One thing that comes across very strongly in his book is that he doesn't believe in the oft-mentioned 'North/ South divide'. And he's right. It's a myth. The truth is that any real divide is between London and everywhere else. London is a very different place from the rest of the country. People from the South-West and people from the counties around London are warmer and friendlier even though they are 'Southerners'. I've worked in London for 28 years and I've never known such an unfriendly place. I lived in London for 10 years and never got to know anyone other than my immediate neighbours. It's a sobering thought that you can cram nine million people into a tiny geographical area and a large proportion of them live in isolation.
But to return to the North ... I could relate to Maconie's affection for his home as I've had personal experience of it. I'm a regular visitor to the North of England. Apart from attending conferences and business trips in various places, my wife's sister Donna and her family live just outside of Wigan. And despite the fact that Wigan is allegedly one of the most violent towns in England I've never felt less than welcome there. (Incidentally, if you've ever watched Little Britain Live on DVD you've seen Donna as she's the poor sod who gets pulled up from the audience and abused by Marjorie Dawes during the 'Fat Fighters' sketch.) So here's the story of one such visit that I've been meaning to write up for ages. Reading Maconie's book reminded me of it (he's a Wiganite or Wiganer or whatever the correct term is) and I scoured my diaries for the day in question and laughed as I relived it again.
It was back in 2004 and I was at a hotel in Standish, somewhere between Wigan and Chorley, while attending a training seminar. It was close to Christmas but as we'd enjoyed the festive carvery on our first evening we didn't fancy it again. There's only so much dry turkey and false hotel bonhomie that anyone can swallow. So we wandered into the town in search of a decent pub and very soon found The Forrester's Arms which, to our delight, was holding a Quiz Night. And such was the warmth of the locals (and despite our very obvious Southern accents) we were immediately invited to make up a team.
The first thing I should point out - to help set the scene you understand - is that my team was the youngest by at least 20 years ... and we were all in our 30s and 40s. The pub was a sea of shining bald pates and blue rinses. There were more walking sticks than you'd find in a well-stocked hiking shop and Zimmer frames lined the walls like crowd-control barriers. Various smells vied for dominance above the warm fug of beer and pipe smoke; a sweet, cloying smell that included hints of cabbage, embrocation and damp flat-caps. The quiz itself had several rounds based upon well-known TV shows. There was a kind of trivia-based Bingo. And rounds that used the same format as Family Fortunes. There were Jokers to be played (as in It's a Knockout!) and specialist knowledge rounds like those in Mastermind.
Our quizmaster was a jovial senior citizen with the kind of spectacles you daren't look at the sun through. I don't know what sort of career he'd enjoyed before retiring but I'm guessing that it hadn't been a senior position in the Trades Union movement. He was quite the most conciliatory quizmaster I've ever known and he bowed to pressure like a Werther's Original wrapper before a scirocco. When the correct answer to one question was 'crossbow' (which our team got right), he allowed 'Bow and arrow' - even though the question had clearly mentioned 'mechanical device'. When a photo round included a picture of DJ Emma B he allowed 'Spice Girl' as a valid answer because someone argued with him that Emma Bunton was Emma B (which she isn't). And so it went on with us getting more and more frustrated (and drunk).
Then came the Family Fortunes type rounds. A question was posed and we had to record what we thought would be the top five answers. The first question was 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Roby Mill to name a popular fried food'. We wrote down fish and chips, fried chicken, burgers, sausages and fried breakfast. The top answer? Spam and bacon. We hadn't expected that. But nor had most of the other punters apparently and the tutting and sighing and clacking of false teeth was fearful to hear. Maybe it's the local delicacy in Roby Mill?
The next question was ... 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Bolton to name something that keeps them up at night.' The various answers included money worries, snoring, and cats howling, but the number one answer was ... sex. What does that say about the Boltonese? Anyway, the third question was ... 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Shevington what their partners did that irritated them most'. Popular answers included leaving the cap off the toothpaste, traipsing mud into the house and snoring, but the number one answer was ... sex. (Sense a theme developing here?) We couldn't wait for the next question. And we weren't disappointed.
'Alright', says the quizmaster, 'We asked 50 people on the streets of Appley Bridge what ... oh dear ... oh dear me, no. Er ... right ... we asked 50 people what their favourite sexual position is. Oh dear, oh dear.' As he dabbed the embarrassment from his brow we chewed our pencils thoughtfully and tried our damnedest to think of five sexual positions. You'd think it would be simplicity itself for a bunch of lads out on the booze to name five sexual positions wouldn't you? Oh yeah? Then you try it. Yes, we had missionary and doggy-style and soixante neuf ... and then we faltered. Is there a name for 'lady on top'? If so, we didn't know it. So we wrote 'lady on top' as our fourth choice. One of our team, who is known as Chugnuts, suggested the 'Bucking Bronco' position for number five. This consists of the basic doggy position but then the man grabs the woman's hair and whispers in her ear 'Your sister likes it this way too'. We decided that it was too obscure ... and a very old joke. In the end our final choice was 'spoons'; man lying behind woman. Rubbish answers I know but we were genuinely stymied ... as were our aged opponents. The discussions all around us were a delight to overhear. The highspot, however, was hearing one little old lady on the next table shout to her deaf male friend, 'Tony ... is anal a position?'
So what were the top sexual positions posited by the good folk of Appley Bridge? Missionary, doggy-style, soixante neuf, the cowgirl position (so that's what it's called!) and the wheelbarrow. The Wheelbarrow? I applauded their sense of adventure. If the population of Appley Bridge looked anything like the people here in Standish, wheelchair would have been more appropriate.
The evening ended with a festive Christmas trivia round in which we found ourselves completely outclassed by our opponents' knowledge of Bing Crosby songs, old Hollywood films and TV soaps. But the question that bamboozled us the most was 'Name the four reindeer belonging to Santa whose names have only five letters.' So, we went through the list: Donner and Blitzen. Dasher and Dancer. Vixen and Prancer. Comet and Cupid. And Rudolph. As far as we could see, there were just three with five letter names - Vixen, Cupid and Comet. Try as we might, we couldn't think of a fourth.
Silly us. The answer was Donna of course. We then explained to the quizmaster that the name was Donner because Donner und Blitzen means 'thunder and lightning' in German. And, not surprisingly, he allowed us the point. It was a hilarious end to a fantastic evening and the fact that I remember it so well is testament to the fact that we were made to feel so much a part of the local community. Well, that and the copious notes I scribbled in my diary that night.
So I won't listen to jibes about the North because I'd rather live amongst people like that than people who won't even say good morning to me as they sit next to me on a Tube train.
I will end with a story from a completely different quiz night. It's one that's run by a dyslexic landlady (absolutely true) down here in the South-East and her questions are legendary. During one quiz she posed the question 'What ocean are the Seychelles in?' However, because she pronounced the name like 'seashells' the most common answer people gave was 'all of them'.