Where is the North of England? A Few Thoughts on Imagined Landscapes


It was recently highlighted in the the Guardian that the government, especialy the people charged with developing ‘the Northern Powerhouse’, had little idea where the north of England was. This comes as no surprise as the north is an astonishing jumble of ill-defined geographical and imaginary borders. Defining these borders has stimulated academic debate. The works of Helen Jewell, The North-South Divide. The Origins of Northern Consciousness in England (Manchester, 1994); Dave Russell, Looking North: Northern England and The National Imagination (Manchester,2000); Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing “The North”: space and a sense of place,’ in, Neville Kirk (Ed.), Northern Identities, Historical Interpretations of ‘The North’ and Northernness (Aldershot, 2000); Graham Turner, The North Country (London, 1967) and Katie Wales, Northern English: A Social and Cultural History (Cambridge, 2006), have all added to the ongoing argument.

Stuart Rawnsley argued that Northern identities brought out a greater sense of collective identity than any other ‘region’ in the country.[1] ‘For those in the country that had their identities constructed elsewhere, it provoked feelings of derision and rejection. The north expressed a sense of ‘otherness’ that became an object of desire and ridicule.[2] The north is a ‘reified landscape which encapsulates various rhetorical interpretations of the past and present, of classes and cultures.’[3] For Katie Wales, Edward Said’s analysis of orientalism, based on an East-West divide, is relevant for a study of northern working-class cultural identity.[4] Orientalism, for Said, created the other: constructing fictions and myths, expressing notions of power and superiority.[5] ‘As a constructed discourse the north cannot exist without the ‘other’ polarity… and it breeds its own imaginative geography’.[6] Persistent mythologies and stereotypes are a result of this. These images stood for the whole, but also concealed the true nature of cultural languages.[7] Mythologies and stereotypes became an agency that constructed a collective memory of place. Working people owned a selection of identities, not necessarily of class, but of neighbourhood, workplace, town, region, religion and nation. This involved shared perspectives with people from other social groups.[8]

My own research on brass bands argues that the cliché of a musical working-class identity emerged from an invention of ‘northernness’ that was created by middle-class observers in the Victorian press. This was an invention that largely ignored the fact that brass bands were a national movement. Indeed this phenomenon was centred in the Southern Pennines, the key area of wool and cotton weaving at the time. No wonder brass bands are considered Northern and industrial.

Peter Taylor maintains that there remains a firmly established tradition as seeing the north and the south as two different countries within the same country.[9] George Orwell’s regularly quoted line from The Road to Wigan Pier, ‘when you go into the industrial north you are entering a strange country,’ served only to highlight northern and southern metaphors. Heavily stereotyped in the media, northern stereotypes acted as metonyms for cultural images, advertising, cartoons and jokes were of:’ slag-heaps, flat caps, whippets, brown ale, headscarves, factory chimneys, brass bands, ‘poor,’ ‘ hard,’ ‘ friendly,’ and so on.[11] These images juxtaposed southern images of ‘bowler hat, thatched cottages, luncheon, village green, intelligent, ambitious, well off, and so on.’[12] Northern identities-constructed as the other- were enhanced in a world of labour that reinforced sense of neighbourhood and community. These vastly different images fed into the construction of the northerner, in particular, the working-class northerner. ‘In which the qualities of independence, dignity of labour and solidarity, both at work and in the community were key components.’[13]

Layerings of stereotypical images of the north did not only concentrate on the industrial heartlands. The countryside became a signifier of northern cultural heritage: a cultural heritage that signified a wholesome, decent, north. Evoking a certain set of images of the north, railway companies used the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, the Northumberland Coast and the East Coast of Yorkshire to produce a space-discipline in their guides. In which a region became constructed using the picturesque, the sublime or the beautiful. The iconography of ruined monasteries, lonesome moorland, fresh air and exercise dominate these images: excluding industry and labour.[14] Recently new images have gained dominance in the tourist industry, which produced a new imagined map of Britain: ‘‘Catherine Cookson Country;’ Heartbeat Country’;’ ‘James Herriot’s Yorkshire;’ ‘Bronte Country’ and so on.[15] For the transference of the brass band’s image of working-class dignity of labour, for example, the railway’s ‘sensuous geography of the north’ is important.[16] The new speed of travel that the railway created strengthened the differences between regions, reinforcing features of the northern sense of place in the nineteenth century.[17]

In spite of this stressing of the picturesque, of a rugged ‘big country’, the industrial north became a new centre for the heritage industry. Austin Mitchell summed up the influence of working-class life in the heritage industry, when he said the north was a living industrial museum.[18]Rooted in a longing to relive a traditional way of life, the industrial north is lived through sites such as the Beamish Open Air Museum, the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre, Manchester’s People’s Museum and The National Coal Mining Museum. The north did not have its own sovereignty, or autonomy, from government control, but it did have cultural potential for independence. The north was the ‘other’ that defined its own tradition of difference.[19]

The north, then, is as much a state of mind as a place. It is no wonder the borders and imagined landscapes are hard to define.

[1] Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing ‘The North’: space and a sense of place,’ in, Neville Kirk (ed.), Northern Identities, Historical Interpretations of ‘The North’ and Northernness (Aldershot, 2000), p. 3.

[2] H. Bhaba, ‘The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse,’ Screen, 24/6/1983, cited in, P. Mongia, (ed.), Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, cited in, Katie Wales,   North and South: A Linguistic Divide? Inaugural Lecture, June 10, 1999, University of Leeds, < www.leeds.ac.uk/reporter/439/kwales.htm>, accessed 8 Febuary 2010, p. 2.

[3] Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing ‘ The North’: space and a sense of place,’ p. 3.

[4] Katie Wales, North and South: A Linguistic Divide, p. 2.

[5] Edward Said, Orientalism, ( London, 1978), cited in, P. Mongia, pp. 20-36, cited in, Katie Wales, North and South: A Linguistic Divide, p. 2.

[6] Katie Wales, North and South: A Linguistic Divide, p. 2.

[7] Katie Wales, North and South: A Linguistic Divide, p. 2.

[8] Patrick Joyce, Visions of the People Industrial England and the Question of Class 1848-1914 (Cambridge, 1991)

[9] Peter J. Taylor, ‘The meaning of the North: England’s ‘foreign country within’ within?’ Political Geography, 12/2 (March 1993), p. 146.

[10] Peter J. Taylor, ‘The meaning of the North: England’s ‘foreign country within’ within?’ p. 146.

[11] Katie Wales, North and South: A Linguistic Divide, p. 2.

[12] Katie Wales, North and South: A Linguistic Divide, p. 2.

[13] Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing ‘ The North’: space and a sense of place,’ p. 8.

[14] Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing ‘The North’: space and a sense of place,’ p. 9.

[15] Katie Wales, North and South: A Linguistic Divide, p. 3.

[16] Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing ‘The North’: space and a sense of place,’ p. 10.

[17] Stuart Rawnsley, ‘Constructing ‘The North’: space and a sense of place,’ p. 9.

[18] F. Robinson, ‘Two Faces of the North East’, Business (April 1990), p. 119.

[19] Peter J. Taylor, ‘The meaning of the North: England’s ‘foreign country within’ within?’ p. 146.

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