Northern grit in printed form: Oli Bentley’s ‘These Northern Types’

What does it mean to be from the north – or any place – in a globalised world? Where the’s muck, is the’ still brass? Do we tolerate less bullshit than others? Has the St George’s Cross become a symbol of racism? Is making do and mending consigned to the history books? Where’s the line between being proud of where we’re from and making others feel excluded? What are we forgetting? Who’s using our fondness for the north to their own ends? Do you want gravy on your chips? Or curry sauce?

Introducing the People Powered Press from Split Design on Vimeo.

These Northern Types is Oli Bentley’s creation. This powerhouse of a project started with Bentley’s intention of exploring ‘northernness’ through posing questions and initiating a vibrant discourse around the shared community and identity of the north of England.

Along with the analysis of what it means to truly emulate everything that the north is, a super-scale letterpress printing press came into realisation forming the centrepiece of the project. The conceptual ‘People Powered Press’ was temporarily homed in Leeds Industrial Museum, before making its way to the These Northern Types launch and exhibition at Colours May Vary in Leeds.

Bentley, the creative director of Leeds-based design studio Split, along with a group of opinionated writers, makers, printers, metal workers, engineers, sociologists, poets and musicians, have presented a series of books which make up These Northern Types. The series features custom-designed Northern inspired typefaces, with each exploring what it means to be northern in a globalised world, served up as a set of individual guides around a multitude of talking points.

The series covers many aspects which can’t be ignored when considering what Northern identity actually is, as well as what it isn’t, beyond the expected stereotypes and assumptions about the North and the people who live there. As Bentley says, “Any notion of a clearly defined ‘essential’ identity that encompasses 14.9 million people doesn’t quite cut it.” And this is clearly explored through the project, which takes on some of the myths associated with the region, and busts them one by one.

Through a set of seventeen truly beautifully designed, easily digestible segments, These Northern Types is a book series which creates a journey around perceptions of the North, taking into account the wider scope of what it means to be from any place in a globalised world. By exploring visual identity, geographical divisions, cultural stereotypes and what it means to have a sense of belonging, questions are posed and conversations are initiated. Through written and visual means, the books bring conceptual artworks and creative translations together with thought-provoking written pieces, which make it pretty impossible not to become obsessed with what the North is about. It isn’t hard to find someone with an opinion of the North and its people, and These Northern Types is a perfectly formed response.

Bentley discusses how These Northern Types is not an attempt to define Northern identity – who are we to tell people who they are? – nor is it a branding exercise for the north (well, except for the bit that is). It is an attempt to ask a few of the right questions and see where that leads, beyond the assumptions, the stereotypes and the outdated myth.

Each of the seventeen segments is dedicated to a theme linked to identity and globalised representation of the North of England, with refreshingly real language which celebrates honest dialects and opinions of those involved, helping to paint a picture of the trajectory of the books. The combination of academia, literary merit, real-life experience and creative responses make the series an important part of visual culture today. An appreciation for the North’s evolution from mills and factories to nightclubs and trendy office blocks is shown, while adding layers of theoretical complexity to provoke a discourse system worth shouting about.

As expected, words and phrases including “humble”, “hardworking”, and “confident but not imposing” are used, but are quickly put into an unignorably significant context, echoing the project’s intentions of amplifying local voices, exploring local issues and telling local stories. Writer, editor and lecturer Suzy Prince discusses the accent, dialect and the stereotype of the Northern Woman, while writer and musician Nestor Matthews walks us through “northernness” and his experiences of an abject resistance to regionalism. Boff Whalley of Chumbawamba fame punchily executes his thoughts on “Northern Grit”, with the help of Joe Duffield’s chimney sweep charcoal ink screenprints.

These Northern Types is a beautifully presented and important project, and each of the seventeen segments are a combination of written thought, visual depiction, conceptual realisation and topics for conversation. If you’re Northern, you have to read it. If you’re not, you need it even more.

You can buy ‘These Northern Types’ here