To begin telling the story of the Geordie in Crisis, we must start at the beginning. Who are the Geordies?
While we may be inclined to believe that Geordie represents and has represented a coherent segment of the population of North East England across history, defining Geordie is tougher than it may initially seem. We know from watching television that Geordie is often used to refer to the people of North East England as a whole. And yet, if we look towards historical sources, Geordie is often associated with the miners of the Great Northern Coalfield (Northumberland and Durham) and at a stretch those that once worked in heavy industry across North-East England.
Today, we might maintain that only the residents of Tyneside and its current metropolitan districts since 1976 (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Gateshead) – those born within ‘spitting distance of the Tyne’ – are Geordies. But then we would forget that the worldwide supporters of Newcastle’s sporting teams (associated most strongly with Newcastle United Football Club) are also affiliated with the Geordie label. Geordie is therefore as inclusive or exclusive as an individual speaker intends.
Geordie is an identity located within a shared history and tradition, to draw upon what Benedict Anderson has described as ‘imagined communities’; a way of seeing oneself and others within a geographical space; one which also presupposes a way of behaving and speaking within wider society (‘playing the Geordie’). To define Geordie is to ask how people born, raised or affiliated with a certain geographical location – ‘Geordieland’ – view themselves in respect to others, their family, friends, ancestors, celebrities, cultural and sporting heroes, politicians, historical figures, fictional characters and towards representations, images and artefacts.
Geordie is also defined by what it is not, as different to other local identities, and as constituting a section within a larger, more encompassing identity. In the latter case it is possible to view oneself as a Geordie, North-Easterner, Northerner, English, British and European at the same time, never mind before categorisations such as class, race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation etc. complicate matters further. And if we view Geordie as representative of the white working class, the heterosexual working man, for example, we must ask how the North East’s unemployed, middle class, female, elderly, immigrant and gay communities comply with this particular Geordie identity.
As noted above, Geordie is also defined by its relationship with rival identities. Geordie is here distinguished as different to Mackem (Sunderland), Smoggie (Middlesbrough), Monkey-Hanger (Hartlepool), Northumbrian (Northumberland) and Durhamite or Dunhelmian (Durham).
Inter-city rivalries, including the Tyne-Wear and Tyne-Tees football derbies, and documented differences in dialect, accent and history, could be evidence that the people of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough possess distinct regional identities which are not so easily assimilated. Once again, Tyneside here becomes the main focal point of Geordie identity, with the rural areas of Northumberland and Durham characteristically neglected.
This piece makes the assumption that Geordie principally refers to those born or raised through adolescence on Tyneside, within the metropolitan boroughs of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, North Tyneside and South Tyneside. Yet, as much of the North East shares a related political and cultural history, Geordie could also in some instances be used to refer to people from Northumberland, County Durham, Teeside, Sunderland, Darlington, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool. (Any comments on this will be welcomed).
Those born outside the boundaries of the Tyneside conurbation are more likely to viewed as Geordies if they subscribe to a number of stereotypical ideas which correspond with Geordie identity in its traditional, reinvented and crisis modes (more on this later). These stereotypical ideas and behaviours are decided both by the people themselves and by comedians, journalists, writers, artists, filmmakers, historians and more. This piece attempts to synthesise a large range of such judgements.
Jackie Milburn epitomises the Geordie ideal: the common man from the pits of Ashington, Northumberland who became a genuine legend on the field of St. James Park by winning the FA Cup with NUFC numerous times throughout the 1950s. The position of ‘Wor Jackie’, immortalised in a statue outside St. James Park alongside Sir Bobby Robson of County Durham, in Tyneside’s popular history shows that one does not have to be from Tyneside to be celebrated there as a Geordie.
Tyneside in Decline (A Short History of Tyneside in the 19th and 20th Centuries)
The decline of prominent traditional industries and traditional ways of living forced Tyneside to renew itself for a new, service-dominated Thatcherite age in 1970s and 1980s. The sheer extent of male unemployment, which rose to between 20 and 22% between 1982 and 1987, was a cause for major concern at the national level. From a 1980s vantage point it was far from certain whether Tyneside could once again return to the conditions of full employment which the area once enjoyed in the 1950s.
Unemployment and depression were, however, not new to Tyneside. The history of Tyneside is characterised by major successes and much misfortune. The Golden Age of its economic and industrial development took place within the 19th century – analogous to the state of Britain within the world economy at this time – with a culture of great innovation, invention and success in the fields of engineering and manufacturing.
Tyneside also became characterised by its sources of coal and raw materials, the great extent of pits, factories and shipyards dotted along the banks of the Tyne, the expansion of trade routes which connected it with Europe and Scandinavia, and the percentage of local men employed in such industries.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on the other hand, whose employment structure was dominated by service and commercial interests rather than the heavy industry of Tyneside at large, reflected the interests of a growing middle class that found a market for luxury and consumer goods, entertainment, art and leisure within the city’s spaces.
The quantity of Georgian and Victorian neoclassical architecture built in Newcastle in the 19th century signifies the wealth and aspiration of not just the city and its middle class residents, but the vision of legendary architect Richard Grainger (1797-1861) whose coherently planned central area of classical streets and public buildings was unique in England for its date.
The experience of those housed in working-class areas such as Heaton, Jarrow and parts of Newcastle’s West End differed greatly to the middle class which had stamped its image on the city itself and whose residencies were mostly confined to the leafy suburbs of Jesmond, Gosforth and Tynemouth. If ‘Labour’ and ‘Industry’ had defined Tyneside in its Golden Age, by the 1920s, ‘Decline’ soon came to characterise the region.
One statistic dramatically details the fall in North East England’s fortunes: in 1892 it built 81.7% of the world’s ships (with Tyneside constituting a large proportion of this percentage) but by 1934 market share had fallen to 6.8%.
For David Byrne in Newcastle-upon-Tyne: A Modern History, J.B. Priestley’s evocative account of inter-war Tyneside in English Journey (1934), and Henry Mess’ Industrial Tyneside (1928), ‘both described a society in which the transition from prosperity to poverty had occurred so suddenly that region was faced with the worst aspects of both situations’.
Ellen Wilkinson MP in her The Town That Was Murdered (1939), a history of Jarrow through ‘boom and slump, through so-called prosperity and the consequent distress’, writes of the sheer poverty of Jarrow’s working people in the 1930s and a town ravaged by profiteers.
She describes a situation where nearly 80% of the town’s male population were out of work, destitute and subsisting in slums, but, willing to fight for their own interests.
If Priestley, Mess and Wilkinson succeeded in transmitting an image of a depressed Tyneside to their readers, the 1936 Jarrow Crusade seemed to encapsulate the experience of interwar Tyneside in one powerful narrative.
Matt Perry argues in The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend (2005) that the Jarrow Crusade has ‘mutated into more than a myth’, evicting ‘almost every other event of the 1930s from collective memory, including other larger and more successful marches of the unemployed’.
It has solidified an image of impoverished Tyneside workers marching to restore their pride and dignity – in order to protest their dismal conditions and the need for government to intervene in the depressed industrial areas – in the popular imagination.
Unlike after the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, employment within manufacturing and industry returned to Tyneside following the interwar depression. A revived Tyneside, relatively unchanged by the nationalisation of coal and rail by Clement Atlee’s Labour government, prospered.
In the late 1950s, T. Dan Smith became leader of the City Council and began reinventing Newcastle in his image of a modern, progressive city defined less by the neo-classical architecture of Tyneside’s Golden Age than the possibilities of architectural modernism. His enthusiasm for utopian housing schemes and tower blocks, resulted in the clearance of many of the slums in Newcastle’s West End and their replacement with modern flats and estates.
Although he was keen to rid Newcastle of its industrial mindset, and emphasise the city’s commercial status as a regional capital, the T. Dan Smith era of local government is mostly associated with the redevelopment of the city centre and the establishment of Eldon Square shopping centre. While the transition to a post-industrial Tyneside was not witnessed within the age of T. Dan Smith (1959-1965), the actions of his government – the extensive investment in the service sector rather than traditional industry – were arguably an important precedent.
Tyneside’s overdependence on a limited range of industries, in conjunction with the lack of support from central government in the Thatcher years, was however to prove disastrous in the 1970s and the 1980s.
Defeated by international competition (by 1956, Japan had overtaken Britain as the world leader in shipbuilding), Swan Hunter and Vickers-Armstrong Ltd., two of Tyneside’s largest and most significant employers, found themselves in turmoil.
Strategies to nationalise in the 1970s – following the measures recommended by the Geddes report which argued that the four major shipbuilders based on the Tyne should be joined together – and to privatise in the 1980s could not restore these companies to their former prosperity.
Vickers-Armstrong, Newcastle’s largest employer throughout the first half of the 20th century, which had once specialised in armaments, shipbuilding, military vehicles and aviation, sold its naval yard at Walker in 1968 and its Scotswood engineering works for warehousing and office space in the early 1970s.
The decline of Swan Hunter and Vickers-Armstrong among others demonstrated that Tyneside was undergoing major changes within its labour market. The processes of de-industrialisation were under way and a post-industrial Tyneside was emerging.
Throughout the 1970s, losses in manufacturing, mechanical and electrical engineering and shipbuilding were compensated by growth in the public service sector, within the local authority, higher education and health services. Following the recession of 1978, jobs were lost in both the manufacturing and service sectors, with total employment levels falling from 398,00 to 354,000 (a fall of 11%) between 1978 and 1981.
As unemployment levels increased throughout the 1980s, the male population of Tyneside was disproportionately affected: male unemployment levels rose to between 20% and 22% in the years 1982-1987.
The Community Development Project’s report Cost of Industrial Change (1981) argued that poverty and deprivation were not the fault of individuals but the result of structural problems and industrial change. The report noted that ‘the symptoms of “deprivation” appear as industrial change shifts areas that were once important industrial centres to the periphery of the economy’, using the examples of North Shields, North Tyneside, and Benwell in the West End as case studies.
Cost of Industrial Change detailed how by the late 1960s, ‘the traditional industries of North Shields were a pale shadow of their former selves’, a profound change to an economy which resulted in subsequent long term unemployment and deprivation.
The closure of Hawthorn’s locomotive works, Elswick gas and leather works and the decline of Vickers were also disastrous for Benwell. While investment in new towns, areas and estates on the fringes of Newcastle were said to have increased, the report argued that older working class areas in the inner city were left to deteriorate.
In 1978, the Benwell Community Project published Permanent Unemployment, detailing the effect of industrial decline on Benwell’s mostly working class population. The report noted that ‘the great majority of jobs in Newcastle are now concentrated in the service sector — and there is very little call here for the traditional skills of the engineer, the boilermaker, the craftsman’.
Female employment on the other hand rose within this period of widespread male unemployment.
Throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, female employment sat at around 20%, yet by the early 1970s, 40% of the regional workforce were women, and by the 1980s, in line with the national average, this figure stood at 45%.
While the rise in female employment is a positive development during this period, a large percentage of working women, found themselves in low-paid, low-security, part-time employment in the service sector.
Permanent Unemployment reported that while 70% of all employment is found in the service sector ‘less than 40 per cent of Benwell men work there. Nearly two thirds continue to seek their livelihood in the shrinking manufacturing and construction industries’.
The report suggests that the male workforce was attempting to hang on to not just an industry in decline but a way of life, while a newly employed female workforce capitalised on an increase in service sector employment, and the disinterest of men to take up such roles.
On Traditional Geordie Identity and the Reinvented Geordie
Before much of the scholarly interest in Geordies emerged in recent years with Robert Colls and Bill Lancaster’s Geordies (1992) and Newcastle-upon-Tyne: A Modern History (2001), some attempts to describe the unique nature of Geordie appear in many notable, often humorous, pamphlets.
Scott Dobson’s Larn Yersel’ Geordie (1969) tells us that ‘Geordie is not, repeat not, a regional accent. It is a language in its own right. Admittedly it owes much to Scandinavian tongues, for the Geordies and the Vikings had much in common, and still have’.
Sid Waddell in Taak of the Toon (2008) notes ‘the sheer richness of our language’ while also promoting this Scandinavian narrative: ‘some of our words date back to invaders who hit Bamburgh and North Shields 1300 years ago. Down the years we have melded in Dutch, Scottish and Romany words to articulate the vivid Geordie life-experience’.
Like Larn Yersel’ Geordie and Taak of the Toon, Andrew Elliott’s A Geordie Life of Jesus (1974) also promotes Geordie as constituting a distinct language. Words from Standard English are respelled in order to convey a particular Geordie pronunciation, while dialect words are littered around the text.
This act of telling stories or singing local songs in a phonetically spelled Geordie English, appears to be a tradition which stretches back into the 19th and early 20th centuries. Geordie Ridley’s The Blaydon Races (1862), whose chorus beginning with ‘O me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’…’ is still sung at every Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) home game, is arguably the unofficial anthem of Tyneside and perhaps best represents the persistent of Geordie traditions and folklore in a contemporary context.
Tyneside Stories and Recitations, a series of six volumes, compile numerous humorous stories and songs set on Tyneside. One short piece also illustrates their use of dialect and phonetic spelling and the Tyneside appreciation for football and NUFC: ‘A “chep” came along and said to the Pollis: “Hi, Mister, d’ye knaa which is the football grund ?” “By gum,” said the Copper, “ye a grown man, an’ dissent knaa wheor United plays. Howay wi’ me,” and locked him up’.
Dialect and phonetic Geordie English also features heavily in the work of Jack Common and Sid Chaplin, illustrating much of the dialogue of Kiddar’s Luck (1951), ‘the seminal text of Geordie culture’ according to Colls and Lancaster, and The Day of the Sardine (1961) for example.
Although Tom Hadaway in Geordies argues that Geordie dialect is ‘not itself necessarily comic, though it may seem so to the outsider’, his analysis of Geordie humour draws a necessary connection between the intricacies of dialect, pronunciation and comedy. This association with humour seems to connect many of the aforementioned quoted sources.
If Geordies are partially defined by their use of language and love of football, as such evidence attests, they are also arguably defined by an association with humour.
Running through many of the works compiled within Allan’s Tyneside Songs and Readings are images of industrial labour and a pride in an industrial heritage (‘The Coal Trade’, ‘The Coaly Tyne’…).
Local history books and works of fiction invite us to dwell upon the preponderance of working men employed within manufacturing and mining industries on Tyneside and the wider region throughout the 19th and 20th centuries: the ‘bonny pit laddies’ of Frederick Grice, the Pitmen Painters of Lee Hall and the many notable working class characters found in the works of Catherine Cookson, whose native South Tyneside was renamed Catherine Cookson Country by the local tourist board.
Newcastle’s Discovery Museum and County Durham’s Beamish Museum also add to this sense of pride in an industrial heritage, one expressed not merely through the great industrialists of Stephenson and Armstrong but the day to day experience of those working in the mines and shipyards.
Pride is also sought within tales of industrial struggle, radicalism and anti-establishment dissent. Within Kiddar’s Luck, Common’s protagonist argues that solidarity and struggle are woven into the Geordie psyche from infancy: after deciding that they had received too much homework, Willie Kiddar declares, ‘We’d call a strike. Strikes, by the way, were not unknown at our kind of school, we being our fathers’ sons and having natural strike-sympathizers in them’.
For Bill Lancaster, Newcastle’s ‘value system, politics, myths and symbols are essentially working-class’ and this ‘cultural convergence of class has resulted in other social groups being more sympathetic to working-class needs and interests’.
‘Traditional Geordie identity’ seems here to revolve around a working-class identity rooted in manual labour within the masculine spaces of the mines and shipyards.
Brian Bennison has written of Newcastle’s ‘long relationship with Bacchus’ and its ‘passionate, unswerving attachment to drink’ (‘Drink in Newcastle’ in Newcastle-upon-Tyne: A Modern History). While the question of excessive drinking was an anxiety for many in the temperance movement, Bennison tells of a great enthusiasm for drinking recorded in Newcastle since the early 19th century.
Beer in the city constituted many functions: as a thirst-quenching alternative to water drawn from the polluted River Tyne; as an energy-provider for workers who could not work without it; as giving local men reason to leave their overcrowded homes and venture into the warmth and comfort of the public house; and as a way to unwind and socialise following backbreaking shifts in the many mines and factories.
In the post-war years, low house prices, below average levels of car ownership and relatively high wages resulted in Newcastle having high disposable income levels. For Lancaster in Geordies, the ‘“Bonny Toon” with its “characters”, heavy drinking and good-natured sociability’ that was ‘central to the popular culture that emerged in the nineteenth century’ re-emerged in these years as ‘more money meant more consumption, and the Geordies reverted to their nineteenth-century noisy confidence’.
The association with Newcastle and drink, and with Geordies as hard-drinkers, is concisely expressed in the status of Newcastle Brown Ale (NBA), alongside the Tyne Bridge and Newcastle United, as a major icon and embodiment of the working-class culture of the city.
Created for a male working class market in the 1920s, NBA’s success was helped by the original Tyne Brewery’s geographical location (as overlooking St. James’ Park, the home of NUFC) and its blue star which was accompanied by a sign that read ‘Home of Newcastle Brown Ale’, visible from a great distance. Advertising campaigns also emphasised and publicised elements from Geordie dialect, including the Geordie word for brown (Broon).
A uniformity of dress additionally worked to convey the notion that Geordies constituted a homogeneous mass. In Larn Yasel’ Geordie, Dobson writes ‘wearing a flat tweed cap may possibly endear you to the natives’, ‘an example of sartorial and national solidarity, like the fez’.
With the decline of the flat cap following changes in fashion styles and habits in the second half of the 20th century, the Geordie became associated principally in terms of dress with the black and white NUFC strip, stamped with either the coat of arms of the city or the team’s mascot, the Magpie.
A perceived homogeneity was also reflected in the predominance of Labour Party voting by both the working class and middle class throughout the 20th century. For Lancaster, ‘this is not because the middle class are becoming socialist, but because for a wide range of reasons they perceive Labour as best expressing the region’s interests’.
And a reputation for the friendliness of the Geordie mass and their accent has also been endorsed by historians. Barry Carr in Geordies writes of how Tyneside acted as a tolerant host community for immigrants throughout the 20th century, using the example of a ‘perceived harmony between the Arab and white inhabitants’ of South Shields in order to argue that the ‘whole ethos of Tyneside working-class culture was anathema to the bullying on which racism is built’.
The image of the traditional Geordie, its ideal incarnation, can be summarised as follows: ‘Geordie’, always a white heterosexual male, is a fanatical Newcastle United fan, commonly depicted draped in black and white, with a pint of ale in one hand, a cigarette in the other and a flat cap on his head. He may spend his few hours away from work looking after pigeons (and many other racing animals), growing vegetables in his allotment or taking part in educational activities, usually political but sometimes of the creative and artistic variety on view in Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters (2007).
He is hard-working, proud of his work and is always employed within jobs that represent ‘real work’: manual labour, mining and manufacturing work. He views the Conservative Party as reprehensible, Labour as his natural saviours and speaks in dialect with a thick accent. ‘Geordie’ is commonly depicted as one among many, as someone at home within the crowd, in harmony with his fellow Tynesiders. And in the end, ‘Geordie’ gets on with his lot and finds humour in his predicament.
In a recent advert entitled ‘Miners’ shot in black and white at the Beamish Museum, County Durham, Newcastle Brown Ale appeared to confirm this stereotypical image of ‘traditional Geordie identity’. Geordie is here a hard-working, muscular man, honest, reliable and willing to do physically demanding work in order to take care of his implicit family and himself at the pub at the weekend.
This advert, made for Heineken International, is a romantic rehash of familiar images, nostalgia in commodified form, with a postmodern self-awareness that asserts ‘nothing sells beer like old footage of people who had it way worse than you do’. It functions as an attempt to sell Brown Ale as an ‘authentic’ product, one deeply entwined with the history and people of Newcastle. The advert demonstrates the continued appeal of ‘traditional Geordie identity’ in the popular imagination.
Following deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s, however, this image of the traditional Geordie became redundant. With the shipyards, pits and steelworks closed or in disarray, ‘Geordie’ is no longer guaranteed a job for life which pays well within the mining and manufacturing sectors. Instead he must look elsewhere for such labour and his pursuit of employment may take him out of the North East, perhaps to another country altogether. This is the ‘Geordie in crisis’.
The reinvented Geordie, on the other hand, has had less attention within wider popular culture. Instead, such changes are evident within local, archival and scholarly material. It is the argument of this piece that as the traditional Geordie became less relevant to Tyneside’s economy and leisure spaces, the reinvented Geordie in their diverse forms gained much ground, ultimately establishing themselves within the identity of Tyneside.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Victorian domestic model, man as breadwinner, woman as housewife, was more prevalent in Newcastle than in the nation as a whole. In 1921, only 20% of women on Tyneside worked (compared to a national average of 34%). This low figure could be ascribed to a higher than average birth and marriage rate, as well as higher than average wages for working men.
The demands of physical labour on Geordie men also impacted upon much of the female population of the city. Women were forced to not only bring up children singlehandedly but run a household on a slim budget and service the labour force through exhaustion and injury.
For the women employed within industry, such as those involved in North Shields’ fish industry, they often ‘had a reputation for behaviour unbecoming to a ‘respectable’ woman (‘the word fishwife is still used as a rather derogatory term for women locally’).
Since the 1940s – and particularly following Tyneside’s transition to a post-industrial economy heavily reliant on services – women, however, have become much more involved in the regional economy: by the 1980s, women made up 45% of the regional workforce.
Elain Knox in Geordies describes how by the 1980s working heterosexual women had reinvented notions of the traditional Geordie in the once masculine space of Newcastle’s Bigg Market: ‘confident, working, and with money to spend and leisure time earned, they have taken elements of that masculine, work-based heritage – the noisy assertion of the right to enjoy life, to spend hard-earned money on hedonistic pursuits and the belief in the importance of their region and its identity – and made them their own’.
For Bill Lancaster, the Bigg Market in the 1980s was a ‘curiously feminist experience. The women equal the men in behaviour as well as numbers. Provocatively dressed, they play the men at their own macho game in this curious deconstruction of courtship and social conventions’.
By adopting the behaviour of the traditional Geordie – masculine, hedonistic behaviour involving alcohol – within traditionally male spaces, ‘traditional Geordie identity’ was reinvented in these spaces in the image of the economically active Geordie woman.
Throughout the years of industrial innovation, growth and success in the 19th century, the majority of immigrants that arrived to the North East were Irish, Welsh and Scottish in origin. Following the end of the Second World War, migrants were most likely to be from countries such as India, Pakistan and the West Indies.
While the city itself has historically had very low levels of non-white communities in comparison with larger cities such as Birmingham and London, the West End of Newcastle, an area of great decline following the closure of industry in areas such as Scotswood, Elswick and Benwell, has been characterised by its extensive ethnic minority population since the 1960s.
For Dave Renton in Colour Blind? (2012) the juxtaposition of white and non-white in working class areas has helped to foster a culture of tolerance in the North East: ‘while working-class people have been by no means immune from racism, they have also been the first to meet new neighbours, to share their schools, to meet fellow employees, and to work beside them peacefully’.
Viv Anderson, the first black player to represent England, however, encountered racial abuse at St. James Park in the early 1980s, while West Ham player Bobby Barnes ‘endured a shocking barrage of crude racism, including monkey chants and a banana thrown on the pitch at him, which led then Newcastle manager Jack Charlton to plead for action against such repugnant scenes, and prompted questions in the House of Commons’ (see Akenside Syndrome (2014), Joe Sharkey for more information).
Since the 1980s, Newcastle United have supported a number of black stars who have found success and fame on the pitch. NUFC footballer Shola Ameobi suggested that by the 21st century attitudes towards race have changed on Tyneside: ‘there’s big differences in Newcastle, all for the better. People are accepted for who they are now’.
The national campaign Show Racism the Red Card was set up in North Tyneside in 1996 and utilised the high-profile status of football and footballers in order to change attitudes to race in the region. While the reinvention of the traditional Geordie as non-white took many years to develop, a shared class and passion for football arguably enabled Geordies of Indian descent such as NUFC footballer Michael Chopra to remark that he was ‘striving to be a Geordie hero, not just an Asian star’.
Since the the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, bars and clubs catering for LGBT customers have opened and become popular on Tyneside. This has culminated in the creation of the so-called Pink Triangle (PT) which stretches from Times Square to Scotswood Road. The Pink Triangle is notable, however, for its geographical isolation and cultural marginalisation from the mainstream drinking spaces of the city.
While ‘gay villages’ are prevalent throughout Britain, Marc Lewis has discussed how Newcastle constituted a distinct case where its ‘machismo culture’ in the 1980s was ‘replete with contempt . . . for “them puffs’’’.
The pace of change was certainly less rapid for the city’s LGBT population than the changes experienced by women in the 1970s and 1980s, events such as Newcastle’s Pride on Tyne (from 1995) and the proudWORDS cultural festivals worked to promote a wider cultural awareness of the city’s gay population.
By the early 2000s Mark Casey writes that ‘no longer can the PT exclusively attract gay men and/or lesbians, or act as a ‘refuge’ in a city still characteristically homophobic. The PT now acts as a favourable destination for some of the city’s heterosexual night time economy users’.
The reinvention of ‘traditional Geordie identity’ in the image of the LGBT Geordie was a certainly a more drawn out affair than what was experienced by women. We can point here towards the difficulty of reconciling a homosexual and non-masculine identity with ‘traditional Geordie identity’ in spaces marginalised from traditional drinking and leisure areas.
The reinvention of ‘traditional Geordie identity’ therefore took place through the reinterpretation of traditional modes of behaviour in new contexts. For heterosexual women and ethnic minorities such behaviour was found in traditional spaces such as Newcastle’s Bigg Market and St. James Park.
For the LGBT Geordie this assertion of identity was located in the more marginalised and obscure Pink Triangle. Such changes in attitudes and societal make-up are of course representative of wider cultural shifts in Britain and the Western world at large.
But the case of Geordie identity is notable due to its relationship with the processes of deindustrialisation. With an identity no longer strongly defined by the workplace, those traditionally excluded from ‘traditional Geordie identity’ were given the opportunity to assert themselves through the traditions that remained following deindustrialisation: by drinking in the Bigg Market and the city’s many bars and clubs and watching Newcastle United play on a Saturday afternoon at St. James Park. It was within traditional or newly created leisure spaces where some of the struggles surrounding identity were arguably played out.
The ‘Geordie in Crisis’
The narrative of the ‘Geordie in crisis’ has been reflected in popular film and television of the period 1970-1990.
Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, 1973-1974) preoccupy themselves with the clearance of slum housing and its replacement by modern flats and housing estates; images of concrete, ‘Brutalist’ 1960s architecture juxtaposed with the neoclassical buildings of Tyneside’s Golden Age; and in the case of Whatever Happened… the irreconcilability of the traditional Geordie with a newly affluent middle class Geordie employed in the service sector.
In Get Carter, Newcastle’s Quayside no longer functions as a working river, instead it appears as a post-industrial wasteland scarred by 1960s brutalism. Although the film is mostly preoccupied with Michael Caine’s Jack Carter and his narrative of revenge, Hodges often returns to the aging traditional Geordie, clad in flat cap and worn-out suit, sitting indoors sipping a pint of ale ignoring the crime beyond the pub walls.
The film’s interest in the form of Trinity Square car park (known today as the ‘Get Carter car park’), built in 1962 and designed by ‘New Brutalist’ Rodney Green, and its recurrent juxtaposition with the scrapyard that sits nearby, work to suggest a failure to modernise a decaying, declining city.
While Tyneside and its architectural spaces are mostly of secondary importance to the crime narrative of Get Carter, Whatever Happened… takes the question of the traditional Geordie and his relationship to a changing environment as a substantial element of its content.
Whatever Happened… uses the narrative of absence in order to emphasise the confusion of the traditional Geordie in an altered social and economic context. Terry Collier (James Bolam), a white heterosexual Geordie male, has been in the army for five years and returns to an unfamiliar Newcastle in 1973. Even his surname is significant as it suggests an association with mining and a now unravelling masculine world of work. On encountering the unexpected, Terry says: ‘it’s ironical that when this country goes through a social transformation, I’m not here to see it’.
Within minutes he meets up with Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes), his best friend and factory co-worker from the earlier The Likely Lads, and finds himself shocked by his newfound middle class attributes and attitude. It turns out that Bob is about to marry fiancée Thelma, often referred to as the ‘grammar school girl’, an act which will secure his place in the middle class alongside his newly acquired white collar job in the service sector.
For Terry, Bob no longer represents the traditional Geordie. He is instead defined by his affluence, his ability to travel, his ownership of a semi-detached home in a modern housing estate, his leisure time which is now spent in the tennis club rather than on the terraces of St. James Park and his lack of a Geordie accent. Terry laments this loss of identity and changing circumstances: ‘it was simple enough in them days. It was birds, booze and the dance hall, now it’s the wife and tennis clubs and scampi supper dances and holidays in Malta’.
Much of the humour of the series’ first episodes revolve around Terry’s attempt to impress Bob with his army experiences. Yet, he finds that over the past five years, Bob has actually travelled more extensively than Terry. Through his enlarged pay packet, he has financed trips to Malta and Tunisia and lived a life of leisure of what Terry can only dream.
Faced with matters anathema to the traditional Geordie – namely Bob’s mortgage, car and modern clothes – Terry declares himself a ‘square peg in a round wotsit’ and sinks into a great depression. Unemployed, or ‘inactively seeking employment’ in his turn of phrase, with fewer and fewer opportunities available to him, Terry becomes a desperate figure likely to be left behind in years to come following the decline of Tyneside’s manufacturing industries.
His eagerness to hang on to the past, notably expressed through incessant criticism of the new modern estates, the loss of community spirit and shared responsibilities, is representative of a nostalgia for the vanishing working class urban spaces of Tyneside. Unwilling to enter the spaces of the modern housing estate, Terry declares ‘I am proud of my home and my class’ drawing a divide between the terraced houses of his youth and the semi-detached houses of the newly affluent middle class.
In ‘No Hiding Place’, Whatever Happened… suggests the difficulty faced by the traditional Geordie in reconciling ‘traditional Geordie identity’ with the emergence of reinvented Geordie identities. This episode begins with Bob taking Terry to a hairdresser’s which once stood on the site of a barber shop. Assuming that all the hairdressers are homosexual (‘they’re all puffs aren’t they’), Terry declares ‘I wouldn’t want to be blow dried by any of that lot’.
Bob, himself a reinvented Geordie, who has hitherto attempted to navigate Terry through an unfamiliar Tyneside, replies ‘anybody who is always putting queer people down and being aggressively masculine like you is only masking their own latent tendencies’. To this Terry retorts in characteristic masculine fashion ‘do you want me to smack one on ya?’
When told that one of the hairdressers, written off by Terry as a ‘puff’, once styled the hair of over half of the NUFC team including his heroes Bob Moncur and Malcolm MacDonald, Terry enters a state of shock. Bob then moves to instruct Terry to imagine a homosexual centre forward. Stunned and overcome by his inability to coordinate his passion for the masculinity of football and the new homosexual identities gaining representation on Tyneside, the series suggests that Terry is out of touch with modern Tyneside and undergoing a period of crisis.
While the focus of Whatever Happened… is class conflict – mainly the traditional Geordie’s inability to reconcile himself with those that are finding employment and affluence within the service sector – the series also points towards the difficulties faced by Tyneside in the early 1970s: industrial strife is present in the background to many episodes while unemployment increasingly becomes a major preoccupation of the second season.
The political and economic problems of the 1970s Tyneside, however, were perhaps better alluded to by James Mitchell’s When the Boat Comes in, a series of four seasons transmitted at the height of industrial conflict between 1976 and 1981. Removed diegetically from the 1970s and set among the political struggles and left-wing militancy of Tyneside in the 1920s and 1930s, the series tells us much about the appeal of nostalgia in an age of crisis. The series adheres to Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson’s notion of ‘nostalgia for the present’ by relaying images and narratives of a romanticised past in service of an insecure present.
Class conflict, industrial strife and mass unemployment are here repackaged in the image of an ideal 1920s, where solidarity, community and socialist idealism prevail. Working men are rarely shown to desert their class – unless of course the illness of a wife or family member forces one to momentarily become a scab until enough ‘dirty money’ is raised to purchase medical supplies as in ‘Swords and Pick Handles’. The traditional Geordie is represented here not just through brawn and political acumen but through kindness and solidarity.
In ‘Coal Comfort’, the impoverished Seaton family, the principal characters of the series, sacrifice their front room for the benefit of the community. Bill Seaton, the patriarch of the family, realises that an undiscovered coal seam may be in fact resting beneath the floorboards of the family home. Gathering together sons Tom and ‘scholarship boy’ Billy – who is bullied by the family for attending university – the men of the house spend the majority of the episode digging for coal.
When they finally discover this crucial fuel source, the coal is appropriated to not just warm their freezing home but the community that is struggling outside their walls. Traditional Geordie Tom also spends some time in this episode hunting down the thieves that have stolen potentially prize-winning leeks from his allotment. The thieves turn out to be the poverty stricken sons of Elsie Carter, a widow who does not receive any money from the government following the death of her husband in France. After hearing their tragic story, the Seaton family forgive all misdeeds, bake the starving Carter and her two boys a loaf of bread and offer them a pint of milk.
When the Boat Comes in, however, did not just offer romanticised images of starving mining communities coming together in times of need, the series also pre-empted the individualism of the coming Thatcher age. Jack (James Bolam), charismatic aspirational working man who courts Seaton daughter Jessie in the first few episodes before dropping her for the widowed Dolly, visits Sir Horatio Manners, a local industrialist who is planning on opening a factory on Tyneside, and offers a largely fabricated story about his relationship with Manners’ deceased son.
After accepting a gift of a sword from Jack, Manners offers him a high level position in his new venture. Returning to the Seaton home to break the good news, Jack boasts to Jessie that he acquired the job through his ruthlessness. After boasting that he can spot a malingerer from a hundred yards and would have no problem giving any worker the sack, Jack then reveals to Jessie that he talked Manners out of opening up a factory on Tyneside. Jessie responds ‘How could you? This place is crying out for jobs!’. With a wry smile, Jack replies ‘They’ll only get Horatio’s jobs on Horatio’s terms. He won’t have unions’. By coding Jack as villainous while promoting his charm the series argues that deceptive individual pursuits will only work to marginalise oneself from the local community.
The first few series of Frank Roddam’s Auf, Wiedersehen, Pet (1984-1986) offers a portrait of Thatcherite Britain from the perspective of a few characters from various parts of the country in search of work in Germany. Yet, the show’s emphasis is clearly on three Geordie characters, Oz (Jimmy Nail), Dennis (Tim Healey) and Neville (Kevin Whately) whose Tyneside homes and girlfriends also feature predominately in the series.
These characters subscribe to traditions of Geordie identity outlined within the previous chapter: the fanatical Newcastle United support, the taste for alcohol, the pursuit of manual labour and ‘real work’. They speak with strong authentic Geordie accents – Oz frequently uses dialect – support the Labour Party and frequently romanticise Newcastle upon Tyne in their conversations.
Oz is the Geordie lout, often loud and offensive, referring to the German characters he comes in contact with as ‘Krauts’ and Indian waiters as ‘Sabu’, a reference to Sabu Dastagir, an Indian actor who found success in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. Dennis and Neville are more romanticised salt of the earth figures, honest, hardworking and mostly loyal to their girlfriends back home on Tyneside.
The series shows how these characters are attempting to hang on to the traditions of Geordie identity in a changing social, political and cultural context. Forced to leave their beloved Newcastle in pursuit of work, Oz, Dennis and Neville must ultimately come to terms however with the fact that Tyneside no longer offers them opportunities in industrial work. They must accept that their futures on Tyneside will be involved in ‘soft’, ‘feminised’ labour in the service sector.
No longer given opportunities to display their masculinity on Tyneside, they move to Dusseldorf, Germany, to work on a building site. While their connection to Tyneside through labour is now tenuous, by emphasising some of the traditions of Geordie identity – their accent, passion for football, alcohol and having a good time – Oz, Dennis and Neville convince themselves that they are not going through a period of crisis. To the audience watching the series, however, they are certainly ‘Geordies in crisis’.
Within Get Carter and Whatever Happened…, the traditional Geordie responds to T. Dan Smith’s architectural transformation of Newcastle and the emergence of new reinvented Geordie identities, including the affluent ex-worker now employed within the service sector and the homosexual Geordie.
Within When the Boat Comes in, the traditional Geordie is placed in a period of incessant crisis which is ameliorated by the attempts of the local community to help and assist one another through class struggle. Ultimately, this nostalgic series suggests that solutions to contemporary problems can be solved through a traditional working-class solidarity.
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, however, lacks all of the optimism of When the Boat Comes In. By the mid-1980s, the series suggests that effects of industrial decline and Thatcherite policies in the labour market have become widespread: available jobs in the service sector, part-time roles and percentage of women in work have increased, but traditional Geordie men found are unemployed en masse following the demise of manufacturing. The response of the traditional Geordie to change was to leave Tyneside in order to pursue the tenets of ‘traditional Geordie identity’ abroad.
Instead of adapting to a new set of circumstances and reinventing himself, the traditional Geordie alternatively exaggerated the characteristics of ‘traditional Geordie identity’ that remained: the passion for football, alcohol and having a good time.
Problems with ‘Traditional Geordie Identity’ and the ‘Geordie in Crisis’
Above, it was argued that ‘traditional Geordie identity’ is rooted and expressed through language, class, labour and leisure. The stereotype of the traditional Geordie was here defined by his (note he is always a ‘he’) use of the Geordie dialect, his position as working-class, his job-role within the mining and manufacturing industries of Tyneside and his passion for drinking alcohol and having a good time.
An image of the traditional Geordie, an ideal incarnation, was offered by synthesising the images and descriptions found in the works of popular culture and local history into one single characterisation.
The traditional Geordie here functioned as an icon which arguably could not live outside our imaginations. A stereotyped figure with a personal life boiled down to a few simple relationships expressed through language, class, labour, leisure.
He votes according to his class, dresses in a uniform (the flat cap or NUFC shirt) and looks forward to drinking with his friends at the weekend. He is merely a single dot in a crowd consisting of many others like him.
For many writers on Geordie identity, Geordies constitute a homogenous mass who think, feel and behave like each other. In some respects, this is indebted to the problem of describing identities. One must look for patterns, archetypes, typical examples, ideal incarnations. But by doing so, one ignores the complexity of lived experience.
I have proposed this narrative of popular Geordie identity to not only come to terms with how the Geordie has been characterised throughout history but to offer a narrative that should be criticised and disputed by future historians. If we understand how popular Geordie identity has been culturally constructed, we are better placed to search for contradictions, discrepancies and evidence that does not fit the rule. This may enable us to better understand the nature of identity and the lived experience of those involved within the negotiation of identities tied to places such as Tyneside.
Evidence suggests that ‘traditional Geordie identity’ is a nostalgic identity. The nostalgic mode is as relevant to Dobson’s Larn Yersel’ Geordie, Mitchell’s When the Boat Comes in as Colls and Lancaster’s scholarly Geordies. As Tyneside and its people have witnessed great economic and social change since the 1960s, I would argue that a comprehensive interest in the traditional Geordie arose from the loss in status of the white, heterosexual male within the Tyneside milieu.
The traditional Geordie is thus a somewhat romanticised figure, formed through the processes of memory and looking back into the past. His decline, charted sympathetically in the popular film and television works cited above, often appears with regret.
Out of step with the present, he is portrayed as an unfortunate figure. Yet, ‘traditional Geordie identity’s’ association with the humorous, rarely allows such depictions fall into outright despair. Lamentable but appealing through the virtues of hard work, durability, solidarity and good humour, the decline of the traditional Geordie has become an endearing symbol of the impact of economic and social change.
The interest in the traditional Geordie and his decline has also obscured the existence of other identities: not just the women, ethnic minorities and LGBT Geordies who arguably came to prominence following his decline but children, the elderly, Tyneside Conservatives, the Jesmond and Gosforth middle class among other groups, rarely part of the popular and scholarly narrative.
Who were these people and how did they relate to the traditional Geordie?
Evidence from Tyne and Wear Archives suggests that while a large percentage of women were excluded from industrial work some did in fact become employed in manufacturing on Tyneside. At the North Shields fish quay, a large percentage of the 5000 employed every year (2600 in non-season) were women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
They were involved in the burgeoning herring industry at the foot of the River Tyne. This was low status work – the memory of North Shield’s ‘fishwives’ is preserved in a statue in the town’s Georgian Northumberland Square – arduous and ‘dirty’, yet it was accessible to married and single women alike.
And while many women were employed in Maling’s pottery factory east of the Ouseburn in ‘respectable’ factory work throughout the 19th century, Maggie’s Ropery in North Shields became notorious for its ‘unfeminine’ and ‘inhuman’ female workforce.
The ropeworkers employed at Maggie’s Ropery, swore, ‘wore dirty working clothes and were alleged to drink and be sexually free’. According to Knox, the traditional Geordie was ‘threatened’ by such workers, condemning the ‘work-based cultural practices that were considered a natural and healthy right to male workforces’ when they were exercised by a large group of women. Although this knowledge remains marginalised within histories of Tyneside, it has the potential to challenge dominant narratives and popular interpretations of Geordie identity.
‘Traditional Geordie identity’ is a powerful identity which has resonated with the people of Tyneside in the second half of the 20th century following industrial decline. The great interest in the figure of traditional Geordie, coupled with his prevalence in popular culture as embodying a stubborn refusal to react to economic and social change, attests to this notion.
It is only since the 1990s that women and reinvented Geordies have become noticeably involved within popular film and television set on Tyneside. Few, however, have become the focal point of such works. Other than within Our Friends in the North (Peter Flannery, 1996), Vera (Ann Cleves, 2011-) and MTV’s Geordie Shore (2011-), women and reinvented Geordies often occupy subordinate positions to traditional Geordies that have resisted adapting to change.
In two notable examples of Tyneside television – the 21st century reboot of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (Frank Roddam and Ian La Frenais, 2002-4) and 55 Degrees North (Timothy Prager, 2004-5) – the only ethnic minority stars of the series are non-Geordies, Londoners sent up North to ostensibly offer the series diversity. Popular Geordie identity remains today socially conservative, stubbornly refusing to change in the 21st century.
Although the traditional Geordie and the ‘Geordie in crisis’ still dominates representations of Geordie identity, there are signs that reinvented Geordie identities have become more prevalent within the popular imagination. There is, however, much work to be done. Time will tell if the reinvented Geordie receives due representation.