It would be fair to say that most Living North readers are proud to be from, or to live in, the North East. Some have moved here and settled, others were born here and never left. For a minority however, the North East can be source of embarrassment. They’d rather people didn’t know where they’re from, or they harbour negative feelings about the area.
Author Joe Sharkey wanted to know why, so for a decade he studied a condition he’s nicknamed Akenside Syndrome, and now he’s written a book about it, putting him at the centre of the debate about Geordie identity. He defines Akenside Syndrome as this: ‘A condition of feeling ambivalent towards Newcastle or Tyneside despite often retaining a strong emotional bond with, and or sincere affection for the area. A vague sense of unease and not quite belonging or fitting in is also a common characteristic.’
He believes North Easterners are particularly susceptible to this kind of feeling, and creative North Easterners are most susceptible of all, with celebrities such as Sting, who left the North East long ago, among those who feature in his book. (‘I realised very young that the guy reading the news wasn’t speaking Geordie,’ Sting told a journalist in 1991. ‘Access to power and success had to mean changing the way I spoke’.)
Joe named the condition after Mark Akenside, the 18th century son of a Newcastle butcher who achieved success as a poet and was physician to Queen Charlotte in 1761. Akenside was famously touchy about his North Eastern roots. A plaque next to All Saints’ Church on Newcastle’s Quayside confirms this: ‘He is said to have been ashamed of his native place, so that he would sneak through Newcastle when occasion called him thither.’
‘It could be that I’m doing him a disservice,’ admits Joe, ‘But it’s well-known that he left Newcastle and was ambivalent towards the area. What I’m examining in the book is why that’s continued through people like Sting, who’s the most obvious manifestation. Why is it that some Tynesiders have these strong feelings of ambivalence for the North East? Not just your average ambivalence – everyone likes and dislikes certain parts of the place they live – but some of the stuff I’ve found is really quite strong.’
There are plenty more examples from Sting. For example Joe mentions the time Sting described Newcastle as, ‘A good place to bring up your sick,’ which was meant as joke, but unsurprisingly offended people. ‘The Sting quotes go beyond just a normal ambivalence any of us might feel towards a city where we grew up,’ says Joe. ‘It’s extreme and I’m trying to understand why that is, why they have that extreme reaction.’
In fairness to Sting, the effect of his Akenside Syndrome appears to have waned in recent years. In 2009 he fired the starting gun for the Great North Run and agreed to feature in an advert promoting Newcastle. He performed songs in a special televised event at Durham Cathedral and spoke about Geordie identity, saying, ‘It’s a fierce regional identity which I don’t see very often... I don’t feel anything but a Geordie.’ Recently he also wrote a musical, The Last Ship, which took Geordie culture and put it on stage on Broadway.
For some of Joe’s subjects, the syndrome manifests through creative output rather than overt remarks. ‘Lee Hall is a prime example,’ says Joe. ‘Billy Elliot can be read in many different ways, but on one level it is about his ambivalence towards the culture that he was brought up in, in my opinion.’
In the book Joe also points to the late Newcastle-born novelist Gordon Burn. ‘He admitted to having been an “intolerable snob”,’ explains Joe, ‘And felt he was “culturally, and in class terms, a displaced person.”’
Joe quotes Burn as saying: ‘I didn’t think coming from Newcastle had anything to do with who I was for many years,’ but the novelist then described walking home from poetry sessions at Morden Tower as a teenager and encountering crowds streaming out of St James’ Park, at which point he would have to go against the flow. ‘This always seemed a reasonable direction in which to be heading,’ said Burn.
Joe divides Geordie culture into four areas: class, accent, drink and football. He calls them the ‘four pillars of Geordie identity’. He starts with class (he says that was essential as the other topics relate to it). Accent sees Joe reflect on a ‘linguistic catch-22’ he experienced when he left the region to study an MA in Creative Writing at Surrey University. He found his accent was too common for his university peers, but it became too standardised for his friends from home – “Say it like a Geordie!” a childhood-pal told him.
It’s one of many experiences that have helped Joe understand why people have mixed feelings about where they are from. Joe now lives in Hampshire, having been an exiled Geordie for 14 years, and he admits he suffers with Akenside Syndrome himself at times. ‘It’s why I look at the things that perhaps provoke that in the book. People don’t realise how strong the misunderstandings of Newcastle and the North East are. That does motivate me. I fight against stereotypes in the book quite a lot.’
Many of those stereotypes are addressed in the drink and football chapters. Joe held a season ticket at St James’ Park when he lived in the North East, and kept it for many years after he left until he found he couldn’t give the ticket away during one particularly bleak spell for the club. He still goes to away games in the South and the odd home game when he’s back in the North East. To better understand the role of football in North East life he interviewed former Newcastle United Chairman Sir John Hall.
‘The obsession for football is overwhelming,’ Hall told him, ‘And sometimes I used to get quite frightened of the responsibility we had for people’s lives… I realised, in a sense, we’ve got our businesses, we’ve got our jobs and we’ve got our interests but to them that was their whole life. It’s a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength – the passion – great for the club, but it’s a weakness that we haven’t moved beyond it intellectually. And it sums up the area in some ways. There has to be something more than the football club… there has to be a lot more if we are to progress.’
Joe found Hall an engaging interviewee. ‘He’s not scared to express himself in a very forthright way, and he did. A fraction of it makes it into the book. Of course you can pick holes in his quote, and say we have moved forward, the Quayside regeneration for example, but football is still a very central part of the identity and always will be. So perhaps there’s an element of truth to what he said.’
In the second half of the book Joe sets himself up as both prosecution and defence for Geordie identity and invites the reader to be judge and jury. He interviewed a number of famous and non-famous people he felt might be on the Akenside spectrum. They included actor Tim Healy who told Joe that when he came into the business in 1973, actors all had middle class backgrounds. ‘If you wanted to go to drama school,’ said Healy, ‘The first question they used to ask was, “And what does your father do?” And if you did have any accent at all, it was got shot of.’
Joe also interviewed Big Brother contestant Narinder Kaur (who was once quoted as saying she would never bring her kids up in the North East), Viz-founder Chris Donald and RGS Headmaster Bernard Trafford. ‘I interviewed well-known people for a few reasons,’ Joe explains. ‘One, because they readily talk about their feelings for the North East in autobiographies and interviews, but also because it makes the book a bit more accessible for the reader.’
He also had many rejections though. ‘Quite a few either didn’t respond or got back to me and said, “Thanks, but I’m not interested.” It was hard work to get the people that I eventually got, frankly. I was an unknown, would-be author approaching them about a sensitive subject so I was very appreciative of the ones who did give me their time.‘You want people to express opinions in interviews,’ he continues. ‘I interviewed a few people for a would-be chapter on rugby and other sports, because of the dominance of football in the region, but I found a lot of them batting back the questions. There was no tension there.’
Joe acknowledges that Akenside Syndrome isn’t exclusive to the North East. ‘It’s a universal thing to some extent, as in people from places like Scotland perhaps and Liverpool in particular experience it. There’s a quote from Keith Armstrong in the book that says, “Anywhere away from the positions and places of power, cultural, political and economic, people can feel alienated.” There’s an element of that, but I do feel it’s particularly strong here.’
There are political undertones, but he doesn’t use the book as a political soapbox. ‘Broadly speaking it’s a cultural critique of Geordie identity and culture. Although the style is occasionally outspoken and provocative, at its heart it’s about empathy and identity.’ It’s a dialogue not a diatribe, and it’s clearly written by someone who, despite wavering over the years, very much loves the North East. They all come round eventually!
Akenside Syndrome: Scratching the Surface of Geordie Identity by Joe Sharkey is available to buy at www.jajosabooks.co.uk with a donation from each copy going towards fighting ovarian cancer