The papers love the north-south divide. It plays to the politics of envy. You can write or read about it again and again and people never get bored – they just get cross. This week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report stating that the north-south divide has grown since the 1970s, and that the average income in southeast England exceeds the national average by almost twice as much as it did forty years ago. I guess, in these tumultuous and uncertain times, it’s comforting to know that certain divisions have always existed (apparently). The north-south divide is apparent not just in earnings but in house prices, schools and healthy living standards – all of which can be backed up by corresponding statistics and reports. One cause for division cannot, however, be ratified by number-crunching: snobbery.
The snobberies against the north of England, and so-called northerners themselves, are infinite. The stereotypical northerner is often illustrated as a boisterous, loud, sports-loving lout, who never ventures far from either his local football stadium or his pie and gravy.
Efforts have been made to unite the north of England with the south of England. In June 2014, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, launched the Northern Powerhouse Initiative, which was relaunched as a think tank two years later. The initiative aims to hold the government to account on devolution for the north and to influence strategy and politics in such a way that maximises the north’s resources. Communities secretary Sajid Javid has said ‘this government realises the huge untapped potential of our great northern towns and cities.’
So here I am waxing lyrical, promising I recognise this beastly division, slightly confessing to snobbish stereotypes typical to southerners. Why? This week I found myself in Manchester. The city, usually (I’m told) brimming with students, was relatively quiet now term has broken up and the Isabellas and Harrys have returned to the home counties (or south-east Asia) for their holibobs. I stayed in the marvellous King Street Townhouse hotel, which has a swimming pool on the roof overlooking the Manchester skyline and, by jove, it’s impressive. Alfred Waterhouse was not messing around when he turned his attentions to the Town Hall which is majestic and powerful and almost haunting in its splendour.
Then to Manchester Art Gallery which is currently exhibiting The Edwardians – a small but highly informative collection of works carrying the audience through the social, rural and urban existence of our Edwardian ancestors. The exhibition, which has received relatively little press coverage, is everything that you want an exhibition to be: not too big, interesting and educational. Pivotal to The Edwardians exhibition is Adolphe Valette, who moved to Manchester to study at the Manchester School of Art in 1905. Valette romanticised Manchester in his impressionist-style works that depict a grey-washed city with purpose and hope. We learn of the nostalgia that percolated Edwardian society and are shown how Edwardian artists desperately clung to the comfort of the past in their changing and increasingly industrial society.
Much like ours today. There is solace in the knowledge that times are always changing, and people are always fearful, and our desire to clutch the straws of the past are not dissimilar to the instincts of our ancestors, who did the same. The Edwardians is worth a trip, if only for that sober reminder.