A short trip down memory lane last night had me thinking about just how different the various regions of this country can be. And you don’t have to travel very far to discover that.
Over the years, I have been to almost every corner of The British Isles, and have certainly visited every one of the main cities. Outside of tourist-orientated holiday spots where everyone is falsely welcomed, the look and feel of different parts of the UK was very noticeable, at one time. Then there are the accents of course. We have great variety of those, but I have written about that previously.
During the 1970s, I had to travel around for my job. I was excited by this prospect, as it would take me to places I had only ever heard about, or seen on TV. It never really occurred to me that it would be that different. After all, I was a Londoner. I came from a city that was the melting pot of Britain, and had almost as many non-Londoners living in it, as genuine ‘locals’. I departed on my travels armed with twenty-one years of my own regional prejudices. The North was grimy and industrial. The West Country was all about farming, and people who spoke like they had never been outside their village. Liverpudlians were edgy and aggressive, and the Welsh hated everyone who wasn’t Welsh. As for East Anglia, (where I live now of course) it was just a flat land full of people who sounded like idiots, and never ventured anywhere.
I didn’t care. I was from London. The best city in the world, and the shining star of Britain, undoubtedly. I was lucky indeed, to be a cockney.
As you might imagine, I got a shock.
People outside London didn’t seem to like us Londoners. They mimicked my accent, (badly) and were often outwardly hostile. I was less than 100 miles north, and already hearing the oft-repeated insult, ‘Soft Southerner’. Hadn’t these people ever heard how hard the streets of London could be to live on? The gangs, the crime, the crowds. Soft? Me? Once I got a lot further up, I became an oddity to be giggled at. Girls in a Newcastle club asked me to say sentences in my harsh London accent, and fell about laughing when I did. They would seek out a friend, bring her to where I was standing, and ask “Say that again, Pet”. (That’s not a typo of my name, they call everyone ‘Pet’.) These people had (still have) a language that was a ‘version’ of English. Their local dialect and sayings required the assistance of a translator, and they had the audacity to laugh at me?
I headed west, to the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. At the time, before much recent regeneration, those cities were bleak and industrial indeed. Young men swaggered around on the streets, and glared aggressively at me in bars or clubs. I wasn’t even talking, they just seemed to know that I was ‘different’ before I spoke. On the way home from a long trip, I had to go to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, which at the time was a coal-mining town. This was the ‘grimy and bleak’ I had imagined. Arriving in the rain, I stared at the sour-faced people, their faces devoid of joy or hope. I was only 141 miles away from London, yet felt I was in another country, at another period in history.
I was never so relieved to get home to what I saw as ‘normality’.
I had to travel again, many times. But I was forewarned, so forearmed, and I was a lot more careful about where I spent my free time. By 1979, I was no longer having to travel around other than for holidays, and as the old saying goes, I took my eye off the ball. In the late 1980s, I went to visit the parents of my then girlfriend. They lived in Yorkshire, a place I had mostly managed to avoid, short of the city of Leeds, and the coastal town of Scarborough. I had been there working with local men, who took me under their wing. This time, I was closer to the city of York, with a girlfriend who was originally from Northern Ireland, but had lived long enough in the county to sound local.
We went out to a pub in the town of Tadcaster, to meet some of her school-friends. I walked up to the bar to order some drinks, and as I said what we wanted, the barman turned and served someone else. When he had finished, I waved to him, and he came back. As I started to speak again, he smiled at me, and walked around to a different section of the bar. I was pretty angry by now, but aware that I was one Londoner in the equivalent of a one-horse town in bandit country. I walked back to the table, and explained to my girlfriend that he wouldn’t serve me. She went up to the bar, and spoke harshly to him. She was very feisty, and he was hardly prepared for her tirade. He served her the drinks, denying he had refused to serve me. He claimed he hadn’t noticed me waiting. We finished the drink, and decided to leave. There had to be a better pub than this, surely?
As we walked to the door, the barman said quite loudly, “F*****g Cockneys”.
For the last seven years, I have been living in the region that I had once written off as being flat, and full of idiots. There is less prejudice against me being a Londoner, but mainly because they are not really sure if I am. I have been asked where I come from more times than I can remember, and quite a few people have suggested that I might be Australian! It’s all very strange, even after such a long time. But there’s one thing I can be certain of.
I’m glad I didn’t move to Tadcaster.