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The Pie at Night - Stuart Maconie - review

* See footnote
I've never been a fan of the 'hello sky, hello grass,' Fotherington Thomas school (or should that be skool?) of travel writing that is packed with purple prose and lengthy descriptions of scenery. What does the trick for me is a travel book that explores the (often humorous) interaction between the writer and people and places, preferably with more urban and suburban adventures than countryside and wilderness. When it comes to plain humour, the master of this genre is Bill Bryson (even if he did freewheel a little in his latest), but if you want a combination of humour; wry, intelligent observation and lyrical writing, the trophy has to go to Stuart Maconie.

Whether he is exploring his experience as a music journalist in Cider with Roadies, the north in Pies and Prejudice or more southerly climes in Adventures on the High Teas, Maconie delivers. Now he has returned to his first love, the north of England in The Pie at Night. Rather than being a straight travelogue, here Maconie concentrates on 'the north at play', from crown green bowls and the worst league football team ever, to food and drink, seaside fun and, inevitably, music (where Opera North even shows him it's possible to enjoy opera).

I'm probably more than a little biassed as I have a similar background in some ways to Maconie - we both come from a Lancashire mill town (Wigan and Rochdale respectively) but have made our careers elsewhere, which makes it very easy to feel every bit of Maconie's hymns of praise to northern life that some might find less easy to identify with. But I defy anyone not to enjoy the author's enthusiasm for everything from the most brash northern entertainment to sophisticated food and drink.

Perhaps the only thing that seems a little odd is his admission to not liking the observational humour of many modern stand-up comedians, when Maconie's own humour is very much about people and their little quirks. I love, for instance, his remark 'I'm reminded of the time I asked for Scotch and Dry Ginger in a Salford boozer and the barman said, "What do you think this is, Life on Mars?"' Yet there is a difference - most of the stand-ups I've seen mock those they describe, but Maconie's gaze is usually a beneficent one.

Maconie introduces us to a good roster of human characters, but it is the characterful places that dominate whether we are visiting a station buffet that sounds more fun that any pub I've ever been in or the eerie beauty of the Trough of Bowland. He can make the Lake District seem wonderful, but then absolutely captures one of my favourite buildingscapes, Salford's Media City: 'I love the light and the water, the facilities, the campus-like feel of the place. I love the fact that at night it feels like Blade Runner, like Tokyo. It excites the child in me just like those fairground lights and floodlight did and do.' If you've ever been there at night, you will know exactly what he means.

I'm sure southerners get fed up of us northerners droning on about how special it is in t't north (especially if we have chosen to live elsewhere). But I hope The Pie at Night will give a glimpse of some of the reasons behind that love affair - and for those of us who are northern, however long we've been away, it will generate delightful pangs of memory. Is it a little over-rosy? Possibly - but it works wonderfully well.

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* The picture above is the hardback cover, which I prefer to the paperback (shown below). I also prefer its subtitle, which in going to paperback mysteriously morphed from 'In search of the north at play' to 'what the north does for fun', which feels like the publisher's hand at work...


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