Our Friends In The North

Reading & Writing


Being a Londoner, this blog inevitably gets Londoncentric, but I have a great affinity with the North. Londoners trot out lazy, obvious prejudices about much of the North, forgetting that it was the great Victorian driver of international commerce, through industries like wool, shipbuilding, steel, coal and china. Every major city had grand civic buildings constructed to reveal their social standing to all visitors.

The tragedy is in seeing the squandering of these riches, either through neglect by centralised government, or through the planned obsolescence favoured by Margaret Thatcher. If you want to see some of the wonderful buildings that were lost, check out Gavin Stamp’s astonishing ‘Lost Victorian Britain’.

Northerners, it was noted, were blunt, no-nonsense and honest. They liked their food solid and their homes spotless. They had a dark, dry wit and a natural warmth. They were wealthy and poor and helped each other according to socialist principles. Southerners saw them as shiftless layabouts, thieves, drunks. It didn’t help that Liverpool and Newcastle did little to discourage the stereotypes and turned their cities into bear-pits of cheap booze and bad behaviour.

Northerners have long tempered their humour with a light-hearted attitude to sex, death and illness. Writers like Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood, Bill Tidy, Keith Waterhouse, Peter Tinniswood and David Nobbs have a linguistic adroitness that marries the subjects.

Les Dawson on women: ‘My wife has run off with the man next door. I’ll really miss him.’

Jenny Eclair on booze: ‘Some men are funny about women drinking. If we didn’t get pissed you’d never get a shag.’

Ena Sharples in Coronation Street: ‘Hospitals are always serving boiled fruit. It’s alright for them as like it. Me, I like summat that has looked over a wall.’

Julie Walters on shopping: ‘I’ve scoured this store from top to bottom and can I find a side-winding thermal body-belt? Can I buffalo.’

So, your starter pack on the North should include:

‘Northerners: Portrait of a No-Nonsense People’ by Sefton Samuels

‘The Wit & Widsom of the North’ by Rosemary Jarski

‘Up North: Travels Beyond the Watford Gap’ by Charles Jennings

For reading Northern humour in fiction, try ‘Billy Liar’ by Keith Waterhouse, ‘I Didn’t Know You Cared’ by Peter Tinniswood and ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ by David Nobbs, whose biography ‘I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today’ is a joy.


13 comments on “Our Friends In The North”

  1. Jo W says:

    I read all the books by Peter Tinniswood after his excellent tv series- I didn’t know you cared which starred the great Robin Bailey. His books about cricket,told by the ‘Brigadier’ were even better when read in the voice of Mr.Bailey.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    Or one might try “On Behalf of the Committee: A History of Northern Comedy” by Tony Hannan from which I learned of Burnley’s Bob Nelson and his catchphrase “Aren’t plums cheap?”

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I enjoyed Billy Lair, after that I haven’t dipped into the well of Northern humor. Something to do after XII, I suppose. A stiff upper lip will be needed then when the PCU cat dies, right? Surely it’s no one else, right? Right?

  4. admin says:

    Nice try, Dan. *crosses arms, goes all mute*

  5. Vivienne says:

    I’i am walking round the coast and have done the North East. Waiting at a bus stop in Blythe I voted that town as having the worst complexions: a combination of booze, fags, fry-ups probably and the wind from the North sea. One lad also had scars and new cuts on his face and head but then, on the bus, asked me very politely if I could help him find his way to where he was going for an interview, so bang went that stereotype. My dad comes from Newcastle but left in the 30s, although not marching from Jarrow. Don’t think I can qualify as a northerner for that though.

  6. Paul Graham says:

    May I recommend Alan Plater’s the “Beiderbeck Trilogy”? Also am I wrong or was there not a reference in one of the earlier B&M novels (the Water Room?) that there was a Home Office interest in setting up regional versions of the Peculiar Crimes Unit? Hailing from Salford that made me wonder what would be the Mancunian versions of B&M?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Now there’s a thought, Paul. I accepted this North vs London thing until I experienced the actual distances/time involved in the travel. I realize the mental sets were in place for hundreds of years and if you think “I’ve no reason to go there” and don’t, those images will stay in place. There are so many reasons to see the UK – beautiful views, art collections, music of all sorts, great walks, just meeting people – that I really wonder at the way people think of “The North” without ever experiencing it. I understand the desire to go to the sun if you have only the one two/three week holiday, but even long weekends could take you anywhere for a couple of days. We do the same sort of thing but even with the most generous interpretation of “North” you’re talking two days hard driving at highway speeds (90-100kph) or a flight by local airline to get there so there’s a little more reason behind it.

  8. snowy says:

    Just a quickie, some people might remember a TV series called ‘Brass’, which took all the t’Northern cliches and wove them into a finely engineered comedy.

    Timothy West has some great lines, delivered absolutely dead straight. The clip above is too short to get the full measure of the piece, but was the best I could find.

  9. Ian Smith says:

    Well, I can’t comment on behalf of Liverpool, but I think it’s unfairly simplistic and stereotypical to describe Newcastle-upon-Tyne (where I lived for three extremely happy years of my life) as a ‘bearpit of cheap booze and bad behaviour’. Sure it has Bigg Market, where a horde of tacky pubs and nightclubs make a fortune from the stag parties and hen parties that flood in every weekend from all around the UK — but that’s a niche market that’s also been cornered by the more supposedly upmarket cities of Edinburgh and Dublin.

    You can avoid Bigg Market and enjoy a social life elsewhere in central Newcastle that feels a million miles away from the stag / hen weekend mayhem going on there. In pubs as varied as the Trent, Trillion’s Rock Bar, the lovely old Bodega… Not to mention the wonderful Ouseburn area a little way along the Tyne, where you have the Tyne Bar, the Fair Trade and the Cumberland Arms almost next door to one another.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    I live (and have done for more than ten years) in the north. The north west indeed where there is very little and you can see Scotland from the beaches across the suspicious foam produced anywhere near to Sellafield. My daughters are northerners though the eldest refuses to gather in the local accent and seems to think of herself as still being basically from Lambeth. It’s beautiful, and the awful gather in a few depressed coastal towns.

    Northerners are friendly. The cliche is the cliche because it is true. They don’t walk around looking at their shoes with faces on like they’re walking in piss, which is common in certain capital cities. They say hello, they will help out a stranger without thinking for a moment that is odd. When a friend of mine came up to visit and complained bitterly in the pub that it was so primitive hereabouts that ‘they clearly hadn’t heard of mobiles’ (as he couldn’t get a call out on his iPhone) the locals rather than punching him for slagging off their town handed him their own phones so he could make the call.

    There is a granduer to the landscape. The fells and the mountains, the lakes and the wild sweeps. Something you don’t get down south where everywhere seems flat and the horizon the next line of trees. The libraries are pretty good and they’re always well occupied when I’m there, which is often. The art centre in town is excellent. But this is Cockermouth where all the readers in Cumbria live.

    The cities are the same as any other city. Get a scouser* or a Mancunian* talking about their city and like Londonders they will see it as the best place to be, will barely leave, will scoff at any other city though they all say much the same thing. My girlfriend is from Liverpool and there are still folk there that think she’s betrayed them for moving all the way across the river and into the foreign lands of the Wirrel.

    Also, y’know, my local does beer at 2.80 a pint, pool is 50p a game and the juke box is free.

    And I’ve never heard anyone up here slag off the south, London or anywhere else. I’ve not heard any common prejudices or hilarious observations that immediately come up when I open my mouth and thereby announce to all that I’m not from around here. Indeed, the subject just never comes up. The same cannot be said of people down south who seem ingrained to belittle the north and would petition their MP to move the Lakes to somewhere more properly sited if such were possible – Devon, ideally.

    But it’s still a foreign land. And the moment my eldest is between schools then the summer before she starts secondary education and we’re out of here! Because it’s never been home. Whereupon if I mention where I’ve been then from some there’ll be sniggers, and rat-like there will be mocking and badly portrayed accents that never quite come from anywhere in particular. I suppose the north doesn’t know it’s meant to be grim, and dark, and primitive and just not clever and twitchy enough – and that’s probably not right. After all what’s the point of the south knowing it’s far better than the north if the north doesn’t care what the south thinks? Or even thinks about the south much at all, though it might do when it grows up a bit.

    *Make sure when speaking to anyone from Liverpool or Manchester to make sure that they know that they’re not northerners, but from the midlands. They love that.

  11. Alan Morgan says:

    Sorry about the rant…

  12. Dan Terrell says:

    Admin- When I read that unusual defense in Bleeding Heart, which I’m taking slowly for obvious reasons, I immediately thought: “Ah! The King Tut Defense” which is – if I remember correctly what Tom Crumb – goes off and does after receiving a sudden royal chewing out from Henry the VIII in Bringing Up The Bodies.
    Okay, now seriously, if it isn’t Crippen – who just dramatically subdivided – then surely it must be Alma Sorrowbridge. And Bryant moves in with May, which raises all kinds of tensions that threaten the normally “smooth” running of the PCU, yes?
    (Remember, a bit of the True Cross – mentioned in the present book – can ward off evil and raise the dead. Just a thought for the future. Hint, hint.)

  13. Dan Terrell says:

    Overlook that first sentence. A major hash up there. Hit leave comment button without editing in order to race off for appointment. Gurrr.

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