Identity crisis? What identity crisis?

Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is hardly the ideal place to celebrate Yorkshire Day, particularly when colleagues at the Leeds Club regale you with enthusiastic news of the Yorkshire Society's dinner at the Club. The only advantage is that it enables one to reflect at leisure on the Broad Acres and one's identification with the great county.

That identity has little to do with attempts to carve the county up. Administrative diktats cannot change historic boundaries. Try telling folk in Barnoldswick or Beverley that they are part of Lancashire or Humberside, or the inhabitants of Saltburn or Springhead that they belong to Cleveland or Greater Manchester. Where you pay your Council Tax does not affect your heritage. Following the boundary changes of 1974 the one individual who still represents all parts of the county is probably the President of Yorkshire County Cricket Club which rightly simply ignores all attempts to make the acres less broad!

I have always thought that the best guide to the borough one belongs to is newspaper circulation. In the West Riding, for instance, one's readership of the Evening Post, Bradford Telegraph and Argus, Huddersfield Examiner or Halifax Courier pretty much indicate one's local affiliation. And if this is true, how much more so Yorkshire folk identify with the Yorkshire Post. The serious point is that most people have a sense of belonging to a much smaller area than the "nation state", which is in any case a largely Victorian invention. The passion of Yorkshire folk for their county is more intense than the feelings of those of most other counties, with the possible exception of Cornish folk, many of whom still feel themselves a separate country all together. Sure, the inhabitants of Epsom or Purley may well identify with their county, but can one imagine a "Surrey Day"? And the county of Middlesex only now exists as a postal address.

My very first childhood memory is of lying in bed at our little house in Catherine Street, Elland, listening to the clogs clumping down the hill to the James Street mill where my maternal grandfather worked, and hearing them clattering ever more quickly as the moment for the 7am hooter approached. I was also fascinated by the single decker buses, in their distinctive orange and green livery, which sported such romantic destinations as Holywell Green, Luddendenfoot, Mytholmroyd, Stainland, Outlane and, above all, Triangle. The big city of Leeds was a distant El Dorado, beyond Rastrick. I still enjoy occasional visits to the Rex cinema in Elland.

After the war, my paternal grandfather, who had been the signalman at Sowerby Bridge station, was promoted to the main signal box at Southport and we all moved. Although being brought up in that Lancashire town I was sure that we were very much still Yorkshire. On BBC Radio Leeds' equivalent of Desert Island Discs I once made what I thought was a rather clever point about being "on missionary duty" in Lancashire. My mother didn't think it very clever when a neighbour said to her that she had not previously known that her son was a missionary!

Whenever I get back from my travels it's that solid Yorkshire welcome that makes me realise that I am home. There is a total lack of awe at even the most distant country; all I get from Keith at my local fish and chip shop is, "where've you been, and where are you going?" He is in that great tradition of Yorkshire characters, so natural that they don't know that they are characters! Like Councillor H Leaper, former leader of Heckmondwike UDC Labour Group who, when faced with accusations of authoritarian rule, "denied there was any dictatorship, 'it is totally untrue,' he said, 'I would not allow it'". Or the check out woman at Safeways who asked me if I had an ABC card. "No," I replied, "I haven't even got a birthday card." "Oh, is it your birthday?" she enquired. "No," I confessed. "Well, it's hardly surprising," came the swift response.

I recall vividly the concert chairman at the Armley Liberal Club when I made my first appearance there on a Saturday night as a very young local election candidate. I was given the "death slot" - between the bingo sessions - and his introduction went, "when I introduce the speaker I know what you're going to say, but I hope you won't 'cos he means well." Then turning to me said, "come on lad, you're on a winner here"! And there was the late Leslie Chapman, living in a little back-to-back house in Armley, who made my life as a Councillor very difficult but whom I came to appreciate as a superb artist, musician, inventor and, above all, eccentric.

Finally, there was the shrewd Bramley resident who accosted me in the shopping centre one Saturday morning. "You know that North South divide thing, Mr Meadowcroft," he said. I nodded assent, wondering what might be coming next. "I'm all in favour of it," he continued, "We don't want those folk in the South finding out about us." I admired the thought!

In recent years, when in America, and seeking to give some idea of Yorkshire's comparative size, I used to describe the county as "the Texas of England", but given the origins of the present US President and his current difficulties, I may well feel inclined to find a different comparison. After all, we're much bigger in stature!

3 August 2004