A Writer for Every Tick of My Watch: A History of Writing on Teesside

In the fourth series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet the nation's favourite Geordies are working in Cuba. When Barry is caught reading a Hemingway novel, he explains that he is sampling the local literary culture. 'When we were in Arizona, I read Zane Gray,' he says, 'in Russia, I read War and Peace - well the first chapter anyway.' Asked what literature he read while they were working on the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough he replies, 'White Papers on pollution...'

It's an old joke, connecting the industrial history of the area and its perceived cultural barrenness. It's the equivalent of Sunderland fans at the Riverside Stadium dressed in gas-masks and anti-radiation suits, or fans of London teams burning five pound notes and shouting, 'Loadsamoney'. And it was the default position of most twentieth-century writing about Teesside. J.B. Priestley described Middlesbrough as 'more like a vast, dingy conjuring trick than a reasonable town,' 'dull, even with beer and football'; Aldous Huxley compared it to 'a fungus, like staphylococus in a test-tube of chicken-broth' (although he thought Billingham was 'a magnificent kind of poem'); Douglas Goldring called it a 'hideous mushroom town'; for the romantic novelist Sheila Kay-Smith, the area was 'a landscape of fire and horror, a frontier-stretch of hell'. More recently, Stuart Maconie has described Teesside as 'a dirty, polluted, petrochemical eyesore' with 'its very own version of the Northern Lights - great blotchy sunsets of ultramarine and crimson. If you don't think too hard about what's making the sky that colour, they're really quite beautiful.' Meanwhile, Kate Atkinson has called Middlesbrough 'a godforsaken Blade Runner kind of place.' (1)

The area's role as a locus for other people's disgust was recently sealed by the critical success of Richard Milward's post-industrial Teesside Gothic Ten Storey Love Song, hailed by the Guardian as 'a lurid picture of ecstasy-frazzled Teeside (sic) youth engaging in scenes involving drugs, bad sex and diarrhoea that would make Irvine Welsh blush'. For the Middlesbrough launch of the novel, Faber transformed mima 'into a squalid front room with vintage décor' in the style of the Middlesbrough flats where the novel is set; the audience were offered 'complimentary drinks (cheap cider) and nibbles in the form of sweeties (copious quantities of pink shrimps, white mice and black jacks)'. No parmos? No tenner-bags? No coals in the bath? 'Nobody writes about Middlesbrough quite like... Richard Milward,' observed the Guardian, 'then again, no-one else writes about Middlesbrough...' (2)

A few years ago I wrote an essay exploring the relationship between the literary representation of Teesside as an infernal, unnatural and culturally barren place, and the historical weakness of its political and educational institutions. Somewhat bizarrely, the essay was featured in the Sunday Times as 'Teesside: the place literature forgot' – 'while other towns take pride in their fictional heroes, Middlesbrough has nothing to rival Oxford's Inspector Morse or even the Wombles of Wimbledon...' The following day the Northern Echo ran a front-page story in which local businessmen and writers were required to denounce the 'outsider' who had described Teesside as 'the least inspiring place in Britain'. Meanwhile, Radio Five Live wanted me to go head-to-head with Bryan Robson (the then manager of Middlesbrough FC) on why I thought Middlesbrough must be a horrible place to live... (3) It was an instructive episode. What began as a discussion about books quickly became an argument about place and identity, the local versus the national, experience versus literature, the real versus the imagined. And it illustrates the enduring assumptions in print and broadcast media about Teesside's place in the national imagination as an industrial and cultural desert.

Of course, like any part of Britain, Teesside can claim its share of distinguished literary connections, including Lewis Carroll, Capt. W.E. Johns, Storm Jameson, Ellen Wilkinson and Gertrude Bell, two Booker Prize-winners (Pat Barker and Barry Unsworth), a Whitbread Prize-winner (Jane Gardam), a Hawthornden Prize-winner (Peter Rushworth), a holder of the King's Gold Medal for Poetry (Ralph Hodgson) and a number of best-selling novelists (notably E.W. Hornung, Naomi Jacob, Mark Adlard, Pippa Gregory, Marion Husband and Adele Parks). But stringing together biographical associations is an unsatisfactory kind of accidental history. Most of Teesside's most famous writers have not written about Teesside; only Barker, Gardam and Adlard may be said to have made the area their subject. Writing this kind of literary history might be interesting as a narrative of exile, part of a larger story in which – traditionally – becoming a writer meant leaving home and the loyalties of landscape and social identity. But it would be largely the story of a cultural absence, a way of saying that Teesside has had no native literary history. (4)

In these circumstances, it is hard to write about the area without being defensive. And it's even harder to write a history of writing about Teesside without deferring to pre-existing definitions of the area in the national imagination. This essay is therefore a sketch towards an internal, local literary history, a look at three moments when writers living and working on Teesside have sought to negotiate the oppositions of the local and the national, of historical experience and imagined futures.

The first was in the second-half of the nineteenth-century, when a group of poets, journalists, anthologists and publishers emerged in what was then South Durham and the North Riding – principally Thomas Cleaver, William Hall Burnett, Henry Heavisides, Angus Macpherson, James Milligan, Elizabeth Tweddell ('Florence Cleveland'), George Tweddell, Tom White and John Wright. Connected by geography, friendship, patronage and sometimes marriage, they spoke for and to the new industrial conurbations on the banks of the Tees; William Hall Burnett was editor of the Middlesbrough's first daily newspaper, George Tweddell edited a weekly newspaper in Stokesley.

Tweddell was also the author of The Bards and Authors of Cleveland and South Durham (1872), an introduction to the work of almost forty writers associated with the region, from Caedmon and Gower to the late nineteenth-century poets of industrial Teesside:

'My object in the present volume is to bring under the notice of the people of Cleveland and South Durham, the Bards and other authors, who by birth or residence, have been connected with the district... I have long cherished the idea of a work similar to Chambers's excellent Cyclopaedia of English Literature, to be confined to the Poets and Prose Writers of the North of England... Every intelligent man and woman will desire to possess some knowledge of the writers which their own part of the country has produced: and in Authors neither South Durham nor Cleveland has been barren, – as the following pages will show...' (5)

It was a bold attempt to assert an alternative, even rival cultural narrative to the English literary canon then emerging in the new universities. At one stage Tweddell was planning a two-volume sequel which was to include another hundred writers. 'I could,' he wrote, echoing Leigh Hunt, 'name a local writer for every tick of my watch.' It was also a politically radical project. Tweddell, for example, (who often wrote under the pseudonym 'Peter Proletarius') was a Chartist, a supporter of the Cleveland Ironstone miners' union, author of The People's History of Cleveland (1872) and a friend of the radical Sheffield poet Ebenezer Elliot. Above all these writers employed poetry to interrogate the Victorian narratives of empire, science, commerce, industry and progress, and to negotiate a place for Teesside within them. When Gladstone compared Middlesbrough to an 'infant Hercules', he was drawing on the language and iconography of heavy industry already established by the region's poets:

   'What has the beautiful to do with toil?
   And how link poetry to sordid craft?
   The maid, celestial-born, disdains to live
   In regions blasted by the primal curse.
   Such is the voice of dainty-lipped taste,
   Bred “in the perfumed chambers of the great;”
   But such is not the voice of him who dares
   To think and speak the thoughts God's truth inspires.
   The inward grandeur of the soul flames forth
   In the grand splendour of the living deed,
   And that is blazon'd more in workmen's toils,
   Than in the mis-named hero's deeds of blood...
   ... The gloom of night pervades the ambient air;
   The land is dark as Erebus; but, see
   The chymic fires that beat back gloomy night,
   With stern assertions that the living power;
   Promethean, burns strong and bright within...
   ... Around the flaming furnace, bared for work,
   Stand men whose swart and gleaming looks
   Shine in the brilliant glow like demigods...' (6)

The second moment was in the late 1930s and 1940s, when Ormesby Hall – the home of Ruth Pennyman, a poet and playwright sometimes known as the 'Red Duchess' – became the meeting place for a remarkable group of amateur and professional artists and writers. Michael Tippet wrote his first opera, Robin Hood (with a radical libretto by Ruth Pennyman) while staying at Ormesby Hall. It was performed by unemployed Ironstone miners in Boosbeck. Ruth Pennyman wrote plays for local WI drama groups and staged performances of Shakespeare plays at Ormesby Hall in which working-class amateurs appeared with professionals like Mary Casson and Martin Brown. In 1937 one of her plays, Happy Families was performed in venues across Teesside to raise money for Quaker Relief in Spain (during the Spanish Civil War the Pennymans arranged for Basque refugee children to stay at nearby Hutton Hall). (7)

During the Second World War, much of this cultural energy was channelled into the Teesside Guild of the Arts. The Guild ran drama, writing, photography, film and gramophone groups, a regular series of concerts and published a monthly news-letter. They worked with the British Drama League and CEMA (later the Arts Council) to organise an annual drama festival in Middlesbrough. CEMA brought touring art exhibitions to Teesside. The Adelphi Players and the Pilgrim Players visited the town. The Century Players and the Compass Players were based at Ormesby Hall; immediately after the Second World War, Theatre Workshop – run by Communists Joan Littlewood and Ewan McColl – was based at Ormesby Hall. Teesside Youth Theatre was later based there.

Ruth Pennyman was also involved in a radical amateur drama group called Teesside Unity Theatre; writing their own material, they staged plays and poetry readings at the YCL premises in Middlesbrough and took satirical sketches around working-men's clubs. Through Bill and Betty Farrell – then living at Ormesby Hall – Teesside Unity Theatre was connected to the Middlesbrough and Spennymoor Settlements (whose classes were attended by the young Norman Cornish and Sid Chaplin). Gabriel, a play written by Ruth Pennyman and Bill Farrell about Gabriel Peri (a French Communist writer executed by the Nazis for his part in the Resistance) was first performed in 1944 at the Everyman Theatre in Spennymoor. Another member of Teesside Unity Theatre, Dave Marshall, fought with the International Brigades; on his return he published a poem in the best-selling anthology Poems for Spain, connecting Middlesbrough and Spain, conflict and comradeship:

   'Go back –
   Six-feet of snow on the Aragon front;
   While here
   Kids slide in the roadways
   Steadied feet thudding in the gutters:
   Ice blurs
   The red orange blue of neon lights –
   The harlot shops invite.
   But there
   The café lights blink and blacken
   Ribs tighten, skin grows ware -
   After the momentary adjustment
   A fumbling for the tasteless glass –
   A startled touch of warm-whorled fingers
   A greedy intake of smoke
   – the lung-shock battens the nerves –
   Strange faces glow intimate
   Red-arc'd by the fitful cigarette.' (8)

The third moment is the period of the last twenty years, when the emergence of new cultural forms and technologies has begun to flatten cultural hierarchies and to devolve cultural power away from the metropolis. The result has been the development on Teesside of an independent and increasingly self-confident native literary culture that does not defer to either Newcastle or London. A quarter of the poets in IRON Press' 2006 anthology North by North East: the Region's Contemporary Poetry were from Teesside – including Maureen Almond, Bob Beagrie, Joanna Boulter, Bob Cooper, Gordon Hodgeon, Marilyn Longstaff, Norah Hill, John Longden, Pauline Plummer, Mark Robinson and Annie Wright.

One of the key figures in all this was another Communist poet, John Miles Longden. In the 1960s Longden used to read his poems in the Purple Onion Café in Middlesbrough; in the 1970s he was involved with Pavilion poets in Thornaby; in the 1980s he was running his own 'University of Cleveland' in bars all over Teesside. (9)

Meanwhile, students at Teesside Polytechnic – notably Trevor Teasdel and Ann Wainwright (later Richard Briddon) set up the Multi Media Society. Out of this came Poetic License magazine and regular poetry readings at the Dovecot in Stockton. Briddon set up Paranoia Press. Longden, Teasdel and a poet from Staithes called Terry Lawson helped to set up Teesside Writers Workshop, a group of amateur writers with an interest in publishing as well as performance. Out of TWW came the magazine Outlet. (10)

Since the 1970s another poet – Gordon Hodgeon – working for the local education services, was helping to pioneer some of the region's first writing-residencies in Cleveland libraries, including Bob Pegg, Peter Morgan, Kath McCreery and Rukhsana Ahmad. Unlike the Northern Literary Fellowship (based in the universities of Durham and Newcastle), these residencies were based in libraries and in schools on housing estates.

At the end of the 1980s, Hodgeon, Teasdel, Briddon, Lawson and Longden helped to set up the annual Writearound festival. Beginning as a week of readings, the festival soon expanded into a three-week programme of readings, performances, workshops and launches across the whole of Cleveland. As well as show-casing a new generation of local poets, novelists and playwrights, Writearound worked with some of the area's published writers like Gordon Steele, Eleanor Fairbairn, Tanya Jones, Barbara Gamble, Julian Atterton and Mark Adlard and brought back to Teesside some of the area's most successful and distinguished literary exports like Jane Gardam, Theresa Tomlinson, Pat Barker, Robert Holman and Pippa Gregory. It published a magazine, Writearound the Year. (11)

Mark Robinson – then working at Cleveland Arts – brought the magazine Scratch to Teesside and set up the Bare Faced Cabaret. Meanwhile, Leeds University's Adult Education Centre in Middlesbrough was running Poetry Live! and an extensive programme of free Creative Writing courses across Teesside and North Yorkshire. It was from one of these courses that Derek Gregory launched Tees Valley Writer. The Evening Gazette began a regular column of readers' poems and a quarterly supplement of poetry from local schools. Mark Robinson and Pauline Plummer helped to set up Mudfog Press (with money from the Communist Party). Out of Mudfog came Smokestack Books, Ek Zuban and Kenaz magazine. And in a comparable development in adult education in Darlington, Vane Women Press was established, soon followed by Arrowhead. (12)

Out of Writearound and Cleveland Arts' Literature Development unit emerged Buzzwords, a literature development programme of community writing projects and writing-events in schools. And out of Buzzwords came a series of reading and performance spaces – the Buzz and Crossing the Tees, and the Verb Garden and the Hydrogen Jukebox, led by poets Bob Beagrie, Jo Colley and Andy Willoughby. (13)

Like the 'Bards of Cleveland' and the Ormesby Hall radicals, this is an activist culture, run by writers for other writers and would-be writers, a collective, co-operative and democratic endeavour combining poetry and politics, amateurs and professionals, writers and audiences, publishing and performance and maintained by a combination of enthusiastic volunteers and public support (principally from Northern Arts – later the Arts Council – Cleveland County Council, the Teesside Development Corporation, Community Arts Middlesbrough, Leeds University and Cleveland Arts). And it has consistently sought to connect the local, the national and the international – or as John Longden once expressed it, 'Teesside Twinned with the Universe':

   'WOW   as we breast the lip a' the long rise
      flanking the flatlands all along the Tees
      league upon league a' yellow crocuses
      embrace the dark flood-plain  'n fill our eyes
   This swarm outshines our sister galaxies
      it fills the view  the lungs  the art  the mind
      burstin  f'm the black country a'  the blind
      Here the entrenched osts a' Ironoplis
   spread rape-gold vistas in the frozen night
      Gorse blooms invincible  through all seasons
      a blaze then a few sparks  Come rhyme come reason
      frost or flood  drought or blizzard  calm or riot
   Clevelands gold lamps light up their massed barrage
   Our twinned night sky's the Boro written large'

Andy Croft


I am grateful to Liz Hayward, Gordon Hodgeon, Trevor Teasdel and Mark Robinson for their comments on an early draft of this essay.

  1. J. B. Priestley, English Journey (1935); for Aldous Huxley's visit to Teesside, see David Bradshaw (ed) The Hidden Huxley: Contempt and Compassion for the Masses (1994); Douglas Goldring, Gone Abroad (1925); Sheila Kay Smith, Iron and Smoke (1928); Stuart Maconie, Pies and Prejudice (2007). Kate Atkinson, Not the End of the World (2002).
  2. The Guardian, 9 January 2010.
  3. See Andy Croft, 'Fire and Horror : the Representation of Teesside in Fiction' in Gustav Klaus and Steven Knight (eds) Industrial Fictions (2000); Sunday Times 5 March 2000.
  4. The 'Official Visitor Information Website for the Tees Valley' has recently announced a 'literary trail' celebrating the region's literary history – consisting of Pat Barker, Barry Unsworth, Andy Capp, Lewis Carroll and best-selling novelist Freya North (because one of her books is set in Saltburn). For a discussion of this kind of literary 'heritage' see Andy Croft, 'A Hole Like That: the Literary Representation of Cleveland' in The Cleveland and Teesside Local History Society Bulletin, no 58 Spring 1990.
  5. For Tweddell, see www.tweddellpoetry.co.uk.
  6. Angus Macpherson, 'Cleveland Thoughts, or The Poetry of Toil' (1872).
  7. For Ruth Pennyman, see Mark Whyman, The Last Pennymans of Ormesby Hall (2008) and Malcolm Chase and Mark Whyman, Heartbreak Hill (1991).
  8. Dave Marshall, 'Retrospect', in John Lehmann and Stephen Spender (eds) Poems for Spain (1939); for Marshall see his The Tilting Planet (2005).
  9. For John Miles Longden, see his posthumously published LPs and Singles (1995).
  10. For Outlet see www.outlet.glassorange.org.
  11. Writearound was featured on a BBC2 Open Space Programme Breaking the Ice, 19 June 1990, and on 'A Sense of Place', broadcast on BBC Radio Four, 8 July 1991.
  12. For a study of the creative writing 'movement' on Teesside, see Rebecca O'Rourke, Written on the Margins: Creative Writing and Adult Education in Cleveland (1994) and Mark Robinson, 'Teesside: Building a Democratic Poetic Culture' in Holger Klein, Sabine Coelsch-Foisner and Wolfgang Görtschacher (eds) Poetry Now: Contemporary British and Irish Poetry in the Making (1999).
  13. See Andy Croft, 'Magic, Mimesis and Middlesbrough' in Mark Robinson (ed) Words Out Loud (2002).