What does the Angel of the North mean to the people of the North-East? I asked reddit and social media to find out.
It may seem surprising today, as we approach the Angel of the North’s twentieth birthday, but the statue, which has come to mean so much to so many, was initially opposed by much of the local press and a large part of the region’s news-reading public. Angry letters arrived at the Gateshead Post in droves; the Newcastle Chronicle’s 1995 January poll measured local support at 250 in favour and 1200 against; and one God-fearing reader even wrote to the Newcastle Journal warning that ‘The Lord shall stretch forth and the fire of Heaven will be unleashed’ following its blasphemous completion.
The Liberal Democrat opposition in Gateshead’s council chambers led a more organised movement. They established the Stop the Statue Campaign to rally support against the construction of the Angel in early 1995. The site that had been chosen – a disused colliery overlooking two of the North’s major road and rail arteries – was, for these politicians, dangerous and a threat to motorists. Anthony Gormley’s planned sculpture was said to prove so distracting that a pile-up would be imminent on the A1 motorway. With one nervous eye to the future, a Lib Dem councillor predicted that ‘almost literally, those who have voted in favour [of it] will have the blood of the victims, and perhaps their very lives, on their hands’.
The hysteria of those years has since abated. The Angel of the North has risen in our estimations, soaring alongside the Tyne Bridge, Hadrian’s Wall, Durham Cathedral and St. James Park as one of the many beloved symbols of North East England. It is also one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world, seen by over 33 million people every year. The Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) by comparison attracts on average only 7 million annual tourists.
Those proud of outflanking the Louvre should, however, restrain themselves. Leonardo’s Renaissance masterpiece is not located alongside two of the North’s major thoroughfares – the A1 motorway and the East Coast mainline – and it is not free to visit. And yet, the Angel’s journey from outmoded coal mine to prominent spectacle does deserve commendation. It has become one of Britain’s most favoured works of public art.
But what does it symbolise? I asked the ‘Newcastle upon Tyne: The city that drinks instead of sleeping’ subreddit (Gateshead does not yet have its own subreddit) and social media what it means.
Some responded that the Angel alerts motorists, and passengers on the train, that they are nearly home and have finally entered the North (I would like to know how people from Yorkshire and Lancashire would respond to this):
Growing up in low fell (right next to the angel) it was mostly just considered an eyesore by a lot of people. Now that im older and travel south a bit more for work/friends etc seeing it on the motorway when i drive back up its now like a comforting signal that im almost home (beefjavelin)
It tells us that we are finally in the true North (ThatSecretViking)
It symbolises a sense of pride when you see it coming back from the South. It promotes a North-South divide which isn’t usually praised upon but this is that feel of place and ownership for Northerners. To remind them of their city, they landscape and their heritage. Even if it does look like a shabby old piece of shit up close (Chris from West Moor)
I absolutely love it, especially when driving back home and seeing it (YearoftheHypeBeast)
Others were, however, less praising in their views:
Whenever I’m travelling back home from being down south it just marks the start of roadworks on the A1, 50mph limits and subsequently back to back traffic all the way past the metrocentre (ahoneybadger3)
From a less conventional angle, the Angel is complimented for its durability. The sculpture was originally designed to last for at least 100 years but may, as Cilliebillie suggests, last a lot longer:
I really like the Permanence of it. Its a massive monstrosity, that is too huge to ever cart away. In a thousand years it may have fallen over but it will still be there. Saying that the people of Washington were proud of themselves, and so they put a huge fuckton of iron up on its end. Maybe thats what the people who made the Cerne Abbas giant were thinking when they carved a giant cock into a hill.
The North-East’s tumultuous history is elsewhere called upon. The Angel embodies a region once lost and then reborn:
I think it was meant to symbolise the spirit of heavy manufacturing, but to my eyes it looks wrong. The wings need to be angles upwards, not horizontally like some freakish Heinkel bomber stuck on it’s end (PopeTheoskeptik)
For me it symbolises the north east evolving from the industries that drove it for the last 2 centuries. Using the heavy metal and rivets to create art shows how to north east is developing massively in terms of art and culture, but doesn’t forget where it came from, and what originally brought people here (Drumderbuss)
This is the official view:
Is it possible to make a work with purpose in a time that demands doubt? I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.
The ANGEL resists our post-industrial amnesia and bears witness to the hundreds and thousands of colliery workers who had spent the last three hundred years mining coal beneath the surface (Anthony Gormley)
Other redditors were more critical of this retelling of history. The Angel is simply North-East nostalgia and an overt romanticisation of the past. The region must move away from such navel-gazing if it wishes to succeed in the future:
I think it’s more a symbol of the old North East, big rusting metal-heavy industry, don’t get me wrong I like it , especially when your coming up the A1( I live in the SW theses days.) I think there’s still a lot of nostalgia for the past and over-romanticism of it, especially by a lot of the media (DarrenTheDrunk)
If we stopped romanticising the industrial past then just maybe the enablement backing up 20 year olds who blame thatcher for the fact they’ve never worked a day in their lives would end and the area would move forward, like closing the mines really affected them. It’s not so bad here but I lived in boro for 12 years and damn.
Making a hulking steel monstrosity is turning the place into a one-trick pony, there are a few really great technology companies up here but it’s not the first place a new graduate or would-be startup from elsewhere thinks about because we’ve propagated this image of rough-and-ready steelworkers in flatcaps (MantridDrones)
Although interpretations of the statue can cross political and historical fault-lines, provoking disagreement and anger, the Angel also has the power to arouse more sentimental emotions in once-stoic Geordies:
Passing that thing on the way home always brings a tear to my eye (Kevin from Forest Hall)
What do you think it means? Leave a comment and continue the debate below.
First picture by Nadia Wahab – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50862831
Second picture by Calum Tomeny – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=859330