The North East’s cultural identity explored

NEXT year there is to be a Festival of the North East, a first for the region.

NEXT year there is to be a Festival of the North East, a first for the region.

The temporary return of the Lindisfarne Gospels – a treasure now looked after in London – will be at the heart of it, but the festival will be a celebration of culture across an area between the Tees and the Tweed.

Ideas for various festival projects and attractions have been submitted from all corners and a producer, Jonathan Best, has been appointed.

“Festival of the North East will be a unique celebration of the innovation and creativity of the region,” he said on his appointment.

Already the festival has prompted discussion but nobody, as far as I can tell, has questioned its logic, as possibly they would have done if it had been a festival of South Wales and the West Country or East Anglia and the Home Counties.

The festival has not been foisted on an unwilling set of disconnected communities by an outside body. It was the idea of two prominent artists – the musician Kathryn Tickell and the writer Lee Hall – who are happy to say they were born and brought up in the North East.

James Wharton MP says that “the North East is itself a political construct, with the regional boundaries drawn pretty much arbitrarily”.

There are definitions of the North East of which that might be true but they mostly emanate from “down there” rather than “up here”.

Many are the bright PR people from London who’ve rung to tell me of “a good North East story” in Hull or York ... or even Aberdeen (since Scotland has its North East too).

And the BBC has bent over backwards to tell us that the North East is well-served by its new “Media City UK”... in Salford.

From London, it very often seems, the North itself – let alone the North East – is a shadowy concept, like something dreamt up by Tolkien.

When attempts are made to weld disparate places together, you’ll hear about it soon enough. Arguably Newcastle- Gateshead is one such example.

Such a construct might make financial – possibly even political – sense but to a lot of people, none of whom had a problem with the idea of the North East, it felt like the wrong sides of two magnets being forced together.

Anthony Sargent, general director of The Sage Gateshead and closely involved in the Festival of the North East, recalled a visit to the American city of Seattle and asking why there was such a strong arts scene there.

“They said, ‘Look at the map. We’re on the edge of the world here. We have to make our own culture.’ There’s a sense of that in the North East and in other areas remote from the major capitals, a vigorous sense of pride in their own culture.”

He added: “I was in Birmingham for 10 years and you didn’t get it there. The further you get from London, the more you find fresh and distinctive regional identities.

“There’s a real, almost anarchic energy about the North East, a real sense of people doing things for themselves, and as an in-comer I find that an exceptional thing.”

Of course, the North East contains all sorts of people from many different backgrounds, rich and poor, Conservative, Labour and even Lib Dem.

But none of them constructed the North East. Geographically, bound on one side by the North Sea and on the other by the Pennines and the Cheviots, the North East makes sense.

Culturally it makes sense too. Rich and poor once depended largely on heavy industry when people really were “all in it together”. Whatever your part in the process, shipbuilding and coal mining were the region’s glue.

Like Anthony Sargent, I’m an in-comer, having grown up in the rural south and Midlands where, at school, we had to invent allegiance to football teams that were just names in a newspaper.

In the North East, the sense of belonging is tangible and strong. Football teams are handed down, like accents. You couldn’t tinker with idea of the North East, any more than you could alter the North Sea.

The Festival of the North East takes place next June. Watch this space.

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