On the 27th July 1987 I set off, suitcase in hand, from Kent House Station to arrive some four hours or so later at Bradford Interchange. It feels odd to think that all those years ago I made the decision to leave the place where I'd been born and brought up, the South London suburb of Beckenham, to take a job in Bradford. Lots of people, especially Londoners, have asked me why I did it, why did I leave the 'Greatest City in the World' to live in one of those dreadful, dreary, northern places they'd seen on the telly. Even a few curious Bradford folk have asked!
My usual answer is either: "someone gave me a job" or a longer explanation that, even in 1987, London was expensive. There was little hope of me being able to afford to buy even a tiny place in my home town and I faced the prospect of either spending most of my life on a train in from Essex or North Kent or else buying a pokey flat in Hackney where you'd need three bolts on the door and daren't go out at night. Leaving London was an easy decision and choosing Bradford was simply because, besides the job offer, I actually knew somebody in Bradford.
I'm writing this sitting in the kitchen of our house in Cullingworth where, if I stand out on the terrace, I can look out at the wooded valley where we live, can hear the chatter of birds, the basso profundo moo of cows fattening in nearby fields and the bleat of sheep on the moor. Sometimes in a morning the clip-clop of horses passes by on the bridleway out back, accompanied by girly giggles or gentle conversation. In twenty minutes I can be in the centre of Bradford, it's a little more than half an hour into Leeds and even Manchester can be reached within an hour. If you put your foot down on the north bound A629 you'll be in the Yorkshire Dales National Park in a breath and an hour later, given favourable traffic, Windermere and the Lake District beckons. Why would anyone leave London?
Yet sometimes the idea of leaving a place, especially a place a grand as London, seems an impossibility:
One beneficiary of this idea, though, could be the former 5 Live presenter Victoria Derbyshire, who could be appointed the Today programme's fifth presenter. She comes from Bolton, so the argument goes. Trouble is, her family is unlikely to welcome such a move. Her husband is a fellow West Ham season ticket holder and she has two teenage children. Why would anyone want to uproot their family like this?This was Iain Dale talking about the daft idea of sending a bit of the Today Programme "Up North" in the form of Nick Robinson. As a piece of tokenism this is classic BBC but Iain's tone troubled me, not because moving to a new job sometimes comes with tricky decisions for families, but because there was a sense of "only in London" about the post. Or maybe it was just Dale using the term "Professional Northerner" in his headline.
Crossing this attitudinal bridge, the view that everything of importance happens in London, is central to the idea of "levelling up" England's regions. And it is perhaps the most difficult part of the project to achieve for the simple reason that people don't see what I see out my window, they see what they'll lose even if the view from their window is just a brick wall. Not just the West Ham season ticket but the connections, the familiar places and bewildering choices. To go where? To Durham, Hull, Stoke or Wrexham, to places you've vaguely heard of but (if the average person's geography is a guide) would struggle to place on a map.
Part of the problem is fifty years of portraying England's north and midlands as dour places filled with slightly unhealthy blokes in work clothes talking funny. Pictured in drama as an endless struggle interspersed with strong tea and large women in flowery aprons: The North, whose leaders arrive in London, twisting their proverbial cap in their gnarled workers hands, to ask the rich folk for more money. And now, when those leaders no longer look like professional northerners, nothing has changed. Week after week little clumps of the North's great and good cram onto the train to head for meetings with ministers and civil servants in the glittering glories on London. "Please Sir, can we have some more?" is the plaintive cry of these folk.
This picturing of places far from London as primitive, barely out of the stone age, is not new. I recall a geography lesson where we discussed perceptions of distance and place. Mr Delaney produced what Dungeons & Dragons DMs would call a "crudely drawn map" showing England from the perspective of a Londoner. A map where The North was a place of rude huts and outside toilets beginning at the end of the Metropolitan Line, and where London contained everything of any importance or significance. This mindset, even from those who began their life somewhere other than London is what must be overcome if we are to level up.
I'm not sure how we do this, how we change attitudes, expectations and opportunities so people don't see ending up in Hull (with a decent job and a cottage in South Cave) as some sort of failure. Some of this is, as Chris Blackhurst suggests at Reaction, about government's choices:
The brain drain has to be reversed, the civil service has to move north, out of London, and not just the back room jobs but all the jobs, leaders included. The private sector, too, has to be incentivised to relocate. Again, it can’t be the rehoming of satellite operations – the North has long and bitter experience of those, of their arrival and their subsequent closing – but the headquarters.But Iain Dale's article tells us that, if the reaction to one journalist leaving London is "oh my god, what a terrible idea, everyone's in London", what will be the reaction of civil service mandarins with a nice house in Amersham and children at a good day school? I mean, do they even have good day schools in Newcastle? Civil service reorganisation will be doubly difficult if the reorganisation doesn't just mean a new set of names for ministries and moving to a different office in Chiswick or Kensington but means moving to some place you've never heard of in a part of England that's more than an hour from London.
The other day I read a newspaper report about some men who'd gone for a pint somewhere in East London and been charged £6.40 for a pint of ordinary session bitter plus a late night supplement. Here in Cullingworth you won't pay more than £3.30 for a beer like that (and it will have been brewed in the village too). Yesterday I went to the Polish bakers on Manningham Lane in Bradford returning with five loaves of fresh bread plus a challah - all for just over six quid. Compare that to the price of a single sourdough loaf in Borough Market.
London is expensive, crowded, often lonely, crime-ridden and unhealthy. For all the great institutions (the ones you never go to because you're too busy), it's as much a place of homelessness, mental breakdown and filth as it is of those famous bright lights. Londoners spend hours hanging from straps on tube trains, cramming overground trains and holding a pole in a bus. Hours that could be spent sitting in the garden with a cup of tea or walking into the village for a pint. We're told that the business of London is a good thing, "drives the economy" say all the experts, but somehow I've a feeling I was right to leave.
But then, why would anyone leave London?