Speaking up about our past

DAVID SIMPSON argues that history could play a bigger role in how we market our region when presenting ourselves to the world

Imagine going for a job interview where you weren’t allowed to say anything about your past, an interview where you couldn’t say anything about your past achievements or the challenges you faced or the ways you’ve inspired and motivated people.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

We will allow you to say that you’ve got all the right attitudes and ambitions and that you have all the right skills in place but how are you going to prove it? Well it’s going to be hard especially as the competition, under the same restrictions, will be saying exactly the same things as you. So how are you going to demonstrate that you’re unique, that you’re special that you’re different?

Well, you’re going to struggle when it comes to saying something interesting and unusual about yourself. Of course in business there are no such restrictions, people want to known about your past because it demonstrates who you are, what you have achieved and what you might be able to achieve in the future.

Now, this is what frustrates me as someone with a passion for our region’s history. You see, surely the same goes for our region too? When it comes to marketing our region to the world we shouldn’t be coy about our history and past achievements, there’s no rule to prevent us from speaking of our past. We can be selective of course, who wouldn’t be? However, we shouldn’t be shy about it. The problem is sometimes we forget what we’ve actually achieved and it’s a good idea to refresh the memory now and again. It’s a great boost for confidence.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge
Gateshead Millennium Bridge : Photo © David Simpson

Look we’re in a market, competing with places across the world and when I say we, I mean all of us because everyone who lives and works in the region or even those who are just visiting are at some level potential ambassadors for the North East. We can all play a part in telling the world our great story and all the great things that we can do and all the great things that we have achieved in the past.

Yet there still seems to be a lot of amnesia around, forgetfulness or perhaps a lack of confidence in our story. The present, like the future is very important of course and in attracting investment to our region it’s great to say we are home to world leading companies: Nissan, Siemens Procter and Gamble, Hitachi Rail Europe and many more. It’s great to talk about our fabulous highly-skilled workforce, our partnerships, our infrastructure, transport networks, ports, airports and of course our world class educational establishments.

This is all good and we can be particularly proud to say that in our region it is often more than enough to get the world to sit up and take notice.

The thing is, though, just as with the job interview, you can guarantee that all the competition are all telling a similar story even if they may not be telling it quite so well.

So when it comes to the opportunity to demonstrate something unique, something different and special about ourselves as a region it’s a chance to share the extraordinary links and influences that we often have with the wider world. It’s here that we have an opportunity to shine and this is where our past comes into play.

Now I think in the world of business, history is too often seen as something of a novelty sideshow, or a dust-laden trinket that we bring out now and again to show off like a half-loved antique. It can be seen as something that is beneficial to our tourism industry and little else besides. The exception perhaps is in its contribution to our region’s townscapes, landscape and inherent beauty which we are not quite so shy to promote.

Marketers have recognised these visual attributes and this has been demonstrated by the impact of skilled photographers and film makers who have showcased the region’s glorious attributes in wonderful stunning, panoramic colour. This is great, it helps attract people to our region to see what it’s really like and that can only be good for business.

So we love the stage setting that is the North East but we also need to remember the rich array of stories and achievements from the past that this grand stage has hosted. We need to tell those stories boldly and with confidence.

In our region we have a phrase ‘Shy bairns get nowt’ which means if you don’t ask for things or if you don’t speak up with confidence, you will not receive. Ironically, it’s one of our region’s favourite phrases, yet too often we are rather shy about speaking up about our achievements. We are shy about asking for the recognition we deserve. This is certainly true when it comes to our history.

For example here in the region we pioneered electric light for the world: the story of Sunderland’s Joseph Swan; Newcastle’s Moseley Street; the Lit and Phil; the grand mansion at Cragside in Northumberland; a Benwell light bulb factory and even a house in Gateshead that’s now a care home played a massive, massive role in bringing electric light to the whole world.  Yet all we ever hear about is the famed American inventor, Thomas Edison who seems to have that famous light bulb permanently and unreservedly screwed tightly in a permanent place above his head as if it was his idea alone.

Joseph Swan and Charles Parsons number amongst the famous industrial pioneers associated with the region
Joseph Swan and Charles Parsons number amongst the famous industrial pioneers associated with the region

Our role in this world-changing era of history was every bit as important as the contribution of Edison and yes, I dare say it, probably more so. It’s shameful that Britain as a whole knows so little about this and this may be partly due to our region’s ‘shy bairn approach’ when it comes to recognition of our cultural and scientific achievements.

Then we have the railways and the first public railway ever, which opened here in the region. There are arguments of course but the Stockton and Darlington Railway was there before its counterpart from Liverpool to Manchester that we hear so much more about. Is it because those two cities are seen as less provincial than the twin Tees Valley towns? Why? It’s probably down to our modest, shy bairn values again.

And even before those railways, we had the unique ‘Newcastle Roads’, the west’s first railways, horse drawn wagonways that existed here in the region long before the days of locomotives. And we may continue: Stephenson’s Rocket was the victor at Lancashire’s Rainhill railway trials as every school child knows it, but too often we forget it was built on Tyneside. So let’s speak up.

And then there is our present year 2018 and next year 2019 and so on and so on. Yes, even that is down to us. How? Well it was a Northumbrian scholar and saint – arguably the most influential man in his time – that popularised the system of dating our years from the supposed birth of Christ.

Yes, it was Jarrow’s own Bede that brought about the adoption of this system of numbering our years that came to be used across Europe and subsequently the entire western world. Just think about that, that’s a pretty major contribution to our world as we know it today. Bede, incidentally, also had the distinction of being the very first English historian as well. He was the first English historian in the whole of the English speaking world and by the way, he knew, quite confidently, that the world wasn’t flat.

The Venerable Bede
The Venerable Bede

There are so many things our region has given this world. Sometimes they are major industrial developments, sometimes they are quirky cultural contributions but they are all worth knowing and sharing as part of our story. We must make sure our young people know these stories and that every businessman and every ambassador at every level knows them too.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

What about the world-changing architecture of Durham Cathedral or James Cook’s discoveries in the Pacific and Australia? How about Washington, the world’s most influential capital, which traces its name back to a small North East village? These are all part of the story of the world.

Let’s not stop there. Think about Durham lad, Jermiah Dixon who created the Mason-Dixon line which divided the north from the later ‘Dixieland’ of the south in the American Civil War, or Redcar and Washington’s Gertrude Bell who drew up the borders of Iraq. How about the region’s part in the development of football across the world? What about the first ever football World Cup – won by a team from a Durham mining village.

We could talk about the starring role the region has had in the movies, whether it be Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall or the majestic Bamburgh Castle, not to mention the role of Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral in the Harry Potter movies.

Oh yes, Hadrian’s Wall, almost forgot, the world’s largest Roman archaeological feature marking what was once the northern boundary of Europe’s greatest Empire.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

We could talk about our language and dialect too which has some of the oldest English features in the English speaking world. Indeed some of these features date back to Bede’s time. Surprisingly the Northumbrian language had a profound influence on the speech of Scotland rather than the other way around. I mention this because it’s a reminder that we played a big role in some notable developments in the world’s most influential language.

In fact even our darkest periods have had some impact on language in this respect. Think about the battle-worn Border Reivers of Northumberland, Cumberland and the Scottish Borders who in times past brought into use phrases like ‘blackmail’ and being ‘caught red-handed’ a colourful and interesting feature of our language and our past. Alright, perhaps our connections to such phrases are something we might want to reveal with caution in the world of business.

Well ok, what about all those reiver surnames that still proliferate across the region today? You are going to encounter them everywhere. Reiver names can now be found all across Britain and the English speaking world in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. There must be millions of people with these name but how many of them know their connection to our region and know that our fascinating story is also a big part of theirs.

So if you’re doing business with an American Armstrong or an Australian Robson, or a Charlton, a Milburn, a Shaftoe, a Hetherington – there is a long list of names – it might be worth mentioning the connection. It’s an unusual opportunity to connect with our region and it is in my view one of the great untapped selling points of our region.

So when asked at that interview if there’s anything unusual or interesting we might say about ourselves as a region, we can see that we have plenty to say and plenty that we might share beyond the wonderful attributes of our workforce and our infrastructure.

However, we do need to lose the amnesia, embrace our history and start remembering our story. We need to be unashamedly proud of our past.

Just remember that ‘shy bairns get nowt’ and lets start speak up about our past achievements.

You never know; it might just get us the job.

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