Interview: Stuart Maconie
PUBLISHED: 11:47 21 March 2016 | UPDATED: 11:59 21 March 2016
Radio presenter and writer Stuart Maconie will be at Chipping Norton Literary Festival discussing his new book on the North, The Pie At Night. He spoke to Katie Jarvis about bingo, Bowie, and why Boris Johnson is the best test of the North/South divide
It’s bound to take a few moments for hardy Northerners and soft Southerners to iron out differences and misunderstandings. Important differences, such as why anyone would imagine that ‘trap’ and ‘Bath’ could possibly share a similar-sounding vowel. Or that puddings are best defined as meals without gravy. (Or chips.) Or that Oasis is a great band.
“Or Boris Johnson!” says Stuart Maconie, Wigan-raised radio DJ, whose books about the North are both funny and feature the word ‘pie’ extensively in their titles.
“If there is a North/South divide, Boris Johnson is the absolute litmus test. Up here, we think of him as a buffoon. We’re constantly told he’s a lively, animated character that people like, and we just look at each other blankly. Regardless of party politics, how do you think this bloke isn’t an absolute pantomime nincompoop?
“Although the Cotswolds?” Stuart Maconie postulates. “That’s really the Midlands, isn’t it?”
Brave. Especially considering Stuart will be at Chipping Norton Literary Festival this month, talking about his latest book, The Pie At Night, another of his witty discourses on life in the North. This one investigates the sorts of leisure pursuits that Northerners enjoy… An excuse, in other words, to frequent pubs, go horse racing, attend brass band concerts and take to bingo, all in the name of research.
“The horseracing was fun; football was fun; but bingo felt a bit desperate to me,” he confesses. “It was the hottest day of the year and we were in a kind of airless aircraft hangar in Salford. I got the impression that people were there not for the conviviality but just to win the money.”
He pauses for a moment. “Isn’t it funny that you get Bond in his dinner jacket, with his Martini, being super-sophisticated and glamorous, and bingo being a bit tragic; yet roulette and bingo are the same thing, in the end: games of chance for money. You’d never get a film called Gala Bingo Royale. It’s a class thing.”
That’s true. (Plus, on a practical note, James Bond would presumably end up pulling 60-somethings with hairnets, looking a bit like Ena Sharples.) But gravy aside, I do think there’s room for envying the North its strong sense of identity. And why is it so strong? Maybe the simple fact that distinctive accents have lingered here when, elsewhere, they seem to be fast diminishing. Stuart himself – as listeners will know – retains an accent as Northern as dinner at lunchtime.
“But you can go too far. Mancunians, for instance, really buy into their own myth in a way that I find sometimes amusing and sometimes irritating: the Liam Gallagher stereotype; the cock-of-the-walk. I’m from Wigan and people say to me, quite seriously, ‘You travel all over the world; I bet you’re always glad to get home to God’s own country’. As I often say in my shows, if God prefers Rotherham to Bath, he’s got an extraordinary way of showing it.”
(Tbh, that’s almost certainly God just being polite. Very New Testament.)
But what’s great about Stuart Maconie’s books is not just the observation and the humour. It’s also the way he throws in forgotten but fascinating facts. In The Pie At Night, he quotes JB Priestley complaining that football generated way too much money and press coverage – and that was way back in 1934. In The People’s Songs (a mesmerizingly fun look at modern Britain through the 50 songs that epitomise its recent history), he reminded us that George Martin specialised in comic songs (including Bernard Cribbins’s The Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred) before the Beatles propelled him to superstardom.
Odd facts are his currency. “One of the producers on my radio show the other day asked what an asphodel was. And I explained it was a very boring plant. In Greek mythology, all the ordinary people – who weren’t good enough to go to heaven or bad enough to go to Hades – went to the drab asphodel meadows. She looked it up and said, ‘You’re absolutely right! How did you know that?’” He laughs. “I’ve got a head for that kind of stuff.”
And there are plenty of facts – and people – that don’t deserve to be consigned to history’s backwaters. Such as Joe Meek, one of Gloucestershire’s own. In The People’s Songs, Maconie relives the tragic tale of this pioneering record producer and songwriter, born in Newent in 1929; died in London, aged 37, after brutally shooting himself and his landlady during a desperate, downward spiral.
Why has Meek been semi-forgotten when, as a pioneer of experimental pop music, he provided the opening bars for so much that followed?
“For me, he’s not forgotten, but I know what you mean. When rock culture came along in the late 60s, everyone got very serious and earnest, and pop music tended to be overlooked. I still fight this battle all the time with people who don’t recognise the genius of Abba or disco music, for instance. People who get very beard-stroking about Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks but don’t understand that Dancing Queen is clearly a better record.
“Part of the reason [for Joe Meek being somewhat overlooked] may be because his records have something of the novelty about them; they got dismissed as lightweight. But, if you listen to what he was doing sonically, he’s years ahead of his time. He is playing with ideas and using things that the Beatles start to do five or six years later; but, really, it’s the 70s, with the coming of the synthesiser, that people start to explore electronic music like he did.
“Interestingly, there was an incredible ‘what might have been’ moment with Joe Meek. Apparently, in something like 62 or 63, he was given a demo of the Beatles and didn’t like it. Imagine the Beatles working with Joe Meek! It might not have worked but it’s a fascinating prospect.”
How true. And, yes, there is a delicious irony in the snobbery that underlies the underrating of pop music. Because whilst the Powers That Be have often dismissed it as trite and frippery, they have nevertheless been keen to ban it over the years - another fact Stuart Maconie details in The People’s Songs. Outlawed records range from Frankie Laine singing Answer me, Lord to the overt eroticism of Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime and the subversive Sex Pistols. We dismiss pop, yet we’re scared of it.
“Oh, yeah. We don’t ban as many records as we used to but there is still this fear of it. And it’s a hangover from the British days of deference and class. If you look at early ‘Beatles’ footage, you see these rather starchy ITN and BBC reporters saying, ‘Mr McCartney, you’ve recently said you experimented with marijuana. Don’t you think you’re setting a bad example to the youth of today?’ They treat the Beatles like naughty schoolboys. Yet they’re talking to the biggest pop stars in the world; guys who changed the course of history.”
So let’s pile irony onto irony. The BBC banned Answer Me, Lord for its mock Christianity. Yet it didn’t bat an eyelid as Gary Puckett & The Union Gap sang Young Girl (‘cause I’m afraid we’ll go too far).
“That is an odd thing. They were very different times where it was just thought that the girls who wandered round these rich and powerful men were sort of available. It’s about sexism and it’s about power as well. I read a very interesting article saying that part of the problem with Savile was that those at the head of the BBC at the time were all Oxbridge; privately educated. They thought he was beyond criticism because: Well, that’s what the lower orders like! We’d better not show our snobbery by getting involved.
“Of course, the truth of it is that we all thought Savile was weird as well. I’d never met anyone like him in the North of England.”
I’ve read reviews of Stuart Maconie’s various literary festival appearances and they all say the same thing: chatty, full of entertaining anecdotes, funny, informed, not afraid to voice an opinion. Exactly as he comes across to me.
So let’s finish with one of the greats. One of the recently-lost greats. David Bowie. In The People’s Songs, Stuart Maconie describes the way he exploded onto the scene as Ziggy Stardust (a look described by Bowie himself as a cross between Nijinsky and Woolworth’s). Why was he so influential?
“My friend in the Manic Street Preachers, James Dean Bradfield, said he was a kind of internet before the internet. Bowie absorbed all these ideas from different worlds - like fashion and cinema and art. If you were a 14-year-old growing up in Wigan, you probably hadn’t got the resources to see a Luis Buñuel movie; or an exhibition on surrealist art at the Tate; or to read Jean Genet in the original French. But Bowie brought all these disparate things and put them into pop songs and talked about them in interviews.
“That moment on Top of the Pops in 1972, when he did Starman – one of the crucial moments in post-war British history; when he puts his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulders and kind of makes to kiss him - you could tell that every dad in the country was outraged and every kid - every outsider kid who’s not quite fitting in; who’s not quite right – thought: I’ve found my hero; this weird bloke speaking directly to me.”
So here’s the rub. Bowie gave people the right to be who they wanted to be - and discovered that he himself was a conventional family man.
“Flaubert said, ‘Be regular and ordinary in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work’. You get a lot of people who live in a very extravagant and flamboyant and outrageous way but, actually, they’re quite mediocre in their work. Bowie was the opposite. I met him twice and he was an absolute gentleman.”
Stuart Maconie is appearing at Chipping Norton Literary Festival on Saturday, April 23 at 2pm in the Theatre. Full a full programme of events, and to book tickets, visit www.chiplitfest.com or call 01608 642350.