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5 December 2013

What it means to be northern when you’re Down South

Rachel Cooke has now been Down Here far longer than she was Up There, but is still suffused by a hard-to-describe northern sensibility.

By Rachel Cooke

Exile: how it clarifies things. Growing up, I didn’t feel particularly northern. At school, I was bullied for being posh, perhaps because I said “lunch” rather than “dinner”, though this was an aberration since I called dinner “tea” and still do when I’m tired. Yes, we lived in a terraced house, made of the local sandstone, blackened down the years so that it looked just like a slice of burnt toast. But it was a relatively big house. My dad kept two greyhounds and raced them but since he was also a university lecturer, this was something of an affectation on his part – a desperate, Jim Dixon-style bid to cling to his working-class roots (see also his ferrets and his request in pubs for “a glass with a handle”).

My granny did rather better in the authenticity stakes, living in a terrace with a proper “entry” (a kind of tunnel) that led to a shared yard at the back and an outside loo, too. Then again, she was from the Black Country originally, which rather muddled things. My sense of myself as northern was, I think, only really to be glimpsed in my disdainful and secretly timorous attitude to the south in general and to London in particular. When I tell friends that I was 20 before I caught sight of St Pancras Station, they look sceptical. It’s true, though. I had no need of the capital then. More to the point, it had no need of me.

It was distance that changed all this, emotional and physical. I’d hoped to go to university in Manchester. Then, for once in my life, something went drastically right and I found myself in Oxford, which presented me with a problem. How northern was I and how northern should I be? It was hip to be from the north in those days, especially if you had tales to tell of the Haçienda. I hadn’t but I’d got my soles sticky at the Leadmill and other Sheffield Nite Spots and I was dressed for the part in conker-coloured Dr Martens, Levi’s and a floral shirt. I thought the blonde girls with velvet hairbands who’d hotfooted it to Oxford straight from Surrey looked ridiculous, so I felt quite content, at least about my appearance.

But my voice. How to put this? I worried that I sounded unsophisticated, stupid. I remember precisely the moment this craven anxiety pierced my carapace of cool. I was in a restaurant with a first-term friend (in light of what I’m about to say, you’ll be amazed to hear she’s still my friend), sharing confidences. She was from Hampstead and all kinds of smart, but we had an important thing in common – bolter fathers – and I felt as happy as Larry to have met her.

Only then . . . Uh, oh. Her head on one side, she was gazing at me, in wonderment, as if I were a gazelle in a zoo. “What is that accent of yours?” she asked. “Is it . . . a northern accent?”

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For the next three years, I was in a state of flux, identity-wise. I had only to see the sign for the M40 for my vowels unconvincingly to lengthen. Hoping to sound more Castle Howard than Castle Market, I would occasionally refer vaguely to my home “in Yorkshire”.

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Inside, though, something was hardening and by the time I’d got a job and moved to London, I could feel it beginning to burst through: not pride, exactly, but a growing conviction that I understood (or not) the world through the prism of being from the north and that this mattered, that it made a difference to all kinds of things, from the way I read and ate and listened to music right through to my relationships.

It was a conviction made even fiercer by a certain ache, one I still feel, for all that I’ve now been Down Here far longer than I was Up There – and perhaps you think I’m only suffering a particularly bolshie form of homesickness. You might argue, moreover, that one part of Britain is much like another these days; that I am a deracinated romantic, drowning in nostalgia; that my feelings are no different from those of, say, a Cornishman who finds himself at Paddington and pines for Polzeath. I will disagree, though.

My trouble is that I believe there is such a thing as a northern sensibility. It’s nigh on impossible to describe it, but I know it when I see it in another person and I feel it myself in my bone marrow. Granted, it involves all sorts of customs, habits and idiosyncracies, from putting gravy on chips to kissing select adults on the lips, but it also extends far beyond them. It’s metaphysical. It’s an attitude: a kind of empathy, or intuition. There’s no such thing – there simply isn’t – as a “southern sensibility”, whereas the emotions I am trying and failing to describe are not connected, for me, only to Sheffield, or only to Yorkshire.

On a train, my shoulders will drop at Derby and all points west or east of it; I will exhale, suffused with relief, the foreigner at the border crossing. On the high hills close to Barnard Castle in County Durham, where England is at her narrowest, I have the happy sense, on a clear day, that the north lies in every direction, as far as I can see. No wonder that this is my favourite spot in all the world. I look around and – I cannot put it any better than this – feel entirely understood.