Not so long ago nobody thought the Mona Lisa was much good. I mean, it was in the Louvre, but no one thought about it. Then it got stolen, its image was reproduced everywhere and it became the most famous painting in the world. With fame came critical justifications for that fame, hastily worked out after the fact.
People tend to like stuff when they get to know it. The more something is repeated, the more secure its position. And so canons are formed.
London — and London is fine, I’m not knocking London — is very good at making itself canonical through repetition of its images. Past a certain point the intrinsic merit of something is by the by: it just is, and, crucially, is legitimate. This goes for the obvious stuff, Buckingham Palace and that, but everyone’s at it! Flickr, Instagram, Some Social Network Site You Haven’t Even Heard of Yet, they’re all full of neatly tagged and extensively shared pictures of LONDON. That plimsoll place in Shoreditch, disused railways, abandoned stations. These are canonical. They subtly reassure you: cool kid, your values are as they should be; cool kid, you are in the right place.
Reality is legitimised by images.
In the same way as feminists and genre fans attacked the western canon and now, grudgingly, Aphra Benn, SF and mystery novels are allowed in, we need to broaden this idea of acceptable lives. We need to challenge the idea that not living in London is giving up. That if you’re “creative” or industrious or ambitious, London is the only possible place you can be fulfilled.
Yorkshire does have a brand — landscape, grumpy friendliness (/friendly grumpiness) and nostalgia — and is pretty good at promoting itself. It’s become the go-to place for TV things not set in the south east (Educating Yorkshire, Yorkshire on the Buses, One Born Every Minute etc). It could be a lot worse. I mean, poor Lincolnshire, right? And don’t talk to me about Staffordshire (no one ever has).
But brand isn’t quite the same as canon. Brand is what’s different; canon is what’s allowed. The landscape is canonical. This is pretty much what we now think nice landscape looks like (thanks Brontës!):
But the brand is backwards-looking. You know the kind of thing. This kind of thing.
Howarth. Wallace and Gromit. A Yorkshire where it’s forever 1950.
Nice for a day trip, sure, but what would make *you* move here, oh smart and hip reader, where would you fit in? What would you do all day? You can only walk over so many windswept hills.
What we don’t have yet is a sense that we’re worth looking at (in quite the same way as London). That we’re interesting (in quite the same way as London). That we’re allowed (in quite the same way as London).
Yorkshire’s Victorian cemeteries haven’t been documented by armies of SLR-wielding young people. Its abandoned stations have not been geo-tagged. Its walks have not been blogged. And where are the photo essays of deserted railway tracks? The Flickr albums of graffiti?
London is not the only place with layers of history; it is just the only place which bothers to tell that story about itself.
We know there are brilliant things in Yorkshire, but they can be hard to find. It’s all word of mouth. Places don’t promote themselves, and young people don’t promote their own taste, and by extension the places they go.
We can’t rely on anyone but ourselves to get the word out. Much of Yorkshire’s cultural treasure is council-run, so designed to look as unappealing as possible.
Check out Leeds’s Temple Newsam. The website says “one of the most celebrated historic houses in the country” but what it’s really saying, through its layout and design, is “under no circumstances come visit, it is shit here“. You’re not even allowed to take pictures inside. Heaven forbid people saw them and starting visiting – who knows where that’d lead?
I’m calling now for a campaign of civil disobedience on this. We need to make a stand. Specifically, we need to make a stand in front of good things and take selfies, whatever The Man from the LCC says.
So get out there people. There is still a chronic shortage of bearded 30somethings taking podcasted history walks, photographing abandoned buildings and sharing to Twitter things they’ve found in markets.
We’re never going to be considered cool at this rate.
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