Class conscious

It has always seemed odd to me that the Northern Line on the London Underground should be so called. I mean to say, the northernmost point on it is High Barnet, which is actually in the south of England. But then I speak as a Yorkshireman, and we resent anyone or any institution to the south of us appropriating that hallowed word "north".

The Geordies feel the same, I believe, and regard people who come from York (such as myself) as a load of southern poofs. It's a sort of reductio ad absurdum of inverted snobbery from which only the residents of John O'Groats can hope to emerge winners. In London, though, matters are inverted: it's the north that's smart and the south that's chippy, and the north/south divide within the capital is possibly more ferocious than the wider one encompassing all of Britain.

If you're a north Londoner, for example, you can bring a south Londoner to boiling point by mentioning in passing that you've just been for a walk on the Heath. They don't like that south of the river because all they've got to rival the Heath is Clapham Common, which is very . . . well, common. Or, if you're a north Londoner in the West End late at night, try casually letting slip to your south London friends that you're thinking of getting a taxi home. This is inflammatory because one of the many irritating catchphrases of London cabbies is: "I'm not going south of the river this time of night, mate . . . no way." (I think they think that, because south London is less prosperous than north London, they won't get a fare back.)

I'm not being funny (as cockneys say when they want to start a fight) but, speaking as a resident of north London, I don't know what can be said for south London. I suppose you can get to Brighton faster. Sometimes people tell you there's more "life" in south London, but what that means in practice, if you think about it, is more noise. A man I knew who lived in Gypsy Hill once told me he liked south London because "the streets are wider". Pretty desperate, you'll agree. Usually, I'm afraid, south Londoners just end up getting very frustrated and blurting out: "Well north London is full of wankers!" And there, I admit, they do have a point.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again