Expert Opinion

Is it really grim up north?

Last week, PhD students Michael Reeve and Andrew McTominey hosted an event at the Leeds Library to explore how regional identity is expressed across the North of England. In this blog post, they share their experience of the successful event.

Published on 20 Sep 2016

When we began to think about hosting a symposium, the theme of regional and local identity was foremost in our minds. As proud Northerners, we felt that studies of Northern identity were not as prominent as they could be. This is not to say that excellent studies have not been done, for example in the area of sports history. However, we felt, and still feel, that there is more to be done. It also felt apt at a time when issues such as regional devolution and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ are at the forefront of people’s minds. Regional identity, particularly in the North, does not seem far from the surface of contemporary political discourse. The title ‘Grim up North?’ followed quite naturally.

Much of the success of the symposium, we feel, came from the strong interdisciplinary nature of the papers given by our excellent speakers. Our first panel looked at the role of identity in detail. William Marshall started the symposium by exploring how Yorkshire’s regional identity formed and solidified through both internal and external reinforcement of stereotypes and cultural tropes. Jack Southern provided a re-evaluation of the Lancashire cotton industry by using regional identity as a lens to view social relations in Burnley and Nelson, areas that have so far been defined primarily by economic analysis. Anna Feintuck moved us north of the border by examining the permeability of Leith’s urban boundaries, an area that is distinct socially and culturally from Edinburgh, within in which it resides. All three papers highlighted the worth of using identity as a lens to view social and cultural relations.

The second panel was named ‘T’others’. This was less to do with the lack of a thematic link between the papers, and more to do with how each paper, in one way or another, discussed marginality in the North. Adelle Stripe examined the life of the playwright Andrea Dunbar and how her work was influenced by her experiences growing up in Bradford, and simultaneously how her work came to define Bradford through its portrayal on stage and screen. Rhiannon Pickin looked at how ideas of Northern identity are expressed in museums of crime and punishment. This included the ways in which ideas of Northernness are reinforced through the visitor experience, exploring the cycle of identity contained within visitor expectations, as well as exploring curators’ perspectives on what visitors want to see. Tosh Warwick rounded out the panel by exploring the effects of the 1966 World Cup in two Northern host locations, Sheffield and Middlesbrough. This included how the towns, linked by the industrial production of steel, were seen through an international gaze, and how notions of Northern identity were reinforced by a diverse array of visitors from as far afield as Argentina, Italy and North Korea.

The final session examined Northern heritage and the urban landscape. Ann Barrass presented her research on the wanderer and how urban landmarks can present notions of Northern identity. By employing psycho-geography, she explored her personal relationship with the built environment of Leeds and how this methodology can help to explain feelings of Northernness. Catherine Flinn, kindly stepping in late in the day to fill a space, examined post-war reconstruction in Hull. This explored the local authority’s struggle in implementing a planned reworking of Hull, which would have seen the city vastly changed, and how the plan ultimately fell by the wayside. The symposium was rounded off with a keynote from Professor Barry M. Doyle, of the University of Huddersfield. He presented his research on health provision and hospitals during the inter-war period in the North. 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 post-war Welfare State. By focussing on areas of the North, all three papers sought to show how ideas of Northern identity have come to symbolise these areas, and, in the case of the latter two, how this can be misleading.

Two major themes emanated from the symposium. Firstly, most, if not all, the papers to some degree examined how ideas of identity are reinforced both internally and externally. The second theme, which was evidenced as much by the audience attendance and a brief interview with BBC Radio Leeds as by the papers, was that ideas of Northernness still resonate strongly. As well as maintaining popular currency, many of the papers, in conjunction with the radio interview, underlined the complexity of concepts such as ‘Northern identity’ or ‘local identity’. Often people who live within the same city have different interpretations of what constitutes a Northerner, as well as the stock they place in a city- or region-based identity. At a time when identity is increasingly in flux due to regional devolution and the fallout of Brexit, how we identify with the area we inhabit, and how that is measured against other places, is incredibly important to people. Examining this through an interdisciplinary lens helps us to see how these ideas came to be, how they are expressed through culture, and how we relate to them in the present.

Thanks to our speakers, our audience members, chairs, the Leeds Library and financial support from the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Beckett University, the AHRC Heritage Consortium, and the Society for the Study of Labour History. This was a very successful event and our hope is that this conversation will be continued into the future.

Co-organiser Michael Reeve’s interview with BBC Radio Leeds can be accessed here (listen after 9 mins).

Andrew McTominey

Andrew studied jointly at Leeds Beckett and the University of Huddersfield. His PhD investigated the history of the Washburn Valley reservoirs, built predominantly in the late 19th Century to supply water to the city of Leeds, and the social and cultural effects of their construction on the area. He is a former part-time lecturer at Leeds Beckett.

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