Book Review: Long Road from Jarrow-A Journey through Britain then and Now

Long Road from Jarrow Front Cover

Long Road from Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie. Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey through Britain Then and Now. London: Ebury Press, 2017. RRP £16.99 hardback.

Before I read of Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now, I kind of knew who Stuart Maconie was, mainly through his radio-presenting double act with Mark Radcliffe. I was drawn to the book because of my interest in the Jarrow Crusade; a protest march by a group of unemployed men from Jarrow in Newcastle to London in late 1936. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Crusade, Maconie recreated it, following the exact route and timetable that the marchers took almost a century ago. Along the way he talks to the people he meets about the Crusade, their knowledge and opinions of it, and their perspective on modern politics (Brexit looms large throughout). As a result, the book is a lot of things: a travelogue, a history book, a memoir, a snapshot of two particularly turbulent moments in British politics, and a reflection on the way society remembers and commemorates its history. I can’t remember ever having come upon a protest-based travelogue before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

‘Jarrow’ (the whole matrix of events reducible to one word like ‘Aberfan’, ‘Hillsborough’ or ‘Orgreave’) has become mythic, storied; a thing of lore and romance as much as hard fact, one whose details and legacy are still debated today.

Maconie, 2017; p.7

Maconie is a likeable narrator, striking a nice balance between the serious and the humourous, the personal and the general. His reflections on modern society feel considered and genuine. I really like the chance meetings and discussions he has with people he meets along the way, highlights of which include: the dogwalker on the A41; Julia, the Russian waitress in Leeds; the well-known author and graphic novelist Alan Moore; Lynn, a guide at the John  Bunyan museum in Bedford; and Labour MP for Luton North Kevin Hopkins. Some of these encounters are only brief, but they are nonetheless brilliant insights into the wonderful variety of people living in modern Britain. The spontaneity of these meetings demonstrates how open and welcoming strangers can be.

The book is very time specific; for example Maconie often discusses Twitter exchanges he had on his journey, including one with then Education Secretary Michael Gove over the scrapping of the Art History A Level. Whilst these details make the narrative rich, the book may age quickly as a result– it runs the risk of rapidly feeling out-of-date. The book is also much more about the cities, towns, and villages Maconie passes through than the journey itself. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, but if you’re expecting a book about walking, you’ll be disappointed. One issue that definitely is a criticism is the distinct lack of pictures and maps– there is only a basic map of the route on the back cover. Maconie describes the places he visits well, but I still would have liked some pictures to document his journey. And what self-respecting Geographer wouldn’t be disappointed with a lack of maps?

Long Road from Jarrow is a curious hybrid of travelogue, history book, and memoir, framed by the Jarrow March. It is a comparison between two distinct moments in British history, 1936 and 2016. It is well written and engaging, and I would happily read anything else Maconie  has written. The book provides a competent day-by-day account of the Jarrow March. It is also a thoughtful reflection on the way that historical events are remembered, mythologised, and commemorated. I would highly recommend it.

 

Tracing Turbulent London in North East England 2: Jarrow

Jarrow is in Tyneside, the name of the conurbation surrounding the river Tyne. Newcastle is also part of it (Photo: Graeme Awcock)

Jarrow is in Tyneside, the name of the conurbation surrounding the river Tyne. Newcastle is also part of it (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

As a national and imperial centre London is, and has long been, a key node in a whole range of networks involving the circulation of ideas, people, and materials. This fact was brought home to me recently when I visited the North East of England. Even though I was about 300 miles away from London, I found multiple connections to Turbulent London. Last week, I wrote about the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, a suffragette from Northumberland who died at the Epsom Derby in 1913. This week, I will be thinking about the ways that the 1936 Jarrow Marchers have been memorialised in their home town in Tyneside.

Jarrow is a small town, with a population of around 30,000. During the industrial revolution the town experienced massive growth thanks to heavy industries like coal mining and shipbuilding. The Palmer’s Shipbuilding and Iron Company shipyard was established there in 1852, and went on to employ as much as 80% of the town’s working population. This dependence on one employer meant that the town was devastated when the shipyard closed in 1933. Unemployment and poverty was rife, setting the stage for the Jarrow March, sometimes called the Jarrow Crusade.

The Jarrow Crusade was a type of protest called a Hunger March. Beginning in the 1920s, groups of demonstrators (normally men) would embark on long marches to London in order to draw attention to issues of poverty, unemployment, and hunger. On the 5th of October 1936, around 200 men set off from Jarrow carrying a petition asking the British government to re-establish industry in the town. 26 days later the men arrived in London, 282 miles away. The House of Commons accepted the petition, but did not debate it. Although they were immediately unsuccessful, the marchers helped develop the attitudes that paved the way for social reform after World War Two.

When I went to Jarrow I found 3 memorials to the Marchers. If you arrive via Tyneside’s Metro train system from the direction of Newcastle and look across to the other platform you will see The Jarrow March, by Vince Rea, unveiled by Neil Kinnock in 1984.

'The Jarrow March' by artist Vince Rea at Jarrow Metro Station.

The Jarrow March by artist Vince Rea at Jarrow Metro Station.

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The Jarrow March is one of the first things you see when you step off the train at Jarrow Metro Station.

Walking out of the station towards the town centre you have to walk through an underpass, one of several which is decorated with images made up of painted tiles celebrating the town’s history. One of these mosaics shows the Jarrow Marchers.

The image showing the Jarrow March in a local underpass.

The image showing the Jarrow March in a local underpass. A list of the places which the marchers passed through is included on the right.

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Like most underpasses, it is not the most pleasant place.

Finally, if you walk through the Viking Shopping Centre to the Morrisons Supermarket you will see the life-size bronze sculpture Spirit of Jarrow. The sculpture was commissioned by Morrisons, made by Graham Ibbeson, and named by 2 local residents. The marchers are depicting walking out of the frame of a ship, surrounded by scattered tools. It was unveiled in 2001, marking the 65th anniversary of the March. As in Morpeth, the varying ages of the memorials demonstrate that commemoration is an ongoing process, it has to be constantly renewed and maintained.

The Spirit of Jarrow is outside the local supermarket, very close to the town centre.

The Spirit of Jarrow is outside the local supermarket, very close to the town centre.

The statue in more detail.

The statue in more detail.

This plaque in the floor near the statue gives information about it.

This plaque in the floor near the statue gives information about it.

Although each representation of the Jarrow March uses a different medium, the content is very similar. All 3 show male marchers in flat caps, the ‘Jarrow Crusade’ banner, and a dog- Paddy the dog was apparently the marchers’ mascot. The fact that there are so many representations of the March within a small area suggests that this is an event that the local community are proud of.

A close up of one of the male marchers in Spirit of Jarrow. He is wearing a flat cap. stereotypical of the working class

A close up of one of the male marchers in Spirit of Jarrow. He is wearing a flat cap, stereotypical of the working class, and a badge declaring the marchers’ intention to march on London.

When comparing these memorials to the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, what really struck me was the difference that location makes. Emily is buried in a churchyard- out of the way, quiet and sedate. You have to consciously decide to go and visit, and for me it felt a little like a pilgrimage. In Jarrow, the memorials are part of the everyday infrastructure of the town and, like a lot of public art, they run the risk of fading into the background. When asking for directions whilst looking for the Spirit of Jarrow, one local woman had no idea what we were talking about. If you travel the same route everyday, you frequently stop noticing what is around you.

Another striking element of the Jarrow memorials was their representations of gender. Both The Jarrow March and the Spirit of Jarrow include a women carrying what appears to be a baby. The only woman permitted to join the march was local MP Ellen Wilkinson, and she only marched sections of the route. No children took part either. The memorials present the March as being more inclusive than it actually was. It is a reminder not to take memorials and other similar representations at face value.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

The proliferation of Hunger Marches as a method of protest in the 1920s and 30s linked London to provincial Britain in a clear way, and the Jarrow March was no exception. Despite being almost 300 miles away, the people of Jarrow decided that London was where they needed to be in order to get their voices heard. London was, and still is, the political heart of Britain, and as such it interacts with the rest of the country in a whole range of complex and interconnecting ways.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Jarrow Crusade Captured in Bronze.” BBC News. Last modified 5th October 2001, accessed 10th August 2015. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/1581572.stm

Anon. “Jarrow March.” Wikipedia. Last modified 29th July 2015, accessed 10th August 2015.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarrow_March

Colette, Christine. “The Jarrow Crusade.” BBC History. Last modified 3rd March 2011, accessed 10th August 2015.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/jarrow_01.shtml