Nostalgia for a previous period of industrial strength has preoccupied the North-East of England for the last few decades. Does this fascination with our industrial past ultimately do us a disservice?
Last week, I asked reddit and social media what they thought the Angel of the North symbolises for an article on this site. Answers to this question were varied and numerous but one line of thinking, in particular, stuck with me. One critic writing under the pseudonym MantridDrones argued that it was only by ending the romanticisation of the industrial past – and the preoccupation with ‘rough-and-ready steelworkers in flat caps’ – that the region could move forward into the 21st century.
This was by no means an unusual assessment of the problems inherent to North-East society. During the 1970s, as the mines, shipyards and factories neighbouring the region’s three most important rivers were beginning to face widespread closure, John Ardagh advanced a related criticism of the region’s largest city.
Each time I visit Newcastle, I come away with mixed feelings. I am inspired by the vitality, the warmth, the sense of community, and depressed by the acceptance of mediocrity, the physical and mental shabbiness, the chip-on-the-shoulder introversion tainted with self-pity. It is encouraging to find an urban area that retains such individuality and pride in its traditions – but need this inevitably be preoccupied with such parochialism? The Geordie feeling of geographical isolation is now a mere psychological hand-up: they are “isolated” because they want to be. (A Tale of Five Cities: Life in Provincial Europe Today)
For Ardagh then, by repeatedly dwelling on the injustices of the past, Newcastle – and the wider North-East, I might add – is inhibited from moving on from the days of industry. Isolation and parochialism are preferred to realism while the stories we pass down only provoke further insularity. Is there something inherently damaging in our understanding of who we once were?
There is certainly a preoccupation with stories that describe struggles with forces beyond the control of ordinary people. Whether it is the Jarrow Crusaders, who marched the three hundred miles to London to protest unemployment and came home empty-handed in the 1930s, or the North-East miners who failed to defeat Margaret Thatcher’s assault on industry and the trade unions in the 1980s, the great stories of our past routinely involve the people up against insurmountable odds. Nearly always defeated by an exterior threat, usually London or the ‘South’, the people invariably emerge humiliated and exhausted in the end. It is through, however, the golden virtues of solidarity, community and regional pride that the scars of such battles are healed. Wronged by history but rejuvenated through the warmth of Northern life, the people of the North-East soldier on into a future out of their control.
It is the inherent simplicity of these narratives which explains their appeal. The heroes and villains are demarcated in ways which arouse pride and a sense of injustice in equal measure, while the complexities of these periods, and the events which precede the beginning of such stories, are characteristically ignored. Instead, emphasis is placed on the suffering of the noble people of the North-East who have been cheated out of the fruits of modernity. This may not initially sound like nostalgia. Pride is not sought in victory – this is not the daydreaming of the region’s football supporters – but in the solidarity of ordinary people united against a common enemy.
Aside from the glorification of the region’s workers in their struggles against the rich and powerful, North-East nostalgia often centres on what has been, or has deemed to be, lost. The great changes that took place in the 1970s and 1980s were both profound (this is why I tend to return to this period over and over again on this blog) and abrupt. In the space of two decades, the region had been thoroughly transformed.* By the 1990s, these changes seemed irreversible, there was no going back.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the long festering decline of the region’s traditional industries resulted in the loss of many male jobs in the mines, shipyards, manufacturing and chemical industries. Official unemployment was on average 18 per cent in Tyne and Wear and 20 per cent in Teesside (male unemployment was much higher) under Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s governments. Whole towns such as Ashington in Northumberland or Easington in County Durham that had once relied on a single employer decayed (and many of these small towns have never recovered to this day). The region’s major cities – Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough – were also profoundly depressed and were painstakingly searching for a new identity. This new identity was often found in the service sector.
Newly created service sector jobs customarily attracted the women of the region – many of whom had never held a job before – rather than the men that had lost out in previous years. Lacking the motivation to work in ‘soft’ jobs, some men entered a period of crisis which was only resolved by moving south or abroad to seek manual jobs in a variety of industries (ITV’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet captured this development memorably in the mid-1980s). The men that did not have the money, youth or desire to find work elsewhere or move away typically spent years at the unemployment office in the dole queues. As a result of such change, local identities had to be re-examined and modified. To be a Geordie, Mackem or Smoggie would never be exactly the same again.
Such loss has resulted in a fascination with the white heterosexual working-class men who were once employed in the region’s manufacturing spaces. The muscular, hard-working man who has the chance to find a fairy-well-paid manual job in the shipyards or other industries has become a symbol of what once was and can momentarily be again through nostalgia. Whether it is through the work of Alexander Millar and his Gadgie, Newcastle Brown Ale adverts, the Beamish Museum, reruns of When the Boat Comes in (1976-1981), Catherine Cookson novels, Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot (2000) and The Pitmen Painters (2007) or even the recurring desire to be ‘hard’ and macho in the absence of manual work that would supply muscles and social standing (for both men and women), nostalgia takes many forms.
While such stories and nostalgia help to tell us who we are, and highlight important issues which should be addressed today (unemployment, inequality, low pay, lack of opportunities etc.), they can also cause resentments which are not so easily shaken off. London, the eternal enemy, cares little for the grievances of North-Easterners, and a recycled bitterness towards the capital rarely achieves much. But this is not to say that we must learn to forget what has happened in the past. Instead, we need to engage more rather than less with what has happened in our recent history.
Reporting for The New York Times, Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura visited the depressed city of Sunderland following the Brexit referendum in June 2016. Sunderland, which once had a proud industrial economy embodied by its shipyards on the shores of the River Wear, has never fully recovered from the tumultuous events of the 1970s and 1980s. Like in Newcastle, twelves miles to the north-west, competition from newly wealthy economies to the east – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan – eroded the city’s shipbuilding industry and rendered it uncompetitive. A failure to improve the quality of its products – and a lack of support from central government – resulted in the city’s decline. In 1988, Sunderland’s two remaining shipyards closed their doors for the last time.
In 2016, De Freytas-Tamura encountered a people attempting to tell a new story about who they were. This new story placed Brussels alongside London as the agents of Sunderland’s demise. Michael Wake, a fifty-five-year-old forklift operator said, ‘All the industries, everything, has gone. We were powerful, strong. But Brussels and the government, they’ve taken it all away.’ In this context, Brexit appeared as an opportunity for the people of Sunderland to retrieve their past. If Brexit was a success then the shipyards might one day reopen.
Much has been made about the North-East’s decision to support Brexit. As the region has felt less pressure from immigration than others, it was said to be the long-delayed response to deindustrialisation and globalisation. Brexit offered the North-East a chance to ‘poke the establishment in the eye’, to show up the ‘South’ and its ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ who have ignored the region for too long. And so, Brexit was the North-East’s revenge. But it also figured as a failure to understand how we got to this point in time and what the benefits of EU membership really were for the region.
Nissan, which was often described as embodying the benefits of European integration during the campaign, had originally chosen to build their factory – the largest automotive plant in UK history – in Sunderland to access the European single market and to capture some of the city’s newly-unemployed skilled workers. The Japanese car manufacturers were decidedly against Britain leaving the EU but this did not stop Sunderland voting 61.3 per cent in favour of leaving.† And through the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund, the European Union had also invested in Sunderland (it had funded a new campus for the university, a business park for software developers and a family leisure centre), and was planning on giving much more. The North East Local Enterprise Partnership wrote that the region would receive around £460 million support for the period 2014-2020 from the European Union. Whether central government will be so committed to addressing regional imbalances and inequality post-Brexit is not yet certain.
More so than any other English region, the North-East is inextricably tied to its trade with the European Union. 58 per cent – a greater proportion than anywhere else – of all goods exported from the region end up in European Union states and around 100,000 jobs are involved in industries which look across the North Sea and over the English Channel. Recalling the days when the North East specialised in only a few industries – and we know exactly what happened when these industries began to fail – today’s exports are dominated by only a few types of goods: road vehicles, medicines and pharmaceutical products and organic chemicals. We are making progress in other fields including offshore and subsea technology, video-game and software development and life sciences but any change in our relationship with the European Union could seriously jeopardise business interests.
In the end, it is understandable why 58 per cent of the North-East voted for Brexit, even if the European Union was always the wrong enemy. The vote revealed the power nostalgia enjoys in the region. Although a misguided understanding of how we got here did provoke potentially damaging change, I don’t believe that this means we should try to cut ourselves off from what once was. The centuries of struggle, work and leisure in an industrial economy are inextricably woven into our collective identities. And the demise of this way of life has only provoked minor modifications. What it means to be a Geordie, Mackem, Smoggie, Monkey-Hanger or North-Easterner is mostly the same as it once was during the age of industrial strength (with the addition of women, ethnic minorities and LGBT once ignored by such labels).
The region not only needs its myths, it can’t escape them. But this does not mean we should accept every romanticisation with open arms. There has to be criticism. Yes, times are tough, and have been for a while – especially outside the major cities – but I think that the solidarity, sense of community and pride in our cultures and way of life will see us through the next crisis.
* Whether such transformations were to last is a good question. The return of Swan Hunter and other industries along the Tyne, coupled with the development of the thriving subsea industries centred off the North-East coast, suggest that today’s ‘post-industrial Tyneside’ might not be so ‘post-industrial’.
† Nissan has since received assurances from Theresa May that they will not incur the standard ten per cent tariffs applied to all non-EU vehicles entering the market. Government will instead foot the bill.
Photographs courtesy of Newcastle Libraries and Tyne and Wear Archives