On Paul Morley’s ‘Nothing’; a.k.a North/South Divide (Radio 3, August 2000)


This is the transcription of a talk about the North/South divide, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 (01/08/2000)

There are big themes in twenty-first century British society; globalisation, the changes in work patterns and the effects of digital innovation. There’s also a growing disjunction between the world portrayed in the media and life as it’s experienced in daily life. Paradoxically, as the digital age – email, cable and so on – seems be promising us a global future, the media world is progressively, it seems, shrinking. For whatever reason, the agenda of public discourse seems to focus on fewer and fewer people; mainly on just the life and opinions of certain Westminster-based politicians, and various showbusiness figures. Normal, mundane life is ignored or even reviled as the media continues its relentless search for things new, sensational, sexy, photo-friendly. It’s as if real life just isn’t interesting anymore. I think this fear of marginalisation is more keenly felt in you live outside London.

Earlier this year I read ‘Nothing’ by Paul Morley, a book about the suicide of his father twenty three years ago. The book is actually very funny in parts, despite the subject matter; Morley has an ongoing anxiety about his trousers and his hair cut, and one or two comic encounters with mini cab drivers. He admits he hardly really knew his father – he was twenty years old when his father died – but portrays him as a man prone to brooding silences, a bit semi detached.

‘Nothing’ is mostly a dark book, and one of the striking ways Paul Morley conjures the darkness is through the role of Stockport. Stockport was where Paul Morley grew up, with his father and the rest of the family, a town to the north of the Derbyshire moors, just south of Manchester, a separate town with a distinct identity, although physically now more or less joined. In the book Morley speculates how living in Stockport impacted on his father and the family, and clearly believes it had nothing but a negative influence.

Paul’s father grew up in Margate in Kent. The family moved up North when Paul was three or four, lived in various houses, always on the move to different parts of Stockport. Paul has a theory about this; ‘I think the reason we moved so many times within Stockport was always as part of some scheme to improve ourselves,’, he says, ‘To get on, to keep up, to solve problems… to rescue us.’

The 1960’s passed Stockport by, says Morley and afforded no liberation. It was a place that plodded, he says; ‘That would never swing, that dribbled with spare everydayness’. There was one event in the Sixties, however, that did impact on the family; the Moors Murders. In October 1965 two bodies were found on Saddleworth Moor. The trial of Brady and Hindley revealed that the couple had kidnapped, tortured and killed five young children in all. The Moors themselves were close, hanging over Stockport, glowering and hostile. Morley uses phrases like ‘brooding’, ‘moody’ to describe them. He calls them ‘immense lumps of grainy anxiety’. Set in this landscape, Stockport was no oasis of light and calm. A mainly working class town, very hilly, featuring the far from glitzy, very concrete, very damp concrete Mersey Shopping Centre.

The power of this environment looms large in the book; the Moors above Stockport, and the narrow streets and sunken valleys in the town wielding a powerful, controlling influence. You can feel the landscape pressing down on Paul’s father, as his destiny unfolds and his escape routes close off.

But the life and death of Paul’s father wasn’t just about just a place, but a time too. The 1970’s is a decade portrayed on themed Saturday night TV as a fiesta of colourful fashions, Abba, good times, flares, and platform boots, but it was, in truth, a dark, aggressive decade, the decade when the optimism of the Sixties died; there was overt racism, problems with housing surfaced, unemployment rose, and poverty was increasing at a rate not seen since the 1930’s. And, as in the 1930’s, the North of England was hardest hit.

In his book, Paul Morley imagines how changing his environment effected his father, his move from the South, the Kent coast, to the North; ‘It must have been like the difference between black and white and colour. Like going back in time. In Margate the roads all sloped down to possibility, to the sea, and the exotic ends of the earth. In Stockport all the roads sloped down to the Mersey Shopping Centre, where sand had been mixed into concrete, where nature had been flattened.’

From the early 1970’s Paul Morley’s father began to suffer severe depression. He would go missing. Paul and the rest of the family had to learn to cope with these disappearances. The little breaks, escapes, would invariably take the form of trips down South; his father would just get in the car alone and drive. South. At some point his resolve or his money would run out and he’d phone home.

A polarity is set up in the book, the North South divide. The North South divide is something we hear about so often it’s almost embarrassing. It’s an old division; as old as the ice age. All those millions of years ago, huge glacial erosion tore out the mountains of Wales, Scotland and Northern England, while, beyond the reach of the ice flow, the gentler slopes of Southern England were caressed by streams and friendly rivers.

The big economic divide in England between the North and the South is talked about so often it’s taken for granted, a blight that can’t be put right. It’s accepted; as if government policy to reverse the widening of the gap is as likely to succeed as a policy to reverse the ice flow would have been.

The North South divide is a big split, but it’s not the only division in the country. England is a thousand-piece jigsaw of traditional rivalries. Like Manchester versus Liverpool, Wigan versus Leigh. To some people in South Manchester, North Manchester is a world away. England is riven with tribalism like this but we tend to underplay the conflicts in our history. We pretend there’s consensus, and community, but our history is full of civil war, and local battles.

Views of Englishness seem to be afraid of allowing this complexity or conflict into our definition of who we are. There are two prevailing definitions of Englishness; one is a London-centric definition focussing on where the power is, the money, the royal family, which excludes all of us who don’t live in London. And the other way of summoning up real England is a rural definition incorporating Tudor houses, and the gentle slopes and rolling green countryside of the South. Eithger way, always, English identity means the South of England; the Northern industrial towns and cities just don’t fit in.

The reasons for this exclusion go back to the birth of the industrial age, and the sudden expansion of the big industrial northern cities, so different to what had gone before in England, a different kind of life. In 1830 it took four and half days by carriage to get to London from Manchester. You can imagine the effect on the psychology of the citizens of Manchester, to be that far from the capital, the legislators, the centre of political power.

Back then commentators like Thomas Carlyle journeyed to cities like Manchester, portraying them as new, grim, and dangerous; the citizenry were feared, even sub-human. In the early nineteenth century political leaders in London treated the working people of Manchester like natives in an Empire colony, sending troops to quell strikes and radical demonstrations.

The workers in the new industrial cities were making a major contribution to England’s wealth and power. The migrant labour force were the powerhouse of the nation, and yet their value seemed negligible, to the powers-that-be down South.

Fighting this marginalisation, Manchester became the home of political struggle. As the local people demonstrated for voting rights at Peterloo, the authorities sent in the cavalry. When workers left their factories and mills to demonstrate for better working conditions and met in Granby Fields, the authorities sent in the artillery equipped with two six pounder cannons.

The North came to have a symbolic meaning, a meaning defined by what it wasn’t; it wasn’t London, it wasn’t rolling green countryside, it wasn’t England because the North wasn’t the South. The North stood for noisy urban life, aggressive working class communities, belching chimneys set in a glowering landscape. The South stood for real England.

At the time, Manchester was one of the richest places in the world. It was divided. On the one hand there were the workers in the factories and mills and warehouses, and, on the other, millionaire cotton magnates. But despite the contribution of the masses, and the immense wealth of a chosen few, power continued to reside down South.

If at this point in our history political power had been transferred up North and Manchester had become England’s capital, then the tourist trail now would be different; the gleaming spires of Oxford would have been replaced by the belching chimneys of Burnley. The North would be typical, the South would be strange, uncharted territory. The media would be less surprised when they hear there’s a fantastic photography museum in Bradford, a Tate Gallery in Liverpool, or the best music scene in England in Manchester.

Scottish devolution might never have happened. Scotland has a great deal of history in common with the North of England. Thousands of Scots moved to Manchester during the industrial revolution. Scottish engineers, also, brought technical and entrepreneurial skills to the North of England.

The human traffic was two way. Thomas De Quincey, the writer and essayist grew up in Manchester, but stayed frequently in Edinburgh and Glasgow. His financial affairs were often a wreck, and he was forever buying goods and services without paying for them. At one of his first trips to Edinburgh it was recalled that all through dinner one evening he swallowed opium pills he had brought to the table in snuff boxes.

Perhaps if Manchester had dragged the balance of power North back in the glory of days of industrial expansion, then tourists would now forsake London, and come and see for themselves where De Quincey discovered opium and learned to dodge the debt collectors.

The strongest bonds between Scotland and the North of England have been forged by the industrial working class cities; Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, all away from the centre of political power, suffering slumps together, begging togther for subsidies and handouts. And in more recent years, those cities have all attempted to create a new image and make a new start.

Moves towards asserting Scottish identity, celebrating Scotland’s geographical and emotional distance from Englishness leaves the relationship between Scotland and the North of England skewed. Equally economically and socially distant from London, where does this leave the North of England, as the symbols of Englishness remain down South, and the North is still treated like a distant outpost on the fringe of real England.

You sense the authorities have tried to keep the North out of sight and out of mind since the Industrial Revolution. They’ve not always used six pounder cannons, but you can sense their hostility even during the post industrial era. I always thought there was something about Mrs Thatcher’s cold-hearted dislike of the mining industry and the northern steel workers that sprang not from political ideology but just because she saw them as untidy, coarse, noisy, and Northern . There was something about her that led me to believe her restructuring of the economy was really about tidying up the soot, coal dust, grime and replacing those grimy people with men and women in nice suits sending clean and tidy emails and faxes to each other in pristine office blocks.

When her minister Norman Tebbit told the unemployed to get on their bike and find work, what he was saying, in effect, was ‘move south’, escape.

As it turns out, there has been a drift from the North in the 1990’s to the South of England as families search for better opportunities. Liverpool has lost a quarter of its population in the last 25 years, leaving empty properties, damaged communities.

Unemployment in the Northern cities runs at two or three times the level of most towns in the South. The divide is about jobs, opportunities. A lack of them.

There’s a wealth disparity. In Surrey average household income is 30,000 pounds; in Tyne & Wear it’s 17,500 pounds in Bootle on Merseyside it’s 7,500 pounds.

In a recent survey, four out of the worst five factories sending carbon monoxide and a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals into the air were in the North West. Life expectancy in cities like Manchester is demonstrably less than in more prosperous areas of the country.

The North South divide is undeniable. As a generalisation it works, it holds true. You can try to pick holes in it, point to pockets of affluence in the North and areas of deprivation in the South, but the generalisation still holds an undeniable truth; there’s still a fundamental imbalance in the economies of the two halves of England.

Of course there has been something of a revival in Manchester and Leeds. Life in the big northern cities is not one dimensional, unremitting disaster. In fact, within Manchester things aren’t much different to the days when the working poor and cotton barons shared the city. It’s still divided. In fact Manchester provides an exemplar of urban living that’s all too familiar in modern Britain; on the one hand huge investment is being made in new shopping malls, sporting stadia, and concert halls, whilst a large proportion of the population live in struggling poverty. There are areas of dereliction surrounding zones of revival.

But there’s now psychological rather than political disorder. Manchester Mental Health Authority prescribes more tranquillisers per head than any other in the UK. The professional view is that there are considerable areas of deprivation and unemployment in the authority’s area which contribute largely to mental health disorders. Manchester also has the UK’s highest suicide rate.

But it’s too neat to think of the divide as just a line on the map. Environment can alter mood. but it doesn’t have the controlling influence. What lies behind this sense of exclusion is being out of reach of power. Any geographical distance from the centre of power, London, is intensified by the effect of economics.

In the 1960’s the North and the South had never had it so good, but when Paul Morley, his father, and the Morley family moved North they couldn’t have chosen a worse time. As the economy contracted in the 1970’s full employment died out and the North became a narrowing, disillusioning place, gone were the high hopes.

Identities and personalities aren’t created by geography. Circumstances can be transformed, on drugs you can escape for a few hours, taking the car down South you can disappear for a weekend, you can jet off to lose yourself in Ibiza for a week, but long term you can only can break away, and triumph over the your place and your time if you have the tools, the opportunities.

Without opportunities, you’re left instead with pure determination. Manchester, in some senses has become an alternative capital; a second city like Barcelona, Sydney, or New York, boosted by creative independence, but even then, for a city now renowned for ideas and creativity, there is no infrastructure to broadcast them. The concentration of the media in London unbalances England, and the South continues to hold all the prime symbols of our national identity, and the power.

In the film ‘Naked’ directed by Mike Leigh, a young man from Manchester steals a car, escapes from the North and goes to London. There he finds wastelands, inner city decay, empty office blocks, recession. The streets are not paved with gold. Buzzing with half mad philosophy and badly directed bouts of insight, he remains a frustrated outsider in his new city, relocated but still dislocated.

In the late 1990’s Paul Morley takes a journey from London Paddington to Gloucester via Swindon. It’s raining hard. He takes a mini cab ride to where his father killed himself in June 1977, a small gap near a lay-by on a road between Cheltenham and Gloucester. All those years before once again his father had driven South; this time he’d parked up his sky blue Ford Escort van and poisoned himself with carbon monoxide fumes.

Paul Morley has developed the North South divide so that it has a symbolic power in the book. But the North South divide is also real and a blight. It’s symbolic value is that it reminds us of what divides our country. It’s more than a line on a map, it’s about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about trying to keep your head together, hemmed in by valleys and low expectations.

Exclusion remains a fact wherever you draw the line on the map. The Manic Street Preachers grew up in some poxy place in the valleys of South Wales; they surrounded themselves with books, music, ideas and they ended up expressing themselves with such passion, and wit, and anger. Despite not having much going for them, they formed a band and had some success. Then one of the group disappeared, and perhaps drowned himself, although no evidence has ever been found. The others went on to make some of the best rock records of the 1990’s.

The South contains the symbols of England’s identity; the North, the symbols of England’s struggle. In a clear, geographical way, the North stands for this distance from power, the predicament of all the communities that are marginalised, out of reach of opportunity. Without opportunity and hope, there’s no escape.

Paul Morley, on his personal quest, leaves the spot where his father died. He walks through Gloucester to the Crematorium to find a plaque on the wall. It’s still raining. He imagines his father’s endless struggle to escape, to rescue himself. He’d been taking those trips down South, but to no avail. It wasn’t just about a line on a map, it was about power and control and isolation. Paul walks through the rain drenched Gloucester streets; ‘Gloucester,’ he writes, ‘Seems like a cracked reflection of Stockport, and my father, after all that, didn’t escape as far as he hoped. He swapped one insignificant town trapped in time and timelessness for another. In a way he proved that he was right all along to think that, whatever you do, there is no way out. Everything and everywhere is the same.’