English Journey by J B Priestley

My job requires me to travel anywhere in Britain and in the last three years it’s taken me to places I’d never visited before, such as Southampton.

Southampton, like my home city of Liverpool, built its wealth from its port. I was anticipating a grand waterfront, not necessarily buildings as iconic as the Liver Building but at least something showing that back in the day Southampton was THE hub for trans-Atlantic travel – passenger traffic that had previously sailed from Liverpool incidentally. I was disappointed. I’m not saying Southampton isn’t a nice city, because it is, it really is, and its waterfront boasts well designed, shiny-new retail and leisure complexes. But I guess that’s my point.  Its waterfront architecture was more modern than I was expecting. I decided the grand, old buildings must have been destroyed in World War Two or demolished by gung ho city planners. Liverpool lost a lot of great buildings that way.

And then there was West Bromwich.  My Dad was stationed there for a time when he was in the army.  He used to go to the Hawthorns to watch West Bromwich Albion FC and became a lifelong Baggie.  At the time of my visit, the Albion had long since ceded bragging rights to their long-standing Black Country rivals, Wolves, and the town of West Bromwich looked to be dying on its arse. West Brom had been a centre for coal mining and the iron industry back in the day; I assumed it was a victim of the 1980s mine closures and manufacturing decline.

And so to Burnley, a town slap-bang in the midst of jaw-droppingly beautiful landscape.  Its principal trade was cotton and it was once one of the largest producers of cotton in the world. The buildings and municipal parks show there was wealth there, once, but you can tell the money’s long gone; they’ve obviously seen better days. Again, I assumed the fault lay with the 80s recession.

Then I read English Journey, and my assumptions were blown away.

English Journey is an account of Priestley’s road-trip around England. It was published in 1934. JB begins his journey in Southampton: “Southampton has not been able…to live up to those great ships it harbours….they have not succeeded yet in building a town…worthy of such majestic company.” It seems the grand buildings I expected weren’t destroyed; they never existed.

From Southampton JB travels to Bristol and Swindon, then to the Cotswolds, then to Coventry, Birmingham and the Black Country. In the Black Country he’s shown around a warehouse in West Bromwich when some boys start throwing stones at the roof: “Nobody can blame them if they grow up to smash everything that can be smashed. There ought to be no more of those lunches and dinners, at which political and financial and industrial gentlemen congratulate one another until something is done about Rusty Lane and West Bromwich. While they still exist in their foul shape, it is idle to congratulate ourselves about anything. They make the whole pomp of government here a miserable farce…If there is another economic conference let it meet there, in one of the warehouses, and be fed with bread and margarine and slabs of brawn. The delegates have seen one England, Mayfair in season. Let them see another England next time, West Bromwich out of season. Out of all seasons except the winter of our discontent.” It seems West Bromwich has been crying out for investment for almost 90 years – 90 YEARS!

From West Bromwich, Priestley goes to Leicester and Nottingham, West Riding, the Potteries, and Lancashire. Unlike me he didn’t visit Burnley, though he did stop off at another former Lancashire mill town: Blackburn. The two towns are a hop, skip and jump from each other, only four junctions apart on the M65. Like Burnley, Blackburn was an international centre for textile manufacture in the 19th century: “With her trade leaving, her businesses going bankrupt, her mills silent, her workpeople by the thousand losing their employment, Lancashire needs a plan, a big plan. She still needs that plan…What is the use of England – and England in this connection, of course, means the City, Fleet Street, and the West End clubs – congratulating herself upon having pulled through yet once again – when there is no plan for Lancashire…we have marched so far, not unassisted in the past by Lancashire’s money and muck, and we have a long long way to go yet, perhaps carrying Lancashire on our backs for a spell; and the hour for complacency, if it ever arrives at all, will strike long after most of us are dead…But somebody somewhere will have to-do some hard thinking soon.”  It seems our mill towns have also needed help for almost 90 years.

After Lancashire, Priestley travelled to the Tyne, East Durham and the Tees, then Lincoln and Norfolk. As you can probably already tell this is no chocolate-box travelogue through Merrie-England but neither is it all “northern desolation”. Priestly also describes “another England” with “charming villages”… “cathedrals and minsters, and manor houses and inns”. This in itself gives him pause for thought: “To see Beverley Minster suddenly hanging in the sky is as astonishing as hearing a great voice intoning some noble line of verse…If you want to know the difference between working for the glory of God and working for the benefit of debenture-holders, simply take a journey and keep your eyes open. I find it difficult to believe in the God who inspired the creators of Beverley Minster. But I am beginning to find it even more difficult to believe in the debenture-holders who inspired the creators of the Black Country slag-heaps and the Durham “tips””.

His conclusions? “You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs and you cannot become rich by selling the world your coal and iron and cotton goods and chemicals without some dirt and disorder. So much is admitted. But there are far too many eggshells and too few omelettes about this nineteenth-century England. What you see looks like a debauchery of cynical greed…The more I thought about it, the more this period of England’s industrial supremacy began to look like a gigantic dirty trick”.

And again: “when newspapers tell me there is yet another financial crisis…I always feel that some idiotic game is going on and that it is preposterous that the welfare of millions of real people should depend on the fortunes of this game as it would be if our happiness hung upon the results of the Stock Exchange golfing tournament…The City, then, I thought, must accept the responsibility. Either it is bossing us about or it isn’t. If it is, then it must take the blame if there is any blame to be taken. And there seemed to me to be a great deal of blame to be taken.  What had the City done for its old ally, the Industrial North? It seemed to have done what the black-moustached glossy gentleman in the old melodramas always did to the innocent village maiden.”

And again: “I wished I had been born early enough to be called a little Englander. It was a term of sneering abuse, but I should be delighted to accept it as a description of myself. That little sounds the right notes of affection. And I considered how much I disliked Big Englanders, whom I saw as red-faced staring, loud-voiced fellows, wanting to go and boss everybody about all over the world.”

The enduring problems caused by Industrialisation (we can now add global warming to JB’s extensive list), Fat Cats living off the work of others, recognition that the North has been left behind (politicians still talk about “levelling-up”), the balance between patriotism and colonialism, and so much more – for a book published in 1934, the issues it raises are surprisingly contemporary. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose “, the more things change, the more they stay the same…Depressing, isn’t it?

Rating: ** Worth Reading

PS You might have seen the play An Inspector Calls, which was written by JBBefore stumbling across An English Journey that was all I knew about him. It turns out that as well as being a successful playwright he was also a popular novelist, broadcaster and social commentator – and I have a Priestley-sized hole in my literary education that needs rectifying!

PPS In 1983, Beryl Bainbridge retraced JB’s journey in her travelogue English Journey and the Road to Milton Keynes. I’ve not read it yet but look out for it on a future post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s