Is the North Grim?

The press unfairly portrays the North as a lost land of poverty, crime and social tensions

It’s a one-eyed ‘oil’,” (literal translation: a one-eyed hole, meaning: a lacklustre, parochial place) is one of the only Yorkshire dialect expressions you might still hear in suburban towns such as Wakefield and Dewsbury today. And while most national journalists would stare at you in Babelic confusion if you uttered it, unwittingly, the phrase malingers on in our demotic and their depictions of shoddy life in Yorkshire’s mill and mining graveyards, where crimes such as the recent murder of three drug-addicted female sex workers in Bradford take place.

In Pies and Prejudice (Ebury, 2007), Stuart Maconie’s book on Northern stereotyping, he points out that “the BBC has no South of England correspondent”, which speaks volumes about the latent media perception of the North as some Other world. Described by the Daily Mail recently as “the industrial heartland of the Yorkshire Ripper”, Bradford is a pretty notorious West Yorkshire town when it comes to matters of racial tension, social malaise and snicketty pockets of prostitution and drugs. Despite its international film festival, and European City of Culture bid, it’s still a reliable “grim oop North” favourite with the national press.

You only have to glance back through the lurid depictions of Dewsbury’s Moorside estate in 2008 where Shannon Matthews was duplicitously “snatched” to see how readily the press resorts to tabloid titillature when attempting to capture life in such towns. The Daily Mail and the Mirror crowned it the real-life Shameless, after the Channel 4 underclass drama about life on a sink estate (the Telegraph even surmising that Matthews’s mother had directly copied the kidnap plot from an episode). Six miles west of Dewsbury, another “one-eyed ‘oil'”, also always known for the wrong reasons, is my home town of Wakefield. Despite hosting a fine Gothic cathedral and the largest Coca-Cola distribution plant in Europe, it’s usually cited as the “home” of some of Britain’s most notorious criminals, courtesy of its top-security prison, rather than the birthplace of the writer George Gissing.  

“One-eyed oil” — it’s a curious phrase, which uses the metaphor of personal myopia to refer to social inadequacy. While it’s lamentable that Yorkshire dialect is petering out, perhaps this is one expression it’s time to let slip from common parlance.  

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