THE north-east is the most distinctive English region: it has clear boundaries, a strong sense of identity, and an unmistakable friendly and engaging accent. Not for nothing are Ant and Dec consistently voted the most popular TV presenters.
It covers the historic counties of Durham and Northumberland: ancient Bernicia between the Tees and the Tweed, bounded by the North Sea, the Cheviots, and the North Pennines — the last wilderness in North-Western Europe. It is a hard country, inhabited by hard, warm-hearted people, the descendants of Anglo-Saxons who, after the Golden Age in the seventh century, so lovingly described by Bede, were raided but not settled by the Vikings. A thousand years of conflict with the Scots kept the region poor.
It was only after 1745 (the most credible explanation for the word “Geordie” being “those who supported King George”) that it began to thrive, with the opening up of the Great Northern Coalfield and the coming of the Industrial Revolution.
Northumbrians contributed many of the inventions that have made the modern world, from locomotives to light bulbs. To hill-farming, fishing, and fighting were added mining, heavy engineering, and shipbuilding, leading to a distinctive social culture characterised by pride in hard work, discipline, comradeship and communality, courage and persistence, and military, naval, and sporting achievements.
Primitive Methodism tamed the hard-drinking hard men and contributed to the formation of a unique political culture. The “tight-knit communities” could be conformist and claustrophobic, but they were also astonishingly open and welcoming to anyone prepared to muck in and work hard: Irish Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.
All this and more Dan Jackson sets out in great detail and with real affection. An elegiac last chapter sets out the bleak prospects for the region now in an age of individualistic enterprise, in which the old communitarian virtues count for less than they once did.
This admirable survey would make a good present for any Northumbrian or anyone moving north; I only wish it had been available when I first went to Durham.
I had been working in Eastern Europe; and I eventually came to think that Northumbrians were rather like Russians — at least, in some respects, with a proletariat, intelligentsia, and comparatively small middle class, their dogged acceptance of hardship, suffering, and death, their violence and drunkenness, their stoicism and hedonism, and, above all, their warm-heartedness. There is a Russian word for that: chelovechnost’, sometimes translated as “humaneness” or “broad humanity”.
The Northumbrians are standard, sinful, lovable human beings; it is the southern English who are so unusual and in need of explanation.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.
The Northumbrians: North East England and its people: A new history
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