Jamie Smith

Mak’em, Tak’em and Stand for George! The Weird, Wonderful and Occasionally Amazing Story of Two North-Eastern Nicknames

The history of words can be dramatic, exciting, weird and wonderful (honest!). Never more so than the story of bitter rivalry, pride and military might that gave rise to the names of the Geordies and the Mackems.

The north-east corner of England is a wonderful place with a history of pride and industry.

If you think of the people and accents of this area, two words will probably come to mind. Geordies and Mackems, or the people of Newcastle and Sunderland, respectively. If you’re in the UK, you’ve probably heard and used these words. But what do they really mean, and where do they come from? That’s quite a story.

We Mak’em, they Tak’em – A Shipbuilding Rivalry

For many years, Newcastle and Sunderland were shipbuilding superpowers. Between them, the two north-east English ports would construct a large portion of the English navy that dominated the world’s seas in the 16th to 19th centuries.

As the two cities’ shipbuilding dominion escalated, so did their feud. Traditionally, both towns would build dozens of galleons, galleys and other ships. These were some of the most expensive pieces of equipment sold anywhere, generating much local wealth for the cities, with only the coal trade coming close in terms of scale. Shortly before the 1600s, this all changed when King Charles’s court began to award prized royal charters for navy vessels to Newcastle’s shipbuilders in preference to Sunderland’s again and again. A similar thing happened in the coal industry.

Poverty and pride

The cause was complex and political, but the effect was simple. One of the world’s leading shipbuilding cities lost its most wealthy and regular buyer. Naval galleons sold for many times as much as any other ship because of strict requirements and sheer size. Of course, the Sunderland shipbuilders couldn’t sell to any competing navy, so deals were struck to save the ship business and the town. Sunderland shipbuilders would make (mak in the local dialect) the hull and functional skeleton of the boats. Then the half-built hulks would be piloted up to Newcastle to be finished, fitted out and sold for many times the price the Sunderland shipbuilders got.

It goes without saying that building the hulls and hearts of ships was backbreaking labour. Much of the toughest, most dangerous work was undertaken in Sunderland. Despite this, the builders, merchants and workers of the town got a pittance compared to the fortunes of the artisans, fitters and monopolistic merchants of Newcastle. Resentment, as well as poverty and starvation came of this.

One complaint that has rung through the years has been ‘we mak’em and they tak’em’ or ‘We make them, and they take them’, referring to the way Sunderlanders strived to make the boats only for Newcastle to take them and make far more profit by reselling them. This objection was still around during the second world war, as was the tendency for ships to be constructed in Sunderland, by the Mackems, and fitted in Newcastle. The term mak’em, or Mackem was taken on and consistently used by Geordies to insult their rivals, but it has been owned by sons and daughters of Sunderland who are proud of their roots and hard-won industry.

‘We mak’em and they tak’em’ – Traditional Sunderland adage

What of the Geordies though?

For George!

It’s 1642 and the drums of war are pounding. As the English Civil War is declared, Newcastle, the beneficiary of decades of royal support in industry and trade, joins with the Royalists and King George I. Meanwhile, Sunderland sides with the Parliamentarian ‘Roundheads’ after a long history of oppression by the crown. The Mackem’s sense of republican rebellion against the crown and their combative opposition to the people of Newcastle began in earnest here.

The two sides soon faced each other at the Battle of Boldon Hill with a Scottish army supporting the Mackem Roundheads against the assembled Newcastle Royalists.

After a day’s hard fighting, the rebel army won and a mix of Scots and hugely satisfied Mackems occupied Newcastle for the rest of the war. The loyalists of Newcastle were apparently mocked and derogated for their support of George, with the word Geordie first being used there to mean someone stupid who was easily misled.

While the word became more prideful over the years, this negative sense of the term wasn’t a passing trend. Showman Billy Purvis was recorded using it in this way centuries later, telling a rival,

“Noo yor a fair doon feul, not an artificial feul like Billy Purvis! Thous a real Geordie!”

But much as the Mackems did, the Geordies owned their nickname and took it to heart. In a sense, each side in its dislike and mockery had given the other a moniker and a cultural identity they would eventually come to value deeply.

“Geordie goes beyond mere geography and is a quality of heart” – Jack Common.

The lesson

So, if someone insults you for what you are, what you do, or what you believe in, own it, make it your own and be proud of it despite what they think. The meaning of the word can then be turned from a negative weapon to a positive foundation for strength and character.

Also, always take everything you read with a pinch of salt. There are also claims that the name Mackem, from mak’em and tak’em was actually invented by Mackems themselves to refer to the fact that they made the ships in the first place and then took them back again for repair when they were damaged “We mak’em and we tak’em”.

As for Geordie, this may have come from Newcastle’s other great old industry aside from shipbuilding. The Geordie was the nickname of a miner’s safety lamp George Stephenson invented near Newcastle, which the locals always preferred and took their name from. There are sources supporting both of these explanations, as well as the ones above, and no one can be sure which are true. Perhaps both! That’s just part of the joy of the winding wonderful story of words that is etymology.

This article was inspired by Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, an excellent illustrated comic-style book that is crazy in the best possible way. I’d strongly advise anyone with an interest in the North-east or beautiful illustration in general to read it.

 

Jamie Smith

His Literary Sexism

“Every dog has his day.” – A man

“The more man meditates on good thoughts, the better will be his world.” – Another man

“All men are created equal.” – A group of men

 

A few days ago, I experienced something that women and girls must put up with throughout their lives. I began reading a book and noticed that the author was unexpectedly and constantly referring to people as ‘she’ and ‘her’. All indefinite pronouns and almost all pronouns were female. Instead of writing “For a person to succeed, they should” or “… one should”, the author was writing “…she should.”

At first, I considered this confusing. The book was a self-help book with no obvious focus on women and no gendered material in adverts, reviews or the books covers and introduction. 

So you can imagine my surprise when I was told what many women like me do. I did some research on the internet and found nothing saying the book was aimed at women, so I remained confused. 

I began to find the constant, almost exclusive references to women alienating, like the book wasn’t for me or my gender. Like I was an intruder in pages that weren’t written for me.

Then I realised the unfamiliar feeling of having my gender unceremoniously cast out by an author was something all too familiar to women. 

For centuries, would ‘maketh the MAN’ and every dog would ‘have HIS day’, but the woman was rarely written about in literature and her day often remained a mystery. Indeed, women and their days were considered objects of unimportance to those ‘men of learning who read the contents of books’. Unfortunately overpowering patriarchy meant women of learning were few and far between, which meant there was little to rebalance the contents of the books or the patriarchy that created them.

Although attitudes have changed over the last century or so, we’re still burdened with reams and reams of books devoted to the MAN and HIS small steps and giant leaps. Too many of the literary culprits are important and well-known, from the bible and the US Declaration of Independence downward, for anyone to avoid completely. So intelligent girls are tasked with learning their way into intelligent womanhood through vast tracts of literature that doesn’t relate to their gender and acres of writing that refers to everyone alive as man, or him. Virginia Woolf decried this in A Room of One’s Own in 1929, quoting the tongue-in-cheek poetry of another inspiring female author of the 17th century:

 

 

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,

Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,

The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.

They tell us we mistake our sex and way;

Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,

Are the accomplishments we should desire;

To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,

Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,

And interrupt the conquests of our prime.

 

Lady Winchilsea, late 17th century

 

Jamie Smith

How Epilepsy Shaped Prince

Epilepsy and PrinceSeven years ago, Prince revealed to the world that he had battled with epilepsy during childhood, a battle that shaped him as a man and an artist. Since the great genius has passed, it is worth considering one of the less prominent lessons he taught us.

Prince compared his fight with Epilepsy to that of the legendary black boxer and civil rights icon Jack Johnson “because he had to deal with seemingly insurmountable odds; if he knocked someone down people from the audience would get into the ring and pick him back up. I just related to it in a lot of different ways.”

This ongoing fight is something that a lot of people suffering from epilepsy, myself included, can empathise with. The constant struggle and the lack of an apparent end to the embarrassment, irritation and fear can feel debilitating, but it can build up our defences and make us stronger people, just as childhood colds build up our immune system. Later in the same interview Prince highlighted exactly how his battle had built him up and given him his signature colourful approach to performance, music and life:

“Since then I was having to deal with a lot of things like getting teased at school and early in my career, I tried to compensate for that by being very flashy and very noisy.”

As Prince began to make his own noise, his genius was recognised by local music lovers, record companies, the world and, eventually, by me. In my defence I wasn’t even born when Prince was partying like it was 1999 and I didn’t hear him properly until I started to party, which happened coincidentally around about 1999.

Since then, in his jazzy, funky, trippy pop music, I’ve increasingly felt I could hear something that felt personal to me. Perhaps it’s the shared experience of epilepsy that drew me to him (being in a funk and tripping are both terms that have been used to refer to fits).

What is certain is that Prince would not be Prince without his early experience of epilepsy and his music wouldn’t be what it is. Epilepsy and many other disabilities can be enabling and defining, as well as just disabling. With support and the right approach, they can colour us as individuals and make us better people.

Jamie Smith
epilepsy

Stranger Things Than Epilepsy?

A boy lies on the floor, shaking and writhing uncontrollably as those around him try to wrestle him into a safe position. A boy stands on a playing field, unconscious, eyes rolling, as his friends and mother try to understand what is happening to him. Both of these situations could be episodes in the life of someone who has epilepsy, but they are not. They are episodes in season two of Stranger Things, Netflix’s critically acclaimed eighties horror pastiche, where a monster is repeatedly attacking the boy in question.

If in the past, you have tried to understand what someone with epilepsy goes through when they are having a fit, you must watch Stranger Things. If you have watched it, then read this and watch it again. 

Perhaps ‘episodes’ is an apt choice of words, as this is what the friends and family of Will Byers, the boy in question, call his strange experiences. They are confused by them, scared of them and unable to understand and solve the boy’s problems. This is something that I, as an epilepsy sufferer have experienced me, my family and my friends having to deal with. 

Like me, Will has woken up in strange places scared and confused with no immediately apparent explanation of how he got there. Like me, him and his long-suffering mother Joyce have disagreed with the doctors and experts who think they know what is best for him. They call it the upside down, we call it epilepsy. But, much like in the series, the parallels run much deeper than that.

Let’s go back to the boy, Will, shaking with his eyes rolling. This scene was the most perfect allegory for an epileptic fit I have ever seen. It was a lightbulb moment for me and my attempts to really show those who want to understand what an epileptic fit, and epilepsy in general feels like. On the playing field, and everywhere else, no-one can see the monster coming and nobody knows when it will strike, not even Will. When it does strike, as it does toward the end of Season 2, Will’s terrified friends and mother see him unconscious and moving with rolling eyes for no apparent reason. To Will, he is a conduit for something irresistibly massive and monstrous; something which is slowly obscuring everything and replacing all perception with itself as it tries to force its way inside his head. He starts by confidently trying to make it stop, as I have with some success in the past, but it eventually presses into him, fighting against him as he resists and putting more pressure on his senses and his fragile brain. He tries to hold on to reality as it takes over more and more of what his senses indicate is around him replacing it with noise too loud, and imagery too absolute to comprehend or handle. Finally, there is only darkness. He finally loses consciousness and comprehension of what he is doing Whatever the monster was doing is done. When this comes, it feels like a welcome reprieve; the calm after the storm, which in the case of epilepsy is ironic, because this is the point when most sufferers’ thrashing reaches its peak with no conscious mind to control the fit.

The monster, aptly called the Mind Flayer, becomes part of Will, possessing him, draining him and occasionally seeming to replace him with another person entirely. No wonder Will often walks around in a quiet and subdued fearful state. His submissive anxiety is something to which I can very much relate. It is like looking into my past. Although I have grown in confidence and combative ability, I still can’t drive, I indulge in one of my passions, surfing, rarely and carefully. When I am feeling particularly vulnerable, as Will does occasionally, I am often scared of being alone, or in crowds.

Families and friends of those with epilepsy, do you feel a little déjà vu when I tell you that Will has trouble using words to describe his experiences with the Mind Flayer and in the scary ‘other place’ he calls the upside down? In his case, he finds it much easier to use visual representations, such as drawings. This is because he primarily experiences his so called ‘episodes’ visually, whereas I experience mine in the form of sound. But we still try. Will tries to tell his mother and a local police officer how it felt

Will: “I don’t know. It came for me, and I tried to make it go away. But it got me”

Mum: “What do you mean?”

Will: “I felt it everywhere. Everywhere.”

Like the Mind Flayer, epilepsy is a hunter on the offensive that you feel everywhere. It emerges out of nowhere as an adversary that you can’t see, can’t do anything about and can only feel after it’s too late. Something irresistible that must be defended against, but rarely ever can be. And when it gets you it is everywhere in your world, filling it up until there is nothing of reality left outside the crazed, uncontrollable noisy mess of the fit. 

Will talks to his mother about another aspect of the monster’s attacks that I find oddly familiar, saying: “It’s hard to explain. It’s like old memories in the back of my head, only they’re not my memories … I don’t think they’re old memories at all. They’re now memories, happening all at once, now … It’s like they’re growing and spreading. Killing.”

I’ve mentioned déjà vu already. It’s a big part of my epilepsy experience. A sequence of memories that don’t make sense. That all come all at once during a fit, pushing their way into my head for no reason and with no sense. They never feel like old memories, they always feel like they’ve just happened and yet they’ve been there forever. The perfect, imperfect déjà vu. And yes, they do grow … and spread … and kill. Until there is nothing left in my head except them … and darkness. 

Epilepsy is always there. It’s a threat no matter where I am in the world, yet it’s always just out of sight. Just like Will’s monster.