Stewie, you’re the cliché this time
Stuart Maconie is a Professional Northerner. He lives, breathes, speaks, broadcasts, and makes good money from his calling. He even writes about it. For a lad born in Whiston, a sub-Scouser no less, he enjoys a pretty amazing career, writes Robert Waterhouse, founding editor of Insider Magazine.
So, when the New Statesman in its wisdom devotes a special issue to The North, as it has done this week, who better to set the scene than – Stuart Maconie? He’s the chap who lives, breathes, speaks, broadcasts and makes good money from it. He even writes about it.
Wait a mo. Northerners are known for their graveyard humour. Stuart isn’t piss-poor at that, either. And, thinks editor Jason Cowley over an organic mojito in the Volupte Lounge, EC4, why not get Stewie to tell our world How to Write About The North? That should be doubly funny, since everyone knows that perceptions about Oop North are stage-managed by ignorant, indolent representatives of the London press. Let the Professional Northerner set them right.
Written he has. Not just off-the-cuff stuff, either. The blurb promises that “Inspired by Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s celebrated essay ‘How to Write About Africa’, here is some guidance for those wishing to tackle the north of England.”
In other words, brethren, the North has a problem like Africa has a problem, and the way out is tongue-in-cheekness. Dancing cheek-to-cheek, tongue-wise, cheekily.
Let’s hear from the man:
“First: don’t define your terms. The north is not so much a place as a national myth so don’t confuse your reader with any specific references to, say, Merseyside or County Durham. The northerners won’t thank you for it anyway, being petty churls riven with factional differences and impacted grudges. Assume that everyone knows what and where the north is – don’t attempt anything as prosaic or useful as a definition.”
One might have thought that a measured reference to Whiston, given Stewie’s background, could set the scene with authenticity.
Blah, blah, blah until: “Never forget that the north of England is essentially comic. You may be tempted to overlook this in favour of a nuanced account of how it was the Victorian industrial powerhouse that shaped the world’s economies and politics – but this would be a mistake. Rely instead on the humorous tropes that have served other writers well....”
Who’s he talking about? J.B. Priestley, Keith Waterhouse, Alan Bennett?
“On no account waste your time dredging up any of the region’s political, scientific or cultural achievements... Think Noel Gallagher, Gary Neville and Peter Kaye, not Alan Turing, Henry Moore, Rutherford splitting the Atom, the Pankhursts, Wordsworth, Engels or the Peterloo Massacre.”
Actually Gary Neville is far too good on the commentary side to be worth a mention. Why not think another Stuart, Stuart Hall.
Then there’s illustration:
“Photographs should have been taken no later than 1962, be in black and white and feature sooty-faced coal miners emerging from the pithead or urchins kicking a football in a back alley...”
Enough already, Stewie, we know what you’re saying. The North of popular imagination is a cliché, a journalistic stereotype, a concocted lacuna bearing scant resemblance to today’s hard-edged cities, verdant farmland, wild moors and rolling coastlines - or indeed the dreary middle-class suburbs of Sale, Roundhay and Gosforth.
But don’t you realise, you witless Whiston whippet, that making laborious fun of stereotypes reinforces them? Have you such little understanding of the metropolitan mentality that when you claim about the North “people here are good-hearted but essentially simple, unless they are criminals or drug addicts” you don’t see that the hacks of Hackney will take you at your word?
That saves them from venturing beyond Watford. Better to snigger with a Professional Northerner than to work professionally at reporting the North. Stewie, you should be presenting a Guardian Masterclass in Salford studies. Maybe you are.