I recently learned of the death of an old, wise man on the other side of the world, the father of one my dearest friends. He once told me how he had owned a small island, but sold it cheaply because he couldn’t get lemons to grow there. The man who bought it built a tourist resort on it and made his fortune, but my friend’s father didn’t mind, because he only wanted to grow lemons. To him, it was still worthless.

It troubles me when someone wants to be great at everything, all the time. I’ve read too many CVs that portray some overachieving polymath with shamanic insights into their work. It would be refreshing to find a job applicant who said, ‘I’m really great at metalwork, but if you’re also looking for experience in Excel you’d do better employing a squirrel.’

Genius is wilfully inconsistent. Take David Bowie, for example. Most of his work is nothing special and some of it is just awful, but being occasionally, utterly brilliant is enough to secure his immortality. For my money, time will judge him to be the greatest of all pop musicians on the basis of just a handful of songs, but also for his willingness to overstretch, fall and try again, and every once in a while hit a spot that no-one else can hope to reach. We need to cut genius the slack it needs to take risks and not be afraid to fail.

The same is true of places. If your island grows good lemons, don’t waste it on tourists. Which brings me, at a tangent, to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Do you know what it is? Would you recognise it if you passed it in the street? Would it have the shiny blandness worn by, say, the Capita building on the Parkway, or would it have a big, dark, snarling attitude like Forgemasters?

It all started in the mind of George Osborne’s speechwriter, and it’s a case study in the old idea that if you say something often enough, it becomes real. The concept is that if the big cities of the North could grow their economies faster, London wouldn’t have to subsidise them. Well, it’s an idea, but it’s pushing completely against the trend of the UK economy, where money is made from capital sitting around in property and finance, not from making stuff. Making stuff is actually what the North is still doing very well.

London sees the Northern Powerhouse as centred on Manchester, and now other parts of the country are clamouring to call themselves powerhouses too. It’s bit like David Bowie having a big hit and loads of other artists changing their surname to Bowie. The architectural equivalent of this happened up in Gateshead a few years ago, when the proud, iconic Baltic Flour Mill suddenly found herself surrounded by blocks of flats that crudely mimicked her industrial beauty. Someone made a lot of money, but the world became a slightly lesser place, a victim to such a vacuum of imagination.

The North’s star used to burn much brighter, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t come back. Manchester reputedly invented factories, Sheffield made all the world’s steel and Liverpool was the most important harbour on the planet, but they achieved this because they each exploited the uniqueness of their geography. Read the economic strategies of any town or city and it’s depressingly obvious they’re all chasing the same slice of a half-eaten pie. They want to be leading lights in the ‘knowledge economy’, but they forget that to have a niche you have to know something other people don’t, something they defer to you about.

To make a place work, you have to know it. That’s where the knowledge economy starts. You can’t go poaching someone else’s ideas. If the genie bursts out of the bottle in Swindon, there’s no point asking it to grant you wishes in Huddersfield. If you want Sheffield to thrive in the knowledge economy, you need to be armed with some clues as to why its industrial heart still beats, why its music is so distinctive, why its people are so rebellious, why it’s as close to its countryside as Siamese twins. And why there’s very little hope of growing lemons.

@andrewthewood

Andrew Wood