Nostalgia in the new Brasilia – a tale of Newcastle

December 13, 2019

A panel debate of historians, politicians and journalists took place at The Lit and Phil last month to mark 40 years since the publication of A Tale of Five Cities – Life in Provincial Europe Today. Attending the event, Richard Dawson found out whether John Ardagh’s controversial book is still relevant on Tyneside today

It’s 40 years since travel writer and journalist John Ardagh visited the North East as part of his journey around Europe to write his book, A Tale of Five Cities – Life in Provincial Europe Today.

Ardagh’s quest was to discover what life was like in Stuttgart, Bologna, Toulouse, Ljubljana and Newcastle in the 1970s.

He arrived in Newcastle on the eve of enormous industrial upheaval with the book being published in 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher came to power. He described a city of “blackness, crumbling industry and Victorian urban drabness”. He claimed he felt more at home in Toulouse or Stuttgart and marvelled at the inversion of class power in the city’s political establishment – “an area so assertively dominated by working-class values”, in his own words.

John Ardagh – who was privately educated and graduated from Oxford would have certainly been considered an outsider in 1970s Newcastle – a city with a strong working-class heritage in mining and shipbuilding.

Perhaps that’s why he was drawn to this idea of Tyneside as a closed society, isolated from the outside world. Unable to penetrate a community he had so little in common with, it is not difficult to see why John Ardagh came to many of the conclusions he did.

In the book he said: “Newcastle has a stronger personality than any other big English town”, but he goes on to chastise it for being overly nostalgic and basking in its own alienation.

“An inward-looking self-pitying nostalgia, a parochialism that seeks to exclude the world, a fear of cosmopolitan values, an ignorant acceptance of low standards – these are Geordie traits that I have never managed to find attractive”, he added.

A lot of Ardagh’s analysis is arguably coloured by his own privilege and as such he did make a number of superficial judgements about the city he was visiting. But given that the section on Newcastle is the longest in his book, it’s clear that something about it got under his skin. His own bias notwithstanding, he did identify things about the North East that are still relevant today.

One example is his observation of local people as being fiercely proud of their city and willing to defend it from any outward criticism. Talking about the area, he described it as: “effusively friendly in its way yet resentful of anyone coming to judge it by outside standards. It has an exceptional sense of local pride and identity.”

This tradition continues and was alive and well at Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society (The Lit and Phil) – the largest independent library outside of London last month where a special panel debate took place to commemorate the 40th anniversary of A Tale of Five Cities’ publication.

Coming to the defence of his hometown, Gateshead-born historian David Olusoga mused: “I can tolerate the North East being criticised as long as it’s not being criticised in a Southern accent.”

David Olusoga was joined by Chi Onwurah MP, Mandy Baxter, publisher and director of The Crack magazine, TV and theatre presenter Michael Chaplin and John Tomaney, professor of urban planning at University College London. The event was chaired by North East Times’ very own John Duns who first read the book when he joined The Lit and Phil 33 years ago.

Each of the panellists used their opening remarks to point out the shortcomings of Ardagh’s portrayal of Tyneside.

Michael Chaplin said: “The book drips condescension from every orifice.” Michael’s father, the writer Sid Chaplin, was interviewed by Ardagh and is quoted saying “you can’t understand this place until you understand coal.”

Michael made the point that Ardagh was quite selective in what he took from his father, only hearing what he wanted to hear.

Chi Onwurah added: “His own prejudices are a perspective through which he views the Newcastle culture of the time.”

County Durham-born John Tomaney said that he didn’t recognise the Newcastle Ardagh described.

“The portrait painted by Ardagh is one of this drab, declining city covered in coal dust but from my point of view it was the great metropolis”, he said. “As with so much of the book, there’s a lot of superficial judgements about the society he’s talking about.”

One of the most troubling aspects of the book is Ardagh’s assertion that Geordie women were completely subordinated to men. He described men treating women “in an almost Muslim manner”, which is intended to be derogatory, and claimed that women “accept their inferiority” in social life. He also said: “Women were expected to keep out of the clubs and pubs and stay in the kitchen waiting on hubby subserviently.”

Mandy Baxter took exception to this. She said: “On how many levels is that offensive? Patriarchy and sexism were alive and well in all classes and religions [in the 1970s]. It’s not something unique to the North East.”

Ardagh also marked out Newcastle as the least cosmopolitan, least diverse of the five cities he visited, and while this may have been true in ethnographic terms, Michael Chaplin made the point that Ardagh ignored Tyneside’s international connections – whether those coming through the historic ports or the world-class universities. “I think he completely missed the sea-going tradition of the time”, said Michael. “The first ship built on the Tyne for international trade was believed to be in 1294. Ever since then, there were these journeys and interflows of people, goods and ideas.”

It was also highlighted during last month’s discussion that the insularity that Ardagh described said more about his own failure to understand the difference between regional pride and chauvinism, than being an accurate representation of Newcastle.

Chi Onwurah commented: “What I thought he got wrong was this idea that because there was a pride in being from the North East, that meant necessarily a hatred or indifference to others.”

In the early pages of the Newcastle section, Ardagh described Geordies as living in the past. He laments this defiant nostalgia and refers to it as a “classic case of alienation”.

He wrote “Admittedly the old hardships were great and the injustices unforgiveable. But for Geordies to continue thus to brood over them is dangerously near to self-pity and to a masochistic narcissism. Few people can ever have cherished quite so lovingly the outsized chip on their shoulders.”

This was a major point of contention with the panel. “He has a tremendous dig at Close the Coalhouse Door”, said Michael Chaplin. “This is a common theme throughout the book that we’re backwards-looking, full of self-pity and that we should just leave all that behind.”

Close the Coalhouse Door was a musical about the Durham coal tradition and Ardagh uses its adulation in the North East to re-assert his idea of Geordies as being obsessed with the past. But, as was pointed out by the panel, the hit musical sold out theatres across the country, resonating with people wherever it went.

Michael Chaplin added: “This idea that we’re not allowed to remember our history, that we’re not allowed to remember our past, is something that’s deeply sinister.”

John Tomaney asked if nostalgia was necessarily a bad thing. “Much of the nostalgia that we have now is about this sense of, yes there’s been progress in material terms and social advances in lots of ways, but we’ve lost something along the way”, he said.

The panellists then discussed whether there was a political dimension to Ardagh coming from a more affluent part of the country and effectively telling the region to forget its history.

“For all the talk, which I acknowledge, about the nostalgic view of villages and all the rest, I think there is this political dimension, which is being played out as we speak in this election”, said Michael Chaplin.

Chi Onwurah continued: “David Cameron once said, ‘it’s not where you’re from that matters, it’s where you’re going to’. But where you are going and where you are able to go does depend on where you come from.”

What’s clear is that in the 40 years since its publication, much of John Ardagh’s writing still proves to be highly controversial, especially on Tyneside. But, as highlighted at The Lit and Phil panel last month, there he did make some important interventions on the state of the North East economy, industrial relations, local government and the built environment that were incredibly prescient for the time.

“If there were no truths in this book, if he didn’t identify things that many of us ourselves have identified, we wouldn’t be here 40 years later discussing it”, said David Olusoga.

When talking about the economy, Ardagh acknowledged that there had been a rise in living standards and household incomes across the North East. This is part of the reason he thought local people should let go of old grievances.

The writer also rightly pointed out that for the first time since before the Great Depression, Geordies had money to spend and livelihoods that seemed more secure.

But he cautioned that the North East was not well-positioned to adapt and diversify its economy away from an over-reliance on the mass employers of old industry that were rapidly deteriorating in the 1970s.

Referencing Tyneside’s centrality to the Industrial Revolution, which made Britain the world’s foremost economic superpower, Ardagh asked: “Why is it that the old genius of Tynesiders, who virtually created the Industrial Revolution, has failed to respond again to the challenge of
a new age? Why has it not better succeeded in adapting its industries to new conditions?”

John Ardagh asked these questions in 1979 and was largely validated by the massive de- industrialisation and unemployment that savaged the region in the 1980s. Forty years on, we perhaps still haven’t found the answers.

John Tomaney said: “For a lot of people in this region over the last 30 or 40 years, it’s been a period of relative decline in living standards. So, he identified that the region was at some kind of turning point and I think he’s right that there doesn’t appear to be a way forward.”

The built environment and urban design of Newcastle that we know today was heavily influenced by the infamous T. Dan Smith.

Dubbed Mr Newcastle, Smith was the leader of Newcastle City Council from 1959 to 1965, overseeing vast changes to the council’s planning department and initiating projects such as Eldon Square shopping centre, Newcastle Civic Centre and the Swan House development (now 55 Degrees North).

Regarded by many as a great visionary and charismatic figure, T. Dan Smith had a dramatic fall from grace when in 1974, he was convicted of taking bribes in exchange for council contracts and sentenced to six years in prison.

Ardagh arrived in Newcastle when this controversy was still fresh in people’s minds. He took a nuanced approach to T. Dan Smith and his exploits, crediting the disgraced councillor with revitalising the city’s economy and making it a better place to live.

He said: “The Notorious T. Dan Smith, who dominated the North East in the 1960s, is a tragic-heroic figure whose paradoxical career broke all the rules. He typified the worst extremes of local corruption, yet also showed a reformist zeal and international vision that were untypical of Tyneside.”

Dan Smith’s vision for the city was to make Newcastle into “a new Brasilia”, and urban planner John Tomaney shared much of Ardagh’s sentiments on the complicated character.

He said: “Dan Smith was an extraordinarily charismatic and complex man, but in his day,
I think he was a great visionary. His notion of Newcastle as the capital of an autonomous region of Europe was incredibly far-sighted for the time.

“Having said that, I think he was in the grip of very powerful modernist town planning ideas, which saw the future of the city given over to the car.”

David Olusoga made the point that these modernist ideas scar many of the UK’s cities. “We just have the added element of a very charismatic figure who went wrong to add to it”, he said.

Something else Ardagh identified is the fact that many talented people felt they had to leave the North East to pursue the kinds of careers they wanted. Each of the five panellists at the Lit and Phil exemplified this, having all left Tyneside at some point or another. David Olusoga emphasised that this is still a huge problem for the region.

He said: “This haemorrhage, generation after generation, of creative talent in all spheres. That continues. It’s almost a tradition, a tragic tradition for the North East and I don’t see it abating.”

The panellists then discussed how the growing affordability crisis in London may go some way to reversing the so-called brain drain and much has been done to advertise the North East as a great place to live and work. But they agreed it’s going to take a much stronger pull than lower living costs to persuade the next generation to stay here for work.

Looking to the future, Ardagh summarised that Newcastle should become the political capital of a semi-autonomous North East, based on Dan Smith’s idea of English regionalism.

He said: “If Newcastle became the capital of such a region, with its own elected assembly and executive, stretching from the Scottish border to Teesside, this could have a multiplier effect: less of the area’s own best talent would emigrate, new talent would more easily be attracted from outside, industry would benefit and local leadership might be strengthened.”

Mandy Baxter reminded us about what places like Gateshead, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Durham might have thought about Newcastle becoming the capital of the region, but the lack of local government working together at the regional level is a problem, which persists to this day.

Whether it be a city council, county council, combined authority, local enterprise partnership, enterprise forum, regional investment fund, business and innovation centre or economic development corporation; it could be said that the fragmented nature of local governance, funding and political leadership makes it more difficult to deliver effective infrastructure projects at the regional scale.

Chi Onwurah, who should be well placed to address this point if she is re-elected as MP for Newcastle Central, commented: “Part of our challenge is that we have many more differences within the region than we do with other regions.

“If we could actually reduce the barriers to movement around the region, then we would have a much greater critical mass to attract and deliver new jobs and new industries and I think that is the platform upon which we can build an economy.”

John Tomaney added: “We need fully integrated transports systems and better planning of the built environment. We need to think about where we plan jobs and where we plan homes. You can’t do that at an entirely local level, you can only do that at a regional scale.”

It is perhaps this aspect of John Ardagh’s analysis that is the most compelling. While his views on social and cultural attitudes in Newcastle were undoubtedly prejudiced, he identified many problems within the local economy and local governance of the region that weren’t being answered in 1979 and perhaps still aren’t today.

We should remember this book for what it is: an analysis of Newcastle by a writer who failed to leave his preconceived predilections behind him, but who understood that the North East was at a major turning point in 1979. A Tale of Five Cities remains an important reference point today.

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