The North of England has no official definition, but we all know where it starts, just after Birmingham on the M6. It isn’t one single, monolithic entity. There are 15 million people living in the north, a quarter of the entire population of the UK. Our towns and cities have character, individuality, uniqueness, and personality.
I’m from Salford — not Manchester, but Salford; they’re completely different, distinct cities with their own identities, and that’s just two cities separated by nothing more than a river. Half an hour to the west down the M62 is Liverpool, a city as distinct from Manchester as, say, Beijing is from Ouagadougou. Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Newcastle, Hull — all their own towns, all unique and individual. We’re Mancs, or Scousers, or Geordies. Just don’t label us “northerners.”
There are, of course, myriad accents across the counties of northern England. If you can’t tell Manchester apart from Liverpool, or Tyneside, or northern Lancashire, or Yorkshire, well, you’re simply not paying attention. Locals can place an accent within a region — I can tell you if you’re from Salford or Manchester (pro tip: Manchester’s all nasal and whiney and Oasis-y and full of glottal stops; Salford’s more flat and dull and slightly Neanderthal). I’m told, by northeasterners, that in the northeast, the differences between the accents of Newcastle and Gateshead Sunderland and Durham are unmistakeable.
So when a southerner tries to sound like he’s from “oop north,” a little bit of us dies inside. The braver, or more-knowledgeable souls will have a tilt at a specific accent, and usually fail miserably. A posh boy from “dine sythe” trying to imitate a Manchester accent usually defaults to something like Liam Gallagher imitating Jimmy Saville, and the result is unlike anything that’s ever been uttered by anyone without a speech impediment north of the River Trent. It’s not pretty.
Most southerners don’t even realise that there are regional accents up north, and default to the standard “trouble at t’mill” painfulness. When David Cameron, posh southerner par excellence, recently tried to imitate Yorkshire in a speech talking up William Hague, he finally gave Lancashire and Yorkshire a common cause to unite them. It was the linguistic equivalent of putting on blackface — mockery dressed up as affectionate imitation. Most galling of all, he wasn’t even very good at it.
I grew up in Salford, the real-world Weatherfield of Coronation Street fame, but I’m not sure where the nearest cobbled street to me Mam and Dad’s house is. I’ve never drunk a pint of bitter in my life. I don’t own a whippet, or a ferret. And so on. I do have a flat cap, but that’s more as protection for my bald spot in the sun than because that’s what we wear up north. I like black pudding, but who in their right mind doesn’t?
But we don’t all work down the mill, or the pit — there haven’t been operational mill or pits since the 1980s (and don’t get me started on why that is). We have running water and electricity; we don’t all live in two-up, two-down terraced houses. We bathe. We go to school and we’re educated. I shouldn’t have to point these things out, but many are the occasions when some posh southern git has spoken to me, with a shudder, of “the north” like passing the Watford Gap means going back a 150 years to a land of dirty, squalid little towns that all look like a Lowry painting come to life, where everyone talks funny and you simply can’t get a decent glass of Chateau de Chasseley if your life depended upon it.
Drop the condescension.
I won’t even try to speak for Liverpool, or Sheffield, or Bradford, or any of the other fine cities of the north of England. I’ll talk, instead, about the BBC’s relocation of many of its operations to Salford’s MediaCityUK in 2012. The corporation had to pay £24 million to encourage its people to move to Salford — 24-million pounds to move to a city where it’s actually possible to buy a house without selling both your kidney and those of your children, too. Posh southerners were so filled with revulsion — it’s grim up north, don’t you know? — that they had to be slipped massive bungs to get them up the motorway.
And what did they find? Everything they could possibly want. Manchester is, without doubt, the cultural capital of the country, regardless of what London might say — the Sixties are over, lads, get over yourselves. You’ll find culture here, and you’ll find plenty of fine dining. Don’t believe me? Shall we start in Chinatown or Rusholme?
It’s almost embarrassing to talk sport with a southerner. Northern England has owned football for decades — with the greatest football club in the history of the sport, as well as a number of top-end teams in Liverpool, Manchester, and Lancashire. I’ll nip off to the Internet (did I mention that computers were invented in Manchester?) to find out what the south brings to the table. Talk among yourselves — I will need some time.
And don’t — no, seriously, just don’t — mention Rugby to us. Rugby — that would be Rugby League, of course — is a man’s sport, played hard. Rugby Union’s a soft lad’s game played by doughy southerners.
Don’t imagine that any of the foregoing is borne of resentment. Despite the Harrowing of the North that began in the 1980s and continues today with economic growth, development, and investment focused on London, the north of England remains a proud region with history and character.
It is a little grim up north, though…