North: Identity, Photography, Fashion

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Photograph: From the series Skelmersdale (1984) by Stephen McCoy

“Tripe, clogs, going to the dogs, Wigan and Blackpool tram, Brass bands, butties in yer ’ands, whippets and next door’s mam” — Victoria Wood’s ditty about a failed singer who finds success by being “Northern” kept running through my mind going round this enjoyable exhibition.

Marxists view humanity in worldwide terms, the international working class and the ruling class that holds it back. Talk of national identity and culture is associated with nationalism, which is one of the ways the ruling class divides us the better to exploit our labour. But are regional identities and culture within nation states any less divisive? Do they even exist in any meaningful sense?

This exhibition explores northern identity and the influence its culture has had particularly on fashion and the visual arts. One of the first exhibits is Spare Time, a film made by Humphrey Jennings for the General Post Office in 1939.

These familiar images of 1930s northerners with their whippets, racing pigeons, kazoo bands and dark beer do not seem very remote. Digital remastering renders these people — clothes, hairstyles and activities apart — indistinguishable from today’s workers. “Between work and sleep comes the time we call our own”, says the commentary as we see people cramming pleasure in many forms into these periods, a timeless observation on life under capitalism.

The ways in which, over time, these images have become rehashed into clichés are considered. The exhibition talks of the style and cultural heritage of the north of England. Designer Paul Smith sells a Manchester-themed range of clothes exclusively in Japan, we’re told. Interviews with other northern designers discussing the impact of the region on their creative output can be listened to via an old telephone as you watch images on a TV set from the 1980s.

Parka coats, early publicity shots of Manchester band The Stone Roses and posters for the Hacienda and other music venues are displayed alongside photos of young people in the street wearing their own variations on that day’s fashion. Missing though were examples of the huge influence on fashion, food and music of people of Asian ancestry.

I wasn’t persuaded that regional identity, if it exists, comes close to that of being working class in terms of how culture develops and is spread. The Beatles, probably the biggest single influence on pop culture in my lifetime, owe more to the music of the US than northern England.

Newcastle identity is quite different to that of Manchester or Leeds, so to lump them together as “northern” serves no purpose. Communities thousands of miles apart based round particular industries like steel, mining or fishing are likely to have more things in common through selling their labour in similar ways than they will with people who happen to live in the same geographical area.

Still, I thought th’exhibition were reet gradely so if tha’s up north, Chuck, pop in and clock it.