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Resurgence in the North is down to true grittiness

January 27, 2014

Growing up, I didn’t feel particularly northern. I didn’t have any geographic or social points of reference to benchmark, but I’m glad I am northern. My dad didn’t keep two greyhounds and race them and my mum didn’t polish the front step every day, but I did grow up with a coal bunker at the back of the house and teenage years in pubs with chunky beer glasses with a handle. I miss that – the beer glasses with handles, not the coal bunker.

I was 17 before I caught sight of Euston Station. It’s true, though I had no need of London then and I guess it had no need of me. However, I do believe there is such a thing as a northern sensibility and it’s nothing to do with chips & gravy nor Coronation Street. It’s nigh on impossible to describe it, but I know it when I see it and I feel it myself in my marrow. It’s a grittiness that I don’t think has a Southern equivalent.

The south seems to be a place of judgement and self-glorifying. The north has a dictionary and thesaurus of its own and its words are for everyone.  As Paul Morley describes the north: warmth, decency, truth and proper beer, with a side order of menace, whilst T S Eliot noted Lancashire wit is mordant, ferocious, and personal.

When you’re northern, you’re northern forever, and you’re instilled with a certain feel for life that you can’t get rid of. You really can’t. Blinded by such glamour as Bet Lynch in Coronation Street, most southerners swallow the stereotype, but there is humour, humility and honesty in the north that is characterised by the goings-on in The Rovers Return. Truth is, the crux of the problem is that as northerners we have much more common sense and an innate ability to appreciate and understand the value of everything.

It is the sense of sensual attachment and shared purpose of traditional community life that makes the north a pleasant place to be. Let me not become too misty-eyed, but there are places in which Cub Scout packs, libraries, amateur dramatics, brass bands and allotment societies still thrive. There is still much about northern life that would make Orwell puff on his pipe and smile.

Of course, there are also town centres that have become desolate denizens of payday lenders, discount stores and kebab shops, and employment opportunities are desperate for many despite what The Bullingdon Boys would have you believe.  However, the north scores highly for self-employment hot spots, an indication that people are willing to strive for prosperity under their own efforts, even if that’s a matter of necessity after paid employment has been lost.

It boasts progressive clusters of new businesses – take the town of Burnley, which I’m especially fond of, because it happens to be my spiritual home around post code BB10 4BX (Turf Moor – Ordnance Survey reference SD836326 – I know my team). It’s a tough old place but is starting to throw off the long shadow of Thatcher, being voted the UK’s most enterprising and entrepreneurial UK town in 2013, and today the north is seeing some of the fastest business growth in the UK – it’s alive and kicking.

With jubilant jeers from the Government benches and bold growth forecasts, the innate fire-in-the-belly entrepreneurial spirit that made northern cities great from the Victorian Era onwards has resurfaced with renewed vigour and confidence in the region. In the lexicon of media clichés, the north is always grim – and news to the contrary always seems to come as a surprise to our friends in the South.

We had a recent upbeat check of the northern pulse by Ian Powell, UK Chairman of PWC, reporting double-digit growth in his firm’s activities out of Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, while a Lloyds Bank survey reported high levels of private sector activity and job creation in the North East. All this confirms a resurgence of northern get-up-and-go.

Of course recovery is relative, and if the north is making a comeback it’s doing from a long-way back as a result of deep-rooted decline. Let’s accept that there is and will always be a North-South divide – an over-used and abused throwaway phrase – because the leverage of wealth towards the global-status of London is an irresistible force, but the northern enterprise culture never died, it just went into hibernation.

But what is missing is a recognition of the innate entrepreneurial and mercantile spirit that made the great northern cities in the first place, and that from my perspective living on the edge of the Pennines, quality of life and purpose derives from people, landscape and culture, rather than weight of money.

Take Manchester. Manchester’s urbanisation was brought on by a boom in textile engineering, manufacture and trade creating the Industrial Revolution, resulting in it becoming the world’s first industrialised city as centre of the global cotton industry. Manchester was, and continues to be, the home of great free-traders and free-thinkers.  It’s kept its stunning C19th architectural heritage but reinvented itself as a science and education city, rich in hi-tech start-ups, with a clubbing scene second to none – or the Hallé Orchestra, if that gets your toes tapping more.

Manchester was the site of the world’s first railway station, the place where scientists first split the atom, and the home of the first stored-programme computer.  Decline has been reversed with investment in the last two decades, spurred by the IRA’s 1996 bombing – which was the largest bomb ever detonated in peacetime Britain – and the 2002 Commonwealth Games spearheading extensive regeneration.

Today Manchester is ranked as a beta world city by the Globalisation and World Cities Research Network. The only people who seem to dislike being there are the avant-garde Media City BBC folk relocated from Notting Hill, who can’t hide a sneer at northern non-sophistication. I’m about to ditch Radio 5 Live in I hear the weather…its…Northern on air once more. Remember, Paul Heaton said it was London 0 Hull 4 back in 1985…

Start-ups are springing up, SMEs hiring apprentices, creating jobs, ambitious for themselves. The elements of northern revival are based on long‑term deep-rooted social cohesion, the ethos of the co-operative movement and personal resilience and sheer labour – more so, arguably, than the transient property fuelled-froth of the south-east economy, with its reliance on foreign cash and an over-sized financial services sector.

Of course there’s a rich layer of irony and blatant contradictions in these claims and we have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. With a new vigour and positive spirit beginning to shine through in the economic indicators, in terms of potential, it’s the northerners who are on the right side of the north-south divide.

So what is it about the north that has seen it pull itself up by its bootstraps, dust itself down, grab itself by the scruff of the neck and see folks set up their own businesses?

Starting and running your own business is like a race. You learn how others do it, practice continually, keep in shape and show guts to keep going and try to stay ahead of the pack if you want to win. You put blood, sweat and tears into it, but there are no guarantees and you can’t always be the winner.

Can you overcome setbacks, or do you get easily discouraged? Are you confident, or do you smell of insecurity? You can’t be thin skinned or faint hearted when you run your own show. You’ve got to have vision, stamina, creative thinking and, most of all, grit and resilience. Even when your friends and family think you’re nuts, there are fundamentals of being a self-starter that I’ve seen from the thriving start-up businesses and communities in the north:

  • They have a vision and a passion of what the future could be like for them and their businesses. Their enthusiasm attracts people to their ideas.
  • They don’t mess around, dilly-dally or procrastinate. They make decisions swiftly. Their swiftness provides a key factor in their success.
  • They are action-oriented, they are doers. They get things done and love to turn their ideas into reality as quickly as possible.
  • They implement their ventures with total commitment. They seldom give up, even when confronted by obstacles that seem insurmountable.
  • They are totally dedicated to their business. They work tirelessly.
  • They love what they do. It is that devotion that sustains them when the going gets tough – it is also the love of their product or service that makes them so effective at selling it.
  • They have self-belief, they want to be in charge of their own destiny rather than depend on an employer.
  • They want to make a difference. Getting rich is not the prime motivator. They assume that if they succeed they will be rewarded.
  • They understand what it takes to succeed and often have a high physical stamina to carry them through their lives and work. They have grit.

Grit trumps everything else. And it’s not just a north of England thing, research shows that it is one of the defining characteristics of successful start-up entrepreneurs. Psychologist Angela Duckworth undertaking research at The Duckworth Lab at Penn State University, defines psychological grit as perseverance and passion for long term goals. Check out her TED talk here:

Duckworth’s research focuses on two traits that predict success in life: grit and self-control. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. On average, individuals who are gritty are more self-controlled, stay with their focus, and succeed. Here’s the link to her web site:

She’s formulated a survey to determine your level of grittiness, see how you score: My ranking was 4.25, 85% on the True Grit dashboard. Not bad!

Grit has emerged as a significant indicator for success – even more than IQ, talent, and social intelligence. It’s the part of you that simply will not give up on your ideal future and works to figure out a path to get there. Many people lack this grit because they see life as a series of circumstances that happen to them rather than an ideal future that they can create. Actor Will Smith talks a little differently about grit:

The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things – you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

Start-ups see people jumping off the cliff with no parachute, with no promise of a parachute – someone might rip your parachute off you at some point in the future anyway! You need grit and mental toughness to manage your mind-set and emotions whilst you aim for that landing spot for your business.

Grit gives you the sheer will-power and determination to keep going day after day, when the going gets tough. Sometimes it’s difficult to see progress, how can you keep your eyes on the prize and yet your head down during the inevitable slog period of anything worthwhile?  You fall down seven times, but have to get up eight.

The recession we seem to be emerging from was Britain’s worst in 100 years. Over 7% of our economy was obliterated leaving the worst youth unemployment and smashing graduate ambitions for a generation. The north was pushed to the brink. But grit and the human spirit is at the heart of everything I believe in, and we’re seeing an entrepreneurial vibrancy return. If you would create something, you must be something, it’s down to your tenacity, drive and perseverance. Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness, and imagine this: the north fully restored. That’s True Grit.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 30, 2014 8:57 pm

    From a fellow gritty (90%) Northerner that was a great Blog Ian.

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