A march in time: Stuart Maconie
- Brian Donaldson
- 9 August 2017
During the austerity-hit year of 1936, 200 men from Jarrow travelled on foot from the north of England to Westminster pleading for employment. Stuart Maconie traced their route
Stuart Maconie likes a good walk. The BBC 6 presenter and former NME journalist has long written about the joys of rambling, striding and strolling for the likes of Country Walking magazine and in his own publication Never Mind the Quantocks. But for his latest book (and now stage show), Maconie wanted to don his chunky boots for a specific project that tied together a moment of British social and political history.
'In 2016, I was thinking of doing a long walk that had a narrative and could link up places, and instantly thought about the Jarrow march which covered about 80% of England. I then saw that the 80th anniversary was approaching, so thought I'd do it day by day as they did it and stay in the same towns so I could produce this snapshot of then and now.'
With their north-east community ravaged by a cruel recession, some 200 men (and intermittently their local MP, Ellen Wilkinson) took to the highways and byways of England and headed for the House of Commons. Once there, the marchers would hand in a 10,000 signatures-strong petition which they hoped would lead to a rescue package of jobs. Almost inevitably, the plan failed, with the petition mysteriously lost and Walter Runciman, the President of the Board of Trade, callously stating that 'Jarrow must find its own salvation'.
'Some people think they were hunger strikers, some that they were hunger marchers, and some people think it was a political protest intended to bring down the government,' notes Maconie of this much misunderstood crusade. 'In fact, it was a bunch of guys, 200 of them and their MP, asking for assistance: "Could you build us a steelworks?" It was basically people asking very nicely for work. Some people think that's why it was a failure because where the Suffragettes threw bricks through windows and made demands, the Jarrow people went cap in hand to a government that simply ignored them.'
For Maconie, then and now are not as distant as some might assume. 'The autumns of 1936 and 2016 had a lot of parallels, such as this strongman populism on the rise: Hitler and Mussolini then, Trump and Putin now; a Labour Party and leader who was seen as incompetent and a Tory Party recently returned to power; there was a fractious relationship with Europe at the time and while they had Blackshirts on the streets, we have the EDL. I wanted to tease all that out, but I also wanted to look at the way the country looked, so the towns I walked through would have had mines and steelworks; of course, they've gone completely.'
While the Jarrow marchers had themselves, a Labrador called Paddy, and a harmonica band for company, Maconie had Twitter, weather apps and Spotify to keep him entertained or informed of what lay ahead on his adventure. Despite the pleasures he encountered in the towns he visited (sampling crazy-hot curries in a Leeds gurdwara to bumping into graphic novel legend Alan Moore in a Northampton bookshop), it must have been a lonely old road at times?
'I just remember checking into my hotel in St Albans thinking, "I've kind of had enough of this now. It's been fun but I'm now cold and tired and would like to go home". The places were interesting, but to get to them, a lot of the time I'm just stomping along a busy A-road beside a dirty ditch for a few hours a day. It's not a long distance walk I'd recommend to anyone who was thinking of doing something like the West Highland Way.'
Stuart Maconie: Jarrow Road to the Deep South, Gilded Balloon at the Museum, 21–27 Aug, 7.30pm, £12. Long Road from Jarrow is out now published by Ebury.