I’ve been having a bit of a regional identity crisis of late. It all started with a quick go on the ‘north-o-meter‘ which has become fairly ubiquitous on social networks recently. I scored 80 per cent, which I thought was a bit of a result considering I only got here in January 2012. Then there was a similar ‘how London are you?’ quiz and I rated 91 per cent on that. Considering my Mum’s from North London and I lived in the capital for well over ten years, that was fair enough too.
The advantage of being born in the Midlands is that you tend to grow up seeing both sides of the argument, often having a foot in both camps. Prominent in both of the above quizzes was the question of what you call the meals that you eat in the evening and in the middle of the day. I’m fairly certain that ‘dinner’ is something invented by the agents provocateurs of the bourgeoisie to confuse the working classes of the North and the South, and set them against each other.
We Midlanders, of course, have spotted this and give the whole thing our best Stanley Matthews body swerve, to avoid possible conflict. You have your lunch at lunchtime and your tea at tea-time. Dinner only serves to confuse the issue.
There’s also ‘supper’, but that’s easily dealt with – it’s only eaten by posh people and those who are overweight. Or else it’s Scottish for ‘and chips’*.
This kind of linguistic haggling possibly explains why I rarely get invited to dinner. But to be honest, if you’re willing to buy me a meal or cook one for me, you get to call it what you like.
Anyway, I thought I was doing fairly well at this regional caper until someone tried to tell me that Stoke is in the North. And that blew the lid off things completely.
Seeing as the bloke in question was from Leeds, and I was actually born in Stoke and grew up nearby, I felt fairly well qualified to comment on the subject. Yet I struggled to explain myself.
His main justification was geographical and fairly arbitrary – divide the country up into compass points and Stoke falls in the North West. I pointed out that, on that basis, the bit on the map which is on the opposite side of the Pennines to the North West ought to be called ‘The North East’. But I would never try to tell anyone from Yorkshire that they live in the North East. Not without taking a deep breath and having a fast car parked outside with the engine running, at any rate.
There’s been an increasing amount of talk about Northern identity recently – some (the Free North Campaign, for starters) have even gone so far as to propose a separate parliament for the North. And, of course, it’s well documented that Yorkshire would have finished twelfth in the medal table at the 2012 Olympics.
Which started me thinking…could I have been wrong all these years? Whose side am I on? Is Stoke in, or out?
What really constitutes ‘Northern’? On accent alone, Stoke sounds like it might be: the vowel sounds of the local accent change from Southern to Northern somewhere between Stafford and Stoke. They’re about 15 miles apart, yet you can fall over on the subject of how to say ‘book’, ‘look’ or ‘cook’.
And musically, Stoke can definitely claim to be in the North – one of the leading clubs on the Northern Soul scene was in the Six Towns. Tunstall, to be precise. Thousands used to flock to the all-nighters at The Torch. So that’s no help either.
I found myself almost clutching at straws trying to prove that I knew my friends and I had grown up feeling and believing that Stoke is the last bit of the Midlands. And I think it’s a cultural thing.
Ian Brown out of the Stone Roses once famously declared that it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at…and I think The North is more a state of mind than anything else, and they don’t quite have it in Staffordshire.
If you consider things like an industrial manufacturing heritage important for true Northern identity, or a football team that punches above its weight every now and then, or back-to-back terraced houses and a spot of urban decay and deprivation, then The Potteries ticks all the boxes. But so do Nottingham and Derby and they’re not in the North. And, like Stoke, they call people ‘duck’ there.
In his book The English, Jeremy Paxman proposed that the North might be defined as anywhere above a line drawn from the Severn to the Trent. Which is fair enough but no help for reaching a conclusion about Stoke *on* Trent.
This kind of thing’s been going on for years – the Trent marked the old boundary between Northern England and Southern England. The administration of Royal Forests had a different Justice in Eyre north and south of the river, jurisdiction of the medieval Council of the North began at the Trent, and it was also the boundary between the provinces of two English Kings of Arms, Norroy and Clarenceux.
My gut feeling was that Staffordshire belongs to the Midlands and the North starts in Cheshire – I reckon the North West doesn’t particularly want Stoke and rest of the Midlands isn’t that bothered, but they get it almost by default. We definitely think of ourselves as Midlanders, or at least Staffs people do. I think most Stokies I encountered in my youth generally considered themselves as being from Stoke, and if at all possible denied the existence of a world beyond Alsager or Trentham.
But how could I prove it? Regional telly is surprisingly important for defining where people think they come from. When Granada TV began transmission from Manchester in 1956, before networked and regional programming, its original strapline was “From The North, Granada Presents…” with a large arrow pointing Upward (North) as part of it. But Stoke wasn’t in Granadaland. It was part of the ATV empire that stretched out from Birmingham. Even today, you get Central TV and BBC Midlands Today there, not Granada and North West Tonight.
And luckily, no less an authority on The North than Stuart Maconie happens to agree with me about Stoke. In his book Pies and Prejudice he’s got Crewe down as being the first town in the North, and that’s north of Stoke. And according to Churchill (Winston, not the dog off the insurance adverts on the telly) the North begins above the River Trent. Plus the KLF, in their guise as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, failed to include Stoke on their exhaustive list of places where It’s Grim Up North and they should know, they’re from Merseyside.
But then I saw that they’d included Derby on their list so maybe they don’t know what they’re on about after all.
My friends were a little more helpful. Some of the better comments included “Mark Hughes thought it [Stoke] was in the North West but realised too late it was actually more Midlands”; “It’s Midlands. But flirting with the North,” and “I don’t consider Stoke, but I have to I consider it off-limits”.
My mate Ian declared that if you draw a straightish line, from top to bottom, England is essentially 400 miles tall and Stoke is almost exactly 200 miles from both Lymington and Carter Bar so, QED, Stoke could not be more Midlands.
Possibly least helpfully of all, someone who’d never been there suggested that Stoke ought to be twinned with Mordor.
Which finally brought me to some sort of conclusion. Stoke may be disputed territory but if it came down to some sort of North v South or a North v Midlands punch-up, I think pretty much everybody would want Stoke on their side.
* as in, a fish supper
By Drew Savage