Documenting the North East

Belonging After Industry

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Football, cage fighting, makina and the night-out

“Let us pray for Sunderland Football Club and for our city,” preaches Father Marc Lyden-Smith from the pulpit of St Benet’s Roman Catholic Church in Netflix’s Sunderland Til I Die (2018-2020), a documentary series which chronicles Sunderland A.F.C.’s recent struggles in the Championship and League One. “Lord our God help us to understand what football means to our community. Help the people of Sunderland in their frustration for they are good people who work hard. Dear Lord, help Sunderland and all our players in their ability in all games. Grant them self-belief and a spirit of confidence because the success of our team leads to the success and prosperity of our city.”

Lyden-Smith’s sermon captures the notion that football, a source of strength and mental wellbeing in tough times, is a devotion to something larger than any one individual or group of players. It is a faith which endures through failure, a commitment which lasts a life-time. Success or failure on the football pitch will influence events beyond the terraces, on the streets, in the workplace and within the household. A one-sided relationship this is not. The supporters who invest in season tickets, merchandise and fortnightly pilgrimages to far-flung grounds demand ample compensation for their hard-won earnings. They want to see a team that works hard, makes sacrifices and, above all, believes. Each footballer who puts on the red-and-white must face this test.

Inescapable, in the series, is the sense that Sunderland is, both on and off the pitch, a shell of its former self. The opening theme song “Shipyards”, a melancholy tune tinged with regret, harks back to the city’s hard-working ship-building past: “On a river where they used to build the boats. By the harbour wall the place you loved the most,” sings Marty Longstaff of The Lake Poets. “All your life you worked your fingers to the bone. You worked hard for every little thing you owned.” Hope, however, is embodied by a new generation who can answer the calls of the past with their own accomplishments: “But if you could see me now. If you could see me now. I hope that I am making you proud. I hope that I am making you proud.”

Sunderland Til I Die offers a melange of different aesthetic approaches. A wandering observational camera captures intimate behind-the-scenes discussions, players exercising on training grounds and supporters in close-up as goals are scored. Talking heads, employed to make sense of diffuse material, provide the commentary which shapes, re-orders and transforms the inconclusive. Archival images are adopted to provide authenticity. The traces of what once was, a reminder of what can be. And drones, operated during the golden hours of dawn and dusk, document the city from above, eluding the constraints of northern realism. Rain, once the staple of life in the provinces, is exchanged for the orange and yellow hues imparted by sunlight. Roker Pier, the Northern Spire Bridge, the Stadium of Light, icons built on the Wear, root the city in the particular: Sunderland, a place like no other.

“We can’t walk away from this football club because we were born here, we were bred here,” protests a disgruntled fan at a Sunderland A.F.C. local sponsors meeting. “This football club is in our blood. He’s put us in this position as an owner. The decisions that he’s made, the people he’s employed and the money that’s been spent. He’s put us in this position. But it’s us who’s then left with it on a weekly basis, on a daily basis.” The divide between the absent Ellis Short, who wishes to invest no more in the club, and a loyal working-class fan-base, who can’t change who they are, is the central conflict of this troubled marriage story. When the concerns and demands of business are so opposed to the city, communities and individuals it purports to serve, the series says, chaos will ensue. This disharmony and disarray is what elevates Sunderland above other football documentaries such as All or Nothing: Manchester City (2018) and First Team: Juventus (2018); two tales of success at the top of the table. Disagreement, tension, anger and stress sow the seeds of conflict and intrigue. SunderlandTil I Die is a portrait of the Sunderland supporter in the depths of despair.

It is tempting to describe this story as a very modern divide between “Somewheres” and “Anywheres.” Rooted in a community far from the affluent and metropolitan, socially conservative Sunderland supporters yearn for the glory, stability and traditions of the past. This nostalgia for industry and the success of remembered line-ups puts them at odds with cosmopolitan, and often university-educated, “Anywheres” who subscribe to an identity based less on place than personal achievement. Transient owners, directors (Ellis Short, Martin Bain and in series two, the Oxfordshire-based businessmen Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven) and mercenary players who put pay cheque and career before club (Jack Rodwell, Lewis Grabban), don’t get Sunderland like the fans. Their stay is all too short.

This reading is complicated by the players, managers and staff who are already, or become subsequently, attached to this North-East community. “So, you come in in the morning,” says Sunderland manager Chris Coleman who was let go following the team’s relegation to League One:

You’ve got Andy who’s your boy, who always opens the door for us, who’s gonna have a hip operation that’s been cancelled, the poor bugger. Or Leanne, who’s the first one to always [say], ‘Good morning boss! Good morning!’ Joyce, upstairs: ‘Make sure you come and have some lunch, you need some food,’ and Patrick. If I don’t have lunch, Patrick is knocking on my door: ‘You need some food.’ These are genuine people who care and they can’t help it. And they’re great people. The problem with that is when you’re losing, and you’re playing poorly, I look at them and I think, ‘we’re letting you down here.’ If you win, they’ve won the lottery and they don’t actually care about money if Sunderland have won a game of football. If you lose and you keep losing, it affects them so badly. You can feel the weight of that and that can be quite heavy.

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The experience of defeat is felt across the whole city. Just as the burden of a heroic past has become a collective concern, the troubled fate of Sunderland A.F.C. is a strain shared by each supporter. To truly belong, one must be united in this mutual feeling of failure, in indignation at the circumstances of the present, in the sense that Sunderland undoubtedly deserves more. But when the artist Grayson Perry visits Sunderland in Channel Four’s All in the Best Possible Taste (2012), he finds that this fanatical devotion to the activities of the team, intensified by a nostalgia for a lost industrial past, is a mostly male affliction. The women he encounters are more interested in the theatricality and spectacle of a fantasy present. “I had a set of images in my head to do with big hair, big heels, short skirts and fake tan,” he says in the episode “Working Class Taste”. “I wanted to know why women chose to look that way. And as a transvestite, I’d always wondered whether I could pull off the look myself.”

In preparation for a night out with the lasses, Perry’s alter-ego Claire is given the Sunderland treatment. This means big hair, large fake breasts, a revealing outfit and a spray tan. “It’s almost like a kind of beauty you can measure with a ruler,” he says. Naturalness and tastefulness, set in contrast to the exaggerated costumes of the Wearside midnight reveller, become boring and lifeless. The creation of a fantasy persona – this “chance to see the dream you” – may stem from a desire to escape the realities of the working week and the drudgery of life in the call centre. But such flamboyant displays also work to unify the group. “The taste decisions we were making were a bonding ritual every bit as essential to the night out as the alcopops to come,” says Perry. “Like the men with their tattoos and their motors, this was display more for ourselves than for the opposite sex.”

Attendance at the match and a night on the town aren’t the sole activities encouraging a sense of working-class belonging in North East England. Cage fighting, an outlet for the frustrations born of neglect, helps tormented men confront their troubles. “I’m broken inside; I know I am,” says Andy, one of the region’s most feared MMA warriors in Grayson Perry’s Channel Four documentary series All Man (2016). “If it wasn’t for fighting I wouldn’t be here.” The combination of tough-guy masculinity and vulnerability, a hardened outer shell and soft-hearted core, is central to these communities built upon combat. “The second I walk through them doors ‘til the second I walk out, it’s heaven. All your problems go away. The second you walk out the door, your problems are back. These lads here are my family,” says Andy. “And you’re fighting them?” asks a startled Perry. Yes, he counters, “Because it’s what we love.”

This enthusiasm for the macho appears a particularly regional concern. “There must be a reason that a lot of men up here in the North East need to be tough,” says Perry. “Why do they need to be tough?” One line of interpretation posits that the contemporary glorification of the fighter is shaped by a historical hangover. Violence recreated as leisure spectacle provides opportunities for the lawful expression of a hardened machismo rejected by the modern workplace. The move from colliery to call centre, shipyard to shopping mall, has denied the self-evident masculinity that once arose from physical labour. By training for combat, fighting on-stage and celebrating the power of the male body, the cage fighters at the heart of this story revel in the heroic traditions of a former era. A period experienced only through tales of hard-work and toil, handed down by fathers and grandfathers, recreated momentarily in the ring.

The past is not just relived through the fight. For one day each July, the rituals and traditions of centuries of coal-mining in County Durham are honoured and commemorated en masse. The Durham Miners’ Gala, once an expression of the considerable political power enjoyed by the “Great Northern Coalfield”, has become one of the region’s most recognisable and well-attended memorialisations of industry. “I’d come here to make art about men but I was finding a community who had plenty of that already,” says Perry. “But if the crowds were celebratory there was something melancholy about it too. And when I watched the blessing of the banners at Durham Cathedral, it hit me why that was. This was a stirring folk art requiem for a certain kind of man.” A funeral for the hardened, stoical providers of the coalfield.

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Perry is aware that a preoccupation with the kind of masculinity mourned by the Gala can mask some critical issues, not least of which are the region’s high male-suicide rates. But as well as providing a substantial critique, All Man seeks to recognise the positive. “I’ve spent a lot of my life being quite frightened of men particularly the kind of strong working-class men,” he says. “So, I’ve had to overcome my own deep prejudices about the broad-shouldered, pint-wielding man. But coming here, I can get quite teary really because I can understand that the attachment to the communities that were built on the hairy shoulders of these blokes is a powerful thing.”

One working-class male subculture left unexamined by these documentaries on taste and masculinity is the boisterous world of “makina.” Makina is an example of what sociologists call “glocalisation,” a reworking of global cultural products in particular local contexts. With roots in Spanish hard-core techno, makina (in English, the original stress of mákina has migrated one syllable to the right) fuses the bouncing rhythms of Iberian rave with the rapid-fire, dialect-infused bark of North East England. To get a sense of what makina sounds like, imagine a fast-talking auctioneer with a Geordie accent chanting over 180bpm hardtrance synths. Makina is in the tradition of popular North East folk culture (see Bobby Thompson and Buzzcocks the Gangsta) rooted so strongly in the local, in the peculiar experiences of the region, that it is usually regarded as utterly alien to outsiders. Interest beyond the Tees and Tweed may, however, be piqued by Boiler Room and the British Council’s recent documentary on the scene: Makina! (2020).

“Now for the past twenty-five years, we’ve been pushing this genre and making it our own,” says MC Rockeye in the film. “Undiluted, it hasn’t been touched from the outside.” Makina MCs tell stories of run-ins with the police, troubles in the workplace, life on the dole. It is music about where they’ve grown up and the challenges faced. “This is the sound you’d hear in a park on a Friday or Saturday night, teenagers huddled round a phone,” says Rockeye. “The sound you’d hear blasting out of a council estate, every day of the week.”

Since this documentary has one eye on the projection of soft power, makina’s associations with drugs are not mentioned. Instead, energy is expounded on the genre as a musical form and as a source of community, belonging and inclusivity. “In Makina, we’re all real honest people. When you go to a rave, no-one cares who you are or what you’re wearing or where you’re from. You just enjoy yourself, let go and just dance,” says one veteran of the genre. “They’re there for one thing and one thing only: the music and the atmosphere. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re straight, gay, black, white, whatever. It’s an accepting scene,” adds another.

Taken on face value, these assertions accumulate throughout the documentary, crafting what amounts to little more than a celebration of the scene. But although it may lack a critical edge, Makina! does succeed at promoting the positives of this relatively unknown subculture. “It’s a place where you can get a serious, professional solicitor, you can get a soldier, you can get someone who’s a single parent,” says one enthusiastic commentator. “But while you’re altogether in that place, you’re all the same.”

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Photographs courtesy of dkodigital, Ben Andreas Harding and Paul Simpson

This is the third instalment of “Documenting the North East”, a history of documentary photography and filmmaking made in North East England. Planning and its Discontents looks at architecture, community and change and On the Waterfront discusses rivers. You can follow me on Twitter here

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