Byline: SARAH JUDD reports
"I ALWAYS fancied myself as a painter, but life has a habit of working out differently," said Michael Smith, whose first novel, The Giro Playboy, was described as a 21st century beat classic in the making.
Michael moved from his native Hartlepool to study art history in London 13 years ago.
After stepping out of the world of Andy Capp, monkey mascots and old industry, the 30-something writer published his much-acclaimed novel and never looked back - until now.
Cue the first episode of his BBC series Citizen Smith, in which he scours the four corners of England in search of a modern-day definition of nationality - beginning (where else?) - in Hartlepool.
"When I grew up, the North seemed irredeemably grim - no hope," he said.
"But now it seems confidence and optimism are returning."
So begins his discovery of "a brave new England that seems packaged, digestible, cuddly and less threatening."
Yet according to Michael, this brave new world is still littered with the contradictions that make England unique.
"Opposites are allowed to exist cheek by jowl in England," he explained. "In London there are million pound mansions next door to condemned crack dens.
"There are futuristic skyscrapers next door to tiny Norman churches that were Shakespeare's parish church.
"In France they would've knocked it down and built a long boring boulevard."
Explaining what inspired his journey to uncover "Englishness," Michael, who admits to being "unfashionably patriotic," said: "It confuses and troubles me. I love England but it worries me.
"You automatically get boxed into a corner of being a reactionary xenophobe if you express patriotic sentiments.
"But people forget England stands for tolerance and liberty and spreads progressive ideals we take for granted. That's what I'm proud of."
Making the programme was a demonstration of the patriotism and strong-feeling Michael - who was wrongly described as a "cheeky Geordie" by the programme's promoters - has for his nation. …