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Stuart Maconie is well known these days as a DJ on Radio 2 and a "talking head" on many TV shows which involve lists, such as the 100 best love songs or whatever idea Channel 4 has to fill the schedule cheaply on a Saturday night. He used to write for the NME and Q magazine and seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and popular culture.
He hails from Wigan, a town he describes as hopelessly "hick" and one which seems to instil a great sense of laughter in southerners. I reviewed the book on Amazon last year and mentioned my late husband's mirth and delight at travelling through Wigan North Western railway station, something I failed to understand. To me Wigan meant the Verve, George Orwell, Uncle Joe's Mint Balls and Wallace and Gromit. Doesn't seem so bad to me. My husband was a Londoner and took a different view.
In this book Maconie sets out to discover what the north of England is and what it means to those who live there.
He starts his journey in Crewe, which, after some deliberation, he decides is the "start" of the north. He does most of his travelling by train, something I must admit I admire, as I find it the most civilised mode of transport myself.
He makes a point of talking to people along the way and he manages to transplant conversations and encounters he has into words in a humorous and colourful way.
He doesn't claim to visit everywhere in the north - but he describes the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester. He paints vivid pictures of two mighty cities, strong enough for me to end up visiting both. He describes the new town of Skelmersdale, where he worked briefly as a college lecturer and talks warmly of the people he encountered then and of the town as it is today. He discusses the historical rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire and describes the Lake District, a place he particularly loves, as a place of great beauty and stunning vistas.
I particularly enjoyed his chapter on Bury, somewhere I doubt I will ever visit. Maconie's description of the market there was fantastic - he really brought the sights, smells and conversations to life with his prose.
During his journey, Maconie speaks to people as he goes and the one thing that always jumps out at you is the willingness of strangers to speak about the place they come from, and to enjoy a little banter with the author. Maconie excels at observation when he records these conversations in the book - he really captures the mannerisms and nuances some of the people he spoke to conveyed to him very well in the written word.
While I really enjoyed the book there are some criticisms. Maconie starts the book by pointing out that there is no "South of England" correspondent for the BBC. He claims he says this without "malice or anger" but throughout this book you can see he has something of a chip on his shoulder about the Londoncentric media's attitude towards the north with several digs contained within.
He also seems surprised that there are wealthy people who live in the north of England, almost as if this was the preserve of the south only. His chapter on the stockbroker belt in Cheshire is a little smug, almost as if he feels the need to keep up with the Joneses down in London, and also assumes the reader is unaware that wealth exists north of Watford.
These are small quibbles however as the book is overall a very enjoyable read. Maconie is an excellent writer and although this is essentially a love letter to the north of England, it is full of humour as well, and allows the famous warmth that northerners possess to shine through.
***This was previously published on dooyoo by me under the same user name***