In Search of Workington Man

From the Rectory you can hear the weekly match. Rugby League, here in Workington. A game that began – according to legend – when William Webb Ellis, schoolboy, picked up the ball in 1823 at a prestigious public school that gave the game its name. When it was declared that players couldn’t be paid, Rugby League was formed in 1895 for those (largely northern town) players who needed to earn money for their efforts. A faster game resulted, that took off in the north – symbolising the different priorities of an affluent south and a north that went its own way. The Workington ground hosted the Rugby League Four Nations match between Scotland and New Zealand in 2016.

Supporting Rugby League is a defining characteristic of the latest political type created by the thinktank Onward as the General Election draws near. As The Economist has it:

Past elections have seen parties target archetypes such as “Mondeo Man”, “Worcester Woman” and “Pebbledash People”. The 2019 contest has already coughed up “Workington Man”, a rugby league-loving, Leave-voting northerner who, by coincidence, holds many of the same views as Onward, the Tory think-tank that discovered him. (November 2nd-8th 2019, p. 26)

Here’s Will Tanner, the Director of Onward, telling us about it.

Lisa Nandy, MP of another Rugby League town, Wigan, has this to say.

She is tired of southern media comment that constructs the north and northern people according to their own assumptions. Northern towns are complex places, and perhaps the truth might be more evident if there were more investment in local journalists, or even if London-based think tanks moved closer to the caricatures they create ‘and establish a relationship based on respect, that essential ingredient whose absence voters can sense a million miles away, and which is worth so much more than the carving up of the electorate for electoral gain’.

The local BBC reporter went out onto the streets here in Workington. His report is here.

There’s something deeper going on, though. Look at the results of the local council elections here in May this year. The swing to independent candidates, away from Labour, is marked. Peter and I were there at the Carnegie Hall for the changeover of Mayor. Former Labour Councillors were smarting. New Independent candidates – many of them completely new to the business of government – were jubilant. There was tension in the air which almost broke out into a fight.

This shift to independence marks a significant move away from the traditional parties, revealing a lack of confidence in both Labour and Conservative. That’s likely to be mirrored on 12 December.

With fifty MPs standing down – exhausted, as so many say they are, particularly the women, by the constant aggression and hassle – they are likely to be replaced by Members motivated by issues and the identity politics of Brexit. Perhaps the radical programmes, and Corbyn’s own Euro-scepticism, will win the day for Labour in Workington. Closely followed, I’d say, by Brexit. Either way, the constitutional democracy that values our MPs for their independence of mind, regardless of the fickle Will of the People, and which has stood this nation in such good stead for centuries, is set to receive a further battering.

Peter and I have just returned from Taiwan. Two weeks holiday was a luxury, following the engagement ceremony of our son to his long term partner who had met at University in Scotland, graduating in 2015. It was a time to relax – but also to think more deeply about this blog. I’ve plans to change its name to reflect a change of location and focus. A Naked Thinking Heart comes from John Donne’s poem “The Blossom”.  I’ve always liked its suggestion of the heart that is rational and vulnerable. See my chapter on Thoughtfulness in Full of Character.

And “Word from Workington” the subtitle. Those who know of Ronald Blythe’s writing over the years for the Church Times will hear the resonance. It’s good to be here, in the very North West, with the Solway Firth a stone’s throw away and the mountains around Buttermere full in sight. I’ve felt for a while the need to write on a regular basis – stuff from my deepening study of Edmund Burke (like David Brooks, in his latest 2019 book Second Mountain, I call myself a Burkean conservative) and reflections on living here, particularly as I get more involved in parish life early in 2020.

There’s a close neighbour – let’s call her Dora – who is happy to provide me with words like ‘skop’, ‘niuk’, ‘boggle’, to chew over, bringing to light the local dialect of Workington. It will be good to hear from Workington Woman. So watch this space.

On the long flight home over Russia I binged watched four films that have stayed in my mind. The Hours stirred me to think more deeply about my own need to write to do something with the depression and anxiety I can succumb to – much as Virginia Woolf depicted Clarissa Dalloway, her tenuous hold on life and determination to hold things together, whatever the cost. A great film, interweaving the lives of three women, acted brilliantly to capture how hard it can be to fulfil expectations and sustain others in life, as women tend to do. Then Casablanca  – one of those films that you can see again and again. Dated, yes, but still potent in the way it captures the pain of love requited and unrequited against the backdrop of a global war that shapes the personal in irrevocable ways. Then the marathon Dr Zhivago. Again, I was caught up in how the personal is lost in the maelstrom of Revolution, in the destruction of civilisation and trust, where poetry survives to tell another story, but to a new generation that no longer cares. Fourth, and last, Tolkein. Again, the arts and writing enable an emotional intelligence to develop as four schoolboys find friendship that transcends the trauma of the First World War.

It was a rich cocktail of films that has continued a conversation in my imagination; a conversation about the power of word and image to make sense of an unpredictable world, where internal and external pressures disrupt the surface of life and one’s peace of mind.

So I’m planning to write around 1000 words a week to capture life and thought – a Word from Workington. Nothing too personal about other people, to be clear. But I’ll strive for a fresh voice on whatever stirs the attention of this naked thinking heart.

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