The Angel of the North, perpetual symbol of all things Not-In-the-South. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Self: A "southern sod" discovers the north on foot

Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape.

There’s nothing that the great mass of us enjoy more than exercising our fine discrimination: “This is good,” we delight in saying, “while that is emphatically bad.” We point to the sky and announce, “Up!” Then gesture to the ground while weightily intoning, “Down.” We have no hesitation when it comes to branding things, convictions and even people as either U or non-U and, although our numerical system is decimal, we’d probably prefer it if it was binary. All of which explains, at least in part, why it is that we speak of “the north” and “the south” as if they were entirely distinct places, separated not by another debatable land, the Midlands, but miles of desert or raging ocean.

I say this mental foible provides only a partial explanation because the history of our false regional dichotomising is bound up with our history. I don’t mean to suggest that there is no distinctive culture in the north of England – I’m not suicidal – but the great extent to which we perceive it as so is, I think, paradoxical. As the first industrialised nation, we experienced the great homogenising impact of the railways earliest – and began accommodating to it right away. By the 1840s, you could travel from pea-soupers to mushy peas in a matter of hours and I’d contend it was the sheer pleasure in traversing this disjunction that helped to preserve it in the aspic of our anecdotage.

Today, with local dialects being steadily submerged beneath the estuarine mud and quaint customs crumbing into dust like desiccated corn dollies, we find only the strong contrast provided by rapid north-south transit gives us any sense of change at all – and so we laud it: “This is north!” We cry, clogdancing our way into Piccadilly, although we were soft-shoe-shuffling our way through the London one only a short time before. But if you want to understand how the south shades imperceptibly into the north, there’s a way at hand (or, perhaps, foot): simply walk there – which is what my 11-year-old son and I did this summer, setting off from our home in London on the morning of 12 July and arriving in Whitby, North Yorkshire, 15 days and 288 miles later.

Moving at three miles per hour through the hinterlands of England gave us both the rare opportunity to experience what remains inhering in the physical topography of our cultural landscape, because when you’re labouring up and down hills rather than caroming through cuttings, you register every minute alteration in vernacular architecture, in flora and fauna; and when you stop in a pub for a ginger beer and packet of crisps, you also register the equally subtle modulation of the barman’s accent as against that of the barman in the last pub. On the East Coast main line, Peterborough seems like an outer-London suburb, gained after an hour or so of clacking and snacking; but if you take five days getting there and spend the night before at Cromwell’s home town, Huntingdon, you’re in no doubt that you’re in the Roundheaded Midlands.

And if you then set off across the shimmering agri-desert of Lincolnshire – which takes another five days to traverse on foot – you begin to appreciate how this land is a great and dappled unity. Indeed, Lincolnshire is so very big that while its feet dabble in the metropolitan hugger-mugger, its head is in the northern fastness. In Spalding, there was still a nasal whine to the accent and the speciality in Turner’s chip shop was mushy peas with balsamic vinegar but by the time we got to Caistor on the northern edge of the Wolds, we were being served chip butties within eebah-gumming distance of the Humber.

Still, if I were forced to identify a precise point where south met north and it was quite impossible for me to exercise my own fine discrimination, then I’d say it came in the little village of Helpringham, about 111 miles due north of London. We came sweating in out of the heatwave to the Nag’s Head pub, got our ginger beers in and sat watching, enthralled, as a group of middle-aged men started performing calisthenic tricks in the public bar. One picked up a beer mat with his mouth while doing the splits, then a second – still more Father William – was encouraged to do his party piece: standing on his head. With jokey asides, we were made to feel that we were included in this display and while I’m by no means certain that such antics don’t go on down souf, nonetheless the sense of beery masculine sodality seemed, to this southern sod, very definitely of the north.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496