A RADICAL NORTH EAST ANTHOLOGY
‘Can Tyrants hinder people from singing at their work, or in their families? Sing and meet and meet and sing and your chains will drop off like burnt thread.’
‘The older lads in the pit had a habit of ballad singing. It was seldom that they knew a ballad right through but they used to sing snatches of ballads and songs at their work and these fastened themselves in my memory.’
‘Geordieland’, we are given to understand by the City Fathers, is undergoing a cultural rebirth. The banks of the Tyne are pampered with a gushing stream of Lottery money, the new Music Centre rubs shoulders with the new Gateshead Hilton. We ‘Geordies’ aren’t so thick after all. We don’t just jog like manic lemmings to South Shields each year in ‘The Great North Run’ but we’re wired for Beethoven and Damien Hirst as well.
Gone are the grubby pits and the dorty back lanes, this a new and dynamic place rising from the squalor of the cloth-cap and the doleful whippet.
The Geordie-joint is buzzin’, we’re even thinking of joining Europe now. So who needs History when you can Party?
And then we have the self-styled ‘Geordie Intelligentsia’, the true proclaimers of ‘Geordie Genius’, who wallow in an analysis built actually on mythology and inflated regional pride.
So we have, by way of example, the genius Bunting hauled from obscurity by the romantic Pickards operating from their beloved Morden Tower Poetry HQ in a haze of Geordie dope and literati splendour. The stuff of legend! But how much of it is true and how many people know or care? Who really believes in their own bones and hearts the tale of the good St. Cuthbert?
Do they celebrate our glorious Christian heritage doon the Bigg Market of a Friday? Are the Lindisfarne Gospels Alan Hull’s best work?
Even our esteemed Novocastrian academics can’t put their finger on the derivation of the ‘Geordie’ but still we’re proud to be one aren’t we? The most likely roots of the term derive from Newcastle’s opposition to the Jacobite uprisings and the city’s loyal support for the monarch. So much for a progressive culture then!
The new Music Centre will allow the classical ‘Northern Sinfonia’ to share digs with the traditional ‘Folkworks’ outfit. You see there can be no contradictions in ‘Third Way Geordieism’, the cultural boat has come in and we’re all aboard and happy to enjoy ‘the buzz’ created for us by our Glorious Municipality and its entourage of quango-speakers and cultural money-grubbers. All aboard you poets, musicians, thespians, and public art workers! There are grants to be had and we need the loot to fund our coffeehouse lifestyles, we need the tingle of ‘Success’!
In proposing a different look at things through the prism of a Radical North East anthology,
I am seeking to argue that there is a heritage of dissidence in the region and that this needs to be kept alive if there is to be any real vitality and space for argument on the banks of Tyne, Wear, and Tees. To do this, we need to uncover what is truly challenging and subversive in our culture, what is not only local but of universal significance. My own sense of this goes back to the Border Ballads and on to 17th and 18th century Newcastle, to the times of Thomas Spence and Thomas Bewick and Swarley’s Club, where poetry and song spoke for the underclass and sedition was in the air, side by side with the beautiful craftsmanship of Bewick and his school.
We have others from the grass-roots like Joseph Skipsey and Jack Common who offer a more radical insight than the romance of Cookson or the school of ‘Larn Yersel Geordie’.
We need to see our regional pride in world terms to give it a balance with the culture of others. Whilst I would expect the anthology to have a strong focus on working-class and indigenous culture, a culture which the City Fathers would prefer to skate over, we need to to look at this in the context of race and gender, nationalism and multi-culturalism. We need to see how us ‘Geordies’ can celebrate the world.
So the vision is of a refreshed grass-roots culture built on the positive bricks of the past with a sense of a regional universe rejecting cultural imperialism and asserting cultural democracy.
Dialect is important but not hand in hand with feudalism. Folk-singers can be as inspired by the Chilean Victor Jara as much as by Derwentside’s Tommy Armstrong.
I support the Campaign for a North East Assembly but as a stepping to empowerment at a local level not as an extra arm of the Labour Party, which to my mind has become culturally sterile and opportunist in using culture to paper over the gaps in its own political ineptitude.
Not long ago the City Fathers were scarcely bothered about the Arts now they’re a gravy train for inward investment. We need to challenge this use of the Arts to promote Business and the relationship between the two. We need to return the Lottery money to the people.
We are suggesting that the way forward is through a conflict of ideas based on an historical perception of our regional identity. If a Radical North East anthology can contribute to such a debate then it will be worthwhile.
‘In Gateshead, we passed some little streets named after the poets, Chaucer and Spenser and Tennyson Streets ...... and I wondered if any poets were growing up in those streets. We could do with one from such streets; not one of our frigid sniggering rhymers, but a lad with such a flame in his heart and mouth that at last he could set the Tyne on fire.’
(J.B.Priestley, English Journey, 1934)
‘Watch me go leaping in my youth
down Dog Leap Stairs,
The Jingling Geordie
born in a Brewery,
drinking the money
I dug out of the ground.’