Book Review: Northerners: A History

Northerners tells the formidable history of the North of England through the people and events that have shaped it – and the wider world – from the Ice Age to the post-Brexit era. To have a book that condenses such a lengthy and tumultuous period of history into one volume will be welcomed by readers interested in the saga of this region.

Brian Groom’s narrative is informative and entertaining as he cavorts through the dramatic events that have shaped the north, from invasions and battles to the industrial revolution. In addition, there are chapters on witchcraft, slavery, northern women, poets and even sheep. We meet those who have conquered and settled there; the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and Normans, followed by centuries of warfare on the Anglo-Scottish border. Astonishingly, these conflicts account for more than half of the past 2,000 years, if you include the Roman era.

The north has not only witnessed some of the country’s most dramatic events, it has also been pivotal to them. Take, for example, the important historical standing of York, a city where at least six Roman emperors ruled the empire. Or the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, which became for a time Europe’s leading cultural and intellectual centre, illuminating the Dark Ages. The what-could-have-been scenarios had history taken a different route are numerous.

Groom intersperses his narrative of events with chapters on the people who have shaped the north. He introduces Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, in power around the time of the conquest and who succeeded in keeping her territory free from annexation for 30 years. She ought to be as famous as Boudica or Cleopatra, but is not. A few hundred years later, the Benedictine monk Bede is the original polymath as England’s first historian, as well as writing more than sixty works on science, cosmology, biblical commentary and orthography amongst other subjects.

The author Is keen to draw analogies between the past and present and with talk of ‘levelling-up’ on many politicians’ lips, it is interesting to do so. He likens the closure of the pits and mining in the 1980s to the harrying of the North by William the Conqueror. He also argues that Civil War divisions in the 17th century were repeated in the 2016 Brexit vote. Parliament, he says, drew the strongest support from London and the south east whereas Royalist support was strongest in rural areas of northern and western England, Wales and the Welsh marches and west midlands, just like in the EU referendum. It is certainly thought-provoking, although Brexiteers might not be as quick to agree with this similitude, feeling that in casting their vote, they were opposing the status quo rather than upholding it.

In conclusion, Groom debates the north-south divide; a division that, he says, “casts the north as the back end of the English economy pantomime horse”. This economic and cultural divide has existed throughout history with the industrial revolution adding to the image of sprawling townscapes billowing with smoke in contrast to the richer farmland of the south and the burgeoning of the London metropolis.

But does it actually help to continue to talk about a north-south divide or does this merely perpetuate the myth that it’s all cloth caps and whippets up north? A visitor to some of the more affluent areas of the North East might find there is actually more of an affinity with kindred villages and towns in the south than there is within the varied communities of the north of England. It’s a debate that Groom acknowledges and an interesting one to ponder.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book which will appeal to anyone with an interest in the north, whether they were born, live or work there or just visit for holidays. It is a celebration of the diverse groups of people who have made the north their home as well as a recognition of the manifold events that have shaped not only the story of this region, but also that of the UK and beyond.

Brian Groom is a journalist and a leading expert on British regional and national affairs. His career was spent mainly at the Financial Times, where he was assistant editor and worked in various capacities. He is also a former editor of Scotland on Sunday, which he launched as deputy editor and which won many awards. Originally from Stretford, Lancashire, he returned to live in the north – in Saddleworth, South Pennines – in 2015. This is his first book.

Northerners was reviewed for Books Up North by Sarah Banks

Sarah is a journalist, writer and photographer living in Ryedale, North Yorkshire. She has written for regional and national newspapers and websites and she is currently researching Wild Guide North East for Wild Things Publishing Ltd.

With the North York Moors National Park and Yorkshire coast on her doorstep, she was inspired to improve her photographic skills and recently qualified with a diploma in photography. If you visit her website you see examples of her work and some greetings cards are available to purchase via Etsy. When not enjoying the great outdoors with family and friends, she enjoys sitting down to watch a movie or curling up in a quiet corner with a good book.

If you enjoyed reading this review please share it on social media