An Interview with Stuart Maconie


Stuart Maconie’s best selling travelogue, the entertaining and wryly observational The Full English, is about to be published in paperback. In it, using public transport, he retraces the steps of J B Priestley’s travels across England in the 1930s.

David Schuster chatted to him about the great man, what it means to be English and the pros, and cons, of the pork pie. Plus a little bit of politics…

How did you first come to be inspired by J B Priestley?
Like a lot of people, his was a name I knew, without really knowing much about his work. He was a hugely famous figure in the middle of the 20th century. He was a broadcaster and a playwright. Everybody knew who he was, and yet his reputation has somehow diminished, well, not diminished but become overlooked. I did a radio Programme for Radio 4 called ‘Whatever Happened to J B Priestley’, addressing just that point. That kind of person that he was, the public intellectual, is something we don’t have much these days. Of course, the people who do still know his stuff really well are teenagers, because An Inspector Calls is on the exam syllabus every year!

I got introduced to Priestly through the late, great, Barry Cryer and Graham Garden, to whom The Full English is dedicated. They mentioned J B Priestley when we were doing a radio show, late one night, and I said I didn’t know his stuff. They were really shocked, and said you must read it, you’ll love it: He’s a man after your own heart; a vaguely lefty Northerner, with a love of culture and history. So, I read him and I got really into his stuff.

It struck me, a couple of years ago that the time was absolutely right to revisit Priestley’s social and political travelogue, English Journey. After the seismic upheavals of Brexit and Covid, it struck me as the perfect time for a state-of-the-nation book. So, I thought I’d retrace his steps exactly, visiting all the same places, in the same order, and hopefully do it in a similar way, with a social focus, but funny too.

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“He’d be enraged by it”

Would Priestly have reached the same conclusions about Englishness, people and politics now, as he did in 1933, do you think?
Yes, I think he would. He’d be appalled! At the time he wrote, he was pretty shocked by the state of the nation. I think what would shock him would be that the same sort of people, the Boris Johnson’s of the world, are still getting away with their skulduggery, incompetence and deceit. I’m sure he’d be enraged by it. He was a left winger, but by no stretch of the imagination extremely left wing. He wouldn’t have liked Jeremy Corbyn, he was essentially a centrist. But I think he’d be staggered that the self-serving old Etonians are still bossing us around.

What’s the best single thing about England at the moment?
I’m always heartened by the soft power of our culture. We still do make great telly, great music, and great books. Although the media has almost ruined it, we have the most exciting football league in the world. Our soft power is enormous. For example, I was visiting Vietnamese relatives recently. They didn’t speak much English and I speak very little Vietnamese, so conversation was a bit stilted. But then, I mentioned that I work for the BBC and their faces lit up. One of them held up his thumb and said, “BBC Number one!”. And I thought, you know what, I’m going to tell my colleagues that. When we’re getting undermined by the Daily Mail on a daily basis, it’s good to know that we’re still recognised around the world as being trustworthy and reputable.

An Interview with Stuart Maconie the full englishI’m a big state-ist. I’m a fan of the benevolent state, and I was a child of a benevolent state. I’ve said before, I think those that say ‘nanny state’ disparagingly, tend to be those people, like Rees-Mogg, who had nannies themselves. So, I love the idea of the NHS, social housing and all the welfare state. It doesn’t frighten me like it frightens a lot of people, apparently.

“We’re just not a grown up country”

And if you could change one thing, what would it be?
I would get rid of that mood that’s been with us since 1979, that the market has the answer to everything. It doesn’t. I always try to make this point: I am not a communist! I do not want the state to make my pop music, or my curries or my clothes. I’m quite happy for individual entrepreneurs to get rich by hard work and doing things brilliantly. But I don’t think that private enterprise should run our schools and our jails, or control our water supplies; it’s nonsense. So, I’d like to see that change. We didn’t used to have that attitude. It’s the belief that business men, like Alan Sugar, can be put in charge. I loathe the fact that something as wretched as The Apprentice gets people watching it. We need to get back to the idea that the state is better suited to deliver some social aspects than shiny suited barrow boys.

We are unique in Europe I think; we’ve sold off every national asset, we elect incompetent buffoons that set out to ruin us. We are a laughing stock now, and it makes me angry because I’m a bit of a patriot. I’m embarrassed by our leaders. When you compare us to say Denmark and Norway, we’re just not a grown up country.

What’s the best ‘on the road’ snack for a weary traveller?
Well, you’ve asked me that at a bad time. If you’d asked me that a year ago, I’d have extolled the virtues of sausage rolls and pork pies. But, like many people I’m trying not to eat too many carbs. So, my pie days, at least for the time being are behind me. I hate myself for saying that! However, I’d always say you can’t beat a Lancashire pasty from Greenhalghs, the bakers in Bolton. Other localised variants of that I guess are available. Ha ha!

How long did it take to write The Full English, from initial idea, to having completed the draft?
Hmm. Tricky. I suppose a year and a bit. The last few books have fallen into a pattern, I usually reckon on six month’s or so research and travel, and then six months of writing. This one took a little longer than it should have, as we were just coming out of Covid really. So, there were quite a lot of places I couldn’t get into to do the research as quickly as I would have liked, because they were still shut. So, yes, a year and a half for this one.

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“The joy is coming back to it”

When you’re writing, do you have a strict regime or do you write as and when the muse strikes you?
In theory! When I’m at home, I write at my desk. I’d try and do that from 10 o’clock to 6 o’clock, then maybe a bit in the evenings. But, inevitably, and I’m very happy about this, because I do a lot of other things, I’m not just a writer, it’s a very rare and lucky day when I can sit and write all day. I think, when I’ve finished talking to you, I can write for the rest of the day. I’m delighted that other people want me to do things, so I’m not moaning. A lot of my friends who are writers will often say to me that to have a week to just sit and write, to them, is bliss.

So, do you personally enjoy the act of writing, or is it a chore?
No, I enjoy it. I love it! I suppose there’s got to be an element of chore, or I don’t think you’re doing it right. Firstly, you just splurge it all out, get it down on paper. I like to think that the majority of my writing is actually re-writing. The joy is coming back to it and knowing that you’ve made it better. That’s the element of craft. But yes, I do enjoy it, I enjoy it a lot!

Could you see yourself doing a TV travelogue, like Michael Portillo but with better-hearted political views?
Oh? Ha ha! And with better trousers too, I hope. Yes, you know what, a travelogue for actual people would be good. About Portillo, you know there’s that famous quote: All political careers end in failure. I mean he’s the living definition of that isn’t he? He was rankly dismissed at the ballot box, but he’s never off the telly! No, I’m sure he’s a lovely man. Television is a lot more time consuming to make. There’s a lot of fuss and palaver in TV that there isn’t in radio, which is why radio is so great. But, do you know what? I’d love to do that. If any commissioning editors are reading this, please get in touch!

‘The Full English’, published by Harper North for Harper Collins, is available in paperback from the 9th of May 2024
Top image: Andrew Key


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