The V Series: North V South

Jenny Beech writes the second in her ‘V’ series of blog posts inspired by Tony Harrison’s poem, this time comparing the North and South of England.

When I first began to stew over the latest V topic, countless stereotypes sprung to mind of the two figurative opposing armies of North and South. From the summery South, legions of top-hatted academics wielding white gloves and RP accents marched into my imagination to commence a literary battle with the workhouse families and straight-talking miners that somehow leap into my brain entering the topic of ‘northernness’.

However, the more I mulled it over, the less clear the boundary lines seemed. Clearly my initial presumptions were severely outdated and probably consisting of lingering memories of the BBC adaptation of Gaskell’s North and South. Did I even have the right to separate Northern and Southern literature? Could a difference of a couple of hundred miles have enough impact to create two entirely separate genres?

Moving from Jane Austen Country to the breezy moors of Bronte Country gave me an entirely new perspective on British literature. I grew up in an unusual church community consisting of academics, Oxbridge graduates, high-end businessmen, theologians and philosophers, where the thought of writing in some capacity was more of an inevitability than a choice. Writers and their scribblings as I had known them, like a hearty meal, were meaty, time-consuming and took some digestion.

LS13 writer, Gareth Durasow,

Northern writer, Gareth Durasow, is one of the top 20 young writers in Leeds featured in the LS13 anthology.
Photo from Words On Tap.

The North, however, seems to me to have an entirely different flavour. Take, for example, Matthew Stoppard’s monthly literary evening, Words on Tap; overall the poetry that was read this September had an honest, punchy taste to it. The poems read by Gareth Durasow, another LS13 contributor, to my eyes (or ears) wasted no time and made no apologies. A young woman who introduced herself only as Issy and who read her poetry from scraps of paper, presented quite plainly the dull realities of city life and never used three syllables when one would do.

Taking a wider perspective, historically the South has held a long-standing literary tradition from Shakespeare and Marlowe, to Dickens and Austen and the later Oxford writers, Tolkien and Lewis. These authors and playwrights, despite not all having been born in the South, flourished in its literary culture, and yet the likes of the Bronte Sisters and Arthur Ransome were born and bred in Yorkshire. Steven Moffat and Derek Jacobi featured in the Cheltenham Literary Festival this year, while Jo Nesbo and children’s author Jackie Kay levelled the playing field by contributing to the Manchester Literature Festival. In every field I look into, North and South seem to come to an infuriating draw.

Brian May at the hugely popular Southern literature festival in Cheltenham.  Photo by mcphersonstevens.com.

Brian May at the hugely popular Southern literature festival in Cheltenham 2013.
Photo by mcphersonstevens.com.

It seems that the classic ‘who wins’ question is unanswerable in this instance. I was tempted when writing this article, to use the example of Tony Harrison’s ‘V’ from which this series derives its inspiration, as a sample of modern northern literature but after re-reading the poem I discovered this line;

‘I doubt if 30 years of bleak Leeds weather
and 30 falls of apple and of may
will erode the UNITED binding us together.
And now it’s your decision: does it stay?’

North V South, and the chasm that stretches between the literary cultures of the two is bridged by a mutual love of stories and the written word. It is human nature to draw borders and boundaries but what if for a moment I talked about what unites us instead of what divides us? Are we separated by borders or are we collectively the country that birthed Shakespeare, who was born and schooled in Stratford-Upon-Avon but who worked in London? Are we not the home of the world’s largest library and the best-selling authors?

Are we North V South, or are we England?

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