I bought Pies and Prejudice as an impulse buy when travelling through Manchester Airport a week ago. Like Maconie I’m a northern exile and the opening few pages were entertaining enough. The basic premise is that Macione heads north from his new southern life of sun-dried tomatoes and his cappuccino machine to discover what makes the north what it is, why it differs from the south of Britain, and to rediscover his inner northerner. He starts by stating that he’d ‘like to think that it could be enjoyed by the fine people of the south too’ and then launches into a broadside against the south and its people. It’s a curious way to start a book about the north – the first 30 pages discussing the shortcomings of the south. It then moves onto Crewe, a kind of frontier town, not quite the midlands, not quite the north, before finally arriving at the north proper. And when he does arrive, what we get are his observational notes describing the place he’s visiting, a couple of anecdotes, and one or two abbreviated historical stories.
One can get a sense of a place through its geography and history, but what is crucially missing from the narrative are people. There are a couple of thin anecdotes, but one never meets the people of the north. Maconie describes the people he sees, but we barely get a snippet of a conversation (mainly because he doesn’t actually talk to them – he sits in a pub or café or wanders a street, but doesn’t engage those around him other than when he is served), and of the very few voices reported (often people he already knows) none of them are asked what makes the north, the north, or what makes them a northerner or a Geordie or Scouser, or what it is like to live in a place, etc. Surely one of the key things that makes the north, the north, is its people? It’s as if he’s wandered around, often visiting a place for just a couple of hours, and that was enough to form a coherent impression. It leads to a strangely anaemic read. Having waded to the end, I’m no wiser about the north than when I started, although I know Maconie likes pies and is happy to dole out his prejudices. Travel writing is about people and place. It’s a shame we never met the people.