Coming soon from Jajosa Books: Joe Sharkey's 'Akenside Syndrome: Scratching the Surface of Geordie Identity'
Later this year I aim to publish my book entitled AKENSIDE SYNDROME: Scratching the Surface of Geordie Identity. Pending legal advice there will also be a subtitle: (or, Why Robson Green has a curious accent and Sting lives in Wiltshire). Some think it pithy, but bear with me prithee. In the preface I explain what Akenside syndrome actually is:
“Named after Mark Akenside, the 18th century son of a Newcastle butcher who achieved some modest literary success, became physician to Queen Charlotte in 1761, and was famously touchy and sensitive about his humble origins, Akenside syndrome is a condition of feeling ambivalent towards Newcastle or Tyneside despite often retaining a strong emotional bond with and/or sincere affection for the area. A vague sense of unease and feeling of not quite belonging or fitting in is also a common characteristic of the condition. The information plaque next to All Saints’ Church, near Akenside Hill on Newcastle’s Quayside, says of Akenside: He is said to have been ashamed of his native place, so that “he would sneak through Newcastle when occasion called him thither”. Whilst acknowledging that naming it after Akenside is, to a certain extent, a conceit (being ashamed of your native place is not necessarily the same as having feelings of ambivalence towards it), it should also be observed that the condition can range from the relatively mild and harmless to the profound and detrimental to a person’s sense of well-being; a kind of neurosis even.”
Conceived of as neither hatchet job nor hagiography the book, broadly speaking, is a critique of Geordie culture and identity that seeks to examine why a condition such as Akenside syndrome exists. Woven within a wider national and universal context, the first section examines The Four Pillars of Geordie Identity: Class, Accent, Drink and Football, and explores their potential for provoking Akenside alienation. In the second section – Akenside Syndrome: Group Therapy – which includes excerpts from exclusive interviews with the likes of Tim Healy, Val McLane, Sir John Hall, Chris and Simon Donald of Viz fame, Narinder Kaur, playwright Michael Chaplin, opera singer Graeme Danby, RGS Head Bernard Trafford and many others, groups believed to be in the high-risk category are given an Akenside syndrome assessment.
Some interesting and unexpected results arise as we find out why Chris Donald didn’t feel he could consider himself a Geordie when he was younger, despite growing up within a mile of Newcastle City centre. An attempt to get to the bottom of why Narinder Kaur said she wouldn’t bring her children up in Newcastle is made, and we discover Sir John Hall’s take on the word Geordie – a surprising one from the man who coined the phrase ‘Geordie Nation’. Chapter headings include Women: Y’alreet, Pet?, Race: Toon Toon… Black and White are we? and RGS: Class dismissed? but the longest chapter, the last, is dedicated to the group most susceptible to Akenside syndrome. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geordie: Should I stay or should I go? has three sections; one on Geordie writers, one on Geordie actors and ending with Geordie rock stars. It is in this chapter that I try to get to grips with Robson Green’s verbal gymnastics and Sting’s living arrangements. However, as this blog is dedicated to Tyneside poetry I offer an extract from the first section, featuring Jack Common, Sid Chaplin and Lee Hall.
… … … … … …
Piss artists are the group most commonly associated with Newcastle, as we discovered in our exploration of the drink pillar of Geordie identity. However, there are Geordie artists of a different stripe including writers, actors and musicians, on whom the main focus will be here. Mark Akenside, like Jack Common, Sting and Brian Johnson, opted to leave Newcastle, never to return, and as an aspiring poet – his caricatured alter-ego in Peregrine Pickle is sarcastically referred to as “the greatest poet of the age” – he stands as an appropriate symbol for the group of people most susceptible to suffering from the syndrome I have named after him on the acute end of the scale.i Keith Armstrong’s description of Jack Common having a “desire to leave” Newcastle whilst “retaining a great love of the city of his birth”, and Sid Chaplin’s assertion that a miner depicted in a painting by Norman Cornish “is at odds with his world, but in a curiously ambivalent manner; a mixture of love and revulsion,” quintessentially epitomise the artistic strain of Akenside syndrome.ii
The dedication to Common and Chaplin as well as the people of the North-East in Geordies – two artistic individuals alongside the collective mass – inadvertently illustrates one of the root causes of Akenside syndrome. Perhaps felt more intensely by those of an artistic bent, Common explores the theme in his essays, as Armstrong points out: “the relationship between the individual and society; the tension between a collective approach and an individualistic one; and a search for a balance between the two.”iii In an attempt to achieve this balance, or evade the emotional and psychological disorientation caused by staying in a place where they feel it is unachievable, many artists, as Rob Colls explained to Melvyn Bragg, feel they have to go. And it’s easy to imagine indecision bugging them prior to their departure, as they brood over the fact that if they go there may be Akenside syndrome trouble, but if they stay it will be double.
A popular way for the Geordie artist to portray his sense of difference and dislocation from the Tyneside mass is by utilising the image of a young man resisting the uniform conformity of a crowd. Striving for self-definition we earlier witnessed Gordon Burn ploughing a lone furrow against the departing droves at St James’ Park, and a teenage Mark Akenside “Immured amongst the ignoble, vulgar herd”.iv For Sid Chaplin, swimming with the shoal is imbued with imagery of restriction, entrapment, even a kind of death, with his protagonist Arthur Haggerston failing to heed Harry’s entreaty to navigate himself, to be an individual, as he ends the novel working in a sardine factory on the banks of the Tyne: “There I go. Stiff and straight and swimming in the gravy, but that’s no consolation when the lid’s clamped down.” Haggerston describes himself as “a Manor character brought up to pay his way, take his turn and stand by a pal” but is left languishing, his wanderlust unfulfilled, ultimately coming to the conclusion that his gang of friends, “are just tired cardboard figures who talk but have nothing to say to me… To the Manor lot I’m the crazy one… odd boy out.”v
Having earlier been urged by another surrogate father-figure, Flack, to “Read books… Get learnin’. Be a somebody”, Haggerston’s fish-can-filling fate is a cautionary tale against unfulfilled potential.vi How much autobiographical feeling went into the character from Chaplin is open to debate (though my inference is quite a lot; his son Michael Chaplin telling me, “As a young man [Sid] felt a great sort of ambivalence about the culture that he came from. That on the one hand he sort of gloried in aspects of it, but there were other aspects of it that completely appalled him”), whereas it is generally acknowledged that in the figure of Willie Kiddar the reader enjoys a vivid representation of the young Jack Common, albeit through the politicised prism of his adult self. Kiddar considers himself one of those “queer characters for whom words were more than words” and melancholically marvels at the “far-distant and miraculous folk who actually wrote books”, his own literary ambitions checked as he contemplates his heritage, which he fears will lead to, “the routine of the factory or some similar industrial hour-glass regularly turning the sands of uncelebrated and nearly-unconsequenced labour.”viiMark Akenside also wrote of the poetically inclined; “What shall he do for life? he cannot work/With manual labour…” and Arthur Haggerston is ensnared in the nets of exactly such stultifying manual labour, calling it “work-misery” and bemoaning: “Every morning I rolled out of bed with a feeling of being trapped.”viii
Common illustrates Kiddar’s resistance to the unremitting momentum of the mass in the Jesmond Dene scene, where he is irritated by the imposition of “the collective step” on his own and attempts to navigate his own individual path. Increasing the impression of the young Geordie artist inhibited by the collectivist environment that envelops him, as with Haggerston there is a sense of alienation from his friends: “I was becoming uncomfortably aware that there were attractions upon me that pulled in unknown directions and threatened to take me out of the orbit my fellow corner-lads so naturally swung into… I think it was becoming apparent to them that I had a life of my own that they wouldn’t want to share, particularly not now when they were near entering upon an early manhood that they most decidedly wanted to be orthodox.”ix
Located on Lower Grainger Street in Newcastle is Sean Henry’s bronze sculpture Man with Potential Selves, comprising three representations of the same figure in different poses; standing, walking and apparently floating, and it chimes a latter-day echo to Kiddar’s plea that, “The younger you are the more important it is that you should consort with your unrealized selves. Friends prevent that by their presence. They can’t help insisting that you play the part they know as you and which is all the miserly economy of communication has so far allowed you to publish to them.”x Lee Hall was born in 1966, two years before Common died, yet there are striking continuities and correlations between the two in terms of their experience of authorial Akenside alienation. Talking to Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show Hall recalled how, having left Cambridge University, there was a “divide that I’d been having in myself… was I a middle class Cambridge person and an academic, or was I like my mates in Newcastle that rather eschewed all that stuff.”xi Here again we see education playing a crucial role in alienating an individual from his working-class roots, and a hint of what Wilkinson and Pickett describe in The Spirit Level, whereby in some working-class communities and cultures, “Talking about abstract ideas, books and culture, is seen as posh and pretentious.”xii
Hall’s identity confusion would find expression in some of his most acclaimed work including Billy Elliot, as he made clear to pupils at his former school in the East End of Newcastle during a visit in 2009: “There were many similarities between our lives. I didn’t always fit in with the crowd because I liked films and writing, and Billy wanted to be a ballet dancer…”xiii Expressing Yourself, a song from Billy Elliot – The Musical, includes the lines If you wanna be a dancer, dance/If you wanna be a miner, mine/Everyone is different… What we need is in-div-id-ual-ity, and the image of the lone ballet dancer silhouetted against a backdrop of miners is the leitmotif which best expresses Hall’s desire to be different, to be an artist (though in his breakthrough play I Love You, Jimmy Spud the more abstract conduit of an angel is employed in the same way). Prior to the production opening in London in 2005, Hall expanded on the interplay between personal biography and his writing: “Billy Elliot is a fantasy version of my childhood, a sort of ugly duckling fairy tale retold in County Durham. I didn’t have all of Billy’s personal problems but it was the same environment. I grew up roughly at the same time in the Northeast, and my aspiration to be a writer is akin to Billy’s to dance, in that nobody I knew was a writer and it wasn’t particularly understood what being a writer really meant. If you loved poetry, you were a bit of a poof.”xiv
- Tobias Smollett Peregrine Pickle (first published 1751 – this edition 1956). London: J.M. Dent & Sons, p208.
(ii) Sid Chaplin The Guardian 1960 © Estate of Sid Chaplin.
- Keith Armstrong Common Words and the Wandering Star, p218.
- Mark Akenside The Poet: a Rhapsody, p431.
- Sid Chaplin The Day of the Sardine (first published 1961 – this edition 1983). Leeds: The Amethyst Press, pp286, 203, 267, 286.
- Sid Chaplin The Day of the Sardine, p76.
- Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck, pp127, 141.
- (i) Mark Akenside The Poet: A Rhapsody, p429.
(ii) Sid Chaplin The Day of the Sardine, p191.
- Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck, pp73, 127.
- Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck, p128.
- The South Bank Show: Lee Hall, ITV1 – broadcast 18th October 2009.
- Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Spirit Level, p116.
- Nicola Juncar Screenwriter steps into the limelight: Author goes back to school, Evening Chronicle 4th June 2009, p20.
- Terri Paddock 20 Questions With… Lee Hall 11th April 2005 – accessed at www.whatsonstage.com.