A love letter to the north of England

The Northumbrians
By Dan Jackson
Hurst, 320pp, £20/$34.79

Dan Jackson grew up on the banks of the Tyne to parents from Newcastle and pit-village Northumberland.

Later in life, he came to realise that not everywhere was like the place he had grown up.

“Why were the pit villages so close-knit, and where did that instinctive warmth and kindness come from? Why did my grandparents say of their tough inter-war childhoods, ‘we had nowt, but we were happy’; and were they kidding themselves? Why did my forebears and so many of my school pals end up in the military? Why were we so obsessed with football? Why do we love drinking so much, and why did the pub chat of my father and his pals invariably get around to discussing local hard men, like ‘Billy One Punch’ and that bloke at Smiths Dock who could twist nails with his fingers? Indeed, why was working so essential to earning and maintaining one’s self-respect? And, last of all, why was everyone so funny?”

The Northumbrians is an attempt to answer these and other questions; a long, engrossing study of how the people of the North East have thought and behaved down the centuries, shedding light on why the region remains one of the most distinctive parts of England.

Jackson is prepared to take the long view, arguing that it was “the centuries of conflict with the Scots” – centuries that have left “little or no bitterness”, it must be said – that really set the Northumbrians apart. Living in a war zone “made it prudent to huddle together for warmth and safety”. Hence, the typical Northumbrian prizing of mutuality over individualism. And “in this bloody land, it was inevitable that martial prowess would become much esteemed”.

I’ve always felt the “Fighting Irish” tag (I’m nominally one of them) has been a bit overplayed. But the Fighting Geordies: well, now you’re talking. Jackson speaks about a “genetic impulse towards belligerence”, about a Northumbrian martial tradition, inaugurated when the far north of England became “a seat of Mars in the reign of the Caesars, and then a forge of Vulcan in the era of the great Victorian armourers”, before reaching “something like an apotheosis” in the world wars of the 20th century.

This is a book of blood spilt, limbs lost, heads cleaved (sometimes at war, sometimes on a night out in Whitley Bay). And of weapons forged, too: in 1894, ships that fired on and sank one another in the Battle of the Salu River during the Sino-Japanese War were built on the Tyne. To this day, the Armed Forces remain “dedicated consumers of the young male surplus of the north east of England”.

Though he wears his learning lightly, Jackson’s mastery of the sources is a thing of wonder. Wandering through the extensive gardens of Northumbriana he has cultivated through research, Jackson is ever able to pluck the ripest, most apposite quotes and anecdotes to accompany his theme, even when it comes to those who would do his people down, such as John Ardagh muttering about feeling in north-east England “that angst in the presence of an alien, vaguely menacing culture that I have felt in Muslim lands such as Iran and Algeria”.

Jackson also brings a laconic turn of phrase to the task and a gift for similes: he finds the old colliery building at Earsdon ‘‘intact and whitewashed like an old Spanish mission” (I googled it and he’s spot on); and describes life in a pit cottage as “almost a form of stabling, where miners’ horsepower was carefully nurtured by wives who played a vital groom-like role in servicing this proletarian bloodstock”.

Hardly a page goes by without eliciting a “Well, I never!” You will be amazed by just how much we owe to the North East and north-easterners, everything from windscreen wipers to department stores to the term Dixieland.

Read here about the “Northumbrian Enlightenment”, a great 19th-century era of sweat, courage and ingenuity, the product of an “empiricism, rooted in nature”, all of it marvellously catalogued by Jackson; about the landscape and architecture to be found across “a sliver of land smaller than the island of Corsica”; and, of course, about hard, dangerous graft, whether underground, in the shipyards, or out at sea.

Jackson’s exposition of the “persistent Northumbrian conservatism” at the heart of the Labour movement is fascinating and full of clues as to why the far north remains a source of incomprehension to Westminster – and especially, it would seem, to the leadership of the modern Labour Party itself, a fact laid bare so spectacularly at the recent general election.

It will be common, I imagine, to compare The Northumbrians to a love letter, especially when it comes to Newcastle and the pit villages. But this is not a love letter written in the first flush of infatuation.

Dan Jackson is understated at all times, realistic when required, and not oblivious to the dark side of his native place, not least the miseries caused by the culture of hard drinking.

But he remains a full-blown, big-hearted Northumbrian Romantic, bursting with love for and knowledge of his native ground. And it rubs off. You won’t put this book down without having become something of a Northumbrian Romantic yourself.