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‘Looking North – Northern England and the National Imagination’ – Dave Russell (Manchester University Press)
This is an extremely well researched exploration of the North of England’s impact upon the national imagination and within cultural fields such as film, music, prose writing, drama etc. I’ve distilled some of the interesting points and quotes that crop up in the book below (statistics, evidence and more in-depth analysis can be found within the book). It’d be great to hear your responses and if it provokes any ideas that you think we could develop further.
‘The North’ can be expressed as a ‘shared consciousness’, which include shared myths, shared experiences, common interests, values and reference points and distinctive historical memories. It is extremely fragile and secondary to other systems of identification – ‘family’, ‘street’, ‘town’ and ‘nation’ usually come first. It has limitations as an intellectual construct, but continues to possess considerable emotional and imaginative resonance. It continues to be the nation’s most powerful regional identity.
Northern fiction – ‘the negotiation of ideas about the North’.
Creative artists from the North of England – ‘architects of a popular regional consciousness.’
The North has generally intruded in the national cultural imagination when it was troubled or troublesome. There are four particular periods of intensified interest – 1840s-1850s; the 30s; 1957 – 1964; the 1980s. All bar the third period was when the North of England region was experiencing intense economic difficulty and generating major political challenges, including working class mobilisation.
Historically, The North of England [from a metropolitan perspective] has been seen, and continues to be seen, as ‘other’, ‘backward’ and ‘lower status’. It is unusual and discomfiting for a huge segment of English people to find themselves as ‘other’. This is largely a result of images that have formed over the course hundreds of years and which are firmly established.
There is a [cultural]tradition of the North of England, and its major cities, of being cast as the site of innovation, of challenge, and an alternative to the old order. ‘A breath of fresh air.’ Of bringing a spirit of competitiveness, resolve, wit and community spirit that the nation needs in all spheres.
Overwhelmingly, the cultural depiction and study of this area of the country has been from a metropolitan perspective. ‘The North’ within the national imagination has largely been constructed within the South.
In terms of fiction writing, writers from the North of England have been underrepresented.
The landscape within the overwhelming majority of cultural representations has been the urban, industrial North.
70% of regional novels between 1800 and 2000 were located in Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Notions of the North as essentially industrial and proletarian run deep.
‘Authenticity’, ‘realism’ and ‘social hardship and serious social issues’ continue to be synonymous with North of England representations within popular culture.
The general pattern is clear [within fiction] – London is the arena for the pursuit of excitement and personal ambition, set against a restricted North that was only to be returned to as sanctuary, consolation or after a suitably life enhancing experience.
There is overwhelming evidence that London has been a talent drain [for people within the creative industries, particularly writers], crippling a major source of the artists’ inspiration and removing much of their distinctiveness. ‘There is a strong sense that if you don’t make it or live in London that you are somehow second rate.’ Melvyn Bragg.
The North of England has the largest range of distinctive accents than any other part of the country.
The assumption – outside of the North of England – that a northern accent is by definition a working class accent remains strong.
The North of England has a rich amateur and communal music-making culture: the brass band movement in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North East; the choral movement in Yorkshire and folk music in Northumbria.
Since the 1960s, and particular in recent history, music has provided the region with some of its most potent cultural, symbolic and psychic capital and earned some of the most positive external respect.
In the modern era, leisure and popular culture have a far more powerful purchase than ever before [in terms of North of England iconography].
Northern industrial/urban tourism is largely ‘placeless’ – they are experiences that could be anywhere.
‘It will be interesting to see…how far new economic ambitions will drive the North to divest itself of its associations with the industrial and commercial past that defined its once distinctive place in English culture and what the consequences of Northern self identity might be.’
Main image: the amazing John Bulmer.