Eric Pickles, Über-northerner

At a time when the Government, especially the Tory side of it, is being pummelled by accusations that it is out of touch, Pickles is a rare voice of authenticity.

Matt Chorley interviewing Eric Pickles for The Independent

Ahm from oop north, me. Therefore ah speak as ah find and if there’s owt yer don’t like about it, yer can fook reet off, yer soft southerner.

I am in fact genuinely from the north of England, Carlisle to be precise. However, while I had planned to do the whole of this post in a hammy pretend northern dialect, I can’t keep it up. While I might have an accent, that’s not actually how we talk or write unless we’re on Coronation Street (which is, in any case, a show about southerners, at least if you’re from Cumbria) or unless we’re MPs trying to show we have the common touch. Oh, and unless we’re writing the ‘Nobbut laiking’ column in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald (‘a Cumbrian view on topics near and far’ – I bet David Cameron devours it every Saturday).

I have, to be fair, long since abandoned my northern salt-of-the-earth credentials. Not because I moved down south and went native (I actually live in a much worse area than I did when growing up in the wilds of Penrith). No, the trouble is, like many northerners, I failed to do the decent thing and turn into a narrow-minded, right-wing, tactless tosser the moment I reached adulthood. I am, alas, not the kind of person who “speaks as she finds” and “calls a spade a spade”. I am, on the contrary, the kind of person who expresses opinions without referring to the place I was born as some kind of random justification for potentially offensive views. Moreover, I’m the kind of person who’s so averse to posing as a righteous northern thicko that I even know the etymological origins of “calling a spade a spade”; it’s the French “appeler une pelle une pelle”. I bet Eric Pickles doesn’t know that (except he probably does; bet he’s a right posho behind the scenes).

Eric Pickles is one of those political über-northerners. Indeed, you look at him and wonder how you ever thought two-jags/jabs Prescott was bad. I could never be like that (see previous post on being a feminist, atheist, republican woman of the people). I wouldn’t want to be like Pickles either, though. It seems to require a huge amount of posturing and dishonesty, combined with a total lack of concern for how other people think and feel. You become an apologist for precisely the people who don’t give a shit about policies that disadvantage people from poorer areas, many of which are, of course, oop north. Here’s Pickles on David Cameron and George Osborne:

Just because you’ve got a bob or two or been educated at a good school, I don’t think that disqualifies you from wanting to do something about the lives of people who don’t.

In a formal scenario, the average northerner would say “Just because you are rich and have been educated at a private school”. Honest! We use normal words! And yes, while everyone uses colloquialisms specific to where they come from, people tend to adjust their register in response to different situations. For instance, I don’t go into meetings at work and say “I’d like to invest a bob or two in X”. The only time you’d use colloquialisms in formal context – say, an interview with the Independent – would be to make a point about how you’re still in touch with your roots. You might have betrayed an entire social class, but you still know the lingo. You’re still Eric from the Block.

Matt Chorley conducted the Independent interview with Pickles. He probably got selected on the basis of his surname, on the assumption that Pickles would say “Chorley? Aye, ‘appen ah’ll talk to a lad wi’ a name like that” (one presumes Pickles isn’t so northern as to raise the War of the Roses as an objection). Chorley (the man, not the place) is clearly in awe of Pickles:*

If Eric Pickles came round to your house and declared: “You’re ruining your life – get yourself sorted”, you’d sit up and take notice.

Well of course I would. I’d want to tell him to stop being such a judgmental ignoramus but I’d be scared. After all, he’s massive (perhaps Matt Chorley is scared, too. After all, “Pickles can switch from jolly uncle to “Don’t mess with me” in an instant”. Well, that’s the kind of consistency you want from someone making major decisions about other people’s lives).

Chorley describes Pickles as “a straight-talking, northern bit of rough to offset an ultra-smooth, privately educated leader”. To be honest, if we hammed it up a bit, that could be me and my partner. We could spice up our sex lives by indulging in a bit of Cameron and Pickles role play (I still haven’t been in the mood since reading half of Fifty Shades of Grey). Actually, I’d probably love playing the Pickles role. In-between steamy sessions, I could lay into my sons’ cuddly toys for being no-good layabouts, “fluent in social work” (whatever that means).

Like any full-on über-northerner, Pickles loves attacking “political correctness”:

Politicians of all parties have “run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame”. All sorts of verbal contortions have been deployed in lieu of plain speaking.

One presumes these aren’t the kind of verbal contortions that involve describing mega-rich old Etonians as having “a bob or two”, but a different kind. The kind used by those whom Chorley obediently describes as “the Gruffalo-reading, Baby Gap-loving generation of parents”, who are dead soft and presumably all southern. The kind of people who might question Pickles’s stitmatising, blame-ridden approach to mending Broken Britain, but who, Chorley writes, “may well struggle to suggest an alternative”.

To be honest, as a Gruffalo-reading and Baby Gap-sock-buying parent, I do struggle to suggest an alternative to this particular method of recasting doing fuck all as in fact saving people from themselves. It’s really fucking, or even fookin’, ingenious. Ooh, you’ve really rolled up your sleeves, mucked in, told it like it is, cracked on, shown some common sense, made the hard decisions, not minced your words blah blah blah. Hell, I’m impressed. Really fookin’ impressed. Labeling 120,000 families as “troubled” while using John Wayne as inspiration and sticking a photo of Che Guevara in your office “to remind me that if I’m not constantly vigilant, the cigar-chomping commies will be back”. I’m impressed, and I’m really fookin’ scared.

The thing is, I might read a bit of Julia Donaldson, but I also come from a troubled family, with people who’ve been on benefits for decades and never, ever worked. I’m not going into any major details here because they’re my family. Plus, scratch the surface, and you’ll find stories much more complex than anything that can be captured by a homely, northern “get the fook to work!” anecdote. But it doesn’t matter anyhow. I just remembered – my dad’s a barrister. We are middle-class! Sod the “troubled” label! The rest of us can do whatever the hell we like! (Thanks, Dad.)

“A rare voice of authenticity.” Eric Pickles, you offer the hammiest, stupidest, meanest parody of northern identity that I’ve ever encountered. And now, allow me to appeler une pelle une pelle when I say: fuck off.

*Actually, my nan lives in Chorley. Chorley (the place, not the man) probably is also in awe of pickles (the foodstuff, not the man). At least, my nan likes them.