I've been reading Stuart Maconie's Pies and Prejudice, in which the one-time thinking man's Bruno Brooks, latterly restyled as modern-day Wigan's answer to both George Orwell and Bill Bryson, sets off on a pilgrimage home from Euston 'in search of the True North'. It's a very good ride in the company of an engaging narrator, who proceeds at a riproaring pace through cosmopolitan metropolises (metropolisi?) and forlorn backstreets from Liverpool to Hexham, scattering as he goes an endearing if sometimes scattergun mixture of approximate equal parts streetlevel observational whimsy, Neo-Marxist Economic analysis, and jokes about Greggs steak and kidney puddings.
Before Maconie gets around to writing about the North at all, however, he has to get the South (about which he can write with some authority, having lived there for the best part of his adult life) out of his system. This he does by way of a just-ever-so-slightly-tongue-in-cheek character assasination, dashed off in a creative fury while sipping at vanilla cappuccinos in chi-chi Shoreditch coffee houses, and lasting perhaps fifty pages. Along the way certain allegedly common traits of the southerner are picked out as sure signs of limp-wristed Jessiedom, of the sort- we are assured- that will be in short supply as soon as the Virgin Westcoast Express reaches Crewe (gateway to the True North, in case you were wondering).
Now, this is where me and Maconie begin to have a slight, shall we say, contretemps. Because in among these giveaway signs of southerness or at least non-Northerness (the tendency of market-traders and chimneysweeps to burst into song at the slightest provocation; the unsolicited declarations of unserving loyalty and love for the Queen Mother; the elevation of the thuggish irritant and alleged onetime footballer/ alleged current movie actor Vinnie Jones to status of regional icon) we are warned to be wary of, if you please, motor scooters ('surely no-one north of Wolverhampton has ever bought one, even ironically), and beards (I haven't got the exact quote to hand, but it is something like, 'a blatant and inexcusable assault on the laws of common sense, decency, and aesthetics').
Needless to say as a native of a city referred to in later chapters (yes I read what he had to say about us Northeasteners first, and it was agreeably complimentary, especially about our convoluted and Viking-influenced vowel sounds and our comely, sweet-natured hotel receptionists), I found myself quite affronted by this implied questioning of my very identity. As a predictable consequence I have found myself, over the course of the last few days, internally vetting every aspect of my behaviour for signs of true, gritty, honest-to-bloody-goodness Northerness, if you don't mind, love. With mixed results, as follows:
Test of Northerness number 1. Capacity for talking to random strangers in public settings. Maconie bemoans the aloofness of the London commuter, pallid brow furrowed behind a copy of the Evening Standard, and by way of contrast extols the virtues of the average bus traveller in say, St Helens, who we are assured has no compunction whatsoever about sharing extensive passages from his or her life story with allcomers and will take it as a personal slight, possibly leading to an invitation to partake in a mass brawl, if this spirit of openness is not returned by its recipient, and with interest.
My performance? Well, I did make slightly more effort this morning with the young and disconcertingly sociable Blackburn-born man of Asian origin who has taken to enlisting me in conversation at the X41 stop (it started with the usual enquiries about the Brompton, but has developed, with no encouragement from me whatsoever, into discussion of career options for drop-out medical students in their mid-twenties finding themselves underemployed in dead-end office jobs in the far Westside). But that was only at the bus-stop. Once on the bus proper, I buried myself as is habitual in a paperback (Stuart Maconies Pies and Prejudice, you might have heard of it) and made it quite clear by use of practiced, hunched body language that conversation of any kind would not be forthcoming, thank you. Also- I nearly fell off my chair in a Westside chipshop on Monday lunchtime when some amiable-enough looking old codger, probably a war-veteran to boot I shouldn't wonder, took the seat opposite me, even though there were clearly two full tables available by the door. Poor display of notherness on my part. Very poor. Score for talking to random strangers in public settings, then: 3/10.
Test of Northerness Number Two. Capacity to Withstand and Even Enjoy the Windswept Delights of the Northern Rural Landscape (you know, like your man Wordsworth). Sure and we're on safer ground here. Frankie has got a new digital camera for Christmas (although we are going to have to take a point off here as spoiling your children with expensive electronics is no doubt suspectly non-northern, he should have been sharing a tangerine with his thirteen siblings and been glad of it, the little bleeder) and to try it out we went for a day out on Saturday to Furness Vale. We came back with pictures of its single, desolate pub (lunchtime clientele: seven hardened regulars of indeterminate age and indeed gender, including a Staffordshire Bull Terrrier who seemed to belong to them jointly and severally, possibly owing to tithe-based feudal arrangements dating to the 13th Century); its level crossing; and its canal towpath leading to a spaceship-sized Tescos Extra carved, quite incongruously, into a cliff-face. On the way home the train was cancelled (failure of engine in Disley sidings) so we were forced to eke out our last rations of pub cheese and onion crisps in a dank, deserted bus-stop on the A6, waiting for 45 minutes for a bus to Stockport. A miserable day out? Hell no. We enjoyed every minute and are seriously considering going back and bringing Charlotte with us. Yes I think we are definitely on safer ground here. Score for Capacity To Endure and Even Enjoy the Windswept Delights of the Northern Landscape (You Know, Like Your Man Wordsworth): 9/10
Test of Northerness Number Three: All-round 'Did You Spill My Pint?' Hardiness. Well. I went to the dentist last Thursday, to have something unspeakable done involving wisdom teeth. Or, to put it more accurately, to not have anything done at all, as my reaction to even the suggestion of the dentist approaching me with his, er, his instruments was so lacking in Northern Grit ('what are you jumping in the air for, man? This is only a ballpoint pen I have here!') that he refused point-blank to treat me without the aid of sedation, now scheduled for a soon-upcoming date I am trying very hard not to think about. Embarrassing, I know. Score for All Round 'Did You Spill My Pint?' Hardiness: 1/10 (and that is merely awarded out of self-pity).
A combined score for Northerness, then, of 14/30, which I think is not bad for a man with a beard (and not even a proper beard, really) who until very recently used to travel around on a 50cc Italian motor scooter, quite possibly thinking secret ironic thoughts to himself and calling at intervals into chi chi cappuccino bars. I think me and Maconie can kiss, I mean shake hands, come on, I'm joking, shake hands, and make up, and I might even read the rest of his damn book. You could do worse than do so yourself, love.