Seeing poet Kate Fox was doing research for a northern/poetry/comedy show and a ‘How Northern are You? quiz, I read through the list of questions she was trying out for size. It included things like: ‘Have you ever debated the correct term for a bread bun?‘ A highly contentious opener and ‘Do you feel compelled to insert the exact Northern town of a Northern celebrity, after any mention of them?‘ e.g.”Michael Parkinson” ‘He’s from Barnsley you know,’
You can find out how the research has progressed when Kate Fox ‘She’s from Thirsk you know’ visits these parts on the 6th October at Beverley Literature Festival.
In the meantime here is a piece I wrote about an event that took place in Hull April 2014 at the then, recently opened, Kardomah 94. Thanks to Kate for encouraging me to post it – the event has since passed but the issues raised are ever present.
‘I left Hull but London is not the devil,’ – Robert Crampton.
Build it and they will come and they did, in their droves, to Head in a Book’s event What is Northern? A debate between three successful Northern voices, held at Kardomah @ 94 Alfred Gelder Street in Hull. Kardomah was recently the hub for the Heads Up Festival curated by Ensemble 52, tonight the versatile space is converted into a debating hall complete with raised dais for the exciting array of invited guest speakers.
Phil Redmond Brookside creator, BBC Radio 2 Broadcaster Liz Kershaw and The Times columnist Robert Crampton, took their seats positioning themselves as they would appear on a map of the North of England: right to left, Liverpool, Rochdale and Hull. The evening was hosted by the ever-genial writer and theatre-maker Dave Windass.
Before any questions were asked the packed floor were treated to a handful of poems from Hull’s best poet Dean Wilson. With ‘My friend Bruce’ and one about Boyes and monkey bites, he’s very Hull. Any aspiring actor wanting to perfect the ull accent should look no further. I must confess to having not seen Dean before and his musings on the local poetry scene probably explain why.
To get things started each guest had been asked to bring something that represented Northernness to them.
Very often it is the voice by which origins are identified and projected to the world and it is here that Liz Kershaw began. Her object was a CD of the Oldham Tinkers a traditional folk group singing in broad Lancashire accents; not just accent but dialect so much so that when a snippet of the Oldham Tinkers was played, most struggled to understand it. Liz fears that all the old language, dialect and words will be lost as the Northern tongue become homogenised. Cue the chance to wheel out a few words from the Hull dictionary; chowing (telling off) tenfoot (a ginnel) and now let’s put them away.
Much later, when his item had been located, Robert Crampton would produce a small t-shirt with a map of England on the front split into two. One area was marked ‘Right’ our part of the world, and the other was marked ‘Wrong’ —the rest of the country. The crowd loved this simple direct statement of solidarity for their beloved North.
Phil Redmond announced he’d nicked a pen from the offices upstairs; not just any pen but a red pen. The red colour signified the red of revolution; the red of socialism, the red ink of economy and the red editing pen he used on ground-breaking Liverpool soap opera ‘Brookie. ‘
Music and poetry were touched upon with Redmond describing confident Liverpool as being the centre of the universe during the explosion of culture particularly music and Merseybeat in the sixties. On this side of the Pennines we fare a little better when it comes to literature whereas the Northwest had Willy Russel, Alan Bleasdale, The Scaffold of Roger McGough (Phil Redmond’s Geography teacher) Mike McGear (brother of Beatle Paul McCartney) and led by John Gorman: we can boast Andrew Marvell and of course the much lauded Larkin… ‘and Valerie Wood’ a voice calls from the crowd.
Twenty minutes into the debate and we get the first mention of class. ‘Class and Northernness go hand in hand — they are linked to cultural values and the communities you come out of,’ says Robert Crampton. Feeling the need to justify his own position for fear of backlash he follows up with, ‘There are middle class people in the North’ he continues. ‘I left Hull but London is not the devil I like it.’
‘I have given up explaining to be honest’ said Crampton when quizzed on being a Northerner living and working in London who regularly writes positively about Hull in his weekly column. ‘There’s a temptation to behave in a more working class way; people can accept that’
‘Try being a Northerner and wanting to doing serious news broadcasting and you will see just how progressive the BBC is,’ she says with a note of dismay.
Liz Kershaw is speaking from personal experience about the struggles to get regional accents on the airwaves. ‘This woman needs subtitles’ she recalls a colleague saying. Nowadays it pays to be from the North, if you are a disc jockey or covering popular culture that is. However, if it’s news and current affairs you want to do then ‘you are stuffed’ ‘Lets have a Vicky Pollard presenting the Today programme.’
On the same topic Crampton suggests that times and The Times have changed and that other regional voices can be found writing for the paper.
All of the panelists have Northern origins but it soon becomes clear that they don’t necessarily all agree with each other. There’s good-natured ribbing between the three where each tries to assert their superiority in wealth, geographical position and sense of civic pride.
To bring the debate back to some sense of order host Dave Windass asked the panelists to identify what are Northern sensibilities. Redmond began by saying that sociologically Northerners have always spoke inconveniently, whether that be through accent or the weight of truth. ‘It all comes down to the Roman Invasion in AD 50 and Jimmy Corkhill,’ he explains. ‘It’s pragmatism and cynicism in good times and bad, the social struggles that each community faces perhaps points to sentimentality that Scousers are known for.’
Crampton recalls a track from cult band Half Man Half Biscuit “The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train …)” and talks about the distinct qualities of different places in the North. The North has been bypassed by progress and human culture retained.
Liz spoke about a ‘pecking order’ subconsciously or consciously people pigeon-hole northerners ‘You can’t do it with gender, or colour or creed, but you can with Gingers and being from The North,’ she points out. The stereotypes say you must be ‘uneducated, ill-informed; rough trade.’ Crompton hits on class again and the politics of the post industrial era. Where once was industry and manual labour has now been replaced by the changing tides of technology. ‘People are left behind and there-in lies the problem’ he states.
When one of the panelists pointed out, that you don’t necessarily know what you are but you certainly know what you are not, I became aware that, with a sense of identity there was an inbuilt sense of division. This notion led to what was possibly the most critical point of the debate: that for there to be an ‘us’ there had to be a ‘them’. A them whom we can readily distrust and demonise.
There is a historical precedent for the provinces to distrust the power centre. Then begins a discussion that starts with noting the importance of radial links through road and rail from the capital to the rest of the country; then the threat of global identikit high streets; the potency of local pride to retain the indigenous culture and ending with accusations of who was on the right side when it came to the Civil War. Crampton coming from Hull held the ace in that argument.
So looking to Hull, Dave Windass briefly quizzed the panel on the recent City Of Culture award. Phil Redmond who was on the judging panel said it was the notion of ‘Hullness’ that swung it for him coupled with an exciting step change of collaboration, a willingness to experiment and innovate. He suggested that both the football team’s success and the Siemens deal were integral parts of the growing confidence felt within the city and seen by outsiders. Robert Crampton echoed the critical importance of us and them having confidence in Hull, in order to deliver the program and to provide the most opportunities, for communities going forward.
On the question of Independence it was a resounding No for the North Of England to break away. London could go independent and leave the rest of us to get on with it though they joked. Where will the North be in 50 years time? Dave finishes with, to which Robert Crampton responds that the North will rise again to be the workshop of the world. Liz Kershaw said that she hoped that in fifty years time no child in Hull would feel that they couldn’t go places because of the way they speak.
Redmond pointed out that we might all be Russian, then shared a rather utopian view that he hoped in 50 years time, the upmost currency would be based on the quality of life and not monetary.
At the end of almost two hours of discussion, debate and at times argument and counter-argument the debate was opened up to the floor. The main topics covered were the importance of Northern humour in terms of identity, the importance of BBC local radio, local culture initiative Roots and Wings (renamed Art For Hull) and the importance of gathering and preserving local stories. Phil Redmond mentioned that the big institutions had a tendency to bully and pressurize thus making it difficult to get your voice heard, so taking this idea head on I asked my own question.
Looking to the pioneering spirit and that proud sense of Northern invention I asked,’ If it is true that established routes are closed existing structures too rigid then should we not strike out on our own?’ I pointed out that today’s technology allows us to be our own publisher and broadcaster, so why not just do it for ourselves. Interestingly Redmond said if he was starting out today, he wouldn’t look to the traditional institutions for support, he’d be talking directly with Google and Amazon the biggest content providers for the future. Seeing an opportunity to reinforce my position I pointed out that the place where we were, Kardomah had come into being through singular vision, and a need to respond directly to the lack of provision for a changing cultural offer and opportunity. I was reminded by the panel that the major broadcasters including the BBC were marketing machines and I couldn’t possibly hope to compete.
On the question of Benefits Street coming to Hull Redmond reminded us all about the power we all held in the Off Button. There followed a brief discussion on ethics truth and media law, moral panics, media manipulation and the death of traditional routes into the industry. And there the Great Northern Debate must end. By now the crowd had grown quite restless and in need of some refreshment.
I look forward to more from Kardomah @ No. 94 Alfred Gelder Street, Hull, there would certainly appear to be an appetite for it. And when they get the bar in it will be grand.
(Kardomah 94 now boasts a fully licensed bar and a restaurant that serves up delicious culinary delights.)