New Society, 3 April 1987
By Tapani Lausti
Beryl Bainbridge, Forever England : North and South. Duckworth/BBC Books 1987.
As a young woman Beryl Bainbridge left Liverpool. That she was going to London was taken for granted. "If you were leaving home there was nowhere else to go." She retained ambivalent feelings towards the old northern working communities. "It's an uneasy mixture of pride and irritation, sentimentality and mistrust, for you broke away from a narrowness of outlook and a lack of expectation which well-nigh crushed you."
Recently Bainbridge returned to Liverpool to compare life and local attitudes to those in Hastings, Barnsley, Bentley, Northumberland and Birmingham. She presented a television series, Forever England, on which she this book is based. In the book she interpolates fascinating vignettes of life in the north and in the south with reminiscences of her own childhood abd youth in Liverpool.
If to many people the north-south divide is a boring cluster of statistics about regional differences, Bainbridge brings life to them with a novelist's sharp observations. Even the expected contrasts appear in highly readable form. In Hastings Bainbridge met a man from the north. "No matter how long it had been since Joe had left his roots he still retained his northern belligerence, his argumentative temperament born of hard times and different customs..."
In the south Bainbridge found a softer life. "There is not the same preoccupation with location and class. Not many around here thump their chests and talk of their regional roots, or hark back to a nostalgic past when everyone lived on bread and dripping. They're not given to self-analysis, and perhaps the so-called southern reserve is not so much a matter of unfriendlyness as a detached complacency born of comparative affluence."
Slightly surprisingly, Bainbridge's conclusion is that "the differences between classes, between regions, [are] as nothing compared with the differences between generations."
This unexpected twist becomes understandable when one reads the interviews with people representing the older generation. The message becomes esecially clear in the north, where the attitudes of older people create a strong feeling that we are living through the last stages of the post-depression period. In a way, it has been an era of simple life.
Bainbridge writes about an elderly man in Liverpool: "He said his life was all right for him. He had his family, his allotment and a drink on a Saturday night after fishing. What more could a man ask for, as long as he was in work. It was the young he pitied. His generation has been brought up hard. The young had had an easier time of it and now it was getting worse they couldn't handle it. They had nothing to to look back on; they didn't remember how it was."
This older generation has a curiously calm attitude to present-day problems. For many of them, bad times are only temporary. Their perseverance through wars and demolitions, change and decay, has created in them a habit of waiting until the worst is over.
And yet there is a feeling of a radically changing epoch. The uncertainties about the future, however, are never clearly spelled out in the interviews.
I a backward-looking culture individuals can hardly be blamed for lacking visionary politics. The northerners become captives of the past, the southerners resent their constant complaining. "...the way they carried on you'd think coal-mining and shipbuilding had existed for their benefit," Bainbridge was told in Hastings. "Maggie had the right idea," they concluded. They have no time for "all that sentimental nonsense about communities."
In Barnsley, on the other hand, a young man with experience of life in the south as well says that people haven't learnt to cope after the communities broke up. "Life is too small suddenly, too lonely."
For new communities to rise from the ashes, new visions are needed. The localised attempts to create new communities, based on a re-evaluation of the relationship between work and society, cannot find their way into people's everyday talk as long as these experiences are met with indifference by the media and the political establishment.
A hint of how the centralised nature of politics has sucked away local initiative and thinking, is expressed in Bainbridge's book by a woman in Barnsley: "Politics then were a part of ordinary folks' lives, not just the preoccupation of a few militant individuals."
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