When the young man that much of the UK now knows simply as Mushy stood up to make a leaving speech to his schoolmates, it was not only a personal triumph but also a revealing illustration of the power of storytelling about a place.
The teenager joined the ranks of those in popular culture who need only one name (think Madonna, Prince, Beckham, Jordan) for overcoming a stammer in the television series Educating Yorkshire.
It was an explosive television moment, almost* universally received in the mainstream media as being borne out of a warm, constructive and supportive school environment.
And it presented the local community, with the school at its heart, as a positive, even inspirational, place to be. Dewsbury, a place of aspiration.
The Guardian reported that the wave of interest in Thornhill Academy that the TV series prompted, led to three times as many families attending open days, with some parents wanting to transfer their children immediately.
Even those of you reading this who’ve no knowledge of Yorkshire’s geography, might think that Dewsbury sounds somehow familiar. Not sure why you’ve heard of it before?
That could be because it has a council estate labelled “like Beirut – only worse” by The Sun not so many years ago.
“The Dewsbury Moor estate in West Yorkshire is a real-life version of the smash hit Channel 4 show Shameless . . . but local families refuse to admit it.”
Even at that point in time, the rather less remarkable truth of the situation was a fairly ordinary place – something that the ‘conflict tourists’ which The Guardian’s Martin Wainwright came across rubber-necking the place found disappointing.
He found local residents keeping tidy front gardens and telling of “a good place to live” where there was a waiting list for the council houses but, of course, that small voice in the face of so much attention to things more lurid resonated with a far smaller number of people than the red top version.
What the telling of Mushy’s story has done is help change that perception of the place from hopeless to inspirational for many more people.
In other parts of the country the extreme headlines at both ends of this particular experience maybe hard to find, but many of those creating community websites and blogs can relate similar experiences and reasons for telling their often positive stories.
Some start out precisely because of frustrations about the way an area is perceived – think Digbeth is Good, started by former TalkAboutLocal’s Nicky Getgood or Drimnagh is Good run by Pauling Sargent over in Ireland.
Both set out with the aim of presenting their neighbourhoods in a positive light, somewhere with vibrancy and complexity. They talk up the areas, it says so right up there in the title.
In these times when the relevance of printed formats is dwindling, they also smartly recognised that the material returned on the first page of any online searches for an area is important in how the place is seen.
For some, the power of those positive stories is the start of a process which brings about community action. The founder of York’s One and Other website and magazine, Stuart Goulden launched with a mission to “re-inject the relevance, intelligence, charm, beauty and purpose” back into local media a few years ago.
“At One & Other, we have always believed that local media has the potential and responsibility to act as a catalyst for positive change in local communities” he said at the time.
This positioning sometimes causes raised eyebrows within the professional journalism sphere, the argument being that newspapers/websites have a responsibility to present what’s really there, what’s actually going on. The aim being an ‘objective’ view.
Whether that objectivity actually happens, or even if it can happen, is a subject of much philosophical debate. But in your daily experience, is there equal attention given to the positive as the negative? Do you hear as much about your local Mushy as your local thug? And how would taking a more positive approach look in your locality?
Those are the sort of questions which strike me about our current work across Teesside. It’s an area that’s had a long time putting up with negative views – from the recent sweeping ‘desolate‘ slur, having Middlesbrough described as the ‘worst place in the UK to live‘, back to the so-called ‘walk in the wilderness‘ and earlier in history.
It’s a subject author Will Nett touches on in his book My Only Boro. In reading this extract he tells of the area’s “curious literary heritage, and for that, read unflattering.”
He’s now busy researching more of the unexpected Teesside stories such as the privately purchased blue plaque which a local resident felt so moved to acquire in order that future generations will recognise a house where George Orwell did some of his writings.
Trying to find more of those inspirational stories and giving them visibility is a thread running through the workshops we’re currently hosting with the Culturevultures blog and it already seems there’s no shortage of artists and generally curious, interested and creative people in the Teesside area with stories. If you’re one of them, we’d love to hear from you.
* The Daily Mail couldn’t quite bring itself to praise the school and instead criticised the teaching.