When I ask broadcaster and writer Stuart Maconie to recall his best memory from his days at Edge Hill College he doesn’t hesitate.
“It doesn't seem that long ago to me but it was a different world,” he remembers. “It was pre-internet and pre-everything really, but at least we had The Smiths play here.”
“I was there on that fabled night and I had a great time at Edge Hill. I learnt a lot academically and in other ways and I wouldn't have changed it for the world.”
Maconie’s memories might be fresh but in the 30 years since Morrissey and co visited West Lancashire, Edge Hill has changed beyond all recognition with the new Creative Edge media centre the latest in a long line of developments.
“ I was coming here in the car from Manchester and I was miles away when I saw the water tower,” says Maconie, who returned to his alma mater this month to officially open Creative Edge.
“The tower was a massive landmark when I was a student because we used to hitch or walk and seeing it meant we were almost home. When I saw it, it all came flooding back.
“The first time I came back I'd lost touch with the university but they made an effort to get in contact with me and asked me to do things and gave me an honorary degree.
“That first time was really strange because it has changed so much. Hardly any of it is the same except for those old halls in the middle and what were the old girls’ halls. It is weird but it's brilliant because it actually feels like a new place.”
Whiston-born and Wigan-bred Maconie, 52, has become a true renaissance man since his time at Edge Hill. In his career as a writer and journalist he has written for Q, Word Magazine, Elle, The Times and The Guardian and was an assistant editor for the NME. He has also written the official biographies of both Blur and James and his shows on BBC 6Music and Radio 2 have a devoted audience. Other best selling books like his autobiography Cider With Roadies and Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North have ensured there is always a pun or two on the nation’s bookshelves.
“I was incredibly lucky and I'm aware of that,” he says.
“I sent an unsolicited review to the NME, badly addressed and not to the right department but I still got a job.”
A bit different to today’s graduate job market I suggest.
“I'm kind of envious of the facilities at Edge Hill so maybe I'll get a job here and come back but you do have to have the original impetus to send that letter,” he says. “I'm also of the opinion there is no substitute for raw talent and a raw desire to get ahead – all the recording facilities in the world won’t help if you haven't got any songs.
“I meet lots of people who say 'I'd love to be a writer' and I say ‘well what have you written’ and they say 'nothing'. Well you don't want to be a writer then because you'd be doing it now if you did. Having said that it does help if you have state-of-the-art facilities like Creative Edge and can produce something that looks pretty similar to what you'd see on the TV or the radio.
“The early 1980s were very different era but if you are a young person looking to get ahead in the creative industry this is an amazing place to study.”
After Edge Hill, Maconie drifted into teaching, staying in the area and ending up as a lecturer at Skelmersdale College. He’s written fondly about the experience since and clearly still holds a candle for the unloved overspill town.
“I was in my mid-20s and my students ranged from 16 to 70 but it’s still easily the most rock 'n' roll job I've ever had, as I would regularly tell my NME mates.
“Skem was a tough place but I really loved it and it was never bleak – it had great fun and energy despite the town having no money.
“The kids I taught were brilliant – they were funny and clever and I took it upon myself as a mission to get some of them to university. I'm not sure now whether that's the be-all and end- all because I don't completely agree with the idea everyone should go to university. I think we need some people who can mend boilers as well!
“It was a challenge for me to do something good and I was teaching students who had been thrown out of work and made redundant and I used to see them intellectually coming alive. I don't know how many of them got anywhere with that but I hope some of them did.
“Skelmersdale was a great town that had a lot of hard knocks and it’s sad that it doesn't seem that much better now.”
The turning point in his career came when a call came through from the NME while he was teaching. The magazine wanted him to fly to Seattle and interview INXS who at the time were one of the biggest bands in the world. As he fondly recounts in Ciders With Roadies, it was his students who persuaded him to give up the sociology classes and get on the plane.
“That’s all true,” he laughs. “They told me to go and said they’d cover for me and I made some brilliant friends during that time.”
Despite pursuing a career in London, Maconie has never forgotten his Lancashire roots and as many of his books reveal, he is a keen defender of the North.
“The North of England was under the cosh when I was teaching and still is, but it really was then,” he recalls.
“I'm not afraid to say it but then, like now, you had a government who had absolutely no kinship with the working people of the North of England and regarded them as an inconvenience to be got rid of. Nothing changes really.”
Places like Creative Edge opening are important then?
“In the creative industries we punch far above our weight in the world and the North West punches above its weight in the UK. We have had a lot of our manufacturing industries destroyed but the fact that we still make great music, great TV shows and produce great journalists and broadcasters is something to be proud of”.