Our man in the north…

I’VE always assumed myself to be a man of the north, so long as cheating is allowed. But a professor on the BBC Today programme dismisses my claim.

And should you be feeling smug because you were born in Manchester or York, where my northern roots lie, you’re not northern either. At least not according to Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, an academic in town planning at Newcastle University (defo in the north).

The contours of my personal geography are shaped as follows: born in Bristol, moved to suburban south Manchester as a young age, lived there until going to university in south London, stayed in that part of the capital for ten years or so, then moved to York 30 years ago.

By rough calculation, that makes a third of my life spent in the south, two-thirds in the north. That makes me a proud man of York, by way of all those other places.

I certainly feel more northern than southern, even though deeper family roots tether me to Essex, the East End of London and Southampton.

Prof Tewdwr-Jones has redefined the north with what the i newspaper called “a perplexing piece of cartography” (above). On this new map, the border between north and south wanders all over the place. This does away with drawing a line through Birmingham and having everything above as the north.

The Perplexing Prof says of his eccentric division: “There are several ways you could define a Northern region, including the ‘post-industrial North’ or the North-Eastern peripheral region – but perhaps the most pertinent question is where does London end?”

And if your answer is “Just outside the M25, matey”, then you are not playing by his rules. His definition of the north is based round commuting distance to London. As York, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, for example, are all roughly within a two-hour commute, that puts them in the Not-North; or the south if you insist, as the Perplexing Prof does.

This took me back to my early days on what was then called the Yorkshire Evening Press. The editor of the day was much taken with this sort of thing and sent reporters to York Station to track down long-distance commuters who were rumoured to be doing the two-hour haul to London.

From memory, only one or two such unfortunate travellers were found, and the editor’s excitement proved unfounded (not for the first or last time). But all these years later, that eccentric new map of the north is based in part round the idea of commuting from York to London, so perhaps he’s been proved right, even if he died a while ago now.

I’m not sure that redefining the north by relative closeness to London is all that helpful. Much of Yorkshire slips out of the north by that method, and if you can safely say one thing for sure about Yorkshire, it is that it’s in the north for sure.

Thirty years ago, people might have needed to take that long train journey on a railway line that has been much travelled and much troubled ever since. The line has just come back into temporary public ownership after another unsuccessful experiment with privatisation. Making everything private was all the political rage back then. With regards to railways, the experiment can hardly be called a success.

Anyway, back then you needed to travel as the internet was in its infancy and had yet to wreak havoc with the newspaper industry and other industries.

Nowadays someone living in Leeds, York or Manchester can work at least partly from home, avoiding the need for the long commute the Perplexing Prof uses to redefine the North.

When I first saw his map, I wondered if it might not be showing the route of another train to have become lost while trying to navigate north.

The anger over the failure of Northern Rail – or ‘Northern Fail’, as columnists and bloggers in the North are obliged by statue to refer to that company – show a different definition of the north. This is one where all the money stays in the south and those of us living in the north must put up with an inferior service. If you live in the Lake District, or wish to travel there, that service is not inferior so much as non-existent, as all trains have been cancelled while Network Rail (sorry, Network Fail) puzzles over its new and improved timetable.

Anyway, this proud man of York by way of Manchester remains convinced that both places are in the north.

Leave a Reply