The scene was a rock festival on the outskirts of Lincoln. Sheets of rain were sweeping up from the Fens but I didn’t care. I was in that state of festival bliss that even soaking wet clothes and a surfeit of greasy, indigestible burgers couldn’t diminish.
Then a big American rock band came on. The lead singer strode up to the microphone and hollered: “Hello London!”
London? The crowd went ape, indifferent to this crime against English geography, but I remember trying to figure out how far north Lincoln was from London. At least 150 miles, I reckoned, which in a vast country like the USA clearly made Lincoln a mere suburb of the capital. After all, the famous Woodstock festival took place 60 miles up the road from the actual town of Woodstock.
The event came to mind last week when I heard an academic suggest on BBC Radio 4 that Manchester, Leeds and York are no longer in the north but part of London’s sphere of influence.
“There are several ways you could define a northern region,” said Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, chair of town planning at Newcastle University. “But perhaps the most pertinent question is, where does London end?”
In the studio he drew a big purple squiggle on the map, subsequently tweeted, which showed an area he defined as “not London” – everything outside a line drawn from the Severn to north Manchester, across to the M1 above Sheffield, a loop round Leeds and York, then south along the A1 to Peterborough and eastwards to the Wash.
He claimed this map showed how London’s “sphere of influence” now extended over most of England, “determined by two-hour commuting patterns, which is becoming the norm”. But his removal of cities like Leeds and Manchester from the north caused such an uproar that the professor deactivated his Twitter account. Which is understandable given that the north-south divide – what the discussion was about – is such a highly-charged subject.
The gap is seen as representing the difference between the affluent south and economically deprived north, as well as social differences represented by cliches like northern males in flat caps and the Monty Python sketch Four Yorkshiremen. Anyone who tries to tamper with the gap does so at their peril, however, though I can see what the hapless Professor Tewdwr-Jones was trying to say. Manchester, Leeds and York exude an aura of prosperity at odds with the rest of the north, as do their affluent commuter belts. Professionals from London who have assimilated easily after relocation to these areas might have found it hard to settle in other northern cities.
Crucially the north-south gap is shown by life expectancy. People in the south live an average of three years longer than residents of England’s northern regions. There are also big differences to the detriment of northerners when it comes to wages and unemployment.
We once talked about “north of Watford”, but since the Thatcher 1980s the line seems to have moved to just below Sheffield. But drawing a line across England creates a distorted picture. The real division is not between north and south but between the haves and have-nots. That exists whether you live in Hampstead or Hull, and sometimes even in the same street.