From the Motorcoach

Stefan Collini

  • English Journey by J.B. Priestley
    Great Northern Books, 351 pp, £25.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 1 905080 47 2

Earlier this year, I visited the Birmingham suburb of Bournville for the first time. Planned and developed by the Cadburys in the 1890s, the estate is explicitly modelled on an ideal of the English village, with the mostly semi-detached houses playing a set of variations on the theme of the cottage. Consulting Pevsner as I walked around, I was surprised to find that, normally rather sniffy about the various forms of imitation and revival that make up most modern English domestic architecture, he was almost enthusiastic about the style of these placid, unambitious dwellings. ‘Gradually,’ he noted of the growth of the Bournville development, ‘a few satisfactory basic types of house were evolved to suit the way people want to live.’

Driving out of Birmingham later that day on the peculiarly modern nightmare that is its inner ring road, I found myself returning to that last, uncharacteristic phrase: ‘to suit the way people want to live’. How could one know that this was the way people wanted to live; rather than, say, the life they’d more or less unwillingly adapted to? Looking out of the car window, I would have had to conclude that a great number of people want to spend much of their time driving in and out of Birmingham on a badly designed racetrack bordered by establishments that will fit a new exhaust on your car while-U-wait, sell you a leather three-piece suite for nothing (at least, nothing today), or stuff your family with a day’s worth of unnutritious calories for less than a tenner – all of them housed in structures whose pedigree is, at best, out of warehouses by sheds. My Ruskinian moment passed, but it was a reminder that cultural critique always relies on some idea of the way people ought to want to live, something that can’t simply be inferred from looking out of the car window.

Bournville, J.B. Priestley declared after his visit there in 1933, ‘is one of the small outposts of civilisation, still ringed round with barbarism’. Taken in isolation, the remark is superior and windily apocalyptic. But isn’t that true of much ‘Condition of England’ writing, always finding portents of aesthetic vulgarity and moral squalor in a handful of carefully selected examples? Traditionally, the genre hasn’t allowed much standing to ‘the way people want to live’, and if that remark was representative of Priestley’s contribution, then English Journey seemed likely to confirm my impression of him as a predictable and not very interesting writer. But the truth about both this book and its author, and perhaps about the genre as a whole, turns out to be more complicated.

Born in Bradford in 1894, Priestley, after extensive service in the First World War and three years at Cambridge, had embarked in the early 1920s on the precarious career of a man of letters, turning his hand to criticism, essays and novels, all written in haste, none enjoying much success. The income from a collaborative work with the much better known Hugh Walpole enabled him to embark on a more ambitious third novel, The Good Companions, published in 1929. Its huge sales, together with those of Angel Pavement the following year, transformed his life. He became wealthy, sought after by publishers, loved by a wide readership and reviled by Bloomsbury. When he succeeded to Arnold Bennett’s reviewing pulpit in the Evening Standard in 1932, it confirmed his place as the spokesman for what was sometimes denigrated as a plain-mannish or middlebrow taste for social realism. As the literary hot property of the moment, a writer firmly identified with both ‘the North’ and ‘the people’ (the two were hard to distinguish when seen from literary London), he seemed to his publishers to be the ideal figure to take the national temperature at the depth of the Slump. English Journey, published the following year, was the result. It, too, was an immediate success – displacing Thank You, Jeeves at the top of the bestseller list – and was reissued several times during Priestley’s life (he died in 1986). Here was a version of Cobbett’s Rural Rides for the age of the motorcoach.

The travel narrative as cultural criticism has a distinguished history, stretching from Defoe and Cobbett up to Iain Sinclair and Bill Bryson. In the 19th century, such writing was overlain by a style of critique that was less topographical and more frankly ethical or existential: extended essays on what a few carefully chosen examples of contemporary crassness and complacency revealed about the moral quality of the culture as a whole. The great names here, whom Priestley admired, included Carlyle (who coined the term ‘Condition of England’), Ruskin, Arnold and Morris. In the closing decades of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century there were several related attempts, by writers such as Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas, to identify ‘England’ with ‘the countryside’ (largely for an urban readership), while the interwar decades tended to throw up more quizzical searches for ‘the real England’, assumed to have been submerged by the shoddy detritus of ‘progress’ and requiring the skills of the then fashionable figure, the anthropologist, for its proper identification and recovery. H.V. Morton’s bestselling In Search of England (1927) was English Journey’s immediate predecessor, a whimsical attempt to locate the ghosts of nobler ages in surviving relics and ruins. Its best-known successor was, of course, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), an account of the degrading squalor in such ‘depressed areas’ as Wigan and Barnsley, and an indictment of the callousness and self-deception that enabled the comfortable classes to ignore such appalling conditions.

Out of fashion today, Priestley may not seem to belong in this company, and I have to admit that I came to English Journey expecting sentimental uplift mixed with anecdotal illustration of the claim that there’s nowt so queer as folk. There is a certain amount of that, but it’s far from being the whole story. The rumination on Bournville encapsulates the book’s strengths and weaknesses, not least because of what it says about the tension for cultural criticism between the claims of how ‘people want to live’ and how people ought to want to live.

For the most part, Priestley was impressed by what he saw in Bournville. The Cadburys’ plan, he acknowledged, had ‘proved very successful’. The dwellings and public spaces were ‘infinitely superior to and more sensible than most of the huge new workmen’s and artisans’ quarters that had recently been built on the edge of many large towns in the Midlands’. He regretted that they were all detached and semi-detached: it would have been less ‘monotonous’ had there been more terraces, quadrangles and so on, ‘but I was assured by those who know that their tenants greatly prefer to be semi-detached.’ That, it seems, was the way people wanted to live. Those of them who were employees at the chocolate works also seemed to want to live in the Cadburys’ pockets:

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