Hit the North! Why I’m fed up with media representations of the North of England

The North motorway sign

The North motorway sign from Geograph.org.uk and used under Creative Commons license

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.

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About author
Christina McDermott is a half Manc-half-Yank-Liverpool-dwelling writer and food blogger. She likes Krautrock, Booze of all flavours, Bad Jokes & Owls, and hates Bananas.
8 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I can’t help but laugh at these pieces about how bad the North has it when I’m from Birmingham – the media’s representation of the North is golden in comparison.

    • I wrote about how the media views the North because I live there and wanted to say my piece about how I feel it’s being misrepresented. I agree with you though that it’s not just Northern cities who get in the neck from the media. It can feel as though there’s an element of ‘there be dragons’ about anywhere outside of the Home Counties.

      Birmingham’s a great city btw. The annual Supersonic festival there is the best music festival I’ve ever been to.

  2. Here here! I’m also a Manc (live in Chorlton right near that vegan supermarket!) but spend a lot of time in Lpool as my fella is from there. I’m so sick of hearing that the ‘North’ is propped up by the South. Er I don’t think so. After all the tax money the City needed after the crash and after hearing about the deep cuts to council budgets in the North, while ones in the South have their budgets increased that is obviously a load of crap. Manchester has thrived since the early 90′s and has created culture and industry with little help from central government (and to be correct, some active hinderance). And Liverpool is a brilliant and beautiful city which despite attempts by the Thatcher govt to bring it to it’s knees with ‘managed decline’ is also managing to surpass any expectations London politicians have for it. You’re so right too that it’s assumed you can’t be a success if you never went to London. Load of nonsense and this attitude just contributes to the general policy of creating tonnes of jobs in the south and few in the north. I love Manchester and Liverpool and would never leave, I just hope they can survive and thrive past the current joke of a government.

    Thank you for writing this :)

  3. That Pidd piece really stuck in my craw for some reason, and you’ve pretty much nailed the reasons why. As someone who moved to Manchester from New York ten years ago and love the hell out of the place, I don’t really understand what anyone could find lacking here. (And yes I’ve developed a lovely Northern chip on my shoulder in the last decade, thankyouverymuch).

    The North as a provincial backwater is a dated trope, and I honestly think it’s a bit dim of The Guardian to run a piece like this. If some idiots down south aren’t up to speed with what’s happening outside London, who gives a rat’s ass?

  4. Let’s hear something good about the smaller towns and rural areas outside the home counties. It’s too easy to glibly write us off as a drain on the national exchequer; cities even city-states like greater London, need a hinterland.

    We provide the food and water, our green fields and forests freshen up the city air and suck in carbon dioxide. We provide land for power stations, water treatment plant, mines, quarries and refineries. We staff them and manage them. We provide entertainment too, whether it’s for coach loads of elderly citizens drinking tea and eating scones, or for young fit types hurtling around our mountains on bikes or flailing down our rivers in kayacks.

    Of course successive government policies have made it easy for employers out here to pay very little so that even those ‘hard working families’ we keep hearing about might well be in receipt of benefits to top up their meagre earnings, but the answer is simple. Raise our wages to city levels. Let citizens pay more for their water, their energy, their building materials, there fuels and industrial chemistry. Double the prices of cream teas, fishing licences, golf course fees, mountain bike uplifts, rafting trips, and all the other things we provide for wealthy citizens and very few people out here in your hinterland will need to claim benefits.

  5. Totally agree with your comments / rant-athon.

    Given that the south mainly administers all the hard work done by the good people of the north, I believe many down the smoke aught to think before they assume too much or make generic comment on issues they don`t fully comprehend. To my mind many of the best writers and bloggers, intellectuals and wits live (or lived) up the top end. One only need reflect upon the quality of work created by individuals from the north to appreciate the notion that we don`t need to worry about the blarney – just look at the facts.

    We are in the real world, where fact matter`s – and people actually bother talk to each other!

    That said, I did very much enjoy Rocknroller and other work`s from the pen of Mr. Richie…!!

  6. I live in the ‘North,’ as in ‘Northern Ireland’! I have also lived in London and some people’s attitudes and actual stupidity (as in they didn’t know N.Ireland is part of the UK!? Check your passports!) was appalling. I found that a lot of the southern people sort of ‘sneered’ when they talked to anyone from the North of England, such to the extent most of my friends in London are from the North of England.

    I have found after being both to Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester in the last year that people from the North of England are so much more friendly and I have changed my decision to go to Uni in Leeds from going back to Uni in London. Though I do have to say people in Bath are also nice and that is in the south!

  7. I think maybe north -v- south is an over simplification it’s greater, greater London, ie anything SE of a line from the Solent to the Wash versus the rest of the UK. The London and Home Counties business and political domination of the UK is bad news for all of us, including ‘them’.

    By failing to support commercial life outside the SE of England and concentrating on ‘The City’ we have a crazy situation where it is seen as essential for your career to be based in London, yet for many people working on middle rank jobs and below it’s impossible to have a decent standard of living because of the housing shortage.

    The latest madness is ‘Silicon Roundabout’. Silicon Valley is in California, thousands of miles from the financiers in New York, and they are hundreds of miles from the capital, Washington. But in our tiny little group of islands it is apparently essential to base them all within spitting distance of each other.

    Much of the early computer research was carried out in Manchester Uni, and supported by Manchester based Ferranti Electronics. But now we have a roundabout. In London.

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