Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Decline of the Provincial

The "row" over Greggs' vegan sausage roll is as confected as most of the firm's products. It's a marketing campaign that has astutely coincided with the return to work and a slow news week, both of which demand some tasty but ephemeral filler. However, the wider resonance of the bakery chain in the ongoing kulturkampf of taste is worth dwelling on for a moment. I think its popularity among media types is not a reflection of native class anxiety, as some foreign-born observers have supposed, but of a nostalgia for the provincialism that has largely been marginalised in British public life since the 1980s. Greggs is iconic precisely because of its origins in Gosforth (the north end of Newcastle) and its against-the-tide success in having expanded nationwide while retaining its headquarters on Tyneside. I should emphasise that I'm using "provincial" here to mean a web of social relations and a distinct culture rather than just a geographical territory (what we mean today by "regional") or simply a pejorative synonym for backward. The first point to make about Greggs is that a provincialism reduced to commodities is no kind of provincialism at all: it's just a brand.

A provincial culture is one that can thrive independent of the metropolis and (by extension) the nation state. What matters is not the products of that culture but the self-consciousness of a shared social and political agenda in a particular area, together with a sensibility that positions the provincial in a triad with the metropolitan and the international. The second point to make is that the provincial is not coterminous with the urban. The North East is not just Newcastle; it encompasses communities as distinct as Morpeth, Sunderland and Durham, and it is bound together by more than a fondness for ham and pease pudding stotty cakes. British provincialism - in the sense of that emergent self-consciousness and sensibility - was a product of the Industrial Revolution, and so determined by small towns as much as great ports, and it was undone by deindustrialisation in the 1980s and an increasing dependence on the central state in the 1990s. That said, much of the contemporary "problem of small towns" relates less to the process of deindustrialisation, which was completed decades ago, than the ongoing cultural vacuum created by the atrophy of that provincial sensibility.

While some in the 90s saw salvation in a "Europe of the regions", this idealism made the mistake of assuming that a continental style of provincialism, based on a history of financial autonomy and weak central authority, could simply be grafted onto British root-stock, despite being utterly alien to these islands. Without any meaningful devolution of economic power, the result was a focus on cultural production, which was structurally biased towards the great cities (so Newcastle did better than Sunderland) and socially biased towards metropolitan norms (liberal, cosmopolitan etc). The latter was subsequently amplified by the commercialisation of higher education and the emergence of a homogenised, national student sub-culture that has become socially significant in large cities such as Manchester and Leeds. Parallel to this, the retention of regional manufacturing capacity, notably in the food and drink industry, resulted in a synergy with cultural production in which hitherto quotidian commodities became signifiers of nostalgic provincialism, from "genuine" Cornish pasties to Tunnock's Tea Cakes.

The rot set in for the North East when John Hall, the erstwhile majority owner and chairman of Newcastle United Football Club, started blethering about "the Geordie nation" in the early 1990s. As a Tory donor and property developer (he made his money building the Metrocentre in Gateshead), his claims to want to make Newcastle the Barcelona of the North, both in terms of its economy and sporting prowess, had a hollow ring even then. That he would eventually sell his shareholding in the club to Mike Ashley should have surprised no one. But Hall did at least remind us that British provincial culture was more than just the specific working class cultures that we now nostalgically associate with the industrial cities of the North. It also included an assertive middle class that was self-consciously commercial and non-metropolitan, even if it ultimately ended up acting as a comprador for City interests in the 80s and 90s as Hall did. In the last great provincial TV sitcom, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, the aspirational Bob and Thelma are as provincial in their outlook as Terry, despite their commitment to "getting on". For the record, the last great provincial band was The Fall, the last great provincial film maker was Terence Davies.

The result of the cultural flowering of the 80s was the substitution of urban-centric, regional identities for provincial sensibilities. These identities were essentially mini-me versions of the metropolitan. Perhaps the most significant example is Scotland, where a new civic nationalism took root that was as arrogant and censorious as London ever was. The peoples of Glasgow and Edinburgh may still look askance at each other, but the difference in culture between the two cities is far narrower today than it was 50 years ago. Scottish painting, music and cinema were all the better for this commitment to a national art, but it came at the cost of smoothing over local variety and ostentatiously rejecting England, which had the counter-productive effect of encouraging English nationalism. Where the provincial sensibility still clung on in Scotland was in its literature, though that has weakened over the years as the idea of a national canon has become dominant. Authors like Irvine Welsh have sought to escape this constraint by aiming for the international, which paradoxically allows them to preserve a provincial tone, but that doesn't augur well for the future.

In contrast to Scotland, provincial literature in England started to decline in the 90s even as cities such as Liverpool and Manchester began to reassert themselves as creative and commercial hubs. There are obviously still writers in the provinces, but they are largely writing for a national (essentially metropolitan) audience. This decline is partly attributable to the commercialisation of higher education and the BBC, both of which traditionally provided berths for provincial writers. It is also partly attributable to the disappearance of a provincial press, which had helped form a provincial readership. National book chains preserving a shelf of "local authors" is no substitute, particularly when "local" means nothing more than geographical proximity. Equally, writing about an Amazon fulfilment centre in the East Midlands doesn't make you provincial any more than writing about the miners' strike would make you DH Lawrence. The current vogue for "Brexit novels" may have produced a shift in focus from the big city to small towns, but these state-of-the-nation commentaries, mostly by baffled or resentful remainers, are metropolitan safaris rather than the organic products of a provincial sensibility.

Northern Ireland is different again, being part of a wider Irish culture in which themes of national identity or resentment towards a distant power (whether London or Dublin) are always present. Anna Burns' Booker prize-winning Milkman is indisputably a novel of the North, but it is also recognisably within that wider tradition of cosmopolitan Irish literature that encompasses Joyce, Beckett and O'Brien. Its reception, along with other cultural signposts such as TV's Derry Girls, points towards the gradual absorption of Northern Ireland into the wider Irish cultural milieu, a process that has steadily advanced over the last two decades since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and which has been brought into sharper relief by Brexit. The corollary of this has been the gradual muting of the liberal Ulster Protestant voice in Irish literature, represented by writers such as John Hewitt and Tom Paulin, which was robustly provincial as much as it was challenging of unionist pieties. If Scotland and Northern Ireland have subsumed the provincial within the national, Wales appears to have rejected both in favour of the self-caricaturing role of Sancho Panza to England's Brexit-maddened Don Quixote.

The decline of the provincial in the UK has contributed to Brexit, but not just in the obvious sense that it was symptomatic of the deindustrialisation that stoked the anxieties that fed into the EU referendum in 2016. The provincial sensibility was always clear that its chief antagonist was London, whether as a condescending cultural arbiter or as an unsympathetic state, but it was also clear on its own distinctiveness, which meant it could be equally as dismissive of other provincial claims. Though distrust of the capital has not declined, and there is no shortage of petty chauvinists on Tyneside or Merseyside, the provincial has been fractured between the urban and the suburban. Now as resentful of cities like Manchester and Bristol as it was of London, suburban England has become increasingly homogenised around a bland culture dominated by national shopping chains, franchise TV and international celebrity. In that sense, Greggs is now part of the problem, making its fetishisation as a provincial champion all the more ironic.


  1. Indeed, Greggs is pretty much the national symbol of blandness, and has been the Starbucks of bakers, driving many fine genuinely local and 'provincial' establishments to the wall.

    I think the trend you describe has been a major factor in what could be described as 'Brexit sentiment'. The loss of provincial feeling and civic identity has been replaced by cliched local marketing 'boosterism' that is aimed more at outsiders than locals and fails to inspire anyone much. As a result, media-driven nationalism has helped to fill the gap. Provincialism did provoke prejudice as well as pride, but the bigotry of the present is very much a creation of national cultural forces and based little on experience, rather than a dislike of the wider world focused on local traits and everyday life.

  2. Part of the story here is that quite small northern cities were able to punch above their weight during the high industrial era. Huddersfield has a pretty great city gallery and some amazing buildings. But now that's gone and the traces that remain might not help.