England’s End

Peter Campbell

  • English Journey by J.B. Priestley
    Heinemann, 320 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 434 60371 6
  • English Journey, or The Road to Milton Keynes by Beryl Bainbridge
    Duckworth/BBC, 158 pp, £7.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 563 20299 8
  • Crisis and Conservation: Conflict in the British Countryside by Charlie Pye-Smith and Chris Rose
    Penguin, 213 pp, £3.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 14 022437 8
  • Invisible Country: A Journey through Scotland by James Campbell
    Weidenfeld, 164 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 297 78371 8
  • Literary Britain by Bill Brandt
    Victoria and Albert Museum in association with Hurtwood Press, 184 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 905209 66 4

They should be called the Kondratieff Laureates. Fifty years ago, when the economic cycle last hit bottom, J.B. Priestley made his English Journey. A few years later Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, and Edwin Muir Scottish Journey. Now, as the succeeding wave reaches the bottom of its downward swing, the BBC send out Bainbridge to follow Priestley, and James Campbell records travels which were in the spirit, if not the footsteps of Muir. Why novelists? Perhaps because it is reckoned that they will give a human dimension to the changes documented in unemployment statistics and land-use maps.

Connoisseurs of anxiety and loss will always find a ruined landscape round them. Lamenting the obliteration of English villages in A Little Learning, Evelyn Waugh wrote of ‘the grim cyclorama of spoliation which surrounds all English experience in this century’. ‘Any understanding of the immediate past,’ he said, ‘must be incomplete unless this huge deprivation of the quiet pleasures of the eye is accepted as a dominant condition, sometimes making for impotent resentment, sometimes for mere sentimental apathy, sometimes poisoning love of country and of neighbours. To have been born into a world of beauty, to die amid ugliness is the fate of all us exiles.’ Ruskin would have told him that much of the ‘world of beauty’ had gone long before he was born. One reason for travelling through your own country is to document visual atrocity and human deprivation, and Waugh’s sense of a better world that is lost can be matched in Bainbridge.

Priestley, peering through an atmosphere ‘thickened with ashes and sulphuric fumes, like Pompeii on the eve of its destruction’, gives bravura descriptions of industrial devastation. ‘Between Manchester and Bolton,’ he writes, ‘the ugliness is so complete it is almost exhilarating.’ Bainbridge, who has had a sentimental attachment to the mean streets that have fallen beneath the wrecker’s ball, reserves her hardest words for Billingham: ‘a mess of concrete flats and dingy housing, vulgar precincts and civic centres, not to mention the winged monstrosity of the Arts Forum Theatre’. Her villains are the people who tried to carry out the kind of changes Priestley might have approved of. She is almost as hard on what they have made as Priestley was on the buildings that have been knocked down. Thus Priestley, writing on small shops, says: ‘one large clean shed, a decent warehouse, would be better than these pitiful establishments with their fly-blown windows and dark reeking interiors’. Bainbridge complains about a Southampton shopping precinct: ‘Traffic-free areas are a silly idea. The trick with shopping is to get the whole wretched business over with as quickly as possible – nobody in their right minds would want to sit down in the middle of it.’ The shops, the housing, the hopes of the planners of the Fifties and the builders of the Sixties, are dismissed in asides of this kind.

Can England be saved? ‘In a crowded dirty little country like ours,’ Orwell wrote, ‘one takes defilement almost for granted ... slag-heaps and chimneys seem a more normal, probable landscape than grass and trees, and even in the depths of the country when you drive your fork into the ground you half expect to lever up a broken bottle or a rusty can.’ But he also writes that a ‘belching chimney or a stinking slum is repulsive chiefly because it implies warped lives and ailing children. Look at it from a purely aesthetic standpoint and it may have a certain macabre appeal.’ Orwell was writing a tract, Priestley and Bainbridge are writing travel books. They are outraged by poverty, distressed by shabbiness and boredom, and appreciative of tolerance, variety and eccentricity. What they saw made them uncomfortable. It did not, however, lead them to uncomfortable conclusions. They are curiously incurious about facts, and even about explanations. Priestley took a Blue Guide and Stamp and Beaver’s Economic Survey with him, but made little use of them. Bainbridge set off with the Sunday papers.

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