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Whatever happened to the north-east?

David Hayes
29 May 2001

If the north-east English city of Sunderland has any place in the consciousness of those outside the region, it is probably because of the exploits of its increasingly successful soccer team. Eighth in the Premier League, looking confidently down on their bitter local rivals twelve miles to the north, Newcastle United, and having moved to their sumptuous new Stadium of Light from rickety old Roker Park, the Black Cats still have a chance to qualify for European competition next season – with all the financial benefits that will accrue as a result of lucrative television contracts.

The club’s tempestuous 20th century history was punctuated by epic cup victories in 1937 and 1973. In the 1930s the club was known as the ‘Bank of England team’ as wealth from the local shipyards funded player purchases, even when dire poverty was the lot of many people in the area. If the lung-bursting ‘Roker Roar’ which carried the club to such successes came from the throats of coal-miners and ship-building workers, their modern equivalents are more likely to work in the motor car assembly plants, call-centres or shopping complexes which dominate the north-east economy today.

As the long, painful transition from an older manufacturing economy gathered pace in the closing decades of the last century, “inward investment” became the compensatory mantra of politicians and officials. The establishment of the Nissan car plant near Sunderland in 1986, facilitated by huge government sweeteners, was the flagship of the new strategy for economic regeneration. It sustained 15,000 workers at its fullest capacity, and survived the severe recession of the early 1990s as many local firms did not.

In culture and pride as in sport and the economy, Sunderland has done more than stay afloat in these epic twenty years. The town became a city in 1992, royal patronage responding to popular and press campaigning. The National Glass Centre was opened, testimony to one of the region’s historic crafts. Its polytechnic became a university, where scholars such as Marie Conte-Helm (author of Japan and the North-East of England) explored the fascinating century-old precedents of Japanese study, settlement, and investment in the area.

Modernisation brings a loss

What are these last few decades a history of? The question in this form may seem awkward. But there are periods when informed caution is a more truthful register than prescriptive certainty. It is not only the future that is unresolved here in north-east England, but the past. The local soccer narrative, for example, may seem one of recovery and widening ambition; but it is shadowed by a melancholic contrast between the “soulless” and often subdued modern stadium and the vibrant, passionate Roker heartland of old. The Champions’ League of “Europe” and its riches beckon; but the ghosts of Raich Carter and Bobby Kerr are invoked by those reluctant to complete the journey.

Successful “modernisation”, after all, can also be a narrative of loss, with the communal, heaving terraces made to reflect the intimate working and social solidarities of the age of heavy industry. The stricter decencies of an all-seated arena embody a shift from a world of male power and female subordination, to a new social economy where working and public space is seen as increasingly feminised.

Southern neglect

The soccer narrative can be given a historical colouring. The historian Andrew Clark appeared on a BBC North-East TV documentary – wearing a Sunderland shirt – tracing the enmity between the “two tribes” of Sunderland and Newcastle to the fact that the cities chose different sides in the English civil war of the 1640s. But when the regional meets the national, local differences can be set aside. The north-east, one of the more defined and self-aware English regions, has also a potent and resourceful narrative of southern neglect and metropolitan contempt at its disposal.

In recent years this has acquired more of a political dimension, as the examples of Welsh and (especially, given the geographical proximity) Scottish self-government develop. The North-East Constitutional Convention, consciously modelled on the 1980s Scottish template – inclusive and moderate, with the Bishop of Durham its titular head – has challenged the sense of disempowerment with a hope-backed political project.

Cultural flowering

Central to this project is the mobilising of cultural and historical resources. The recent flowering of poetic energy and public art, from Bloodaxe Books to Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, is one strand; the return, albeit temporary, of the 8th century Lindisfarne gospels from the British Museum to Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery, is another. The Venerable Bede, a son of Wearmouth and author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (written, of course, in Latin) now has a museum in Jarrow. Books about the Northumbrian kingdom that once stretched from the Humber to the Forth fill the shelves. The films Billy Elliot and Purely Belter recycle formulaic narratives of northern and working-class escapism, but in different ways they also validate the social experience of often marginalised people.

In this cross-fertilisation of north-east culture and politics, there is a sense of collective movement, towards a destination which remains unknown, yet seems certain to include greater autonomy for the people of the area.

The Metric Martyr

Into this complex stream of loss and recovery, decline and regeneration, the story of a local market trader selling loose goods has recently erupted. Momentarily, the London press discovered Sunderland. A grocer called Steven Thoburn has continued to sell fruit and vegetables on scales that measured only imperial (and not metric) weights, contrary to parliamentary approval of European Union agreements. The case came to court, and the heavy guns of an increasingly agonised national narrative were wheeled out: the threat to the British way posed by the “totalitarian superstate” of Brussels.

Proponents of this view instantly venerated Thoburn as the “Metric Martyr”. The Conservative Party (whose representative signed the relevant EU directive into law in 1994) sent a prominent member of its shadow cabinet northwards to demonstrate solidarity. The United Kingdom Independence Party (which has two seats in the European Parliament, and won 609 votes in North Sunderland in 1997) bankrolled the grocer’s legal defence.

The case is complex, touching on the applicability of the Weights and Measures Act to different categories of goods, the competence of EU directives, and the role of the British Parliament in implementing them. In such circumstances, the Eurosceptic component of the British “national” press (more aptly a London regional press) applied its routine formula – frenzied denunciation of an alien menace to our “ancient and trusted” system.

Europhobia is industrial suicide

By a curious coincidence, a test of the coherence of this rhetoric and the story it presents arose in Sunderland itself during the trial of the “Metric Martyr”. The Nissan company faced a choice of whether to build its new model at Sunderland or in Flins, west of Paris. The strength of sterling against the euro, and the British government’s reluctance to join the eurozone, seemed to favour France. But the company came down for Sunderland, and 5,000 core jobs were saved (with many thousands more locally dependent on these). The state of grace to which pro-Europeanism has consigned 5,000 British workers is a chronicle yet to unfold in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph.

How did the London narrative of the European threat to British freedom respond to the regional narrative of the north-east’s economic realities and democratic ambitions? The “national” British press is as uninterested in England’s north-east as it is in Scotland or Wales or Cornwall or – well, anywhere in Britain, really. Only the Financial Times pointed up regional sales figures showing nearly 80 per cent of the north-east’s exports going to other EU countries (against an English average of 58.4 per cent – and under 50 per cent in London). Europhobia in the north-east is industrial suicide.

So instead of linking the national to the regional the press simply ignored the latter or tried to assimilate it to the former. When, as in the Mail on Sunday, Sunderland is described as a “very British city” (whatever that means), and the face of Steven Thoburn imagined as one which might have fought at Agincourt, the intellectual desperation is palpable.

Agincourt and Kipling, Cromwell and the Vikings, Bede and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Who is recovering history here, and who seeking to imprison it? Whose histories are they, and where can “Britain” be located among them? And how, in this confluence of narratives, can imaginative historical memory be distinguished from a ruthless and instrumentalist confiscation of the past to suit present political needs?

A British television comedy series of the 1960s and 1970s was set partly in Sunderland. Part of its enduring attraction is the dramatic, witty contrast in the relationship of two male friends between a welcome embrace of what was then called “progress” and nostalgic regret at its accompanying costs. “What became of the people we used to be?” the theme tune asked. “Tomorrow’s almost over, the day went by so fast/ when the only thing to look forward to is the past”.

A generation on, the voices of the north-east’s revivifying past are part of a healthy regional dialogue that challenges the static certainties of “national” debate. A new, European England is being hewn here out of the raw material of time and memory. And the great contests shaping its future are not only to be found on its soccer fields.

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