – all that matters to a Lancastrian is that he’s talking. Perhaps this is why some of this book seems less written than transcribed from an especially long and breathless on-air motormouth monologue, full of random facts, random connections and random geography – diverting enough, but not really going anywhere. Save Crewe.

OK, OK, he does cover the North West rather well: visiting pie-loving Wigan, leafy Cheshire (the designer-sunglasses shop capital of England), up-and-coming Liverpool (soon to be cultural capital of Europe), booming Warrington (home to the UK’s very first IKEA), strumpet Blackpool gearing up for Super Casinos, and makeover Manchester (“a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place”, quoting from both Morrissey and Peter Shaffer at the same time).

But, as I said, who’s interested in the North West? Yes, our kid Maconie makes a reluctant day-trip across the Pennines to the actual North, visiting Leeds, Durham and Newcastle (where the locals understandably denounce him as being “from the midlands”) but this is really a book about the damp, camp North West that pretends to be about the glamorous, shining North.

Perhaps you think me unkind. Perhaps you think me a tad biased, as a son of York (did you guess?). Well, you’d be right. But you should read some of the things Maconie has to say about Yorkshiremen. Apparently, we’re dour, cold, humourless and mean (clearly he knew this review was coming).

But the truly unforgivable slur is that he thinks that Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys are closet Yorkshiremen. If Maconie can capriciously decide to exempt Lancastrian Liverpool from The North because he feels like it (apparently they’re more New York than Northern), why can’t I exempt the whole of the North West?

But even Yorkshiremen and Lancastrians have something that can bring them together: the south. As someone who has lived in York, Sheffield, Manchester and London, but who now lives just off Scotch Corner because I reckon that here I might just possibly be out of range of Ken Livingstone’s next extension of the Congestion Charge Zone, I cheer on Maconie when he moans about the way that the decadent South loves to patronise the glorious North, the way that the BBC has a “North of England Correspondent” but no “South of England Correspondent” – whom is he corresponding with? Half of the population of England live in the North.

The way that populist faux-northern films like Brassed Off, The Full Monty, and Billy Elliot portray The North as a poverty-stricken wasteland gasping for the generous charity of southern audiences; the way that Englishness is always cast by the London media in terms of the south, despite the obvious truth that Englishness, like pop music, is clearly Northern: the English language was invented in the North (by a Geordie monk), along with The Beatles, The Smiths, ABC, the Human League, the Arctic Monkeys and Alan Bennett.

“If Durham were in Kent or Sussex we’d never hear the last of it…” writes an amazed Maconie, having happened across the magical beauty of the place. “It would have its own boat race and its own folk festival and its own TV show where an irascible, beer-swilling, opera-loving detective finds corpses in every cloister and bookshop.”

And if it were in the North West instead of The North it would probably have had its own chapter in this book, instead of a mere few pages.

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