These Northern Types at Left Bank Leeds, is a multi-faceted exploration of what Northern identity can mean at the present moment. The year long project has been conceived by director of Split Design Oli Bentley, its stated aim being ‘to understand what makes us who we are and how our relationship to place affects our identity’. The project includes contributions by a number of artists, writers, poets, academics and philosophers, dissecting topics as diverse as class, bullshit, making, stereotypes, dialect, diseases of despair, immigration and borders.
It makes sense to root these issues in Yorkshire, where the exhibition is being held. The county’s cultural history has been peppered with struggles around inclusion and exclusion as far back as the ‘Dark Ages’; at this time the region became an early settlement of Vikings in the UK, where they sat in opposition to the Saxon-inhabited South. It is from this time that Yorkshire’s notable accent and dialect stems, in which the flat pronunciation of vowels (as in most Northern accents) is strikingly Scandinavian. The flat vowel can be found in its most extreme form in the East Riding’s famous replacement of the phoneme /aɪ/ (as in five) with the monophthong [aː] (fahv). Many common Northern dialect words are also direct cognates of Old Norse, including ‘dale’, ‘fell’, ‘ding’ and ‘keld’ to name only a few.
By looking at many aspects of the North’s history, it becomes clear that it has an inherently international character: the ‘local’ is in fact cross-cultural and wide in its societal pursuit. Yorkshire has long been a point of cultural exchange for many different communities, and holds deep, tacit ties with its European neighbours. Many international influences are contained within the region, and the wider world has historically contributed to its growth and character. These Northern Types engages heavily with current conversations around belonging and migration, as well as local impacts of national and international political concerns, notably with the work ‘Let Em Have It’ (previews and interviews 2017, available full scale April 2018). By examining the contemporary meaning and symbolism of the English flag (which 25% of the UK population currently see as a symbol of racism[i] thanks to its co-option by hate groups like the EDL), ‘Let Em Have It’ examines political undercurrents of vexillological and territorial aesthetics. The work questions whether the choice to no longer associate with the symbol concedes the flag – even ‘the very idea of Englishness’ – to far-right and racist ideologies by simply ‘letting them have it’, and what other alternatives there may be. By reworking the flag and the phrase in question, Bentley and team offer an alternative (yet recognisable) emblem: one opening the potential, perhaps, for pride without nationalism.
This line of enquiry is continued in ‘Worse Things Have Happened at Sea’, a work consisting of of orange life jackets and prints, over which the titular phrase has been printed in reflective ink. The prints are divided in two frames reflecting the two halves of the life jackets, a design feature that Bentley has used to ‘show a divide, that can be zipped or unzipped – brought together or pulled apart’. This work gives a perspective on regional identity from Leeds locals who have settled in the city after being forced from their homes by danger, unrest or violent conflict. This particular facet of the project has taken place in partnership with Odyssea, a charity upcycling some of the thousands of lifejackets collected from the beaches of Greece from those who have made the Mediterranean crossing, and Leeds City of Sanctuary, who work to make migrants welcome in the city.
‘Let Em Have It’ and ‘Worse Things Have Happened at Sea’ are particularly interesting when considered in tandem, and alongside the ubiquitous Northern accent. One of the most gripping ramifications of local dialects and other place-based linguistic idiosyncrasies is their potential to sit across, blur, and re-imagine established borders. In an increasingly globalised community, exploring shared ways of speaking and listening can hold almost unlimited potential to create new communities and collectivities. The works are also intriguing when considered next to Bentley’s wider design practice at Split, which often deals in the symbolism around identity – see for example this use of heraldic design for a local extreme sports community. Says Bentley:
A lot of what we do involves the personality of identities – and how to communicate these visually. Often this can mean coming to terms with some of the contradictions or complexities within a given identity, as well as looking at its context in society. I think what has driven me to pursue this project has been the challenge of coming to terms with this giant, vague, multifaceted, community-owned thing we call “northern-ness” and trying to make some sense of what that actually means beyond the flat caps and whippets.
The three works ‘Make Do an’ Mend’, ‘Where The’s Muck The’s Brass’ and ‘The People Powered Press’ all explore the North’s history of making and manufacturing alongside its current creative industry, utilising typography to do so. In Bentley’s words:
We work a lot with typography and the project is a real opportunity to push ourselves creatively in this regard with freedom to create type around a subject we’re passionate about… It’s about using design as a tool to thinking and asking questions – and finding ways in which we can present what we hope are interesting or important local questions in engaging ways. With projects like the Creative Family Tree, I see design as much more than a commercial tool and this project has allowed us to explore this idea on a much bigger scale than we’ve been able to do before.
This exploration is timely, especially given the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ proposal to boost economic growth in the North through improvement to transport links, investment in arts, science and innovation, as well as urban agglomeration and devolution of powers in ‘city deals’. Considering regional policies alongside national perception and stereotypes is particularly relevant for a predominantly working class region whose economic potential has been neglected for several decades. Regarding the Northern Powerhouse, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has stated: ‘There is no geographical reason why [high-speed rail directly to the North] cannot happen… nor is it because of a lack of investment. Historically, however, there has been a reluctance within these northern cities to work together’[ii].
This comment shows just how Northern stereotypes (they’re reluctant to work together; it’s known they’re a dour, suspicious, prideful, territorial people) can affect the reception of this and similar economic policy in the wider UK. They enable a swift glossing over the decimation of the North’s traditional industries in the late twentieth century and the disproportionately extreme effects of austerity measures on the region, instead placing the focus on the region’s apparent failings. It’s also an archetypal example of the cultural binary between England’s North and South, which is represented in These Northern Types by a project called ‘T’other Half’ (available from summer 2018), in which Bentley and team will explore parallels with regions in other countries (the South of France or North Wales, for instance) that similarly sit in the opposite half of the country to the perceived geographical centres of wealth, power and intellectualism.
This ambitious project is a wide-ranging examination of Northern identity and culture, one that seeks to push past stereotypes by acknowledging and exploring and going beyond them rather than pretending they don’t exist. But its most significant success lies in the important presentation of ‘Northern-ness’ as an identity that is not and should not be considered inherent or inborn. Instead it celebrates it as a shared and ever-growing set of linguistic characteristics, struggles and ways of inhabiting place in dialogue with the wider world, that can absorb and nurture those from elsewhere wishing to find community.
[i] ‘British Future’, This Sceptred Isle, April 2012: www.britishfuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/BritishFutureSceptredIsle.pdf
[ii]George Osborne, ‘A Rebooted Northern Powerhouse fits Theresa May’s Objectives’, Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/674d9082-867d-11e7-8bb1-5ba57d47eff7
Opening Night: Thursday 7 Dec, 6-9pm with a talk by Oli Bentley at 7pm. Left Bank Leeds will be hosting a panel discussion on 11 January 2018 at 7pm.
Jay Drinkall is a writer and editor based in the UK.