travel

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

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Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Paperback of Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Mandy Sutter is very good at those little moments of awkwardness that say so much about a character. The small but crucial details of a life, usually presented with dry and distinctly British humour. I was intrigued, therefore, to see what a collection of stories based on a couple of years spent with her (white, English) parents in Nigeria as a child would be like.

Only nine of the twenty stories are actually set in 1960s Nigeria, with others set in England just before or after this period, or later in the life of Sarah, the little girl whose father’s oil-company job takes the family to this strange, hot place, so far away from Nana. Nine stories also happen to be written from Sarah’s point of view, with another four from the perspective of one of her parents, and the rest from an assortment of acquaintances and teachers. Thus, in snapshots from different angles and at different times, we get glimpses of Sarah’s life, and the context of the family’s time abroad.

Seeing Nigeria through Sarah’s eyes as a child, we get a more matter-of-fact view than an adult might give, it’s just one more new thing at an age where many situations and long words are also new. There are still boring lessons, playground games, going to a friend’s house for tea, even if the surroundings have changed, and the etiquette with it. A mild object of interest in Nigeria, Sarah stands out just as much on her return home, where she is referred to at school as Miss Nigeria, after the teacher “had been the first to call Sarah by that name and now everyone did.” At first glance, Sarah seems to blend her English and Nigerian experiences more successfully than the adults, as with her borrowed rituals following a family bereavement, in Seed. Three for the Price of Five, and Mobylette Dreams could be tales of any awkward, unhappy teenager, unsure of her place and using either comfort eating or belligerence as a shield.

For Sarah’s mother the colonial feel of their existence in Nigeria is bothersome: the servants, the behaviour expected of the company wives, the empty days. She seems happier on her return to the English suburbs in Iroko-man, with tamed rubber plants in pots, back to normality (“What made us buy all those coffee tables?”). Sarah’s father, on the other hand, seems to leave part of himself behind on his return to England, never quite settling, with whisky gradually filling the void until eventually God takes its place. Throughout all the stories, Mandy’s eye for detail takes us right there. She conjures up the heat, the vegetation, the out of date kitchen in Nigeria, the unpreparedness of Sarah’s mum and the contrast between staid 1960s England and the slightly chaotic life they have in Nigeria.

I keep referring to this book as a short story collection because I remember Mandy talking about it in those terms a couple of years ago, and three of the chapters have appeared as stand-alone pieces elsewhere. As such I approached it as a collection even though it seems to be being marketed as a novel, and it worked well as linked stories, with the links between some more obvious than others. Someone else who’d also read it expecting a collection of stories said to me, “I’d be disappointed if I was expecting a novel”. I’d at least be confused. Perhaps neither of us reads as many experimental novels as New Welsh Rarebyte have assumed.

As a collection of short stories, however, this is a delight. Although there’s an obvious hook for anyone who’s interested in Nigeria or has been through a similar relocation, like all good writing Bush Meat is universal. It’s about childhood, and what shapes you, the long reach of events in the past, and how the same set of circumstances are experienced and remembered differently by members of the same family. Bush Meat is available now in paperback and ebook, via the publisher New Welsh Rarebyte.

When winning might cost more than losing

I wrote a post a few months ago about cost being a barrier to pursuing writing beyond a hobby, and since Kit de Waal* tweeted a link to it (let’s just pause for a moment together to let that sink in) there’s been a surge of interest in it this weekend. It seemed like a superb moment to talk about two writing competitions I nearly didn’t enter this week because of the cost of the prize.

Train waiting to take us back to Ravenglass

Any excuse for a photo of a steam train and/or Cumbria

When I say the cost of the prize, I really mean the cost of train travel and accommodation. I’m not naming names because I don’t want to make them feel bad, it is after all my decision to enter and for everyone who lives closer to the area in question it isn’t a problem. However, both the competitions had definite kudos value, it would be quite a thing even to be longlisted, but both had some or all of the main prizes involving going somewhere to do a thing (course fees paid, or free festival tickets).

One was free to enter but shortlisted entrants are expected to ‘make every effort to attend’ the award ceremony, and while the first prize includes cash, second and third are writing courses/retreats which it would cost nearly as much to travel to as to pay for a similar course nearer to home. You will note that I haven’t just gone on a similar course nearer to home, because they cost a lot of money.

The other cost £2 to enter, not a high enough fee to discourage me in itself, but none of the prizes involve cash, first and second prizes are tickets to a festival which it would be great to go to, but train fare would cost a packet and then there’s the B&B as well. You do get plenty of warning though so at least you get a chance to book the cheapest train tickets. Shortlisted authors for this one are invited to a do, but it doesn’t sound like there’s any pressure to attend.

I ended up entering both, hoping for a place on the longlist (to point to with pride) but equally hoping that I didn’t win (or not the non-cash prizes, anyway), which seems ridiculous. It’s worth pointing out that I’m voluntarily in this position (having quit my job at the end of October after squirrelling away enough money in the preceding months to let us manage for a while on that and OneMonkey’s income) and not remotely what I’d call poor, but if I’m thinking twice about entering, how many talented writers are being put off altogether because they can’t afford to be shortlisted?

*Kit de Waal has spent time and money raising awareness and helping writers from disadvantaged backgrounds get a leg up. I had heard about the Birkbeck scholarship, but hadn’t read until yesterday this New Statesman article from last April. She also wrote for the Bridport Prize blog this week about the importance of entering writing competitions, acknowledging that it can get pretty expensive.

A writer praises the North

Since I know you don’t get enough of me writing about the North, and writing, and northern writing, there’s an article of mine over at Women Writers School about that very thing.

Rusting anchor on stony beach

An anchor I saw in Cumbria, not the one that tethers me to the north

You’ll recognise it by the photo above, and my unbridled enthusiasm. And the mention of Luddites. Some of the other writers that Laurie Garrison has invited to add to her Literature and Place theme have covered exotic places like San Francisco and Bhutan so you can be an international jet-setter from the comfort of your armchair.

As ever, thoughts welcome. Do you love all my references to northern this, that and the other or do you sigh every time it comes up? Does fiction set in a place that’s familiar to you have an additional hook, or do you like reading yourself into places you’ll never visit? If you’re a writer too, is there somewhere that has that magic for you?

Living in a Cultural Void, or Whither Public Transport?

Looking at job listings on the Arts Council website the other day, I was struck by how many were in London. To save time wading through all those distant vacancies I thought about filtering so that only Yorkshire listings were shown, then I saw jobs in Hull and Rotherham (East and South Yorkshire respectively, whereas I’m in West) and I wondered if I needed to look at North West as well, since Manchester is probably easier for me (no car) to get to than either of those. Lucky Londoners, I thought, all those theatres, museums, galleries and the like right on their doorstep. Then I remembered a friend who used to live in Enfield (about 10 miles north of where I as an outsider think of as London, all those famous buildings by the Thames) saying he rarely went in to the city itself as it was quite a trek, and decided maybe I was doing many Londoners a disservice. They might be in no better position than I am, ten minutes’ walk from a train station, not so far from Bradford and Leeds. Armed with the measuring function on Google maps, and the journey planners for National Rail, Transport for London, and West Yorkshire Metro I had a bit of a look.

Starting with London, Enfield is about 8.5-12 miles as the crow flies from places I recognise on a map as having venues you’d want to visit for concerts, theatre, exhibitions etc. Because of London’s joined-up public transport system (particularly the Underground) that means it takes about 20 minutes to cover the 10 miles to the Tate Modern art gallery, half an hour to the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Barbican, and about 40 minutes to the distant Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gig venue that’s stuck in my mind from many lists of tour dates I’ve heard read out on the radio over the years.

I’m lucky to live on the outskirts of a small town with its own literature festival, and we get the odd national tour in our concert hall too (Billy Bragg was here last year). Beyond that though, it’s about 6 miles (as the crow flies from my local station, half an hour on the train) to the Hockney gallery at Saltaire, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth a visit anyway. Then you’re into the same sort of distances as from Enfield to central London: 9 miles to Bradford (theatres, galleries, the National Media Museum, the Bradford literature festival) or to Haworth for the Bronte pilgrimage, 11.5 miles to Harrogate for the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Here’s where we differ though, it takes half an hour by train into the centre of Bradford, then easily another quarter of an hour to walk to the Alhambra or Media Museum, or to the university venues for the literature festival. Haworth has a railway station, but only for steam trains so from here you’d have to get a bus, and the journey planner reckons on just over an hour. Harrogate also has a station, but from here you have to go into Leeds and back out again so it’s marginally quicker by bus, again about an hour.

It’s not all bad news though because Leeds, 13.5 miles as the crow flies, is only half an hour away by train. Of course you’ve then got a 15-20 minute walk to the Royal Armouries, the Tetley, the West Yorkshire Playhouse or the Grand Theatre, and many Leeds-based events actually happen in the student-dominated area of Headingley (just less than 12 miles from here, but as you have to go into Leeds and back out again by train, it’s quicker by bus. 50 minutes this time) but it still counts as our nearest big cultural centre. It’s where we go to gigs, anyway.

For that job in Rotherham (just under 40 miles away) it would take me about 2 hours on the train. On the plus side Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, is also 2 hours away by train even though it’s just over 60 miles from here. Wakefield, for the Hepworth gallery, is just over 20 miles away and an hour by train. York (National Railway Museum, theatres and concerts, as well as general historical loveliness) is nearly 30 miles away but only an hour and a quarter by train, not much different from Manchester with its various galleries and museums at a distance of 35 miles (hour and a half by train). Newcastle, more than 70 miles away, begins to seem reasonable at two and a quarter hours by train plus a bit of a walk to the Theatre Royal, the Sage, the Baltic, the Laing Art Gallery and various museums. I’m still not tempted by the bargain time of three and a quarter hours for the 180 miles from here to the British Library though, and I wouldn’t live in London for the world.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t looked at costs for any of these journeys, though national rail travel is likely to be more expensive than local bus or (at a guess) London Underground. Buses will take longer than the timetable says, some days are worse than others, and if you start feeling sick after more than about half an hour on a bus (like OneMonkey or I) you’re even more limited. I took midweek, 9.30am onwards, as my sample, and I haven’t considered that for some of the places you might want to visit there are only 2 or 3 trains a day, or no public transport in the evening (which might be a pain if you’re trying to get to the theatre).

Budget airline luggage charges are nothing new

Researching something else entirely in local newspapers online, I was distracted by a legal case from August 1858. In the County Court at Keighley a Mr Busfeild was attempting to claw back his unfair fee from the Midland Railway after it had decreed that his child’s pram did not constitute ordinary luggage and therefore they had no obligation to carry it without charging him. The railway company did not dispute that the pram was within the size and weight limits they set out for luggage.

Busfeild v. The Midland Railway Company. Are Perambulators Luggage?

The judge retired to think about it, and his verdict was delivered the following day and reported under the headline above in The Leeds Mercury. He went around the houses a bit, and eventually decided that since luggage was ‘clothing and such articles as a traveller usually carries with him for his present convenience’, a pram was not luggage. The judge did not think that a family trip to the seaside ‘usually’ involved a pram and therefore the railway company were within their rights to charge an extra fee for carrying it. The general manager of the Midland Railway, a Mr Newcombe, claimed that if you started allowing prams as luggage, next thing people would be wanting small basket pony carriages on trains! With a slight updating of the specific items in question I can imagine spokesmen for budget airlines coming out with similar justifications today. Interesting to think they’re part of such a long tradition.

Northern Rail Odyssey part 3: East and North Yorkshire

Having a rover ticket instead of the usual brace of singles at fixed times was remarkably liberating (more so than I’d expected). There was one journey where I planned a fixed itinerary because the services are infrequent and we had particular places we needed to get to, but on the final day we weren’t even entirely sure where to go until we set off. It’s wonderful to be able to admit after half an hour that you’ve run out of things to do in this town, or it’s not to your taste, and march back up to the station just in time for a train to somewhere else. No putting a brave face on it, no tramping round getting colder and wetter as the clock ticks extra-slowly through the five hours to the train you’re booked on. Timetables permitting, you can follow a hunch, visit one landmark you’ve always been curious about, or just see where the line goes. If you find yourself chugging through a post-industrial wasteland, you can always read a book (when did every station acquire a neighbouring Tesco? Seamer has a Morrisons instead, which at least serves as a landmark. Hull and Workington, and no doubt various other places I’ve forgotten, present industrial estates to the inbound traveller for a couple of minutes prior to the station, which is hardly an enticement to disembark).

Thanks to the sunshine we plumped for a circuitous route to the East coast. OneMonkey misses the coast, and while nowhere else is quite like the North Tyneside of his youth, sometimes any stretch of sea will suffice to reinvigorate his soul. Rather than the usual Leeds to Scarborough and change, we opted for Leeds to Hull. We almost (almost) walked out of Hull station into the city itself, but the old ‘from Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us’ trumped the more recent winning of the UK city of culture bid, and we settled for changing trains and heading to Beverley (sorry Hull, maybe someday. Probably in 2017).

Beverley, which neither of us had visited before, is tiny (like a compressed York) and yet has 2 branches of Caffe Nero, which I found shocking (having said that, Leeds city centre has at least 3 in a similar sized patch). It also, rather marvellously, has a WHSmith bookshop (separate from the general WHSmith further down the street) next to its Oxfam bookshop, as though the people of Beverley are insatiable book-buyers, and the usual-sized book sections of newsagents or charity shops simply can’t cater for their needs.

vaulted ceiling, Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster was a revelation, I can’t believe we’ve never visited before (for a pair of unbelievers we spend a lot of our holidays visiting churches…) – light and airy, full of medieval carvings, and with the most welcoming bunch of guides (vicars? At least one was wearing a gown like an old-fashioned headmaster) who were happy to chat to us about the building and its history. Hexham Abbey (which was advertised here as another must-see destination on a church-lover’s tour of Saxon Northumbria) faded from my memory instantly as I stepped outside, but Beverley Minster will stay with me for a while I think, just as Wells cathedral has for over ten years.

Carving in Beverley Minster

Carving in Beverley Minster

From Beverley we headed north-east to Bridlington, a first for OneMonkey who wanted to visit simply because we were passing and it’s on the coast. I had it filed away in hazy childhood memories as a place of donkey rides and amusement arcades, in other words just another seaside town that probably looks a bit shabby on a Monday when the kids are still at school. It did look a bit shabby, and it smelt strongly of fish and seaweed, seemingly more so than any other coastal town I’ve visited. The strong breeze was blowing sand along the beach in interesting patterns, and there were clusters of gulls gathered here and there, but Bridlington was largely devoid of interest.

Bridlington beach

Bridlington

Filey was a good one to end on. Stuck firmly in some halcyon past that may not have existed outside this small North Yorkshire town, Filey should be prescribed to the stressed. It probably was, in the 1930s. It was surprisingly busy (more so than Brid), but the beach is big and flat enough for no-one to be within striking distance (and no-one’s dog to be a nuisance). There were fossils, rock pools, dangerous-looking cliffs, gentler sand-eddies than at Brid (and next to no gulls), and the constant roar and shush of the sea. Tired and happy at tea-time (though still a few hours from tea) we stood in the shed that purports to be Filey station, and started planning the next bout of rail-roving.