Long Road From Jarrow : A journey through Britain then and now by Stuart Maconie
Journalist, author, broadcaster, DJ and cultural commentator, Stuart Maconie is something of a popular polymath. Born in Wigan, Maconie is a proud member of the working class and he uses his modest celebrity to evangelise the ordinary working people of the UK. Like most of his heroes, he’s a working class patriot with a soft Left political instinct and a deep-seated interest in the popular culture of those communities.
Maconie’s personality is naturally upbeat – he’s most certainly a glass half full kind of man and his chipper character is reflected in the way he writes. He celebrates the everyday by lacing his prose with references to High Street shops, current popular songs and the big political stories in the news at the time, as well as showing us he’s done his research by filling in the historical background to the people and communities he moves amongst. He is well read but he carries his learning lightly.
Long Road From Jarrow follows his well established formula – meeting people, showcasing the ordinary, explaining the significance of history and pondering the way today has been shaped by yesterday. The concept behind the book is quite simple, to retrace the steps of the Jarrow marchers on their walk from their home town to London as part of their protest against mass unemployment. Walking alone he heads from the North-East through city and town down to the Home Counties and into London. Along the way he considers the issues that motivated the original Marchers, looks at what sort of reception they got and contrasts that with his own 21st century experience.
It’s a simple idea but quite an epic undertaking. To be absolutely fair, Marconie is not beyond the occasional supplementary journey on public transport and he spends his nights (mostly) in considerably more comfort. He also eats very much better than his 1930s counterparts – indeed, this could almost be a gastronomic journey through the UK because we get almost as much detail here about food and drink as we do about the current social circumstances of the British working class.
Marconie has an eye for the odd and the eccentric and has the ready wit to describe his encounters, trials and tribulations in a way more likely to make you guffaw than ruefully suck your teeth. But even his inherent good will and the decency and helpfulness of so many strangers can’t hide the fact that post-Brexit-vote Britain simply isn’t a happy place. It’s a cliché to say that the vote split the country in two but reading a book like this simply underscores the truth of the assertion.
A journey of this kind has its highs and lows but by the time he stumbles exhausted into London to be greeted at Westminster by Tracey Brabin MP, the former Coronation Street actress who took on Jo Cox’s seat, Marconie is, I think, in much lower spirits than when he set out.
There is quite a lot of politics in this book and Marconie is by instinct a troubled Blairite – he belongs firmly to that school of soft Left politics that holds that it is the duty of the Left to govern in order to ameliorate the suffering of the working class. He has no truck with ideologues and misses no chance to dismiss Jeremy Corbyn and all he stands for. He’s equally dismissive of Trump’s progress in America and sees his rise and the British Brexit vote as the disenfranchised working poor giving the establishment a kicking.
I suspect that because of the way he earns his living he’s very protective of the press and the broadcasters – he derides those who think that the established media are to blame for keeping people in ignorance and, I think unforgivably, subscribes to the view that the BBC must be doing a fair and impartial job because both Right and Left think it’s biased.
I pretty much disagree with most of Maconie’s views on the current political situation within the Labour Party – he sneers at Corbyn and his supporters but never offers any sort of critique of policy. His main beef seems to be that Corbyn is simply unelectable and that this is some kind of betrayal of those that need change. Equally his analysis of the situation in Jarrow that led to the march and the politics that revolved around it is also light-weight. But actually none of that matters too much. His fundamental decency and good nature cut through any disagreements you might have with his politics and you can only cheer his dogged determination to showcase the best of working class life and his willingness to acknowledge those parts of it that are somewhat less than admirable.
Pick up this book and you’ll find yourself taken along on an enjoyable journey full of thought-provoking ideas and historical details that you almost certainly didn’t know until you suddenly realise that somehow you’ve just walked through the heart of modern Britain.
(This review first appeared on the Letterpress Project website)