Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now by Stuart Maconie

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Review by Liz Dexter

This entertaining and thought-provoking book is both a state-of-the-nation essay and an exercise in historical research and re-enactment and Maconie, being a seasoned writer and man of the people, gets it just right.

While others of his books have looked at particular regions, with a sort of emphasis on the Midland and North, this retraces the steps of the Jarrow Marchers from Jarrow to London. Along the way, he interrogates the landscape for reminders and commemoration, looks for parallels with today’s issues and politics, and gently asks people what they know of the March and Marchers.

On the parallels, he draws in right from the beginning the fact that there’s a Conservative government which has returned into power with an increased majority (this was obviously written before the last election) and a Labour Party that’s increasingly split. There is a rise of populism and attraction to strong leaders and foreign wars leading to huge numbers of refugees, who are then feared and suspected, and new forms of media stirring up all sorts of fake news and weird portrayals, and a country considering its relationship with Europe. Not much difference between 80 years ago and now, then. He’s very balanced on Brexit; while being clear which side he’s on, he’s also able to draw conclusions on why people in isolated, rural or urban deprived areas voted as they did and fairly strong on the London-centric bubble people got into over it. It’s of necessity a political book, but I think the history and people outweigh any dryness or partisanship that could engender.

Having described a bit of the general ideology of the book, it’s to Maconie’s credit that it doesn’t become over-crowded or chaotic. He tends to take a theme or type of people in each town he visits (following the exact timetable and journey (where it’s possible to know it) that the Marchers took); Polish people in one place, Sikhs in another. There’s a lovely scene where he hovers outside a Gurdwara, unsure of the protocols around walking in and demanding free food and some great interactions with the custodians of museums and strange places.

One thing not accessible to the Marchers is that Maconie uses social media to find things to do and people to meet. But something common to the media of both ages is fake news, and Maconie finds a great deal of false or obfuscating information on the Marchers, both promoted then through the newspapers and becoming part of the accepted history as time passed. He’s careful to review contemporary accounts as well as collecting opinions and family memories from the people he meets, and this gives a depth and legitimacy to the book.

Maconie ends up, unlike the Marchers, in fact, entering Parliament and meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen. The one false note in the book is sounded around her, as Maconie claims not to have heard of her early on, but being a social commentator interested in politics and the North, it seemed odd for him not to know of the long-term social activist and actor who took over the late Jo Cox’s constituency. However, this does allow for a less clumsy introduction to Brabin and wouldn’t register if you weren’t looking for it.

This was a book kindly made available to me by the publisher via NetGalley; there were a few issues with varying tenses which I’m sure will be smoothed out by publication. This is a good book and probably a fairly important one, presenting as it does a state of the nation review as well as a good, hard look at history and the current presentation of history, all told by a genial and gently funny narrator.

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Liz Dexter blogs at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home. The furthest she’s ever walked is 27 miles in one day on the mildly disappointing Birmingham Walkathon and even though she runs marathons, she’d never walk one again.

Stuart Maconie, Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now (Ebury Press, 2017). 978-1785030536, 368 pp. Hardback.

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