Priestley, J. B: English Journey

The group convened in January 2013 to discuss Priestley’s record of an English Journey undertaken in the autumn of 1933, almost eighty years ago. That journey was suggested by the publisher, Gollancz, and their left wing views could be said to have coloured the excellent prose contained within the book. Not only could it be said, but it was said by more than one group member. Alas, not everything of note said by members of the group is recorded on this occasion because your humble scribe was unaware of his necessary recording role until an hour of discussion had ensued and someone noticed the lack of scribbling. What perceptive observations have been lost? (Perceptive? you must be joking, Ed.) Hence, this month’s episode is compiled from ill-remembered and prejudiced views, and the later contributed notes of other attendees.

In his summary, ‘To the End’, Priestley speaks of three Englands. Old England is defined by the cathedrals and minsters, the manor houses and inns, and quaint highways and byways. Nineteenth Century England is formed from coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool and railways. He suggests that ‘Merrie England” cannot be improved upon, at least with rose tinted spectacles. However, he does point out that there was a substantial exodus to the industrial, revolutionary cities in the nineteenth century. Vote with your feet, as they say. His third England was more universal, possibly born in America, of cinemas and Woolworth’s, of the city bypass and semi-detached bungalow, and so on. As he points out perceptively elsewhere in the book, the coming of improved transport and communications may signal the death of individual and regional character. When talking of East Durham, he talks of its strange isolation. ‘Nobody goes to East Durham’, and by implication, no-one who lives there can afford to leave. As elsewhere in the book he talks of the harsh northern environment either bringing its inhabitants to despair, or blunting their senses and clouding the mind. This is certainly harsh, and perhaps over-stated. As he observes, regional theatres flourish in the most unlikely settings, and there are merits in the enterprise and ingenuity of the sons of the industrial revolution that is not always echoed in the gentrified classes to the south of Sheffield.

Speaking of East Durham, rarely can a book have been so well illustrated by its accompanying photographs; the Bill Brandt picture of the brick house sheltering under the coal slag heap with the heavy machinery of the pulley system perched on its top is magnificent and such photographs can be as influential as the text. Although written eighty years ago, this at least was familiar from my own childhood, when part of Lanarkshire was dominated by these spoils from deep mining. However, not everyone had the same edition, and some were poorly illustrated by modern equivalents. If you buy this book, go for the Folio Society edition of 1997, and check the photographs before you buy! Of course, the power of the image is so dominant now. Think for example of the citizen in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square.

However, our discussion became less centred on the observation, and more on the causes of what was observed, in a historical and industrial or business context. Of course, English Journey is in itself an influential work and a precursor of the Mass Observation Project that followed, which we read about earlier in “Nella Last’s War”. Although titled an English Journey, many pointed out that it was incomplete. Priestley himself acknowledged that he had not completed the task, and had failed to meet his original intentions to be more comprehensive. Rather, than three Englands, a majority though that this was really about two Englands, and that Priestley betrayed his left wing sympathies in suggesting that the industrial north had been betrayed by the allegedly (by some, not all) unproductive, parasitic south of bankers and other financial contributors to the British economy. To what extent was the plight of the North the fault of poor management by its own community, to what extent due to southern exploitation? Was it due primarily to the location of the great natural resource of coal, which spawned the associated industries? Was it due to the inventiveness of the northern mind, which we considered earlier in “The Lunar Men”, unallied to business control? These are difficult questions to answer only in the context of this possibly biased book.

In defence of the South, one pointed out that the GDP was greater than the North in 1933, and that this was not dominated by the financial sector and other service industries, citing large aircraft manufacturers west of London as an example. While he appreciated Priestley’s descriptions of England in 1933, it was a partial account in that it neglected to cover London and the south east which were doing relatively well economically. By 1933 the recession was over and GDP growth for the UK as a whole between 1934 and 1939 was 4%, a much better recovery than we have managed this recession. Would social conditions not follow economic improvement? If WWII hadn’t come, would this recovery have continued? Has anything changed? Mind you, there are lies, damned lies and ….

Alas, no-one can be sure, so we await the thesis on contributions to the GDP then and now to ascertain the truth. Certainly, what the book does do is contrast the plight of the working class “up North”, where it is indisputably “grim”, with the rather diverse activities in the South and South West, for example in the description of his acquaintance on the coach to Southampton, who had in his varied CV experience of hairdressing, raincoats, wireless sets, and tea rooms. As Priestley observed, new businesses were springing up all around London, and so contributing to the aforementioned GDP in the more pleasant surroundings of the M4 (later) corridor. The industrial heartland was shifting from North to South, to be founded not on coal, but on semiconductors and plastics.

Published in 1934, there seemed little sense of awareness of events elsewhere in Europe, but then this is an English Journey and perhaps this reflects the times. There are references to the previous war. His time in the trenches obviously had a major effect on him. This was seen in the moving description of the battalion reunion, one of the strongest sections, and in the imagery he uses throughout the book. Yet even at the reunion it moves on to social comment. “We could drink to the tragedy of the dead ….this tragicomedy of the living, who had fought for a world that did not want them ….. to exchange their uniforms for rags.” Again, there is ambiguity in whether the commercial and social observations are a fault of economics, of history, or of individual lassitude.  “It is hard to look at small shops with anything but disgust. They are slovenly, dirty and inefficient. They only spoil the goods they offer for sale especially if these goods, as they usually are, happen to be foodstuffs. One large clean shed, a decent warehouse, would be better than these pitiful establishments.”

Time for a digression and a sideways swipe at Edinburgh’s current Tram Saga. Priestley states that “the people show a sound instinct when they desert the tramway for any other and newer kind of conveyance. There is something depressing about the way in which a tram lumbers and groans and grinds along like a sick elephant.”   Whoa, cowboy! Maybe Priestley was over-impressed by the wonderful motor coach, maybe he hadn’t tried to crawl past the illegally parked residents of Edinburgh tethering their own elephants (sorry, 4x4s) outside the local private school. Let’s get back to the point!                                                                                             

Some of us were not attracted by his judgemental style, common these days amongst newspaper columnists, certainly. The default mode is belligerence and knocking down straw men, and is sometimes downright rude. Consider for example his comments on the whist drive: he was rude if honest(?) about participants (all ugly); patronising (but all such decent working class people); and sneering (unlike bridge players in the south).  He made many sweeping generalisations, e.g. on the Irish, “ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease”. Not just the Irish. “In those days you did not sing the woes of distant Negroes, probably reduced to such misery by too much gin or cocaine. I am not sure of the new Blackpool of the weary negroid ditties.” He was similarly dismissive of the working classes and their football, but then perhaps even Priestley was too young in 1934 to have seen a Hibernian cup win. One of us opined that Orwell’s tone was equally passionate, but less judgemental, and so preferable. Some of this may be a deliberate persona Priestley is cultivating – the cantankerous, plain-dealing West Yorkshire man. This was unattractive, in one view.

Turning again to the book’s origins, more than one thought the book biased by the political agenda of both author and publisher.  It was said that Priestley’s “English Journey” and Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” hugely influenced the Labour Party and popular perception of the 1930’s as a decade of depression. A historian liked and applauded the book, particularly the aforementioned regimental reunion, but had serious reservation about its influence (innocently or politically motivated?) on perceptions of the 1930s. To draw an analogy, he suggested that Neville Chamberlain’s failures in dealing with foreign affairs have also affected his reputation as an effective Chancellor.

And so we, too, moved “to the end”. I think there was universal agreement about the excellence of the writing and the evocation of time and place. He used language very effectively – a writer at the height of his powers.  Sometimes, the text was genuinely moving. Normally an outsider, it was felt that he wrote quite differently when an insider as in Bradford. However, there was much disagreement about the independence of the view and the accuracy of rendition. One quoted a comment that this was “a succession of moods rather than a succession of places.” Again, we could all agree that this was not an unbiased coverage of all Britain (omitting London and its environs); his insight into industrial development is uneven. Not everyone felt that this was necessarily a fault. Perhaps the North, in particular, was a far country of which the more affluent South, where policy was made, was not wholly aware. He was at his best when he was being descriptive, analytical, or anecdotal, at his worst when he was being judgemental, patronising or pushing a pre-devised agenda. The book is a good, if biased, historic record, and important in developing social concern for problems of unemployment and industrial squalor. There are some real flashes of insight, both into people and into the way some places have developed. Overall it was a fascinating book of abiding interest.

Yours in social justice,