Notes on northern-ness

Val Fraser deconstructs Northern-ness, Fish and Chips and the sense of longing that comes with being a Northener abroad.
April 23, 2022

Like a sparrow returning to a windowsill, a sense of belonging comes and goes. It’s easy to miss. It can fluctuate. In the north, where there are an awful lot of northerners, there is a good chance that you may relate to your northern-ness differently. In that you may feel noticeably less northern, to the point where you may not even notice your northern attachments at all, simply because you are busy getting on with the everyday business of living and working in the north.

Please note that I have used the word “you” and not the word “one”. On purpose. In so doing I'm staging a mild protest and indicating, through the use of language, my own northern-ness. I feel that if “one” is using the word “one” to explain how “one” belongs to the north then “one” needs to have a very big think. Tis true we are a friendly forgiving bunch in the north but if “one” has relocated to the north and “one” is now pledging northern allegiance “one” may need to modify “one’s” use of the word “one” in order to qualify.

Some activities undertaken in the north, though not exclusive to the north, hold the latent potential to increase a sense of belonging to the north. It’s in these incidental moments of life that my sense of belonging and connection to the north is stirred and savoured. Most, but not all, feature chips. Marching to the chip shop, queuing for chips, ordering chips, waiting for chips, chatting with chip shop friends, carrying the warm chip baby home, eating chips. Late night chips. Crinkly chips. Skin on chips. Spontaneous on the way home chips. Friday chips. Homemade chips. Vegetable chips. After the funeral chips. Shared chips. Pinched chips. Pub chips. Café chips. Van chips. Stale chips. Seaside chips. Dropped chips. Sea gull chips. The humble chip reflects all of life.

Other intensely Northern triggers include being warmly addressed as ‘love’. Ironing a crisp gingham table cloth and feeling the hiss and puff of steam. Drinking tea in a friend’s kitchen. The sound and smell of rain. The orange street lights so beautifully painted in Chris Cyprus’s internationally acclaimed Northern Lights collection. Cobbled streets. Accrington bricks. Grey slate roofs. Smoking chimneys. Mossy stone walls. Lush green hills, mountains, moors and streams. Embarking on a long train journey to the South.

Just South of Birmingham the feeling of being a northerner kicks in with some force. Awareness will rise incrementally on the journey “down South”. Please note the deliberate inclusion of “down”. Northerners will leave their beloved region reluctantly, a pilgrimage to the south is ominous, and we must always add the word “down” before “south” to indicate the serious nature of our mission. Be aware that northern-ness will approach peak when you get off the train at Euston Station. Please note that northerners are not accustomed to the genteel business of “alighting” from a train we are only familiar with “getting off”. And for the love of all that is good, please could someone point this out to the posh bird making recorded announcements on the guided bus into Manchester?

You walk across the station and head towards the taxi area. You pass people, all sorts of people. Let’s assume that you are not exhibiting any clear northern markers such as a flat cap, shawl, clogs or ferret. If you are wearing widely available mass produced clothes from a popular chain store or supermarket, up to this point you are relatively invisible because no one will have guessed that you are a northerner. But you know. You know it so much. Once you arrive in “that London” the awareness of your northern-ness will rise within you as sure as a battered cod fillet floats in a fat fryer. I suspect even the queen feels a bit northern when she leaves Balmoral Castle in Scotland and returns to “that London”. Please note that some northerners can never refer to London as just “London”, for reasons known only to them, they are compelled to say “that London”.

Deep down in your gizzards you know that the moment of ultimate northern-ness is almost upon you. It will happen as soon as you open your mouth to speak. Using as few words as possible you give the taxi driver some instructions. In my limited experience, London cab drivers are friendly folks, who by definition spend a lot of time driving very important people around in a very important city. Passengers will include minor celebrities and visitors from all over the world. Yet there is an element of surprise to their tone when they encounter a northerner. We are a curiosity. An un-discovered species from a distant land, still waiting to be identified and acknowledged by those beyond our region.

Cab drivers will openly refer to your accent and make jokey comments. We’re fair game. They will tell you that you’re from the north. In words. They actually say out loud “You’re from the north”. It’s as if they believe you aren’t aware of it and they’re doing you a massive favour, like that time at a barbeque when someone pointed out the wasp in your hair. And right there, in that tired, awkward moment, holed up in a taxi cave, on a street with no chip shop, in the Capitol city of your homeland, you feel that sense of being from somewhere ‘other’. You’ve attained the peaky-peak summit of northern-ness.

Turns out there’s a bit more North, further North. Rather a big bit. Called Scotland. Travelling up to Scotland is an interesting experience. Leaving our beloved north to go further north is less of a wrench than going South. There’s an expectation that going further north will feel comfortable, familiar, at home. Until you enter a wormhole just past Penrith. Allegedly. In the wormhole feelings of being a northerner begin to fade and one begins to feel incrementally less northern. One actually begins to feel a bit southern. One finds that the peaky-peak summit of northern-ness gets inverted because in Scotland all northerners become southerners. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. One must remain calm. One mustn’t panic. One must be brave. One must search for the hero inside oneself.

Until you find the key to your life. Those famous lyrics from the Manchester band, M-People, drifted over the racks of cutlery, housewares and toasters of an American megastore. Like a message in a bottle they washed up onto the shore and replenished my castaway heart. It was a bone dry day, scorching hot and one hundred and ten degrees outside. This was about as far away from the North of England that a northern lass could get. Even further than going south to London or north to Scotland. Yet it was there, while making mundane decisions about tea towels, I felt at my most northern. The connection was undeniable and I knew I needed to go home. I learned that northern-ness, expressed through music and art, has enough raw creative energy to burst its banks, reach across the world and pull me back to the place I belong.

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