The Long Road from Jarrow – Stuart Maconie

We seem to be living in an era of anniversaries. As well as the whole period from 2014 to 2018 being a commemoration of the Great War (with honour given to major individual battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) 2017 has also seen the Centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the birth of Arthur C. Clarke, the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film The Graduate and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Closer to home it is the 150th birthday of the beautiful building my workplace is housed in (an excuse for a party of some sort? I do hope so…) I’m not sure I remember quite so many major anniversaries in my childhood and youth (the only ones that stand out are the Queen’s various Jubilees – mostly because of time off school/my own wedding….) but perhaps I just didn’t care enough to remember them. One event which has recently (October 2016) marked what I tend to refer to as a ‘tombola’ anniversary – one ending in a 5 or a 0 – is the Jarrow March. You know, the Jarrow March? The march from Jarrow to, um, London? Because of jobs? Or something? The one which so many people have forgotten about, never heard of or have dismissed as some kind of bolshie nonsense? Well, that’s the one which Stuart Maconie has made the subject of his latest piece of travel writing.

9781785030536Maconie’s travel writing is always worth a read. He is a keen observer of the places he visits and is never afraid to give you his own views. In this book he decides to follow in the footsteps of the Jarrow Marchers, to find out why they marched, how they were received and whether they are remembered: also, he fancies a nice long walk. Along the way he compares 1936 – with its rise in right-wing politics, wide-spread unemployment and reliance on food handouts and other benefits, and frequent protest marches – with the present day. Some of the comparisons are quite chilling, if I’m honest – at some points the only improvement we seem to have is the NHS – but he is also happy to point out that his nightly accommodation, at least, was a great improvement on the drill halls, schools and churches the marchers were offered. He never downplays the physical effort the march represented but, in order to keep appointments with certain people he meets via social media, he does occasionally jump on a bus. These meetings are often with people who are able to fill in background information on the marchers but he also takes in choral music, a classical piano recital, a pub covers band and a wake. He speaks fondly of many of the marchers themselves (and their dog) and of the Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, but is scathing of most of the Labour party of the time (who made every effort to distance themselves from the marchers). He’s not fond of Corbyn either but does end his march by meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen (elected after the murder of Jo Cox) in the House of Commons.

This book is a fascinating history of the Jarrow March of 1936 but also of the country as it was at the end of last year. In many ways it feels as if very little has changed but maybe books like this can help us – through gentle humour and a little anger – to make sure that the history of the late 1930s is not allowed to repeat itself.




The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson, The Pie at Night – Stuart Maconie

The Road To Little Dribbling

Bill Bryson returns to these shores. In 1994, Notes From a Small Island of course was a huge hit. A travelogue around Britain, written by an American, which meant his observations on the character of our people were as sharp and witty as his observations about the places he visited. I loved the book when it came out – his impassioned rant about Oxford architecture, his elegy for Morecambe, and his curry-precipitated U-turn of opinion on Bradford.

In the Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson – 20 years older too – returns to the theme to see how Britain has changed. Coming across as a genial, erudite ‘grumpy old man’, what I like about Bryson is that he’s not just a travel writer, he researches deeply to teach us obscure stuff we never knew and is not shy to call out injustices as he sees them. Did I know the Settle-Carlisle rail line was engineered by an unsung hero called Charles Sharland, who died at 25, never to see the line completed? No I did not, but there should be a statue of him. As in his previous book, Bryson’s focus is in three areas – architecture, and our total bodging failure to appreciate it and invest in the long-term to preserve the treasures we have, service without a smile (watch batteries in Torquay, anyone?), but fundamentally our beautiful, endlessly explorable countryside.

Bryson is careful not to retrace the exact same steps geographically. He frames the book round a route from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath – of course, quite a wild and wobbly route meaning he can go where he wants! It’s a strange and disappointing thing that of the 26 chapters, 16 are gone before he reaches the Midlands, one chapter covers Wales (but a lovely write-up of Tenby and St Davids by the way), and as for the whole of Scotland? Guess. You might argue that this reflects the population density, but even so, it’s tough treatment for that great nation. Having said that, Bryson is as ever a funny, perceptive and wonderfully opinionated travel writer and long may he remain so.
The Pie At NightIt might seem strange to combine this review with The Pie at Night – but this is my review and I’ll do what I like!  I first heard Stuart Maconie as a music journo, guesting on the Mark Radcliffe show along with Andrew Collins back in the 90s, with acerbic and bitingly funny music reviews. Now, he is for my money among the best homegrown travel writers around. Only nine years younger than Bryson, he feels and writes like a different generation. I’ve previously read and loved Pies and Prejudice, and Adventures on the High Teas, and now Maconie goes in search of what Northern England does for leisure. Be that football, the races, drinking, dancing or the more artful worlds of books, art and music.

Maconie, roots firmly in his native Wigan, describes himself as a romantic about the north’s industrial past, but a hard-headed one. He holds no illusions about a lost golden age of happiness – the reality of industry was back-breaking hard work. But work it was, and in return on precious holidays, those northern workers played hard too, and that is I think what Maconie’s getting at – laiking aht in the north, in whatever form, comes from a communal thing, an intensely shared culture that exists to this day.

And you get Maconie’s deep-rooted love for his North coming through in waves. In contrast to Bryson, his focus is more on characters and people, and he observes and seeks them out in a way that Bryson – more recognisable in the street – probably now cannot. Unashamedly political, Maconie’s writing is rich and lovely and often poignant to read as he travels though Stockport, Blackpool, Todmorden, Halifax, Great Gable and past High Force in Teesdale to name only a few places.

So is The Pie at Night only of interest to northerners then? Would southern people read this as a bit of pious ‘rootsier-than-thou’? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Jane… but I loved it.

The Road to Little Dribbling – More Notes from a Small Island
Bill Bryson

The Pie at Night – In Search of the North at Play
Stuart Maconie


Walking Away – Simon Armitage

Last year I read Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, his tale of how he walked the Pennine Way (well, most of it) the wrong way round (North to South as opposed to the usual direction). I enjoyed its blend of humour, travel writing and description of the trials of a modern-day troubadour, paying his way on the journey by passing a sock round at poetry readings each night. It was particularly interesting to me as I have done bookstalls at a couple of poetry reading events with the author – he is widely read and even shows up on school syllabuses – so I could amuse myself by trying to read it in Armitage’s actual accent in my head. (This did work fairly well, but he does have quite a soothing tone of voice so I did drop off occasionally when reading in bed….). I even tried to persuade my other half to read it – he is a Yorkshireman, enjoys long walks and poetry; what could go wrong? Oddly, he didn’t enjoy it at all. I was informed that the author had lost his respect for getting lost almost at the beginning of his walk despite having a map and compass unused at the bottom of his pack. Also there wasn’t enough poetry in it.

Well, fair enough. We can’t all enjoy the same stuff. But he’s wrong about the poetry…

walking awaySo, Simon (the poet, not my other half, Rob – keep up…) has been at it again. This time he writes about walking part of the South West Coast Path, still giving readings each night and still relying on the hospitality of strangers. And for this walk he has a very expensive hat and a holly stick – well, for most of the journey, anyway. What is the same though is the humour and the poetry.

Now, don’t assume that this means there are sonnets and odes dropped in all over the place. This is more in the nature of stealth poetry – the descriptions of scenery, weather, other walkers and the natural world in particular are not just written in everyday language. Coleridge once described poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’ and that seems to be what we have here. The language is, on the whole, nothing that is hard to understand or obscure but it is wonderfully evocative of the sights and sounds which the poet experiences. And it’s still frequently very funny.

I may try to convince Rob to give Simon Armitage another go – but this time I may get him to read some of the actual poetry first (maybe his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight would be a good place to start – we’ve got history with that poem).