Growing up in South London and only ever venturing out for one yearly holiday to Wales or Devon meant that I found myself, at the age of 17, very accustomed to the City. Having only ever heard a ‘Northern’ accent in the context of football or soaps meant this region maintained a sense of novelty throughout my childhood. So, when I accepted an offer from the University of Liverpool to study Medicine, I had little idea of what to expect. No-one around me had ever spent sufficient enough time there to inform or advise me on what it would be like. Of course, it was going to be ‘somewhere new’ and a ‘chance to explore’, but what about the things I cherished about London? What about the diversity, the weather, the busyness...all the things I was used to? Blank expressions from everyone I asked. Well, I guess I would just have to find out for myself.
One of the things that the North is most famous for is the warmth and friendliness of its people. I had previously heard of Londoners being stereotyped as impolite or antisocial and had never quite understood why, as the way Londoners interacted with strangers was the norm for me. Three months into my degree in Liverpool, I understood. Whether it is the elderly woman pausing her walk to ask how your day is going or the builder volunteering to give you directions if you look lost, everyone is hospitable. This was apparent both in public and in the placement environment.
When we began placement in our second year of study, I found that despite the arguably bleak hospital setting, people were often still keen for conversation and pleasantries. When asking to perform examinations or take histories, patients were happy to oblige and often made reference to the fact that they were ‘happy to help’ or that ‘you’ve got to learn from somewhere’. I found this particularly comforting in my formative years and find that even to this the ‘Northern Hospitality’ of patients still helps to put me at ease. Being black, I would be lying if I hadn’t been bracing myself for subtle micro-aggressions or even instances of overt racism based on prior experiences of less-diverse cities. And whilst I cannot say I haven't experienced either, the most common response was friendly curiosity and questioning rather than assumptive statements.
Arguably the best part about moving to the North is just how cheap everything is. Growing up in London, I had never questioned the prices of public transport, and eating out at a restaurant was something I only did on special occasions. In Liverpool, these norms were flipped on their heads. Getting a taxi into the town centre was comparable in price to getting public transport, and even cheaper if you split it with other people. The wide array of affordable independent restaurants made going out to eat, even as a student, a weekly affair. And as for the affordability of rent, the contrast was night and day.
This was most apparent when I moved back to London to intercalate after fourth year and shopped around for places around south/central London and struggled to find anything less than double the price, for less than half the space. It is no surprise that many of my peers who moved from London to study in Liverpool have decided to stay up North for Foundation Training.
It is hard to describe the tranquillity of the North. Despite its status as a major city, Liverpool still manages to maintain a slow, laid back pace to life. Being accustomed to the suffocating crowds on London’s public transport or the gridlocked traffic across Blackheath Common, I often feel spoilt by the wide open, empty spaces and lack of congestion that Liverpool boasts. While it varies depending on the part of the North that you move to, the peace and quiet of the streets, parks and roads in comparison to London is wonderful. Finding a nice green space to sit and catch up with friends or discovering a scenic, uncrowded running route are all easy things to do here and will no doubt be something I miss. This is also a theme that I have found applies to the hospital setting also. Whilst the wards and Emergency departments that I have experienced here have no doubt been incredibly overrun at times, I still see a sharp contrast when compared to my experience of some of London’s hospitals. Likely owing to the large difference in population size (London’s is 8 million whilst Liverpool’s is 500,000), the hospital seldom feels crowded even on particularly busy days.
Whilst the winters are unnecessarily cold and my minority status is amplified, I have grown to appreciate both its strengths and weaknesses. Moving to the North for University was, on paper, a complete 180 on everything that I was used to. Now, six years on, I find myself accustomed to the slower-paced, affable Northern charm and would welcome the idea of returning here in the future.
Article written by Dr Stephen Osei-Osafo, junior doctor in the West Midlands