18 November 2013

Yorkshire identity forged on the rugby field?

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The issue of northern identity has resurfaced recently. Since the deindustrialisation of the 1980s – and with social mobility reversing at a disturbing rate over the last 30 years – the gap between north and south has grown bigger. With London’s rise as a political and cultural superpower, what are the chances today of another Eddie Waring breaking through and rising to the top, asks Anthony Clavane.

Eddie who? In the 1970s, this working-class lad from Dewsbury rose to become one of the most famous, and impersonated, men in Britain. Sadly, a younger generation might not have heard of him, but to my age group – born in the 60s – he was a national institution. Waring was a working class northerner “made good” – epitomising the post-war belief that through hard work and determination anyone can break free from the shackles of their modest background.

But, as I examine in my latest play Playing The Jokerthe rugby league commentator had to conform to a northern stereotype to get to the top. Although he was a sharp, deal-making entrepreneur who virtually ran the sport from his base at the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds, he was often portrayed as a gormless buffoon. The Oxbridge-educated Monty Python quartet were always getting a comedy Eddie Waring character to commentate on opera or discuss art – with “hilarious” consequences. Indeed, the very idea that there could be a serious (although funny) play about Eddie, or that rugby league could have any connection to culture, would have been mocked to high heaven.

In the play, Eddie says:

“To your lot, rugby league is just bingo, beer and rolling around the mud. To us, it’s a defining identity, a passion, a way of life, part of the life-blood of northerners. It’s our cultural adrenalin.”

Arguably, without his vision there would have been no Super League, nor indeed the global jamboree that this very entertaining World Cup is turning out to be.

It seems to me that Eddie was part of a golden age of social aspiration, when northernness was recognised as a strong part of the national identity. He might have had the pee taken out of him, but at least he “made it” – becoming a role-model for other working-class Yorkshiremen and women. He emerged during an era when social realist novelists, leading politicians and top actors transcended their northern backgrounds to reach the pinnacle of their professions. As the famous fictional character Joe Lampton said: “I was going to the top.”

What went wrong?

Playing The Joker was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse between 19 – 23 November. Call 0113 213 7700 for more information or click here

Anthony Clavane is a sports journalist from Leeds and writer of Playing The Joker. 

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