How not to defend the North

Lucy Mangan writes in the Guardian about Policy Exchange’s stupid Northern evacuation plan. Although I agree with what she says, this is a terrible article.

Here’s why:

I am still getting panicked phone calls from the 98% of my extended family who live in Preston and beyond. And occasionally a little bit to the right, but we haven’t spoken to them since the great offal fettling controversy of 1972, a dark time in our history that I have neither space nor heart to go into here. There was enough said at our Edie’s sweetbread fondue party.

Actually, panicked is not the right word. Northerners, as a rule, don’t do panic. Perhaps if they were threatened with the imminent loss of several loved ones – if Tom Finney caught fire in a chip shop, say – they might be moved to an expression of concern (‘Ey up!’) and a brief flurry of activity, but otherwise the emotional gamut tends to run between outrage and weary resignation, with my relatives leaning this week very much towards outrage. ‘Move to London?’ at least 306 cousins, aunts, uncles and one great-aunt spluttered. ‘Why don’t I just sit in a room full of car exhausts and burn 20s with a lighter? Bugger off!’ My great-aunt’s ire is so great that she plans to write to both Joe Longthorne and the Pope, though I don’t know in whose intercessionary powers she places more faith.

And… it just goes on like this.

Take, for example, the phrase ‘If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs, but we’ve no eggs.’ This is one of the first things I remember my grandmother saying to me. I must have been about four, weaving a daydream about some fantastical luxury – shoes, perhaps, or a drink of water – and she responded with these words. To a southerner, it probably sounds like the needless breaking of a child’s butterfly imagination on the wheel of adult logic. To a northerner, however, it’s nobbut commonsense protection of the child against future harm. Those who carry folk memories of toiling down the mines, whittling new lungs from barm cakes and listening to Gracie Fields know that the default setting of life is both hamless and eggless. Admit the possibility of hope, and you admit the possibility of disappointment. Better by far to banish both. The unwillingness to do so is what makes southerners weak. Happy and well-nourished, but weak.

Or take Peter Kay’s line: ‘I went to my mum’s for Sunday lunch. I don’t go every week, but she had a big chicken.’ Northerners fall off their chairs at this joke. Southerners look baffled. This is because it enshrines a version of familial love that only the former truly recognise: undemonstrative to the point of invisibility; a love that can only ever be obliquely manifested as an adjunct to something else. Thus, when your mum wants you round, she won’t say, as a southern mother might, ‘Darling, I haven’t seen you for so long, I miss you. Why don’t you come round and I’ll make us a meal?’ No. She’ll say, ‘Come round for your tea. I’ve got too much in and it’ll not keep now that your dad’s dead.’

This deserves some sort of bad writing award. The tweeness. The bad jokes. The false knowingness. All in best Guardian lite. It’s not just the article’s lack of quality but its assumption that it has quality, humour and great human truths.

This is what I mean when I talk of ‘Northern sentimentalism’. She’s defending the north, but doing it with the most stupid and condescending platitudes – the same tone and attitude of the Policy Exchange report she argues against. And using cliches ironically doesn’t stop them being cliches.

I know it’s just a short piece in the supplement, but this just grates. Mangan makes Stuart Maconie look like a good writer.

And talking of Mangan’s hero Peter Kay, the great Bolton hope is back with a new project – a reality TV spoof. That’s never been done before, has it? Moron.

2 Responses to “How not to defend the North”

  1. martin ohr Says:

    Max, you are too harsh on Lucy, cliche-ridden though it may be, her column is lightweight-read-on-a-saturday-morning-while-you-wait-for-your-coffee-to-grind stuff, given the task she was probably given -write an article which imagines what would happen if northerners did have to move south- what was she supposed to do.

    Like all cliches there is a kernal of truth in what she wrote, Without opening myself up to accusations of sentimenatalism, the traditional yorkshire image of ignorant, gruff, meaness or indeed the ‘Tykes Motto’ are flimsy defence mechanisms that hide wealth of insight, cynicism and generosity. Why did yorkshire folk want to hide their true selves from -particularly southern- outsiders is a good question, that can be answered at length elsewhere. In small part though Lucy does capture an aspect of northerness.

    Of course the stupid tory plan to close northern towns can be demolished in a very few words being as it is both economically, environmentaly and socially illiterate.

    As for Peter Kay, he’s a very rich tv comedian, like many of them he’s limited in skill and imagination, his best comic work was pre Phoenix Nights, and that was quite a long time ago;

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Sorry Martin – the post was harsh but ultimately fair.

    I appreciate that it was a supplement column but that doesn’t mitigate its stupidity. Bad writing is still bad writing. I’m within my rights to challenge it.

    The cliches are not defence mechanisms. They are cliches. A lot of people up here have insight, cynicism and generosity without buying into some Hovis advert tourist board image of the North that bears absolutely no relation to reality.

    Why do we never see a column defending London in the style of ‘Old London Tahn is full of cheeky cockney chappies selling whelks’?

    The Guardian wouldn’t print such a column because it – or at least Mangan – views London as the intellectual and cultural centre of the UK; and because its London audience would object to being stereotyped in this way.

    There are loads of good arguments against the Policy Exchange report. You know this – you’ve read them on blogs. Dave Osler demolished the report and was funny without resorting to hackneyed sentimentalism.

    Seriously, you can find better writers than Mangan in blog comment boxes.

    As for Peter Kay, he’s a very rich tv comedian, like many of them he’s limited in skill and imagination, his best comic work was pre Phoenix Nights, and that was quite a long time ago;

    I agree with that sentence apart from its implication that Peter Kay was ever funny.

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