Reflections on “The Pie at Night” by Stuart Maconie

It was at least three years’ ago that a colleague lent me this book, knowing full well that I am a regular listener to Maconie’s radio programme, the Freak Zone, on BBC Radio 6 Music. I have finally read it and have some thoughts on its content. Maconie is the same generation as I am and the cultural references are meaningful in a way they would not be for younger people and indeed people not from the North of England.

In the book Maconie discusses – effectively – the leisure pursuits of northerners – music, art, education, museums, fun fairs, eating, walking/countryside, sport/football/speedway/betting. Let me start with music. His Freak Zone show is sometimes inaccessible – or unlistenable. He says of the show’s playlists “[I like what] some people might call ‘weird shit'”. He also likes “well-crafted pop” such as Chic, Abba, disco and Tamla Mowtown. “What I do not like is the stuff in between: middle of the road rock, landfill indie, earnest singer songwriters, self-important rock stars who think they are old bluesmen or great poets, stadium rock bands, divas, legends, anyone who has got to the stage in their career when they now wear a hat thinking it makes them interesting, all the stuff that ends up in those rock critics’ list of the 100 Greatest Albums.” I love some of the phraseology without actually knowing exactly what it means. Landfill indie – I sense I could be partial to a bit of that. Earnest singer-songwriters…I have often struggled with this genre; not least because I wish music changed things, but it does not. Earnest, but fruitless. Anyway, does he mean Bob Dylan (who also wears a hat)? The rock critics’ top 100 albums…as he is a former rock critic, I defer to him on that. Interestingly he then admits to his dislike of opera. He has tried, he says. And then he tries again with Opera North and a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. I have seen some opera at the BBC proms and a little bit in Munich. I have also seen some Gilbert and Sullivan at the English National Opera. A hoot, but I am not sure it is really opera. I will never admit to it being a favourite genre, or anywhere close. It is potentially captivating. One problem is that I’m not so interested these days in stories. I stopped going to the cinema about 10 years’ ago. I just cannot cope any more with people getting hurt. An opera without betrayal and the odd stabbing is not really opera. I know most of it is not real, but even an edition of “Yes Minister” makes me feel bad.

On fun fairs and the places that host them such as Blackpool, I am reassured that people have always gone there to escape from their day-to-day lives (work is illustrated throughout the book from mills to mines). With a fun fair and “white knuckle rides”, the sheer terror is guaranteed to focus the mind – I’ve never been a great fan of such rides. The best I have been able to manage is the Waltzers. The side-shows, too, serve that purpose. I can still remember as a kid shaking hands with the “tallest man in the world”. He did have large hands. On the basis of this chapter, I am going to give Blackpool a pass.

His football chapter takes readers to Rochdale – the club that has never won anything – and FC United, a club that resulted from Manchester United fans who could not endorse the take-over of the club by the Glaziers. They did what was unthinkable for most fans – leave the club (relinquish the season ticket) and set up a new one that would start at the bottom of the most amateur of the amateur leagues. But FC United is a club with ambition – and now its own ground, Broadhurst Park.

Maconie – against a Lancastrian’s better judgment – visits my home town of Hull to go on the Larkin trail, named after the city’s adopted poet and librarian to Hull University’s students. When I lived in the city (from birth until I was 23), we had absolutely nothing to do with the University. I am not even sure that I knew who Larkin was. Or a library for that matter. We lived in the East. The University was in the West and across the river. And for others. So I now know that Larkin enjoyed an occasional drink in Ye Olde Black Boy pub. I confirm it is a dark cave. It is where I used to hold the animal rights meetings until we moved into the much-more welcoming Blue Bell (for animal rights people, that is). Larkin also enjoyed, seemingly, cycling out of the city to places like Broomfleet (Humber flood plain) in the West and the Holderness peninsular in the East. Both as flat as anything. Both always foggy and mysterious. Both offered silence – until my first (and only) Siouxsie and the Banshees gig at the City Hall that gave me tinnitus which remains to this day. Maconie concludes that “I like Hull a lot”.

Maconie is perhaps at his best when taking on the leisure activities that good Methodists like me would never contemplate. For example, where can one bet on crown green bowling? There’s one place, Westhoughton. Through a shabby green door on Wigan Road in the town is “the home of professional crown green bowling”. Inside, everyone knows everyone else – outsiders are easy to spot. The betting is not with bookmakers like at the races, but between punters. They square up at the end of the day having made their bets using a language that needs learning. But if you want to see the world’s best CGB player, Brian Duncan, play, this is where you come. If you dare.

A lot of the north is “if you dare”. I’ve been away for a while and going back can feel alien. I do recall being singled out one time as an outsider, so much must my accent have changed. I said I was born-and-bred. But perhaps leaving was a betrayal. Hull City is my football team. It was not when I lived there. I may be a citizen of nowhere now. Or at least in my head, a world citizen.

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