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Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain then and now Kindle Edition
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In ‘Long Road from Jarrow’ Stuart Maconie recounts his retracing of the footsteps of the original Jarrow marchers on the eightieth anniversary of their journey, although he admits to hopping on “a passing bus if it took their route” in order to enable him “to research and explore” the towns that they passed through.
Maconie’s is “not a book about the Jarrow march as such” as his primary interest lies in “where we have been since then and how we have got here” or, to put it another way, his intention “was to compare the England of now and then, to see if the shadow of 1936 really did fall across 2016, but also to get to the heart of England today first-hand.”
Maconie contends that “the particularly weird, fissile state of England in October 2016 seemed to have … much in common with the England of 1936” noting the following parallels:
“A Conservative government recently returned to power with an increased majority. A Labour Party led into disarray by a leader widely seen as divisive and incompetent. The rise of extremism here and abroad fired by financial disasters, a wave of demagoguery and ‘strong man’ populism. Foreign wars driven by fundamentalist ideologies leading to the mass displacement of innocent people. A subsequent refugee ‘crisis’. The threat of constitutional anarchy with conflict between government, parliament and the judiciary. Manufacturing industries, especially steel, facing extinction. Marches and mass rallies resurgent as popular but questionable forums for political debate. Explosions of new forms of media. Inflammatory rhetoric stoked by a factionalised press. Football a national obsession; its wages, profits and morality constantly debated. A country angrily at odds with itself over its relationship to Europe …”
Many of these alleged parallels are overstrained. For example, in the 2015 general election the Conservatives won 331 seats, giving them an overall majority (their first since 1992) of 12, whilst in the 1935 general election the Conservatives and the National Government, of which they formed the dominant part, actually lost seats compared with 1931 but still enjoyed a parliamentary majority of 242. I also suspect that when Maconie refers to the Labour’s leader who was “widely seen as divisive and incompetent” he’s thinking of the pacifist George Lansbury, when in fact Lansbury had been replaced as party leader by Clement Attlee in time for the 1935 election, when Labour improved upon its 1931 performance.
However, as Maconie’s references to Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ and J. B. Priestley’s ‘English Journey’ make clear, what he’s actually doing is using the “romantic cultural icon” of the Jarrow March as a convenient peg upon which to deliver a state-of-the nation address or, more precisely, to show that England is two nations, divided by class and geography, and to seek to inform one (middle-class metropolitan England) about the other (the working-class post-industrial North).
This book therefore represents a sort of companion volume to the author’s excellent ‘Pies and Prejudice. In Search of the North’, or even forms a loose trilogy with that and his tome ‘The Pie at Night. What the North Does for Fun’. ‘Long Road From Jarrow’ certainly manages, like those other books, to be both entertaining and informative, combining humour, curiosity, shrewd observation and great warmth.
Stuart Maconie has carved out a role for himself, making sense of the North for his adopted southern neighbours. It is difficult to imagine a more articulate or charming person to hold that position.
In the wake of last year’s referendum, Maconie, like many of us, found himself musing on our divided nation. Connections between the 1930’s and the present seemed to be suggesting themselves, as right wing, populist politics, divisive and suspicious of outsiders, seemed on the rise
2016 was the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Jarrow March/Jarrow Crusade, occasioned by the closure of the single employer on which all else depended, the steelworks. Unemployment was rising in the country, and the gaps between rich and poor, South and North, were obvious. 200 men set out to march to London to deliver a petition to Parliament. Jarrow captured the public imagination, and the March has become a legend of dignity,resistance and solidarity on the one hand and uncaring capitalism on the other, a divided nation
Maconie, a keen walker, decided to emulate the 300 mile journey made by the Marchers, following their daily itinerary, ‘visiting the same towns and comparing the two Englands of then and now’
Some of the parallels were very clear:
“The rise of extremism here and abroad fired by financial disasters, a wave of demagoguery and ‘strong man’ populism. Foreign wars driven by fundamentalist ideologies leading to the mass displacement of innocent people. A subsequent refugee ’crisis’. The threat of constitutional anarchy with conflict between government, parliament and judiciary. Manufacturing industries, especially steel, facing extinction….Inflammatory rhetoric stoked by a factionalised press…….A country angrily at odds with itself over its relationship to Europe, the elephant in the nation: Brexit’
This is far more than a purely personal story of one man’s walk. Maconie engages with the people he meets, garners stories of then and now, recounts the history of the places he travels through,, whilst following some of his own interests, football, music – of all kinds, and finding, often conviviality and hospitality around food, reflecting the cultures who have added, across the centuries, to the rich loam of this island .
This is an engaging, fascinating account, sometimes angry, often scathing about those whose manipulations fostered the divisions and uncertainties we now face, populists of the right and of the left. What stands out, again and again, is the richness of a culture, in this country, which has always been eclectic, fed by generations of ‘outsiders’ across the centuries, settling, marrying, having children who have feet in the history and culture of the new homeland, and influences from the old. ‘ Britishness’ develops, as it always has
In some ways this reminds me, in the serious things it is saying, of Joe Bagent’s 2008 Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, which looks at the rise of support for the Republican Party which came from those who might have been expected to find the Democrats their home.
This is cultural and social history as I prefer it – humanly, rather than statistically explored, entertaining whilst informing.
I was delighted to be offered this as an ARC, from the publishers via NetGalley, and thoroughly enjoyed this 300 mile walk, with no blisters, and in totally clement weather
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I was born, and lived in, the North East (County Durham) and the Jarrow...Read more
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