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Not so grim image

David Whetstone talks to Stuart Maconie who visited the North-East and found it's anything but grim.

David Whetstone talks to Stuart Maconie who visited the North-East and found it's anything but grim.

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Stuart Maconie

Every so often a restless writer with a bit of spare time will pack notebook and road map and set off on a trip around Britain, much in the way the Victorians liked to venture into "darkest Africa".

Arguably, the radical journalist William Cobbett started the trend in the 1820s when he travelled across southern Britain on horseback to investigate the effects of the Government's agricultural policy.

His Rural Rides were published in his own newspaper, The Political Register.

JB Priestley travelled by car for his English Journey, published in 1933, putting his foot down when travelling through the North-East after pausing long enough to develop a distaste for the Geordie accent and pretty much everything else we have to offer.

Americans have travelled our highways and byways, too, Paul Theroux publishing The Kingdom by the Sea in 1983 and Bill Bryson following up with Notes From a Small Island in 1995.

Now comes Stuart Maconie, a journalist and broadcaster who has cropped up on programmes ranging from Never Mind the Buzzcocks to Phoenix Nights, and has his own programme, Stuart Maconie's Critical List, on BBC Radio 2.

Maconie, author of Pies and Prejudice, describes himself as a northerner in exile. "I'm from Wigan and I haven't lived in the north of England for 15 years," he tells me. "I wanted to travel back there to see what it's like. People in London have a very stereotyped view - that it's grim up north. But I found some fantastic places to live and Newcastle is probably the best looking city in England."

Maconie says his interest was sparked by a conversation with fellow exiled northerners one Sunday "brunchtime" in the capital. Pardon?

"Each read the other's unspoken thought: we had become those kinds of people, the kind of people who had sun-dried tomatoes and cappuccino makers, the kind of people who did Sunday brunch. In other words: southerners."

At least Maconie was predisposed to be kind to the north although Priestley was from Bradford and that didn't do us any good. He points out that things up north have changed since he became a metropolitan man about town.

"When I left in the late 1980s it was in a bit of a depressed state. It had had the heart torn out of it. You had to come south if you wanted to do the things I wanted to do, like write and be on the radio. I promise that my next move will be north. Technology is such nowadays that you can do pretty much anything anywhere."

Maconie's section on the North-East comes under the heading The Great North: "It's that sense you get once you travel through Yorkshire and the crowdedness of London and even the north I know starts to fall away. You get a great sense of space and freedom which you certainly don't get when you are travelling on the Tube.

"People tend not to know about this in London because they still think of the north as a hangover from the 1980s." He says his boss at Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, is a Geordie. "Here's an example of something that really annoys both of us. She was once introduced in the south as having come from humble origins but what they really meant was that she was from the north."

He reiterates an anecdote from the book, recalling how he booked a hotel room in "Nyurcassle upon Tyne" from another hotel room in Kensington where the sound of incessant traffic and sirens and the dirt of a day's filming in London had put him on edge.

"My shoulders unknotted as I spoke to Kirsty at the Vermont Hotel. She had that warm, slightly concerned, vaguely cheeky Geordie lilt to her voice, and the effect was like an ice-cold bottle of Newcastle Brown rolled damply across the forehead. How wrong was JB Priestley?"

Maconie admits he didn't know Tyneside at all but suggests - as Priestley never would have done - that Geordies are southerners' favourite northerners.

Corporate England has come to love the accent, he suggests, deliberately locating call centres here. The Samaritans appreciate the accent because its "quietly reassuring tones are proven to turn people's minds away from the gas oven and tablets".

Britain has been conditioned by a host of North-Easterners (and here he rattles off their names, including Ant and Dec and The Likely Lads, even if Rodney Bewes was a Yorkshireman) to think of Geordies as "kindly, funny, roguish, tough but not nasty, bluff but warm".

Maconie appreciates the Bigg Market, while admitting he wouldn't want to linger there, and writes in praise of our recently installed icons - Baltic, Millennium Bridge, Sage, Angel. All in all, it's a pretty good write-up for the North-East with the odd minor quibble hardly worthy of mention. Durham is "gorgeous", its cathedral "truly stunning", and the Hartside Café on the A689, near Alston, "a national treasure in a way Buckingham Palace will never be".

At this rate Mr Maconie will be getting the Freedom of The Great North and a cow on Newcastle's Town Moor. And to put the icing on the cake, he tells us that Priestley's English Journey is currently out of print.

Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North by Stuart Maconie is published by Ebury Press at £10.99. The author will be at Waterstone's, Grey Street, at 6.30pm tomorrow to talk about his book.

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