21 October 2010

Londoncentricity

Like Beverly Hills - Croft Close in Whirlow, Sheffield (taken yesterday)

Thirty five years ago, I was in a conversation with two American camp counsellors in darkest Ohio. Although high school graduates and now college students, they had it fixed in their minds that England and London were synonymous. To them the fact that Elton John and The Beatles were English automatically meant that they came from London. Neither of them had ever heard of Yorkshire.

London remains a dominating presence in the world's perception of our great country. Internally, The English media remain very Londoncentric. We northerners are used to weather reports which tell us we have enjoyed a lovely, warm day when it has been raining Up North and conversely when we have enjoyed fine weather, we are sometimes told that the thunderstorms and high winds will continue into tomorrow. It's the same with Sunday newspaper restaurant reviews. There'll be a dozen reviews of London restaurants followed, almost grudgingly, by a review of a distant Cornish fish restaurant or a gastro pub in Harrogate.
It's always been this way. We northerners are used to it. Many Londoners and southerners have never travelled further north than Watford. Beyond it - "There be monsters!" When the Olympics come to England in 2012, we northerners will not only need to buy tickets at extortionate prices but we will also have to pay transport costs and perhaps book ludicrously expensive accommodation packages as well. Londoners will only need to buy events tickets.
I can't find anything out about the bloke but in 1936 "The Daily Express" - loyal mouthpiece of the Conservative Party and leafy London suburbs - employed a journalist called R. Stephen Williams. He must have been sent on some kind of exploratory mission to Sheffield. The resulting rubbish he then spouted to his loyal readers from Tunbridge Wells to Royal Ascot would no doubt have simply reinforced existing prejudices about northern cities. Though dissipated, some of that venomously misguided attitude towards The North remains even in today's journalism. This is what R. Stephen Williams wrote:-

"No nation can boast civilisation while it has the shame of Sheffield to face.

It is the graveyard of the intellect, the ash-heap of culture. It contains some of the ugliest buildings in England. It sprawls, a hideous misshapen mass, in the midst of some of England's loveliest country.

Sheffield is a workshop; a workshop in which men have made money and made nothing else. It is a city without vision. Consider the way it has grown up, like a dirty, neglected child.

It is a city without a sense of beauty. I did not see a single beautiful woman in Sheffield. I did not see a single man who carried himself with any pride or demeanour or walked in any way that did not suggest that he was looking for sixpences in the gutter and was failing to find them."

It seems to me that R. Stephen Williams must have arrived in the city with entrenched prejudices towards this country's industrial cities - the very engine rooms of our nation's wealth and former empire - the same cities that provided cannon fodder for the wars we found ourselves in. His England was no doubt an England of tea parties, fox hunting, The Henley Regatta, bowler hats and brollies. He didn't know what he was looking at and in spite of his Etonian command of language didn't know what he was talking about. Things are certainly better now but the vicious toffee-nosed elitism of London and the south east has not entirely gone away - that's for sure.
Manor Lodge, Sheffield where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned

14 comments:

  1. The biggest city in an area is like a black hole. My rural area has no value to the city of Sacramento except as a place to dump their garbage, far out of their own sight and mind. But then, the whole state of California kowtows to Los Angeles. They want every drop of water that hits the ground and all the tax revenues. It's a constant battle between the north state and the south state.

    San Francisco is more self-contained.

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  2. It's still there going off AA Gill's review of the Rosso restaurant in Manchester last weekend. It was chocker with all the usual cliches. What a prat. I can only assume he isn't planning a return visit, at least not without a police escort.

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  3. It's the same in Wales, YP. All the Welsh news focuses on events in and around Cardiff. I don't think the reporters know their way to north Wales!

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  4. I suppose it's inevitable. Most of my students (learning English here in Catalonia) seem to think I'm from London - probably don't realise a Londoner wouldn't be wearing a flat cap in class and have a greyhound (dog, not bus, for your US readers) tied up outside the class ....
    ... here too, Barcelona IS Catalonia for many people.

    Just by chance I read yesterday that Sheffield's excellent music culture will be taking another step forward as, apparently, Duane Eddy (!!!) is coming "up north" to record with our very own Richard Hawley. Maybe you could invite them over for a pint or two ...

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  5. BLOG FRIENDS (JAN, SPROUTING CARROTS, JENNY, BRIAN THE SNAIL) Well I seem to have hit a chord there! Of course, legally our societies more than frown on overt sexism and racism but it seems that clear regional or metropolitan bias is perfectly acceptable. Where's Osama bin Laden when you need him?

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  6. I understand completely what you are coping with. We live in Massachusetts and they call anything west of Boston(which is on the eastern most side of Mass.)"WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS".I guess there is BOSTON(whoopee!) and then the rest of the state(yawn)

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  7. Bear in mind though, that in the 30s and 40s the industrial cities of Yorkshire could well appear to outsider to be ugly, polluted, slum-ridden eyesores. We tend to forget nowadays in the days of clean air and spruced-up public places that Yorkshire cities such as Sheffield were once the utilitarian workshops of the 'British Empire', ie half the globe. I could well imagine that a visitor from London or the Home Counties would be offended by the coarse "where there's muck there's brass" environment of what was then the industrial heartland of the western world. My earliest memories of Leeds are of rag and bone men, a soot-encrusted Town Hall and the ugliness of the Quarry Hill (council house) flats.

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  8. MICHAEL Your cautionary point is valid but even at the height of the industrial revolution, Sheffield had some wonderful public parks, woodland walks and leafy suburbs. By 1936, though the mucky steel industry was still churning smoke and sweat, you just had to leave the Don Valley and you'd find the "other" Sheffield that the London reporter didn't want to see.

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  9. loved the phrase comment about no good looking women in sheffield!
    tee hee

    sheffieldis one of the most beautful cities I know...I love the skyline ( especilly the view across thevalley from weston park down to city road)

    had many lovely moments looking at that city scape!

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  10. I think both Sheffield and Leeds have transformed tremendously since the 1930s (in Leeds we still have rag and bone men, Michael, though the Town Hall's been cleaned and Quarry Hill Flats are long gone).
    However, this being said, that journalist was a prejudiced idiot. But hey, let's keep the beauty of the North a secret from all those Londoners in case they all decide to move up here. When my husband worked in London for three months some years ago, people kept saying to him "Hey! You're really good! You could get a permanent job down here!" He kept saying patiently I DON'T WANT TO. They were very confused by this.

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  11. Elizabeth1:19 pm

    He was obviously a very narrow sighted man.

    In the 1930's, most men, whether they were in work or not, took pride in their appearance and stood tall.

    As to beautiful women...I have a supicion that he may have equated beauty with posh designer frocks cut to allow the lungs to be aired, half an inch of make-up and the ability to wobble down gold-paved streets on precarious five inch heels.He probably wouldn't recognise good, solid,natural Yorkshire beauty if it fell at his feet.

    Jump forward a few years; beauty fades and what does a man want then...someone who is cheap to keep,cooks well on rations,is flirtatious enough to wheedle a few extra sausages out of the butcher,knows how to keep him entertained during the blackouts and can still scrub up well for a turn on the dance floor. Bet Mr Pompous Britches Williams didn't find a deal like that in the windy city...

    Anyway, what's wrong with looking for sixpences in the gutter? Shows northern prudence, that does. x

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  12. DAPHNE You're right. Most Londoners wonder why anybody would want to live anywhere else. The fools! From my door after twenty minutes of walking I can be on open moorland - just like my literary role model - Heathcliff. Wonder what he would have made of Londoners?
    ELIZABETH You say that when a man gets older all he wants is "someone who is cheap to keep,cooks well on rations,is flirtatious enough to wheedle a few extra sausages out of the butcher" etc.. I'll just tell Shirley about that...but I'd rather have fillet steak than sausages.

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  13. Elizabeth12:35 am

    As you well know, I was jumping a few years ahead in this not-so-much-a gentleman's life to the war years...I bet his fancy city bits weren't much use to him, then.Northern lasses have outstanding beauty, resourcfulness (even if they can't spell it) and simmering sexuality by the coal pit full.

    It reminds me of a friend of ours who made his criteria for looking for a wife that he didn't mind if she had a face like a bag of bolts, just so long as she could cook him a good meal and was strong enough to pull his tractor out of the ditch if need be.The man remains unmarried. x

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  14. Elizabeth12:48 am

    Tell Shirley to get in touch;the fillet steaks call for extra special skills that, as a Lincolnshire lass, she probably hasn't had opportunity to acquire. ;-)x

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