Hope and Glory: The Days That Made Britain, By Stuart Maconie

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The Independent Culture

There was a time when Stuart Maconie's work involved loitering on tour buses in assorted eastern European cities recording the drunken utterances of indie pop bands. These days, when not on the radio, he's more likely to be found clutching a thermos flask and cagoule on the TransPennine Express and gearing up for a bracing walk on the fells.

In the vein of his last two books, Pies and Prejudice and Adventures on the High Teas, Hope and Glory offers the writer and broadcaster an excuse to poke around some of Britain's lesser-known or simply less celebrated spots. They are chosen in this instance to exemplify the pivotal social and political moments in British history, from the death of Queen Victoria to New Labour's election victory.

His account of the docking of the Empire Windrush, the boat that brought 450 men from the Caribbean to help repair post-war Britain, broadens into a meditation on British multiculturalism. It finds him indulging in exotic culinary treats in a Birmingham suburb, meeting a thriving Portuguese community in Thetford and standing, close to tears, at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. A reflection on the injustices inflicted on the Tolpuddle Martyrs takes him to Dorset and, specifically, to the sycamore tree under which the six labourers convened and swore a fateful oath of secrecy.

Tackling such enormous events in digestible chapters has its difficulties, not least in providing a sufficient amount of authority and depth. Maconie successfully combats the problem with a breezy tone that makes clear that this is no great social document, more a series of personal ruminations on major events and their effects on British identity.

He is particularly good on the struggles of the miners at the Orgreave colliery in 1984, where picketers were met with a hail of batons by police. The Lancashire-born Maconie claims no impartiality, having been brought up in a mining town, and the depth of feeling he brings to their plight is extremely moving. His desperate tales of the villages that lost all their men in the Battle of the Somme are similarly saddening, though counterbalanced by his rendering of the "Thankful Villages" such as Arkholme and Saxby – whose men all came home from the war alive.

As with his previous books, Maconie operates with a somewhat sepia-tinted view of the world, which is not surprising when you consider his ubiquity on television compilation shows on bygone decades with "I Love..." in the title. He claims to be suspicious of those who extol "the good old days" but is a sucker for dinky villages, cosy pubs and old-fashioned tea shops, in which many an afternoon is spent reflecting on his findings over a toasted teacake. More disappointing are his digressions on reality television and polyester tracksuit-wearing youngsters, which reveal a man grumpily losing sight of his youth and hankering for the perceived decorum of previous generations.

For the most part, however, his ability to melt into his surroundings and gain the trust of locals enables compelling and often witty insight into the customs and mindsets of overlooked corners of Britain: places proud of their heritage and keen to share it with interested outsiders. Maconie is an engaging and illuminating guide throughout, one with whom I, for one, would be delighted to share a flask of tea.

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