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Review: English Journey - J. B. Priestley ****

Sometimes a particular book keeps coming to your attention from different directions and you know that you will have to read it. This was the case with J. B. Priestley's English Journey - in fact I'd bought a copy before I even realised that it was the inspiration for the latest title from my favourite current English travel(ish) writer, Stuart Maconie.

Priestley made a journey around parts of England in 1933 - not the pretty bits (apart from the Cotswolds) but more what back then were thought of as that derogatory feeling location 'the provinces'. Priestley was an odd mix for the period - a London literary type, but one from Bradford who still considered being northern a positive. What he is without doubt superb on is uncovering the social conditions of the time. Unlike Orwell's attempt, which feels a bit like someone looking at an alien species through a microscope, this is a picture of the common people by someone who identified personally with their plight (although he can still come across as a touch snobbish).

One piece of information he gives really struck home. While visiting Bournville, the Cadbury family's model living space in the West Midlands, he notes (while pondering whether or not such a pleasant but controlling environment is a good thing) that infant mortality is lower than the average 69 per thousand live births in England and Wales. Compare that with the current value of 3.7 and you really realise that, despite all our moans, things are a lot better now than they were in the 1930s.

On a less important, but quite interesting, level I found it remarkable that Priestley was using the word ‘robot’ repeatedly only 10 years or so after it appeared in English. It seems to have become very rapidly (for a time with slower communications) embedded as a term that doesn't need explaining. It did also strike me that it was a shame that he chose to make the journey in late autumn/early winter when, to be honest, the weather ensures that few places in England are at their best - he even admits to seeing places differently when it's a rare sunny day.

The greatness of this as a travel book is that it is a portrait not of places, but of the English people, specifically the English working class. Is it sexist? Certainly - it is of its time, though Priestley does at least celebrate the character of women, particularly Lancastrian women. But his genuine sympathy with the plight of so many people whose home town’s reason for existing was an industry that hardly existed anymore is remarkable. It’s also the case that his plea for the left behind of the industrial North is horrendously still an issue 90 years later. Just as Priestley bemoans the way the south east's wealth has been made on the backs of those now discarded workers so we can see the appeal of levelling up… and exactly the same inability to make it happen as was the case then.

To make a slight personal moan as an inhabitant of Swindon, which is one of the places he visits, it's about the only place dominated by an industry (in Swindon's case, the railway works) where he simply complains that it's not a very nice place to be in, but doesn't bother to visit the workplace as he does practically everywhere else, nor does he really engage with the people. Swindon's main role in the book seems to be to provide a contrast with Bristol and the Cotswolds, which was a little mean of him.

I can see why so many people enthuse about this book. It has its faults. Apart from those already mentioned, it is, frankly, significantly too long and spends too much time making any particular point and then re-making at some length. Priestley's style can be a little heavy going to the modern reader. But the fact remains that this a landmark book, which shows just how long levelling up the country has been an issue that successive governments have failed to address.

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