Let me be very clear. I’m not a Northerner, and never have been. Born on the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border, I’m from the East Midlands. Although my father started his life in Cheshire, most of his childhood was spent in Hertfordshire. That said, my mum’s a Geordie, so there could be some connection there. Still, if you met me in person, I doubt you’d be immediately struck by my Northern-ness!
My self-image did shift a little at times.
In the late 1980s, I was sent to Oxford for 6 months by my employer. In spite of Oxford being based in the Midlands region (as defined by that organisation) almost everyone who worked there referred to me as a Northerner. Which seemed odd to me because I always thought the North started at Yorkshire and Lancashire. My experience at Oxford was brief and my psyche recovered, although there were other reminders in the years that followed.
When a trade union became a client in the 1990s, their office was in London, yet a high proportion of their executive were from the North. I got to know one of them, a Mancunian, particularly well, and he obviously saw the North/South divide very clearly, spending most of the week in London. Driving into the office with him one morning, we found ourselves at a junction trying to turn into a queue of traffic and when someone kindly let us out of our side road, he muttered something along the lines of: “Well, he’s obviously not from down here.”
It was something I’d noticed myself. The further I got down the A1, the less considerate the drivers were. There was more urgency on their part, and often a lack of eye contact. To be fair, I didn’t spend a lot of time in London, or even in the South, so it wasn’t something I was especially exercised about, nor could I say with any certainty that the difference was genuine.
Then there was the time my nephew, who’s lived on the Isle of Wight all his life, came to stop with me for the first time a few years ago. Every day, we went out for a walk, leaving my house and passing through a few streets before heading out into the countryside nearby. On the second day, after passing someone in the street, he looked up at me and asked: “Do you know all these people?” Of course, I didn’t. But I realised he wasn’t used to saying hello to people he didn’t know.
For the last three years, I’ve been in a relationship with a Southerner, and spend a lot of my time in Berkshire. During that time, that difference has become even more obvious to me. If I walk into town when I’m at home, I’d say at least 70% of the people I encounter will acknowledge your presence in some way – even if it’s just a curt nod of the head. In Berkshire, the percentage is vastly different. More often than not, there’s a conscious effort on their part to avoid looking at me.
In the countryside, things do improve. I often drive out of town and go walking at Greenham Common where you see the percentage rise sometimes to as much as 40% – though at home it’d be close to 100%. That’s usually the case when people are out walking. For some reason, they always seem more happy to greet and be greeted by a complete stranger – especially dog walkers.
It’s become something of a running joke between my partner and me. If someone smiles and says hello while I’m down there, I’ll usually tell her they must be visiting Northerners.
But a strange thing happened yesterday. We went up to Greenham Common because it’s a large enough space to avoid close contact with other people – essential in the present climate – but still get a good walk in. Obviously, we did see other people, and we did have to pass fairly close to them, although maintaining the two-metre distance was easy enough. But most of them smiled at us. Quite a few even said hello. I think only one or two avoided eye contact.
Not once in three years have I experienced anything like it. And what’s changed? We’ve been told to confine ourselves to our houses except for essential reasons. One of the few exceptions is to go and exercise. Is it just that we stumbled across a particular cohort who like exercise and contact with others? Or is it that, as human beings, we crave contact with others and, deprived of that contact with the people we’d normally associate with, we’re happy to grab any connection we can?
Who knows for sure, but it looks like I’m stuck here for at least three weeks now, so it’ll be interesting to see if it continues as we get into our new routines. We might even discover that the North/South divide isn’t so big at all.
For now, though, I’ll leave you with this clip from The Mash Report…