Monday, 28 April 2014

THE MIDLANDS

I recently read Bang in the Middle, a jovial book about the Midlands by a colleague of mine, Robert Shore. I would like to think I'd have read it anyway, as he's a good writer and it's a subject I'd like to think I'm interested in; in the advent two very clear reasons for my reading it were 1) he gave me a free copy because 2) he interviewed me for it and my name's in the credits and a few things I said about Birmingham are in there, albeit attributed to somebody else (for sound literary reasons, alas).

I enjoyed it, because it was funny, and had lots of facts, and I really like facts. But there was something more to it... it stirred a sense of I don't know... regionalist fervour? I think the book makes case for not only the injustice of received wisdoms about the 'north-south divide', but also the fact there's something quite insidious about it. Essentially I think he makes a pretty good case for saying 'the north' is a sort of oppositional construct, largely propagated by the peoples of Yorkshire and Lancashire, generally used as a badge of pride and means of suggesting that people from elsewhere are inferior. 

The thing is, nobody actually calls themselves 'a southerner', or if they do it's purely a geographical reference, it has nothing to do with cultural identity. They might call themselves a Londoner, which I think is what northern patriots really mean when they're talking about the south, but I do feel like the dichotomy isn't so much based on simplification as a sort of willful dismissal of the rest of the country that's actually quite callous. Talking about a 'north-south' divide implicitly denies the importance of not only the Midlands, but also the South East (it was interesting that the first comment on a Guardian article about Cornwall's recently granted minority status dismissively stated 'Many other places in the UK are far more qualified by the criteria you set out here. Yorkshire just for one' - a statement that, at the very least, blithely dismissed Cornwall's manifestly distinct and rich heritage as an irrelevance); the fens; a lot of places that you don't really mean when you say 'the south', depending upon how much you want to subdivide. I don't necessarily mean this to be a grumble about 'northerners', but I think 'southerners' tend not to think about the other peoples of these isles very much, while 'northerners' think about 'southerners' quite a lot. (I suppose there's an irony to the fact that the things people in Manchester don't like about London are probably the same things people in London don't like about London).

Am I going anywhere with this? Not really: I think having read the book I then got sensitive to a couple of southerner baiting comments made on Facebook and Buzzfeed, because they seemed so inherently crudely dismissive of where I'm from (as well as I guess Bristol). I think where once I accepted the north-south divide as a misunderstanding, now I've come to view it as quite an unpleasant thing and - and you can tell this to the king of the north and the queen of the south - I SHALL NO LONGER BE SUBSCRIBING TO IT.

I realise I've not really made a rousing defense of the Midlands' validity here, partly because you should totally check out Roberts' book, partly because much as the Midlands has many wonderful things going for it (Shakespeare, industrial revolution, landscapes, that red panda) its validity isn't a question of achievements - it should be viewed as valid because people live in it, and because it exists.

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