Non-Fiction Review of J B Priestley's English Journey
English Journey J B Priestley (First published 1934; Great Northern Books edition, 2009)
"I am here, in a time of stress, to look at the face of England, however blank or bleak that face may chance to appear, and to report truthfully what I see there."
J.B. Priestley's seminal condition of England travelogue, compiled in 1933 and originally published a year later, captures a country in economic, political and social turmoil, riven by the aftershocks of the Great Depression. Heavy industry suffered and unemployment rocketed, especially in the industrial heartlands of the North. In response, a National Government was formed in 1931, instituting draconian spending cuts and wage reductions. There was political ferment, with the rise of the Left in protest against unemployment and poverty and of Mosley's British Union of Fascists (paralleling the growth of fascism across Europe). The 1931 Statute of Westminster brought a loosening of the imperialist grip, and the horizons of the British Empire began to recede.
In a climate of cultural anxiety, England's gaze turned inward. This Anglocentric turn found expression through two counterpointed tendencies: the efforts of late modernism to reconstruct a vital, integral England and redeem national culture through recourse to myth, and the social documentary fiction of the thirties, overtly Leftist and frequently radical. Priestley's journey by motorcoach, toting a typewriter and a pocket edition of the Oxford Book of English Prose, seems rather like fiddling whilst Rome burns compared with the mythopoetics of Eliot and Lawrence, or the political commitment of Auden, Isherwood and Upward. Between Southampton and his home in Highgate, London, he records encounters with Del Boy-ish small-time entrepreneurs attempting to 'make good,' an eccentric country squire, and a neo-Luddite plotting an artisan revolution to overturn industrial capitalism.
However, Priestley's crisis is one with strictly human dimensions. A fascist-communist confrontation at the Bristol docks makes him wonder "And why is it always 'the masses'? Who cares about masses? I wouldn't lift a finger for 'the masses'. Men, women and children - but not masses." He writes in the tradition of English radicalism, but with an emphasis on people rather than political poles, and a vehemently anti- utopian socialist stance. Of the Victorian tenements of Swindon, he comments that the planners "must have been thinking and dreaming hard about the next world, not this one: it is the only charitable conclusion."
Instead, he sees cause for optimism in civic pride, the English bent for gardening, and Old George, the dry stone waller. His approach may seem rather quaint -there's a hefty dose of romance in Priestley's English scene- but by documenting the foibles of provincial life, he anticipates Mass Observation's curtain-twitching ethnographic research into bathroom behaviour, the private lives of midwives and the significance of the dirty joke. Moreover, Priestley's book documents the emergence of a mass culture, a transformation in English life that was soon to be stalled by World War II and its aftermath. He finds this new England "cheap, nasty, sordid," and indeed his account is shot through with a similar strain of autobiographical nostalgia to that of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. Returning to his childhood home, Bradford, he admits that he "cannot visit it in the same spirit" as other places. Priestley is no reactionary, however: his nostalgia is not for the mythic Merrie England of H.V. Morton's English journeys, but the vigorous England of the industrial revolution, and its "energy, organisation, drive of purpose." With rather gentle polemic—but polemic nonetheless—he rails against the "shoddy, greedy, profit-grabbing, joint-stock-company industry system," urging the imposition of a rational economic system on the world, rather than reversion to some pre-industrial ideal. Indeed, he reserves his harshest criticism for picture-postcard heritage villages such as Chipping Camden (a "glorified tea establishment") and his highest praise for thriving industrial cities like Southampton, "strange towns of painted steel that glide up and away from this other town of motionless brick."
This new edition from Great Northern Books supplements Priestley's original text with essays that attest to his visionary legacy. By incorporating contemporary as well as historical photographs to illustrate his journey, it seeks to underline the book's present-day relevance. English Journey may attract a few new readers in this expanded coffee table format, but both essays and photographs seem somewhat superfluous: Priestley's travelogue remains, by itself, a valuable and flavoursome portrait of a country on the cusp.--Jennifer Hodgson