September of 1997. OK Computer and Fat of the Land ride high in the album charts. Princess Diana’s funeral blankets every single television screen in the country. And, in one of the less salubrious corners of Essex, an eighteen year old version of myself packs up my collection of black band t-shirts and my VHS towers and heads from the green and unpleasant lands, into to the great unknown.
I chose The North quite at random. I wanted to do the then relatively niche subject of Media Studies at degree level, but also wanted to study politics. There were only a few universities offering that particular combination at that time — Glasgow, and Sunderland being among the only ones. At the time of choosing, I’d just seen Trainspotting, so I didn’t much fancy Scotland. I knew nothing about Sunderland, except that it was going to offer me a place, which seemed nice of them, given that they’d never met me, either. I never so much as visited, until that first September day.
As a southerner, I knew little about the north other than what I’d seen on television. Back then, that was pretty much limited to Coronation Street and Our Friends in the North, neither of which offered great comfort. I’d never gotten into the Manchester scene on account of the guitars not having any distortion on them. So, it seems pretty remarkable now that eighteen-year-old me decided that picking myself up and flinging myself as far north as it’s possible to get and stay in England was a good idea.
Spoiler alert – it was.
I never did get round to studying much of the media, or the politics, but I did end up having a wild old time in Sunderland. I met tremendously good people, started a band, DJ’ed in a hundred dive bars, fell in love, fell out of love, and watched a lot of Neighbours. I also found a city that was both wildly inhospitable, and wonderfully welcoming. I was chased home more than once for being ‘student scum’, once while carrying a box full of cd’s. I was also taken into houses of local team season ticket holders who’d never met me and ended up being some of the best friends I will ever have.
Five years later, I moved to York. It was a bit south, but not really. Anywhere that feels the need to declare itself as the north of Yorkshire isn’t south. I started turning into an adult for a bit, decided that I really wasn’t ready for all that, and regressed back into the same idiotic childish pursuits that had so kept me entertained in the North East. York was a great place to be young and stupid — getting endlessly drunk in a city that looks that pretty is quite good, and compared to Sunderland, it seemed like the height of culture.
Then I met my lovely wife, and growing up suddenly didn’t seem like such a bad idea. We stayed in York for quite a while, got two kids from somewhere in the eternal ether of life, and grew tired of the place. Well, mainly we got tired of the house we were in, but we hated it so much that we decided to leave the city altogether.
We moved east, near Whitby, where we’ve been for nearly a year. I can’t begin to describe what a wonderful place it is. I always considered myself a city boy, raised in the urban jungle of London, toughened by the hard streets of places like Basildon, Pitsea, and Sunderland. I don’t care much for wildlife, or mud, or the smell of poop. But I’ve loved living in the country. The peace, the views, and again, the people.
Now, in exactly two weeks, after twenty one years in that same North, I am leaving.
Heading south. Coming home.
Out of exile.
Except, it no longer feels life exile. It feels like home, one I’ll be both excited and sad to leave.
It’s a cliche that people in the north are kind and welcoming, but there’s a reason for that, and it’s because they really are. When I first came north it was weird, but now one of my big fears heading back down below the Luton line, is that I’ll have forgotten how to be southern. I’ll go about offering ‘thanks’ and ‘hello’ like some kind of deranged madman, and everyone will look at me, hear the occasional mispronunciation of ‘bath’ and whisper to each other — ‘that man’s gone native…’
It’s an exciting time. In a lot of ways it’s nice to be heading back south. For one, I’ll be heading to an entirely new part of the country — the south west, where they have comedy accents and talk about combine harvesters and scrumpy. That should keep me entertained for a while. I’ll also be nearer to the London that in my heart still feels a lot like home, so I might occasionally get to see my team play footenball, or see Hamilton before I die.
But it’s also true that I’ll miss the north. It too, is home. A wonderful place that changed me from a boy into a man, gave me a wonderful family, and friends of incredible incredibleness.
Farewell, The North.
Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining my mailing list.