The Lowry Centre at Media City, Salford

More than whippets and flat caps

Brian Groom’s Northerners weaves together a rich seam of rebels and innovators


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In October 2007, the Lowry, named after Salford’s most famous son, hosted the Myth of the North exhibition in a bid to change public understandings of the region. As part of the programme, a national poll was undertaken to discover who exactly was the nation’s favourite northerner. The results paid homage to the north’s influence over pop culture as Urmston-born Morrissey and Wigan’s wartime entertainer George Formby came out on top. Meanwhile, the comedians Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne, also from the north-west, were voted best females.

Northerners: A History from the Ice Age to the Present Day, Brian Groom (HarperNorth, £20)

The north’s cultural impact — from The Beatles to Coronation Street to the Haçienda — is firmly established within our national identity. But the north’s politics, and its relationship with the south of England, remains bitterly contested. In the years since the poll, the financial crash, austerity, and the vote to leave the EU have re-opened divides long thought to have disappeared. In the white heat of the debate about “left-behind” towns, the blame for Brexit was pointed squarely at the north. This was, in many ways, an unfair character assassination. You were as likely to have voted Leave if you were from Dagenham, Southampton or Bexley as Sunderland, Bury or Hartlepool. 

The vote instead thrust the north back into the national debate as people began to wonder just what had happened to post-industrial towns. And it is the search for a deeper, more substantial narrative that runs through Brian Groom’s new history of the region. 

Groom, who covered the economic revival of the area for the Financial Times in the late 1990s, has long argued that there is a richer story to tell about its people beyond the stereotypes of whippets and flat caps. These stereotypes, “often perpetuated by northerners”, have become “a blight on perceptions of the north and may even damage its prospects,” he once argued. 

Northerners should be viewed as his attempt to reclaim the north’s image and help us better understand the nuances within its history. Rather than mythologising the cultural influences — as the NME’s Paul Morley did in his 2013 book The North — Groom sets out to uncover how “the people of the north have shaped Britain and the world in unexpected ways”. It means there is a focus on often overlooked figures, such as Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, St Oswald and Bede, who are elevated to central positions, not just in the story of the north but in the wider history of Britain and Europe. 

Underpinning the narrative is the impact of the Industrial Revolution, which not only shaped Britain’s economic growth, but developed the “hard labour” image of the north around the world. This was a time of great pioneering industrialists, such as the Preston-born Richard Arkwright, the textile king who created the modern factory system. 

The north was the Silicon Valley of its day

Whether it was steel-makers in Sheffield, glass-makers in St Helens or the Lever Brothers revolutionising soap in Bolton, the north was, arguably, the Silicon Valley of its day. It was also where the political resistance to capitalist forces first emerged. In Bradford, where the Independent Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress first met, and in Manchester, where Emmeline Pankhurst organised the suffragette movement. 

While Northerners charts the story of “great” historic individuals, Groom also dedicates time to dialect and landscape as well as northerners’ relationship to immigration, leisure, and work. In the wake of the Brexit vote, it is impossible not to try and situate those themes within the context of contemporary discussions about identity. Groom concludes by drawing a link between the traditionalism espoused by the northern “royalists” in the 17th century Civil Wars and the decision to vote Leave in the 2016 referendum. 

At the same time, Northerners serves as a significant reminder that the north has also been home to rebels willing to challenge the natural order of things. It’s there through people such as Josephine Butler, who established married women’s legal rights and criminalised child prostitution in the Victorian era. It’s there with the working-class rugby league pioneers who broke away from the Rugby Football Union in 1895. 

It was there in the music of The Smiths in the 1980s and it is still there today through footballers such as Marcus Rashford, who refuse to be boxed in by the assumptions outsiders make. Perhaps the Brexit vote and the recent realignment of the Red Wall owe as much to that historic spirit of rebellion and non-conformity as much as anything else. 

The idea of northern exceptionalism, in contrast to the rest of Britain, is one that the readers will have to draw for themselves. Despite painting a vivid picture of the region’s historic importance, Groom’s greatest achievement with Northerners is to weave together a rich seam of rebels and innovators without it ever coming across as boastful or self-important. It is, as it has been described, a complete biography of the north rather than one man’s hagiography to the place he was born, which, I’m sure, is exactly how northerners would like their history to be told.

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