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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Books - English Journey – by J.B. Priestley

Star rating – 8/10

I make no apology for reviewing a book first published in 1934 here. If you read my recent review of Owen Hatherley’s great polemic, ‘The New Ruins of Great Britain’, (and hopefully subsequently even the book itself), you may realise that it was through this recent work that I have come to Priestley’s much older travelogue and homage to the places and people of England. This is no mere historical dalliance on my part, it is still a very relevant book, from a man who clearly has great respect for the ordinary people he comes across on his travels, and who cares a great deal about our country, and what he felt was happening to it, as does Hatherley today.

Priestley is also a fantastic writer, with witty and pinpoint accurate observations of life in the towns and countryside in the England of 1933. He is in effect looking at how people were recovering from the years of the Depression, following the First World War. Many of his opinions are made all the more poignant by our knowledge that the Second World War was to begin just two years after he was writing, thus changing the shape of this landscape and its inhabitants radically again. As well as being a humorous journeyman, his travelogue is touching and very keenly observed.

His journey also begins in Southampton, with which Priestley is not very impressed, and feels is does not live up to the majestic ocean liners which come and go from its harbour. He is pleasantly surprised by the vocal civic pride of Bristol, which he feels ‘remains a city that was strong yesterday and still lively today, a city that is old, dignified, historic, and at the same time a bustling modern commercial centre.’ He ominously reports on a meeting of fascist black-shirts near the docks which he attends, out of curiosity rather than any sympathetic leanings.

In Coventry the descriptions of its historic buildings before they were mostly destroyed in the Blitz are both ironic and poignant: ‘I was surprised to find how much of the past, in soaring stone and carved wood, still remained in the city.’ and utterly relevant, especially his commentary on the amassed wealth of the banks, which could have been written today: ‘If you do not understand why our banks give so little interest on our loans to them and demand so much more interest on their loans to us, or why they are encouraged, for private profit, to exchange mere credit for solid buildings and machinery and businesses at work, you should go and have a look at these colossal white stone pillars of theirs in Coventry.’ We surely would if they were still there…

On his travels what he is most interested in is the working, domestic and cultural lives of the people he meets. He finds joy in conversing with commercial travellers, maids, miners, and booksellers. He was from Bradford, and his Northern roots are probably one of the main reasons for his genuine delight in, and admiration and respect for, the people in the great cities and small villages there alike. He is not particularly complementary about his home city itself, but accurately describes how its inhabitants loved nothing more than to escape to the beautiful surrounding moors and wild countryside on their doorstep at every available opportunity when they were released from their dark, and inevitably probably satanic, woollen mills. I know this to be true from my own grandparents and their friends who had static caravans and weekend boltholes in their rural West Yorkshire retreats, no matter how working class they were.

On my own home city of Stoke on Trent, he is harsh but fair. He is shocked at the lack of celebration of its cultural heritage in the shape of Arnold Bennett there. I dare say the youth of modern day Stoke would be just as ignorant of this rich literary inheritance as were their forebears in the 1930’s (‘Has he been on the X Factor then?...’). And Priestley was absolutely accurate in pointing to the city’s absence of any feeling of being one, made up as it is of six (not five as popular myth would have it) small and parochial towns. But he does try to turn his hand to making pottery, with mixed success, and is full of awe at the skills of the people who do this day in and day out, producing fancy wares for rich tables in their potbanks with billowing smoke that cast a dark all pervading smog over the whole place. Sadly the air is much cleaner there now with the demise of the pottery industry. And as someone who left Stoke for the bright lights of Manchester myself, I can hardly argue with his view that the people of the city are ‘unique in their remote, self-contained provincialism’. Sorry Stoke – on behalf of myself and I am sure Priestley too.

His journey to Manchester resulted in much more complementary observations about this magnificent city than the aforementioned Owen Hatherley makes, I am very glad to say. Priestley points to its foul weather (who could argue with that – except perhaps if arguing with a southerner?); its discerning theatre lovers (complement taken thanks); its fiercely independent women (no comment); and its zest for pleasure. In Blackburn he sees the ravages of unemployment at first hand, where he feels that the skills and self respect of decent working people are being flung on the scrapheap through worklessness, and the effects of this are particularly noticeable in the young adults he meets. How true then, and how heartbreakingly still true today.

He records for our posterity and future enlightenment perhaps, the misery in Jarrow and the coalfields of Durham alike, as shipyards close down, ironworks ground to a halt, and decent people endure backbreaking and dangerous conditions as a matter of course if they do have work.

But this is most of all a love story to the people and places of England that Priestley takes the trouble to explore on their own terms. It is not meant to be an expert book on economics, architecture or politics, although he is actually very wise on all these counts. One lesson that perhaps we can all take from Priestley’s example (particularly note this you southerners) is that you should always take the time and trouble to have a chat with the person next to you in the café, or on the bus or the train. And there is no nicer, or very often more amusing, way to spend a few idle moments than chewing the cud with your fellow travellers in life - you never know what you might learn from them.

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