IT began inauspiciously in the library of the old Yorkshire Evening Press building in Coney Street, York.
Rick Broadbent was 16/17, living in Tadcaster, twixt York and Leeds, and was on work experience. His first taste of journalism, in the mid-1980s.
“I certainly made an impression because I remember writing an obituary of someone who hadn’t died. Can’t remember the guy’s name, but relatively obscure. Jeremiah…”
Deep in the labyrinth of cuttings files, he found a Jeremiah, but the wrong one as it turned out. “It was clearly a baptism of ineptitude,” says the award-winning author and journalist for The Times for more than 20 years, recalling his cub reporter howler.
Rick would leave Yorkshire at 18 to study at Reading University – one of three northerners at a southern university, alongside a Scouser and a Geordie – but Yorkshire has never left him. So much so, his latest book is Now Then: A Biography Of Yorkshire, whose publication today is accompanied by a Meet The Author tour that visits St Peter’s School Memorial Hall, York, tomorrow, as well as South Cave, Malton, Ilkley, Sheffield, Farsley and Ripon.
As he writes in the book’s final words: “I live in Dorset, but Yorkshire is where I’m from and, more often than not, where I’m at. It’s a state of its own and a state of mind. That’ll do.”
He depicts a “remarkable county, swathed in world-stopping beauty and practical magic, stunning in positive and negative ways, but it’s like the Hotel California – you can check out, but you can never leave”.
The Leeds-born “exiled Yorkshireman” has written a humorously honest, unsparing, celebratory biographical mosaic, not a hagiography. “I loved the place but had sometimes loathed it too”, writes the outsider with the insider’s knowledge.
Broadbent acknowledges the tropes, the ee bah gums, the Stereotykes, as one chapter is headed – Boycott’s batting, ferret-leggers and folk singers without flat caps on Ilkley Moor – as he seeks the true soul of the Texas of England and ponders whether “Yorkshireness” even matters in a shrinking world.
Social history, memoir and reportage, high hills and flat vowels, are woven into the mosaic of Yorkshire now and Yorkshire then, ordinary Yorkshire and its extraordinary lives. “What I didn’t want to do was do a chronological history,” he says of his task of representing a Yorkshire “so large, multifarious and unmanageable”.
Hence the diversity of interviews, from rock stars (Richard Hawley) to rhubarb growers, ramblers to William Wilberforce’s descendants, William and Dan, the Archbishop of York, the Most Rev Stephen Cottrell, to Barnsley bard Ian McMillan.
“I thought, you have to pool all this information, draw these disparate places and stories into themes and sections.” In a nutshell, Outsiders. Workers. Writers. Miners. Minstrels. Artists. Yorkists. Stereotykes. Champions. Ramblers. Chefs. Pioneers. Legends. Seasiders. Now. Then.
As a starting point, he dug up his own past, before turning to Britain’s largest county at large. Excavating his father’s remains from a Tadcaster graveyard in 2011, gathered in a coffee jar, to be scattered at sea in accordance with his wishes at Lamorna Cove, in Cornwall, where the Broadbents had always holidayed and family members had since gravitated south. “It was not so much scattering ashes as throwing rocks at seagulls,” he recalls with typical Broadbent humour.
Cornwall and Yorkshire share common ground: a belief that devolution and self-sufficiency from such natural riches would suit each county. “From that moment I started to think about the Yorkshire we had known. It felt like a severing of roots, and leaving again made me reconsider,” Rick writes. “Basically, I wanted to know if we had made a mistake by chucking Dad off the Cornish coast.”
Explaining the choice of a Yorkshire greeting with a nod to past and present for the title, he says: “It just seemed a natural title to me. Evocative of Yorkshire. If you live there, you have every right to gripe, but when you move from Yorkshire, your pride grows in exile; like the further away you are, your affection for the Knaresborough Bed Race grows in direct proportion to the likelihood of you never having to attend it.
“One of the key goals of the book is getting away from the stereotypes. Some of it is because of Yorkshire’s size; some of it is down to the stereotype Yorkshire personality. In that chapter, I mention the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, but the best ones are by Harry Enfield and Hale & Pace.”
That “’ear all, see all, say nowt”, stiff-necked stereotyping means Yorkshire has a defined image like no other county. Hence the tea towels, the Ey Ups, the Nora Battys.
“But when people talk of Yorkshire as ‘God’s Own Country’, they’re not talking about inner-city Sheffield, but the dales and moors and All Creatures Great And Small,” says Rick. “It’s a badge of honour, a badge of pride.”
Stephen Millership’s cover illustration depicts York Minster on fire (“I asked for the fire to be on there,” says Rick); a band stand, but with Jarvis Cocker, arms aloft, rather than a brass band; Kes’s kestrel, but no ferrets; colliery and cricket; White Rose flag and dry stone wall; farmer and sheepdog; viaduct and verdant pastures. “The ferret is mentioned but only to show how people reduce this huge county to two or three tropes,” says Rick.
Battles of distant days, Towton and Marston Moor, feature as does the battle of Orgreave in the Miners’ Strike. “I wanted to look at Yorkshire’s industrial heritage: when [Margaret] Thatcher was doing that to the mining communities, wrecking them with no after-plan. Or talking about the Grimethorpe Brass Band story, the Brassed Off story, but also the steel industry and shipbuilding,” says Rick.
“Looking at common themes, one of them is of Yorkshire being abandoned, now with HS2, and that feeds into the desire for devolution. Going back to being victimised in the Harrowing of the North [in William the Conqueror’s reign); the purging of the dales under Elizabeth I.
“These things come down to being abandoned and neglected, and I wanted to reflect that, rather than have some ee-bah-gum fun with the book. Johnny Giles said ‘being Leeds United [the “Dirty Leeds of Don Revie’s 1960s-’70s], we just had to defend ourselves’, and it’s the same with Yorkshire.”
Relegation-bound Leeds United were “a constant drain” on lifelong fan Broadbent’s enthusiasm throughout his writing project and feature as they “disappoint their fans week after week” in “the most controversial poem ever written”, Tony Harrison’s V, a Leeds work full of verses and versus and verbal V signs that strikes a chord with Broadbent’s own sentiments.
“I was a kid when it came out and I remember we giggled at the swear words at school. All those complaints came in when it was on TV. But reading it again, it’s all so relevant, with all that class division.”
You can allus tell a Yorkshireman, but tha’ can’t tell him much, as the saying goes, but Now Then will tell Yorkshiremen and outsiders alike plenty, from stories of industrial neglect and forgotten tragedies to the Bronte Sisters and Marks & Spencer, a lost albatross to a stuffed crocodile.
“I’m fascinated by that phrase, ‘it’s where you’re from and where you’re at’. For me it means taking your roots with you, though others say it’s where your mind’s at. But I read it differently: you can take Yorkshire with you wherever you are. Doing this book, as the outsider from inside, that feeling is stronger than ever.”
Now Then: A Biography Of York, by Rick Broadbent, published in hardback by Allen & Unwin/Atlantic Books on October 5.
York Literature Festival presents Rick Broadbent in conversation on Now Then: A Biography Of Yorkshire, St Peter’s School, Clifton, York, tomorrow, 7pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Rick’s Meet The Author tour of Yorkshire also takes in Festival of Words, South Cave Library, near Hull, Saturday, 1.30pm, sold out, with Yorkshire Tea and Cake. St Michael’s Church, Malton, Saturday, 7.30pm, presented by Kemps Books; box office, kempsgeneralstoreco.uk/pages/events.
Ilkley Literature Festival, Ilkley Grammar School, Hall B, Sunday, 3.45pm; ilkleyliteraturefestival-tickets.ticketsolve.com. In Conversation at La Biblioteka, Eyre Lane, Sheffield, Tuesday, 6.30pm; labiblioteka.co.
Farsley Literature Festival, Truman Books, Town Street, Farsley, near Leeds, Wednesday, 6.30pm; trumanbooks.co.uk. An Evening with Rick Broadbent, Ripon Arts Hub, Allhallowgate, Ripon, presented by The Little Ripon Bookshop, Thursday, 7pm; littleriponbookshop.co.uk/events.
Each event will be a talk, followed by a question-and-answer session and a book signing.