rag and bone men

Book review: Northerners


It’s easy to stereotype the north of England into men in flat caps, women with their hair in curlers – just like Hilda Ogden – pints of bitter, pies, and incessant rain. But it’s a whole lot more than that, and this is something that Sefton Samuels has been capturing through his lens for over forty years. In his Northerners: Portrait of a no-nonsense people he takes you well beyond the cliches, showing you humour, poverty, graft, and talent.

You get to look at ordinary people doing ordinary things: kids making their own fun as they jump from stairwells onto piles of mattresses; street-sweepers, cobblers, and even rag-and-bone men going about their business; bingo halls on a Friday night; football terraces on a Saturday afternoon; and even a day at Chester races.

But there are also portraits of people who would have brought colour and excitement to their lives, too. There’s a chisel-jawed George Best, Morrissey showing his best side, a resplendent Daniel Barenboim conducting the Halle, and a contemplative Harold Wilson smoking his pipe.

Samuels has been called the photographic equivelent of Ken Loach. And whilst maybe that’s true, there’s something of L.S. Lowry about his work, too. It’s simple, it captures the moment, and it’s unmistakeably northern. Whatever this ‘northern’ thing is meant to mean, Samuels has it going on in his pictures, just as Lowry had it in his paintings. So perhaps it’s incredibly fitting that Lowry described Samuels as his favourite photographer.

Samuels’ photographs show you a life that was in many ways slow to change, but when change did come, it was swift and brutal: riots in Moss Side and Toxteth in 1981; the miners’ strike of the early 80s; and the aftermath of the Manchester city centre bombing in 1996.

My favourite images probably come from the Deep Trouble series, which depict the pitmen of Bold Colliery, St Helens. The pictures illuminated only by the miners’ lamps convey perfectly the dark claustrophobia of working deep underground, peril constantly on their shoulders. Whilst they’re very beautiful pictures, there’s also something very matter-of-fact about them, too. No-nonsense, I suppose.

Yes, this is a portrait of Northerners, told with honesty and with love. Love even for Everton, Moss Side, and Toxteth. Samuels is, after all, himself from the North. Looking through it, you get a feeling for these people, for what makes them tick, for their environment, for their lives. But I think that I’ll give the final word to my dad, though, as he’s one of these fabled northerners – Manchester born and bred – so he knows what he’s looking at here: ‘Yes. That’ll do it.’

Northerners: Portrait of a no-nonsense people, by Sefton Samuels. Published by the Ebury Press and available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.