The north is not all Coronation Street and popping the kettle on

This is a place with a rich cultural life and a jumble of social classes.

Blinded by such glamorous tat as Bet in Coronation Street (Julie Goodyear), most southerners swallow the stereotype and ignore the artifice. Photo: guglielmogalvin.com

Two books about the north, published this year, offered an interesting lack of contrast to the British reader. Paul Morley’s The North (and Almost Everything In It) and Morrissey’s Autobiography present much the same picture of growing up in “the north”; Irish-inflected in the open expression of emotion, a grim townscape alleviated by extravagantly glamorous women in leopard-skin print and “part-beehive”, in Morrissey’s terms. Given their later occupations, both writers unsurprisingly allow pop music to loom large in the sub-national culture – and in an account of the same event, the Sex Pistols’ gig at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1977, each allows the other to make a walk-on part.

Behind the whole thing is a popular stereotype about the difference between life in the north and life in the south; one warm, neighbourly, friendly, emotionally open and hugger-mugger, creating pop musicians and comedians; the other fenced off, cold, withdrawn, detached, creating novelists and string quartets.

It’s fair to say that I don’t recognise any of it, or recognise it only from previous outings in memoirs. And one of the immediately striking things about Morley’s north (and everything in it) is that one quite small part of the north has been allowed to stand for the whole of a large stretch of the country. This is not untypical. Persuaded, perhaps, by the long-running ITV soap opera Coronation Street, much of the national audience regards the manners and culture of a confected innercity Manchester working class as widely characteristic. Actually, a brief reflection will produce some variations in culture across the region. Inner-city Manchester is not much like life in the Yorkshire Dales, nor indeed like Newcastle, Carlisle, the South Yorkshire conurbations, Cumbria, York, Harrogate, rural Lancashire, Bradford and Leeds. Most of them have their own accent, easily distinguishable.

But the most striking thing that the traditional view of “the north” leaves out is any sense of the northern gentry and the middle classes. The distinction between the warm, neighbourly pop-the-kettle-on north and the cold, telephone-first south is not, in fact, a geographical one, but a social one, between proletarian manners and bourgeois manners. You will not get much of a welcome if you pop next door for a quid for the meter in the Tory Valhalla of Harrogate. What! There are Tories in Yorkshire? Well, of course. Some of them have never even seen a whippet under the tea table.

The social classes in the north are difficult for a southerner to interpret because, like in Italy but unlike the south of England, there are regional accents that are also inflected by social class. Just as Naples, for instance, possesses a working-class, a middle-class and an aristocratic Neapolitan accent, so in Yorkshire you can easily distinguish between a working-class Sheffield accent and the one used by the local doctor. The prestige of the south and London makes the same not true there; there is only working-class London and what regards itself as RP, or “correct pronunciation”. On the BBC London TV news, Karl Mercer’s accent is regarded as a working-class accent that a professional person has hung on to. In Yorkshire, the equivalent would be regarded as a middle-class way of talking that was also regional.

The complexities of accent and place repeat themselves when it comes to the culture of the place. One of the things that always gets left out in accounts of “the north” is the vivid life of what might be regarded as high culture. In Morley’s account, for instance, the Free Trade Hall is primarily regarded as the place that staged the Sex Pistols. In reality, you might regard the prime interest of the Free Trade Hall as being, for 139 years after 1858, the home of the Hallé Orchestra – an orchestra set up as a splinter group from the even older Liverpool Philharmonic.

Similarly, readers in the south might think of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield as uniquely the home of a snooker championship. The snooker was brought in in 1977 to help with funding. For the rest of the year, it is a highly interesting theatre. I remember going to see plays by Racine and Tom Stoppard there in the early 1980s, and hearing string quartets by the dozen in the studio theatre. Popular culture has blocked out, in the public awareness, what is much more characteristic of the north as a place: an engagement with and an investment in high culture.

Today, we regard high culture through the prism built for the south of England, as something generated by and created for bourgeois culture. That is only part of the story. High culture was very often implanted in the north not as a means for the bourgeoisie to be entertained, as in a concert hall in Bath, but as a means to bring the urban proletariat to higher things. This was true of art galleries, such as the Manchester Art Gallery, founded in 1824, the Lady Lever in Merseyside and the galleries in Leeds; true of orchestras such as the Hallé in Manchester, the Liverpool Philharmonic and the great Royal Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle, the UK’s oldest permanent chamber orchestra; true of choral societies such as the Leeds Festival Chorus, founded in 1858. It was true, above all, of the great libraries of the region, of which the John Rylands Library and Manchester Central Library represent the highlights. All these aimed at both entertaining a rising middle class and enlightening the aspiring urban poor.

There is a marvellous short story by Arnold Bennett entitled “The Death of Simon Fuge”, describing the visit one night by a southern visitor to a Potteries town. He is taken from house to house, and finds something surprising and distinguished in each. In one, a new piano duet has just arrived and his hosts sit down and investigate this new piece, sight-reading it with great confidence. These amateur players are conquering the Richard Strauss Sinfonia Domestica, a piece that was, in this 1907 short story, only three years old and at the cutting edge of European culture. Only in the north, and only after years of investing the whole of society with access to music, art and literature of the most ambitious sort.

Bennett exaggerates but perhaps by not very much, and he decisively severs any assumption of a necessary connection between wealth and culture. Nor is this necessarily a historic and antique situation. My family moved from London to Sheffield in 1974 and a number of things seemed instantly very different. Some of these were to do with local ways of eating. Many geographical divides focus on foodstuffs – the Germans talk about the Weißwurstäquator, or the “white sausage equator”, the border of Bavaria at which the things start to be eaten. The Swiss talk about the Röstigraben, or rösti-ditch, the point at which German starts to be spoken and rösti becomes a traditional dinner accompaniment.

The usual distinction between north and south in England was the point at which pork butchers specialising in pig products started to appear. This was not an illusion. In 1970, there were 45 pork butchers in Sheffield alone. There were other local delicacies, never before experienced by us, such as haslet, a sort of cold sliced stuffing, or the Staffordshire oatcake, an irresistible crumpet/pancake hybrid, and the term “relish” was used for something very much like, but very much not Worcestershire sauce.

But there were obvious shifts in manners, too, as well as in the social structure. There was the egotistical Yorkshire bore, still very much in evidence. (When the Daily Telegraph recently asked Alan Titchmarsh to say what he liked about his native county, the result came close to breaking all records for the recurrence of the first-person pronouns.) There was, much more attractively, the appearance of the capable woman, running the show and brooking no opposition. There was also, disconcertingly, a style of humour that was so straight-faced in its teasing as to seem like rudeness and not like a joke at all.

None of these was obviously attached to social class and these types probably existed everywhere – I was struck by the identical recurrence of these figures, much later, in my husband’s Bengali culture – but in the north they were universal and conspicuous. They ran the show.

Similarly, the prizing of what elsewhere could be regarded as high culture was, in the north, not obviously or exclusively tied to middle- or upper-class existence. There may have been tendencies, but no obvious barriers. Like the characters in “The Death of Simon Fuge”, I spent my 1970s and 1980s in a Yorkshire whose main interest was in Strauss symphonic poems. I once mentioned this and was promptly called things like snobbish and pompous, though why it’s more pompous to say that you like Sibelius than to stress that you were one of the very first people to notice the sublimity of the Sex Pistols, I really don’t know. Versions of remote cultures, in time and place, have a strong tendency to yield their complexity and range of possibilities to a simple version. Why these simpler versions emerge is a curious question.

The north’s spread of high culture was greater than people outside the region probably suspect. It possessed, too, a startling amount of moneyed and land-owning culture and still does. When we talk about “the north” we think of the urban poor of Manchester. On the whole, we don’t even consider Paul Sykes, the immensely rich owner of a Gothic pile in the shadows of Fountains Abbey, though nobody could be more characteristically “northern”. Nor do we think of Castle Howard or the Harewood estate. There are also the terrifying Yorkshire gentry of Harrogate, Richmond and Ripon.

The point about these people is that they are just as characteristic of what we could call the northern culture as Bet Lynch or Morrissey. They have somehow failed to register as northern and are somehow thought of as interlopers from the south. In fact, like the high cultural institutions of libraries and orchestras long established in the north, their life is complete and characteristic of the region. It’s just that nobody much knows about it.

A few years ago, I wrote a novel called The Northern Clemency, roughly focusing on the culture I grew up in. It was a specifically middle-class, reading, culture. The novel was a success but one of the chief responses from readers was a puzzlement. How could I write about Sheffield in the 1970s and 1980s without writing exclusively about an urban, warm, working-class culture Done Down By Thatcher? How could I possibly let a character go and read a book in a library or enjoy an expensive meal?

Such responses showed a lack of awareness of the richness and variety of the north and a curious willingness to allow a pervasive stereotype to block a range of experience from view. The urban bourgeoisie went through the changes in society as well as the most immediate victims; their manners and their culture changed, too. Strikingly, the ways of living that the very rich and the middling comfortable maintain in most of the north are ways of living that are hardly represented in imaginative fiction, or in drama or film.

When we think of natives of Sheffield, we think of the cast of The Full Monty. We don’t think of A S Byatt, the daughter of a QC, or Michael Palin, the son of a Cambridge-educated engineer, or the Old Etonian actor Dominic West, or the newsreader Emily Maitlis – I used to play in the same orchestra as her sister Sally. They were daughters of a professor at the university and it never occurred to me that the family might not be properly Sheffield in some way.

The truth is that, as time goes on, the richness and variety of culture and life as we know it disappears in favour of the received version. If it is possible that something so near to us as life in the north a decade or two ago can be reduced exclusively to glamorous but poor leopard-skin prints emerging from terraced houses, then we ought to make the case for life as we know it and live it now. The idea that anyone in the 1970s in the north might have chosen to go to hear the Hallé Orchestra at the Free Trade Hall – indeed, that the Free Trade Hall did anything at all in the 1970s other than host the Sex Pistols, playing to an audience consisting of Morrissey and Paul Morley – now starts to seem incredible and ridiculous.

But there is a plea to be made for remembering and noticing the variety of culture in a place. One such element came not from deprivation but from surfeit. It deserves to be remembered and to be assigned to the place where it most vividly happened.

For me, when I think of Sheffield, I am 18, and taking a pile of Nabokovs out of the library. The Hallé is coming to play Penderecki’s St Luke Passion at the City Hall tonight. Only in the north.