True North

Here’s the spark to light the fire

Here’s the rope to haul the sail

Here’s the coal to feed the engine

Here’s the strength to build the rail

True North, 2018, Boff Whalley for Commoners Choir

I’ve been wondering lately if I might be a ‘professional Northerner’, an insult sometimes levelled at people from the North of England who are always banging on about how it’s grim up north. Certainly I’ve written one grim book about growing up in the north, I still speak with an accent despite having travelled far and wide, I’m interested in social realism and I’m always going on about inequality. I post a lot of heavy grey skies and dark, satanic hills on Instagram. But I have to be honest, I have long had an ambivalent relationship with my Yorkshire roots. Leeds was grim when I left it in the late 80s for a brighter Europe. If I were to speak plainly, as we Northerners are apt to do, I’d have to say that Leeds was a shithole in the 80s and that Yorkshire had not done me proud economically, emotionally or physically. Even my romantic connection to the landscape was stolen from me at a young age by Damian*, who assaulted me when I was in a happy dream on a hillside, under the beautiful, cloudy, Yorkshire sky, leaving me reluctant to roam freely again.

We journeyed from the Rocket to the Bluebird

Right around the earth

A compass for a heart

The needle points to north (True north)

Points to north (True north)

History’s needle points to north

Despite all of this, I find myself living once again in Yorkshire, near Leeds, and very happy too – loving the landscape, the people, the cities, the life. But something happened two years ago on 23 June that shook me up and keeps me shaking. The whole of the UK will be affected by what happened that day but the North of England voted most strongly for it. (Further north, Scotland voted against it, and time will tell what the effect of that will be), You know what I’m talking about if you are in the UK because even if you put your fingers in your ears and go “la la la” it still seeps in. I can’t bring myself to say the B word, sorry/not sorry so I’ll say that at the time of writing the sound of arguing about how the heck Britain is supposed to organise leaving the European Union is like fingernails on a blackboard, or a malfunctioning house alarm at 4am, a dripping tap, or a screaming baby on a plane… If you are in the US you have your own problems, I sympathise. If you’re in Canada, well aren’t you the lucky one! Everyone else, may I congratulate you on your excellent English, and can I come and live with you?

Grit – the stone beneath us

Grit – to say we dare

Grit – that built our cities

Grit – the badge we wear

Anyway, I’m very much ‘remain’ and oscillate between anger and sympathy with those who voted to leave. I can completely understand why so many people in the North looked around and thought ‘What am I getting out of being in the EU?’ and concluded that as usual, the poor get poorer and work harder while the ‘haves’ blithely go about their business oblivious to the struggle of living on a low income in a region where it rains almost constantly, public transport is prohibitively expensive, and work is either non-existent or insecure and/or undignified. Over the last two years I’ve moved through all the stages of grief over leaving the EU but I know that I will likely be ok, it’s everyone else I’m worried about. I’ve spent enough time working with and listening to people who funders like to call ‘communities’ to know which side my bread is buttered on. However I’ve also spent many happy years living in other EU countries and feel absolutely European. One of my children was born in Spain. In the past I’ve taken advantage of the (free) health service in Spain, the Netherlands and France, I’ve paid my taxes in the Netherlands and Spain and in the present I have publishers in Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands. *Waves to German publishers reading this.

Friendship, humour, pies and cakes. Rugby League, mountains, lakes.

Beatles, Brontes, dry stone wall. Back-to-back and Union Hall

Guts, pride, pluck, spine. Bus-stop queue and picket line.

Brendan Foster, Maxine Peake. The jokes we tell, the way we speak.

Mersey, Humber, Tyne and Tees. Whitby Harbour, Irish Sea.

Kinder Scout, Lister Mill, Skipton Castle, Pendle Hill.

Blackpool Tower, Pennine Way, Sca Fell Pike, Whitley Bay.

Albert Dock, Ilkley Moor, Malham Cove, Wigan Pier.

So I’m finding it hard to swallow this decision made by so many of my fellow Northerners even though I get why they made it. I hate to admit that hearing some of the things people say about why they want to leave the EU has made me feel ashamed to be from the north, because it’s a place I feel to be full of promise and I’m dismayed to find it full of aggression and hatred. The promise of the North has been undermined by government policy for decades but I find it hard to see why this situation will improve if we leave the EU. I am not convinced our independence will make way for a socialist government and kill off neoliberalism in our country (which is what I’ve been told by fellow leftists). I suspect the opposite will happen, and as under Thatcherism, certain parts of the north of England will suffer most. Not the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, which voted to remain (Leeds was split almost exactly in half) but the small towns that have the money and resources sucked out of them by the big greedy cities. In the North money and resources are limited; there’s not enough to go round. Surely then, we are aiming at the wrong target? It’s our own UK government we need to apply pressure to? Whatever. These arguments have been raging for a long time and I’ve no interest in fuelling them but I want to tell you I’ve been finding it hard to feel good about being Northern lately not to mention also betrayed by my neighbours and by my government.

By the river, on the High Street, mixing chemicals after dark

See John Walker**, with gum and sulphur, change the world with a tiny spark

Here are some of the results of the referendum. For the uninitiated the overall result for the UK was 51.9% leave and 48.1 remain. All results are the proportion that voted to leave, you can work out the remain figure for yourself.

Barnsley 68.3%, Barrow 60.6%, Blackpool 67.5%, Bolton 58.3%, Bradford 54.2%, Burnley 66.6%, Calderdale 55.7%, Carlisle 60.1%, Chesterfield 60%, Chorley 56.8%, Corby 64.2%, Darlington 56.2%, Doncaster 69%, Durham 57.5%, East Lindsey 70.7%, East Riding Yorkshire 60.4%, Gateshead 56.8%, Hartlepool 69.6%, Hyndburn 66.2%, Kingston Upon Hull 67.6, Kirklees 54.7, Lincoln 56.9%, Mansfield 70.9%, Middlesborough 65.5, North East Lincolnshire 69.9%, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford 69.3%, North Tyneside 53.4%, Northumberland 54.1%, Oldham 60.9%, Pendle 63.2%, Peterborough 60.9%, Preston 53.3%, Redcar and Cleveland 66.2%, Rochdale 60.1%, Rotherham 67.9%, Salford 56.8%, Scarborough 62%, Selby 59.2%, South Tyneside 62%, St Helens 58%, Stockton on Tees 61.7%, Sunderland 61.3%, Wakefield 66.4%, Warrington 54.3%, West Lindsey 61.8%, Wigan 63.9%.

Here’s the hands that wrote the stories

Here’s the arms that mined the coal

And here’s a thousand government ministers

That gave us bugger all

Bugger all, bugger all, bugger all, bugger all, etc.

It’s worth pointing out that Doncaster (69% leave) has had a direct, fast, frequent connection to London by train for decades but this has made no difference to the local economy. Also Gateshead (56.8%) and Wakefield (66.4%) both have major art museums, in fact Wakefield has two! Meanwhile Castleford (69.3) erstwhile home to Glasshoughton Colliery on which now sits a fantastic development called Xscape where people with money can go indoor ski-ing, dangling from high wires and other convoluted pursuits that would put Aldous Huxley to shame, employs not the local people (well, maybe as cleaners) but primarily students from the Universities in Leeds who commute there in 27 minutes by train. (Anecdotal, I always ask when I’m there. My Mother-in-Law lives nearby and we take her there to eat sometimes.)

The grit we have in common and the grit stuck in the lens.

The grit where flattened a’s begin and BBC pronunciation ends.

So, to the point of this blog post (“Finally” I hear you shout at the screen “stop waffling and get on with it”) Well, thanks for your patience, I want to tell you I’m in a choir. Commoners Choir. I’m a bit of a part timer as I’m quite busy these days but I love them dearly. Our conductor/composer Boff Whalley calls us a singing newspaper. We sing about things that matter. We’ve done a tour of libraries singing about mechanical moveable type, we’ve dressed as monks and sung about Boris Johnson (you’ll have to google it) and lately we’ve sung about the North.

In June 2018 there was a ‘Great Festival of the North’ in Newcastle and Gateshead and Commoners Choir were proud to take part (Once BAE systems had been removed as a sponsor). Boff worked with three choirs and a couple of commoners to develop a collaborative work about the things the north can be proud of. It really is a work of genius in so many ways. It’s now my favourite commoner song. You’ve already seen the lyrics on this blog post. Singing this makes my scalp tingle. I want to beat my chest and run around shouting. It has made me proud once more to be a northerner and I think it is a salutary lesson in national pride to those who can only process their pride through a jingoistic, vaguely (or overtly) xenophobic, angry and belligerent lens. This is a song of joy and wonder at the amazing achievements of the industrial north. The role it played in making the world a better place for ordinary people. It’s a song that celebrates the cultural input of northern musicians. It’s a song that make you glad to be alive.

Here’s the sound of spinning Jenny

Here’s the Luddites to burn the mill.

Here’s the valleys cut by navvies

From the factories to the hills

I wasn’t able to make the one-time-only gig in Gateshead, the only time the song was to be performed live*** as I was out of the country at the time. So I was glad that there was to be another one-time-only gig at my favourite Leeds cinema the Hyde Park Picture House. What a treat to be able to see a short documentary about the making of the song, hear from the directors, witness a moving piano/film piece by Jill Gibbons on the Ethics of the Arms Trade and sing alongside my fellow commoners, the Manchester She Choir and Teeside’s Infant Hercules. All 70 of us on the tiny stage. If you missed the screening and want a chance to hear the whole song and find out more about how and why it was conceived the documentary True North – The Story of a Song, directed by Phil Moody and Carolyn Edwards, is available on YouTube here. Below, you’ll find a gallery of photos of me and the other commoners at the screening.

I’ll finish here by saying if you have any comments, please do so below the blog post, or contact me on twitter. All blog post comments are moderated so please be patient.

* Read Becoming Unbecoming if you haven’t already. ** John Walker (1781–1859), born in County Durham, invented matches. *** As you can see, you can’t always take us at our word

2 responses to “True North”

  1. travellingpoetsunion says:

    thank you for weighing in on this (my understatement) ‘weighty’ topic. you have added some texture to it; helping me understand a tad more.
    …and the choir: its passion, music, and singing make it all ok, if only for the moment….Blessings

    • Thanks! I think this post has been brewing for a while. It’s a constant source of conversation in our house. The choir though, really help a lot of people.

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