Grim up North? Northern Identity, History & Heritage symposium review

The Leeds Library, 16 September 2016

Michael Reeve and Andrew McTomineygrim1

A suitably grim and rainy day greeted us on the morning of 16 September, as attendees and presenters from across the UK descended upon the city of Leeds for the inaugural Grim up North? Symposium. After taking over ten months of organisation and preparation, we were excited to finally meet those that had kindly come forward to present elements of their excellent research, as well as those attending to take part in a dynamic, interdisciplinary discussion of Northern identity, history and heritage. Taking place amid the eighteenth-century splendour of the Leeds Library (a subscription library in the heart of Leeds city centre, founded in 1768), we had the perfect venue for debate and discussion on the subject of Northernness.

The span of presentations and attendees was suitably eclectic, especially given the broad remit of the symposium, including speakers from a variety of geographic areas, universities and academic disciplines. Beginning with mostly historians in the first panel, the symposium went on to encompass work by heritage practitioners, artists and a prominent poet. Its themes were especially pertinent, given ongoing contemporary debates around the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the nature of belonging in the post-Brexit context.

The symposium began with a panel exploring notions of Northern identity in detail. William Marshall examined the use of stereotypes of ‘Yorkshireness’ in the construction of regional identities, underlining the interplay of internal and external factors through a fascinating discussion of satirical cartoons and poetry. This included an early twentieth-century definition of ‘Yorkshire morality’ – ‘See all, hear all, say nowt./ Eat all, drink all pay nowt…’ – a code that many Yorkshire folk may attest to still live by. Jack Southern followed this with an analysis of the Lancashire cotton industry in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, using regional identity as a tool for unpicking social relations in Burnley and Nelson. This provided a refreshing perspective in an area that has relied, in the main, on economic analysis. The panel was completed by Anna Feintuck, who took us north of the border to Leith, exploring the actual and imagined mapping of urban space and its impact on local identity. This was an important contribution, as it provided an interesting and complementary case study from outside of the assumed English orbit of Northernness, showing that many of the ideas underpinning Northern and regional identities have been shared across boundaries within Britain.

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The second panel sought to explore notions of marginality in the Northern context. This was reflected in its tongue-in-cheek title, “T’Others”, taken from Yorkshire dialect and influenced by the work of Edward Said on the ‘Other’. Adelle Stripe focussed on the figure of playwright Andrea Dunbar, whose works explored the grim realities of working-class life in West Yorkshire during the 1970s and ‘80s. Adelle presented the Dunbar’s brash social realism alongside a discussion of press coverage of her work, which often sought to vilify the ‘genius of the slums’ for her use of expletives and sexual content, as well as her humble beginnings outside of the London theatre world. Rhiannon Pickin followed, with a presentation focussed on representations of Northern identity in Yorkshire crime and punishment museums, with case studies of Ripon Museum and York Castle Museum. This presentation examined the role played by regional museums in cultivating a regional identity, by acquainting people with their shared past. Tosh Warwick completed this panel with a similar nod to the use of local heritage in popular representations of industrial towns and cities. Focussing on the ‘Ironopolis’ and ‘Steel City’ of Middlesbrough and Sheffield respectively, this paper explored the interconnections of local authorities with the local press and other agencies in using the platform of the 1966 football World Cup to celebrate local culture and industrial success. Importantly, similarities and differences were traced between the versions of Northernness witnessed in Middlesbrough and Sheffield as host cities, underlining the nuances and continual contestation of elements of Northern identity.

The final panel took heritage as its specific focus, beginning with Ann Barrass’s investigative process of walking the city in order to understand the mapping of Northernness onto the contours of the urban environment. She did this through interpretation of photographs taken in and around Leeds, as well as using her own observations to inspire vivid artworks, suggesting the vital role played by the visual in sustaining collective memories and identities in the North. Catherine Flinn, kindly stepping in to fill a vacated space in the programme, explored post-war planning and reconstruction in Hull and its consequences for local heritage, suggesting that local authorities failed the grasp the importance of maintaining the near-destroyed markers of Hull’s history, lost in the haze of modernist planning agendas. The symposium was rounded off with a keynote lecture from Professor Barry M. Doyle of the University of Huddersfield. He presented his research on Northern health provision and hospitals during the inter-war period. By examining health statistics and looking at hospitals themselves during the period, he argued against the commonly-held notion that healthcare only improved after the implementation of the full Welfare State in 1948. By focussing on areas of the North, all three papers sought to show how ideas of Northern industrial identity have come to symbolise these areas, and, in the case of the latter two, how some prevalent interpretations of urban areas in history lack the depth needed to fully understand the warp and weft of social change in the twentieth century.

We would like to wholeheartedly thank all our speakers and attendees for making Grim up North? a fantastic and engaging event. We are also thankful to the Leeds Library for providing a wonderful venue and helpful staff throughout the symposium. This event would also not have been possible if not for the financial assistance of the Heritage Consortium, the Centre for Culture and the Arts (Leeds Beckett University) and the Society for the Study of Labour History. Our hope is that similar events and outputs will follow in the future, and that the conversations we began at the symposium will continue unabated at a time when local and regional identities are very much part of the political agenda.

Co-organiser Michael Reeve was interviewed by BBC Radio Leeds on the day of the symposium, in a lunchtime discussion about Northern identity. Listen to the debate here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p045y88s (begin after 9 minutes).

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