I absolutely adored Pies & Prejudice and Cider With Roadies, and while I was eagerly awaiting Stuart Maconie's latest book, I didn't think I was going to identify with it in quite the same way. I needn't have worried, I loved it.
As well as exploring quaint villages and historic towns, he celebrates English humour, food and music, and stops off in places which have been influential in England's literary and cinematic heritage, including Jane Austin's old stomping ground of Bath and Knutsford in Cheshire (the real-life setting for Cranford), as well as a Brief Encounter with Carnforth Railway Station.
Anyone expecting Maconie to sneer at Middle England with a huge Northern chip on his shoulder will be disappointed. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy (`The English Bill Bryson' according to the cover) and the book is infused with warmth and affection for English traditions and heritage, with only a hint of gentle mockery at the most bizarre. As usual with his books, I was chuckling and nodding with recognition all the way through.
on 7 April 2009
I found this even better than Pies and Prejudice with Maconie coming across as a thoroughly decent, thoughtful cove. This is categorically not the breast-beating, self-proclaimed "honest-to-good British bulldog" beloved of Fleet Street. It's a world of quiet gestures and a celebration of the workaday pleasures of living in Britain. Most Brits don't like alcopops...they like tea. The phrase "Daily Mail readers" is a hackneyed device to lump those of a braying bent into a worn-out cliche. To his credit, Maconie never really uses it, preferring instead to actually judge his subjects - from trainspotters to tea shop staff - on their own merits. It's not a book of lazy generalisations...but it's a damn fine book.
on 11 July 2011
On the face of it this book is a bit formulistic. Get an advance for expenses, roam around the country visiting different towns based on a theme (in this case "Middle England") and write up book. It's been done before - possibly starting with English Journey by J B Priestley.
Having said that I enjoyed the book. Stuart is a sympathetic and observant commentator. His comments on the places he visited that I know were fair, so I can assume they were on all the others.
The theme is to try to define and isolate what is meant by "Middle England". The author does this and finds that it is essentially an attractive place where he would be happy to live.
Some minor gripes though which suggest that the author, the editor or the proof reader could have been more assiduous.
At one point the author tells us he can't drive, and tells us why, yet later in the book on more than one occasion he describes driving around and following his sat nav. Did he change his mind or did he have a chauffeur?
There were several silly errors scattered through the book. These include: the A6 does not go anywhere Bath, hot springs are not going to be at 460 degrees Celsius, Harpenden is in Herts not Bucks, Diane Princess of Wales did not die on a July night.
Obviously these do not detract from what is an enjoyable read, they just irritate.
I will look out for other books by Stuart Maconie.
After putting 'northerness' under the microscope in Pies and Prejudice Maconie goes looking for what makes Middle England tick. At first his inability to actually define Middle England left me a little frustrated - was he looking for a geographic location or a state of mind or a certain set of principles? As the book progressed his quest embraced all these and more. Middle England, it transpires, is as much a flight of fancy as George Orwell's perfect pub but Maconie's adventures in search of it are enlightening, funny and at times plain scary. There are explorations of Nick Drake's Warwickshire, Jane Austen's Bath (thank God I remembered the capital letter in Bath) and David Brent's Slough and Maconie is, most of the time, careful to avoid mass insult to his readers by rubbishing the places he visits; on the contrary he is almost reverential when talking about Carnforth Station or Hergest Ridge. Unlike Bill Bryson, an author I find funnier though more flippant Maconie writes with a hunger to reach his goal, to reveal the great mystery that is Middle England. That he arrives at no firm conclusions only begs the question 'when is Adventures on the High Teas 2 coming out?' With summer holidays just around the corner and the credit crunch forcing more of us to holiday in the UK this is the perfect companion whether your destination be Leamington Spa, the Cotswolds or even Slough.
I enjoyed this book very much. It is partly a Bryson-like trip to various places which might in some way be linked to "Middle England" and partly an attempt to analyse what "Middle England" might actually mean. I think Stuart Maconie makes a very good job of both aspects.
What I like most about the book is Maconie's willingness to be pleased with things rather than carp and look for fault. A DJ and rock journalist who, in his own words, "grew up on a council estate in a grimy Lancashire cotton town" might be expected to sneer at comfortable, largely southern middle-class people and places, but he never does. He loves much of England and Englishness in all its forms and talks of Middle England's quiet virtues far more than its actual or supposed faults. When he does criticise he makes a careful case and never resorts to stereotype or lazy generalisation. Toward the end of the book he says, "When I think of Middle England I think of tolerance and kindness. So it irks me that the phrase has become a byword for sour prejudice and insularity." He makes a good case for this throughout the book and I found it very endearing that he often and quite sincerely uses the word "sweet" to describe things.
Some reviewers here found Maconie's references to literature and music to be facile and smug. I have to disagree - I thought they were very acutely chosen to illustrate his points and seemed to me to come from a man who has a deep and genuine love of the books and writers he quotes. (He does need to brush up considerably on the work of Sir Isaac Newton, mind you.) The prose is extremely readable, and the book is often amusing and sometimes rather moving. I found it an insightful, interesting and enjoyable read and warmly recommend it.
on 3 January 2010
I enjoyed this, because I like reading about nice places in England, but I did find it a little tame and uncertain of itself in places. Maconie seems to be at his best when he gets on a rant about something, or is writing about things close to his heart. Then the passion and humour pour out of him. There are whole chapters which do not disappoint on this score. However, for the rest of the time, I felt as if Maconie was struggling to find anything very new or interesting to say.
I was not disppointed with the book, but having found Cider With Roadies brilliant fun from start to finish, this seems inconsistant in comparison. I will give it 4/5, because even an inconsistent Maconie is good stuff.
on 7 December 2011
This is surprisingly, quite a pleasant travelogue by Stuart Maconie, and reveals him to be far more than just a typical radio presenter steeped predominantly in music. Indeed, this highlights Maconie as knowledgeable and articulate and is written in a very nice 'easy-read' style, very similar to his broadcast style. It is also my first ever read of anything by this author, though of course, I have heard many of his pronouncements on radio and television.
The premise on which his travelogue is based on the quest to find 'middle England'. This, in itself, is 'easier said than found', as there are so many permutations of what it could or should be. What is most surprising to me is that Maconie finds his 'middle England' and surprise, surprise, it is within its very ordinariness that it can be defined. Whether it's pies from Melton Mowbray, Stilton cheese (from Leicestershire,Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire - not Stilton in Cambridgeshire), 'Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells et cetera. Most definitely, the thing that defines 'middle England' is the idiosyncracies of its people.
The journey is divided into specific sections starting initially with the search and connections; be it pubs; food, places with musical connections - from Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Edward Elgar, to Vaughan Williams; to its spa towns and their bathing waters; the places with literary connections, the railways (not much praise here for Beeching); film and television locations, locations relating to crime - where he describes, not just Cromwell Street in Gloucester, but also the statue of Bishop John Hooper, in front of Gloucester cathedral and whose grisly demise is commemorated here. The devout Protestant met his death here and Maconie's words here are particularly gruesome in their description.
It also highlights that if you ever find yourself in the company of Maconie, just be careful what you say, as whatever you might say (or do) may very well end up in his next book and possibly with a namecheck. Of course, if it's a palatable comment, one needn't be too worried. So Sandra, from Harpenden, who politely asks Maconie, "am I going to be in your book?", he replies, "yes" so, she is !
However, if it's an unpalatable comment, the reverse will be true, you'll be forever denigrated in print ! And for those of you who are in this current tome, you know who you are !
Maconie concludes with two women who, in his opinion, most define the last quarter of the 20th Century, namely Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana (of Wales).
This travelogue is a nice, easy read and though it is mainly based around the home counties and a little beyond (to Bath and to Kent), one assumes that he has covered other points north in previous books. Enjoy !
on 17 June 2010
In this book, Stuart Maconie takes a pleasant-enough wander through an assortment of English towns and cities that are not in the North, except Knutsford and Carnforth, which are. By coincidence, some of the places depicted are places I know quite well and, on the whole, I'm in reasonable agreement with the way they are depicted. However, I do feel that there is a lack of depth at times and an over-reliance on anecdotes with a rather whimsical tone. A decent read but a little bit lightweight.