Sunday, March 04, 2012

The strange homosociability of Geordies



Visiting Newcastle at the weekend. I am not a Geordie, although grew up about 30 miles away from Newcastle and the city was my only taste of "urban sophistication" for many years. I am able to bore companions by saying things like "This used to be a Bainbridges/Dillons in the 80s..."

As someone who has lived away from the area though for 20 years, I always return in "ethnographer" mode. A big van had set up shop in the town centre yesterday, as filming for the BBC3 series Snog, Marry, Avoid was taking place. This rather cruel show takes people (usually young women, but sometimes gay men) who wear too much make-up and attempts to give them a "make-under". We get to laugh at them, and they get to be on tv, so theoretically everyone wins.

As we were walking past, a female researcher who had a Standard English accent rushed up to a young girl who was pushing a pram and said "Excuse me, we're filming for Snog, Marry, Avoid and looking for trendy young mums to take part..." I didn't hear how the "trendy young mum" replied, but I suspect she had been chosen because she was one of the over-made up horrors that the program likes to mock.

Despite having grown up there, the north-east of England often feels like another country to me. It is geographically, economically, culturally and socially isolated from the rest of the UK, and as a result has a very strong dialect/accent, along with values that I sometimes find remarkable. Despite it being a cold March day, many of the people I saw over the weekend were not wearing coats, and I felt looked-down-upon for my light jacket (which still left me feeling cold). There is a frankness about Newcastle that can be both disarming and annoying (my parents have it, which about once year leads to unnecessary misunderstandings and hurt feelings). I find it most apparent among women, who, when they are attracted to a man, simply stare at him in a way which I've only directly experienced in cities that have large gay male populations. To be sized up and down and given a cruisy, interested stare that makes you look away and blush by young women, some of them whom I suspect I'm old enough to be their Dad, was both flattering and disturbing. To complain about it not being "ladylike" behaviour would be sexist - and despite the fact that Geordie culture is very gendered in their own ways, there are also aspects of it that are could be seen as empowering for women.

The homosocial aspect of Geordie culture is another thing that I am always struck by. We ate at "Ask" (a respectable mid-market Italian chain restaurant), and were the only same-sex couple in the place. Every other table either contained a male-female couple or a large same-sex group whose behaviour sometimes bordered on what was socially acceptable in terms of rowdiness.

It's very common to see groups of 10-15 men or 10-15 women walking around Newcastle (especially the Bigg Market area), all dressed identically (but no coats). Encountering these groups can be a bit intimidating, and I suspect that it is this "safety in numbers" aspect, like a flock of birds or a shoal of fish, that is one of the motivations for them. I also suspect it might be partially to do with traditions based around working-men's clubs, which have lingered longer in the north-east than other places. And it is also likely to be a function of the Geordie obsession with football - with many of the large male groups on their way to or from the stadium. Stag and hen parties also play a large role (people are big on fancy dress, especially if it is sexually revealing or involves cross-dressing, and the only place where I've seen a similar sexual split is in Blackpool.

The same-sex groupings also help to remove any threat of sexual rivalry or jealously, and I suspect that they enable simple hiearchies to be formed, based around who is the "best" at being a man or a woman. At the restaurant, on a nearby table, it was a single very loud (alpha) male who contributed to 95% of the conversation, with the others simply letting him talk. After they had paid, they got one of the waitresses to take their photograph, and they posed together at the front of the restaurant, with their arms around each other. While I doubt that any of these men were gay, and they'd probably be horrified (to the point of reacting violently) if it was ever suggested, I would bet that the most important relationships in their lives are with other men.

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