Northern Souls

Today’s flutter and faff in the news seems to be about the way the South views the North. You know, those stereotypes.

As someone recently and happily returned to Leeds after many years away, I can say it’s great to be back where my heart belongs. It just took me a long time to understand that this is really where I want – need – to be. In my teens I couldn’t wait to get away. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t going on around here, in this provincial city. The wider world was out there, far from a place where the stones were covered in soot. I ventured out. Not to London, but to America.

That, though, is by the bye.

The North is different. Except there isn’t one North, there are many. Geordies are different from Teesiders. The folk of North Yorkshire are another breed from those in the West Riding. Then there’s the parts of Lancashire, even down into Derbyshire on South Yorkshire (of course, there are different parts of the South. You can’t generalise).

This is the land where Blake’s vision of dark, Satanic mills was a reality. It was the home of the Industrial Revolution. Workers came from the absolute poverty of the countryside in the hope of a better life. They were crammed into hovels and back-to-back houses and worked for 12 to 14 hours a day. Children of six worked hour upon hour in the complete darkness of the mines. We had the water, the factories, the resources buried deep in the earth. And when human life could be bought so cheaply, it became a disposable item.

People became hard because they had no choice. Family members died or were injured in accidents in the mills or pit disasters. Life was short and bloody uncertain. The unions gained followers in the North because they gave people the chance and above all, the voice they’d never had before. The Co-Op, which is also being lambasted these days, gave people a stake in their own lives.

A great deal has changed, of course. There’s precious little industry in the North these days. In part, that’s due to Thatcher and the Tories. But capital will go where labour is cheap, and these days that means Asia. They’re the new Northerners. Today the North is clean, all the dirt blasted off Victorian sandstone, and it’s largely a ‘service economy.’ Leeds, I’m told, is a rich city. Except, of course, if you’re in the street after street of back-to-backs south of the Aire, or in Harehills or Chapeltown. All that housing, meant to only last a few years, was built for workers close to the factories, in the days before public transport, when they needed to live close to their jobs. The only problem is that the jobs vanished, and there have been precious few to replace them.

When Coronation Street first aired, almost 53 years ago now, the life it showed was, to a large degree, a reflection of how things were, in Salford or Leeds or Hull or Newcastle. It was the working classes on the screen. People said it was too different, a show like that, in the time of RP accents, couldn’t last.

The North was poor, but the heart of gold that lurked underneath, the innate warmth – solidarity, perhaps – was allowed to show. And the North is still poor. Figures have shown that the NHS up here receives less money than in the South. And then there’s this:

“The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), which analysed the 30 per cent real terms cut in local government spending between 2008 and 2015, said the North and Midlands are suffering more than the south, with deprived areas left about £100 per person worse off.”

So yes, the North is different. And I’m bloody glad of it. Forget the stereotypes. They don’t matter, they can just as easily be thrown at the South, and any High Street anywhere in Britain has become the spitting image of any other High Street. One shopping ‘experience’ is much the same as any other. No, the North is different because it’s been ill-used but it’s always fought back. It’s still being ill-used, this time by a government that realises it’ll never win votes in the cities here, so it’s giving bribes to the places where it has a chance. The North is different because it’s strong. And I’m proud of that.

Perhaps the sad part of the debate is that for most people it’ll be forgotten in a couple of days.

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