August 01, 2007

Pies and Prejudice [Book Review]

Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North
by Stuart Maconie
Paperback, 352 pages
Ebury Press
ISBN 9780091910228



England, to me, looks way too small to have a North, so this book is an education. My perceptions, I realised, cringing, are just the kind that I take voluble delight in castigating when I hear them in non-Indian accents about India. The England I know through books, movies and TV is London, plus stray other cities, plus an interchangeable bunch of counties in which thrived the Yorkshire dales and quaint accents of James Herriot’s stories and the never-was-land of Wodehouse. I know better now.
Maconie knows his subject intimately, and loves it unabashedly.
He explains the essence of Northness thus: Northerners, he says, are “different, we think; harder, flintier, steelier. We are the ones who turn the air-conditioning down in the meeting room, who want to sit outside the pub in October, who order the hottest curries, the strongest beer, the most powerful drugs. We like to think we’re different, and we cherish our prejudices.”
We go walkabout, from city centre to pub to concert to museum, as he chats merrily about wars, football, architecture, food, popular music (yup, the Beatles), Marx and Engels (“Eleanor [Marx] was married to Karl of course, who by contrast was a bit of a lardarse with rubbish hair who nicked all Freidrich’s ideas”), George Orwell, industrial decline, renaissance, Transcendental Meditation (“as it’s a trademark, TM™”), biting insults peppering even-handed overview. The cultural differences between North and South and the even lesser known (to the outsider) rifts within the north itself are fascinating. The rivalries of the natives—Lancashire and Yorkshire, Liverpool and Manchester—were ancient history, or jovial football rivalries to me, not simmering pressure cookers that explode every now and then even today. But no, it’s no sociological treatise, and it’s not a tourists’-eye view of the sights. This is from the inside, living, breathing, reminiscing with a chuckle or a sigh.
He’s a witty man, is Stuart Maconie. And he’s made a pretty good career out of it; the author note says he’s “known to millions,” with a reputation both in broadcast media and in print. And that’s one of the problems I have with the book. Not the fame; the wit. I will choose a funny read over high lit any day, but he never stops. Reminds me of some chaps I know, always the wise guy. It gets tiring, difficult to take in a book-length dose. I’d have enjoyed it more as, say, a weekly half-hour radio programme. More seriously, it’s a book that gives one the feeling that while it’s written from the inside, it’s also written for the insider. So many in-jokes, obscure references, untranslated argot that I kept flipping to the back, vainly looking for a glossary.
In this age of search engines and short attention spans, perhaps those quibbles are irrelevant. So read it in short spells, stay online while you read, and it’s worth your time.

Published in Outlook Traveller, August 2007.

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