Non-fiction – paperback; Ebury Press; 368 pages; 2008.
The North-South divide in Great Britain is the subject of this rather tongue-in-cheek travelogue by Northern journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie.
For non-Brits, the divide is not an exact line, but one which refers to the economic and cultural differences between southern England and the rest of the country, including Scotland. It involves many stereotypes, including the belief that Northerners are thick and Southerners are posh. Or, as Maconie, a Northerner transplanted to the South, puts it:
Good or bad, ‘the north’ means something to all English people wherever they hail from. To people from London — cheery costermonger, cravated fop or Shoreditch-based web designer on stupid scooter alike — it means desolation, arctic temperatures, mushy peas, a cultural wasteland with limited shopping opportunities and populated by aggressive trolls. To northerners it means home, truth, beauty, valour, romance, warm and characterful people, real beer and decent chip shops. And in this we are undoubtedly biased, of course.
The enchantingly entitled Pies and Prejudice takes us on a wonderful tour of the North, with the erudite and charming Maconie as our host. Having watched Maconie on a many a TV show, I couldn’t help but hear his Wigan accent as I read this book, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. (Indeed, I hope that at some point he turns it into a documentary series, as it would make fascinating viewing.)
As one would expect from a journalist who champions pop music, the book is littered with musical references, such as this:
The Smiths’ songs drip, like an evening drizzle off the Moors, with references to Manchester and its environs. Rusholme, Strangeways, Southern Cemetery, Whalley Range, the Holy Name Church. Morrissey has a video called Hulmerist, a wry reference to his childhood home. In an early interview, he said of his artistic self, ‘I am forever chained to a disused railway line in Wigan’. While Thatcher, witchlike, cast the north into outer darkness, The Smiths’ songs illuminated it anew with northern light and fireworks. We loved them for it.
But it’s also clear that Maconie enjoys history and architecture and food, because these subjects are constantly referenced throughout as he makes his way across the country. Each chapter is littered with fascinating facts and figures and snippets of trivia, all delivered in the writer’s trademark witty prose style, which is rather reminiscent of Bill Bryson.
His greatest skill, however, is bringing rather drab places to life. He has a certain knack of saying so much in just a few sentences, lovely thumbnail portraits, if you will.
Where Bury Market excels, though, is food. In the new Fish Market you can gaze, slightly unnerved, at the dead, sightless eyes of row upon row of sea bass and snapper, mackerel and trout lying in state on funeral dais of crushed ice and parsley. The stalls are staffed by either blonde girls in full make-up who you just know are dying to get out that white coat and into their skimpy glad rags this weekend or cheery rubicund men holding up what look like conger eels and joshing in ribald style with housewives. All of them adhere to Maconie’s first law of market trade: cheeriness is proportional to the gruesome nature of the wares being handled. The grislier the fare, the gayer the banter.
By the time I got to the last page I felt bereft: it was that same kind of sad feeling one experiences when a much-enjoyed holiday draws to a close. Having learnt so much about the northern regions of England in Maconie’s company, I was itching to go out there and visit these places myself. Highly recommended, whether you are from North, South or somewhere else entirely!