Writing Non Fiction

Writing fiction or non fiction requires the ability to get inside a story, and inside the heads of characters. But non fiction has to go further – it has to be checkable, you need to protect yourself from challenges. But the process of research and writing can change you for the better. I am a huge fan of Stuart Maconi and Mark Radcliffe’s funny and often bonkers radio show on 6music, but his book on his travels round the north of England, Pies and Prejudice In Search of the North seems to have provided him with some genuinely life changing ideas, in terms of the people who live outside the media bubble of London, and attitudes between the regions. This is his epilogue:

The last thing I expected was to fall in love. I didn’t plan for it, it didn’t fit in with my schedules, and now that I have fallen, I don’t really know what I’m going to do about it. But I do know that the months I spent wondering the north were some of the happiest times of my life. As I said 100,000 or so words ago I didn’t want to carve out a slice of soft soap. I was desperate to avoid writing one of those books that add to the north’s already brimming reservoirs of self esteem or the sort that you parcel up and send off to Uncle Royston to remind him of the good old days of rickets, gaslighting and Geoffrey boycott, as he sips Zinfandel in his harbourside flat in Vancouver or Capetown.

I was determined – and believe me, so was my editor – that this shouldn’t become some cloying hymn to God’s Own Country, one of Bernard Ingram’s Rent-a-Rants or a print version of ‘Matchstalk Men and matchstalk Cats and Dogs’. But that didn’t stop me going utterly, desperately head over heels. It was love that I knew had always ben there but in the spring of 2006 when I thought I’d got over it or at least got used to it, it came back and knocked me off my feet, like seeing a childhood sweetheart who’s grown into a beautiful woman It would hit me in the chest and grab me by the heart when I lest expected it; on Alderly Edge, in Alan’s bike shop in Wigan, on Blackpool prom and on Bury Market, on the banks of the Tyne and the Mersey.

He then goes on to rant agains the London media elite who seem to think whatever happens in the capital is of interest to the rest of the country, like when the Routemaster double decker buses were decommissioned. Who outside of London knew what they were, or gave a damn about them?

On a rainy drive across the Lancashire moors, I caught a short Radio 4 ‘issue-based’ story about childlessness, but for me, it was the minor detail that provoked the most thought. The protagonist was an academic with a cut-glass accent. she had lost a daughter called Cordelia and her neighbour was a tv producer. At no int wa there any suggestion that these people and this milieu were in any way out of the ordinary. This was incredibly telling, I thought. Most people have never met either a Cordelia or a television producer. But as they discussed their (literally) extraordinary) live in voices of crystalline poshness, their remoteness from life as most of us live it was never acknowledged.

Stuart then cites J.B Priestly in his English Journey of 1933:

far too many opinions about staying quietly at home happened to be expressed by comfortable professional men writing in warm, well-lighted, booklined  apartments thirty feet long by fifteen broad. And again, even if they have pleasant homes, the fact remains that most young people like to go out at the weekend.It is not some temporary aberration of the tribe; such is their nature. They want to go out, to get on with their individual lives, which have a secret urgency of their own… to join their friends to stare at and talk and giggle and flirt with and generally begin operations upon the opposite sex… Such is their nature, fortunately for the history of their race.

Then Stuart opens up his heart to full throttle:

I watched the spring come to the north. It burst open across it like a blossom on flowers. In his poem ‘The Waste Land’ T.S Eliot said, ‘April is the cruellest month’. Away with you, man. It’s a beautiful month. I watched it come across the north as if God had thrown back the curtains on Winter Hill and Cross Fell and Blencathra. Everywhere I went I saw people who looked glad to be alive. Calderdale – the borough that includes Todmorton, Halifax and Hebden Bridge – has more inhabitants over 75 than anywhere else in Britain. It’s obvious why. They have more to live for: better beer, better scenery, cleaner air, nicer people. They’re dancing in the streets, honest. Get up there and take a look.

If all this sounds partisan and partial, then I’m not sure that northernness is geographical. It’s philosophical. I’ve met people from Devon who had the right stuff and people from Preston who made my heart sink. Just like Doctor Who said, lots of planets have a north….It’s about appreciating that an afternoon’s snow is an excuse for sledging, not a state of emergency. It’s about realising that the best place to drive a Range Rover is Cumbria not Islington. It’s about embracing that life is short and work is hard and that London is not the answer to everything.. .

In the end, this is a love letter and a love story. I don’t know how it ends. But I know I want to go back and see the north rising and be a part of it. Go ‘where the weather suits my clothes’, as Harry Nilson once sang … even if I leave my jacket at home in November because I don’t want to look soft.

I often read or listen to music to set my brain to a certain pitch in order to write. I’ve been dipping into this book for weeks, and this summary explains what I was getting from it. We hear a lot about the importance of diversity – we often forget it’s always been here, often a few miles from where we are sitting. Maconi’s open hearted passion for his subject is one of the best examples I know of writing, not just in the genre of travel. Even if you never go to the north of England, even if the topic doesn’t really interest you. This is great writing.Intelligent, warm and funny. And honest.

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