It’s no secret that I have, on occasion, dreamed wistfully of the big smoke. Ten years living in London is hard to shake off, and it is the longest I have ever lived in one place. The contrasts between Peckham and rural Northumberland could not be greater, but I think I am finally starting to realise the less obvious benefits to living in part of England that many people barely know exists.
Despite spending my secondary school years in North Yorkshire, I’ve never really felt that the North was my home. I was counting down the years until I could escape down the A1, where EVERYTHING HAPPENED. At drama school, surrounded by southerners, I felt it necessary to defend the North on occasion, my slightly flattened vowels giving me away. There is a sense that people in the North feel strongly rooted here. Rather than defending the great things about this end of the country, its inhabitants take it for granted that we live in the best place on earth. Perhaps that’s what gives me away as a bit of an ‘incomer’, this niggling need to justify our decision to live here.
A, who is certainly a southerner, takes huge pride in living in the North-East, which I would argue is the forgotten corner of the North. When the UK’s big cities are mentioned, Newcastle is often missed off the list. During the 2015 general election campaign, Nigel Farage assumed Hadrian’s Wall was the border between England and Scotland, dismissing most of Northumberland and part of Cumbria. George Osbourne clattered on and on about his Northern Powerhouse, yet it wouldn’t have done much for anywhere above Leeds. The A1 staggers around Gateshead and tails off into one lane for much of Northumberland, the assumption by Westminster being that no one goes there anyway. Tyne & Wear flexed its muscles on the eve of Brexit, by setting the tone for the result. For a few brief days, the spotlight shone on the North-East, but soon faded as the focus returned to the impact Brexit would have on the south. This of course meant the economic impact, because it has been shown time after time that funding favours the south, be it for the arts, education, flood defences – the list goes on.
No longer an industrial powerhouse, the North-East has had to find creative ways to prosper in the 21st century. When we moved back here from London at the end of 2008, A had no job. The recession was beginning to bite. Yet almost 8 years later, he works as a filmmaker with his own successful business. He can follow his dream of working in the arts and actually earning a living. There can’t be many places in the south where you can set up an arty business, have some babies and live in a house by the sea without having a trust fund.
The point is, it’s doable. I feel like I can live in the North and still rant on to my friends with a clear conscience. I don’t feel that I have had to sell out. It is still possible to live in a beautiful part of the country, connected by train to two major cities – Newcastle and Edinburgh, and live amongst cutting-edge culture and fascinating heritage. The North-East will never compare to the South-East, and for that we should all be hugely grateful. we don’t want to be the same. We do things differently up here. There is space to breathe and a commitment to celebrate the important things. I used to mistake this for a reluctance to change, a plodding pace of life. I’m wondering now, though, whether I have been guilty of chasing an impossible lifestyle.
In Melvyn Bragg’s 10-part series for Radio 4, The Matter of the North, celebrating the historical achievements of the North of England, he claims that people of the North are non-conformist radicals, and that swings it for me. Responding to this radio programme in the i today, Grace Dent is spot on when she tells us ‘it’s time to re-examine the North…the North matters now more than ever’. Over the next couple of months, as the nights draw in and it’s too cold to leap through the waves, I will remember this. The North-East represents more than just a cold corner of England, but a way of life.