Book Review: Northerners from the Ice Age to Now

Jay Jackson looks at Northerners which tells the story of the North of England through the people and events that have shaped it

Before we start, a disclaimer… I am a Northerner.

It’s probably fair to assume that fellow northerners make up the vast majority readers of this book, because, in the same way I can imagine fewer less enticing prospects than being forced to read a book about Southerners, people from the south probably aren’t that bothered about reading a history of the north, even if it should be compulsory reading – for them in particular.

Brian Groom’s colourful romp through 176 million years of northern history tells a story of a land and its peoples, a compelling and complicated tale of progress and conservatism, growth and decline, community and atomisation.

The cover design alone makes the book a worthy addition to any bookshelf, an homage to north with a (much maligned but unmistakably northern) pacer train, the ribblehead viaduct, a suspiciously whippet-shaped dog, plentiful sheep and a pair of hikers with a picture perfect landscape of blues, greens and greys that ooze northernness. Though it does somewhat lean into the stereotypes that Groom is so dismissive of.

The book charts the history of the north chronologically, but with thematic chapters on topics such as the Liverpool vs Manchester rivalry, northern women, the leisure pursuits of Edwardian England and, of course, sheep. Notably, it shuns top down narratives in favour of bottom up storytelling – and is all the better for it. It reads as if it were a biography of the north, where some similar works read rather like obituaries.

Northerners is at its most compelling exploring the rise of the Victorian industrial north, painting a picture of everyday life for people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before chronicling the slow and steady decline of the north and its influence after the First World War.

“Who says there is no beauty nor poetry in coal and grime and smoke, in huddled tenements, high chimneys, and such things?” – William Clarke Russell, p220.

The book also reminds us that in some ways the past – or at least the people who inhabited it – aren’t so different from us today. Recounting the border troubles that dogged the high mediaeval period, Groom explains that some criminals were punished by ‘bacuhling and reproaching’ which involved the guilty party being publicly shamed by bauchlers who would follow them round ‘carrying a glove on the end of a lance to point to the perpetrator, or showed a picture of him and blew hunting horns to point him out.’

Whilst this might sound like a policy proposal from a right-wing think tank on how to crack down on drug users, it puts that idea of Piers Morgan or J.K. Rowling having been ‘cancelled’ into some much needed perspective.

Northerners is of course a history, and a pointedly political one. Magna Carta, the foundational text of British democracy is portrayed by Groom as a southern compromise to a distinctly Northern rebellion. The 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, an event whitewashed from history, despite its huge significance as a moment in which the idea of a shared northern identity was born, is covered in detail and is fascinating to learn about.

The origin of the Tyne-Wear rivalry is explained as originating from the English Civil War of 1642-51, during which the north stood firm for the King – but was also the site of battles that would prove key to his defeat. The Peterloo massacre of 1819, and the rise of the co-operative and chartist movements during the 1840s serve as preludes and ancestors to the main event, the birth of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford in 1893 – later to become the modern Labour party.

Sadly, Northerners also details how that very Labour party failed the region that birthed it. New Labour comes out of the book particularly poorly, it failed (actually, it made very little effort whatsoever) to reverse the managed decline of the north that had been the dominant policy objective of most of the preceding century. This found its ultimate manifestation in the Brexit vote and 2017 & 2019 general election voting patterns, which saw ‘left behind’ communities abandon Labour in droves, after years of gradual divergence.   

New Labour’s attempts to ‘level up’ the north were hindered by their unwavering adherence to Thatcherite economic orthodoxy, with the focus being on supply side reforms and centralisation, rather than redistribution, devolution and the fundamental restructuring of our economy away from London-based financial services. As Victoria Wood noted, Blair solved the north-south divide by ‘making everything the south’.

Whilst it might have been easier for Groom to focus on the well established feel-good narratives around the north’s undeniable cultural imprint on the nation, from George Formby to Coronation Street, Mersey Beat to Madchester – this is not the primary focus of the book, there is little room for such self-indulgence.

Instead, Northerners (in a manner befitting of the ‘hostile’ geographic landscape of the north that Groom describes) takes the less comfortable but more rewarding route of really weaving together a story of what exactly the north is, what it means and how we got to where we are today.

Introducing us to a wide-ranging cast of characters along the way, it also tackles head on the awkward question that hangs over all discussions of the north-south divide. What does it mean to close the gap? What would that new north look and feel like? Are we sure this is what we really want? Groom is clear that ‘Britain already has enough clone towns’ – and he’s right, a vision of a ‘levelled up’ north with patchwork pastiche towns like the awful Poundbury scattered across the Derbyshire Dales or Yorkshire Moors sounds like levelling down, not up.

Groom is absolutely clear that any attempt to bridge the gap between north and south must come from the north, and be led by northerners – nothing about us without us. Any Whitehall-based attempt to redress the balance between north and south is destined to fail – see the last century of such efforts.

A lively, insightful read, Northerners has something for everyone. Whether you’re interested in the Venerable Bede or Gracie Fields, Cartimandua or the Manchester Ship Canal, it serves as a reminder of the important, some might dare say paramount, role of the north in shaping the social, economic and political complexion of modern Britain. It does so in that classic northern way – without taking itself too seriously.

Jay Jackson is a political commentator, and campaigner for the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform. Previously, he studied Politics (BA) and Modern History (MA) at the University of Sheffield, and now works as Head of Public Affairs at drug policy think tank Volteface. You can follow him on twitter: @wordsbyjayj

Brian Groom is a journalist and a leading expert on British regional and national affairs. His career was spent mainly at the Financial Times, where he was assistant editor and worked in various capacities. He is also a former editor of Scotland on Sunday, which he launched as deputy editor and which won many awards. Originally from Stretford, Lancashire, he returned to live in the north – in Saddleworth, South Pennines – in 2015. This is his first book.

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 9780008471200
Number of pages: 432
Weight: 690 g
Dimensions: 240 x 159 x 40 mm

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