Sunday 18 December 2011

Northern, with a capital ‘N’

Recently I got some feedback on my MA dissertation, and one of the comments from one of the markers was that I’d used some odd capitalisation. Without seeing the marked work itself I still have some idea about what they were referring to, especially as they wrote the word ‘northern’ in my feedback with a lower case ‘n’. My work was based about the regionality of the Old Poor Laws, and I frequently referred to regions, and capitalised them, i.e. North, South-East etc. Now this is in no way a dig at the academic, who has been helpful throughout the year, gave me a good mark, and always delivers particularly eloquent seminars (and probably has much better reasons than me as to why the North-West should not have capitals), but it made me think about whether or not these regions deserve capitalisation, and consequently whether or not they are, or should be treated as ‘places’.

In my mind, and I imagine in the minds of many others, the North is identifiable as different in plenty of ways. It has its own culture, politics, its own landscape, different weather, and is undeniably different economically. It is seen differently. Did you ever notice that the BBC has a North of England correspondent, but not a Southern one? The North is a place, where you can go, and meet Northerners, and be in the North, and as such deserves a capital. And before you think I write lopsided essays, I believe the same to be true for the South and the Midlands.

But what constitutes a ‘place’? Another academic at Leicester once told me that after considerable thought on the issue, for him it came down to notions of common history within a geographical area, and hence didn’t consider various dormitory towns to be ‘places’. Therefore should we have Barnsley, Wolverhampton and Gloucester, yet also have crawley, milton keynes and slough? It has often struck me that places of the latter nature have been built to serve other places, in this case largely London, and I am aware that in the minds of some, this would discount their claims to some sort of local authenticity. I’m sure that this view links in some way to some leftist leaning against them, where their creation has been seen as a consequence of recent free market booms favouring these areas. However, I can’t think of many areas that weren’t ultimately built to serve other places that have been conjured up by profiteering, for instance Barrow-in-Furnace and its shipyards, or Ebbw Vale and its steelworks; surely the only difference is the distance of the commute? All of these places were new at some point, and consequently lacked geographic common histories.

Where exactly should the line be drawn between what’s a place and what’s not, i.e., where gets that precious capital letter? We all like to think we’re a bit ‘unique’, look at the amount of provenance claimed by football fans, ‘could only happen to us’, etc. Street names get capitals, and in many cases the inhabitants of one will define themselves against another, and this is even truer at the level of housing estates. Of course these are to some extent entities in their own right. I would consider Yorkshire to be a region, but for me it is less of an entity than the North-East; the contrasts between the villages of North Yorkshire and the ex-industrial areas of the South and West are stark to say the least.

The point that I’m not sure about is why I want to define my region of the country, The North, as a separate place from The South. Is this desire to consider it as separate and different not slightly counter-productive as the region continues to attempt to find its post industrial legs? Is there much there for me to take this strange pride in? Sure the region was Britain’s industrial powerhouse, but it hasn’t bounced back fantastically, and some of the stereotypes associated with the North can be, aside from offensive, painfully true. The mindset is a bit masculine to attach to, and not especially academic. This mindset ties to the idea that some places have greater authenticity due to their industrial past, than new commuter belt towns, frequently Southern, and frequently dismissed by militant Northerners.

I think the point is that perhaps these region’s peoples are different, on a human level, in terms of behaviour and outlook, even though they’ve been shaped by forces beyond their own control, i.e. geography and consequently economics (for instance having to locate industry near raw materials and easy access routes). Regardless of this they choose to take pride in what they consider to be genuine uniqueness; their view of their own, or another’s area, is essentially self reflection and a display of personal value, and what would we be as beings if we lacked this? If nothing else (and there is plenty else) this existence of places should be recognised with capitals.