It may surprise some readers of this blog to see a review of Brian Groom’s excellent and highly readable Northerners - A History. What relevance can a history of a notional grouping of Britons have to a blog which is focused largely on matters medieval? The answer lies in how the north, and northerners, are not just vague constructs but fundamental to the history of Britain.
Mention the north and straight away many people envisage gloomy factory landscapes, flat caps, flat vowels and notions of trouble at th’ mill. But, as Brian Groom reveals, the north has a past beyond the Victorian period and a future beyond the hand-wringing and platitudinous contempt with which politicians hold it today.
Northerners - a story of identity
The North, or specifically northern England, is revealed by Groom’s writing as a place grown from a distinct history, from migration, from circumstance. Sandwiched between Scotland and the south, the north is unveiled as an area - and an identity - grown distinct within the landscape.
Taking us initially on a general history of the north from its earliest settlers to the dawn of the industrial revolution, Groom reveals the growth of the kingdom of Northumbria, the power of York, the “harrying of the north” after the Norman Conquest, and the huge power and influence enjoyed by some of England’s northern magnates such as the Percy and Neville families.
We are, of course, introduced to the growth of the north’s major industries and the transition of some of its smaller towns to become the great industrial power houses of the Industrial Revolution. We are shown how an area which once could have been central to the government of England saw its power wain as events elsewhere impacted heavily on its wellbeing.
Northerners - a story of people
But this book isn’t about ‘The North’ per se. As befits its title, Northerners - A History is ultimately a book about people and the circumstances they endured during the region’s transition through history.
Groom revels in the men and women of the north, be they politicians, magnates, entertainers, industrialists, innovators, writers footballers or factory workers. George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’, George Stephenson, John Kay, James Hargreaves, Richard Arkright… the list goes on of those who shaped not just the north but the world with their inventiveness.
We are told too about the Brontë sisters, about Mrs Gaskell, Gracie Fields and the social reformer Josephine Butler. We meet North-Western comics and their gentle humour, Joseph Wright’s dialect recitals of Bradford’s “chapel-based recreational culture” of the 1870s, or the laconic Geordie observations of social change as exuded by Newcastle’s Likely Lads, Bob and Terry.
Music too, plays its not insignificant part as The Beatles, The Smiths and The Animals, to name but a few, are all added to the distinctive melting pot of northernism and northern identity.
And of course we are told about the sufferings of workers during repeated periods of industrial transformation. We are shown the plight of Irish immigrants, the crowds cut down at Peterloo, the harrowing losses of the Lancashire pals, the devastation of the 1984 coal strike and more.
Northerners - a story of dialect
And the north still reveals more of itself. Groom tells us of the role played by dialect, reminding us of the influence of Scandinavians in particular in the forming of the distinctive words and pronunciation of northern folk.
We need only to read the Middle English texts of the Gawain-poet, or to embrace the wonderful dialect dictionaries of the nineteenth century to see just how profound the influence of early dialect words and phrases has been - and how this influence remains traceable and fundamental to the modern northerner.
This a language much richer than the 'ee-by-gum' of the comedy writers; it's a fundamental link with folk from beyond the seas many centuries ago. The Northumbrian and North West Midlands dialects lie at the heart of what it is to know the North. Travellers from across the seas have defined its sandwiched land.
Northerners - a story of defiance
As the old joke goes, you can always tell a Yorkshireman - but not very much; there's a reason for this. Ultimately, the book is about identity, and an identity forged through adversity.
In Groom's work, Northerners are shown as a coagulation of historical circumstance with each generation embedding within itself the shared personality and experiences of those who went before. Frequently losing out to economic trends elsewhere, a sense of longing emerges: a loyalty to concepts, togetherness and ideals which attract when the world turns the other cheek.
It seems that politicians today are uncertain how to deal with The North, to comprehend the identity of northerners and respect them as equals. Somehow they hope to bring them into line by the use of vacuous, insulting and nebulous slogans such as ‘levelling up’, while simultaneously stealing from them such critical national infrastructure as HS2 which would indicate true intent.
But, if opportunity lies at the heart of the future, it is also a beguiling thief, ever flattering to deceive. As Groom says in his closing lines, “As for closing the cultural gap, does anyone really want to? Britain already has enough clone towns, surely.”
He’s not wrong. As any northerner will tell you, even the light in the north is unique and cruel, showing up modern architecture and centralised regional development plans for what they really are: the betrayal of identity wrapped up in the tired and uninspiring evocation of some monstrous New Jerusalem by millionaire housebuilders who’d rather live somewhere else.
This book celebrates the spirit of the north and those who shaped it. It makes one proud to be a northerner, but still angry at the way the north and its folk continue to be treated. The future of the north must be shaped in the north – it has the past to show that a better future lies in its hands, not those of distant politicians and their desperate, cynical longing for votes.
This book is an excellent companion to understanding the North, and the character of those who continue to shape it and hold its history, and destiny, in their hands.
Northerners - A History from the Ice Age to the Present Day
Author: Brian Groom
Published 2022 by: Harper North
About the Author, Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a translator and illustrator of medieval literature. His books, including a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, are available through all the usual outlets.
For more details of Michael's books and how to purchase signed copies, click here.