Art of the North - Spirit of the North Episode 3

This is a transcript of episode 3 of our podcast series Spirit of the North, exploring the people and places of the North of England through the lens of artist and photographer, John Kippin. 

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Narrator: Welcome to Spirit of the North, a podcast series from historic England.  To celebrate the North of England people and places, we set photographer John Kippin a challenge to explore the Spirit of the North.

John Kippin: My name is John Kippin and I live and work in Newcastle upon Tyne.  I consider myself to be an artist and a photographer.  And I have been photographing in and around the North of England for many years because that’s where I’m based.

Narrator: On his quest, John captured photographs of some of the North’s most historically and architecturally significant places which you can see on and on exhibition at Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle.
In this podcast series we’re digging a little deeper in to the places John photographed and the stories they tell. We’ll explore the North’s history of creativity, innovation and cultural influence. And we’ll question what the Spirit of the North really is.
In this episode, we’re exploring art, music, theatre and poetry. John took pictures at the Salford Lads Club, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and the Casbah in Liverpool.

John Kippin: A lot has been spoken and talked about in terms of cultural regeneration.  I think the art has a very significant role to play. It does to a certain extent, help to mend places. The damage that has been caused in a sense by sometimes great companies, but they committed to a place in so, much as it serves their interests and then they move on. So, they pull out, it’s uneconomically viable in the way that they consider their economics to make things viable.

Narrator: Poet Rachel Bower celebrates the vibrant poetry scene in Sheffield.

Rachel Bower: A lot of the works have now been turned in to creative spaces.  So, art spaces and spaces for other kind of creative people. There’s like poetry studios or art studios. So, I guess they have kind of been kept alive in that way but they’re not creating the steel anymore.
I’m a poet and I’m also an academic. I live in Sheffield and I work at the University of Leeds as well. Like I research poetry and write poetry and I also founded Verse Matters which is a poetry and arts night in Sheffield.
The idea is to create a supportive space in which people can share their work and to showcase the work of under-represented artists. There’s always a mix of experienced performers and new people who have never read or played before.  And there’s poetry and music. And people who are refugees, people who are homeless have written and come and performed and/or have come along to listen to start with and then have got writing and then have come and shared their work.
I actually moved here because my partner got a job at the university. I was just finishing a PhD off in Cambridge and he got a job here. So, we moved up here and I didn’t really know very much about Sheffield I guess at that point and moved here kind of with an open mind, but a bit of trepidation of, oh what’s gonna be like, and what’s it gonna be like moving back North again after not having lived North for a while. I just loved it. I think it’s a really open and friendly place and when I decided to set up like verse matters, it was just amazing. You decide to do something and everyone like, comes together and does it. Whereas other places you could have an idea and it wouldn’t take off in the same way I think.
The idea of the crucible, of a smelting pot of things going in and changing in to something else that’s, Sheffield’s like that. And Sheffield is like very alive with like arts and grass roots community based stuff. There’s a lot going on.  And I think often people don’t associate Sheffield with that kind of creativity but actually there’s loads going on.

Narrator: Photographer John Kippin.

John Kippin: Now I think it’s appropriate that artists are encouraged to use old buildings that become available because the developers seldom see the virtue in them in terms of housing. They’re very slow in order to do that. Art is certainly part of the gentrification process. The artists probably don’t like being part of that. But it’s inevitable I think. They use spaces like the space we’re sitting in now.
We all know that artists moved here probably 10 years ago when the various industries that were housed here moved out. They’ll be here perhaps another five years until the developers move in and either convert the building in to housing or knock it down or make it in to another shopping centre or something. Whatever. That will happen with these city centre sites. And in a sense then the artists will move further away, further out of town or maybe to another town I don’t know. And I think that movement has been well established. It happens and you know we have to embrace I think. It’s useful.  It’s a useful thing. It does help to heal neighbourhoods. 

Narrator: The Northern music scene is famous the world over. Bands such as the Beatles, The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Smiths, have all written songs about places that shaped them. Alex Mearns is from Harrogate in North Yorkshire. Growing up in the 90s and the early 2000s, Northern bands have shaped his passion for music and his pride in his home county.

Alex Mearns: As a teenager I got obsessed with Oasis who are from Manchester. Then, I learnt the history of what inspired them and bands, Stone Roses, The Smiths, New Order, they all come from Manchester. Then bands from Greater Manchester like The Verve and then from Leeds you’ve got the Kaiser Chiefs and Sheffield you’ve got Arctic Monkeys and Pulp.
There was a period where I sort of went against my Yorkshire roots and used to just mimic the Gallagher brothers because they were sort of my everything. And yeah, Northern music I think it absolutely trumps bands from London.
Maybe it is the weather. I remember hearing Mani from the Stone Roses talk about why so many good bands come from Manchester. He said, its because it rains all the time, there’s nothing else to do so you’re gonna be in your bedroom with a guitar or a bass guitar or a set of drums. Maybe that was music helped out people on an evening who were doing jobs that they didn’t want to do, working really tough conditions in these factories, in these mines where they would go to a working men’s club and listen to people play music. I’m sure that happened up and down the country but you can see that there’s just such a back catalogue of great bands from the North since the 60s. There must be something in that.
You go to a festival like Leeds Fest and you’ve got 60,000 teenagers shouting ‘Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire’, or where they’re at Parklife Festival and it’s ‘Manchester la-la-la, Manchester la-la-la’, you know, you don’t hear people from Surrey singing that about their county. It’s a badge of honour and you … and it’s something that will always be with me and I think all my friends.

Narrator: John chose the Salford Lads Club because of its connection to The Smiths.

John Kippin: There’s the paradox of the exterior which is unremarkable in some ways. So, as a building it’s not a structure that is important. Actually what is important is the kind of history of association with the building. And I think that’s a key point to think about, where the value lies here. You know, it’s not in bricks and mortar always, it’s sometimes in other areas. And so, The Smiths, somehow they have imprinted their presence on that building in such a way that it is impossible to conceive of it without that presence having taken place because that room in itself is nothing. It’s a badly lit room with lots of – you know – scruffy pictures on the wall. It’s also a shrine for people to visit. They’re not interested in the Boys Club which is kind of an anachronism really in some ways. We need to invest in our society a little bit more to kind of create different kinds of values. And of course again, I believe that that’s where the arts come in that they do inculcate values which are actually worth having.

Narrator: And of course we couldn’t leave out the Fab Four. John photographed a lesser known Beatles site in Liverpool, the Casbah [Coffee Club].

John Kippin: The Casbah is one of those places I just felt, you know my heart sank when I saw it. It’s kind of run down, it’s a bit scruffy, its unremarkable, but you know, the Beatles used the Casbah. I mean they were central to the development of this idea of a venue in some you know kind of slightly out of the way Liverpool suburb. Something was happening here and something which is so remarkable really. And yet, the building is unremarkable. Yes, it had to be there. It had to be there to think about why it was there really.  And I think sometimes the banality of something can be quite powerful in its way. If you understand the story, it transcends you know its physicality.

Narrator: Michael Lacey and Bryan Biggs are cultural archivists at the Blue Coat, the oldest art centre in the country.

Michael Lacey: It’s quite an easy city to exist in as a bit of an oddball or as somebody who makes unusual things. There’s a lot of people in Liverpool who I don’t think would function as well elsewhere.

Bryan Biggs: It is a port city. And it’s got … it’s had like 300 years as a port, you know a serious port city connected to the world. That’s when it had those connections with the Americas. And that’s really what made Liverpool. America or the Americas, made Liverpool really. And there’s a dark history because of the slavery. The slave trade which merchants made money out of which was then put in to this building here. So, this building, the Blue Coat and other institutions were funded largely from profits of either slavery or trades that were connected like, sugar, cotton and tobacco. But at the same time there is that sort of sense of a new world out there just over the horizon.

Michael Lacey: As obvious as it is, I was obsessed with the Beatles when I was a kid.  And I got so much out of being in the same city as them and feeling that kind of weird sense of identification and – you know – my road ends on Penny Lane.  So, when I would walk to school I would pass the bank and the butchers and the barbers or whatever from that song. That all felt really kind of alive to me.
There’s a whole core of bohemia in Liverpool around Lark Lane that’s kind of stayed there for many, many years ‘cause they’ve got cheap rents and Keith’s Wine Bar there. And you know, quite a lot of the people who live around there, who are involved in kind of avant-garde music, for example have played in the Blue Coat in recent years alongside a group called the Immex Ensemble who are a really exciting thing happening in Liverpool at the moment. They’re kind of a small kind of eight piece orchestra of classically trained musicians who do every year, they’re kind of funded by the Arts Council to do a season of collaborations with more avant-garde or electronic musicians so they can kind of bring an orchestral sensibility and a bit of a kind of fuller sound to those collaborations. And one of the things I found really interesting about those gigs that I’ve made a real effort to always come and see at the Blue Coat ‘cause they’re always really, really good, is that a lot of the people they were collaborating with, I put on in gigs in Liverpool 15 years ago at the Magnet when they were doing very different things. So, Liverpool really is a place where people can seemingly dig in to their niche interests for a very long time.

Narrator: So, is John any closer to finding the elusive Spirit of the North?

John Kippin: It has a kind of … and I think this is very difficult and very slippery, but it does have an identity which is, I think, a real one. I’m always trying to pin it down. I don’t think you can say what it is. I couldn’t say what it was. But I think it’s something that only exists in relationship to what it isn’t. And we all know what it isn’t, it’s not the South and it’s not London.
So, it has that sort of potential to be something, you know which we could talk about. Nobody’s talking about the spirit of the South. I mean, why are they not?  I don’t know why they’re not? It’s not something that people would say of the South. They don’t conceive of it. And I think because they perceive the North as in some way other, and it’s the otherness of the North. And Northerners in a sense accept that and understand that by virtue of the fact that they are not in the South and vice versa.

Narrator: Thanks for listening to Spirit of the North, a podcast series from Historic England. In the next episode, we’re looking at the connection between coal, people and power.
If you would like to get involved in the conversation use the hashtag #SpiritofTheNorth. And if you enjoyed this episode please do give us a nice rating and review.
Once again, you can see John Kippin’s photographs this summer at Bessie Surtees house in Newcastle or on the Historic England website.

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