There is something deeply depressing about seeing a journalist defend their decision to move North, particularly when they work for the paper formerly known as The Manchester Guardian. Helen Pidd’s recent piece in the paper, where she discusses her decision to move back to her childhood home of Manchester to become their Northern editor, strikes an almost apologetic tone. “I’m doing it out of duty, not money!” she pleads, reeling off an arbitrary and slightly desperate-sounding list of the North’s charms in an attempt to win the reader over (cake only costs 50p in Rotherham!) You’d think the poor lass was moving to Chechnya rather than Chorlton, a leafy south Manc suburb where – last time I checked – there was a vegan supermarket, a microbrewery and a folk music bar within 50 yards of each other.
To be fair to Pidd, she makes some good points about the uninformed prejudice colouring our national media’s ideas about the lives of those ‘unlucky’ enough to live beyond the Northern Line. You get the impression that they view the North as one grey, homogeneous, quinoa-free wasteland where flinty, thin-lipped types queue outside Greggs. When a superstar columnist decides to write about a visit ‘oop North’, there’s usually a current of sneering condescension simmering underneath – “awww, look at them enjoying their one art gallery, their parochial museum and their chain restaurants!” I’m reminded of the Mark E Smith (now there’s a Northerner viewed anthropologically by the meeja crowd) comment that “it’s not the people *from* London that are the problem, it’s the people *in* London”.
I’ve always sensed a bit of ‘the Islingtonian doth protest too much’ in journos’ dismissive attitudes to everything beyond Zone 6. After all, very few of the movers and shakers in hipster London were actually born inside the M25; they’re merely denizens, rather than citizens, of our capital. Plenty of people with estuary accents also graduated, Whittington-style, from the sticks to the big smoke, but from sitcom suburbs in the rather dull (and usually rather well-heeled) Home Counties. You’ll occasionally get the odd adventurer who visited to study at one of our universities, but the general view is that places like Manchester (or Leeds, or Glasgow for that matter) are ‘starter cities’ – waiting rooms with half-decent nightclubs where the aspirational young can find themselves before they make the giant leap to London and success.
It’s easy to write off the above as the disgruntled rantings of a chippy Northerner (for reference, I grew up in Manchester and have spent the past four years in Liverpool). But it’s incredibly hard not to get pissed off when you’re told locally that you don’t need to leave the North to become successful, while a quick skim of any national newspaper leaves you in no doubt that the reverse is actually the case.
You can argue that London dominates because the rest of the country’s talent is drawn there, moths to a flame but it’s a free range chicken and egg argument. Either way, it’s wrong to argue it’s a good thing. We’ve all met people who act as if the smell of the Tube and the view from Waterloo bridge are encoded in their DNA and glibly trot out Dr Johnson’s “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life” after they’ve lived in the capital for all of six months (Midlands-born Johnson was also an adopted Londoner, not moving there until he was 27). All this London love is just performative construction of a desired identity but those who do so deny representation to people who share their background and formative experiences.
It’s sad that in this era of the internet (a technology predicted to bring us closer together), where a good chunk of the BBC’s national broadcasting is based in Salford, the North-South divide in representation seems more polarised than ever. As Helen says in her piece, The Guardian had 95 journalists based in the North in 1974. Today, she’s the only one. No wonder it feels like there’s a news blackout on what happens up here. Whenever I see my home city mentioned in the national media nowadays, I inwardly flinch, wondering what horrors are to be showcased now for the intelligentsia to tut at over their fairtrade arabica. You’d be forgiven for thinking Merseyside was a scene from a Dickens novel with a John Lewis in the middle. This caricature Liverpool is totally unrecognisable from the one I live in, which is vibrant, exciting and packed to the gills with culture. One of the things I admire most about this city is its irrepressible can-do spirit – a reality that couldn’t be more different to the picture painted of institutionalised sad cases who need the council to help them flush the toilet. People here make their own opportunities rather than waiting around for something amazing to happen to them. And they’re not alone in this – look at Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Newcastle and Manchester (to name just a few) and you’ll see exactly the same thing. People just getting on with it and being successful on their own terms, even if it’s not the kind of success that shows up on London’s radar.
The North has changed a lot in the past few years – Manchester in particular is practically unrecognisable from the city I grew up in. That the media misrepresents it to placate its home audience doesn’t affect the reality. It’s a great place to live, so there’s no need to make excuses for living here.