Stuart Maconie: The Long Road From Jarrow

Stockton ARC: October 21 2017

Pre-Show

In the words of Bulwer-Lytton, it was a dark and stormy night when Stuart Maconie rolled into Stockton, playing to a pleasing full room in the ARC. At just after eight he ambled on stage with little fanfare wearing what can only be described as a faintly alarming combination of claret-colured corduroy and patterned shirt (I’ll gloss over the shoes). I rather liked this; it smacked of a sense of playful eccentricity, which served only to reinforce the sense of him I get from his books.

The props are minimal. A lectern, complete with laptop, his mobile phone running timings, and a microphone, which he spends some time debating whether to use. This isn’t really resolved until the second half, when he decides that it’s probably best for all concerned that he does. Good choice, though I was only four rows from the front.

Tonight’s show is mostly about his most recent book, Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain Then and Now. Like most of his books, it’s a mix of popular history and peripatetic observation. This time though, he says (even as a Rambler) the walk itself was pretty grim, mostly hugging choking A-roads, wading through Red Bull cans and crisp wrappers. But that was part of the point: the Jarrow March was not a country ramble, and he was retracing the route, to compare the Britain of then and now.

He’s quick to point out that both places are more similar than one might imagine: pockets of extreme poverty and affluence, the rise of fascism, the explosion of new media, and the burgeoning fascination with football. He doesn’t engage in full-on polemic, but it’s clear where Maconie stands in all of this. The key features of his books are compassion, the love of the country he calls home, and love of the people in it. It’s noticeable when he talks about the young Sikh man he meets at the Gurdwara in Beeston, who points out that had there been more Sikhs in Britain back in the 30s, the marchers would never have been short of a hot meal.

There are also lots of gentle gags, and some good-natured bantering about Yorskhire (he spent more time walking through Yorkshire than any other county) from the inveterate Lancastrian. There are tales of riots in Luton, curries in far-flung provincial towns, and football matches in Leicester. He finishes by getting to the House of Commons, unlike the marchers, and meeting Tracy Brabin, the friend and successor of Jo Cox as the MP for Batley and Spen.

He rounds off with a couple of questions, before wandering off into the lobby to sign some books and chat amiably to the punters. And he was done by the time Match of the Day was ready to start; how very civilised.