Book review: Northerners by Sefton Samuels

Cloth caps, cobbled streets, meat pies and endless rain...

Is it true that life is ‘grim up north’ or is it just an image dreamt up by our cousins in the south?

Undoubtedly, there are vestiges of truth in those old stereotypes but, as a fascinating new book featuring 40 years of iconic photography by Manchester’s Sefton Samuels proves, the north is also a region rich in diversity, humour and culture.

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Being northern is to be tough, determined, down to earth, resourceful, contrary and, above all, proud, the character traits which illuminate the 219 pages of Samuels’ entertaining and nostalgic journey down the years.

Samuels left Manchester Grammar School at 16, trained in textiles and went to work in mills around Yorkshire... but a camera was never far from his hand.

In 1960, he won an amateur photographer of the year competition in Manchester and headed back to his native city just as it was starting to swing.

It was during the Sixties on the gritty streets of Manchester that he developed his trademark style of poignant photojournalism edged with a black northern humour and became a major supplier of photos for national newspapers and television.

Once described as ‘the photographic equivalent of Ken Loach,’ Samuels snapped legendary northern figures from Alan Bennett and LS Lowry to George Best and Sir Ben Kingsley, but most famously and vividly he captured the realities of everyday life across the north.

From Strangeways Prison and the set of Coronation Street to a clog maker at work and a smiling Miss Tarmac 1985, 80-year-old Samuels encapsulates our northern spirit through the lens of his trusty camera.

There are pictures of annual church parades, once a popular event in many northern towns and cities, a woman up to her eyes in pig’s blood and fat as she makes black puddings, a group of hardy miners at the now closed Bold Colliery at St Helens and greyhounds under starter’s orders at White City in Manchester.

The rich and the famous also make brief appearances ... horse riders preparing for the 1,000-year-old Holcombe Hunt, LS Lowry resting his feet on the hearth at his Salford home, Oswald Mosley with his ‘heavies’ in Manchester in 1956 and Winston Churchill on the election trail in Colne in 1951.

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There is also a rare photograph of the uncompromising Wigan artist Theodore Major who died in 1999, refused to sell his paintings (particularly to ‘the rich’) and instead stored them all in the house next door.

Football, that other northern ‘religion,’ is also a recurring theme whether it’s Everton’s 1977/8 team, former Manchester United manager Matt Busby at work in his Old Trafford office in 1968 or a relaxed young George Best signing autographs outside his Manchester clothes shop.

Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé orchestra, controversial comedian Bernard Manning at his Embassy Club in Manchester, Billy Graham preaching in the old Maine Road stadium and the aftermath of the

1981 Toxteth riots all feature in Samuels’ social documentary.

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They say every picture tells a story and this newly published collection of ‘reflexive split-second moments’ is truly packed with grit, drama, pathos and humour – the very essence of the north.

(Ebury, paperback, £12.99)