A Northumbrian at last.

     This is a self-explanation, a discovery I’ve made in the last few years, and so is, there’s no getting away from it, of little general concern. It has its moments. I’d skip if I were you.

     Where is the heart? It’s home, of course, according to the well-known saying. Being well-known, it was a phrase I’d heard all my life, but I was never quite sure where my home, my heart was, and it took me till I was 51 to find out. That’s quite a chunk of my life, not being able to answer the question ‘Where are you from?’.

     We moved around a lot, that was the thing. From 0-4 I was forced to live in Hull, then it was five-year stretches in Northumberland, Jedburgh in Scotland, then back over the border to Egremont in Cumbria, before I finally gave up the nomadic life and came to live in London for thirty-seven years and counting.

     It wasn’t that I felt of no fixed abode. Five years is quite enough time to build a life, make solid friends, sit in many schools and generally grow up. When I say I grow up, I mean physically, from being very, very small to the whopping five foot six I am now. Mentally I’m often still around the age of moving from primary to secondary school. A youthful enthusiasm for the world at large, but barely any understanding of how it works.

     Wherever we went, a natural ear had me speaking the local accent within a couple of weeks. The lilt of Northumberland turned to the more clipped articulation and intonation of lowland Scots, before the stretch in Cumbria produced a rather rough dialect, harsh and heathen. There were two girls in our class in Egremont: giant, lumbering Carole, who was dominated by tiny Jackie, and though they weren’t aurally impaired in any way, as far as I know, virtually every sentence from both of them was a sneering, crushing ‘Yuh wha’?’. Jackie first, followed by her enormous sidekick. ‘Yuh wha’?’, (‘Yuh wha’?’). It was barely two words in fact, it was just ‘Yewa?’ And it wasn’t just a question either, an inquiry into what you’d just said, but also a damnation of it, as if any single utterance to them was a outrageous insult. I was terrified of both of them. Jackie for her withering mental attacks, limited in variation though they were, perhaps that’s why they wore me down so much; Carole because she could easily crush me to death.

     Then in 1984 I left for the smoke, the bustling and incredibly exciting centre that is London. Thirty-seven years later I still get the buzz, the thrill of being part of it. I’ll alienate a lot of people when I say that, to me, anything that happens in London is somehow raised, in a spotlight, more exciting and tangible than the same thing happening anywhere else. It feels more real and close-up to work here, to travel on the tube, to spend an evening in the West End, than equivalents in other cities. But that’s just me.

     London, the melting pot where so many young people come to start their adult lives was also where people first started asking me where I was from. Everyone asked everyone that. And for a long time I didn’t have an answer at all. Saying ‘Beverley’, which is where I was born was never an answer I believed in, because what difference does it make to anyone where they happen to be born? Unless they never ever move away, I suppose, and that certainly didn’t apply to me. Besides, I didn’t want to be a Yorkshireman.

     Then I started saying ‘Cumbria’, as that was where I’d most recently been. Then five years came up, and I started living in London longer than anywhere else in my life, so I decided that here must be where I’m from. Home is where the heart is, after all, and I was loving living here. A friend, who really was from London, always hated it when he heard me say I was from his beloved city. But where else could I say? Certainly, the tale of being whisked around various northern towns was far too long and boring an answer whenever I was asked. I never really took on the London accent though, though mercifully the grating Egremont dialect quickly faded. The vowels tightened up a bit, enough to allow me to at least claim to be a southerner now. The answer ‘I don’t know,’ often in response to the question ‘Where are you from?’ now sounded at least somewhere near the Queen’s English. Previously, and in turn, the answer would have been ‘(gurgle gurgle), erm…’ (age 0-4), ‘Ah divven’t kna’, (Northumberland), ‘Ah dinnae ken’, (Scotland), and then probably ‘Yewa?’.

     So the answer to the question became ‘London’. It was a short answer, and for about thirty years seemed the right one. It was certainly home, a great one, and somewhere I felt hugely attached to. Still do.

     But in 2017, on our way up to visit the area I’d lived in age 5-9 in fact, which is now under water in rural Northumberland, Helen and I stopped off for a couple of nights in Durham. I’d always enjoyed the accent of the north east whenever I’d heard it, but this time it suddenly struck a massive chord. It suddenly felt like the right accent to me, a hugely familiar accent, comfortable; a home accent. The air outside was fresher, colder, and I liked that too. Everywhere in Britain is behind London in some ways, but even that felt comfortable, I was OK with that, OK with the non-London-ness of it, which I never thought I’d say. After the trip, a few weeks later back home in London, I finally realised what it meant: that there, Northumberland, was where I was really from! What also contributed to this realisation was a song I’d come across around the same time, a heartbreakingly beautiful tune by Kathryn Tickell, the Northumbrian pipes player. Just the sound of this instrument does something to me, and eventually I put all the factors together, and realised that I am in fact from the north east.

     The years 1970-74, my ages of 5-9, must have been the determining factor, the years that actually formed my roots. Perhaps these are the real formative years of a person’s life? It doesn’t make me love London any less, and the city is still my home. There’s no over-sentimentality about the phrase ‘Home is where the heart is.’ I’m not one of those who bursts into floods of tears at the mere mention of the scene of their early years, I don’t ache to go back there, or any of that rubbish. But the comfort of that visit, the accent, Kathryn Tickell’s tune, and the fact that I’ve written a lot about the years we lived up there, have finally all aligned and I’ve worked it out at last. Only took 51 years.

     P.S. Of course, this entire story and particular defining moment of my life may be flawed, as the clunk moment when the Durham accent hit me was actually while a barman was speaking as he pulled me a pint.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu