Where There’s Muck, There’s Bras: The Lost Stories of the Amazing Women of the North, published by HarperNorth, is available in all good bookstores now. Keep up to date with Kate’s work at katefoxwriter.wordpress.com.
Whitley Bay-Based Stand-Up Poet and Author on her New Book and Representing Northern Women
Kate was born in Bradford but moved to the North East to become a radio journalist, and worked for Metro Radio and Galaxy Radio in Newcastle. She always dreamed of being a performer and a poet and her regular topical poetry slot on BBC Radio 4 led to national gigs, and before she knew it she was poet in residence at Glastonbury Festival and for the Great North Run. Now, she’s back in what she calls her ‘spiritual home’ by the sea in Whitley Bay.
‘The fusion is important because my roots are in Yorkshire. Hearing a Yorkshire accent is like “this is home; this is me” but, it’s as if Whitley Bay (and Cullercoats and Tynemouth because I’m on the border of Whitley Bay and Cullercoats now) – is my chosen home.
When I first went to work at Metro Radio, I remember I told them that I wanted to live by the sea and they told me to try Whitley Bay. I drove there, unsure at that time, and drove down the coast road towards Tynemouth Priory. Honestly, it was like falling in love.’
Kate describes polishing up her ‘newsreader voice’ when working for the radio stations in Newcastle. ‘I don’t think I polish it up anymore because I don’t do news reading anymore, but I’m aware that if I get carried away and talk really fast, it’s a bit harder to understand me,’ she says.
‘So I do sometimes slow myself down and lower my voice, but I think people now appreciate the authenticity of Northern accents. I know that Sarah Millican, very early on in her career, did get some criticism about her accent – and I think that criticism was a really clear demonstration of how there are still classist, sexist, regionalist attitudes in broadcast media.
'Actually, people respond to and love her accent and it’s still not one that we actually hear that much on telly. I will not be happy until we have a Northerner reading the national news. Then I’ll know that accent prejudice is no longer a thing.’
Having always been passionate about the North, Kate began to take a closer look at her home, its past and what the future might hold for Northern women.
‘There was still such snobbery about being Northern and I thought, how can this still be?,’ she says. ‘I got really interested in wanting to research it. I realised academia was the place, so I did a PhD at the University of Leeds from 2014 to 2018, which feels honestly like the best thing I ever did. I loved it.
'The Great Exhibition of the North asked for proposals in 2018, and I realised how we Northern women were kind of ignored. I thought surely they’d be interested in a show about it – and they were.
'Out of that show, which toured around quite a few theatres in the North (and people really seemed to enjoy it), HarperNorth approached me in the second lockdown and asked if I’d like to write a book of the show – so I did.’
Where There’s Muck, There’s Bras (how a Southerner might pronounce that well-known Northern saying) is the title of Kate’s book, which explores the lost stories of women from the North, who lived or still live in the North, or who have done inspiring things for the North.
Of course, she mentions heroine Grace Darling, inspiring MP Ellen Wilkinson (Red Ellen), renowned author Ann Cleeves and TV’s and Teesside’s Steph McGovern, but there are plenty of women many won’t have heard of – simply because their stories are rarely told.
‘The single most surprising one still is the fact that we had Cartimandua – this Northern queen who was as powerful and suppressive as Boadicea,’ Kate reveals. ‘I’ll ask audiences and people who’ve read the book and they just haven’t heard of her.
I think it’s so surprising that there can be such a total suppression on a part of the region’s history and that it goes unchallenged.’ Cartimandua was a first century queen and ruler of the Brigantes (Celtic people living in what is now Northern England).
According to English Heritage, she was the first documented queen to reign in part of the British Isles, and became an important ally of the Roman Empire during the conquest.
It’s thought that her headquarters were in Stanwick in North Yorkshire. During her rule, the Iron Age settlement of Stanwick saw an influx of Roman goods, such as rare tableware and glass, and neighbouring settlements, such as Scotch Corner, also benefited from this.
‘History is written by the victors, basically,’ Kate continues. ‘Initially, with Cartimandua, that was the Romans. They did mention her but they didn’t celebrate her.
After that, history was written from London and the South – by men. I think Queen Victoria had a bit of a thing about Boadicea and identified with her so she was adopted into the national symbolism, whereas Cartimandua was almost erased.
She wasn’t made part of national mythology and the North still struggles to have its own mythology – but actually I cannot think of a better figurehead for it than Cartimandua.’
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, is another important figure who Kate shines a spotlight on. She was a self-taught scientist, philosopher, novelist and poet and wrote what many describe as the first science-fiction book, The Blazing World.
In the 17th century when very few women had books published, she wrote an impressive 23. Kate discovered Margaret’s story when it was featured in a display during The Great Exhibition of the North, and although Margaret was an adopted-Geordie (originally born in Colchester) it’s thought she inspired many women to embrace creativity.
Equally as inspirational is Charmain Welsh, from a County Durham pit village. She was just 15 when she represented Britain in diving at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Without professional facilities or coaching, her talent and determination is what got her there, and surely would inspire many Northern sportswomen today – of which we have many who are successful, not least footballers Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton. While Sunderland’s sports scene may be seen as male dominated with the Black Cats, these female footballers are some of the best of our time.
Looking to the future, Kate is hopeful for equal opportunities for Northern women. ‘As it is, for women there’s still a gender pay gap,’ she says. ‘We’re still disproportionately hit, for example, by the cost of living crisis.
Any factor like that, that impacts women, and doubles for women in the North because we don’t get as much spent on transport and education.
With the talk of the levelling-up agenda, the focus suddenly on the Red Wall and the North should theoretically mean that some of the massive regional inequality evens out, and women do better.’
Kate also points out that the unconscious prejudice towards Northern working-class accents plays a part in this inequality. ‘If people start to recognise that, then I feel hopeful. But if people keep forgetting about it, and brushing it under the carpet, I don’t.’
Now that she’s shared these stories, Kate says she feels a sense of ‘satisfaction and rightness’. ‘I wanted the stories of the women who I felt were forgotten, or were in danger of being forgotten, out there and to be known,’ she explains. ‘You can only reach so many people when you perform in theatres, but the book feels like it’s accessible to anyone. There was a task I set myself, or let’s say even more than that – a duty I had to the women – and I feel like I’ve fulfilled that duty.
‘To me it’s so exciting that we are hearing powerful, Northern, female voices coming through in TV, music and film. It’s a key message, and a reason that my book ends with the future (and the women who either went into space with Helen Sharman, or into the air with Amy Johnson or into fictional time-travelling worlds with Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who). It is all about saying let’s celebrate the North and its future.’
Which TV shows do you enjoy watching? Are they created by Northerners?
‘I love everything that Sally Wainwright does. I’m so looking forward to the next Last Tango in Halifax and the next Happy Valley. By the same token, I absolutely have loved Derry Girls (although I haven’t seen the finalé yet because I’m away in the camper van). But also I loved I May Destroy You and Normal People. And I’m looking forward to Stranger Things.’
‘My all-time favourite musician is totally not northern: Leonard Cohen. I love indie-folk too; people like Regina Spektor. I recently have got into a punk band based in Lancashire called The Lovely Eggs. They’re powerfully Northern. In a way, their singer Holly’s voice is like the spirit of all the women in my book distilled. I was at their gig at Pop Recs in Sunderland and she was funny, angry, powerful and she had a huge voice!’
Favourite places to spend your time in the North East?
‘Park View on Whitley Bay where I can go and get the best cakes and pastries from PureKnead, and my books from The Bound. All the beaches from Tynemouth to Whitley Bay but especially Cullercoats Bay where I can go swimming. I’m back swimming every day now and I just love it. Holy Island is my happy place though. I missed it during lockdown.’
Favourite Northern saying (but you can’t choose where there’s muck, there’s brass).
‘It’s got to be “shy bairns get nowt”. I didn’t hear that until I came to the North East and I was like “wow, that’s a life philosophy”.’