James Marriott in THE TIMES, 23 December 2021I
I spent most of my adolescence regretting whatever celestial filing error planted me in Newcastle upon Tyne, rather than (as the Almighty had surely intended, before some low-level cosmic bureaucrat messed things up) Hampstead or Islington.
By the time I reached adulthood, I had rejected Newcastle so thoroughly, smoothed my vowels in such assiduous preparation for life down south, that nobody in London ever talks to me about the northeast and it is almost with surprise that every year at Christmas I find myself among the crowds at King’s Cross Station waiting to board a train bound for . . . Newcastle.
And every year, at the end of the three-hour journey, as the train at last slides high across the broad, shining Tyne to reveal the huge geometrical arrangement of the arcs and rules of bridges, I realise forcefully that I was an idiot.
The journey into Newcastle on the London train might almost have been designed to rebuke the city’s apostate sons and daughters. When you’ve crossed the river, the railway bridge suspends you for a few moments above the harmonious jostle of tall Regency office buildings descending to the quayside, before slipping past the medieval keep and delivering you into the handsomest railway station in the country. By the time you disembark you’re almost shouting, “All right, all right already. I get it. I was wrong.”
In partial defence of my adolescent disloyalty, I didn’t grow up in the very heart of Newcastle but in a distant suburb of the city called West Monkseaton whose chief architectural landmark is the aesthetically undistinguished (I think even the area’s most ferociously partisan residents would admit this) “big Sainsbury’s”. Nevertheless, Newcastle — which the architecture critic Ian Nairn praised as “magnificent”, “extraordinary” and “one of the great cities of Europe” — was a few Metro stops away.
London’s extraordinary economic and cultural gravitational power has been written about almost infinitely, but every time I return to Newcastle I’m reminded of the capital’s weirdly pervasive psychological influence. The supposed supremacy of London has been embedded in our national culture so long that it has transcended reality and become a kind of national cliché, operating as a distortion field so powerful you can grow up in the close vicinity of a city as beautiful as Newcastle and see not the real city around you but only its inferiority to an imagined London.
The story of the escape from the provinces (especially the north) for London is deep in our culture, to the extent that it has become a kind of national romance, an English Odyssey. From the Beatles to Alan Bennett, a life trajectory that takes you from the north to London has become almost synonymous with success and adventure. Novels, memoirs and films are driven by the idea. We judge our lives by it.
For the English, as perhaps for no other culture, growing up means moving away. The deep roots of the idea might perhaps be found in the national obsession with boarding schools — deracination as a kind of elite status symbol. The spread of residential university accommodation (which was based originally on the boarding school model) has institutionalised the idea that the best years of your life — the time in which you become yourself — are synonymous with leaving home. Moving away is privileged and sophisticated, the people who stay behind are losers.
A more sophisticatedly pessimistic strain in English culture prefers not the romance of metropolitan success but the self-conscious deprecation of the banal circumstances of childhood. Coventry, for Philip Larkin, was famously “only where my childhood was unspent . . . just where I started”.
Those are lines I have often repeated. And though they may have been true for Larkin, they are not, I think, as widely applicable as many people suppose. Of course where you grew up is important. The fact the lines are so often cited is more due to their peculiarly English glamour — the romance of dreary beginnings transcended. The pose would seem much less explicable in France or Germany or Italy: “Yes I grew up in Venice. What a dump. You know what they say, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’. . . ”
I was, obviously, a particularly helpless victim of this myth, but I think some version of it is believed by almost every one of my northern friends living in London. It has taken seven years of living in the capital — the point at which London has finally begun to seem almost ordinary — for it to begin to fade.
Growing up in Newcastle, eagerly preparing myself for life down south, I had no particularly specific ideas about the ways London was going to change my life when I got there — the theatres I was going to visit, the job I was going to do. It was more important as a symbol than as a real place. And in the end, in London I have yet to encounter a theatre as beautiful as the Theatre Royal, a thoroughfare as graceful as Grey Street, a secondhand bookshop as charming (and well-priced!) as Keel Row books in North Shields, a library as atmospheric as the Lit & Phil.
This is not to mention the place’s indefinable poetry (the appeal of sprawling, densely peopled London is novelistic): the characteristic juxtaposition of its austere Regency architecture with wide open skies, the proximity of the cold waters of the North Sea and the bald hills of the Cheviots, the peculiar cultural atmosphere which is as much north European or even (I’ve heard it convincingly suggested) Russian as it is English. My train leaves tomorrow.