The following is an interview with northern broadcaster and author Stuart Maconie. It first appeared in Northern Life magazine August 2012, by Steve Suttie. If you can’t be bothered reading it… click here to listen to it instead
Its often said that pies have holes in the top of them so that Wiganers can carry 5 in each hand. Obviously it’s not true, but it’s this kind of northern folklore and banter that litters the writing works of Stuart Maconie – arguably one of Wigans finest exports since the meat and potato pie itself.
When he is not keeping the nations music fans informed and entertained with his radio shows, including the daily BBC6 Music afternoon show with Boltons Mark Radcliffe, Stuart Maconie will be found indulging in his other passion – writing.
Stuart has written several excellent books over the past decade, including one of the finest books ever written about the North of England “Pies and Prejudice – In search of the North” which is a first class account of the quirky, often funny, occasionally sad history of our region over the past few centuries.
But its not Pies and Prejudice that Stuart wants to talk about today – it’s his latest literary work “Hope and Glory.” The blurb says “These were the days that made us, and these are the day trips to find them. Should we do a flask? And are you sure you’ll be warm enough in that coat?”
In Hope and Glory Stuart Maconie goes in search of the places, people and events that have shaped modern Britain. Starting with the death of Queen Victoria, to the Battle of the Somme and the General Strike, and on to the docking of the Empire Windrush and Bobby Moore raising the Jules Rimet trophy, he chooses a defining moment in our nation’s story from each decade of the last century and explores its legacy today. Some were glorious days, some were tragic, or even shameful, but each has played its part in making us who we are as a nation. From pop stars to politicians, Suffragettes to punks, this is a journey around Britain in search of who we are.
In writing this book, you managed to grab national headlines after you created a public outcry in Accrington. What have you got against Accy?
To be honest I was a bit disappointed by that, because it wasn’t the people of Accrington that I upset – it was one or two councillors and civic chamber people, the kind of people who always misunderstand stuff. A similar thing happened in Wigan when people were trying to name a pub after George Orwell. The councillors were saying “Ooh he didn’t say very nice things about our town did he? He said how miserable it was!” But that wasn’t what he’d said at all, he said there was a problem in this town and something should be done about it. He wasn’t writing a tourism brochure for the local council. Some people are just very very small minded. In Accrington I was writing about the towns economic problems, unemployed youths, boarded up shops and its connection with the Battle of the Somme. They came back and said “its not all bad, we’ve got a Costa Coffee you know,” which was just so depressing.
So you don’t regret saying what you did?
To be honest the reaction I’ve had from ordinary people who know Accrington and who live in Accrington has been brilliant. My mum told me that Northwest Tonight had taken cameras down and they’d got the Mayor or somebody on TV saying that I’d done them down, but then they went out on the streets and read out the descriptions I’d written to people in the town centre who said “well, he’s right!” I’ve not got it in for Accington, I’ve not got it in for Wigan where I’m from but I’m telling it like it is, a lot of northern towns have had a bad time for years and years and years. But you can’t walk down the street in Accy and see all the boarded up shops and pretend everythings good. It was just one page of descriptions of what its like to walk through the town centre on a Tuesday afternoon, and lets be honest – its not Venice. I think it was a completely fair portrait of Accrington, albeit a very sad one.
You’ve become something of an ambassador for the North with your writing, TV and radio documentaries about the region. But you live in Birmingham, and you work in Manchester. That must be an awful commute every day?
I was based at BBC Birmingham for years and also worked a lot out of the BBC in London, and that’s how come I moved down there. But I also have a place in Cumbria so I spend my time between the two. I have only been at the BBC in Manchester for a couple of years, but I am looking at moving back up north permanently. I’m currently looking at lots of places like South Lakes, North Lancashire, Ribble Valley, or possibly Peak District or out near Hebden Bridge. Theres lots of great places to choose from and I’m looking at them all.
You’ve been described by the Times as a “national treasure” and by Peter Kay as “the best thing to come out of Wigan since the A58” do you have any other accolades that you are particularly proud of?
I’m quite pleased with my Celebrity Mastermind trophy from 2011, for my chosen subject of 20th Century Poetry! It was quite difficult and it was really nice to do something a bit different.
In the new book “Hope and Glory” you have chosen one major event from each decade of the past century that has shaped the UK that we live in today. Of the 10 different events you have covered which was your favourite to research and learn about?
Surprisingly to me, the Suffragettes interested me the most. I went to Emmeline Pankhursts house in Manchester and that was really interesting. I didn’t really know anything about the Suffragettes and I was intrigued to find out how politically forceful they were. I’d thought they were nice, genteel women in frocks – but they were a full on political force and I enjoyed finding out about their roots in Manchester. I also enjoyed going around and finding out about the Queens silver jubilee, pop rock and live aid. I also very much enjoyed working on the chapter about the Empire Windrush and went to look at where various immigrant communities had chosen to live in Britain.
One Chapter I found incredible was about Queen Victoria, and the fact that she was never supposed to become the Queen!
No, she wasn’t. And her Mum tried her best to stop her from getting to be the Queen as well, but she succeeded through force of personality really, she was a feisty kid. In her old age she became a rather dumpy figurehead and that’s generally how she’s remembered. She was the first person in Britain to be called Victoria!
That leads me on nicely to my next question, because what I like most about your writing is that you repackage well known historic stories and brighten them up with fresh new details. For instance, you tell us that Queen Victoria had 8 separate assassination attempts on her life. How do you find such fine, little known nuggets of information?
I go to all the places, and I wander around and talk to people, and a lot of my research takes place in the local libraries. And life has been made easier with the internet these days as well. But with researching you can work all day on a book and not write a single word and you look back and think its been a wasted day. But its not if you found a little detail out that can help you tell the story differently.
I grew up about 6 miles away from Boggart Hole Clough where, thanks to reading Hope and Glory, I have learnt that it was the birthplace of modern democracy. It was the meeting place of the Suffragettes and where the Labour party was formed. But I’d never heard of this place and if you google Boggart Hole Clough, nothing about its historical significance comes back.
No, it doesn’t. Until now this information has been kept in separate places like in the records at the Working Class movement library, which is a fantastic resource for things like that. And you talk to people like the girls at the Emmeline Pankhurst centre and you find out more stuff. But you’re right, it hasn’t all been put together like this before so hopefully I’ve helped with telling that piece of history now, so that’s good. But yes, it does show that google doesn’t know everything, and I certainly wouldn’t trust everything that’s written on Wikipedia!
Your Wikipedia profile is very kind. I saw it last night researching for this interview.
Is it? Do you know what, I try to avoid looking at anything to do with me because even if its nice I feel kind of stupid and a lot of the time I’ll think “that’s not right” and its just best to keep away from any reviews or things like that because its human nature to think “I didn’t say that” and take issue with it.
The Guardian describes this book saying “Copies should be available in every school” which is a brilliant endorsement. But what were you trying to achieve with this, what drove you around the country researching and telling all these stories?
I’m very keen these days on telling peoples histories. I’m getting more political as I get older and I make no bones about that in the book. I say that whilst it’s a history book, it’s a social history book told from my perspective. I hope is not biased, but there are lots and lots of historians, people like David Starkey and Simon Schama and their history books are about Kings and Queens and battles. I’m more interested in how ordinary people have lived and what shaped their lives. I wanted to tell another kind of history, the history of working class people, women, immigrants and their struggles, about strikes and pop music and a whole different kind of history that’s just as relevant – it isn’t about naval battles or coronations or stuff like that, and that’s what drove me on. I wanted to write a short, accessible peoples history of the 20th century, from a very British, very personal perspective as a kind of contrast to the other kind of pomp and circumstance history that gets celebrated all the time.
How are you finding time to do all the magazine articles, books, daily radio show and your TV work?
Good point, when I took on the daily radio show I did ask for a generous holiday entitlement so I could fit the writing in as well. My next book will be tied into a radio series, so that helps. Its called The Peoples Songs, and it will be on BBC Radio 2. Its basically a history of post war Britain told through pop records. But like a lot of people who are self employed I’m always working and I’m happy with that because the day will come when the phone doesn’t ring and nobody wants to ask me anything. So I’ll just make hay while the sun shines!
You have achieved an extraordinary amount in your career. Are there still any ambitions left to achieve?
I’m a big poetry fan, and one day I’d like to take the plunge and have a go at writing some poetry. But I know so many great poets I’d have to be very very sure I’d done it right before I’d dare let anybody see it.
Thanks for the interview Stuart, before you go, I have to test your Northern-ness. So, if you were forced to do something quintessentially Northern right now… what would it be?
Oh that’s an easy one. I’d pop into the nearest Booths and buy a steak and kidney pie!