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Split: These Northern Types

Features / Publication

Myth-busting: Split’s Oli Bentley on interrogating northern identity through typography

The North looms large in our collective consciousness. Both reductive and somehow not enough, the very phrase connotes and denotes so much that in many ways, the North seems to be less of a place than an idea — a myth, almost.

From broadsheet journalists harrumphing around Harrogate checking the pulse of pre-Brexit Britain to TV commissioners greenlighting yet another “earthy” sitcom set over hill and dale, the myth is fed over and over. The myth says The North is Last of the Summer Wine, pints of bitter, ginnels, biker gangs marauding high above the hills of Halifax, Ted Hughes’ grave, the Blackpool Pleasure Beach, beef dripping, dark satanic mills converted into first flats for young professional couples, Vera Duckworth’s flying ducks, miners’ strikes, Mark E Smith’s Lovecraft-meets-Lowry screeds, Eccles cake, and the crumbled vestigates of an industrial revolution long since consigned to the saccharine machinations of the nostalgia industry.

Oli Bentley, designer, creative director, Northerner, thinks the myth is bollocks.

His latest project, These Northern Types, is an ambitious, expansive, and inventive attempt at wrestling the myth and it all it entails away from popular misconceptions. It consists of 17 small publications, each of which explores a different aspect of what northern identity is, and can be, in the 21st century, and each of which reflects a custom typeface produced for the project.

Oli thinks that the myth of the Northerner is so deeply entrenched in the narrative of the nation because “it has such a long tradition. This idea of Northerners or the North as this ‘other’ world to the rest of England – either a wild, untamed land, or a land of grit and grimy industry has an extensive history," he explains. "It goes back through hundreds of years of literature reinforced through certain types of Northern characters. It continues into film and TV, comedy particularly. A character with a strong Northern accent is often used as a convenient shortcut to various well-established personas – the homely and approachable types, the no-nonsense rough-around-the-edges types. And this extends beyond the media. I read somewhere that the centres of power will always see themselves and portray themselves as the centre of civility; the outlying areas therefore as less civilised. And this is certainly true of the North.”

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Split: These Northern Types

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Split: These Northern Types

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Split: These Northern Types

A few years back now, Oli had the idea of “tying a few typographic pieces around a desire to explore my own local identity a little bit. I’ve always been a proud northerner, but I began questioning what that actually means in our modern, globalised world.” This led him to thinking, in-depth, about the hazy notion of Northern identity. He notes that designers spend their lives working with and on identities, as “trying to refine and polish a visual identity and express the essential essence of a brand,” is the name of the game. "But this was almost like approaching things in reverse, which was incredibly liberating.

With “no desire to tie things in a neat bow,” Oli decided to think big. Literally, really big, in a few instances. A trip to Blackpool’s Rock Candy Kingdom saw the team instigate the production of a 7ft stick of the holiday favourite — so oversized that it had to be sawn in two to fit in the car for the journey M62 back to Leeds — with “I Heart Nowhere” running through its stiff-but-sticky core. The creation of this oversized statement of intent is documented in one of the project’s immaculate accompanying booklets, presented alongside a heartfelt paean to the seductive and safe sensation of looking back on a youth spent in a town where ghost houses and shabby piers are focal points.

There seems to be no limit to Split’s ambition, as proved by their determination to work with local engineers, JKN Oiltools, on what they think might be one of, if not the, largest letterpress printing press in the world.

“We were going to get our type laser cut from steel and then use a grass roller to make rudimentary prints. But Ian, our incredible engineer, just got really excited by the project,” Oli tells us. “So we now have this mad-sized printing press (the roller alone weighs about 170kg), with our typeface, Graft, cut in solid steel at 60 lines high (720pt), alongside a set of feature roman numerals that come in at 3840pt (and weigh a bloody tonne!) and we’re currently working to get the studio set up to work with community groups across the north. We’ve done some mad projects in our time, but this is up there as one of the maddest for sure.”

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Split: These Northern Types

The publications housed in These Northern Types range from Daniel Chapman’s (editor of Leeds United fanzine The Square Ball) Let ’em Have It, a gloriously disorientating social history seen through the lens of English football, to musician Nestor Matthews’ examination of the link between Alan Sillitoe and Roberto Bolano, via celebrated author Benjamin Myers’ Beautiful Wild Noises: A Memoir Through Music and the politically charged, globally minded epilogue provided by doctoral researchers Mike Reeve and Andrew McTominey, both of whom work for the Northern Identities Research Network.

These texts are as expansive in scope — and also in graphic execution — as you’d expect for a project which slyly pokes fun at the idea that 14.9 million individuals can be subsumed under one sociolinguistic tent. Northern identity, as Oli puts it, “can often be portrayed in a two dimensional way,” he points out. “In many contexts, ‘Northern’ equates to being white, working class, and male.”

For him, the modern myth of the North is one stuck in the dark days of Thatcher’s reign of terror. While Oli agrees that the wide-scale dismantling of industry during the 1980s remains so central to the Northern imagination because “so much of our identity has been wrapped up for so long in what our places make,” he feels that we all have to collectively accept the fact that that time has passed. The thing is, “we know the places have moved on, but they seem increasingly more like any other place. So we hang on to the past.”

He believes the project can also be understood as an acknowledgement that our identities are made from the narratives we tell about our places. “So in this gap between the reality we live in, and the myths of the North we still cling to, is a real opportunity to redefine our stories in a positive, inclusive way. And that’s quite exciting, and it feels like things are moving in that direction a little bit in some way. But at the same time, there is also a risk they are redefined for us, by those that want to exploit our attachment of place to their own ends. A gap in the market to be politically exploited – The global surge of nostalgic nationalism showing this is by no means a risk limited to the North of England.”

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Split: These Northern Types

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Split: These Northern Types

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Split: These Northern Types

Identity feels more crucial than ever, and in a nation still obsessed with class, and class distinction, These Northern Types feels like an important sociological project. “Identity politics continues to be incredibly important in working to advance the rights of marginalised groups in society,” Oli tells us. “And, at the same time, any labels that cover a large group are dehumanising. We fear each other based on these abstract labels, rarely interacting with, or coming to understand the individuals behind them. And I think all of us on all sides of the isle do it.”

In presenting the North for what it really is, or really could be, rather than what we’re told it is, it shows there’s more to this vast and multi-faceted tract of land than chips, gravy, and curry sauce. The North gave us the Hacienda and Henry Moore, and hours of Morecambe and Wise. Oh, and chips, gravy, and curry sauce, too.

No one project can ever adequately summarise the state of a nation, but These Northern Types is as good an attempt as you’ll see all year.

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Split: These Northern Types