I left my interview to study architecture at Cambridge feeling embarrassed, and more ashamed than ever. My portfolio on Bradford’s old mills was of no interest to the interviewer. Instead, he asked me if I’d visited various stately homes, London museums or at least the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral – to which my answer was always “No”, and his reaction always a grimace. The first time I ever saw London was a year later, aged 18. The first time I’d ever got a train by myself was at 20. And I’ve still never been to Liverpool.
I’m proud to be from Bradford. But if I could choose another town for my Indian grandparents to have settled in during the Sixties, I would. I have a love-hate relationship with being northern. I thought my Indian heritage put me at a disadvantage – to some degree it does. To some degree being a woman is a disadvantage, too. But being brought up in a working-class part of Yorkshire, in an area where even the world’s best telescope couldn’t spot the nearest train station has been far more of a hindrance for my career.
[See also: The spectre of Grenfell haunts my family’s area]
London still holds the top jobs, particularly in the arts: all the museums, publishers, arts centres, drama schools, recording studios – you name it. But I can’t commute there. And I wince at the thought of moving; paying extortionate, unaffordable rent for a flat that I’ll never truly feel comfortable in and where I can’t see my mum regularly. It’s always been a sacrifice of career or home, never having both.
London has opportunity in truckloads. To be able to miss a bus and hop on another five minutes later to attend a job interview, see an exhibition or visit the best architecture around (according to Cambridge dons) is an alien notion to me. I have wept in frustration trying to explain to privileged southerners how underfunded, disconnected and forgotten much of Yorkshire is, with many of its residents remaining oblivious to their potential, simply because we don’t have the facilities or infrastructure the south does.
[See also: A tale of two twin sisters and the eleven-plus]
I’ve lived my life forever feeling like I’m on the back foot, and that I need triple the effort to get anywhere. But maybe that’s why I’m proud to be northern – knowing that we can still be successful as the underdogs. From Anita Rani to Christopher Eccleston, there’s a few of us northerners who’ve made it.
I just wish my circumstances and background weren’t mistaken for stupidity and a lack of passion at such a young age. Needless to say, I didn’t get into Cambridge. And I never pursued architecture. But I still think that Tate Britain has nothing on Salts Mill.
Tammie Ash is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.
A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.
This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain