Generally speaking, I am not a fan of travel writing. Firstly, this is because I think that it takes a really impressive writer to really describe a personal experience truthfully and in an interesting way. And a writer that good normally doesn’t bother with travel writing. It’s a bit like how my Mum has this irritating habit of seeing clothes she thinks I should buy, ringing me up and describing them down the phone. It doesn’t work. Secondly, when writers moan about their experiences, it just seems incredibly ungrateful and whiny. For example, a number of years ago I read Round Ireland with a Fridge which on the whole I enjoyed but given how much hospitality Tony Hawks was receiving en route, his complaining seemed way out of line. Pies and Prejudice is different.
Stuart Maconie wrote this after a harrowing morning when he found himself reaching behind the cappuccino maker for some sun-dried tomatoes with which to make brunch. Horrors – he had become a Southerner. I have similar moments when I catch myself saying “Clah-ass” instead of “Class” as I have been brought up to say. As a child, my mother scolded me out of saying “summit” rather than “something” and I was teased as a teenager for ‘talking posh’ but I know that still I Speak North and I like it. I laughed long and loud about Stuart Maconie’s description of what ‘supper’ is – when I started university, I too was mystified when Southerner friends invited me for ‘supper’. Surely everybody knew that supper is a meal eaten while wearing a dressing gown, generally taking the form of some sort of toast. This inspired him to explore the true nature of being from the North and how it changes us.
I think that the reason why I warmed to this more than other forms of travel writing is because it isn’t about travelling – this is about coming home. This is a love letter to all that is wonderful about The North. Maconie first of all considers where The North truly begins and concludes that Crewe station is the proverbial gateway and since reading this book I have indeed had an enormous feeling of relief upon reaching Crewe on the train back up from London. Another reason why I Loved this book was that he is from the Wigan area, as I am (nominally, I wasn’t born there and proportionally haven’t lived there that long, but it’s the principle, my parents live around there). Wigan is, as Maconie points out, a hick town. But you can’t say that unless you’re from there.
Maconie moves steadily across the North (although he does skimp Cumbria a bit) and chronicles the histories of the various cities as he goes. Rather bravely, Maconie is critical of both Liverpool and Manchester (Liverpublians are whiners and Mancunians fancy themselves). Still, this is no searing debate – it’s too affectionate and amiable for any of that. Maconie is not writing to offend, simply to point out to the South of England that there are good things north of the Watford Gap. Like that great song, Sweet Home Alabama, this is a book that looks at where you are from and says simply, isn’t it beautiful!
Maconie is a lovely writer – as a heavy train user, I nodded along enthusiastically to his anger towards Arriva trains. Every time I board the C2C service into London I am filled with irritation about the lack of investment in public transport outside of London – what is the use of gleaming and seamless transport round the capital if travel by Northern Rail feels like stepping back to 1992? I am aware of the disparity in numbers of users but still – it’s not fair. Of course, Maconie is not perfect. He is occasionally repetitive and does a lot of sidebars about music which frankly I didn’t really follow but still, he puts forward the case for The North in an amusing and engaging way without seeming like an Angry Northerner. Because nobody wants to be one of those.
As Maconie points out, many of the preconceptions we may have about our neighbours are untrue. There are more private swimming pools in the North than in the South, indeed generally speaking the North is doing better economically than the South. Yet still, the media does insist on sticking around London for documentaries and also drama series. On the rare occasions things are filmed Up North, it is fairly clear that it’s being done as a Walk On The Wild Side and the place becomes the story, which it doesn’t need to. Recently at my old place of work, the Olympic Torch came by and then two months later I saw it again at my new place of work, we are all one nation – it is time for us to give up our prejudices. But still, down in the South, the pie just isn’t the same.
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Published by Random House on September 4th 2008
Genres: Travel, Essays & Travelogues
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