Why would you live here? Artists reflect on Northern life

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In the run-up to the election Letty McHugh can’t think of a single time (outside of those hideous man-in-the-street sound bites) journalists and politicians ever took the radical step of asking a single person who lives in in the post-industrial north what it’s like to live here. She is launching a new project, throughout 2020 on a series of interviews with artists who call the north of England home, but first she offers a personal account of her life in Keighley, and how it shaped her identity as an artist.

Vew across the Aire Valley, in the hilly Pennines, near Keighley and Bradford.

Why would you live here? A friend asked me, with barely concealed horror, when I picked her up from Keighley train station a few summers ago, with a strong emphasis on the words you and here.

There is a lot of shorthand in that question because we know each other and we were both stood on the station, her meaning was clear, but since this article lacks that essential context let me expand on her question for you.

What my friend was really asking is this: why would you, a 20 something artist and writer live here, in a rundown town in the North of England, that has clearly seen better days? It may also help you to understand if I told you this was the farthest north my friend had ever been and that her assumptions about the North of England allowed her to believe that the heritage steam railway in Keighley was just a regular train because that’s how behind the times things are in the North. She wasn’t the first person to ask me why I moved back to Keighley, I have on occasion wondered myself.

I should go back a bit, here’s what you need to know about Keighley: this week Keighley came in the top ten in a poll of the worst places to live in the UK. There is a local rumour that the powdered enigma that is Angel Delight was invented here, this probably isn’t true, but you know what was invented here? The concept of town twinning, Keighley is actually twinned with three different towns.

Like a lot of towns in the former industrial north, Keighley is sort of defined by its history. It used to be a textile mill town, now it’s a former textile mill town, which basically means there are a lot of abandoned mills here. There are a lot of empty shops here too. I guess in a lot of ways, Keighley fits the stereotypical image of a town in the post-industrial North of England, that is to say, not really somewhere you’d expect to find someone like me living.

landscape photo of industrial buildings

Haworth mills and houses. Photo Letty McHugh

A lot of profiling has been done around towns like mine recently in the media, towns that voted Leave in the referendum and swung from Labour to Conservative at the most recent election, one study from Kings College London described leave towns as “…more prone to nostalgia, uneasy about immigration and tend to be more authoritarian and socially conservative” another from think tank Onward described people living here as mainly “older, white, non-graduate [men] from the North of England, with strong rugby league traditions and a tendency to vote Labour”.

This doesn’t exactly describe me. I’m 28, my pronouns are she/her I have a Master’s degree, I’m an artist and writer, I’m currently reading my cat Das Kapital as her bedtime story. (That last one is obviously a joke, I’m actually reading her The Society of The Sceptical, we did Das Kapital years ago.) I’ve never seen a rugby league match. (Another lie, I’ve been to one, I just try and suppress the memory.)

ceramic mugs

The center of the known universe. Photo Letty McHugh

So, you might ask again, why do I live here? Well, I’m from here. I was born here; I grew up here and my family live here. In some ways, I’m here because I had nowhere else to go. When I was a teenager, I was desperate to leave Keighley, Yorkshire, the whole of the North of England, because I wanted to live a big life and I didn’t think that was possible in this town. There’s this John Cooper Clark poem called Burnley that contains the line, I’ll tell you now and I’ll tell you briefly, I don’t ever want to go to Keighley. 

Teenage me took John Cooper Clark much more seriously than adult me does. When I was 16 and starting my art BTEC, we had to name a famous person we wanted to be as an ice breaker. I panicked and desperate to say something cool blurted out John Cooper Clark, no one had heard of him, which was maybe a good thing. Anyway, imagine teenage me desperate to stand out, desperate to find a place where the things that made me stand out would, instead, make me fit in.

Imagine me lurking about local cemeteries in a velvet cape and thinking, yeah, I don’t ever want to go to Keighley either, John. When I got the chance to go away to Uni, I deliberately picked, much to the horror of a lot of people I knew, the farthest place possible and moved to Bath to study Art and Creative Writing.

Bath is 236 miles away from Keighley, in lots of ways it’s a different universe. At the time, I wanted as different from Keighley as it’s possible for a place to be and if you are staying in England that’s pretty much what Bath is. I thought Art School would be the place I found my people, where I’d finally fit in, where I’d make sense, and whilst I loved a lot about my time in Bath, it certainly wasn’t the place I finally made sense. It was a constant effort to fit in. For the first time in my life, I met proper bona fide posh people, a level of poshness I had previously only witnessed in sitcoms and P.G. Wodehouse books. I was at least 230 miles away from Parkin Pigs being a normal thing and even though different had been what I wanted, nothing really prepared me for the culture shock.

1% of students at my Uni came from Yorkshire and Humberside, and I stood out as one of the few people without a Kate Middleton Hair Cut and University Challenge accent. For the first six months, I lived there, no one could understand a word I was saying. I had to repeat everything I said four times. I was shocked. Back in Keighley, the way I spoke passed for quite posh actually, but not in Bath. Once I adjusted well enough to be understood, everyone had something to say about my voice. I got so sick of saying, “No, I’m not Scottish actually, I’m from Yorkshire, yeah like Alan Bennet, well, I’m from a different bit to him so that’s why we sound different. No, I probably haven’t met your friend from Ilkley, Yorkshire is actually quite big, I don’t know everyone who lives there.”

It wasn’t just the accent thing that got wearing, it was the persistent idea among my friends that they were normal and I was different, more than that, it was like I was being different deliberately to be quaint and interesting. Once a friend came to Keighley and said in a tone of surprise “Oh, everyone sounds like you here, not just your family but the people on the train and everything.”

Seaworthy Vessel in progress. Photo Letty McHugh

The thing I could never get my friends in Bath to understand was this: when they are children, everyone thinks the way their personal world looks is the way the entire world looks. Everyone thinks their life is the norm, and that their family is an acceptable shorthand for all families and that the place they happen to live is a good working template for the entire universe because when you’re a kid those things are your universe. Of course, I grew up thinking it was normal to go to school up the road from the Taylors brewery and think the stench of hops and yeast was the smell of the school dinners. Of course, I thought everyone grew up excited for Parkin Pigs on bonfire night and visiting their Grandma on the curtain stall of Keighley Market. I thought that the town’s bakers, Wild’s, was a national chain and that the story of Rombald the giant who lobbed the boulders onto Ilkley moor was at least as famous as Red Riding Hood or The BFG.

It is a vanishingly small minority of people who get to grow up believing that their lives and experiences are the norm from which everyone else is deliberately deviating, and then have the establishment reflect that belief back to them as truth. Very few of us get to grow up hearing everyone on telly, or the in government sounding like us.

I was surprised when I moved back, and even though there are more artists and writers and cool creative people with interesting hats in Bath. I make more sense in Keighley. Part of the truth of why I live here is because I have to. I tried to stay in Bath for a bit after Uni but I ran out of money and my health was failing. I needed some help and support from my family and Keighley is where my family live. Another part of the truth is that I like it here, I like the hills and I like the people, I like that everyone always talks to each other.

I make sense here because I’m not just from here, I was made here using 100% locally sourced ingredients. I am not an artist and a writer in spite of growing up in Keighley, I’m both those things because of it.

Living in Keighley gave me my sense of humour, the ability to distract from the inherent shit-ness of a thing with a good joke. The feeling that I have something to say worth hearing is definitely from Keighley, where every time you get on the train, it’s basically a performance with everyone telling their best stories, in their loudest voices, dying for someone they don’t know to laugh. The feeling that I should change the world to fit me, not myself to fit the world.

It’s not hard to see the influence of growing up in Keighley in my project, This is Your Inheritance, which documents and celebrates the textile skills of primarily working-class women. I spoke to so many women, the vast majority of them in Keighley or northern towns like it, they all had a similar story.

One of my favourite moments in the project was when a handful of participants, who didn’t know each other, came to the exhibition and sat discussing their shared experience of swimming in knitted costumes. When I was working on the project and I wanted to involve a minimum of 70 women, my tutors thought I was being over-ambitious. In the end, I recruited over 130 easily. With the combined forces of my two Grandmothers and my Great Aunt, I could recruit a small army of 60+ Yorkshire women to march on the Tate and declare a new art republic. We would knit and we could talk and we’d name every business that has ever occupied any premises in Keighley and the surrounding villages in the last sixty years. If that got old, we could always do some line dancing.

To be honest, I’m most interested in making work for people who are often excluded by mainstream arts. I like engaging with people who don’t go to galleries often, or at all, and it’s a good job because as long as I’m putting on shows in DIY art spaces in empty shops, that’s like most of my audience. I don’t want to work with people that want their art over intellectualised, I’m not interested in writing five-page long artists statements that you need a PhD to understand. I want to make art that invites people in. At the This is Your Inheritance exhibition, a grown man with tears on his cheeks thanked me for putting on the show “I never thought of my Mum’s sewing as anything important” he said, “I do now.”

The problem with the stories we are telling about towns like Keighley is that they are wrong, or at least oversimplified, and I think it’s so rare that anyone from a town like Keighley gets the opportunity to actively shape the narrative about a town like Keighley. That’s why I want to make work about my life and my family because I think these stories matter, I’m glad I moved back, Keighley taught me that I never need to make myself smaller to fit in. That and I can’t afford to live anywhere else.