It is no secret that the North/South divide plays an integral part in English culture. Assumptions and biases regarding the North specifically often have a thorny undercurrent, as proven by comments recently made by a Tory MP. During a debate about the level of Covid-19 economic support to be given to Northern towns and cities, former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry said, “For many who live in London and the South of England, things like the opera house and the ballet will be the heart of their culture, but in the North…it is our local football club.”
The MP’s comments place a bias upon the North, as Dr David Forrest, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, explains: “The comments are an example of the lazy assumptions about regional identity designed to contain people within their fixed narrative of place. There is a tendency to think of the North as a genre, with its stock characters, conventions, and thematic preoccupations [which] gives a marginalised space a narrative of identity. But there is a very real danger that individuals, communities, and artists that don’t fit this paradigm are excluded.”
The MP’s reference to football, a sport primarily known for its masculine associations and that originates from the working class, is cause for concern. As footballers are often young, working class and very well paid, they become perfect scapegoats for perceived evils; such as back in April when the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested Premier League players should take a pay cut and play their part in aiding the pandemic response.
These biases are not isolated; it is wider culture that feels the effects. “When it comes to Northern bias I think accent is the apex of the issue,” says Lisa Leak, a Northern English Literature MA student. “I have witnessed quite a bit of ‘banter’, usually surrounding the notion of intellect. It seems the more regional your accent, the less intelligence you are allowed to acquire.
“This goes hand in hand with the ideas of class and ‘The North’.”
The recent scandal at Durham University regarding the bullying of northern students intensifies this idea that ‘banter’ is not always light-hearted. It has insidious effects, alongside mockery and dismissal of intellect. The idea of culture in the North thus becomes muted, even harder to break away from or be attracted to, given the class dynamics of such comments. However, Leak did have cause for optimism. ‘Things do look like they’re starting to change. In Waterstones’ November books of the month, both fiction books featured were set in Yorkshire and Lancashire and both authors are local to these areas.’
Berry’s comments also speak to a supposedly higher and lower culture, portrayed by the South and North in England. “I don’t believe Northern students are less interested in poetry than anyone else,” said Dr Madeleine Callaghan, senior lecturer in Romantic Literature at the University of Sheffield, regarding her poetry students. “We tend to have less experience of learning about [poetry] at school, and kids from a working class background don’t have, in my experience, a shelf full of poetry books. Less exposure to something means less confidence and less interest in it – not less ability.”
This conflict of confidence and intellect finds its roots in ‘high art’. Art, such as opera and ballet, is assumed to need intellect and nuance to enjoy – despite art’s lifeblood being the need for collective understanding. ‘Low art’ is often associated with sports such as football, sitcoms, or soap operas. Something for the masses, in other words. This breeds the ingrained belief that the North needs educating.
As a Blackpool native, Dr Callaghan’s roots to the North are strong. “The idea of the North
needing an education is insulting and offensive. We are not stupid or ignorant. Some of the most important writers, filmmakers, and musicians are from the North. The North should get libraries rather than constant threats of closures and access to top museums and collections.
“Don’t give the best art to Kensington and sling the leftovers to the provinces.”
The austerity implemented since the 2010 coalition government has also widely decimated Northern artistic services and illusions quickly became cemented that the North simply is not worthy of such investment. Dr Callaghan echoed this disdain: “The arts funding has been slashed, as has public confidence in studying the arts and humanities. Certain arts seem off limits to normal people. This has to stop, but it will only come from the highest level of government and the people who hold the purse strings. It is not good enough to pretend that the North or working class people in general don’t like books or museums. We deserve the same chances.”
The MP’s comments assume the South is automatically the heart of the English arts scene. I spoke to Manchester poet Jardel Rodrigues, recent winner of UNESCO Slam-O-Vision 2020, about working as a Northern artist. “There is this notion that, as an artist, there’s nothing outside of London,” he said. “Of course that’s not true, but when all of the top funded art institutions such as theatres, drama schools and even events are down there, it’s easy to see how people get this mindset.”
Rodrigues has been a poet for a number of years now, capturing audiences at events such as the Young Identity’s One Mic Stand at Manchester’s Contact Theatre. However, he expressed a concern for upcoming fellow Northern artists. “A lot of artists are almost in states of desperation to be ‘noticed’ by London based companies, to get work generated by them is seen as a ‘step up’.
“Sometimes at poetry events, a lot of big Southern publishers definitely have an air of looking down at you after hearing your voice or even seeing what you’re wearing,” Rodrigues continued. “The danger here is that [these assumptions] put young northerners off the arts entirely. Yes, you can read classic poetry in a thick Yorkshire accent, yes you can be a scouse Romeo!’
It is a progressive thought. While things may be changing slowly, the overwhelming majority of voices in English media are still in Received Pronunciation. In contrast, the common acceptance or understanding of Northern regional accents in the same regard are only allowed to be comical, foolish or aggressive. “I do feel that both poetry and music are two of the places in which Northern culture is very much alive,” said Rodrigues. “Especially when it is unmistakably Northern in its identity. There’s always been space for a John Cooper Clarke, a Shifty, a Bugzy Malone – people whose sounds are straight products of the North.”
Among all the interviewees, there was a strong belief that these comments made them more resilient to changing perceptions for the better, none more so than Jardel himself: ‘I’ve seen the way that Manchester’s poetry scene has grown, and the absolute powerhouse of a scene that [the North] is heading to be.
“Manchester is integral to who I am and why I write. I’m Manc, and so is my art. I’m here to stay.”