The Long Road From Jarrow

Stuart Maconie

They say that most sci-fi isn’t really about the future at all, but about now, dressed up in different clothes.

In the same way, most books about modern social history end up not being about history at all, but about the time when they were written. In many ways, this is one of those books, in spite of Maconie’s initial protestations that he won’t be talking about Brexit and the current political climate. But that’s not a complaint; Maconie is a writer who often wears his heart on his sleeve. For many my age in the North East, the Jarrow marches occupy a shadowy space in our culture: an even toften recollected, but in may ways only dimly remembered. There are manystories attached to it, and some are even true. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s in the emerging lanscape of Thatcherite post-industrial Britin, there are loud echoes

In purely factual terms, this is a book about how, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Jarrow March, Maconie retraced the route of the original marchers, sticking to their schedule. There are differences, explained therein for the sake of expediency, but the spirit of the project is clear. Along the way he talks about the people the marchers met, how the were welcomed, and how events apnned out. At the same time he talks to current residents of the same places, to get a sense of the country now. It’s not always positive, but sometimes it is.

Like many of his other books (and I can heartily recommend Pies and Prejudice and Adventures on the High Teas), this is really a book about the country we live in now. Jarrow is just a way to frame it, though the framing itself is woven beautifully in. I won’t quote specifics, as I don’t want to give spoilers, but it does point up what a foirlorn and fractured state we are in right now. There is fortitude and decency, but they seem be having to fight ever harder over other voices and an constant sense of fear and paranoia.

It is a wonderful piece of work, but it’s not one I come away from feeling any kind of warm glow of recognition of a kinder, softer Britain. If anything it makes me sadder that that Britain is being snowed down under an avalanche of atavism and hate. But I’m glad that writers like Maconie are trying to capture at least something.