Stuart Maconie has been responsible for penning bestsellers such as Pies And Prejudice and Never Mind The Quantocks while also entertaining loyal listeners on the BBC6 airwaves with the weekday afternoon northern knockabout of Radcliffe & Maconie and his eclectically esoteric Sunday night extravaganza in the Freak Zone. And with his latest project about the 1936 Jarrow marchers, the Lancashire-born author and broadcaster merged some subjects very close to his heart which led first to a book and now the tour he is set to embark on.
“Several things aligned for me: it’s British social history, northern industrial culture, and there are pop culture elements from TV’s Our Friends In The North and Alan Price’s 1974 top ten hit Jarrow Song. And I like walking. I was thinking of doing a long walk that had a narrative and could link up places, and instantly thought about the Jarrow walk which covered about 80% of England. I then saw that the 80th anniversary was approaching, so thought I’d do it day by day as they did it and stay in the same towns so I could produce this snapshot of then and now.”
Maconie’s plan was to replicate the march made by some 200 Jarrow men (and their MP, Ellen Wilkinson) from the north-east of England all the way down to Westminster to hand in a petition. Simply put, they were asking for help from parliament and the government of the day (a Tory administration led by Stanley Baldwin) to create employment in their increasingly deprived area, ideally in the shape of a steelworks.
Ultimately, though, the men were both fobbed off and callously dismissed. “They had a half-baked pipeworks built for them which closed within about a year, so really they got nothing. All they were saying was ‘we want to work’ and they were told by Walter Runciman who was President of the Board of Trade that ‘Jarrow had to find its own salvation’. It’s astonishing that the government could utterly wash its hands of people. JB Priestley said that if you had come from another planet and went to Jarrow, you’d assume it was some kind of penal colony or punishment for people who had clearly been very wicked as they were in such a grim state.”
And as for the petition itself, its fate seems to tell a pitiful story all of its own. “We just don’t know what happened to the petition. When they arrived in London, they were hustled away onto a boat trip by Special Branch and when they came back the police told them not to worry and that it was all being dealt with. It was shocking really. There were 10,000 signatures on that petition, a brilliant act of British social history, and it just shows you of the contempt they were held in.”
So during an unseasonably balmy October last year, Maconie got his hiking boots on, attached a modern rucksack featuring ‘Axiom 5 technology’ to his back and took to the highways and byways of England stopping off in the same places as the marchers did. Along the route he had overnight stays in the likes of Ripon and Leeds in the north, Loughborough and Leicester in the midlands and St Albans and Luton in the deeper south before finally descending upon the House of Commons.
While Maconie was determined to replicate the men’s march almost step by step, inevitably there were massive differences in those two journeys. “I tweeted a lot looking for recommendations about what I should do in different towns, where I should eat and where to have a pint. I exploited social media mercilessly for this. We as people are pretty much the same as they were and we like to do the same things, like going out and having a drink and music and movies, but the way we access and share them has changed out of all recognition. The Jarrow marchers would have thought that the things I was using on a daily basis like Uber and Spotify and weather apps were science fiction.”
Still, whether it’s 1936 or 2016, people will always enjoy a good read and a fascinating show. Stuart Maconie has provided both for those who may feel they know the story of the Jarrow marchers inside out as well as for those who want to have some entertaining light shed on a moment in time which could otherwise easily have disappeared from the collective British memory.
For Maconie, this is also a chance to get back in front of an audience and tell a great story. “Primarily I think of myself as a writer, which is weird now because a lot of people who know me will know me from radio. But it’s really all just the same kind of thing: it’s about words read out or spoken aloud. When I do the live shows, they’ll be light-hearted, and it will be quite chatty rather than a lecture. There will be a lot of serious stuff in them, but I don’t expect people to want to listen to an hour and a half of rickets or diphtheria and the 1930s recession: I know I’ll have to leaven it a bit.”
Stewart Maconie will be appearing at The Sue Townsend Theatre on 15th October. Tickets available from TicketSource.