Cooking up an identity crisis

In March I had the privilege of standing next to the statue of Captain James Cook that faces the inlet named in his honour in the Alaskan city of Anchorage.

Two hundred years before Alaska became the USA’s biggest oil producer, Captain Cook charted much of the state’s southern coast. There are places named after him all over what is comfortably the largest (and emptiest) state in the US. The plaque on the statue in Anchorage says that Cook was a Yorkshireman.

Of course if they’d been strictly accurate the Americans who made the plaque would have replaced it with one in 1972 that said Cook was born in Teesside.

Then another in 1974 that said he was from Cleveland and, perhaps, more recently a fourth that said he hailed from the Tees Valley. Life, you may conclude, was simpler in the 18th Century.

To my mind, the confusion over the name of the region doesn’t benefit the area and the constant chopping and changing seems to leave people from other parts of the country vaguely baffled as to where we are in the world. (The map on display in Anchorage’s swanky Captain Cook Hotel actually has Whitby located in East Anglia, but that’s another story).

Recently the kerfuffle over what most of us still think of as Teesside Airport, but which we should really be calling Durham Tees Valley Airport, and the apparent determination of some people in Yarm to break away and join North Yorkshire has brought the whole thing into focus again.

A distinctly snooty Geordie I met recently said he understood Yarm’s point of view because “It’s a rather lovely place, after all”. Well, so is the city of Durham, but it doesn’t announce its intention to slink away from Easington and Ferryhill and cosy up to bonny Cumbria instead, does it?

Fans of Middlesbrough are often taunted by those from Sheffield, Leeds, Barnsley and the like with chants of “Yorkshire rejects! Yorkshire rejects!”. This is probably the only time the Local Government Act of 1972 has given birth to an insult. Some people from Teesside – the late, great Brian Clough, for example – feel passionate about being part of Yorkshire, while others reject the idea of being lumped in with “that Geoffrey Boycott lot”.

When it comes to Yarm, there is a precedent for secession. I was born and brought up in Great Ayton, which was originally in the new county of Cleveland. However, the villagers rose up in protest. We all signed a petition and one Sunday afternoon drove down the A19 in a long convoy of cars to post it through the letterbox at County Hall in Northallerton. The decision was reversed and the boundary moved a mile or so north. Great Ayton remained in North Yorkshire, though Newton-under-Roseberry, where many of my schoolmates lived, didn’t.

Rebranding a product – whether it’s a sandwich or a region – is a tricky business, as likely to end up alienating the loyal core as it is to attract new interest. If it’s handled badly you end up with something muddled that means nothing to anyone.

Renaming can work, of course. It’s hard to imagine Brad’s Drink would have become a global brand, or Backrub, Pete’s Super Submarines or Research in Motion either, but as Pepsi Cola, Google, Subway and Blackberry they have conquered to world.

Teesside has had enough name changes and rebrands over the past 40 years, but if anyone ever thinks it’s time for another one, then I have a suggestion.

We should build on our association with a massively respected figure with global reach and a positive image everywhere from the UK to Tonga via the Falkland Islands and the USA.

There’s no doubt we could do a lot worse than becoming Cook County.


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