Northern Airs and Graces
Food and Dialect along the Yorkshire-Lancashire Border. Words by Ophira Gottlieb; Illustration by Sinjin Li.
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Close reading — the practice of pausing to pay careful attention to what has been written, excavating meaning, observing the effects of words set alongside each other, and seeking out the structures of thought, power and class that have produced a text — is a precious art. Reading in this way empowers readers with critical insight into the apparently inviolable ‘truths’ that surround them. Techniques of close reading can be a first step in challenging political realities that have come to seem ‘natural’: the contemporary attack on humanities and arts education by the UK government can be seen as a response to the threat posed by the potential of close reading.
This week’s newsletter is devoted to close reading words spoken at the dinner table, a site rich with interpretive potential. Ophira Gottlieb spends time with regional poetry about food and the graces spoken before meals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But she is not looking back with misty-eyed nostalgia for a simpler time, or drawing on ‘the past’ to lend a veneer of authenticity to a new product. Ophira’s close readings show that, rather than being a ‘timeless’ form of folk writing unattached to material conditions, these graces are the products of daily struggle amidst poverty imposed by capitalism, voicing both hunger and dreams of a lavish meal. RMJ
Northern Airs and Graces: Food and Dialect along the Yorkshire-Lancashire Border, by Ophira Gottlieb
The River Calder coughs her wet way out of the earth on a hilltop moor in Lancashire and promptly rolls down it, eastwards into Yorkshire, where she lives between the hills and the cotton mills. She causes little trouble, save for her occasional flooding of the local pubs and sitting rooms. I live beside her. In fact, we are neighbours in our foggy little corner of the valley, a corner that the council and I affectionately call ‘The Flood Zone’, where all the plug sockets are installed halfway up the walls in order to avoid disaster. We get on well, the Calder and me, though we have very little in common. I hate running and the Calder hates hills – she’s always running down as I walk up them, and she never even stops to wave. Despite this, we remain firm friends, and that is because we are both offcumdens.
I had to ask around a little to grasp what this word means and with the help of a few locals came to the following definition:
offcumden (Yorkshire dialect, noun) an incomer, ‘not from round here’
I am from Glasgow and the River Calder is a Lancashire lass. In fact, up until the county’s boundary change in 1974, she formed part of the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, a divide which once carved its way right down the middle of the Calder Valley, following the river as she gulped past village and town. The old boundary line followed the Calder right into the market town of Todmorden. There it abruptly veered off, chasing the tail of one of her tributaries, and burrowed under Todmorden Town Hall so that one half of the hall was once in Lancashire, the other in Yorkshire, and all the lovers of Todmorden could choose which side to marry on. Now, a few strides away from the hall, on the brink of the old boundary edge, a second-hand bookshop sits on a little slab of England that was once in Lancashire, but only just, and now is not. There, on a fold-down wooden table, I ate my first Eccles cake, another thing that sits across boundaries.
Eccles cake (Lancashire dialect, noun) a small round pie made of flaky, buttery pastry and filled with currants, from Eccles, which was once in Lancashire and is now in Greater Manchester
I remember the cake being difficult to eat. Its slick shell gave way with little resistance, resulting in most of it scattering about the bookshop floor. I quickly learnt the necessity of a well-determined bite, and of having my left hand cupped beneath my chin while I ate. Within the pastry I encountered an unexpected hardness: coarse lumps of burnt demerara sugar, tough lemon and orange peel – even the juiciest currants had crunch. I’ll spare you any tired comparisons between the Eccles cake and the Lancashire spirit. Lancastrians don’t flake and they don’t have raisins in them, and any resemblance is purely coincidental.
In this borderland bookshop where I work you are, at all times, unknowingly surrounded by food. Descriptions of dishes, and the enjoyment thereof, are pressed between the pages of the novels, the poetry, the history books, like the leaves of dried nettles. After my first Eccles cake, I searched through them for any mention of the snack, to tie together my culinary experience. On the bottom shelf, within the slim, hand-bound pamphlets of dialect poetry, I was confronted with verses that spilled over with food and drink: thick-crusted pies, meat freshly slain, custard and jellies, warm ale, rum. One Lancashire dialect poem titled ‘A Rivin’ Good Supper’ sees author Richard Crawshaw simply listing foods with a sort of knee-hugging, rocking madness.
Un ther’ is here and thear set cluster’d
Bottles o’ vinegar, pepper, un musthard,
An’ new laid eggs, un jellies, un custard,
Un lots o’ sooarts beside, mon.
(Richard Crawshaw, ‘A Rivin’ Good Supper’, 1930)
In Crawshaw’s poem, bowls are hot with offal stew, tables yawn under the weight of boyl’d murfies with green sauce and bacon collups, and later, at pudding, the stuffed supper-havers are bombarded with Gibly Pie – rice pudding with nutmeg and gum spice – and a thumpin’ cheese ‘as big as eawr owd grindle-stoan’. It is a poem that devours its dishes on first sight, never once stopping to linger, or relish, or chew. As in many of the working-class poems of its time, any mention of food is not just about food, but hunger too.
There’s buttie for Jimmy an pobbies for thee,
Cos daddy is addlin nah, does ta see?
He’s getten a job an there’ll be extra brass,
An t’neighbours’ll smell a roast joint when they pass.
(Elsie Clare, ‘Better Days’, exact date unknown)
In the cluttered and cold kitchens of West Riding dialect poems, women bend their backs over hot stoves. They cook flat and barely salted havercakes in frail attempts at warming up their husbands. Elsewhere, a mother dreams of feeding her sons something other than pobbies.
pobbies (Yorkshire dialect, noun) lumps of bread floating in a cup of warm milk, often fed to poorly children or the weak and elderly
In Elsie Clare’s dialect poems, as well as many of the others published in the An Anthology of West Riding Verse (1964) hunger is typically worn a little further down the sleeve. Still, more often than not it is masked by the same culinary fantasising we see in ‘A Rivin’ Good Supper’. Many poems begin by lingering briefly in the realm of bare-skinned scarcity, but soon afterwards they abandon such scant realism for a feast of food escapism. In ‘Better Days’, the mother who struggles to feed her sons quickly succumbs to culinary fantasies. When the boys’ father gets a job, she insists the neighbours will all stop to indulge in the glazed-sweet smell of hot roast joints as they pass, and the children will gorge on bowls of porridge and thick, golden slices of drip cake.
drip cake (Yorkshire dialect, noun) sweet fruit cake cooked with dripping, for want of butter
Masked in fantasy, or presented plainly as fact, hunger seeps its way into the poetry, the prose, even the songs of the industrial and post-industrial north. Yet nowhere is it so plainly expressed as in the form of local dialect graces.
The term ‘Saying Grace’ generally refers to the Christian practice of giving thanks to God for providing food, either before or after eating it. When local dialect graces began to sprout up here and there across the north of England, they served a somewhat altered purpose and were paired with little food. Like the poetry of their time, these graces tell of a culture of scarcity, and of families well accustomed to lacking and want – a subject suitable for a time when cotton mills across the North West were rapidly closing, with countless jobs lost and the industry all but collapsed. What is unique to these graces is how telling they are of changing Christian attitudes, revealing a society in which a sense of religious devotion is underpinned by a growing, hunger-fuelled cynicism towards God.
We thank thee lord for what we’en getten
I ther’d bin moor o t’ table there’d a bin moor etten
(found in James Crowther’s Walsden Words, 1989)
I came across this grace-after-supper in the same way as I did the dialect poetry: it winked at me from the shelves of the old bookshop on the even older border. Among local history books and walking guides, I found a pamphlet describing the regional dialect of Walsden. Walsden is the next town along from Todmorden, just a short and goose-heavy saunter down the towpath. It has come to replace Todmorden as the town wedged uncomfortably between the two counties, sitting squat just to the Yorkshire side of the Pennines, and the new boundary line. That such a small and thinly populated town should warrant its own dialect dictionary is telling of how quickly dialects change, even within the counties, and how every village and hamlet once nursed its own secret language. However, though the grace quoted above is attributed to Walsden alone, it would have been relatively well known and widely used throughout Yorkshire, to be recited specifically after the rare occasions when meat had been served for supper. Like most dialect graces, this one is fairly unassuming. God is praised and thanked and nothing more is asked of him, yet there is an underlying sense of cynicism and hunger that burns its weak way through the lining. Still, it remains far from confrontational, and like much northern prose and poetry it is embellished with wit and playful light-heartedness.
I have identified two subtypes of dialect graces, and Walsen grace falls into the first: graces directly concerned with the lack of food. The second subtype is perhaps the more intriguing of the two: these are the graces that address not scarcity of food, but the inability to eat it.
God Bless us all and mek us able
to eyt all t’stuff that’s on this table.
(found in Louise Maskill’s Yorkshire Dialect, 2013)
This Yorkshire grace-before-supper is a classic example from the second subset. The reciters thank God for having given them food, but kindly ask that he grant them the ability to actually consume it. It’s a curious request. To be turning to God for help with finishing supper is odd enough as it is, but the fact that there are a number of graces addressing the inability to eat only serves to make it all the more peculiar. Take for another example the Selkirk Grace. Attributed to the great Rabbie Burns (though perhaps only popularised, not necessarily written, by him), the Selkirk Grace is extremely well known throughout Scotland. Growing up in Glasgow I heard it often, most commonly on Burns Night, with a plump clootie dumpling on the table patiently waiting to be blessed.
Some hae meat but canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the lord be thankit!
(found in, The Complete Works of Robert Burns, 1865)
The Selkirk Grace considerably predates the humorous graces of the North of England, having already been well known in the eighteenth century, and it is far more sincere in its gratitude and its attitude towards God. Nonetheless, it is worth a mention as it addresses both a lack of food and a difficulty eating, thus falling into both of my subsets. It is also fascinating to discover that graces dealing with both of these issues were being written several hundred years before the northern graces began to emerge. The fact that graces mentioning an inability to eat repeatedly occurred in both England and Scotland, and in dramatically different time periods, raises an obvious question: What exactly is it that’s stopping so many people from eating?
‘A Lancashire Grace’ by Rochdale dialect poet Harvey Kershaw may provide the answer. The grace was first published in 1958, when the aftermath of the Second World War still had ears ringing and stomachs empty. It too falls into the second subset; however, unlike the writers of the aforementioned graces, Kershaw goes into a little more detail on the nature of the difficulty of eating:
For what we ha’n tu eyt gi’ thanks,
Let’s hope it’s tu yo’r likin’,
If yo’ ha’n teyth then use ’em weel
We want no pickin’ an pikin’
If some o’ yo’ ha’n loyst yo’ore teyth
Then yo’ll ha’tu use yo’r gums,
So get agate, an settle to
An’ tackle ow ’at comes.
(from Harvey Kershaw’s Lancashire Sings Again, 1958)
Or, translated into Standard English:
For what we have to eat give thanks,
Let’s hope it’s to your liking,
If you have teeth, then use them well
We want no picking and poking
If some of you have lost your teeth
Then you’ll have to use your gums,
So get started and stuck in
And tackle all that comes.
So! There you have it. No teeth. A simple answer to a difficult question. Kershaw may appear to be joking, and perhaps he is, but nevertheless the Lancashire grace tells a brittle truth. Those that live in hunger may one day be able to afford food, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have the tools with which to eat it. Those raised in poverty may succeed in dragging themselves out of it tooth and nail, but more likely than not they will still be confronted with prejudice against their appearance, or their accent, or their dialect. But northern dialects, like northern food, are a thing to be celebrated and nurtured. They are the sacred relics of a culture that took what little it had and made something remarkable out of it, something beautiful – or else something delicious.
Si’thi’ (Yorkshire dialect) see you, goodbye [see also: Ta’ra]
Ophira Gottlieb is a writer and bookseller from Glasgow, currently living in West Yorkshire. She has published poetry, short fiction, and creative non-fiction, and is currently working towards her first collection of short stories.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.
Lovely writing. As a Lancashire lass, with family who straddle the border with Yorkshire, I recognised the variety of Graces used by the older people. I suggest that your Eccles cake was a wrong'un however.
Loved this. (Full disclosure: I’m Lancastrian). I use ta’ra all the time (usually followed by luvvie). My relatives in Durham/Northumberland say it too so I think the word must be used across the north of England. The other words I’m not so familiar with. I moved to the south when I was 18, this article brought back memories of trudging along rivers on school hiking trips. It’s beautiful and wild up thurr on the pikes and dales and piers.