Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Long Road From Jarrow: a revolutionary tale of long-distance protest

Stuart Maconie tells the story of the men who marched from Tyneside to London.

There were several long-distance protest marches to London between the wars. Some involved many thousands of marchers and some were met with violence, but the only one that is widely remembered today is the “Jarrow Crusade” of October 1936. From 1851 to the early 1930s, the Tyneside town of Jarrow had launched a thousand ships, from tankers and colliers to cruisers and battleships – but as a result of postwar government cost-cutting and a global economic downturn, the area’s main employer, the Palmers shipyard, was forced to close in 1933, putting thousands out of work.

In 1936, as unemployment dragged on and government support failed to materialise, Jarrow’s local council arranged for 200 out-of-work local men to march to parliament – accompanied by their MP, “Red Ellen” Wilkinson – to “obtain the sympathy of the general public” and petition Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government to provide work for the town.

For the 80th anniversary of the march, Stuart Maconie, the current president of Ramblers – as the Ramblers’ Association is now known – retraced their steps to find out why their protest still resonates and how much England has changed over the past eight decades. Maconie’s eminence in pedestrian circles may be surprising to those who know him only as a cultural critic (Viz once ran a spoof Christmas television schedule listing a show called I Love Stuart Maconie’s Opinions) and as a coolly authoritative curator of BBC Radio 6 Music’s Freak Zone, but he has written several perceptive books based on his travels around an England that now feels to him “febrile and uncertain”.

This blend of travelogue and social commentary is self-consciously in the mould of Orwell and Priestley, but it also shares something of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s awareness and ability to bluff his way through awkward situations. While Leigh Fermor broke bread with Austrian aristos and Transylvanian lumberjacks, Maconie hitches lifts from Northamptonshire window-fitters, or blags a curry in a Leeds gurdwara.

Maconie’s passion for places and his pungent turn of phrase also call to mind Ian Nairn, who would dignify unfashionable towns with serious appraisal, or Robert Macfarlane, with his appreciation for even the “sub-countryside” that rings our towns. Newcastle’s thrilling buildings “crowd and elbow each other sideways to get into shot like excitable kids”. Civic Barnsley gives the impression of a Baltic seat of government, while commercial Leicester evokes the souks of Tangiers. In the “mountain stronghold” of Sheffield, he sees a “strapping, over-vigorous city” where forging steel gave the “Dee-Dars” (Sheffield folk) a unique Yorkshire virility. He has righteous scorn for architectural academics who enthuse over the “monumental dissonance” of brutalist Newton Aycliffe new town and riffs amusingly on cupcake fads, vaping shops and the ubiquity of salted caramel.

Maconie’s wandervogeling between record shops and twee museums is diverting, though there are some Wikipedia-heavy longueurs (and some clangers have crept in: Chester-le-Street is in Durham, not Northumberland, and the Tory benefactor John Jarvis was not the MP for South Shields, which is the only constituency created in the Reform Act 1832 never to have returned a Conservative). But this is a more explicitly political tract than Maconie’s previous works, and he clearly has something to get off his chest – namely his despair at the Labour Party. Maconie identifies as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain” and sees in Jeremy Corbyn “a spartist dinosaur reeking of hummus and hemp and definitely not the smoky fires of industry”.

This book was written before the election in June but its result would probably have confirmed Maconie’s pessimism. For all the rallies, marches and excitable hashtaggery, Labour has suffered its third consecutive defeat and hasn’t had a Blairless general election victory for 43 years.

What can we learn from the Jarrow marchers? Maconie writes, “The Jarrow men essentially came politely and with cap in hand, without the dangerous whiff of revolutionary sulphur of the older communist marches” – yet this is not to patronise them. It was a deliberate strategy. Even then, there was a view that marching and demonstrations were self-indulgent and unserious. Unless handled carefully, they could repel as much as they could galvanise. The organisers ensured that the march demonstrated discipline and dignity, and made the very reasonable demand for work, not handouts.

In Labour’s north-eastern heartland, for every firebrand such as Ellen Wilkinson, there were dozens more stolid Labour moderates: respectable Methodist lay preachers and pragmatic union men who knew that social progress was hard won and that electing Labour governments was extraordinarily demanding. There’s a martial and Stakhanovite strain in Geordie culture, and around 60 per cent of those unemployed riveters and platers were First World War veterans. Photographs usually show them marching smartly in step, their blankets tightly rolled, demonstrating their endurance and good order in a deliberate appeal to Middle England. Conditions in Jarrow were so desperate that “reaching out” had to be taken seriously, so churchmen were courted, communists were weeded out and there were no “Tory scum” banners.

The immediate impact of the march was limited (an old joke in the town is that it was Hitler who saved Jarrow – by generating war work for the yards). But as A J P Taylor once put it, middle-class people felt “the call of conscience”, and Jarrow was remembered when votes were cast in the 1945 general election. With yet another Conservative government refusing to budge, it is hard to avoid Maconie’s conclusions that persuading the uncommitted is as vital as ever and that Labour needs “fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists”. 

Dan Jackson writes on Northumbrian history. He tweets as @northumbriana

Long Road From Jarrow: a Journey Through Britain Then and Now
Stuart Maconie
Ebury Press, 368pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon