In the summer of 2008 I was a freelance radio presenter, which is a fancy term for being largely unemployed. I had moved in with my girlfriend (now my wife) in her tiny one-bedroomed flat in Finsbury Park in north London, where there wasn’t enough spare room to own a cat, let alone swing it.
In between watching every single episode of the historian Adam Hart- Davis’ excellent What the Romans Did for Us and its numerous spin-off series, I delved into writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie’s then recently-published love letter to the north, Pies and Prejudice.
As a northerner in exile, just like the book’s author had been, it made me misty-eyed for the luscious rolling hills, the quaint local customs and, most of all, the people of the north. London was fun, but it was dirty, crowded, unfriendly and hugely expensive and Maconie’s witty prose painted a picture that wasn’t idealised or sugar-coated in any way, but it was real, honest and crafted with pure veneration of its subjects. It really struck a chord.
It was on finishing that book that I vowed to begin the search for a new job nearer the M62 than the M25 – right after I had learned more about the invention of the knitting machine in the Tudor period. That winter we moved to rural West Yorkshire and we have never looked back.
Maconie now splits his time between Birmingham and Manchester, copresenting the afternoon show on digital radio station 6Music with Mark Radcliffe. He has written a number of other books and, in September, released what is being termed a companion piece to Pies and Prejudice – not a sequel – called The Pie at Night.
The new tome takes a look at what happens after the north knocks off for the day and changes into its gladrags. I catch up with Stuart Maconie less than an hour before he is due on air and begin by telling him about his part in my decision to return to the north. The author seems genuinely chuffed, “that’s really gratifying, and lots of people have said that” he remarks, “people really seem to have read it in exile and considered coming back or at least thought differently about the north.”
What is it about the north and northerners that make these exiles yearn for their homeland? “I don’t think there’s that much difference between someone from Exeter and someone from Hull, but it is London that really makes the difference” he explains, “so much of British culture has become swamped by London and centred around London. All the heavy industry and the way northerners converse and make friends – it’s very different up here.”
Does that affect how we enjoy ourselves after work? “If your journey home involves a two hour tube train ride, then your leisure time will certainly be different from those in the north who can go out to brass band practice or a speedway meeting,” says Stuart, “the north is very crowded and we’ve had this kind of outsider mentality which means we take our fun very seriously.”
I put it to Stuart that the manner of the commute is as important as the length of time it takes. I regularly drive from near Ilkley to Ripley in North Yorkshire for work and, although it’s a half hour journey, I enjoy travelling through some of the most stunning countryside in the country, rather than along the murky subterranean tunnels of the capital. “Absolutely!” agrees Maconie, “I often travel between Birmingham and Manchester and it does take an hour and a half, but I go through Cheshire, I get to see (picturesque hill) the Cloud at Congleton and I’m not clamped up in someone’s armpit in darkness!”
“I think we live a lot more al fresco in the north, we do so much outside, even though the weather is terrible”
According to his research, how do we tend to enjoy ourselves in the north then? “Look at organised sport, for example” says Maconie, “the roots of football are in Lancashire, rugby league started in Huddersfield. As an antidote to working, more often than not we have said ‘right, let’s form a football club, or let’s climb a mountain, or form a choir or a rambling society rather than just go to the pub. Of course, we have occasionally gone to the pub, but we take this fun seriously to get away from the dangers and boredom of the work that we used to do.”
I ask him if he thinks this is where concepts like the Calendar Girls came from – the Yorkshire Dales WI members who stripped off for a charity calendar and became international stars. “I think so” Stuart considers, “we’ve had a great history of self-reliance. Funnily enough, I went to a WI meeting near Carlisle for the book and they were brilliant. They were people who say ‘I am not going to just sit watching television’, which I think a lot of people reckon is all working class people do all day and all night. I wanted to celebrate the truth, the fact that they do lots more than that.”
Given his traversing of the north of England, does anything that he has learnt give him the impression that Yorkshire could one day rule itself, as has been mooted? “I’m not sure,” he ponders, “I think shifting the balance of power generally from London the north, to Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool is a good idea. I think singling out just Yorkshire might be a little bit parochial and might buy into lots of people’s prejudices about Yorkshire folk, which is that they feel different, but I think we are more alike than we are different.”
So there is no great political treaty within the pages of The Pie at Night? “If there was one political message (with a small ‘p’) in the book,” says Maconie “it would be that people like Simon Cowell
and TV producers in general would have you believe that all people do now for their leisure is slump in front of the TV and that we are very passive. But that’s not right – people still go out eating and drinking and making music, forming their own football clubs like FC United or climbing mountains. I wanted to reflect that, the fact that we are not these passive consumers and we dress up and know how to have a good time. I wanted to celebrate that.”
Finally, because the press release for the book insists that once read, you will be unable to resist booking a trip to Grandma Pollards chippy in Walsden, Todmorden, I had to make Stuart spill the beans as to why. “Well, I went to several excellent chippies and that was one ofthem” he explains, “the Bispham Kitchen in Blackpool runs it a close second. But I do like a chippy where you can sit down, have white bread and butter and even a vanilla slice in there! I just like those old school chippies, and that’s something we do so well up north.”
He’s not wrong – if reading Pies and Prejudice was a major factor in me returning up north, it was matched by the fact that it is impossible to find a decent serving of fish and chips anywhere south of the Watford Gap. Trust me, I’ve checked.