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.

These novelists make comments which only need to have ‘Beryl mused’ or ‘Jack protested’ tacked on here and there to make the narrators products of their own imaginations. ‘Whoever said that England can’t produce enough food for her own consumption? All the way to Birmingham the land was heavy with apple orchards and fields of cabbages and sugar beet, barley and turnips ... I swear it never stopped, the blooming and the growing and the grazing, until the big transporters began lumbering up the slope from Longbridge and we saw the sign welcoming us to Birmingham.’ (‘Thought Beryl,’ one might add, ‘realising that she had no notion how many pigs it took to give London its breakfast, or whether the country could keep itself in Brussels sprouts come to that. Perhaps she would find out one day. There was certainly a lot of food about.’) Add ‘Jack insisted’ to ‘I write not as a worshipper of the past, an antique snob, a connoisseur, but as an ordinary ignoramus who happens to use his eyes,’ and all need to argue fades. That is what novelists are good at – showing how unsubstantiated conclusions come into people’s heads and how protestations of ignorance can sound insincere.

The dyspeptic travel-writer has become more common now that abroad is so unromantic and home is so down-at-heel. The traveller who suffered from bandits and fevers could afford to be harsher on the natives than the one who has nothing more grisly to complain of than a British Rail breakfast. The least you can ask is that they be interested in the countryside they cover. Often Bainbridge gives the impression that she was not. Her objectivity is refreshing, her prose lively, the final result is rather chilling. For all her modesty of intention her view is Martian, and a Martian’s view of one’s own country proves unhelpful. Considering the decline of Liverpool, she writes:

If I were an historian I could chart the reasons for all this chaos: decline of trade, loss of Empire, aeroplanes instead of ships, cars instead of railways, synthetics instead of cotton, the trade unions, the rise of the Japanese. I could blame the Conservatives for greed, the Liberals for lack of confidence, the socialists for naivety and jumping on the bandwagon of progress. But it hardly matters now. It’s too late. Someone’s murdered Liverpool and got away with it.

What is missing from this kind of rhetoric is the thought that we all murdered Liverpool, and are all responsible. We have all profited from the changes listed: Orwell’s puritanical insistence that we pay, not only for industrialisation, but for the ways in which we try to ameliorate its effects, is what still makes The Road to Wigan Pier uncomfortable reading for optimists, despite the fact that many of the economic horrors he described have gone.

Part of Bainbridge’s problem with the present is the past:

All my parents’ bright days had ended before I was born. They faced backwards. In so doing they created within me so strong a nostalgia for time gone that I have never been able to appreciate the present or look to the future. The very things that Mr Priestley deplored, and which in part have been swept away, ‘the huddle of undignified little towns, the drift of smoke, the narrow streets that led from one dreariness to another’, were the very things I lamented. Show me another motorway, I thought, another shopping precinct, another acre of improved environment and I shall pack up and go home.

She will like the illustrated edition of Priestley’s English Journey. John Hadfield, the picture editor, has found photographs – some taken by people like Humphrey Spender and Bill Brandt who went to the North because they had read Priestley’s book – which illustrate the text with astonishing exactness. Yet the photographs of the unemployed, of slate-scaled terraces of back-to-backs snaking under slate-grey skies – grainy sooty pictures of gritty sooty surfaces – have earned a place in the history of photography which tends to cancel out their documentary content. If ‘ailing children and warped lives’ were not a consideration, the Piranesian grandeur of the photographs would make the towns and streets where they were taken into shrines – places as sacred to lovers of the industrial sublime as Gordale Scar or Snowdon are to lovers of the Burkean kind.

Bainbridge, uncomprehending of or depressed by new townscapes, gives few marks for the cars, television sets, bathrooms and freezers, public buildings and state services, which are what, for better or worse, we bought with the profits of the fat years. She finds the human damage equally depressing. Bing, 19 and looking 13, wearing tight jeans, cropped hair and big boots, had ‘cold black buttons for eyes’. He was about to go to court, having attacked someone with a screwdriver.

‘Don’t you want to do something?’ I asked. ‘Something worthwhile.’ I felt stupid the moment I’d said it. ‘Wouldn’t you like something to happen,’ I amended. ‘Something good, a nice home, someone who minds?’ ‘I’d like wheels,’ he said. ‘That’s what I’d like’... I wished him good luck, that nearly came out as good riddance, and he crossed the road and from the back he was a little boy in seven-league boots, pathetically alone and possibly trying not to cry.

The hardest thing to tell is whether what seems ill-managed, confused and ugly is sick to the point of dying, or merely changing. The agricultural revolutions in which wheat replaced sheep, or the yellow of rape-seed the green of beet-tops, can leave scars on the sensitive psyche: they cannot be said, in any literal sense, to be the end of the world. But there are those who argue that the disappearance of marginal habitats – the marshes and heaths which are drained and ploughed, the meadows put under one kind of grass, not left to support a variety of herbage – has reached the point where the weeds and vermin need more protection than the flocks and crops. In Crisis and Conservation Charlie Pye-Smith and Chris Rose marshal such arguments. The one characteristic which measures aesthetic and ecological value objectively is complication. The greater the number of species, and the greater the variety of the habitats supporting them, the better; theory and intuition are in agreement about that at least. The enemies of variety in the English landscape are the Water Boards, the forest-planners, the agricultural engineers, who improve returns by exploiting economies of scale. The effects seem most gross when a tax dodge or an EEC subsidy are their principal justification, most insidious when the intentions of the bodies administering them are altruistic. In either case, the anxiety which is felt encourages alternative readings of the landscape. A grubbed-up hedge or a new reservoir speak of the death of the earth, not of bread and water. Visions of wilderness – tundra, ice-field, desert – appear in television programmes and picture-books as examples of a better, because ‘natural’ order. In England we have no truly wild landscape and the species we do not cultivate for consumption must find living space in the no-man’s-land between field and road, in marshes too wet to cultivate, on stony hillsides and acid moors, or as infiltrators, crouching below the standing corn and invading the edges of the standing timber. The contrast between the cultivated garden and the wilderness beyond no longer exists. National Parks – in theory, ‘wild’ – are tended as carefully as parterres. Money is put aside to rebuild dry-stone walls when the sheep and the hay they used to keep apart no longer need the barrier. (Farmers, not unreasonably, suggest the money would be better spent improving farmhouses.) We are more frightened of pesticides than of famine. We look to the countryside for comfort. We want to protect it as though it were a work of art, but do not wish it to be a work of art. We want it to be real; and just as a hankering after a peasantry seems to underly some of the suggestions for land reform in Crisis and Conservation, so nostalgia for an urban proletariat, united by physical propinquity, can be sensed in Bainbridge’s animadversions on Milton Keynes. An extreme case of the desire for the function to fit the admired form is the suggestion that fiscal policy should encourage a landed gentry and country-house living on the basis that houses administered by the National Trust are soulless. The suggestion comes from Roger Scruton, trailing his coat in the Times, but it is at least as rational as the notion that no building of any merit can be allowed to disappear. All kinds of visual expectations are reversed. Ruins are beautifully trimmed and tended (I cannot think of a castle with enough ivy for a respectable owl to take cover in) while concrete walls ten years old are stained and decrepit.

Bainbridge sounds a handful. She smokes in the non-smoking compartment, and fears she has drunk too much to manage a rational interview. She has more than a little sympathy with the citizens who are not interested in being chatted to by the lady from the BBC. She is looking for things to respond to, and when there is a shortage of them carries you forward with an account of her time in the theatre, or of a conversation about nappy rash with one of the men from the BBC.

James Campbell drinks too much only when hospitality demands it, and (he had, to be fair, no television crew to cope with) gets better answers to his questions. He quotes Muir’s verdict that Scotland was a country ‘lost to history, gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character’, and concludes that what he saw fully contradicted none of that, save the ‘lost to history’. It is hard to imagine anyone in England hating the power of the Church as Iain Crichton Smith told Campbell that he did (‘When I see one of those Free Church ministers on the street in Lewis I feel like walking across the road and hitting him in the face ... It’s power they want, that’s all it is’), or any injustice of the last century in England being as alive as the Highland clearances are.

Our world has been flattened and evenedout by social and economic progress. There is no need to put quotation-marks around ‘progress’, but no need to be blind to its denaturing effects either. Cars and motorways have made all of England unremote, radio and television make us shake our heads and shed our tears in unison. James Campbell found the sole inhabitant of Lobain, a derelict village on the West Coast of Scotland, living in a windowless dry-stone-walled Highland black-house, with a wooden sign saying ‘No pictures’ tied to the wall. He was an old man, who disliked the new road and the tourists it brought. But he knew the price of petrol had gone up: he had heard it on the wireless.

If roads tend to make all land equally accessible, grants and tax incentives tend to make it equally profitable. Hence the disappearance of heaths and bogs. When we become frightened of the speed with which the changes we have wrought shape our surroundings we try to preserve appearances. In the countryside Park boards insist that new buildings are in traditional materials, and legislation on the preservation of hedgerows would not surprise me. On the other hand, high-yield short-stalked wheat, and peas bred to mature all at once for the viner, are here to stay. In cities warehouses are refurbished and converted to studio flats. A cocoon of scaffolding will surround a lush Edwardian facade. For a week or two sky will appear at every window, and then new floors of open-plan offices fill out the emptied shell, as if one of those parasitic monsters from outer space had taken it over. Our particular kind of consumption is not conspicuous, does not flower on banks like those Lutyens built for the Midland, or even on stores as solemnly façaded as Selfridges or Harrods. Although the convention that a bank should be Classical, a school Gothic, and a suburban house in an asymetrical vernacular, is still honoured by our expectation of which building is which as we drive into a new town, modern architecture is famous for its failure to offer us a way of distinguishing between a telephone exchange and a health centre, or an electronics factory and a hypermarket. The compounded ambiguities of adaptation and anonymity have rendered much of our environment unreadable. Landscapes have become boxwork which, like the plastic cases enclosing electronic devices, say little, and that little often mendaciously, about the way they function.

It is the difficulty of reading landscape, as much as the destruction of ancient beauties, which distresses. Current architectural theory applies itself to the problem, and all sorts of referential details have begun to make their appearance in new buildings – from TV-am’s cute egg cups to Quinlan Terry’s plans for a neo-Georgian river frontage at Richmond. They look like fancy dress, and are. Curtain walling and modular concrete panelling clothe offices, flats, schools and company headquarters in the same grey flannel. Now a firm can wear a monogrammed tee-shirt, or even dress in buckled shoes and breeches. It makes life more amusing, but such assertions cannot of themselves make institutions more various. If we treat criminals like the sick, prisons will come to look more like hospitals (although, with the present agreement between architectural and political conservatives running so strong, a new prison with trophies of fetters and leg-irons would be no surprise). If the same computers drive banking transactions and national bibliographies, no amount of attention to the company livery will make banks and libraries look very differents.

We want the look of the variety which comes from complexity, but will not abandon the simplifying conveniences of large-scale agriculture, mass production, mass entertainment, and the cheapest house and office space we can buy. Such are the determinants of the new English landscape. No English painter I know of is making it his subject. Hockney’s bigger splash was in California – which is to us what the Orient was to the contemporaries of Holman Hunt and Edward Lear: a place we discover through art. English poets have done better, Philip Larkin in particular. But then England, of all countries, is seen through literature rather than painting. There is the Constable country – but set against that the Brontë country, Hardy’s Wessex and Dickens’s London. Bill Brandt, in a series of features printed in Lilliput, Picture Post and Harpers Bazaar in the mid-Forties, set the words of British literary-landscape-makers against photographs of the houses in which they lived, or the places they wrote of. They were put in a book in 1951, which has been reissued in a slightly expanded form to accompany an exhibition of the prints at the V&A. Brandt’s is a solemn country of heavy shadows and simple forms. He can make a place you seem never to have seen from one you know well. His beginnings as a documentary photographer – the pictures of high and low life in London and of the industrial North – were behind him by then: he was moving towards a surreal world of his own contrivance. The literary Britain of Larkin, or early Muriel Spark, or Angus Wilson, has still found no Grosz or Hopper. The landscapes of the new England will go on, it seems, attracting more words than pictures.