Every time Burnley or any Lancashire town for that matter is on the national news, I get out my Northern town trope scorecard out and start adding up the points.
It’s a game I’d highly recommend, here it is…
Grey, drizzly weather – 1point
Boarded up shops on town centre high street – 1 point
Image of a market – 1 point
Image of rows of terraced houses 1 point – bonus point if they’re on a hill
Someone smoking on the street – 2 points
Someone eating junk food on street – 2 points – bonus point if it’s a chippy
Mention of a mill town – 3 points
Mention former textile/cotton industry – 3 points
Talk about Victorian housing – 3 points
High levels of deprivation – 3 points
Reference to Lowry – 3 points – bonus point if there’s an image of his artwork, an extra point if it’s Outside the factory gates.
Image of a chimney – 4 points
“Once proud centre of [insert former industry here] – 5 points.
General look of gloom – 5 points
Cobbled streets – 5 points
Use of nursery rhyme – particularly ‘ring a ring a roses’ or ‘see saw Margery daw’ – 100 points
It’s a game anyone can play, you can adapt it for your own area parts of Yorkshire for example can’t be talked about without mentioning coal mining, Blackpool must include reference to it being a once great booming holiday resort, Barrow equals ship building and so on and so on.
I can only assume there’s some handbook given to London based journos with the “rules” in.
“Here’s your copy of McNae’s essential law and here’s a list of northern stereotypes to abide by”.
It’s not just the news either, every time Sky sports covers a Burnley game from Turf Moor you can guarantee there will be the line “Old fashioned ground nestled in between rows of terraced housing”.
About 25 years ago, my husband Scott ended up on Newsnight as a teenager, the piece was about kids having part time jobs, it had been put forward as a positive piece about the benefits of having a job.
As someone who always had a Saturday job, I’d recommend it, it teaches you to value money and gives you a work ethic, if some of our politicians had spent Saturday afternoons making butties, waiting on or serving knob heads in a pub then the country might possibly be in a better position, anyway I’ve digressed here…back to Newsnight.
So, the positive piece about part time jobs was not positive.
I’m quite sure I’d have had a full house of points, they did indeed use ‘see saw Margery daw’.
They filmed in the classroom where they asked them all who had jobs and I swear to God I half expected the then kids to break out a rendition of “It’s a hard knock life”. The final package may as well have had each of them wearing cloth caps, eating gruel and begging for food.
It was awful, packed with northern stereotypes and you’d be forgiven for thinking that these teenagers were being sent down the pit or under cotton looms.
It was amusing to watch.
The problem is, 25 years on, that’s still the go to imagery used for talking about the North. It’s like a shit Game of Thrones without violence, sex and dragons.
It’s like poverty porn. It’s boring, lazy and it isn’t really reflective.
We’ve had it again this week with all the “levelling Up” bull shit….it isn’t levelling up at all, it’s just another phrase from central government to keep us ‘peasants’ in the North happy (see also Northern Powerhouse).
I can’t sit here and say we don’t have problems; we do. There are areas of deprivation, we do need more investment in transport (it took me an hour and a half to drive 22 miles into Manchester this week), infrastructure, education the whole lot, we don’t get a fair deal. Towns that were reliant on industry have been left for years but that’s only half the story.
The north is not grim.
Did you know that Lancashire is at the heart of the aerospace industry? Or that the Eden project’s picked Morecambe as it’s site for its next venture? That more and more television shows are choosing Lancashire to film?
There are a lot of positive stories too, there are people working to inspire others, to change things and make life better.
We aren’t all sat with our begging bowls waiting for whatever scraps the government is going to toss our way.
I absolutely agree that there is a North/South divide. Equality is needed but a big part of that is about how we’re represented on a national level.
How are we going to encourage people to open businesses here and invest in the North when the consistent trope is that everything is a bit shit?
It would be nice not to feel quite so patronised when watching national news reports about my hometown and I say that as a bloody journalist.
We can’t ignore the problems facing certain areas, but that doesn’t mean we should continually ignore the positive stories. We need that balance if we’re ever going to ‘level up’ properly.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm