Northern Soul

Does the North – South divide manifest itself within our culture? 

There is really nothing more integral to the cultural identity of a place than its cities. Every city has something new to offer, its own character and personality. Yet there is always the default, the capital city, which tends to spring to mind. Nowhere is this clearer than in the divide between the South, more specifically London, and Northern cities.

Walking around Newcastle’s Baltic museum the other day, admiring the incredible views of the Tyne Bridge as well as staring bemusedly at a Modern Art installation which from what I could make out consisted of a white stone and a dilapidated chair, it struck me that London, and more widely the South’s, seemingly natural place as the default place for arts and culture in this country must inevitably have a knock on effect in the perception of the cultural output of other cities. If London is going to get everything first, how can works of art or cultural events make the same impact when they arrive up North? And will they even get there?

The Lindisfarne Gospels, currently housed in Durham Cathedral. Photo: ITV News
The Lindisfarne Gospels, currently housed in Durham Cathedral. Photo: ITV News

This debate has become more significant since the exhibiting this Summer of the 1,300 year old Lindisfarne gospels, who have been transported from their home in The British Library to an exhibition space at Durham Cathedral. Though lent on a short term basis, there has been call for the gospels to stay in Durham after the exhibition is set to end in September.  It has after all, nearly sold out in its three months there.

It is said that the gospels will gain more spiritual significance at Durham, rather than gathering dust in an obscure corner of the British library. This is where the location of culture surely takes precedence. The impressive turrets of Durham certainly seem like the appropriate location for such an object, but its standing outside of the default setting of London renders it in some ways irrelevant, despite its mastery.

You cannot help but wonder if it’s some sort of cultural dysphoria at work here. A fear in some ways of the ‘other.’ For a start, it is undeniable that the Northern side of our country typically gets a fair amount of stick. With shows such as Geordie Shore depicting the North as a lethal cocktail of cheap alcohol and fake tan, it doesn’t really get the chance to show itself in a decent light. A constant tirade of tired and belligerent pasty jokes doesn’t exactly help its situation either. But to say that the culture we experience in London does not exist in the Northern parts of England appears so ridiculous that it needs some desperate correcting.

For Londoners especially, there can often be an undeniable sense that the South is the default, whilst the North is undoubtedly a voyage to the unknown. Let me conduct something approaching a crude social experiment here, if I asked you to name as many famed cultural spots or associations in the North, how many could you think of? And before you ask, Greggs doesn’t count (although it has to be admired in all its glory).

One way in which this age old stereotypical parallel manifests itself is the feigned and assumed cultural identity of Northern cities against the South. With comedians for instance, if their accents derive from anywhere North of the Midlands it is expected that their jokes will make some reference to this, their content may even be shaped by it.

A Glaswegian or Newcastle based comedian will inevitably make some sort of joke pertaining to ‘Its grim up North’ something us Southerners inevitably find endlessly amusing, whilst we sit our £5 drinks in our stalls seats of the Hammersmith Apollo. Whilst a Southern comedian, often equipped with a voice that a BBC newsreader would be proud of, typically makes no reference to their hometown, as after all, that’s not the funny part, it’s not expected to be, so why is it different for the Northern contingent?

A snubby nosed Southerner (bowler hat and cane optional) might look at Northern cities with some disdain, or at least a degree of misunderstanding. What can the North offer us that London can’t? It seems we have everything here, more museums that you can shake your Saville Row cane at. We have some of the most impressive artistic displays, and everything flows through here, your favourite band is guaranteed to grace one of London’s stages at least once in their career.

Samuel Johnson was probably right when he quipped that ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. It might even have been what brought you to Mile End or Whitechapel, with a thirst for culture and a blasé attitude to the anonymity that comes with living in this city, something quite unlike anywhere else.  But it’s important to remember but it’s not the be all and end all.

Showcasing art inevitably comes with a different context in the North. With London, you expect the typical legions of schoolchildren and tourists, often on the well beaten trail between Stratford Upon Avon, Oxford and London. The North comes no way near to path, and its cultural output appears to serve another purpose – that of enhancing the reputations and standings of their cities. That is not to downgrade its influence in any sense, making the setting of its cultural appear even more significant and giving it a chance to develop its influences outside the tight, impatient and saturated constraints of London.

There are many cultural points of interest within Northern cities that go relatively unnoticed, when fighting to contest against cultural landmark super powers such as the Houses Of Parliament and Big Ben. Liverpool for instance, was awarded the title of ‘City of Culture’ in 2008, with a rich heritage of a certain vaguely known 60’s band as well as the Tate Liverpool, which has run exhibitions on the legacy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in the past and is now the host of a long running exhibition on Chagall.  Manchester unsurprisingly follows suit, with the recent Manchester festival debuting Kenneth Branagh’s production of Macbeth, something you might typically expect to be resulting in long ticket queues in an old London theatre rather than a contemporary celebration of Manchester’s extensive cultural scene.

Crowds watching Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth in Manchester this Summer. Photo: Manchester Evening News.
Crowds watch Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth in Manchester via a big screen. Photo: Manchester Evening News.

It really goes to show, culture doesn’t end at London. You can’t help but hope that Durham continues the fight to keep the Lindisfarne gospels, its location bringing a certain atmosphere to the scriptures, something not even the most high tech and heavily advertised London exhibition could contend with. Of course, the capital city is undeniably the central place for cultural identity and the main reception point of art, but spare a thought for the North, who have to work extra hard to break away from their stereotypical reputations in the pursuit of culture.

So when you ask yourself what up North can offer you in terms of culture and art, the answer is, a transformed context and identity that often allows art pieces to be seen from the context of what it is rather than where it is, and to allow for the different experiences that set themselves apart from the uniform and anonymous atmosphere of London. It’s really not that grim up North after all.

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