A significant proportion of Alexander Millar’s artistic output revolves around the image of the Gadgie, the Geordie working man clad in flat clap and creased suit jacket. Millar often approaches these characters from behind, rendering their identities anonymous within landscapes evoking the drama of North East life and labour. The Gadgie is characterised by his position as a worker and father, tied to both the industrial spaces of Tyneside on the one hand and the terraced streets where his family reside on the other.
The Gadgie speaks for the great mass of men* that once defined themselves as Geordies: the traditional workers of the mining and manufacturing spaces of Tyneside, the supporters of Newcastle United Football Club, the breadwinners, the drinkers, those united by hard-work, durability, solidarity and good humour. The Gadgie does not enjoy his own individual identity; he instead views himself entirely through a relationship with the crowd. The traditions he must follow are those already pursued by his friends and fellow workers. He will drink with the lads at any given chance, smoke an endless supply of tabs, work with his hands in the day before retiring to Wor Lass and the bairns in the evening.
His lack of educational qualifications imply the accompanying absence of an intellectual life. He cannot see the world through the eye of the aesthete. He is unable to note the expressive beauty of the streets where he is often found or stop to ponder the meaning of his dismal existence. Instead, he gets on with his lot, goes to work, goes to the pub, tries to dodge Wor Lass when he arrives home late and spends his Saturdays at St. James’ Park. Whether he lives for the drink, the work, the camaraderie, the wife or the bairns is not known. He is not given the capacity to think or feel.
But he remains as a symbol, one which harks back to a ‘better’ time when the men built ships and dug coal out of the ground, when an ordinary man could be proud of his lot in life, and was not trapped within the drudgery of service sector work. The call centre, we tell ourselves, will never replace our heritage, our pride in our history, and the traditions that have filtered through, twisting and turning, into the 21st century.
We have become preoccupied with this image, this one-dimensional notion of what it once meant to be a Geordie, because it seems to save us from the iniquities of the present. We are not defined by our current circumstances, it tells us, this is who we once were and who we can momentarily become again through the act of looking.
The appeal of Millar’s work is towards the sentimental, nostalgic and romantic modes. It is towards the belief that things were better in the past, that we have today lost something which once brought us together. We may cite the adversaries which uprooted us from this once-unified world: globalisation, industrial decline, mismanagement, the unions, Thatcherism, neoliberalism, the Internet, modernity. But complaining only gets us so far. Instead, we can sink into the artwork, into an imagined Tyneside and industrial North which offers the comfort that we so desire. We may see our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers living the lives that we heard time and time again about at Sunday lunches but didn’t try to imagine until it was too late.
Millar’s oeuvre therefore performs a purpose, to satisfy a deep yearning for what has been lost, to reintroduce us to a collective, imagined history. This is exactly why we are drawn to his work.
*Note that women are always absent from this narrative.