Etc. Magazine Sketches

Around About the Trent

Josh Mcloughlin issues a call to arms to the North - and to the Midlands.

Last autumn I moved to Nottingham, illuminating my personal terra incognita. I’d lived up north, down south, even out in East Anglia. But the Midlands were the missing link, the dark shadow across my mind’s map of England. 

Six months on, I’ve had the chance to reflect on our blessed plot: once proud, now an embarrassment to Europe. To restore some harmony and dignity to this breeding ground of horrendous vibes, I’ve decided that the north and the Midlands should unite to crush the south, once and for all.

You see, I’ve come to realise that the north and the Midlands are the same, beneath it all. There’s far more that unites than divides us: a shared history of struggle, a common culture and disposition, deep-rooted sensibilities of politics, place and society, and the superfluity of wearing a coat on a night out – something our feeble neighbours down there wouldn’t understand. Together the north and the Midlands make up two-thirds of this country – and it’s time we had our say.

First of all, though, we need to look in the mirror: the Midlands is lacking a bit of confidence. The ‘professional northerner’ might be an instantly recognisable type, but Midlanders are still soul-searching. Bang in the middle but out in the cold, the heart of England has been pushed to the margins and routinely overlooked in the political squabbling between north and south. And I think I know why.

The discord begins at home: every few years, a new map emerges purporting to show the exact fault line of the north-south divide, invariably eliding the existence of the Midlands altogether, stoking division by fracturing the integrity and identity of the region.

The perpetuation of a strictly binary understanding of English geography, history and politics serves to disenfranchise the Midlands by stripping the region of any unique identity. Ignored, shouted over and stuck in the middle of this interminable bickering, the Midlands are England’s wallflower, the middle child quietly traumatised by a messy divorce. 

But this country’s great divide can’t be accounted for in econometrics and demography. It’s not something you can measure, but a gut feeling, a sympathetic, mutual understanding of graft and wit and soul; a division of culture and values as much as capital and class. Above all, it’s about whether you call the evening meal ‘tea’ or ‘dinner’ and believe devoutly in the veneration of gravy. The annals of English history record no decent roast ever served on a southern table. And that’s why the north and the Midlands are natural allies. 

The north could help put some long-overdue respect on the Midlands’ name. After all, the north is England’s regional brand management expert, convincing Scousers and Mancunians, Geordies and Mackems, and the warring roses of Yorkshire and Lancashire to buy into a common identity: The North. The south is entirely bereft of spirit, shared or otherwise. It is simply a loose fudge of greed, arrogance and individualism so enervated by selfishness that it can barely muster regional variation let alone diversity or local pride. There is precisely no discernible difference between Sussex or Surrey or Hampshire or Kent. While Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire are identically boring, staging posts on a drab and hellish continuum of middle-class ennui. Up north, there is unity in diversity: healthy rivalries ground fierce passions of place but a greater solidarity prevails to bind us together. 

The Midlands could be a part of that. A federal union on equal terms with the north would restore pride in the Midlands. Together we can cultivate a powerful regional consciousness that celebrates diversity while maintaining purpose in the face of our common enemy. We’ll forgive the scabs in Notts who broke the strike of 1984–85 and we can even quietly forget that Grantham nurtured the Witch herself.

After all, if Thatcher taught us anything, it’s the importance of solidarity. London is a monster, a distended beast that dwarfs other regions. Westminster is a venal nest of nepotism: a shelter for paedophiles, carpetbaggers and blood money. But together the north and the Midlands can humble the capital. The south has no other cities – proper cities, I mean – to boast of. Down there, they might have London but together the north and the Midlands enjoy the might of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool and Nottingham – I could go on – all proudly independent yet alike in humour, verve and fighting spirit.

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