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Interview: Brian Groom on the History of the North - or why Northerners Rock

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

In March of this year, we were lucky enough to attend the 43rd annual Lancaster Literature Festival (or LitFest as it is affectionately referred to). There we had the opportunity to attend the launch of 'Northerners: A History. From the Ice Ages to the 21st Century' is a fantabulous new book by author Brian Groom. As if a book launch wasn't awesome enough, we also had the chance to interview Mr Groom himself, you can read the results of that chat right here, right now.

Here's a little info about Brian copied and pasted directly from the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency (I'd have written the bio myself but, well, my hands are tired from competing in the Imagining History thumb war championships last night. I totally lost but did it with style):

"Brian Groom is a journalist and one of the foremost experts on British regional and national affairs. His career was spent mainly at the Financial Times, where he did many of the top writing and editing jobs. 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 (now part of Greater Manchester), he returned to live in the north – in Saddleworth, south Pennines – in 2015."

So, without further ado, please enjoy the interview!

Imagining History - Could you tell our readers a little about your book: Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day? What’s it all about!

Brian Groom - It tells northern England’s story over 180 million years, from the dinosaurs to modern-day politics. It includes the Roman era, the Vikings, medieval border wars, the Industrial Revolution, and the 20th century’s struggles. It isn’t just wars and politics – there are chapters on social and cultural themes, such as famous northern women, why northerners speak and write as they do, northern writers and artists, and the story of the north’s ethnic minorities. The emphasis is on people, from figures such as Northumbrian scholar Bede to the Bronte sisters, rail pioneer George Stephenson, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, the Beatles, and Victoria Wood.

What was it that inspired you to write a history of the North of England?

I was a history-mad kid and a proud northerner. My dad was sales manager of a small textiles company and during half-term holidays he took me all over the north on his trips, giving me a sense of the region as a whole. As a journalist, I have spent much of my life writing about British and regional affairs, so it was a natural subject for me. I was amazed to discover that only one previous general history of the north had ever been published, and that was more than 30 years ago, so it seemed a great opportunity to fill the gap.

How did you go about researching such a vast swathe of history, running all the way from the Ice Age to the Present Day?

I like wide-ranging subjects that allow me to see patterns and connections. Once I reached an outline plan, I had to be disciplined about how much reading was needed for each chapter. Experience in journalism was useful in learning how to get up to speed quickly on the key facts of an unfamiliar topic. I don’t need to be the world expert on any of the periods and people I cover, but I need to know them well enough to understand the main questions and controversies.

My follow-up question to this is; once you’d gathered this huge quantity of information and sources, how did you manage to edit it all down to form a cohesive and readable narrative?

My agent, Andrew Lownie – himself a distinguished historian – was helpful in getting me to shorten my original proposal. I cut my plan from 140,000 words to 100,000 – and finally delivered 118,000. An important decision was to make sure that I reached the Industrial Revolution by one-third the way through the book, rather than later because many readers are likely to be most interested in the modern era.

What one fact did you discover during your research that absolutely surprised you?

I think the thing that surprised me most was the strength of Lancashire’s working-class Conservatism. Most of the north voted Liberal in the 19th century and later Labour, but Lancashire was the odd one out. As late as 1955-70, only 35% of Lancashire’s MPs were Labour, compared with 56% in Yorkshire and 76% in the north-east, though the class composition was similar. It may partly have been hostility to Irish Catholic immigration, as in Liverpool, which the Tories dominated from 1841 until the 1970s. But it may also have roots in Lancashire’s older history of isolation and insularity.

What one piece of history trivia did you expect to be backed up by your research that turned out to be completely made-up?

The story that Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons, was scolded by a peasant woman for burning cakes that she had asked him to watch is almost certainly false. It did not emerge until 100 years later and is a legend apparently aimed at underlining Alfred’s saintly humility.

We haven’t had a chance to read Northerners yet (though we shall on April 14th!) but we were intrigued by the book’s blurbs mentioning of Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, who ‘deserves to be as famous as Boudica’. Could you tell us a little more about Cartimandua? She sounds fascinating!

She is the first northerner we know by name. Cartimandua was Queen of the Brigantes at the time of the Roman conquest; her territory covered Yorkshire along with much of Lancashire, Northumberland, and Durham. She tends to get relegated to a few disparaging lines in history books, probably because she collaborated with the Romans, divorced her husband, married one of his aides, and was overthrown by a revolt. Despite her loyalty, she was portrayed by Roman historians as an adulterous betrayer of British men. Yet she kept her territory free from annexation for up to 30 years, whereas Boudica’s revolt brought terrible retribution on her people. Perhaps a more balanced assessment is due.

Also, six Roman Emperors ruled from York? That’s amazing! I’m aware that’s not really a question, just wanted to let you know that this really piqued our interest.

The six were: Hadrian, who built the wall; Septimius Severus, known as the African emperor, the mixed-race son of a provincial family from present-day Libya; Severus’s sons Caracalla and Geta; and Constantius I and his son Constantine the Great (proclaimed emperor by his troops at York when his father died there). There may have been a seventh: Constans also visited Britain, though it is not known whether he came north.

Out of all the colourful characters we’ll meet when reading your book, who is your favourite and why?

I try not to have a favourite; it’s like favouring one among your own children. But I must admit to having a soft spot for Josephine Butler (1828-1906), arguably most effective campaigner for women’s rights of her time. She ended coverture (whereby a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by her husband’s) and also succeeded in criminalising child prostitution and human trafficking. She faced many dangers. Suffragist Millicent Fawcett considered Butler “the most distinguished Englishwoman of the 19th century”.

Finally, what idea do you hope to leave readers with when they finish reading Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day?

That today’s and tomorrow’s northerners are building on the incredibly fascinating and varied experiences of their predecessors. We have much to learn from them. The north’s future, like its past, will depend on the talents, energy, and enterprise of northerners.

Thank you Brian for taking the time to answer our questions!

You can find Brian on Twitter @groomb


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