An existential regional identity

As the first place, apparently anywhere in the world, to be building a community family tree of everyone who ever lived there Newbiggin by the Sea is generating some notable pioneers. It’s also producing some fascinating stories out of the so-called ordinary lives of people from a small town which has spent most of its history being overlooked.
Last week we began to tell some of those tales through drama. Visiting Newbiggin Maritime Centre were Tyneside- based Cap-A-Pie theatre company with a play, ‘Under Us All’ based upon the real lives and words of 3 generations of an Irish family living in Hebburn. The links with our genealogy project are obvious so before the performance members of the company led a workshop to explore how our family tales might be turned into theatre.
It was a considerable success. Working with a group whose ages ranged from 8 months to 88 years the theatre company provided a stimulating experience upon which we are keen to build. Even the warm-up was instructive. Invited to place ourselves around a large room according to where we now live I found myself waving from the northern extremities of Warkworth at colleagues from Whitley Bay, Consett and the cities of Durham and Newcastle over the heads of the majority from Newbiggin. It was, it turned out an exercise which emphasised notions of identity, solidarity and sheer bloody-minded community resilience.
This prompted me to consider demography. At the last census in 2011 Newbiggin had almost 10 times as many people (6308) as at the first in 1841. However this apparently steady rise masks huge fluctuations with large increases in the post war years being completely offset by downturn during the decades of industrial decline in the ‘30’s and ‘90’s. Newbiggin has a considerable ‘diaspora’ of people who have moved away across the world to find work and this reflects the North East. Here we have the region with the smallest population, increasing at the lowest rate in England ; its most notable rise being in the group of people over the age of 65.
Some of the comments I’ve had since beginning this column have questioned the whole notion of a North East region arguing that it’s nothing more than a political construct employed by those who relish statistics.
Personally I don’t believe that ‘the North East’ is any more a political construct than ‘England’. It certainly has greater historical provenance. Although the Romans tried to divide us with the ultimate physical device of a wall the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia, ruled from Bamburgh, united Northumberland and Durham, absorbed them into a Northumbria stretching from the Firth of Forth to the Humber and for a few years held power over most of what eventually became ‘England’. Moreover, that great arc of Christian culture – Lindisfarne- Jarrow- Monkwearmouth –Durham provided the greatest learning and art of the time.
We all know the North East has history on its side but what I’d argue really binds us is the lived experience of being here, the shared, mutuality not only of economic circumstances but of the whole of life amongst this landscape and language and people. Regional identity is an existential concept irrevocably tied up with how you see yourself which is inextricable with how you live your life –wherever you live it and however long you’ve been there.
Why there so many Sunderland supporters in Newbiggin by the Sea is a common issue for our group – perhaps most for those who think that football allegiance should be closer to home. Part of the answer is that somebody had the sense to put on a supporters bus; originally it was a result of droves of Durham miners who came to open our pit. 100 years on there are many who live that unspoken, unacknowledged heritage with pride.
We read in last Thursday’s Journal that the Leader of Newcastle City Council believes that the North East requires the same level of devolution as Wales. On Saturday we heard of the opening of consultation on proposals for a North East Combined Authority. The latter proposal is welcome, uniting local authorities across the region on the big strategic issues However it is no substitute for, indeed could be a distraction from the devolution of democracy, the empowerment of people here.
I agree with Councillor Forbes. Working recently in Wales, negotiating with the Wales Government and Welsh politicians of all parties I was struck by their energy and determination to pursue distinction and excellence for the people of Wales.
However Wales did not achieve their devolution easily through the benificence of others. We now lag behind them because of the nagging campaigning of a Welsh Party rooted in Wales, focused on the interests of Wales. Plaid Cymru has been an effective ‘thorn in the side’ their efforts engaging, resonating with people.
Do we need a new political party to battle for the North East in a similar way ? The debate starts next Monday November 18th 6-8pm at the Lit&Phil, 23 Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne.
It would be great to see Councillor Forbes there.
Hilton Dawson