An innovative poet based in North Yorkshire is challenging northern stereotypes, and she’s funny with it, says Ruth Campbell

Kate Fox can see the humour in most things. When she started out as a radio news journalist in the North-East, her first story was about a dead frog trapped in a bag of lettuce leaves in Whitley Bay.

Nearly 20 years on, the journalist-turned-award-winning-poet, who says she gave up her day job because she wanted to have more lie-ins, still has audiences laughing over that one at her solo comedy shows up and down the country.

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Thirsk-based Kate, who has made comedy shows for Radio 4, also runs writing and performing workshops, which have helped set other stand-ups, including Sarah Millican, on the path to fame. She has performed everywhere from the Edinburgh Fringe to the Southbank Centre, is a regular speaker on panels and radio shows and has been the poet-in-residence at both the Great North Run and Glastonbury Festival. She will be appearing at the BBC’s new national poetry and spoken word festival in Hull later this month.

Being funny and northern is sometimes a help and sometimes a hindrance, says Kate, who actively resists the sort of lazy stereotypes so often brandished by the national media.

Having perfected the knack of tackling serious subjects in a light-hearted way, her comedy comes with an edge. Refreshingly challenging and insightful, over the ten years she’s been working as a stand-up, she has used her unique brand of humour to great effect, not just on the theatrical but on the political stage. “The power of humour in politics is hugely underestimated,” she says.

The founder of the #lasswar protest group, Kate organised a picket at the opening of a ‘northern powerhouse’ conference in Manchester earlier this year over the lack of females taking part after it emerged all 15 main speakers were men. She was also exasperated by all the northern powerhouse media images of George Osborne surrounded by other males in heavy industry, which weren’t representative of the diverse, cosmopolitan North she knows.

So she and about 20 other women, dressed in suits, shirts and ties, with hi-vis jackets and hard hats, gathered to protest. "It was a good opportunity to say this is not okay and hold up a mirror and reflect delegates back to themselves," she says.

As a result, there were resignations from the powerhouse’s advisory boards, while influential women joined them in boycotting the event. Organisers apologised and announced there would be no more ‘single-gender panels’.

Inspired by the Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot, Kate’s #lasswar continues: “We’re like a tongue-in-cheek northern Pussy Riot. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have got in touch saying they want to do more. Lots of councils have all-male cabinets, and there are so few women represented in public life in the North,” she adds, complaining that promotional brochures for everything from councils to science projects and northern institutions tend to be male-heavy and clichéd. “The next step is to create completely new pictures of the future, not just blokes pointing at construction sites. but images which reflect the diversity of the north as a place of the future, not the past.”

For the past three years, Kate has been working on a PhD at the University of Leeds, looking at class, gender and northern regional identity in stand-up, the content of which informs much of her comedy.

“The national media does talk about northern performers differently, applying stereotypes and images, a lot of it based on class, that are damaging. People make fun of northerners, almost like it’s the last acceptable type of class prejudice. And they are constantly locating northernness in the past.”

The paradox, says Kate, is that although performers like herself suffer from northern stereotypes, they also benefit from them: “It’s also associated with positive things like friendliness and honesty. People can’t help playing up to the stereotype.”

In Hull, she will be joining the Women of Words collective, going out and speaking to dozens of women, weaving their stories into powerful, poignant and funny poetry performances. “I was not brought up in the arts world. When I first started doing stand-up and running workshops, I discovered a whole new world, working with people to give them a voice, just as I was finding my voice," she says.

She doesn’t rule out a future in politics once she has finished her PhD. “During the general election, I did think of standing in Grimsby against the northern powerhouse minister. But that’s maybe one for the future.”

Bradford-born Kate, fell in love with Thirsk, where she lives with crime writer husband Alfie, six years ago, and says she could never live in London. She could barely believe it when she was recently asked to appear on the Quote… Unquote Radio 4 panel game, and the first question she was asked was about the quote “It’s grim up North”.

There is clearly still lots of work for her to do.

*BBC’s poetry and spoken word festival, Contains Strong language, is in Hull, September 28 until October 1. Tickets from www.hull2017.co.uk

WE THOUGHT THERE’D BE MORE PEOPLE

Dedicated to my dedicated fellow workers in poem, gig promoters and audiences who come out to see live poetry.

We thought there’d be more people,

we don’t know where they’ve gone,

we were packed out last week

when we had the stripper on.

We thought there’d be more people

but it’s raining, sunny, snowing, dark,

they must be at the footie, watching Corrie,

barbecuing in the park.

We thought there’d be more people,

you deserve more, there’s no doubt;

if we had six more months to advertise

I’m sure we’d have sold out.

We thought there’d be more people,

we hope that you don’t mind,

we thought there’d be more people,

this venue’s hard to find.

We thought there’d be more people,

they promised they would come,

at least I’m here and you’re here,

and the venue owner’s Mum.

We thought there’d be more people,

they must have got lost along the way,

we thought there’d be more people

but it’s always hard to say.

We thought there’d be more people

and walk-ups at the door,

we thought there’d be more people

but it’s Shakin’ Stevens’ farewell tour.

We thought there’d be more people

but there’s been a lot of flu about,

we thought there’d be more people

but they’re not used to coming out.

We thought there’d be more people

but no one can afford a ticket,

we thought there’d be more people,

we’re competing with the cricket.

We thought there’d be more people,

the info went out quite late,

we thought there’d be more people,

we should have picked the other date.

We thought there’d be more people –

that’s not us being boasters,

perhaps next time we’ll make some flyers

or maybe even posters.

We thought there’d be more people,

we booked the biggest room

because the Guardian did an article

about the Poetry Boom.

We thought there’d be more people

but you’re no Kate Tempest or Cooper Clarke;

still, like black cats, your audience

will look similar in the dark.

We thought there’d be more people,

well, at least some more than three.

But you’re lucky there’s anyone here at all,

since you’re doing poetry.

?

NICE CUP OF TEA

Poem for the 2014 Yorkshire Festival when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire

True grit and Yorkshire?

We’ve heard it all before.

It’s flat caps and whippets

and Brontës on the moor.

It’s mills and mines and limestone

and cyclists on the tour.

It’s men making this face. [Makes face of true, manly grit]

It’s Caedmon of Whitby,

the first English poet,

transported to verse whilst looking after his cows.

It’s international cyclists

fluent in speed

whilst looking after their calves.

It’s not doing anything by halves.

The way we don’t like to make a fuss,

we’re sensible and stoic,

measuring our life in teaspoons,

our cuppa consumption heroic.

Dunk our inhabitants in hot water,

they’re collected, cool and calm,

gathered from round the world like tea leaves

from Poland to Pakistan.

So crash out at a hundred miles an hour

from the blur of the speeding peloton?

No need to turn to steroids

when you can put the kettle on.

You know that in adversity

you’re a true and hardy Tyke

if you boil one up and grab a mug

and get back on your bike.

An argument with a colleague?

Your house, your job, your tights fall through?

Say your piece, your head held high,

then have another brew.

Your daughter’s up for shoplifting,

your son lives up a tree,

you’ve got leprosy and Alzheimer’s

and cancer of the knee

but least said, soonest mended.

Just have a cup of tea.

Other places have their fearsome beasts –

from Loch Ness monsters to yowling yetis –

but you’ve not experienced the county’s mythical strength

until you’ve joined the queue at Betty’s.

If you can keep your head

when all about are losing theirs,

then you’ll be a Yorkshireperson –

though won’t get far

without a spade to call a bloody shovel

and a lovely cup of char (cheers).

?

FRINGE PIMP

My husband sells me on the street.

He is the perfect spouse.

When he’s not pimping me to strangers

he’s papering the house.

He takes care of washing, cooking

and sorting out the bills

and spends the month letting others benefit

from my oral skills.

HECKLER

I just want to join in,

be in a double act,

I’ll be the Morecambe to your Wise,

just let me interact.

I’ll shout out the end of your joke,

tell you what I had for tea,

it shouldn’t just be about you,

it could also be about me.

I’ll be your unpaid gag writer,

you don’t need to ask me twice.

‘Get off,’ ‘Get your tits out,’ ‘Get on with it,’

I’m just offering some advice.

I don’t even need a microphone,

I’m loud enough to shout.

I know you were enjoying my contribution

until those bouncers threw me out…