Review of Northerners: A History by Brian Groom

Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day by Brian Groom

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really, really wanted to like this book. Northern publisher publishing a Northern author writing about the North. Sounded like a winning formula to me. And yet… there was something missing from this book as I did not really enjoy reading it. I kept trying to identify what it was that was lacking in the book that made it more of a chore to read than a pleasure, before deciding that what the book was lacking was a bit of heart.

I appreciate having to condense thousands of years of history into around 330 or so pages represents something of a challenge, yet at times the more read more like something of a curated list of points of interest in Northern history, than a compelling narrative about the North. Sometimes, there were lists of statistics or dates, or comparative data with the South with very little analysis to complement or comment on the data. Some of it could have done with some editing and proof-reading.

It may have been me, but I much prefer a bit more story in what is a narrative history. At times, the book got tantalisingly close to taking the reader there, with the story of Cartimandua from the Roman times, and the story of Grace Darling from the nineteenth century being proffered as examples of Northern spirit and Northern women. But at other times, important figures from history are simply listed, with what made them peculiarly Northern often not explored. I have to confess to feeling somewhat frustrated at the dismissive treatment of Catherine Cookson, who was so much more than an author of sagas. Her philanthropic legacy alone should have merited something more. Charles Dickens (not Northern) got more mentions than she did.

There were also little asides that say something about what it is to be Northern that didn’t align with my own perceptions of the North and Northern history. The references to the flat cap wearing were also lacking something of a contextual explanation. It may be just me, but I remember when I asked my grandad why he always wore a cap he said that it was something that miners did because before there were helmets it was all to easy to scrape your head on the roof in places where the mine wasn’t particularly high. And then I guess it became something of an identifier representing a sense of community for the miners?

What I have taken from the book is a list of things I would like to read further on. Thankfully the footnotes and the select bibliography have given me somewhere to go next in my exploration of Northern history. (On that note, I think the book could have done with a map of the North at the beginning for those that are less familiar with Northern geography).

Northerners are so much more than what this book suggests. And despite the negativity with which the book ends, the North is not doomed to repeat a cycle of failing to evaluate and learn from our history. We know who we are and where we come from and we are proud of that. The failures of a centralised government based in London are not our failures.

View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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