Today sees the start of York’s Festival of Ideas and with the event’s theme being north and south. MATT CLARK explores a commonly held urban myth

IT’S probably only right that an event calling itself a festival of ideas should have an eclectic mix of things to discuss and from today York will be alive with disparate debates from Alfred the Great to Barnes Wallis, climate change to the welfare state.

But organisers say the major theme of this year’s festival will be the “growing gulf between the north and south in Britain”.

Hmm, haven’t they been to Harrogate, York or North Leeds, or indeed any of the commuter villages in North Yorkshire’s Golden Triangle? Of course hardship exists in the north, especially in Bradford, Liverpool and Manchester, but look deeper and the emerging picture is not a simple case of polar geography.

The charity End Child Poverty published new figures in February which suggest that Jaywick in Essex and Tower Hamlets are England’s most deprived places to live and even leafy Islington is not immune, coming in at fifth worst, with a third of its children subsisting below the breadline.

Then there is Cornwall, not somewhere that immediately springs to mind but away from the million-pound coastal villas, real hardship exists.

In fact Cornwall is so poor that it will receive another round of grants from Brussels from 2014, despite already receiving around £1 billion since the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile End Child Poverty names Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency as the lowest for child poverty at below five per cent.

The true picture of our divided nation reveals deep pockets of poverty everywhere and on Saturday we’ll hopefully get some perspective on such broad-brush north-south claims when journalist Paul Morley takes to the stage at the University of York.

Morley is in town on the back of his latest book aptly called The North; an extraordinary mixture of memoir and history, which offers a unique insight into how we, as a nation, classify the unclassifiable.

Critics have called The North as funny as Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories and as poetic as Simon Armitage’s All Points North, and yet it’s nothing like either, this is a memoir like no other.

Morley grew up in Reddish, less than five miles from Manchester and says since the age of seven, he was old enough to form an identity, but too young to be aware that ‘southern’ was a category.

So on Saturday he will explore what it means to be northern, and why those who consider themselves to be so, believe it so strongly.

“It’s more about my north in a number of places geographically; an extraordinary patch of land between two seas where remarkable things happen,” he says. “It’s an abstract definition of pride and defiance; of an impatience with other places to catch up with us.”

As examples of leading the way Morley includes the Industrial Revolution and writing – Tristram Shandy and Robinson Crusoe, he says, were the earliest ideas of the novel and very northern in style.

Then there are the rivalries between great northern cities but always coming together in the face of adversity and a general air of bloody-mindedness. Manchester wanting to be a port, so it built the ship canal.

“For me the south means the institutions not people. London is becoming more and more indifferent, rather like Monaco and different voices need to be heard to make this a healthier place.

“I see the north as a metaphor for these other voices, but not necessarily on this patch of land. A place not at the centre of things but always striving to find a voice.”

Morley also believes the north-south divide is an insane concept. After all, he says, most places in England are barely more than a couple of hours apart.

But he does hold with the south perpetuating the myth in self-interest. maybe even as an excuse to ignore the woes found in its collective backyards by painting a bleaker than necessary picture of all points north of the M25.

“The north talks about itself to say we’re here. I love the spirit of ambition and adventure and the closest we ever came to revolution has been in the north. “However, there’s also the Albert Tatlock approach; of not fighting back and letting the grim northern myth perpetuate.”

Then of course there are the bits southerners conveniently choose to ignore, the Wilmslows, Harrogates and Cheadles.

“Yes of course and it’s another element to confuse the divide, with landscapes and districts as well to do as any in the Home Counties. To me seeing leaf-lined avenues creates ambition. My dad was always looking to go from semi to detached.” Wife in the North author and blogger Judith O’Reilly will also share the stage on Saturday to describe the uniqueness of living up north.

Although a Leeds lass by birth and educated in York, Judith spent nearly two decades in London as a newspaper journalist and TV political producer. “Every year my husband asked if we could move north and every year I said no, because my career was in London, and I loved London,” she says.

But after 17 ‘asks’ Judith finally relented and the couple relocated to Northumberland.

At first she struggled with the isolation, missing friends left behind and to make matters worse she was seven months pregnant. “As a sort of therapy I set up my Wife in the North blog, not for an audience but I think if you have something to say there is an obligation to say it.”

However, almost overnight her readership went from zero to 15,000; within a fortnight she had struck a book deal and in printed form her blog made the top ten for five weeks.

“Some asked how dare I criticise the north, saying it’s grim up here, but those people hadn’t read it.”

Indeed so. On her blog Judith actually asks just how grim can it get up north, before self-answering her own question with: ‘Actually, it’s quite nice,’ Now the life decision to remain has been made. No going back south and her son has even developed a strong Geordie accent.

“There was the isolation of going from city to country,” says Judith. “But once I accepted that life was different it all got to be much easier.”

With readings and Q&A sessions, Judith, like Morley, will also attempt to define what it means to be a northerner. “For me it’s like being a Catholic. With that comes rituals, education and awareness and in the same way being a northerner informs who you are.

“You can’t escape it.”

• Living up North with Paul Morley and Judith O’Reilly, Ron Cooke Hub, University of York, Saturday, 7pm. Free admission.

• The festival will be launched at 6.30pm tonight with a free lecture by historian Peter Watson, whose book The Great Divide delves back 15,000 years to examine how the people of the Old World (Eurasia) and New World (Americas) came to be separated.

There will be more than 120 events across the city – many free, and featuring leading thinkers, scientists, writers and artists.

They include:

• Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet

• Broadcaster and novelist Melvyn Bragg

• Art critic and broadcaster Brian Sewell

• Aardman Animations’ Peter Lord on the making of Wallace and Gromit, as well as hit feature films such as The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists

• Dr Mark Brandon, the scientific adviser behind the BBC’s Frozen Planet TV series, explaining the importance of scientific discoveries made during polar exploration.

For a full calendar of events and to check ticket availability visit: