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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 29 January 2009
 
n JB Priestley (above) reported a ≠feeling of hope for the future in ≠England ≠during the 1930s Depression  (Portrait of JB Priestley from England Observed: the work of John Gay  published by English Heritage, £20)
JB Priestley (above) reported a ­feeling of hope for the future in ­England ­during the 1930s Depression
(Portrait of JB Priestley from England Observed: the work of John Gay
published by English Heritage, £20)
The accent has got to be on hope

Beryl Bainbridge’s disillusion with her native city is rooted in a 75th-anniversary contemplation of JB Priestley’s English Journey, writes Dan Carrier

WHEN author Beryl Bainbridge attacked the Scouse accent of her hometown Liverpudlians on the radio last week, it was a minor aside to a quibble she has had with the city she grew up in for some time.
In 1983, while making a TV documentary that took her around England following in the footsteps of JB Priestley, she approached Merseyside and was horrified with what she found. And the supposed regeneration of the 2008 European City of Culture has created a quayside with show apartments and nightclubs in steel and glass edifices, which she feels does down the industrial memory of the work that once made Liverpool great.
“If Priestley returned to Liverpool today, he would not know it. I think it’s ghastly,” she says. “It is full of glass buildings that simply do not do anything. Entering Liverpool is like entering a foreign land. It is all wrong. It has no industry any more. There is no work there.”
It is now the 75th anniversary of the publication of English Journey, a seminal work of the period. In September, 1933, armed with a collection of pipes and a portable type writer, JB Priestley boarded a coach and headed down the A40 in search of England.
The author had become a national figure with the success of his light-hearted novel The Good Companions, but this was a wholly different project.
He hit the road to discover the state of the nation, cast a literary eye over a country in the throes of painful change. The chilly hand of the Depression hung over England and Priestley wanted to see what it meant to daily life.
From London to Southampton, up through the Cotswolds to the Black Country, on to Liverpool, then the North-east and Newcastle, to Norwich and then home, he noted down his thoughts and the result was his book English Journey, a best-selling piece of reportage that not only looked nostalgically at a pre-Great War England but made predictions and observations as to how the country could see out the economic crisis.
To mark the anniversary it has been re-issued with a foreword by Beryl, who lives in Camden Town.
Her journey in 1983 found a country riven by the slow decline of a rich industrial past – much as Priestley had found – and, as we slip into another recession, she believes Priestley would recognise much.
“Often those things deplored by Priestley and now partly swept away – for example, the crowded Victorian terraces – were the very things whose absence I found myself lamenting,” she reveals.
Priestley’s return to Bradford was tempered by the fact he went to a reunion of his regiment with whom he had fought in the trenches in the Great War, and
he found it as distressing as Bainbridge had done when she returned to Liverpool.
And she believes the working class who rode out the 1930s had something their counterparts today lack.
“There was collective hope in the old days,” she says. “There was a spirit of common ideals and goals, mass political movements to improve society. It is all very well to say people have the dole and nice warm flats, but their lives everywhere are worse.”
Beryl believes that Priestley was able to write in one moment nostalgically for the past and in the same breath condemn the economic oppression of the working class, because he had something that is solely missing today: a hope for a better future.
“Priestley was writing at the time of the Depression but there was a strong Socialist movement,” she says. “It looked like the world may change for the better. English Journey was written in a hopeful way. He was not bitter. He did not say ‘this wretched place’. He had this great hope that things would eventually turn out all right, if only we could muddle on together.
“He spoke of the ‘dreadful lag between man the inventor and man the distributor’ – man could invent wonderful things but when it came to sharing it... well, we messed it up.”
And this is why as the 75th anniversary of its publication approaches that English Journey is still valid, says Beryl. In capturing and describing an English landscape and people hitherto unseen in literature of its kind he influenced the thinking and attitudes of a generation and helped formulate a public consensus for change that led to the formation of the welfare state.
“He called it a ‘work-a-day world that has not work and a money-ridden world that has lost its money...’,” recalls Beryl.
“It has a certain ring to it that holds true today, don’t you think?”

A 75th anniversary English Journey with foreword by Beryl Bainbridge will be published by Great Northern Books in the spring



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