Book Review: Geordies

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Geordies: Roots and Regionalism by Robert Colls, Bill Lancaster, Alan Plater
Edinburgh University Press, 192 pp, 1992, ISBN 978-1904794127

Studies suggest that the public believe that there is something warm, welcoming and benignly reassuring about the accents of the North East. It is for this reason that enormous corporations such as EE have set up call centres there, and why the Samaritans have a predilection for Geordie volunteers. Characterised by a soft, almost musical quality, North Eastern accents are unlike any other in England. For many people, particularly those in the South, they no doubt bring to mind the likes of Jimmy Nail, Steve Cram and Gazza—those kindly, altogether benevolent characters who, though a bit uncouth perhaps, could never really be considered malicious or nasty. Unlike their fellow Northerners, the Lancastrians, the people of the North East are rarely portrayed in popular culture as truculent, mouthy or overconfident. They are historically a proud, stoic people, whose sustained hardships have given them a robust attitude to life, and to my mind helped define a regional identity that is in its strength and eccentricity unmatched in the whole of England.

Compared to somewhere like the Home Counties, the North East is relatively deprived of course, but by far the more interesting of the two regions. Some people think of it as a pretty desperate place, and yet anybody who has visited Weardale, Durham, Teesdale, the Northumbrian Moors or the Farne Islands will know that it is not without great beauty. From a historical point of view, too, its importance cannot be understated: this is the land of the Prince Bishops, the home of the railways and, from the 19th century to the mid-20th century, one of the most important centres of industry in the world. The Home Counties, by contrast, have money and a sort of prosaic attractiveness; but I can’t imagine people from Surrey or Sussex being as fiercely proud of their heritage as a Geordie, Mackem, Monkey Hanger or Smoggie is of theirs.

In Geordies: Roots and Regionalism (1992), ten of the region’s writers, including Jarrow-born playwright Alan Plater, expound on the past, present and future of the North East. The book is essentially affectionate in its depiction of the region, though never unrealistic. From the opening pages, we are left in doubt that the North East has its problems, and that a reasonably large proportion of its residents have and still do suffer from deprivation. This is the region, we are reminded, of unemployment, and of dying industrial powers and boarded up pits and factories. But it is also a region with a tradition of humour and, as Alan Plater explains, a region that has produced a number of a exceptional yet very much underappreciated working-class writers—among them Sid Chaplin, a former miner from Shildon, and Jack Common, whose evocative socialist writings were admired by V.S. Pritchett, George Orwell and E.M. Forster.

Neither Chaplin nor Common ever achieved commercial success, perhaps because they predated the likes of the Angry Young Men, and in a sense made it possible for other working-class writers such as Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow to prosper. But their stories offer a valuable insight into Northern life during a bygone era. In Kiddar’s Luck, Common’s first novel, he vividly describes his childhood on the streets of Edwardian Tyneside, as seen through the lens of his adult socialism. It is singled out in Geordies as the quintessential novel about the North East, a novel that best encapsulates the character of the region, though the stories of Sid Chaplin and their sensitive, nuanced portrayal of life in grief-stricken pit villages are to my mind equally rewarding.

University Gallery on behalf of the artist; (c) University Gallery, Northumbria University (Mara-Helen Wood); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Painting by Norman Cornish, a friend of Sid Chaplin, and one of the region’s “pit painters”.

It was a collection of Chaplin’s stories, incidentally, that provided the inspiration for Close The Coalhouse Door, Alan Plater’s self-described “hymn of unqualified praise to the miners”, and one of the most endearing plays to come out of the North East. When it was originally performed at the Newcastle Playhouse in 1968, busloads of miners from the pit villages of County Durham and Northumberland came to see it, eventually forcing the play’s run to be extended five times. Like much of Plater’s work, it is humorous, though on the whole elegiac in tone, as you might expect from any fiction set in a pit village. These were tough communities, tempered by grief, and fervently devoted to defending their livelihoods. Many of the villages were not well connected to cities and towns, and when the pits would close, more often than not to the considerable benefit of a wealthy few, they fell into decline, leaving the communities with no work and no means to ameliorate their misfortunes.

Geordies addresses these problems, offering viable solutions for that period of early ‘90s when the North East took its first steps across the threshold into a post-industrial future. It should come as no surprise, given that it was published in 1992, that many of its pages are devoted to Thatcherism, that formidable, unforgiving force of privatisation, which four years earlier had forced the shipbuilders’ yard in Sunderland to close. Although two buyers were found for the yard, the government at the time declined them both, and in a ruling that contradicted the Prime Minister’s deepest convictions—free markets and national sovereignty—decided that it was not possible to sell the yards for shipbuilding without undermining the aid package intended for Sunderland. It seemed a strange move: for years the Conservative government had criticised the shipbuilders for depending on subsidy, and now that they could work without it, they were told that they could not work at all.

This story, I’m afraid to say, is all too common in the North East. But anybody who has visited Newcastle in the past few years will know that, in spite of the region’s misfortune, this city at any rate has emerged from the grime and penury of the last century as one of Britain’s most attractive modern cities. There are suggestions that such a transformation may be about to take place in Geordies, particularly in Robert Colls’s essay on the subject of the future of Newcastle, but the transformation has been unprecedented and certainly unexpected to a large extent. With the city’s newfound prosperity, however, I wonder whether it has attracted some negative attention, most notably in the form of the television programme Geordie Shore, which seeks to entertain Britain’s middle-classes by mocking the gaudy, slightly doltish, but otherwise perfectly amiable inhabitants of a traditionally working-class city.

Geordies—a term used in the book without exclusivity to refer to anybody from the historic counties of County Durham and Northumberland—have always been considered ripe for ridicule by mostly well-to-do types. J.B. Priestley, writing under the guise of social justice, famously derided them in his English Journey, briefly abandoning his campaign for democratic socialism in order to crack wise about the Geordie accent: “… to my ears it is a most barbarous, monotonous and irritating twang”. In Geordies, several contributors allude to Priestley, some even with reverence, but they don’t make much of his haughty attitudes to a people who, when English Journey was written, were enduring the some of the worst poverty in England.

It is true that the writers of Geordies aren’t especially impartial. They are, after all, Geordies themselves, and proud ones, too: their views align with the majority of people in the North East, particularly on the subjects of politics and sociology. It should come as no surprise to readers that they take a very disparaging attitude to the Tories, whose immense unpopularity in the region can be traced back even further than the famous Jarrow march of the 1930s. The simple fact of the matter is that the North East has suffered at the hands of Tory governments too many times before to ever seriously consider voting for them, and as a result the Tories see the region as somewhat of a lost cause; a place that will always maintain a Labour stronghold, even when the Tories control huge areas of the South. One writer in the book even argues that the more the people of the North East vote Labour, the harder the Tories twist the knife, and this is easy enough to believe in light of the recent cuts to services in the North East.

But make no mistake: Geordies is not an angry political book. It is hopeful and jubilant, with tender essays on the centrality of humour and dialect to local culture, and peculiar quirks that are native to the region. Every part of Geordie life is accounted for here, from sport and comedy, to Geordie women in history—a subject that is all too often overlooked by scholars, but which Elaine Knox analyses here in lucid detail. The cover of Geordies claims that, when initially published, the book was the first of its kind to take regionalism seriously, pioneering what has become a vital part of the debate on contemporary Englishness. I couldn’t possibly comment on its importance, but as a guide to the North East, Geordies is a charming book, which seems to me to have been written by people who genuinely love and care for their religion. It dissects a culture so palpable and well defined that you could scoop it up and spread it like pease pudding on a stottie. For people of the North East, or for anybody who wishes to learn more about the region, it is indispensible.

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