My Needle Points to North
Today, August 1st, is Yorkshire Day apparently. This was news to me. As far as I’m concerned, every day is Yorkshire Day. From my research (OK, I went on the internet a bit) it seems official Yorkshire Day is mainly mayors. No, really, tons of mayors! You’d think a sinkhole would open up and swallow them through the sheer weight of gold chains. Yorkshire Day as it is officially celebrated is civic pride, expensive lunches, military parades and church services. This has its place but it’s not what Yorkshire means to me, so I must admit I was stumped, as they say around here, for what to write for this blog post. It’s possible I’m a ‘professional Northerner’ and well qualified for the task, certainly I’ve spent plenty of time writing about Yorkshire and what it means to be in the north of England. In 2015 my first graphic novel was published, Becoming Unbecoming, a grim but hopeful book about growing up as a girl in Yorkshire in the late seventies. Currently, I’m writing and drawing Eve, an epic book about British politics set in the Yorkshire landscape for Virago Press. But I’ve long had an ambivalent relationship with my Yorkshire roots. Leeds was grim when I left it in the late eighties for a brighter Europe. If I were to speak plainly, as we Northerners are apt to do, I’d have to say that Leeds was a shithole in the eighties and that Yorkshire had not done me proud economically, emotionally, or physically. Even my romantic connection to the landscape was stolen from me at a young age by a predatory male, who assaulted me when I was in a happy dream on a hillside, under the beautiful, cloudy, Yorkshire sky, a suffering that left me reluctant to roam freely again.
Despite all of this, I find myself living once again in Yorkshire, my internal compass having brought me back. I love the landscape, the people, the cities, the life. But, and I hate to bring it up, something happened on 23rd June 2016 that shook me and keeps me shaking. The whole of the UK will be affected by what happened that day but the north of England voted most robustly for it. Further north in Scotland they voted against it. Time will tell what the effect of that will be. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you are in the UK because even if you stick your fingers in your ears and go ‘la la la’ it seeps in. I can’t bring myself to say the B word, so I will say that right now the sound of arguing about how the heck Britain is supposed to organise leaving the European Union is like fingernails on a blackboard, or a malfunctioning house alarm at 4 a.m. If you are reading this in the US, you have your own problems, I sympathise.
I’m finding it hard to swallow this decision, made by so many of my fellow Northerners, even though I understand why they made it. I admit that hearing some of the reasons Northerners give for wanting to leave the EU has made me ashamed, because Yorkshire is a place I feel to be full of promise and I’m dismayed to find such aggression and short-sightedness. Leeds is a relatively affluent city and was split almost exactly in half by the vote. Other areas in Yorkshire voted much more decisively. It’s undeniable the promise of the North has been undermined by UK government policy for decades but I’m not convinced our ‘independence’ will improve our lot. I suspect the opposite will happen. I want to tell you I’ve been finding it hard to feel good about being Northern lately, not to mention betrayed by both my neighbours and my government.
It’s worth pointing out that Doncaster (69% Leave) has had a direct, fast, frequent connection to London by train for decades but this has made no difference to the local economy. Take note, HS2 fans. Also Wakefield (66.4% Leave) has two major art museums: Yorkshire Sculpture Park, dedicated to Henry Moore, son of a miner and born in Castleford, and the Hepworth Gallery, dedicated to Moore’s friend and mentor Barbara Hepworth. Meanwhile Castleford (69.3% Leave) is erstwhile home to Glasshoughton Colliery, on the site of which now sits a fantastic development called Xscape where people with money can go indoor ski-ing, dangling from high wires and other convoluted leisure pursuits that would put Aldous Huxley’s brave new world to shame. However, this development, exciting as it seems on the surface, has hardly improved the economic precarity of the local population.
So, what do we Yorkies need to restore our hope over here in our sunny/rainy/sunny again land of wonder? Probably not the pomp and circumstance of Yorkshire Day. We need to feel the love. We need the kind of pride that comes from confidence not comparison. So I want to tell you about a choir based in Leeds: Commoners Choir. I’m sort of a ghost member these days as I’m too busy to attend, but I still love them dearly. Conductor and composer Boff Whalley says the choir is a singing newspaper, writing original songs about things that matter. The Commoners sing songs about mechanical moveable type, the Magna Carta, poverty, refugees, the 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass, Arts funding and even, inevitably, Boris Johnson. In fact, if you’re in need of light relief (aren’t we all?) you can find a video of us dressed as monks, performing the Boris Johnson Song at Kirkstall Abbey on YouTube. If you find you are still in need of refreshment, the Commoners also sing their very own Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song.
I digress. Boff’s best work, though I know he’ll blush, is a song about the North. Boff is from Burnley, on the dark side of the Pennines, but we let him live in Leeds as long as he keeps us amused. True North. Singing it made my scalp tingle. I wanted to beat my chest and run around shouting. It made me proud once more to be a Northerner and I think it’s a salutary lesson in national pride to those who can only process their nationalistic instinct through a jingoistic, vaguely xenophobic, angry or belligerent lens. It is a song of joy and wonder at the amazing achievements of the industrial North. At the role the north of England played in making the world a better place for ordinary people. It’s a song that celebrates the cultural input of Northern musicians. It’s a song that can make you glad to be alive in the way that civic pomp never will. As True North says, here in Yorkshire, and in all those other less impressive Northern counties, we’ve come a long way – from the Rocket to the Bluebird, right around the earth, with a compass for a heart, the needle pointing north.
Here’s a rousing extract from the lyrics, to help you remember and appreciate us, before it all goes south.
Friendship, humour, pies and cakes. Rugby League, mountains, lakes.
Beatles, Brontës, dry stone wall. Back-to-back and Union Hall.
Guts, pride, pluck, spine. Bus-stop queue and picket line.
Brendan Foster, Maxine Peake. The jokes we tell, the way we speak.
Mersey, Humber, Tyne and Tees. Whitby Harbour, Irish Sea.
Kinder Scout, Lister Mill, Skipton Castle, Pendle Hill.
Blackpool Tower, Pennine Way, Sca Fell Pike, Whitley Bay.
Albert Dock, Ilkley Moor, Malham Cove, Wigan Pier.
We journeyed from the Rocket to the Bluebird
Right around the earth
A compass for a heart
The needle points to north (True north)
Points to north (True north)
Points to north (True north)
History’s needle points to north
Lyrics reproduced with permission, from Boff Whalley and Commoners Choir.
Find out more about Commoners Choir at http://www.commonerschoir.com
Find out more about Una’s work at https://unacomics.com
Una’s upcoming graphic novel, Eve, is publishing August 2020.
Follow Una on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: @unacomics.