According to a major new book, the Tynesiders and other inhabitants of the North East played a crucial role in shaping modern Britain.
Figures such as King Oswald of Northumbria, Saint Cuthbert and Bede, Victorian heroine Grace Darling, reformers Josephine Butler, Mary Astell and Emily Davies, MP for Jarrow Ellen Wilkinson, railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson and engineer William Armstrong feature prominently in Northerners: a story, from the Ice Age to the present day by journalist Brian Groom.
The book aims to be the defining biography of the North of England, setting out the dramatic events that created the North – waves of migration, invasions and battles, and transformative changes affecting European culture and the global economy.
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His book tackles controversial figures such as T Dan Smith, the 1960s Newcastle council leader who rebuilt the city and went to jail for taking bribes; and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, raised in Durham. Other modern North Easters mentioned include Sarah Millican of South Shields, Alexander Armstrong of Rothbury, Mark Gatiss of Sedgefield and Newcastle-born Ross Noble.
Brian says, “In the past, historians tended to view the North before the Industrial Revolution as barren and uncivilized. The Industrial Revolution was certainly important – it is considered by economic historians to be the key event in human history – but there is much more to the story of the North. The roots of many of today’s problems lie in its past.
The book covers 180 million years of history in a broad narrative from dinosaurs to the present day, including the dramas around Brexit and the Red Wall. It also includes chapters on topics such as the North-South language divide, recreation and sport, and northern writers, artists and comedians.
At least six Roman emperors ruled the empire from the North when they visited the region, beginning with Hadrian, who built a wall unparalleled throughout the empire. The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria was the first cultural and intellectual center of Europe. The border counties spent over 2000 and a half years arguing over whether the Roman era is included, which profoundly influenced both nations.
“Had the Kingdom of Northumbria survived, the North of England today could be at the heart of a northern-focused nation instead of a peripheral region ruled from the south,” says Brian.
Northerners also shows how the past resonates over the centuries. The devastation of factory and pit closures in the 1980s, for example, recalled the trauma of William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North. The book describes how the North-South divide has fluctuated and explores the very real divisions between northerners.
Brian recounts JB Priestley’s notorious visit from Bradford to Tyneside in the autumn of 1933 for his book travel in english. Dosed up on medicine for a bad cold and tired of travelling, Priestley described Geordie’s accent as a “most barbaric, monotonous and irritating twang”. Gateshead, he added, was a town “carefully planned by an enemy of the human race”.
Others saw something different. The novelist William Clark Russell wrote, after visiting the Tyne in the 1880s: “Who says there is no beauty and poetry in coal, filth and smoke, in huddled buildings, tall chimneys, etc.?”
Brian, from Stretford, Lancashire, is a former Financial Times deputy editor and Scotland Sunday editor. He will talk about his book and the history of the North at Newcastle Lit & Phil on Thursday 26 May. Northerners: A History from the Ice Age to the Present (litandphil.org.uk)
The Northerners, by Brian Groom, published by HarperCollins, (regular price, £20) is on sale from today.
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