Best-selling author and BBC presenter Stuart Maconie, speaks with Natalie Anglesey about northern pride and the Long March from Jarrow.
Mention the name Stuart Maconie to avid BBC Radio listeners and no doubt there will be a smile of recognition. He was already a bit of a radio legend when we first met when the BBC was still housed on Oxford Road in Manchester, prior to the move to MediaCityUK, in Salford. Stuart has worked on BBC Radio 1,2,3 and 4, as well as Radio 5 Live and now on Radio 6 Music. Currently, at the weekend, he presents The Freak Zone Playlist, on Saturday evening and The Freak Zone, on Sundays.
“The content is difficult to describe as it’s music from a wide variety of genres - everything from rock to folk and experimental - as the titles suggest,” laughs Stuart. He still co-hosts an afternoon show five days a week with my ex- Radio 2 producer, Mark Radcliffe, called Radcliffe Maconie.
Their shared passion for music and self-deprecating humour made them popular with Radio 2 listeners before the series transferred to Radio 6 Music. “Mark and I are still going strong although I’ve always considered writing books as my proper job and radio as a lovely hobby,” Stuart grins.
One of the good things about co-hosting is that if one of us needs time off, the other is there to carry on regardless! Last year I needed time off when I followed the Long March from Jarrow to commemorate its 80 th anniversary. Born in Whiston on Merseyside, even at an early age Stuart was into writing and music. While a student at St John Rigby College, in Wigan, he formed a band, Les Flirts, featuring himself on guitar/vocals performing at venues like the BierKellar and Trucks. “I loved my time in Wigan and still support Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors to this day,” Stuart reminisces. “After college I taught English and sociology at Skelmersdale College, in Lancashire. I really enjoyed teaching and was chuffed to bits when years later my old college awarded me an honorary degree and even named a Hall of Residence after me!
Bolton University also kindly awarded me an Honorary Doctorate of Letters. But after teaching for a bit, the New Musical Express, or the NME as it became known, offered me a job and I knew that’s what I really wanted to do.” Relocating to the Midlands, because his wife lived there, Stuart has since written for a variety of newspapers and magazines including Q, ELLE, The Times, The Guardian, the Evening Standard, Daily Express, and Mojo. He’s ambivalent about claims he coined the phrase Britpop in the 1990s. “Im sure someone must have used the expression before me about The Hollies, or The Beatles, back in the 60s. But I was the first person to use it about bands like Oasis and Blur and I still keep in touch with the guys from Blur.
A popular author, Stuart’s first books were about his passion for music with The Official History of Blur, followed by James-Folklore: The Official History. However, his first book with Ebury press was Cider with Roadies, a humorous autobiography of his experiences as a music journalist. That was followed by Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North, another humorous book discussing the reality of the North of England as opposed to the popular myths. A third book, Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England was followed by The Pie at Night: In Search of the North at Play.
Meanwhile Stuart’s career on radio was also going strong. “I’m particularly proud of a series called The Peoples Songs, a story of modern Britain in 50 records. A kind of musical social history, it examined events in Britain and how particular songs became the soundtrack of that period. I also presented musical specials for Radio 4 and the short-lived BBC Radio 3. ITV3 beckoned and I presented Stuart Maconies TV Towns, six one-hour shows about TV and film locations in Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London.” Stuart’s the first to admit that, although he works in Manchester during the week, he perhaps appreciates the North more from a distance. But when broadcaster John Humphries once described him as a professional Northerner, he responded. “I told him I’d rather be described an enthusiastic, gifted amateur! I’m proud of where I came from but I also know we are not perfect. In my opinion we can be brave, romantic and poetic. That’s how I would describe those brave folk who walked from Jarrow, the length of England, to ask for work.”
In case you think this pop guru spends all his time in a radio studio or writing at a computer let’s dispel that myth straight away. Stuart wrote for the magazine Country Walking and his book, Never Mind the Quantocks, is a collection of more than 50 humorous essays from his monthly column in that magazine. “I’m proud to be President of the Ramblers and a keen fell-walker. I’m a huge fan of Wainwright and I’ve completed all 214 of Wainwright’s walks in Cumbria. As an honorary member of the Wainwright Society, I was proud to give the Memorial Lecture.” Stuart’s already planning his next book but he’s looking forward to appearing at The Lowry talking about Long Road from Jarrow: A journey through Britain then and now. It’s my most political book so far but I hope it’s also entertaining.
I’m a bit of a techno head so as I walked from village to village taking photographs I noticed the landscape had barely changed. But using social media I asked where I could get a good pint or a decent bed for the night and the response was fantastic. So I’ve included some of that in the book but even more in my talk. Although the subject matter is a serious one, I hope it’ll be an entertaining and informative event”.
Stuart Maconie Jarrow: Road to the Deep South at The Lowry, 18 January, 2018 thelowry.com