The latest New Statesman issue is all about the north, or t’north. See, I’ve already read Stuart Maconie’s piece, How to write about the north, so I got a typical northern accenty bit in there as soon as I could. Actually, it should have been t’ bloody north, as everyone knows that northerners swear more than southerners.
Inevitably, this has re-started the whole debate about what counts as the north, ignoring Mr Maconie’s first rule that, if you are going to write about the north, whatever you do, don’t define it. People were putting lines on maps and then getting confused about places like Harrogate, York and Durham which seem a bit posh and might have to be classed as detached parts of the south.
Does this mean that there isn’t really a north-south divide?
There are exceptions on both sides but, as the Economist noted last year, in general, the north is poor, the south is rich and the gap between them is widening.
As Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield puts it, the difference is that, in the north, there are “islands of affluence in a sea of poverty”. In the south, the sea is of affluence. And the contrast is growing.
One of the most recent studies on the economics of the north-south divide was done by Danny Dorling’s team, Sheffield University’s Social and Spatial Inequalities group (SASI). They concluded that there is most certainly a north-south divide and that, in Europe, the only other economic fissure of similar magnitude is the line of the old Iron Curtain.
In terms of life chances the only line within another European country that is comparable to the North-South divide is that which used to separate East and West Germany. This is found not just in terms of relative differences in wealth either side of the line, but most importantly in terms of health where some of the extremes of Europe are now found within this one divided island of Britain.
They came up with this map showing the dividing line.
This looks and feels about right. I grew up in Nottinghamshire and I’ve often been asked over the years whether Nottingham is in the north or the south. It all depends on where you are looking from, of course. I know Londoners who insist that Northampton is in the north. When I lived in Newcastle, I was told that Cockneys start at Scotch Corner. If I had to come down on one side or t’other, though, I’d say that Nottingham has more in common with other old industrial towns, which are mostly in the north, than it does with the more prosperous south. The SASI report seems to bear that out.
Professor Dorlings remarks about Nottinghamshire’s neighbouring county, Lincolnshire, are interesting. Apart from its industrial north, which contains Scunthorpe and Grimsby, Lincolnshire, is now south of the divide. Professor Dorling says Lincolnshire has moved from north to south due to affluent southerners retiring to places like Gainsborough, Boston, Grantham and Lincoln.
But the north south divide isn’t just about economics. It’s also cultural, though quite what this means is difficult to determine. Most obviously, it’s about the way people speak.
My dad, who spent most of his life in the construction industry, said that you could tell where people were from by how they pronounced ‘toughened glass’. There were those who said ‘tooffened glass’ and those who said ‘tuhffened glahse”. I use ‘bus pass’ as a similar example. Do you say ‘boos pass’ or ‘buhs pahse’?
This sort of pronunciation divide is known as an isogloss. Linguists Jack Chambers and Peter Trudgill mapped the two most significant isoglosses in England, the difference between the pronunciation of ‘a’ and ‘u’.
For the ‘a’ sound, north of the isogloss, ‘bath’ rhymes with ‘math’, south of it ‘bath’ rhymes with ‘Darth’. For the ‘u’ sound, north of the isoglass it rhymes with foot. This is known as the foot-strut split; because, about 300 years ago, southerners started pronouncing the ‘u’ differently. As a result, north of the divide, ‘foot’ and ‘strut’ rhyme, south of it, they don’t. A few words survived the split. Everyone says ‘push’, ‘put’, ‘full’ and ‘butcher’ more or less the same way, whether they are in Surrey or Sunderland. The foot-strut split is explained in this amusing video made by a northern chappie.
I’ve always found this next bit interesting. The northern ‘u’ (the solid line) comes further south than the northern ‘a’ (the dotted line).
So my dad was wrong. There is narrow band of the country where they would say ‘tooffened glahse’ and ‘boos pahse’.
Talking to people from the north who have moved south, they fund the northern ‘u’ easier to lose than the northern ‘a’. If someone says ‘buhs pass’ (to rhyme with Bass), chances are, they are a northerner living in the south or a northerner trying to sound posh. Or an American. (OK, then, a Scot, as the Americans wouldn’t be on the bus in the first place.) People who have grown up north of the isoglass usually feel silly saying the long southern ‘a’. Therefore, they often get it wrong and so they sound silly too.
So much for accent then. What else defines the north? Liking a good head on your beer is often cited as a sign of northernness. A decade or so ago, I went through the Good Beer Guide and noted the breweries where beer was brewed to be served through a sparkler to give a thick head and those where it was designed to be served with a smaller southern head. The line across the country followed the SASI map almost exactly. The West Midlands and South Wales were thick head country while Lincolnshire beer, surprisingly, was southern.
Edmund Schluessel did something similar in 2007, with slightly less conclusive results.
Green represents strong (two-sigma) preference for a sparkler, blue represents mild (one-sigma) preference for a sparkler, red represents strong rejection of sparklers, orange represents mild rejection of sparklers, and grey represents insufficient data or a statistical tie. Sheffield University’s north/south line is projected (badly — it should be a little to the left) in black.
When I looked at this, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire brewers were firmly in the ‘sparkler preference’ camp. The reason for the difference over the space of a few years is almost certainly due to the proliferation of small micro-breweries who brew beer they like and often have less reverence for local tradition. For example, you get hoppy English-style ales brewed in Scotland now and some brewers happily make southern-style beers in the north and vice-versa. That’s the point of newcomers, they are supposed to be iconoclastic. Consequently, though, our north-south beer divide is becoming less clear cut.
But enough about beer. What does God say? Well we don’t know but the church formally divided England into north and south in the middle ages and the division survived the Reformation. This is a rather curious split but, once again, my home town finds itself in the north.
As I said to my wife after we were married in a church near where I grew up, “Cost tha see? Tha’s got ‘Province o’ York’ on t’ marriage certificate.”
She’s still getting over it.
The north-south divide is hard to define, then, but most people would agree that it’s there in one form or another. Speech is the most obvious divide but there is some strong evidence of an economic split too. Cultural things like beer and food are less easy to pin down. Perhaps there are some differences in attitude too but good luck with trying to nail that one.
In the end, while all the other stuff is interesting, it’s the economics that will matter. The cultural stuff just reinforces it. If the recession and the public spending cuts are worsening the divide, this is likely to be reflected in how people vote. And that will just dig the trench that bit deeper.