The North-South Cultural Divide
Are you bored stiff of the national press’s attitude towards the North of England? Do you think that it pays scant attention to culture in this part of the world? Northern Soul asked leading artists, playwrights, poets, arts professionals and journalists what they think about the North-South cultural – and media – divide.
Helen Nugent, Editor and Founder of Northern Soul, Freelance Journalist and former Reporter for The Times
“I am more nervous about going to Leeds than I would be going to a war zone…I have never been t’north…I want to wear a flat cap, eat chips with gravy, race a whippet, read Viz and see David Hockney. I want to go to a warehouse rave and walk down a Hovis advert street.”
This article appeared in The Sunday Times. Last year. That’s right, not ten, 20 or 30 years ago but in 2015. Leaving aside the fact that said Hovis ad was filmed in Dorset, it was yet another example of the school of ‘it’s grim up North’ journalism, the same clichés trotted out again and again and again. Lazy writing looking to score a cheap laugh.
I have a sense of humour about being a Northerner, I really do. I love a good ginnel, I adore a chippy tea, and I look forward to seeing the guy with three whippets who walks past my house every day. And, as far as The Sunday Times story goes, maybe there’s a little of the ‘I can be sarky about where I’m from but Southerners can’t’, much in the same way that you’re allowed to be critical of your relatives but nobody outside the family is afforded the same levity.
But, gawd, I’m bored of the national press treating the North of England like a backwater. And I’m sick to death of opening a national newspaper only to find that coverage about the North, if there is any, focuses on crime, poverty and house prices. Even the papers that include positive news and features don’t do it very well. Take for example The Observer. I like this paper. I read it every Sunday. But over the past year, I can count on one hand how many articles written by its arts critic have been about exhibitions outside of London. It’s gotten to the point where I feel cross just opening the New Review section.
Do people in London and, to an extent, the wider South of England, really believe that the North is a cultural desert? One of the reasons I set up Northern Soul was to address the dearth of quality journalism about the North, and the lack of articles about culture in particular. Northern Soul is three years old this Spring. During that time, the North has continued to experience what many commentators describe as a ‘cultural renaissance’, and there has been much debate in the corridors of power about a Northern Powerhouse. I look forward to the day when the London-centric press realise there is more to life than Shoreditch – although I fear that that is as likely as me paying a fiver for a bowl of cereal.
Helen Palmer, Director of Palmer Squared and Creative Tourist
I started my career as a theatre PR in the 90s in regional repertory theatre in Manchester. It was always a hard slog getting national media coverage unless you had a star name in the cast or the show was definitely going into London. Even then, if another theatre in your city managed to secure national media coverage for a show taking place around the same time, you could usually kiss goodbye to getting national coverage.
There is no doubt that culture in the North of England is now receiving more coverage nationally but, and it’s a big but, it is usually focused on the bigger venues or major festivals. It’s still difficult to secure national coverage outside London for cultural activity. When articles do appear, far too often there are references to the geographical distance from London, how long it took the journalist to reach ‘the North’ on the train, or a comment on the weather.
I can’t complain that Manchester has benefited greatly from the increased media attention in recent years, and the repositioning of the city as a cultural destination within national broadsheet and national radio coverage in particular. But make no mistake, those of us working in the cultural sector in the city have worked together for many years behind the scenes to help to make that happen, it’s not just a by-product of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse idea.
Of course what it does mean is that there is a tendency for national media to focus on the launches and re-launches of new and existing cultural venues as well as major events such as the Manchester International Festival. This can often exclude the small and middle-scale work that feeds the creative engine of every city and town. Although that problem is not exclusive to the North, it happens in other parts of the UK and within the outer boroughs of Greater London.
We do need to acknowledge that there has been a positive shift in awareness among the national media to the cultural delights of the North. But we’re still on a journey. We also need to acknowledge that cultural coverage, particularly in national print media, is being squeezed and there is more competition for coverage from within and without the cultural sector. Nevertheless, there are more media channels and we in the cultural sector need to be more creative to make the most of the assets and stories that we generate.
Lynne Bateson, Journalist, originally from Leeds, now living the US
As a former national newspaper journalist, I think it is understandable that newspapers concentrate a little more on the South, since the capital, London, is there. But what is happening now is wholesale neglect of the North and this is worsening.
When national newspapers started culling regional offices to cut costs, the flow to London of both stories and trained Northern journalists with their connections and knowledge started drying up. The decline of local newspapers removed another stepping stone for Northern journalists wanting to learn their craft before moving on to a national.
It’s now harder for Northerners to ‘make the journey’, especially these days when so many have to start by working for peanuts, and unlike their Southern counterparts can’t live with family. Many national journalists have little experience of the North. At least in the old days the National Union of Journalists demanded that reporters do three years in the regions before moving on to a national.
I used to tell interns on the nationals I worked on that only a handful of well-known places such as Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, and Trafalgar Square could be written about without being placed in London. Even The Savoy Hotel needed the word London. After all, my mum used to go to the Savoy. But hers was in Leeds where she played bingo.
I am infuriated when journalists assume readers are familiar with London. Columnists are especially guilty of this. They talk about people who go to Islington dinner parties as a way of describing the chattering class, but Islington, in North London, means nothing to most readers, even those in the South.
Save for the coverage of Northern disasters – and some would argue that they get fewer column inches than Southern ones – the North with its rich culture and special issues features little in national newspaper thinking. But of course it comes in handy as a source of weird and wacky stories.
People here in the US sometimes get muddled and instead of saying England say London. They are not the only ones who need correcting.
Pauline Hadaway, Writer, Researcher and Arts Consultant. Currently Researcher-in-Residence at the National Co-operative Archive, Manchester
Regional artists and arts managers are rightly frustrated by the lack of attention paid by the London-based ‘national’ media to cultural productions in the North. But, by the same token, what does the perennial struggle to get regional work reviewed and profiled in the national press tell us about the scale and quality of arts coverage closer to home? With a few honourable exceptions – and Liverpool and Manchester clearly fare much better in this regard than many other Northern cities – regional newspapers publish any number of advertisements, listings, promotions and celebrity profiles but rarely offer serious critical commentaries and in-depth reviews to their readers.
The demise of the newspaper critic is most likely linked to the broader decline of print journalism and newspaper readership in recent years. The Independent‘s decision two years ago to axe its arts team, including long-standing visual arts and theatre critics, dramatically highlighted a shift away from review-led arts coverage that had been on going on for decades in the regions. Whatever the causes – cost-cutting, the emergence of online publishing or the growth of a more ‘democratised’ culture where people feel ’empowered’ to make up their own minds – the expert authority of the newspaper critic as an arbiter of taste no longer holds sway as it did in the heydays of Kenneth Tynan, Philip French and Pauline Kael.
When writing The Death of the Critic, Ronan McDonald recalls being met with the same gleeful response whenever he told people about the book: “Be sure you put the boot in for me!” But McDonald convincingly argues that the much maligned figure of the public critic has an essential role to play in artistic production, acting as a bridge between artists, cultural organisations and the public at large. In an era where we are too often encouraged to believe that one idea, book, film or play is as good as any other, where can we find the informed, critical voices that challenge our prejudices, provoke debate and provide an antidote to blandness? So, instead of bemoaning the lack of coverage for Northern arts in London-based media, I suggest we Northerners take the lead in pushing for a renaissance of trenchant, critical writing in print and online media so as to produce a new generation of tastemakers, opinion formers and cultural provocateurs.
Cathy Crabb, Playwright and Poet
When you work independently in theatre it is difficult to get noticed by the national press.
And I would say it is probably twice as hard for small-scale work to be seen by reviewers or previewers in London because they tend to be swallowed up by the capital’s main houses. Having said that, I think the way we view the media has changed. When I visit a city I will look on social networks and online to see what is happening and what is recommended.
I remember someone telling me a few years ago that the bar was raised higher for theatre in London. I think that’s an unfair comment. I feel that houses are bigger in the London theatres and therefore production values are higher because they can afford it. There are some great reviewers who can see through that. For me, a big production usually means a tiny person on an overwhelming stage. Not my thing.
In recent years I have ignored the national press. I favour local online opinions. I love the local flavour in a comment on work I can find online or on social networks.
It’s going to take me an awful lot of persuading to pay all that money to get down there and watch something so I am sure the feeling is mutual.
A couple of years back, the actress and writer Cush Jumbo said at the Manchester Theatre Awards that West End actors don’t seek work in the North “because they don’t have the balls”. It does take guts when London is seen as extra special and everywhere else the poor relation.
Sarah Perks, Artistic Director: Visual Art, HOME, Manchester
In Manchester we do some things really well and we should be super proud of this special place. We won’t build our city on comparative reputations with anywhere else, we’ll build it with really great art work and artists – both based here and coming here. Artists, press and audiences will travel to places that are great to visit and are welcoming, confident and open. We can tick those boxes for sure. They’ll come on the reputation built by how we see ourselves, how we respect ourselves and how we conduct ourselves – they will come because all of us care for art.
Manchester has a historic past and an optimistic future, we have an attitude that thrives on positivity, support and being the best we can be and pushing beyond that. It isn’t size that matters but quality, innovation, experimentation and self-belief; we can be realistic and ambitious in equal measure. Moreover, we can reach out and invite people – whether that’s your next door neighbour, local youths, national media or international tourists. Some national press will get it, some won’t. Nevertheless, we should just keep on making and presenting amazing work, inviting lots of journalists from all disciplines, and lots of people. There is so much more to what we do than national press (international press for a start, social media) but of course it’s brilliant if they also contribute to the future of Manchester and engage with us in a critical dialogue.
Richard Dixon, Multimedia Sub Editor, Telegraph Spark (the commercial arm of Telegraph Media Group)
I’m an East London boy with strong connections to the North: my mother was a Mancunian and for three years I was a postgraduate student in Sheffield. I’ve spent nearly all my working life as a journalist on national papers in London.
In my six decades on planet Earth, London has transformed from the war-ravaged centre of a largely dispersed empire into a genuine global city. I’m immensely proud of what it has become.
When I was younger, I had an uncle who was a sub editor on a national paper – the Daily Express – in its sizeable 1960s office in Manchester. As a football-mad lad I visited my grandparents at the remnant of their farm just off the road from the city centre to Oldham. There I’d see the fruits of his and colleagues’ labour with a Northern-produced and heavily editionised paper.
When I worked on sport as a sub at The Daily Telegraph in London in the dying days of hot metal in the mid-1980s, copy was still transmitted to the Manchester office, but Northern outposts of the national press were in decline. The centripetal force driving that process had already been apparent in 1959 when The Manchester Guardian became simply The Guardian and then physically relocated to London in 1964.
I see London as not merely the capital of England and the United Kingdom but culturally a country in its own right: one whose workers and residents, whether native-born or immigrant, have arguably more in common with the inhabitants of other global cities such as New York, Dubai, Lagos and Bombay than smaller centres such as Lincoln, Wigan or Newcastle.
London continues to draw people and concentrate money and power, whatever the increasing pressures on housing and affordability. And journalism tends to reflect those movements. The only notable bucker of these trends is the BBC with its establishment of a large presence, including the sport operation, in Salford.
The reality is that not only the North but all of Britain outside the M25 is under-reported by national news outlets. This is maybe not entirely surprising, given that about a sixth of the UK population lives within the orbital motorway. It could be worse. For example, in Argentina, a vast country that I know a little, about a third of the population and so much of the press, TV and radio, are concentrated in the relatively small area of greater Buenos Aires.
There is little chance that London will be purged of its wicked anti-regionalist ways. The only viable antidote is for the North to rise up – journalistically if not opting for a unilateral declaration of independence – and make sure it writes about itself.
And whether we Borealphiles are enamoured or cynical about George Osborne’s agenda for a Northern Powerhouse, clearly what is needed to improve coverage of the North is a Northern publishing powerhouse or three. More locally produced web-based journalism is the answer. Northern Soul is clearly the way to go.
Wendy Pratt, Poet and Northern Soul’s Poetry Correspondent
Like most struggling writers these days I spend a huge amount of time on Facebook. Social networks make the writing community more tangible. My timeline is filled with what other poets are doing in their day-to-day lives (mostly procrastinating). I have poet friends right across Britain, from tiny Scottish islands to London. I have friends in Wales, Devon and the Midlands. We get everywhere us poets. I’m in rural North Yorkshire.
What I have observed about the poetry community is this: there is an ease and an expectation, almost a culture of entitlement about the South and the cultural events that are happening there. You are never far away from a poetry night or a regular workshop if you are further down than the Midlands. The further North you go, the sparser they become. Manchester and parts of West Yorkshire are an exception. There are so many poetry events happening in Hebden Bridge that audiences have to choose between them on the same night, and of course Manchester has a solid gold crown in the form of Manchester Metropolitan University and its respected English department.
The further North East you go, the fewer and farther afield poetry events become. Newcastle has some fantastic events but compared to Manchester or (and I apologise for clumping the entire South of England into one mass here) ‘the South’, we really are the poor relation. In my neck of the woods we have a couple of poetry festivals including The Bridlington Poetry Festival which is highly regarded and well established. And there are literature events that support poetry too. But on a grass roots level – open mics, regular poetry nights – we’re a bit thin on the ground. Partly that is to do with geography; we’re mostly rural, physically fairly isolated unless you can drive. Train services are great, but expensive.
One of the problems is that we are perceived as having little appreciation for the arts in this part of the country. As a niche arts form, poetry culture seems to be associated with larger concentrations of population and, unless there is a huge footfall for an event, that event is often seen by the media, by other poets even, as insignificant. This leads to the perception that because there are less of us attending events, then poetry is must be less popular here, and because it is less popular we can’t have a very good understanding or an appreciation of culture. But we’re here, we love culture, our theatres are outstanding, and our poets and poetry events are brilliant. There’s just a lot of greenery between them.
Bren O’Callaghan, Independent Producer and Curator
I used to think it would take a generation to nudge out the chief columnists and feature commissioners, that emerging writers and bloggers and web-wizards would soon be leaving home in the regions for the cultural Charybdis that is London – that great, gummy gob, suckling upon a multi-flume water slide of talent gushing from the regions. I was wrong.
Does it matter? I suspect not. There is more value in a nod from an EasyJet in-flight magazine feature than a review in The Indy. Does national press coverage translate to persons through the door, bums on seats? I doubt it. Few of us have the luxury of national or even international appeal. It’s the locals we want to attract, not the Londoners or Milanese. Here is where the true problem lies.
I’m wary that pointing the finger of blame at the London media machine distracts us from the true if well-camouflaged problem at hand. Let’s face it, it really IS who you sleep with, share a flat with, get drunk with, used to work with, that opens doors, and not that well-crafted press release.
And what is up with local audiences? I see an increasing ghettoisation, the same audiences at the same events. I see a lack of self-agency, a grinding halt and reverse-burn in what was once a pursuit to turn over every stone to see what lay beneath. It was a glorious paper chase to pick up a leaflet, pour over noticeboards and pull gig posters from their bronze thumb tacks because we didn’t have a pencil to make a note of the date and location, never mind a pocket HAL 9000. Now we eat Dolmio pasta pots with our mouths agape as we scroll through FB event invites. Going. Not Going. Interested. Wipe bottom. This, almost exclusively, is how we now choose to see what we see.
Instead of blaming an omission of due attention from journalists, let’s ask not what we can do for ourselves, but how we can all support a regional cultural economy by paying more applied attention and diversifying our choices of attendance, instead of falling back upon mashed potato and minced sameness.
Elisa Ruff, Senior Communications & Media Manager in the arts
Before moving up North, I lived in London for five years having re-located from Sweden. During my time in the capital, I worked for a major PR company and, even being based in London, it was tricky to find opportunities with the national media to cover all the exciting projects I was working on.
Little did I know that the real challenges lay ahead. I loved Manchester from the minute I set foot in the city. What a vibrant, creative and quirky place. But it struck me pretty soon that the national press focuses on London. For instance, the majority of reviews in national papers cover exhibitions and shows in London – often leaving little room for events in rest of the UK.
To some extent that is completely natural and understandable; London is not only England’s capital, it has grown to become one of the most significant cultural and financial capitals of the world. Nevertheless, at the same time the North of England has a lot to offer culturally – particularly Manchester, which has firmly established itself as a hotspot on the international arts scene. I think the national media would benefit from wider coverage of cultural happenings across the UK. Our cultural landscape is changing regionally and nationally. It’s vital that this is reflected on a country-wide level.
Liz Gerard, author of the SubScribe blog
North-South divide? Feeling neglected? You Northerners don’t know you’re born. If you want to feel unloved, you should try living in East Anglia.
You have vibrant cultural centres, the Lakes, the Yorkshire dales and moors. And you have roads. If you want to go from Lancaster to Preston, from Manchester to Blackpool, from Liverpool to Leeds, easy peasy. We have flatlands, miles upon miles of sky. Great chunks of our bit of the country are falling into the sea, but nobody cares.
We’re still being punished for getting above our station in medieval times. Now if we want to go anywhere, we have to go to London first. Or make our way along winding roads to the traffic jam that is the A14. You have the M1, M6, M52, M53, M56, M58, M60, M61, M62, M65, M155, even the M621. We have the M11, which starts – you guessed it – in London and ends 55 miles away in Cambridge.
Our inaccessibility doesn’t help our cultural life, either. Talking on 6 Music this week about an upcoming gig at the Norwich Waterfront, Mark Radcliffe said: “I’ve only been to Norwich once…when you’re over here (in Salford), you don’t go over there. It takes about five hours.” So you tend not to see the city with a church for every day of the year listed when big tours are announced. It’s London, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds…The North always features prominently; the East never.
The people who run the country and the people who write about the people who run the country think the world begins and ends in London. Nothing beyond the M25 counts.
It takes ages for the authorities and the media to notice anything beyond their small world. Take the floods before Christmas. Most of England and Wales were subject to flood alerts. But York and Carlisle had to be engulfed, Lancaster deprived of electricity, historic bits of the Lake District destroyed, lives and businesses wrecked, before anyone down South took notice. As I wrote at the time, what if that band of alerts had been moved a tad so that the South-East was threatened?
Hayley-Jane Sims, Arts Writer
Terrible though this admission may be, I don’t have a great awareness of how the national press represents culture in the North. Not because I don’t engage with the national press, it’s just not my go-to place when it comes to consuming cultural information. As far as I’m aware, it doesn’t cover a whole lot of arts in the North of England. Which kinda answers the question.
I don’t need to tell you about the vibrant, varied and all-round awesome cultural output of the North. It’s a big part of why I chose to call Manchester home. Yet undoubtedly there’s a snobbish bias towards London, I guess because the national press pretty much is London, innit.
But no fear, while the national press fawns over the Southern motherland we can rest assured in the knowledge that we’re doing just grand up here. After all, Manchester in particular has been a trailblazer for the cultural zeitgeist time and time again. While the national press may be quick to favour London, they always end up playing catch-up in the end.
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- “We’re a resource for the whole of the North of England.” Kenn Taylor, Lead Cultural Producer North at The British Library North
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