True grit started at t'mill, tha knows

January 26, 1996

Where is the north of England? The answer depends entirely on your vantage point and, of course, which rhetorical device - otherwise known as a map - you use. The north is still widely regarded as a foreign place by southerners, according to one cultural historian tracing the theme through the literature, journalism and photography of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its imagined boundaries, often arbitrarily drawn, profoundly influence perceptions of the place.

Stuart Rawnsley's work on representations of Yorkshire uncovers the rhetorical and ideological nature of cartography and the influence map-makers have exerted on popular interpretations of the north. Disagreements about, for instance, whether the Lake District or the Potteries should be included in definitions of the north have never been resolved.

"Preconceived images of the north continue to be reproduced although the reality is shifting all the time," says Dr Rawnsley, a Yorkshireman and researcher Leeds Metropolitan University.

It is not just popular culture that depicts the typical Yorkshire tyke as characteristically gritty, possessing a dry sense of humour, being rough mannered, independent and a poor loser. He is inevitably bound up in pursuits such as allotments, pigeons, whippet racing and leek growing.

In analysing how such stereotypes continue to be reinforced, Dr Rawnsley says that to understand the importance of image we need look no further than the Oxford English Dictionary. Alone of all the counties Yorkshire is allocated a section on the characteristics of its people. "Reference is made to boorishness, cunning, sharpness or trickery attributed to Yorkshire people. If something is worthless it is 'a pair of Yorkshire sleeves in a goldsmith's shop'." Such phrases may or may not be believed, but, according to Dr Rawnsley, they have entered in to the popular idiom and have shaped perceptions of Yorkshire and its people.

During the English civil war the north was regarded by parliamentarians as one of the "dark corners of the land". Then in 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote that when he traversed the river Trent on a tour of England he had "passed the rubicon and set my face Northward". As Dr Rawnsley sees it such images of remoteness persisted long after the Victorians began to "discover" the country through tours and sightseeing and can be said to still inform commonly held opinions about the north/south divide today.

Common assumptions about climate reinforce some of the notions of regional boundaries. It always rains up north is a popular notion and yet Dr Rawnsley says research in climatology for the 19th and 20th centuries do not support it.

Post-war film and television have continued to intensify images of Yorkshireness. The realist kitchen-sink dramas of the late 1950s and 1960s were often based on the works of Yorkshire writers who used northern characters and places to great effect.

Dr Rawnsley's focus on the north, which sprang from his research in to English fascism in the 1930s, presents some particular challenges since his wide variety of sources lead him into many different academic disciplines. This has presented a range of research methodologies which are not always complementary.

Somehow Dr Rawnsley must combine the bureaucratic approach to regional definition encompassing planning concepts with the social, political and economic indicators that shape common understandings. In addition, disciplines such as geography, climatology, cartography, and sociology all have something to add to the construction of regional identities.

"We are witnessing a fundamental reappraisal of the components of some academic disciplines and key concepts such as class," Dr Rawnsley says. "We no longer have the certainties we might have been used to and we cannot ignore theoretical issues and the questioning of our methods of analysis."

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