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English Journey Hardcover – August 1, 1984
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"English Journey is an important book that has a literary importance and social value that far exceeds the time it was written." Dame Beryl Bainbridge "This is a wonderful book: profound, wise, humane; a good companion indeed" Nina Bawden "Written in the elegant, simple language which was an essential part of Priestley's brilliance. It is, in consequence, a masterpiece." Roy Hattersley" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Still governed by the hangover of the classes and mores of the Victorian era, the working and non-working poor of England actually suffered near-starvation for want of any proper social safety net. Under the authorities heavy reliance on Charity, `individualism' and the Free Market Forces, the living standards of the working class plunged below even the `bread and marg and cup of tea' levels of the period before the war. Despite long discussions of solutions in Government circles, based around the difference of feeding and housing an entire family on five shillings a week, or ninepence more, the suspicions of the better-off towards the storied `welfare queens' of the time (miners lolling in luxury on nearly 6 shillings a week) stalled those solutions and they were not enacted, and the suffering continued up to WWII (the Second World War).
Priestley descriptions however draw a picture of valiant and dogged determination and his obvious admiration shines through the smoke, smog, poverty and gloom.
It was fascinating to compare the different views in different times.
I was born in England and know some of the villages refrred to in the book/
J.B. Priestly was a very popular novelist and playwright. His fame reached its apex in 1940 with his BBC radio broadcasts on Sunday evenings. These wartime commentaries reached upto 16 million UK listeners. He threatened to rival Churchill in popularity.
This book is his first exercise in social and political comment and is based on a journey through the England of 1933. Already a popular writer he received a large advance from both Heinemann and Gollanz to support his travels by bus, train and his chauffeur-driven Daimler. His journey starts in the south and meanders through Bristol, the Cotswolds, Birmingham, the cities of the northwest and over to The Tyne and Durham, before returning to London via East Anglia.
He writes well in a simple, often humorous, middle-brow prose. His contemporaries, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolfe and George Orwell were deeply suspicious of his popularity and influence, mocking his style and affected northern roots.
Priestly had served in the First World War and had been wounded by shrapnel and was later badly gassed and taken from the line. One of the highlights of the book is the record of his regimental reunion where he meets the 8 survivors of his old platoon. Some of these men believed he had been killed in action. That really is a reunion.
Some men had been invited and had been told that if they lacked funds, others would buy their tickets for them. Some replied that they were still unable to attend because they could not afford proper clothes. This was the worst period of the inter-war depression, long before the Attlee/Beveridge welfare state.
The delight of the book is not in description of place, which is done well enough, but in the authentic dialogue.
A ship's steward on a posh ocean liner describes how he has nowhere dry to sleep and no time of his own to grab a meal. A Cotswold stonemason describes his commitment to his trade, a Gateshead communist tells of his commitment to the class struggle. These are real people, undiluted.
The North -South divide is stark and cruel yet Priestly's reaction to the gross inequalities he witnesses seem strange and muted. He was caught-up in the debates of his time and like the British as a whole was prone to racism and snobbery. He is contemptuous of the Irish in Liverpool (.."they settle in a poor corner and turn it into a slum." p206), the Jews in Hollywood and the "fur trade" . There are references to 'Kaffirs' and the poor quality of the offspring of inter-ethnic marriage. Yet juxtaposed to these nasty prejudices rests his certainty that the English are a decent and moderate people.
The nadir of his long journey is in Shotton. It is a hellish place where even the ground is on fire and smoke and sulphur make the air un-breathable. He curses the London capitalists who have raped this grim land for profit.
So, he is likely to support a radical 'left' programme for social revolution? Not a bit of it. He mocks the naivety of Bob the communist. He tut-tuts the "Marxians" (sic) and clings to his belief that everything will equal out without the cataclysms of militant Nazism or social revolution. A few years after writing this book he founded the Common Wealth Party with Sir Richard Acland, the author of "Unser Kampf".
Acland and Priestly believed in the common ownership of land. Acland gave his 19,000 acres to the National Trust. Priestly, who had a harder route to wealth, decided to hang on to his estate a little longer.
Was he just a petit bourgeois writer pretending to be a "leftie". That would be unfair. But the party he founded was absorbed back into Attlee's Labour Party, and land remained in private ownership.
The book is well-produced and the introduction is helpful.
The book reminds me of Louis Theroux's Kingdom by the Sea or the work of Bill Bryson although it details a more innocent age.