Three Books, Two Authors, Two Englands: A Comparison of the Inter-War Travelogues of J. B. Priestley and H. V. Morton
What follows is a comparison of the accounts of two different journeys around England, namely J. B. Priestley's 1934 English Journey and H. V. Morton's two "England" books, In Search of England (1927) and The Call of England (1928).
H. V. Morton compiled his books from a series of articles that he had written for the Daily Express newspaper between 1926 and 1928, detailing his impressions as he travelled around England in a small motor car. Each book is presented, by and large, as if it were one continuous journey. Morton's declared intent was to encourage "an understanding love for the villages and country towns of England" in order to better preserve them for the future (iSoE p. viii). The books are light-hearted travelogues, and generally politically neutral. Although suggestions of Morton's personal views are apparent in the introductions, at no point do they intrude on the relaxed, amiable style of his narrator in the main text.
Priestley's book was commissioned by his publisher Gollancz, and was an account of a journey which he conducted around England in late 1933, initially by motor coach but later by car and the occasional tram. Describing his mission, Priestley states "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" (EJ p. 61-62). As such, much of the book is overtly political and, in contrast to the reserved tones of Morton's narrator, Priestley expresses strong views on his travel experiences, as he declares that he is "here to tell the truth and not make up a Merrie England" (EJ p. 119). As journalist and author Andrew Marr puts it, "Priestley wanted to rub the noses of Southern middle-class Britain in the reality of the other nation" (Marr, 2007, p. xxii).
As might be imagined, despite sharing a few intriguing similarities the two works are very different, portraying two distinct Englands. The world of Morton's 'England' books lacks things which would have been familiar to Priestley only eight years later, from Heinz Beans to penicillin, from the Times crossword to equal suffrage, but what separated their two worlds so utterly—and means that comparing them can never be entirely fair—was the devastation of the great depression of 1929. The Wall Street crash knocked the economic heart out of Britain's industrial centres almost at a stroke, decimating production, ruining export markets, and laying off men in their hundreds of thousands.
Morton's essays were written in the twenties, before the crash, at a time when war-time restrictions were being lifted and Britain was beginning to look forward to a prosperous future. They betray an airy optimism which is absent from Priestley's account, written as it was at the height of the depression, by which time the world of Morton's gently-spoken narrator, with its bosky dells and winding village lanes, had changed irrevocably. The statistics which Priestley employs in English Journey speak for themselves about the state of the economy. In 1920 Britain was producing nearly 2 million tons of shipping, but by the time Priestley came to write his travelogue that had been reduced by a brutal 90% to less than 2 hundred thousand tons (EJ p. 343). This led to massive hardship, not just in the ship building industry but also in related fields, such as steel and coal production. Consequently the industrial towns and cities that Priestley visited were in an appalling state, with unemployment reaching 70% in places. This inevitably caused profound social changes, and Priestley's account of a Bristol Blackshirt rally, with its communist hecklers, is symbolic of the polarisation of Britain and the rest of Europe along extremist political lines (EJ p. 29).
Morton, of course, would have been blissfully unaware of this impending disaster as he steered his slow and careful way around the highways and byways of England, and this must be borne in mind when making a comparison. To be fair, following the depression Morton was fully aware of how the country had changed; when asked, in 1933, to reissue a book originally written in 1926 (A London Year), he was reluctant, pointing out that the first edition was "written during that brief waltz of wealth after the War" and expressing concern that a reissue might appear "quite out of touch with our times" (Morton, 2004).
Not every difference between the two works can be attributed simply to their contrasting eras, however. The difference between the authors themselves, and how each deals with the subjects of industry, wealth and social conditions, is still an important factor. While life at the time of English Journey offered plenty of grist to the mill for the social commentator, Morton's 1920's England wasn't entirely without its share of industrial unrest. One has to look closely, though, to decipher his oblique reference to arguably the most significant industrial relations event of the decade, the national strike of 1926. According to biographer Michael Bartholomew (2004, p. 95), the only mention it receives in Morton's work is a reference to the miners of Lancashire squatting on their haunches. There is no hint that these disconsolate men are on strike, and within a few lines Morton has breezed on, sharing a joke with the reader about Wigan pier. It is hard to imagine Priestley being so cavalier on the same topic.
Apart from the two authors' different agendas, their general tone and literary style are poles apart. Priestley is determined to reject any hint of sentimentality: he even accuses Dickens of being a "sentimental caricaturist" (EJ p. 274), and despises the creators of 'Merrie England,' "who brood and dream over... almost heartbreaking pieces of natural or architectural loveliness at the expense of a lot of poor devils toiling in the mud" (EJ pp. 398 and 119). Priestley's views are opinionated, thought-provoking and challenging. He is the stern moralist who knows what is best for the people and is not afraid to proclaim it, the reformer, the social engineer, the 'man with a plan.'
When it comes to describing the prevailing social conditions—the brutality of a Newcastle boxing ring, the deplorable slums of Stockton-on-Tees or the unremitting, bleak despair of Tyneside— Priestley is at his finest. He pulls no punches as he ruthlessly exposes the full horror of mines, mills and shipyards within just a few hours of the capital. At a stroke he vaporises any convenient illusions about the working man which the wealthy classes of London and elsewhere might choose to maintain for their own peace of mind. Priestley is in search of the truth; he has no truck with peace of mind.
Morton, on the other hand, has a relaxed, languid style. He is lyrical, almost poetic. He will seek out individuals and allow his story to be told through them and their experiences. His prose is intimate and personal: the reader is taken into Morton's confidence as his narrative unfolds. As early as page one of The Call of England he is excitedly whispering his joy at the new adventure which lies ahead. Morton's is the voice of the little person, the everyman—not the reformer, but the one who will be reformed. He is not blind to the hardships of the industrial cities (at one point comparing the recruitment of casual labour in the docks of Liverpool to a slave market) but by and large his aim is to entertain and tantalise, not to dwell on uncomfortable topics. Morton is as anxious to please as Priestley is to confront.
This is not, however, simply a case of one author nobly championing the working classes, while the other flits, magpie-like (iSoE p. vii), from one glittering Arcadian jewel to another. Morton always attempts to be fair to his subjects and, by and large, if he can find nothing good to say he will say nothing. While this means that we sometimes find him glossing over unpalatable truths, it does make Morton's style more generous while Priestley accounts less well for himself, on occasion coming across as somewhat carping. He seems to find it difficult to give credit where credit is due, even when the subject is undeserving of his wrath. Consider, for instance, the two authors' accounts of England's second city, Birmingham.
Priestley described himself as a "grumbler" with a "Saurian eye" (Gray, 2000, p. 42), and perhaps this accounts for some of his remarks as he alternates between patronising and criticising Birmingham. Having initially hoped that the entire city (which he describes as "a dirty muddle") had been "pulled down and carted away" (EJ p. 78), he takes a tour of the Corporation Art Gallery and Museum, courtesy of its director who is keen to show him the work of local craftsmen. In a few short paragraphs Priestley damns the efforts of aspiring young talents with extremely faint praise, describing them as "surprisingly good," and condemns locally designed silverware out of hand as "tasteless" although "admirably executed," following which he turns his back on the natives and proceeds to sing the praises of foreign painters for nearly two pages.
Morton, in contrast, anxious perhaps to make amends for having ignored Birmingham in his first book, redresses the balance in the second by initially taking issue with a gloomy assessment of it (a "rotten hole") from an inebriated commercial traveller on a train (both authors liberally invoke the unfortunate commercial traveller as a foil). He then announces his arrival at New Street station with a light- hearted paragraph on Birmingham's many achievements ("the city whose buttons hold up the trousers of the world"), praising its smartly turned-out policemen and the classical columns of its town hall. Morton isn't unaware of the city's less inspiring aspects --its "drab uniformity" and "outer crust of ugliness"-- but this is countered by reference to great camps of industry, praise for Birmingham's successful commerce, and the vigour and drive of its hard working people (CoE p. 175-179). Morton has an eye for the colour and vibrancy of the city which, even given the different times, seems to have escaped Priestley.
Both authors contrive to visit chocolate factories on their travels, but while Morton (in York) marvels at the manufacturing process, expressing an interest in the colourful hats and coats in the cloakroom and patronising his guide by complimenting her "pretty head full of statistics," Priestley agonises over whether the Cadbury plant at Bournville, providing its workers with some of the best conditions in the world, might be too paternalistic. He even suggests that, by offering its employees generous benefits both in and out of work, it could be ushering in the decline of democracy. Priestley ultimately finds himself apologising to Cadbury's for his gloomy introspections at their expense.
Neither appears entirely at ease in a crowd of strangers, although here too they deal very differently with the subject. In Morton's case, in the crowded Manchester Royal Exchange (CoE p. 131), he positions himself in the strangers' gallery high above the crowd (which he describes briefly as 'the monster'). From it he picks out and follows a single individual as he weaves through the throng: a cheerful little man who rubs his chin and makes a joke, and who (the narrator hopes) is kind to his wife. Priestley, by contrast, has no time for such whimsical niceties. When visiting Nottingham's Goose Fair he appears striding raptor-like through the multitude, his keen eye glittering with disapproval. As he describes the scene of Wellsian horror around him, the unfortunate citizens of Nottingham are reduced to "human geese," the boys consigned to a "sub-human race," and the girls condemned as "slavering maenads." Paradoxically, one of Priestley's rare moments of happiness in the book is a regimental reunion with his peers, which he describes as a mass of "roaring masculinity."
In other sections, there are a few fascinating similarities to be found. Sweeping statements are perhaps inevitable when exploring an entire country, but Morton's description of Birmingham in his first book as "that monster" and Priestley's dismissal of Swindon as a "town for dingy dolls" built by social insects (EJ p. 38) probably did little to endear either author to their respective local readerships. Both seasoned writers, they could turn their pens to a pithy, evocative phrase. The day of Priestley's arrival at Southampton is as "crisp as a good biscuit" (EJ pp. 12-13), and he wonderfully portrays a budgerigar "flashing" about a room "like a handful of June sky" (EJ p. 127). Morton dreamily captures the distant ridges of the Yorkshire moors, "blue as hot house grapes" (CoE p. 88), while the ruined Abbey of Fountains is "like an old saint kneeling in a meadow" (CoE p. 68) and the road to Manchester is "as hard as the heart of a rich relation" (CoE p. 68). By contrast, as men of their times, both authors were also capable of remarks which now seem jaw-droppingly inappropriate: to Morton, London has "as many moods as a woman" (iSoE p. 51), and Priestley at one point opines to the horrified reader that he dislikes hearing the blues sung in Blackpool, because they concern the "woes of distant Negroes" (EJ p. 268).
In the final analysis, the difference between the works is that between poetry and prose, documentary and drama. Priestley is Britten's Peter Grimes while Morton is Eric Coates's Fresh Morning. Priestley's work is powerful and intended to shock, Morton's is gentle and intended to entertain; both are meant to inform. Each vividly captures the mood of their time, one looking back from a period of prosperity to a peaceful, halcyon pre-war England before the carnage of the Great War, the other struggling to come to terms with the grim realities of the modern world in a time of great hardship. Priestley certainly gave the people what they needed to hear, but Morton perhaps gave them what they wanted to hear.
Both men had a deep love for their country, despite having different stories to tell, and both would probably have been happy to be called 'Little Englanders,' as Priestley describes himself in his closing chapter. Both provide a rounded view of England, despite their declared prejudices. Though Priestley claims to despise Merrie England and its creators, he finds his own version of Arcadia while walking with friends on his beloved Yorkshire moors (but manages to stay in character by sniping at unsuspecting cyclists). Morton too— despite initially devoting a mere seven paragraphs of In Search of England to what he describes as the "monster" towns and cities of the North, redeemed only by the greenery that surrounds them—has come to respect the power and productivity, vigour and vitality of England's industrial heartland by the time he compiles The Call of England a year later.
Finally, Priestley's English Journey is credited with influencing George Orwell's definitive 1937 work The Road to Wigan Pier, itself a no-holds-barred account of despair in the industrial towns of England. It is interesting to speculate on Priestley's influences. Almost certainly he would have known of, and probably read, Morton's 'England' books, since they were among the most popular books of their genre at the time. This may well account for some of his antipathy to Merrie England: Morton certainly does his fair share of the brooding and dreaming over "architectural and natural loveliness" which Priestley so detests.
There was also another, less well-known work, however, published by the Labour Party the year before English Journey, to which Priestley might well have had access while preparing his work, and which could conceivably have had some influence. It too is a frank and disturbing account of life in six English industrial cities at the height of the great depression. Its author also expresses outrage at the condition of the slums, and castigates landlords for their role in creating such horrors. He argues passionately for state intervention to alleviate the suffering which he so vividly depicts. In tone and spirit the book is not that far removed from English Journey. Its title is What I Saw in the Slums, the author is H. V. Morton, and Merrie England is nowhere to be seen.--Niall Taylor
References Bartholomew, M., (2004) In Search of H.V. Morton, London: Methuen. Gray, D., (2000) J.B. Priestley (Sutton Pocket Biographies), Stroud: Sutton Publishing. Marr, A., (2007) A History of Modern Britain (paperback edn., 2008), London: Pan Macmillan. Morton, H.V., (1927) In Search of England (2nd edn., 1927), London: Methuen. Morton, H.V., (1928) The Call of England, (14th edn., 1941), London: Methuen. Morton, H.V., (2004) in Devenish, P., Ann's done it again!: HV Morton Society Collectors' Note No.5 [online] http://www.ovg.co.uk/hvmsoc/cn4-7.html#CN5 [accessed 5-3-11] Priestley, J.B., (1934) English Journey, London: Heinemann, Gollancz.