North vs South – two nations?

She said kiss me or would you rather
Live in a land where the soap won’t lather?

Billy Bragg “The Only One” (from Workers’ Playtime)

You know you drive me up the wall
I need to see your face that’s all
You little sod, I love your eyes
Be everything to me tonight

Guy Garvie (Elbow) “Station Approach”

Glossary: Billy Bragg is an Essex Boy through and through. His reference to soap concerns the difference in the domestic water supply between the north of England and the South East, which geologically is on chalk deposits. This results in lime-rich water, poor detergent performance and coating of scum in the bathwater.

Guy Garvie is 100% Mancunion and proud of it. “Station Approach” refers to the road leading down from Piccadilly, Manchester’s main train station, into the city centre (and more generally, the sense of coming home to a community where you belong).  My son always puts it on as we leave the motorway and arrive back home after he’s been away at college.

Traffic on the M25
Bill Oddie follows the way of Ecky Thump in “The Goodies” (BBC TV)

A few months ago, several thousand BBC employees had to emigrate from the South East of England to the North, when the BBC moved its main centre of operations up to the Media City Centre in Salford, near Manchester.

The word “emigrate” isn’t used lightly. Strange as it may seem in so small a country, there are deep-seated and profound cultural differences between the south and the north of England. Arguably, the cultural fault lines are as deep as those separating Scotland, Wales and England, and the first two of those have good claims to being independent nations. Some of the main prejudices are that Southerners are arrogant, effete and insular, always assuming that people will visit them rather than venturing out of their own London-dominated enclave. Conversely, Northeners are accused of being ignorant, nosey, vulgar and mired in a culinary wasteland dominated by fish and chips, mushy peas and tomato ketchup.

Southerners are unfriendly, sometimes to the point of not knowing their own neighbours. Northeners are forever on the doorstep wanting to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. Southerners are sophisticated, familiar with international cuisine and dismayed by the thought of eating salad cream rather than mayonnaise. Northeners haven’t even heard of cappuccino.

Of course, these are all laughable generalisations. But they persist. When the BBC relocated, there were rumours and jokes in Private Eye about trains to Euston being packed with exiles on Friday evenings. I’ve a foot in both camps. Though my Lancashire ancestry goes back several generations – I’m from Blackpool, for God’s sake, and you don’t get more vulgarly Northern than that – I married a North Londoner, and my parents spent their happiest years in the Home Counties. My nearest living relatives ended up in Billericay, Essex and Woking, Surrey respectively.

I actually prefer the South. We hope to retire there. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of people less snooty and stand-offish than my husband’s large, close-knit extended family. We gather at Littlehampton for a beach picnic once a year without fail, and there are usually four generations present. I don’t particularly like the idea of community on your doorstep, though I still think fondly of the Lancashire neighbour whose kindness sustained me when my mother died (She didn’t just draw her own curtains when the funeral procession passed, she went round knocking on doors to make sure all the neighbours did likewise). I can assure anyone with doubts on the matter that cappuccino and balsamic vinegar are well-known North of Potters’ Bar, but I do think that there tend to be more good-quality, reasonably priced restaurant chains in the South East (Bill’s of Lewes, for example, and the wonderful Cook range selling very nice, admittedly posh frozen meals – we only have them up here in Formby and Harrogate).  And I can remember my husband’s Auntie Peg remarking, in our holiday accommodation, “They’re posh here, they buy their Weetabix from Waitrose.”

So, where do the prejudices come from? And is there any truth in them? In the case of so-called stand-offish-ness, I think there is, but note the “so-called.” In my personal experiences, people from the South are not unfriendly, but they could be called reserved. They won’t barge in unless they’re reasonably sure you want to know them better. A lot of it, I suspect, is due to sheer density of population. The fact there economic activity tends to concentrate people in the South East of England makes houses smaller, commutes longer, roads and public transport alike more congested. All this makes people value what privacy they do have. What hits me every time I travel through Southern suburbia is how many new homes are being built (though still nowhere near enough) and how cramped they are. This affects people in all kinds of ways. Your working day is longer. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat on the train, and most aren’t, you’ll learn to tune out distractions and maximise your reading time. And you may well resort to audiobooks on the Tube.

None of these social pressures are unknown in the North of England. In fact, upwardly mobile suburbs like Didsbury in South Manchester generally replicate them. But I think they are less ubiquitous and less intense. And I also think this affects the way travel is perceived. I can remember, when I was growing up in a small Lancashire town, thinking that Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath must be very exotic places. Now I know how crushingly ordinary much of South East commuterland actually is. I also used to make the mistake of thinking that everywhere down there was pretty close together, and having no concept of the vast North vs South of the river divide in the minds of not only Londoners, but people who live in the South East of England generally. But once you’ve queued to go through the Dartford Tunnel after a long day, you begin to understand why to someone in Surrey or Sussex, the North of France seems more accessible than Manchester. We Mancunians say it’s only two hours on the train. And it is, to Euston. But it’s the trekking around after that you need to worry about.

I didn’t realise, fully, how tiring driving in the South East really was until we spent a day visiting my husband’s family in Enfield, then dropping off our son at college in Colchester and, finally, driving to his parents’ old bungalow near Littlehampton. The experienced left me utterly drained. I would probably have found a trip between Kendal, Ilkley and Harrogate a lot easier.

I suppose the moral of this tale, if there is one, is that you don’t really understand anybody until you’ve tried walking in their shoes, so to speak. Of course, none of that will stop me making jokes to my DH’s cousins about hitching up the husky dogs to come and see us, and it won’t stop DH himself saying, “You can take the girl out of Blackpool, but you can’t take Blackpool out of the girl.” Particularly when he spots me reaching for the salad cream.