An Ex-Pat On Culture And Difference In Northern England

As human beings we are more alike than we possibly imagine, and more diverse than we could ever recognise
Nicci Attfield
February 11, 2024

In 2009, I watched Leora Farber’s fine art presentation, which showed Bertha Marks, wife of mining magnate Sammy Marks, sew the the roses from her British homeland into her arms in a gesture of longing. Later, settling into her new home and life in South Africa, she would later replace these roses with aloes. It reminded me of watching my mother try to sew her own version of an English garden into the red Johannesburg soil after we emigrated from Middlesbrough in 1982.

At the time, I had no interest in gardens or what they might mean. Our home in Longlands, Middlesbrough had a small garden with a swing, a bomb shelter, and a dog, but we’d spent more time in Albert Park, feeding the ducks, gobbling down ice cream, and watching rowing boats on the lake. I’d enjoyed the space to run, the playground equipment, and the friends I had. I wasn't interested in making a space ‘my own’ because it already felt that way. Besides, I liked the presence of other people.

My home in England hadn't felt limited to the house or garden I lived in, but I missed it anyway. My friends and I would walk to school, to a sweet shop called Burtons, which sold chocolate mice, or to Sunday school. The houses were smaller and had an upstairs and a downstairs. If we were inside, my brother and I would watch people working on the flats over the road from us, which were abandoned but being rebuilt, or we would look for Glen, my dad's friend Gary’s son, who would sometimes use the red phone box.

A 1970s wedding in Middlesbrough UK
Auntie Bonnie and Uncle Paul’s wedding - With Nicci As The Smallest Bridesmaid

South Africa was different. In my home in Johannesburg, people played in suburban gardens that were filled with plants. Some people had swimming pools, and we would later have one. But we didn't walk to the shops or to school. Our school was eight kilometers away, and the route was unfamiliar. Shops weren't close, and there were massive dogs who would bark loudly behind huge metal gates, intimidating anyone who walked past. Life depended on cars and, where we lived, public transport was limited.

The school kids were kind, and one in particular was very curious and willing to take the time to work out my incomprehensible northern accent to listen to fascinating words or phrases not heard before. ‘Feeling poorly?’ What could that possibly mean? And robots were called traffic lights in the UK? Really? And road signs? Oh, they were just road signs too? How deathly dull!

I wanted to fit in, and as a younger child, this meant learning new words and trying to let go of my accent, something my new school was eager to assist with, and I soon went to speech therapy with a couple of other recent immigrants. My parents wanted to keep northern culture alive and did so, in part, by renting TV programs from the time, making toad-in-the-hole, and planting an English country garden.

In many ways, Joburg brought different freedoms: freedom from socks and shoes, from coats, from cold rainy days (it rains in the summer in Johannesburg), and from my dad’s unemployment and the sadness that came with it. But we weren't free to walk around with friends. We spend time in the garden. So as my hair turned blonde and my accent changed, I became a child who enjoyed sitting under the trees, swimming, or planting cacti under the syringa trees while my mom planted paving stones and small flowers.

My dad, whose family was still in Middlesbrough and Guisbrough, missed the North. He missed Mark Paige on Radio Tees and Jimmy Savile on Top of the Pops (if only he’d known). He mourned our lost accents but he began to adjust too. He started playing golf. His friends at Ormsby Hall cricket club were slowly replaced by golfing mates. He started to thrive at work and gradually shaped a new community.

At first, my life was about fitting in and adapting but later, while watching British television with my dad,  I’d notice the  elements of culture my parents had tried to keep alive. Intangible things like the toad-in-the-hole Dave Cregan had in his fridge in Touching Evil or the visits or conversations about football mentioned in Cracker. My dad picked up on them. He spoke about taking his niece, Isobel, to her first football match. He’d watch the Royal family on television and tell me that I once saw the Queen and that she was wearing a peach dress. He’d tell us about the men who worked in the steel works, including my granddad Brearley. When he went home to see his family, he would bring English sweets as presents. Pink Rock, Polos, and Opal Fruits for my brother and me, and Mars Bars for my mom.

South Arican children in the 1980s, playing football in their garden
Nicci and brother Craig, after winning an imagined football game in their Joburg garden

But food and television were my parents version of the North, the one that they loved. For me, living in the North was about family: my Uncle George pretending he could turn his windscreen wipers on by flicking his hands in front of the screen: my Uncle Ray tired and wet after walking with us through the avenue of trees: my Auntie Netty taking us to the disco at Flamingo Park and eating Walkers crisps while visiting the farm animals. It's Christmas around the fire and fish and chips on Redcar Beach. It's those spaces I walked in with family and friends, and the freedom I had as a child to do so.

While I can still remember the accents, the lights, the walks, and the taste of candy floss on Redcar beach, the summer before I left - my stories are about connection to two different spaces, both of which I love. We all have our own cities and our own paths between them. My version of the North is different from that of my parents and theirs from each other. We might live in an increasingly globalised world, where our shared humanity becomes increasingly apparent, but we negotiate it according to both culture and the paths we forge or forget. What connects me to both places are memories still astonishingly vivid - and more emotional than any constructed narrative could define. Just as Bertha Marks sewed her memories into her body, we weave ours into culture, transforming it as it transforms us. As human beings we are more alike than we possibly imagine, and more diverse than we could ever recognise.