National Mackem Day celebrates Sunderland: There are those who think being a Mackem is great - and those who are wrong

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Yes. But apart from the people, the beaches, the parks, lighthouse, pier, St Peter’s, Bede, Benedict Biscop, Joseph Swan, Penshaw Monument, Washington Village, the FA Cup, ships, coal…

… war heroes, Gertrude Bell, the football (occasionally), Jack Crawford, the stadium, the prehistoric sites, Victoria Viaduct, River Wear, entertainment venues, glass, music, literature, manufacturing, Double Maxim and monkey’s blood… what have the Mackems ever given us?

Pride is a strange thing. With many of the things people are proud of, such as the list above, most of us can claim no credit whatsoever. Why are New Yorkers so proud of the Brooklyn Bridge? No one alive today contributed anything to it.

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But pride is the only deadly sin we are regularly encouraged to commit (much though we enjoy the other six). Pride is warranted and good for our city. Be proud of Bede, even if you never met the lad. He was a genius.

What's great about being a Mackem? History and identity for a start.What's great about being a Mackem? History and identity for a start.
What's great about being a Mackem? History and identity for a start.

Sunderland’s understated greatness

To really appreciate Sunderland requires a shufti elsewhere. I personally enjoy regular visits to London. But the capital can’t reasonably be compared to any other UK city and for other people it equates to hell on earth.

Pick a random British city of comparable size, then find compelling reasons why it’s better. The usual, often the only answer is “shops”.

While conceding that Sunderland isn’t quite retail paradise, shopping is of considerably less importance than air quality, which our city fares well in (even above tourist magnets like York, Oxford, Brighton and, predictably, London).

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This blue plaque honouring A world famous author was put up in 2021. Why did it take so long?This blue plaque honouring A world famous author was put up in 2021. Why did it take so long?
This blue plaque honouring A world famous author was put up in 2021. Why did it take so long?

However, we can hardly boast to a citizen of, say, Leicester, that our city is better than theirs due to our superior air quality; not when they have the National Space Centre. Herein lies a problem.

There are some magnificent achievements for Sunderland to flaunt, yet they are too worthy and important to attract the attention of outsiders.

For example, during World War Two 27% of merchant ships built in Britain were constructed in Sunderland’s yards. Citizens of this country might have starved without Wear-built ships. Hitler well knew this and bombed us accordingly.

Heroic stuff, but not as well known as it should be, nor a piece of history which draws visitors.

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Penshaw Monument - a great example of "flag-planting".Penshaw Monument - a great example of "flag-planting".
Penshaw Monument - a great example of "flag-planting".

Compare this to the tourism brought to Liverpool by its pop music heritage. The Beatles were great and good luck to Liverpool. But the Beatles’ story isn’t nearly as important to Britain’s story as that of Sunderland’s shipbuilding.

Alas, pop music trumps shipbuilding for human interest. This isn’t fair, but nor is life (resilience being another admirable Mackem trait). But how to be noticed?

There’s nothing wrong with idle fantasies about the next Beatles being discovered in Witherwack, or our footy team winning the Champions League. However, there are practical things we can do to help ourselves.

We can plant our flag far more often.


A case in point is the world famous author James Herriot, real name Alf Wight, born in Sunderland in 1916. He considered himself an immensely proud Mackem.

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Quite shamefully it wasn’t until 2021 that the house in Roker where he was born received a blue plaque. The only Wearsiders to click credit for this are the house’s current owners and the wonderful Sunderland Antiquarian Society who sorted the whole thing out. No one in authority helped.

Similarly there is William Herschel, 1738-1822, an accomplished composer but better known as one of the greatest geniuses in the history of science.

He discovered infrared radiation and the planet Uranus, founded sidereal astronomy (measuring time according to the position of the stars), increased our understanding of space, greatly improved the telescope and made eyepieces with a magnifying power of 6,450.

He lived in Sunniside. Not that you would know by looking. What does a bloke have to do to get a blue plaque around here?

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Streets and buildings named in Herschel’s honour exist in Cambridge, Slough, Biggleswade, Manchester, Didcot and Newcastle. There’s a dedicated museum in Somerset and a statue in Los Angeles. In Sunderland – nowt.

This lack of flag-planting contributes to lower awareness from outsiders.

Many of us have experienced meeting someone who is unaware of Sunderland’s miles of sandy beaches, dolphins, port, a football club which has been champions of England six times, Bede, William Herschel, James Herriot etc. But if nobody tells them…


In my experience most Mackems are upbeat and proud of their city and what it has to offer. This is not to suggest an unawareness of Sunderland’s shortcomings; or even occasional anger about them. Every city has its failings; it’s how we deal with them that matters.

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Aside from flag-planting we can back ourselves more. There is a trenchant Mackem expression: “He would twist on 21”, referring to a tedious yet vocal minority.

Constructive criticism is one thing; continually moaning about the positive, or concentrating solely on the negative, is quite another.

Also, the Echo has an ongoing Shop Local campaign. It is vitally important to invest in ourselves.

It isn’t true that there are “no shops”.

Those who seem weirdly proud that they spend their money elsewhere are one of the causes of the city’s retail problems, although not the only one.

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There’s plenty to talk up, so let’s do so. When asked for the best thing about Sunderland, remember that “The road out!” is the response of an irredeemable dullard and non-achiever; happily a minority community in this city.

Warts and all, there is much to be happy, proud and glad about. But we need more of that flag-planting, whinging replaced by constructive criticism and the minority to become as positive as the majority. And pick up your litter.

Hooray for Sunderland and happy Mackem Day.