'A visitor arrives in Bradford. Wanting a local paper ee sez to t’lad, ‘I can’t remember the one I enjoyed last time. But I know it started with a T.’ “‘Tha’daft b***er,’ sez t’lad. ‘They all do. There’s t’Telegraph, t’Argus and t’Observer...’”
The Yorkshire dialect rolls off Austin Mitchell’s tongue with ease. The Baildon-born journalist, who worked for Yorkshire Television’s Calendar before becoming Labour MP for Grimsby in 1977, has compiled a selection of jokes and sayings that shaped Yorkshire’s past and present. The result is his Grand Book Of Yorkshire Humour.
Austin describes the jokes as organic. They’re born out of “Yorkshire’s native heath and hill, mine and mill, evolved not made, not from over-paid scriptwriters.”
“Our jokes were passed down orally,” says Austin. “Just as you followed your father into the mill or down the pit, you took on his jokes. Nowadays people drift from North to South, we’re losing our young population. Our dialect is dying out.”
Behind the humour lie serious issues, of threatened identity and heritage, which led Austin to preserve Yorkshire’s jokes and sayings in writing.
“Our humour came from our industry, our hard slog,” he says. “Town centres were ringed by back-to-back terraces, with real communities. Life centred around the miners’ welfares, pubs, chapel. That way of life is dying. Now the focus is on telly, which comes from London.
“Yorkshire is less fashionable than it used to be. Its contribution to TV is diminishing, especially since the closing of the studios on Kirkstall Road.”
Much of Austin’s research came from his Yorkshire Television days. “I picked up sayings from people I met. A couple came from William Haigh.”
While Liverpudlians and Lancastrians are known for their quick wit, Yorkshire folk don’t have the same cheeky charm reputation. According to Austin, ours is a dour breed of humour, rooted in misery.
“Being a Yorkshireman is no laughing matter,” says Austin. “Look on the bright side and you need glasses. Our proverbs are different to everyone else’s; ‘One door opens, another slams shut’,”
The world-weary slant of Yorkshire humour seems inevitably linked to our sporting heritage. “Yorkshire’s support for its teams is always alloyed by the certainty that opponents will cheat, the referee will lose his white stick or it’ll be siling i’ stair rods just as we’re poised to win,” says Austin, who laments the loss of sporting characters like Fred Trueman.
“I can think of no other sportsman who accumulated so many jokes about himself. He had comic leanings. He did a club routine after he stopped cricket. Boycott’s humour is typically Yorkshire – especially when he’s saying nowt.”
Austin learned the hard way not to wind Yorkshire sports fans up when, as a journalist in the 1970s, he made less-than-favourable comments about Bradford Park Avenue.
“I was asleep one night at home in Shipley when a fire engine arrived at 1am, lights flashing. It had been sent by Bradford Park Avenue fans who’d reported my house on fire,” he says. “It taught me a lesson – never put down a failing Yorkshire team.”
Another fiery football encounter was with Brian Clough, who appeared on Calendar in September, 1974, after he was sacked following his ill-fated 44 days at the helm of Leeds United.
Austin’s interview with Clough and former United manager Don Revie was an infamous encounter captured in The Damned United, the film based on David Peace’s novel. How did Austin feel about the scene, with actor Mark Bazeley playing him as a young journalist?
“The interview was a lot sharper than in reality,” says Austin. “My technique back then was to throw in a question, sit back and watch the fireworks. It was about the two men, whereas in the film the focus is on the questions.”
Although not a Yorkshireman, Clough had the dry wit and dour delivery of one. Yorkshire humour is traditionally delivered deadpan, with no hint of a smile. Austin makes a distinction between jokes and laughter. “You can laugh with, not at, a Yorkshireman – but you’ll be laughing alone,” he says. “To laugh is to give summat away. We’re not inclined to do that.”
I’m reminded of audiences at comedy gigs in Bradford, sitting stony-faced, arms folded, heckles at the ready. In his book, Austin mentions Ken Dodd and Harry Secombe “giving their all to apparently dead Yorkshire audiences, getting no reaction, but being approached afterwards by some taciturn Tyke saying, ‘tha were reet funny ter neet. Ah almost ’ad to laugh at some of thi jokes’.”
While Yorkshire has a long joke tradition, Austin acknowledges that we don’t have a great track record of comedians. “Comedians come from Liverpool where there’s more to laugh at. Lancashire chancers try to make the best of their natural disadvantages.
“We specialise in misery. Our jokes aren’t quickfire, satirical, topical or PC. They’re about the basics of death, disease, defeats at crickets, debt, depression, diarrhoea and the dole.”
Perfect ingredients for a Yorkshire sitcom.
Austin Mitchell’s Grand Book Of Yorkshire Humour is published by Great Northern Books, priced £7.99. Austin is appearing at King’s Hall, Ilkley, as part of Ilkley Literature Festival, on Friday, October 9.