I’ve been reading Brian Groom’s hugely impressive non-fiction book Northerners, a definitive history of the North of England with particular reference to those who have lived here and still do. Among the fascinating facts I didn’t know, it seems Lancashire folk like their fish and chips cooked in vegetable oil, while where I live in Yorkshire we prefer good old-fashioned artery-clogging beef dripping in the frier.
Beyond such quirky divergences, for me the book brought into sharp focus the differences between Northerners and Southerners, and for the personification of the latter I kept seeing and hearing the Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, who is currently minister of state for Brexit opportunities (spoiler alert Jacob: there aren’t any).
Like many people, I’m convinced he has stepped straight out of Dr Who’s Tardis. I believe he may have been snatched from a House of Commons debate in the 19th century while trying to vote down laws that would create mere 12-hour working days for employees of factories, mills and coal mines.
Thanks to the Tardis, the one-man Monty Python sketch that is Rees-Mogg was able to make surprise visits to Whitehall departments and leave printed cards on the empty desks of civil servants saying: “Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon.”
The desks were empty because owing to the pandemic the staff were still legally entitled to work from home. Even the Daily Mail described the cards as “passive aggressive”, while the civil servants’ union called them “vindictive”. As if agreeing with this accusation, Rees-Mogg promptly announced that 90,000 Whitehall jobs were to be scrapped.
Imagine the best-known Northern politician today, Manchester’s elected mayor Andy Burnham, doing something like this. You can’t, and it’s not just a question of the difference between left and right-wing politicians, or even Rees-Mogg’s Eton against Burnham’s Culcheth accent. For me, there are clear contrasts in tone, body language and manner that so clearly show they are from opposite sides of the North-South divide.
Okay, I admit Rees-Mogg is an extreme example of a Southerner. But once you start seeing North-South divisions it’s hard to stop, and I couldn’t help thinking about the accusations of lockdown rule breaking that have dominated politics at Westminster this year and have still to be resolved. In the South we have Partygate, with suitcases of wine and cheese rolling through the Downing Street gates, while in the North we have Beergate, in which ale and takeaway curries were consumed by Keir Starmer, his deputy Angela Rayner and a dozen or so Labour campaigners during a work session at the Durham Miners’ Hall. I can’t imagine it being the other way round.
The Northerners book quotes writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie as saying that it’s actually hard to define the South, whereas most people have no difficulty recognising the North. To people in London, he says, the North means mushy peas, Arctic temperatures, a cultural wasteland, limited shopping opportunities and aggressive trolls. But to those who live here, says Maconie, the North means “home, truth, beauty, valour, romance, warm and characterful people, real beer and decent fish and chip shops”.
Depending on which side of the Pennines you live, fried in either vegetable oil or beef dripping.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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