The Lancastrian fast bowler James Anderson took his 300th Test wicket on 17 May. Only three Englishmen have taken more – Ian Botham, Bob Willis and Fred Trueman, the patron saint of all northern fast bowlers. Before we indulge familiar clichés about down-to-earth, northern grit, it’s worth remembering that the highly skilled Anderson is the face of a vitamins brand and once dyed his hair with red streaks.
Ten years ago, when Anderson made his England debut, I remember another Lancastrian stating firmly in the commentary box: “You won’t have any difficulties with Jimmy. He’s from Burnley.” Geographical determinismis one of the curious aspects of northern self-image; it’s as though such a fine and sturdy tree could not possibly bear false fruit.
According to this theory, it is impossible to disentangle northernness from character. That the batting prodigy Joe Root is a) from Sheffield and b) phlegmatic and deeply impressive under pressure are not presented as independent facts. The former must lead to the latter. You can, apparently, see the Sheffield in his back defence.
Given that my mother is from Yorkshire, my father is from Wales and I grew up in the south-east, I feel able to assess such claims reasonably fairly. Commentating for Test Match Special recently, I teased Michael Vaughan – of Sheffield, Yorkshire and England – that southerners do not have the same sense of predestination about accidents of birth. We are generally happy to accept that the town in which you are born is poorly correlated with your moral virtues and psychological resilience.
When Andrew Strauss played his 100th Test, people did not rise up as one around the Home Counties, raising china cups filled with lightly infused herbal tea, and shout, “Of course he’s a tough lad – he’s from Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire.” When Alastair Cook becomes the leading English run-scorer of all time, as he surely will, I do not expect the good folk of East Anglia to patronise northerners in the local pub about the moral superiority of Bedford, where the young Cook was a chorister. When the languid David Gower eased the ball effortlessly through the off-side, there were few hushed whispers over wine glasses in east Kent that the young Gower had learned about beauty in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral.
Cricket has a gift for exposing national stereotypes. I used to think that the schism between amateurs and professionals was the most revealing fault line. However, the northsouth divide, which overlaps with the fascination with class, runs deeper still. When it comes to indulging regional stereotypes, there is no limit to our appetite or our patience. George Orwell captured this in his spark - ling essay “North and South” (1937):
There exists in England a curious cult of northernness, a sort of northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the south will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only in the north that life is “real” life . . . that the north is inhabited by “real” people, the south merely by rentiers and their parasites. The northerner has “grit”, he is grim, “dour”, plucky, warm-hearted, and democratic; the southerner is snobbish, effeminate,
and lazy – that at any rate is the theory.
The most remarkable thing about Orwell’s insights is that he arrived at them without having met Trueman.
Orwell’s essay belongs to a great literary tradition that explores the qualities and tensions of north and south. Elizabeth Gaskell’s fine novel of that title, published in 1855, ends with John Thornton, a northern industrialist, achieving the author’s approval when he decides to learn Greek. Once the rough, northern edges are polished, the reader is allowed to like him more unreservedly. David Lodge’s comic novel Nice Work (1988) explicitly draws on Gaskell’s themes, juxtaposing industry with academia.
The surprising aspect of the north-south divide is that it is more relevant today than when Gaskell, Orwell or even Lodge wrote about it. That makes it different from the familiar argument about gentlemen and players. An increasing proportion of top-flight sportsmen now come from the educational elite (Anderson is a rare state-school product) and yet the language of professionalism and meritocracy has triumphed. The old cliché about gentlemen and players, in other words, obscures a much more surprising and uncomfortable reality.
The north-south stereotype, in contrast, is reinforced by political and economic trends. Look at the electoral map of Britain and you will see that it is becoming strikingly divided into three bands: the Scottish National Party at the top, the Tories in the south and Labour in between.
According to polls, voting intentions suggest that the next election will be even more divided between a Conservative south and a Labour north.
Gordon Brown argued relentlessly that the Tories had “attacked the north” and “systematically destroyed” its economy. But during the New Labour years, the divide widened – Yorkshire’s economic output went from 10 per cent behind the UK average to 17 per cent behind.
The economic output of financial services alone in London now exceeds the entire economy of the north-east.
That imbalance, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, fuels the old tensions. Critics of the south semi-deliberately blur distinctions, as though London was really the City and the south was really London. This isn’t entirely true – many areas of the south retain an independent character, separate from London, let alone finance – but it revives Orwell’s idea that northerners view southerners as “rentiers and parasites”.
In the cricket commentary box, the analysis of the north-south divide might be lighthearted. However, in the country, I suspect that the old cliché has more bite and sting than ever.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)