But as psychoanalysts are fond of reminding us, you may not say what you mean, but you always mean what you say. In an unguarded moment, a whole set of attitudes towards the North East is laid bare. It shows how, in the southern mentality, the ‘idea of north’ is of a remote, strange and essentially alien place, a liminal borderland between what we know and feel at home in, and what we don’t know and are subliminally nervous or even afraid of.
The trouble is that it is a very confused perception. There is certainly ‘desolation’, but it is found not in the remote country but in deprived urban areas that are the opposite of uninhabited: densely populated environments where people feel forgotten and abandoned by a those in power who are supposed to care for the weak and voiceless. By contrast, the remote fastnesses are in no way the 'desolate' degraded places that no-one cares about and which are therefore available for exploitation. Far from it. For it is precisely these landscapes that constitute the North East’s wonderful treasury of national parks, heritage coasts, areas of outstanding natural beauty, historic buildings and a great deal more.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea of desolation. The Idea of North is the title of a brilliant book by Peter Davidson. Its elusive discipline of topographics links geography, culture, landscape, literature, art, social anthropology and the history of ideas. And it turns out that this Howellian southern fantasy about the north is in fact close to a widespread ‘myth’ that is found across many different cultures in which ‘north’ with its connotations of remoteness, darkness and cold is an eloquent symbol of what is alien, chaotic and threatening. ‘Here be dragons.’
Some make friends with it and embrace it. For example, W. H. Auden, a midlander, fell in love with the North Pennines as a boy. He was haunted by the wild astringent fell country with its untamed climate and the ghosts of its long-dead industries of fluorspar and lead mining. He would have said that the toughness and desolation of ‘north’ was precisely what pulled him irreversibly into its gravitational field, 'the solace of fierce landscapes'. He found his poetic voice in County Durham, at Rookhope in Upper Weardale where, idly dropping a pebble down a disused mine-shaft, he had a flash of recognition about ‘self and non-self’ and with his new-found awareness began to write. Would he have become a great poet without the North?
As a Londoner, I can echo Auden’s love for a part of England that is not only ‘North’ but is also ‘Not-South’. I wrote Landscapes of Faith: the Christian heritage of the North East as a tribute. But as I said in the book, we must be careful not to romanticise either the landscape or the people and communities who have been shaped by it. It’s important that we speak accurately about the North East and not be seduced by easy cliché. It’s interesting that much of today’s response to Lord Howell has been to cite the canon of Northumbrian beautiful views rather than probe more deeply into what lies under the skin of the North East. The opposite of desolation may not always be consolation. With its complex history shaped by power and conflict, wealth and poverty, privilege and servitude, faith and politics, industry and its decline, there are more ambivalent readings of the region, and these too are aspects of its character.
I don’t know if Lord Howell in some obscure way has intuited this. Possibly not. But it is how we as North-Easterners react to this unexpected opportunity to put ourselves on the map that perhaps tells its own important truth about this region and those of us for whom it is our much-loved home.