The posters looked pitiful in the windows as my mam pulled the car onto the drive. I’d taped them up a few weeks earlier, two in the living room window, two in my parents’ room above. But since then I had given them little thought. Their slogan—“I’M IN,” in bold capitals on a royal blue background, matching both the British and European Union flags—seemed self-evident then, before the Brexit referendum.
Shortly before the June 2016 vote I’d filled out my absentee ballot, then left South Shields—my hometown in the North East of England—for London, where I had an embassy appointment to secure a US visa. I was leaving Shields: first for London, but, eventually, for New York. And I was desperate to get out.
The US embassy approved my visa application, cementing my plans to study in the States. I ordered pizza to my brother’s London flat and sat in front of the TV, watching the returns, waiting to hear the media’s predictions confirmed: that Britain had voted to remain in the European Union.
Instead, I watched Newcastle, just to the north of Shields, vote Remain by a far narrower margin than expected, followed by Sunderland, just to the south, vote Leave. Increasingly, the outcome appeared less certain. I leaned closer to the TV. The pizza grew cold.
Later, 62% of South Shields’ borough, South Tyneside, voted to leave the EU. Followed by the whole country, which voted Leave by a margin of 51.9%. For the next two days, I listened to affluent Londoners joke about the capital seceding from the rest of the retrograde, Leave-voting country, before I took the long train journey back home to the barbaric North.
I left the posters up for weeks after the referendum, an act of protest as churlish as it was futile. I looked at neighbors with a new suspicion, imagining them sneering at the posters as they walked to the polling station down the road to vote Leave. I made dramatic proclamations to my friends, declaring that the Left was finally dead in South Shields; that the only UK constituency never to have elected a single Conservative MP since the 1832 Great Reform Act had abandoned that proud history in favor of isolationism and xenophobia and fear.
My despair was disingenuous on two counts. The first: South Shields didn’t lurch from a socialist utopia to a hostile right-wing stronghold, and whatever shift did happen there did not occur at precisely the moment the referendum was declared. In recent years, my town has flirted with a far-right, fearmongering candidate from the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, the populist party that’s anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism, anti-Islam, and anti-European Union. It’s also hosted the frothing Islamophobia of the English Defence League, a protest group known for its aggressive anti-Islam rallies. In more distant years, white residents of South Shields had directed racial violence toward the local Yemeni community. Though there were elements of Shields’ political history to take pride in, there were others that twisted my gut with shame.
And the second: I questioned, secretly and guiltily, how I could expect a town I’d spent a lifetime disparaging to be beholden to my expectations.
I questioned what claim I had on the town where I grew up, where my parents grew up, where my parents’ parents grew up, if all I’d ever intended to do was leave. An almost inaudible part of me wondered whether my dismay about Brexit was a convenient smokescreen for my disloyalty; that my pride in my Northern-ness, in my accent, in my working-class heritage, meant nothing if I was so reluctant to stay in the place that gave these things to me.
South Shields had an identity once—though one exclusively constructed around the white working man. Its people were miners and shipbuilders and steelworkers, or their wives and daughters. The men left school and stepped into a skilled industrial job, where coworkers and superiors impressed on them the mechanisms of working class masculinity. They were left wing, motivated by the immediate challenges faced by working people rather than the lofty ideologies debated in the universities that few of them attended. They were a community, though imperfect, forged in the mines and the pubs and the clubs.
They were poor, but they were something.
As the traditional industries of the North East dissolved—as pits were filled in, and the last ship built on the Tyne sailed—a vacuum opened. The trajectory once promised to the working-class man, with a skilled job and a family at home and a dependable salary with which to provide for them, became an inheritance denied. It was no longer possible, for the white working classes of the town, to base an identity on what South Shields was, since they were miners and shipbuilders and steelworkers no longer. All that remained was what they were not—not posh, not Southerners, not the political elite. Not “foreigners,” not Muslims, not migrants. Not the European Union.
And maybe not me.
I grew up believing that I hated my town, and believing with even greater conviction that my town hated me. To me, there was no division between the kids who bullied me, or the social groups I couldn’t fit into no matter how desperate my contortions, and the town itself.
I was clever, and self-conscious, and I wasn’t funny or pretty or socially magnetic. I studied other people’s easy, effortless conversations, and measured them against my own stilted interactions. Academic success was all I had, I concluded, and I pursued it to the point of obsession.
But I didn’t see South Shields in the books I read. I didn’t hear my Geordie accent spoken in Parliament, or reading the news on television, or in the films I watched. (It appeared sporadically on TV, confined to soaps or reality shows.) When I did hear it, it was spoken in social circles I couldn’t infiltrate, or it was weaponized against me. I didn’t think of it as the way my parents spoke, or my grandparents, or my siblings. And I didn’t know then about classism, about the systematic denigration of working-class accents and working-class towns that permeates politics and media and people in the United Kingdom. Instead, I considered my accent and my town a deficiency that I needed to shed.
When I was little, my oldest brother—also academic, also bullied, and also committed to escaping Shields—left for Cambridge, and lost his accent almost overnight. University, I was reassured throughout my childhood, was where I’d find “my people”—people who I’d connect with as easily as the rest of my schoolmates seemed to connect without me. At seventeen I applied to Oxford, stammered through my interview, and spent the drive home tearfully ignoring my dad’s gentle attempts at conversation, convinced I’d squandered my route out of Shields. Weeks later, waiting for the metro home, my mam called to tell me a letter had arrived. I screamed across the tracks to my best friend, standing on the opposite platform, to tell her I’d got in.
But in Oxford the unanticipated happened—I missed home. I missed it with a fervency rivaling my lifelong desire to leave.
In South Shields, strangers are insistently friendly, something I’d bemoaned as a socially anxious teenager. It’s difficult to wait for a bus or board a metro or stand in a queue without a conversation starting, one that assumes a familiarity typically reserved for only the closest relationships. Sitting alone in an Oxford café, I thought wistfully about the woman who sat next to me in a doctor’s office in Shields and, after complimenting my strawberry blonde hair, proceeded to describe every ginger in her extended family tree. Or the woman who, within minutes of my arrival at a bus stop, informed me that her sleeping medication was causing her to hallucinate. At eighteen, I still considered my own mental health issues a shameful secret. But it was only upon disembarking the bus, half an hour later, that I began to wonder whether I should have told a stranger about the vivid dreams resulting from my antidepressants.
In the city, though Oxford is so small as to barely qualify, I missed the South Shields coastline I’d always hated when I was there. My bus to school had traveled the coast road, and I quickly came to associate the dread of another school day with the gray waves I stared at out the window. But in Oxford, I thought about the beach where the River Tyne spills into the North Sea, which fills with locals in the smallest possible amount of clothing at the slightest suggestion of sun. And I thought about the crumbling limestone cliff face further south, which curls into hidden coves and pebble beaches. I pictured the grassy clifftops, where my mam took my brother and I for Minchella’s ice cream, a Shields fixture, the week after my granddad died. We sat on a bench overlooking the sea and talked about him as the wind threatened to unseat us. At home, I rinsed out the ice cream that ended up, as always, encrusted in my hair, and realized that I felt better.
In Oxford, I took ballet classes led by a peppy blonde woman a few years older than me. There, I thought of my ballet school at home, opened in 1960 and run singlehandedly ever since by a gentle, elegant, and seemingly eternal woman now in her eighties. I danced with Miss Burdon from the age of six; she taught in various primary school halls, class projects stapled to the walls where studio mirrors should be, and dutifully dragged a wobbly portable barre out of a storage cupboard before each class. She produced few stars: Most of us pulled on a misshapen leotard only once a week, could barely touch our toes, and slowly faded out of her class as our teenage years progressed and the shops or the cinema became more appealing places to spend a Saturday. She didn’t raise her voice when we chatted during combinations; didn’t despair at our flat feet or half-hearted arabesques. I missed her, a Shields institution I couldn’t imagine encountering in any other town.
More than anything, I missed the accent that I’d plotted to shave from my speech since I was a child. I missed its ripe vowels and dropped g’s; I missed hearing “canny” and “howay” and “alreet” and every other dialect word gifted to us through generations from the past. I missed sounding like my teachers and my friends and the man in the corner shop. I missed speaking without immediately flagging myself to everyone around me as an anomaly, something to be questioned and imitated and mocked. I stared pointlessly at my parents’ house on Google Earth, read The Shields Gazette online, and scoured local history sites from my bedroom, attempting to absorb every aspect of the town I’d spent a lifetime rejecting.
At school in South Shields, I learned disjointed fragments of the history of the place: Under Roman rule, it hosted a fort named Arbeia. During the Blitz, the marketplace was decimated by Luftwaffe bombers, killing almost seventy. As a restless teen I considered the bombing to be grim but reassuring evidence of South Shields’ significance to the wider world—though “important enough to bomb” was, I’ve since recognized, a wildly insensitive metric of influence. And some time later I read an article in the local paper that suggested the bombers had confused a small local bridge with the far grander Tyne Bridge in nearby Newcastle, and recalibrated my adolescent opinion of my hometown accordingly.
In the 20th Century, if a South Shields man didn’t work down the mine at Westoe Colliery, he might work at St. Hilda’s, or Whitburn, or Marsden, or West Harton, or Boldon. Or build ships in Shields, or Wallsend, or Sunderland. But the mines closed one after the other—St. Hilda’s in 1940, Marsden and Whitburn in 1968, Boldon in 1982, and Westoe in 1993, the year that I was born.
The shipbuilders disintegrated similarly. Under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the wider North East was decimated: As Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah told Parliament after Thatcher’s death, employment in the region dropped by 1.3 million under her rule. Ninety-seven mines closed by 1992, and Sunderland’s shipyards, once a major employer of South Shields workers, fell defunct.
Today, the North East consistently boasts the highest rate of unemployment in the country, according to national labor statistics; from mid 2016 to mid 2017, the unemployment rate was 8.3% in South Tyneside, South Shields’ borough, compared to 6.5% in the North East, and 4.6% nationwide. According to the 2015 English Indices of Deprivation, 22.3% of South Tyneside’s population lives in an income-deprived household. The same study exposes South Tyneside as the English borough with the greatest increase across multiple indices of deprivation since 2010.
There’s a bitter joke in South Shields. Improbably, the town boasts three winners of the talent show The X Factor—Joe McElderry, followed by Jade Thirlwall and Perrie Edwards of Little Mix. Thus, the joke: “The only person hiring in South Shields is Simon Cowell.”
At the center of South Shields is King Street, which leads onto Ocean Road, which leads to the beach. Established in the 19th Century and still Shields’ commercial heart, King Street comprises two short rows of terraced shops, overlooked by a metro line transporting passengers to bigger shopping centers in nearby Gateshead and Newcastle. In the early 2000s, it was the site of my first unsupervised shopping trip. My friends and I scuttled gleefully from shop to shop, buying plastic jewelry and inelegantly sticky lip gloss before taking the bus home, newly initiated into independence.
Scores of shops on King Street have closed since then. New ventures occasionally occupy the empty units, only to meet the same fate within a few years. In 2014, Marks & Spencer, a major British food, clothing, and home goods retailer and arguably the biggest name on the street, moved out after eighty years. It’s not uncommon, now, for the wide pedestrianized street to be largely populated by seagulls.
My mam, born in the late 1950s, remembers King Street differently—as the vibrant street where her mam took her to buy new Easter clothes before she’d march in the local Palm Sunday parade. It was the home of distinguished department stores—Binns, Goldman’s, T&G Allan—plus a cinema with red velvet seats that she’d smuggle sherbet into from the corner shop. King Street was regal buildings and old-fashioned streetlamps and curbstones so high that as a little girl, she once fell off them into a bank of snow. Snow slipped into her wellies and melted through her woolen socks as she trailed her mam from shop to shop. “There was nothing you’d dream about going anywhere else for,” my mam told me. “King Street had everything.”
More than that, King Street was the center of the community. “Everyone used to go down to the shops every Saturday morning,” my mam said. “When you were down town and it was so busy, and you bumped into everybody you knew, you felt part of something.” Recently, South Tyneside Council has established several community centers, or “community hubs,” in an attempt to foster what once existed organically—including one on the site of the former Westoe pit. They host exercise classes, children’s parties, and crafting groups. But my mam, now a career advisor, only attends to offer CV workshops and employability classes. For many, she says, the hubs are just another place to look for work.
South Shields exists on two planes: the current, and the nostalgic. Older residents rarely discuss the former without invoking the latter. It flourishes online, in a Facebook group titled “South Shields In Old Photos”; both my parents—late Facebook adopters who largely use it to share cat memes and unflattering photos of me and my siblings—were members within weeks of opening their accounts. It’s populated by both expats and current residents, all rhapsodizing about the Shields of the 20th Century. A thread on Binns, the department store my mam adored that existed from 1927 to 1995, runs 136 comments long. People write about the trivial yet meaningful: meeting Santa in the 50s, or their Saturday job, or their mam managing the cake department. Others discuss a toyshop, Rippons, where they bought plastic farm animals, model airplanes, fishing tackle, and school uniforms. A group of expats lament their distance from the stottie cake—a flat, dense Geordie bread—and discuss how best to freeze and transport it down South.
The demise of King Street is typically attributed, by newspapers and politicians and members of “South Shields In Old Photos” alike, to the opening of the Metro Centre, an enormous shopping center in Gateshead, alongside improved public transport to the nearest cities, Newcastle and Sunderland. Even I, who beelined to Newcastle as soon as I was considered old enough to take the metro alone, occasionally succumb to reminiscing about “down town,” remembering the dance shop where I bought my ballet shoes, or the toyshop where my brother and I awoke a shelf of dormant Furbies. In South Shields, nostalgia is a local pastime; even children of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, born long after the boom remembered by older residents, grow up and grow into it.
Nostalgia is corruptible. And it has been in South Shields: by the campaign to vote Leave, by far-right UKIP political candidates, and by hate groups like the English Defence League. Islamophobes confidently place the town’s current woes at the door of the local Muslim community, now largely of Bangladeshi origin. They ignore the inconvenient reality: that South Shields has had a sizable Muslim population since at least the 19th Century, when Yemeni seamen made the town their home. UKIP candidate Richard Elvin ran on an anti-immigration platform in 2013 and received almost a quarter of the vote, a startling result in a seat held by Labour since 1935. And in the three months after the Brexit referendum, race hate crimes increased in the region by 48%, according to local police figures.
In 2013, the English Defence League (EDL) and the North East Infidels, a fellow hate group, marched through South Shields. Initially, they targeted Ocean Road, home to the majority of the town’s Bangladeshi and Indian restaurants. Redirected by police, they stormed down neighboring streets, holding aloft English flags and banners bearing racist slogans. They claimed to organize against three Bangladeshi students who stood accused of raping two fourteen-year-old girls. In reality, the march was an excuse to vent their frothing Islamophobia, as evidenced by their banners: “No Sharia Law,” one read; “We stand against Islamic terrorists and pedophiles,” another. In photos, the 350 marchers—all white, most men—roar at their police escorts and curl their lips. The EDL returned to march in South Shields in 2017, citing this time the case of a Muslim man, suffering from severe schizophrenia, who spat on a white baby.
The Facebook page for the North East division of the English Defence League has more than 10,000 likes; its members post incessantly about sexual assaults purportedly committed by British Muslims, and rail against supermarkets’ plans to stock more halal meat. I signed into Facebook with some trepidation, expecting to find “friends” who’d liked the page. For a brief moment, I was relieved—no likes. But I’ve been rigorously purging my friends’ list for years now. I accelerated the process recently, after a man I once went to drama club with called for all those designated as “people of concern” by MI5 to be interned until they could prove their innocence. I’m afraid I’ve curated my own South Shields, one comfortably absent the classmates and neighbors and relatives who echo the hatred of the EDL.
A reader of some accounts of South Shields in the 19th and 20th Centuries might be led to believe that racism is a development of the 21st. After all, the British media turned to the town as an example of racial harmony after London’s Notting Hill riots in 1958, in which white racists attacked the homes of black families. In comparison, The Shields Gazette touted the “innate friendliness of the Geordie” to account for the successful integration of the local Yemeni community.
Seamen from abroad—primarily from Yemen, but also from Somalia, India, and the Caribbean—began to arrive in South Shields in the 1890s. At its peak, the Yemeni community numbered 3,000 to 4,000, many housed in one of fifty Yemeni boarding houses. Some 700 Yemeni seamen, sailing from South Shields with the Merchant Navy, died in the First World War. In 1977, Muhammad Ali had his wedding blessed at the Laygate mosque, one of the country’s oldest. How, then, could the white residents of South Shields turn to bigotry, if their predecessors were exemplars of harmonic integration?
The reality, of course, is that they weren’t. In the economic depression following the First World War, as demobilized white seamen found themselves unemployed and competing for a scarcity of jobs, they directed their fury towards the Yemeni population. The town that hosted one of the first British mosques also hosted the first British race riot. In 1919, white residents of South Shields attacked Arab boarding houses and cafes. At Mill Dam, where seamen signed up for work on ships, a white man shouted a racial slur at a Yemeni seaman waiting to sign on. After the conflict that ensued, eight Yemeni seamen were imprisoned.
In the following years, people of color in South Shields were subject to racial abuse and physical violence, as well as increasing employment discrimination. In 1930, the National Union of Seamen introduced a rota system that targeted only people of color, primarily Yemeni and Somali seamen. They were required to re-register with the union each time they finished work on a ship, before they were able to work on another. The rota was criticized as racially discriminatory by Yemenis, Somalis, and by the Minority Movement, a multiracial Communist organization. In protest, scores of Yemeni and Somali seamen, as well as some white allies, refused to sign on.
On April 29th, 1930, thirteen Somali firemen were viciously beaten by white seamen when they attempted to sign onto a ship in North Shields, across the River Tyne. And on August 2nd, 1930, a white man signing onto a ship at Mill Dam hurled a racial slur at Yemeni protestors. When the protestors reacted, they were charged by fifty waiting police officers. Some fifteen to twenty Yemeni seamen were imprisoned, sentenced to hard labor, and subsequently deported. Among them was Ali Said, who had opened South Shields’ first ‘Arab Seamen’s Boarding House’ in 1909, and played no role in the fray other than to call for it to stop. The white members of the Minority Movement received eight-month sentences.
The racial violence of the early 20th Century is frequently attributed to a familiar cause: economic anxiety. It’s an explanation that’s shortsighted at best. Ali Said opened his boarding house in response to the refusal of white residents to house Yemenis. Letters to the Gazette seethe with hostility towards the Yemeni community. Many of them lived in what the newspaper termed “slums” in Holborn, along the riverside; when the local council demolished their homes, councilors attempted to create segregated housing in their place. Those who tried to rent beyond these narrow bounds faced violence and abuse. A January 1935 article in the Gazette discusses “the problem of finding homes for the more or less permanent colony of coloured seamen.”
“There is a danger,” the author writes, “of the Arabs penetrating, as they have already done in isolated cases, into good-class residential areas in South Shields.” The writer continues, “Public opinion is inclined to the belief that they should be kept together.”
Yemeni residents wrote to the Shields Gazette in response. “During the war I was in Ruhleben prison camp in Germany. I know what a camp is like,” wrote Salem Abuzed, a boarding house manager. “England is a free country and they cannot do things like this to us.”
South Shields was not wholly divided by race. There’s evidence, in fact, for aspects of the amicably integrated town that was presented in comparison to the Notting Hill Riots of London. The councilors’ plans for segregated housing failed; most residents of Holborn, both Yemeni and white, moved instead to nearby Laygate. Historians note that Arab cafes served English clients, that abattoirs employed halal methods of slaughter, and that Muslims were able to swear on the Qur’an in the courthouse. A Muslim burial area was established in Harton Cemetery. Some Yemeni men married white South Shields women. Yet these marriages, too, were met with anonymous hostility in the letters page of the Gazette.
Two things can be true at one time. The white working classes of South Shields, present and past, have had undeniable cause for economic anxiety. But the working classes of South Shields are not, and have never been, exclusively white. And those suffering the miseries of unemployment, of poor housing, of underrepresentation, are far from exclusively white.
And if economic anxiety excuses white working-class people for their racism, for what does it excuse working class people of color, faced with the same anxiety? What do we tell South Shields’ Yemeni and Bangladeshi populations when we insist that the riots at Mill Dam, the segregated housing, the EDL marches, and the votes for UKIP and Brexit are the burden they must shoulder because of our white economic despair?
I’ve spoken to countless pro-Brexit Shields residents, in conversations bidden and unbidden—some with my relatives and neighbors, and others with perfect strangers. Most of the latter began on public transport, and more than once I was obliged to hastily pull out the headphones which the conversation starters seemed not to notice, or were happy to ignore. Not all cited immigration as their impetus for voting Leave. Many told me it was simply an all-encompassing declaration of discontent: That things are bad, and have long been bad, and nothing ever seems to change. Some told me they simply saw an opportunity to “stick it to Cameron.” Most agreed that they felt voiceless, insignificant, and too many miles away from the politicians and the newspapers in London who barely consider their existence. To ask what, specifically, the Leave voters of Shields hope Brexit will change is to miss the point. For many, any change must be positive, because how could things get worse?
In fact, according to governmental economic analyses leaked to Buzzfeed in January, things can and will get worse, no matter the Brexit deal secured. And they’ll be worst in the North East compared to any other area of the UK: If a free trade deal is established, the region will suffer an 11% drop in economic growth, while if no deal is reached, the drop will reach 16%.
I want to find satisfaction in the justifications offered by the Leave voters of South Shields. I wanted it acutely in the weeks after the referendum, when I listened to wealthy Londoners joking about seceding from the primitive North and remaining in the EU—and when online petitions began to circulate demanding the same. I wanted it desperately when media profiles of the strange, backward towns that voted Leave began to multiply, painting them and their people as outdated remnants of a bygone age. The North East, it seems, is worthy of attention only as a curiosity, as a lens through which to view something more important. Our stories are rarely told, and when they are, we are never the ones to tell them. I want, impulsively, to defend my town from those who understand nothing of what it is to live here.
But the justifications for voting Leave, in the end, are never enough. Even those who deny they voted on anti-immigration grounds—and there are many in Shields who freely admit that they did—willingly aligned themselves with a campaign led by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. They aligned themselves with Johnson’s claims that immigration to the UK was “completely out of control,” and with Farage’s poster that labeled a photo of refugees on the Croatia-Slovenia border, featuring primarily people of color, with the slogan “BREAKING POINT.” There seems no meaningful difference, to me, between those who voted out of xenophobia and those who voted to passively condone it.
And yet, in South Tyneside, 38% voted to remain in the EU. Then, in the subsequent general election, the once ascendant UKIP candidate for South Shields received only 7.4% of the vote, as the Labour MP—Emma Lewell-Buck, a local woman mocked in Parliament for her accent—increased her majority. When the English Defence League marches in South Shields, counter-protestors reliably line the streets. Mobilized by South Tyneside Unites Against Fascism, they are trade unionists, political activists, local people. They are the descendants of the Minority Movement, who challenged the racial discrimination against Yemeni and Somali seamen in the early 20th century. They, too, are part of South Shields, and they’re the part that makes me proud.
Oxford terms are only eight weeks long, and in the five-week vacations between, my constituent college, Trinity, rents out student accommodations to conference attendees, visiting academics, and tourists. As such, I was required to pack up my room into the boot of my dad’s car at the end of each term, before we drove five hours north up the M1—only to reverse the journey five weeks later.
My dad, a health and safety inspector, has commuted weekly to London for eighteen years, unable to find work in South Shields. Every Sunday, he goes to bed at 5 p.m. After two decades, he no longer sets an alarm for midnight, ingrained as the routine is to his body clock. In the dark, he starts the car and drives to the capital, beginning a full day of work as soon as he arrives. During my time at Oxford, he coordinated his weekly return home with the end of term, so the two of us left behind our second, southern, lives together.
The conversation in the car, my legs uncomfortably wedged between my Middle English textbooks, always turned to South Shields. He told me about the colleagues in London who found his every utterance, delivered in his comparatively strong accent, riotously funny. I told him about the student who asked if I was “foreign, or just from the North,” and the classmate who told me that I sounded much more “provincial” after returning from vacation. We shed, amidst laughter, the various indignities inflicted on Northerners in the South, before the conversation reliably turned more solemn.
It was in the car, watching the temperature on the dashboard drop the further north we drove, that we talked about the difference in premature death across the North-South divide—almost 30% more twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds died in the North than the South in 2015. We talked about the North East’s stunted recovery from the 2008 financial crisis—to the extent that in 2017, ours is the only region where house prices remain below their 2007 level. And we talked about public infrastructure investment, of which the North East receives only 1.8%, or £220 per head, compared to London’s £1943. In London, my dad rarely waited more than a few minutes for a tube to work to arrive; in South Shields, I once waited so long for a metro to school that my hair froze into icicles.
On the journeys north, the sky would turn purple, then black, before our conversation expired. My dad talked about Thatcher, and the residual resentment amongst those whose communities she fractured—whose people she called “Moaning Minnies”—that led some to save a bottle of champagne for her death. I talked about a boy at a house party who declared his membership of the Conservative Party when I told him where I was from, and about the exclusive Trinity drinking society that closed off the lawns for their invitation-only parties and held secret dinners to initiate new members, overwhelmingly educated in private schools.
Trinity has a particularly bad reputation amongst Oxford’s thirty-eight colleges: between 2015 and 2017, just after I graduated, the college accepted three students from private high schools for every two state school kids, despite the fact that only 7% of British students are privately educated. And as a white woman, I was one of an acutely privileged majority. Between the same years, Trinity accepted only four black students, while university-wide, white applicants were twice as likely to be admitted than black applicants. There was a constant absurdity to my feelings of outsiderdom—what sort of place could accept me, a white student from a high-performing state school, and consider that progress?
When I first arrived at Oxford, my sole—if unconscious—aim was assimilation. I spoke only if called on in classes, afraid I’d expose my unbearable ignorance to my clever, confident classmates. I corrected the way I held my fork in the dining hall, which served three-course meals every night, and waited for everyone else to start eating to avoid accidentally picking up my neighbor’s bread roll. I asked my closest friend which drinks to order in the college bar. And my accent faded, just as I’d hoped as a child, without me ever realizing I was emphasizing my consonants and softening my vowels.
But my dad noticed.
At the start of a new term, he pulled through the grand Trinity gates and parked on the drive, where we unpacked the car. A friend approached as we finished, and after a few minutes of talking, I turned back to my dad. His face was part amusement, part betrayal. “What was that?” he asked, to which I answered, confused, “What was what?” My accent, in a three-minute conversation with my friend, had shifted 300 miles south. I’d said “me” instead of “uz”; “I’m” instead of “am.” I carried my last bag to my room with a pit of shame in my stomach, rehearsing every word in my head before I said it.
After that, I guarded my accent with the fervency of the Académie Française. I watched cheesy Saturday night television because it was hosted by Geordie presenters Ant and Dec. I measured my vowels against my mam’s when we spoke on the phone. And I monitored my vocabulary, noting every time I was inclined to replace a dialect word with a standardized one.
As an English Literature student, it was rare to go a day without saying “book”—which I pronounced with a long “oo,” unlike most others in my class. I tried to smile every time my classmates mimicked me; tried not to feel incongruous and stupid and small. Still, a taut knot of anger tightened in my stomach with each imitation, because so few of them would ever feel they had to lose their accents, or go home to the place they lived their entire lives and feel like they’re looking through glass.
Before a first date with an Oxford classmate, a mutual friend warned him not to criticize either South Shields or Beyoncé; he belittled both, and we did not last long. When the friend first relayed the advice he’d given back to me, I thought it strange that he’d consider Shields as hallowed to me as Beyoncé—after all, I’ve complained to most people I know about the former, while I’ve argued with perfect strangers who dared to disparage the latter. I decorated my room with photos of Beyoncé, I thought indignantly, only to realize that next to her was a postcard from Shields.
In truth, I love South Shields, and not simply with the obligation of proximity reserved for the relatives one quietly mutes on social media. It’s because I love it that I want so desperately for it to be better. It’s because I love it that it was impossible to leave at eighteen and let it fade into a mere incidence of biography, little more than twelve letters on my passport and the address on my parents’ birthday cards.
And I’m still afraid that every time I leave it, I lose a little more of my accent; a little more of my Northernness; a little more of whatever impalpable thing ties me to my gray hometown on the clifftop.
Emily Dixon is a freelance journalist from North East England. Her work has appeared in Time, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, Bust, and Bustle, where she’s a regular contributor.