Writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie retraced the steps of the Jarrow March for his new book. He talks to Chris Bond about his journey through modern England.
In October 1936, a group of 200 men set off from Jarrow and began walking the 300 miles to London.
The Jarrow Crusade, as it became known at the time, was a protest against the mass unemployment and grinding poverty that was crippling industrial towns and cities, particularly in the North of England. It was born out of a society riven by growing inequality and injustice and one facing an alarming rise in fascist tendencies.
Eighty years later and writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie, host of BBC 6music’s afternoon show with Mark Radcliffe, retraced the footsteps of this historic march which he recounts in his new book, Long Road from Jarrow - A journey through Britain then and now.
“We seem to be so obsessed with anniversaries these days, everything from pop albums to war commemorations. But last year as the 80th anniversary of the Jarrow March was approaching nobody seemed to be making much fuss about it, which seemed odd to me,” he says.
“It ties in with the sort of things I write about: social history, politics and there’s a pop culture element because it’s been the inspiration for so many plays and pop songs. Also I’m a keen walker and I liked the idea of doing a long walk that would take me to a lot of different parts of England.”
Last summer he took three weeks off his radio show and followed the same route as the Jarrow marchers had 80 years earlier. He travelled down the country’s eastern spine, passing through big cities like Leeds and Sheffield as well as hamlets and post-industrial towns from Bedford to Barnsley, and recorded his encounters with people in pubs, cafes and curry houses along the way.
The original marchers took the quickest and easiest route to the capital which meant the journey wasn’t always picturesque. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone planning a walking holiday - it’s not like the Highland Way or the Cotswolds Way - but it was fascinating because I got to see a lot of England from the ex-mining towns of the North East, the more rural areas of North Yorkshire like Ripon and Northallerton, to affluent London suburbs like St Albans.”
He made the journey shortly after last year’s EU referendum and saw just how divided the country has become. “I know there was a lot of feeling, especially around London, that it was all these northern towns who’d voted to leave. I’m from Wigan and I began to get a greater understanding of people’s sense of abandonment.”
At the same time he says he was warmly greeted nearly everywhere he went. “I spent time with the Italian community in Bedford and visited a gurdwara in Beeston in Leeds. It was great and it showed me what a diverse country we live in.”
He spent more time in Yorkshire than anywhere else. “Of all the counties I think Yorkshire is the one with the most differences in terms of landscape. Industrial West Yorkshire is very different from rural North Yorkshire. They look different, the people speak differently and politically they’re very different. You see in microcosm in Yorkshire how different England is.”
He found the contrast fascinating. “I had a lovely time in Leeds. I had a choice, I could go to a French impressionist piano recital or an evening with the Chuckle Brothers and I plumped for the piano music,” he says. “I have to say I absolutely love Leeds, and I’m not just currying favour with The Yorkshire Post, it’s probably my favourite British city.”
As it happens the Jarrow men were well received here, too. “The original marchers got the best reception of the whole march in Leeds and talked very warmly about it afterwards. They were taken into the Town Hall, they were given beer and food and even Paddy the dog was given his dinner out of a tureen.
“Leeds had a Tory council at the time and quite often they got the best responses from Conservative councils because the Labour Party and the trade unions had washed their hands of them.”
The country Maconie encountered was at once both similar and a world away from 1930s England. “What I found is it’s not different in terms of people or politics, the massive difference is technology which has revolutionised our lives. I used on a daily basis things such as Spotify, Google Maps and Uber, which the Jarrow men would have thought were pure science fiction.”
However, he believes there are more similarities than we perhaps realise. “We had a very fractious relationship with Europe both then and now. We have austerity, they called it the slump back then. At the time of the march pretty much nine out of 10 men weren’t working and while it’s not as bad as that today we’re still in straitened circumstances. There was also a rise of populist strong men all across Europe. So there were all kinds of parallels to me of a divided Britain.”
Maconie’s book is a snapshot of Britain written last autumn, since when the country has started Brexit negotiations and been through another general election. “People get very worried about dissent in Britain and I try to make the point that we are a very dissenting country. We are not a docile, pliant little country, we’re not the Swiss,” he says.
“I wanted to remind people that some of the places I was walking through in cosy, rural Middle England, a few hundred years ago they were ringing the canons when the country was tearing itself apart in a civil war. In a way we are built on dissent, good-natured dissent, and there’s a long tradition of argument and debate.
“It’s one thing to say we should be a country at ease with ourselves, but not too much. We would have never got anywhere in this country without the suffragettes chucking a brick through a window or people not standing up for their rights, and to a certain extent you want a dynamic and volatile country that’s at permanent argument with itself.”
Maconie believes the Jarrow March is an important part of the story of England during the 20th Century. “I talked to Matt Perry, who’s written a very good academic study on the subject, and he said you can take away the future people necessarily wanted but not the past, and I think that’s true.
“As long as the Jarrow March stands symbolic of something, even if it was a glorious failure, which it was in a way, it still stands as some kind of testimony to the spirit of people who want to make their voice heard. I do think there’s something to what those men did and Ellen Wilkinson - the MP who led them - that’s a testament to human spirit and defiance and it’s important we don’t forget that.
“It’s important we don’t forget that history is not just about kings and queens, that it’s also about men like the Jarrow marchers.”
Long Road from Jarrow, published by Ebury Press, is out now priced £16.99.
Backdrop to the 1936 march
During the 1930s Britain was suffering from the world-wide depression and its areas of heavy industry, such as Jarrow, were hit hardest.
In October 1936, a group 200 men marched 300 miles to London. They wanted Parliament, and people in the south, to understand their plight.
The men took with them a petition, signed by 11,000 local people, while a further petition was collected en route.
At Leeds, they received a welcome donation for their return trip by train, and in Barnsley they were invited into the specially-heated municipal baths.
The Jarrow marchers reached London but despite widespread public sympathy their crusade made little real impact.