Language shapes how we see places and the people living in them, says Laura Brown. But the North loses the language game, and has done for generations.
The language we use when we describe a place is vital, it shapes people’s understanding of its character and becomes absorbed with how people see it, both inside and out.
Take a Northern city that is widely acknowledged to have ‘declined’. This ‘decline’ has been written about a lot. In fact, the big destination marketing conversation about it for nearly a generation has been about responding to and fighting that ‘decline’. But the problem is this: in order to talk about the new stuff you have to put it in context, into shorthand for people who don’t know what’s happening every day. So the first 50 words are always about decline. The decline is the starting point.
Decline means a lot of things. It means fewer jobs, it means a lack of diversity when it comes to industry. It can have health implications as well as vast and far reaching socio-economic implications. But it still means people. It still means people living their lives, getting up in the morning, washing their faces, going to work, seeing their mates, watching a game of footy, taking pictures in the park, buying a house, mowing the lawn, planting bulbs, buying Christmas trees, doing the shop, celebrating birthdays, going to a show, seeing an exhibition, baking cakes, learning a new language. A place that’s been declining doesn’t mean there’s any less living taking place. The living might be harder, but compared to what? Where’s the grail where all this perfect living is being done, anyway? I could pluck a street from a ‘rich’ postcode out of my head but I’ll bet there’s someone there who worries about losing their job or who’s sick, someone who worries about where the next pay cheque is coming from or is terrified about finding the money for their child’s birthday.
But when we talk about ‘decline’ we don’t just think of places. We think of people, of THEM declining. Language is of vital importance because it can either laud or condemn a place. Places are defined by whether they’re thriving, or declining, or cultural or not. And places aren’t really like that. There is character and there are elements that make a place distinctive but each place is still filled with people who are living and dying and paying taxes. It adds an outsider’s perspective to their lives they probably didn’t ask for or need.
There’s a bit in It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey is facing up to Mr Potter after his father’s death.
“Just remember this, Mr Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”
Not all places, along with people, are equal. Would that they were. And there’s a great deal of money to be made in changing perceptions of places. Places need people, and the picture that has been and continues to be painted often doesn’t inspire people.
There are a few reasons why it’s becoming harder to do this, why the outside narrative is becoming harder and harder to combat.
In the UK, much of the commissioning and editing of journalism happens in London. This means that a travel piece about Aberdeen, say, vies for positioning with a trip to Marrakesh. There is only so much space, only so many words, and the places that sound more exciting, that have the best story, are the ones more likely to be written about. More often than not requests come from travel journalists for pieces already written (“I’m looking for the best new self-sustaining wooden pod camping destinations, go”). If your destination manages to have something you can mould into that round hole then you’re in with a chance. But there are thousands pitching for a 600–800 word piece. If you’ve got glossy pictures, great.
That’s not always the journalist or the editor’s fault. They’re in the business of selling newspapers, or encouraging clicks and attracting advertisers and engaging readers. They’re not employed to make places sound good for the sake of the places. The agenda on the side of the pitcher and the pitchee isn’t the same one. And places do need to be sold. If they rely at all on any kind of visitor economy (and most places do, or aspire to at least) they need to play the game, take their hat from their head and chuck it, however enthusiastically or half-heartedly, towards a ring.
And to be able to get into a position to pitch you need stuff to pitch. You need things happening. ‘Things happening’ is one of those signs of a ‘vibrant’ place right? Busy is good, a packed calendar means a rich, creative economy and destination, right? But things are expensive. And cultural and events calendars are being trimmed. The people that used to work to pitch them and sell them might move away. And so a place has fewer and fewer people talking about it. And so it gets left off the lists, again. And it becomes harder and harder to challenge the outside narrative that’s most likely based on an impression that was defined nearly a generation ago.
Everything outside of London is the domain of a handful (and I really mean a handful) of ‘Northern’ reporters and an even smaller smattering of travel journalists. So an event or festival that’s happening in, say, Preston, is vying for space and attention against EVERYTHING ELSE happening in the North of England. Everything. Like a murder, or a council running out of money, or flooding, or a royal visit. Many times, many times, when pitching a story from the North West I’ve been told the North West is already being ‘done’. What they’re covering is a story on political ramblings, or the automotive industry, or something else. It’s a hurdle you don’t need to jump nearer the capital.
So yeah. There are limits.
Language is vital because it shapes how we see places and the people living in them. The idea that this is somehow, magically, going to change in 2016 would be naive in the extreme. I’m guessing that in 13th century Exeter there were a fair few howling jokes made at the expense of Bristol and what those people were like. It’s just a request, or maybe a plea, to think about the language that’s being used. Whether it’s a piece for planners, or about culture, a festival, a restaurant or even a street, can we think about how the language we’re using can affect local people? How it suggests we see them? We’re not battling, or triumphant. Usually, we’re just living. The same as everyone else.
By Laura Brown
Laura Brown is a writer and consultant based in Liverpool. She specialises in art, technology, culture and destinations.
Main image: Derrick Greaves, Sheffield, 1953 © Derrick Greaves, courtesy James Hyman Gallery in London