FOR once, I am in agreement with Alastair Campbell.
The former Downing Street press chief and I might not concur on much, but one thing we do share is the belief that growing up in Yorkshire prepares you to take on the world.
Campbell wrote in this newspaper last week about his formative years in Keighley.
Alastair Campbell: I have Keighley to thank for my mental toughness He left this West Yorkshire town before he was a teenager, but it bestowed upon him a legacy; he has never been racist, he loves sport and he grew up as a sociable and socially adept individual, able to hold his own in any company.
If I was a Fairy Godmother, I’d like to give my children these qualities. It’s a good job that they, too, are growing up in Yorkshire. I hope that when they look back on their childhood, they will recognise that it provided them with a firm foundation on which to build a decent life.
I hope, too, that some of the old-fashioned qualities which Campbell talks about – honesty, respect for your elders, the ability to admit doing wrong – will also be imbued in my son and daughter. These might not be trendy, or fashionable ideals. And they are in danger of being overwhelmed by the materialism driven by the money-orientated culture of London and the South East, but they are important in global terms. I like to think that the huge skies of Yorkshire give us the widest possible perspective on life.
Campbell’s reflections come with their own perspective of course. He is almost 60 now, a time to pause and take stock. He says that leaving Keighley was “a big blow at a difficult age, but I just had to get on with it”. He calls it “mental toughness”, a quality which has carried him through life, from Cambridge University to journalism and politics, and through some well-documented battles with depression and alcoholism.
I know what he means. I left home in Barnsley for Oxford University when I was 18. Then I lived in London, where my path even crossed with Campbell from time to time, before I came back home more than a decade ago. When people ask me – as they still do, even after all these years – how I “survived”, I tell them that growing up in Barnsley was the best preparation I could wish for. The qualities of hard work, stamina, self-confidence and determination I learned from childhood stood me in good stead. That and the God-given belief that you are always right.
When he was 11, Campbell’s father, a vet, took a new job with the Ministry of Agriculture and the family decamped south to Leicester. At his new school, Campbell recalls that he never took off his Burnley FC scarf. Okay, so he supported a football club from across the border in Lancashire, but it was his way of stamping his Northern-ness on his southern softie classmates.
Who would have thought it, eh? All this from one of the prime architects of New Labour. Call me cynical, but I reckon it is no accident that all this is coming out now; memories of a bona fide Yorkshire upbringing from a member of the political elite provide a powerful counterweight to the ultra-left wing metropolitan bias of the Labour Party’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
However, it is good to hear them. It’s about time a few clichés about Yorkshire were pulled apart once and for all. Campbell admits telling his own children tales of his upbringing that make the Monty Python “Northerners” sketch look pretty tame. In truth, his was a relatively comfortable middle-class existence, in a big house with a nice garden, which in itself might be a shock to a few people down South. I’ve lost count of the visitors to Yorkshire I’ve met who seem amazed to find that there are houses here which aren’t all aligned in rows of smoky terraces. We might only be two hours from London by train, but sometimes I think we could be on another planet.
Of course, there are some from Yorkshire who think that it would be altogether better if we were on another planet. That’s why the debate about devolving more power to the regions is especially pertinent to us. We’re the biggest county in the UK, with everything from coastline to moorland to bustling cities and ancient towns and villages. If you come from Yorkshire, you always know that the ground beneath your feet is solid. Campbell too speaks about the love of nature and landscape fostered by accompanying his father on his rounds, and his pony and trap.
I’ve enjoyed hearing Campbell’s reminiscences, but I hope that his meander down memory lane helps to forge a new understanding of what being from Yorkshire is all about. It’s not just flat caps, flat vowels and whippets. It’s ambition, assurance and the determination to always have the last word. And it’s the knowledge that being from Yorkshire is not about coming from a small town, it’s about coming from a county we’re proud to call home.