Magnetic North (Part One)

composite north

I know when the impulse for this post started… started with something I stumbled across on Facebook, a post from Kate Fox, that began thus:

I’m here and now launching the Campaign for Northern Voices (Tagline: “Proud to Speak Northern”). There are no national news readers with a Northern English accent (Steph McGovern does BBC Business bulletins and gets routine flak for her Middlesbrough accent). Studies show that University students are routinely mocked for their regional accents, every female academic in one study lost their regional accent in order to “Be taken more seriously” and even Fosters Comedy Award winners with Northern English accents account for a tiny percentage of the total (Fewer than ten per cent- “But Northern people are famed for being funny?” “Well, indeed”). Actors with native R.P or neutral accents are explicitly favoured for roles and drama school places (This is not unrelated to the fact that a recent study has shown 76% of actors are middle class- class issues are hard to divorce from Northern voices. A Northern accent is an indicator of being working class and being working class is currently particularly stigmatised).

Actually, I realise that it it chimed with something I’d been chewing over ever since a conversation in a car with two poets about whether there’s such a thing as a Northern poetic voice. Which I will take a proper amount of time over next week.

It also reminded me of a poem I wrote a few years ago about the infinitely recessive nature of ‘The North’…motorway signs promise that this is the way to The North; on and on. It’s changed, now, but you could drive north from London for 600 miles or so and encounter a sign on the main road from Glen Shiel to Skye which pointed  right To The North (and Lochcarron. And Strome Ferry [no ferry]). It used to bother me that I never seemed to get any closer to The North. But it became a handy metaphor.

It also got mixed up in my mind with Michael Rosen’s righteous anger over the testing of 7 year-old children in a grammar that a) they are not linguistically developed to process, and b) that is actually wrong, whether they can process it or not. It made me alarmingly angry, and still does. Enough to want to use the cobweb to make some things clear. The first being that I have nothing against helping all children to have secure control of ‘Standard English’. The second is that if you are going to teach language development, you have to have a language to talk about language. So far so good.

But that’s not good enough for politicians who believe that testing raises standards (!!!!!!) and that tests have to have cheap-to-mark structures, and therefore that they have to have right/wrong answers in the way that’s possible with arithmetic. And in order to do that they have to discount all the empirical evidence that says: it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. So what is it like?

The problem stems in part from the label: Standard English. If we were less sloppy and more honest it would be called Standardised English….something made possible by, and created for, the technologies of mass-printing.

It’s been possible to standardise English spelling, and, to a degree, punctuation, but when it comes to grammar and syntax it all gets a bit messier. Let’s clear something up.All varieties of English have their own grammars….the underlying rule-systems that we’re hard-wired (pace Chomsky and Labov) to process. They let us generate unique sentences, and let us coherently manage the tenses of verbs, the agreement of nouns and pronouns, and to manipulate plurals. And they enable us to be consistent with syntax…with word order. We understand in English that ‘the dog bit the man’ and ‘the man bit the dog’ have quite different meanings. In Latin they wouldn’t. We understand somehow without being told that ‘dog the the bit man’ is not a possible English sentence. We know before anyone tries to explain or test us on it that we can shift adverbials around for stylistic and rhetorical effect. It’s these flexibilities and syntactic possibilities that, for me, and thousands of others, are one of the delights and frustrations of being a writer or a poet. And ALL varieties and dialects of English have their own grammars. They are neither correct or incorrect. They simply are. And they change. All grammars leak, and English, this robber’s plunder of other people’s languages, is splendidly leaky. Why can’t we be happy with that?


Because we confuse Standard English with Standardised English. Because ‘Standard’ comes with connotative baggage. We have Standard units of measurement. We have Standards for food and hygiene and building safety. And before long, Standard blurs into Correct. And a Standard is a flag or a banner, to follow. The queen and the country have banners. And, by semantic slippage here we are in Daily Mail territory and ‘The Queen’s English’…self-evidently correct, and superior.

At which point we can enter a grim and murky area. Received Pronunciation. I shall come back to this next week. Along with Tony Harrison who reminds Loiners and Northerners alike that our speech ‘is in the hands of the Receivers’. It wasn’t possible before the invention of mass radio broadcasting. It was invented by the Reithian BBC. It has nothing to do with grammar or syntax. It’s purely about pronunciation, and inflexion. In the North we keep coal in the bath….with a short ‘a’. You can’t keep coal in an RP bath. The ‘a’ is too long. And, of course, RP changes. During WW2 the BBC was roundly criticised for employing Wilfred Pickles as a news reader. According to disgusted of Tunbridge Wells he was coarse and well-nigh incomprehensible. If you listen to archive recordings now he sounds impossibly, well, RP. He certainly doesn’t sound like a chap from Halifax.

RP, confused as it usually is with ‘Correct/Proper/Queen’s English’ is the accent, and by extension, the language of power. It could have been anything. Either York or Durham could have been the capital of England. RP would be profoundly different. But it was adapted from the dialect of the Universities …of Oxbridge….which in turn had standardised the dialects of the ruling classes. Remember that when Wordsworth went to Cambridge his speech was thought well-nigh incomprehensible. As Harrison pointed out

‘Wordsworth’s matter/watter are full rhymes’

Folk linguistics (like sexism and racism  and class-snobbery) is deeply ingrained in the English psyche. RP = The Queen’s English = Correct. QED. It’s a snobbery that cuts both ways and fuels deep and smouldering resentments. RP = Posh = Arrogant QED.

Now, I wanted to rehearse all this before I cut back to Kate Fox’s argument that Northern Voices are underepresented and undervalued in the media and in media industries. I think she could probably extend the argument to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the South West and so on, but I’m happy to stay with a case for the North. Next week I’ll try to get to grips with the idea/illusion of a ‘northern’ poetry, but for now, I’ll hand over to Kate Fox, and thank her for letting me jump on what I sincerely hope will be a bandwagon.


“Campaign for Northern Voices (Tagline: “Proud to Speak Northern”)

This is not a campaign asserting that Northern voices are better than any other accents. Clearly, they are not (Though I think they’re lovely). But they’re no worse either.

It’s also a campaign calling for a widening of the Northern voices we hear. The white, male, gritty Northern narrative is an important part of the Northern voices narrative. We need blokes standing on rocks looking hard and troubled. But we also need to hear more women, ethnic minorities, gay people, disabled people, trans people and people I’ve forgotten. (Tell me).

There was a bit a of a cull of audible Northern voices (Especially female ones) when the brief window of meritocracy opened to let lots of grammar school Northerners through in the 50s-70s. Jenni Murray and Joan Bakewell may let us know they’re from the North – but somewhere along the way they had to lose their voices. Now, there’s generations of Northerners growing up who are less likely to do that- but with the continuing stigma attaching to a Northern accent their having one means they may hit what Dave O Brien has called “The class ceiling”. I don’t want this for the thousands of kids I’ve worked with in Northern schools, helping them to find a voice in poetry and performance. I want them to have an equal chance of getting on the radio, in a play, on a festival bill, an arts award, a corporate job or a career in a bank even if that’s what they want (Studies have shown that accent is one of the grounds on which elite firms still discriminate without penalty).

There are logistical issues here too of course. London is the giant money-sucking, money generating machine which causes a bigger gap between capital and rest of the country of any European country. People still believe they need to go to London to “make it”. But even that’s getting harder- from tuition fees to huge train fares, sky high rents and lower wages. The further you are from London, the less social and cultural capital you have in the capital (mates, parents friends, whatever), the harder it is to garner some. As even cross-North travel can sometimes be a challenge, people can get stuck.

I feel I’ve been advocating this campaign without it being named for a while now. On a panel about the future on the BBC in Sunderland when BBC Trust members appeared to listen to me saying that London (and even Manchester based) media not paying travel fees (or resenting paying travel expenses) for performers based elsewhere was discriminatory. On an Arts Council away day in Blackpool where I hopefully reinforced some of the thoughts they’re having about diversity and representation by joking about Northern Voices (But I wasn’t only joking), in my PhD where I’m talking to other performers about how this stuff affects them, in my every gig and performance in which I make yet another joke (not only a joke) about being a rare Northerner on Radio 4. Yes, Radio 4, Arts Council, BBC- I’m not exactly Che Guevara here. But I encounter a lack of thought about these issues and how they affect the next generation of Northerners (and present ones) every where I go. It’s an issue of representation. Class and accent are not one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act (I suppose that’s why shows like “Benefits Street” can even happen). It’s hard enough for the protected characteristics to be protected- never mind ones that aren’t.

Does a Northern national newsreader solve ingrained class prejudice and deep class based traumas in economically deprived towns? No, it’s a symbol, but potentially a potent one.

This campaign runs in solidarity with those fighting for people to have representation and a voice- from Scottish Independence campaigns to Lenny Henry calling for more diverse actors and voices on our screens, from those calling for an end to prejudicial representations of trans people, gay people, disabled people and women. It calls for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the regions to have a bigger voice in Britain’s national story, for immigrants from all over the world to be welcomed, accepted and heard. And those (relatively quiet) voices calling for an end to the stigma of being working class.

Is this campaign parochial and the very opposite of what’s needed in a globalised world? It’s a potential danger. But it isn’t saying that the North is inherently better than any region of the U.K. It is saying that its people (Who constitute 30% of the population) deserve equal opportunities to those who are closer, by dint of geography or perceived cultural capital, to Southern centres of power and representation.

It will highlight instances of prejudice and discrimination. It will hark on more about cultural representation than other stuff because of the biases of its founder and because cultural representation (or Northern lack of it) is showing us something right under our noses but somehow invisible. It will be funny sometimes, but not only funny.

There will be badges. And other things. Those other things will unfold. I’ll take it everywhere I go and at the moment I’m getting about. You in? Any thoughts?

You can, if you wish, tell Kate just how much you agree with her cause, and here are two links that should work for you if you can’t track her down on Facebook.

and, like I say, I’ll focus on poems and poetry next week. After which the holidays will be over, and we can all get back to normal. Thank you for being patient.


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