Hard Times

English Journey

by J.B. Priestley
University of Chicago Press, 320 pp., $24.95

J. B. Priestley
J. B. Priestley; drawing by David Levine

All through the past summer in England we were getting someone else’s weather and someone else’s news. On television the freakish sun, falling from a bold blue sky, lit the glittering lines of police riot shields. Beyond them picketing miners dressed in pastel nylon summer clothes, were hurling rocks, bottles, pieces of timber. A close-up picked out a handsome young policeman, apparently battering the brains out of a striking miner with his club. The whole scene looked surreal—an engagement between well-drilled Romans and angry Visigoths.

The news item ended and was replaced on the screen by a picture of a reservoir that had run dry in the long drought. A village, drowned thirty years ago to provide water for a Midland city, was exposed to the gaze of curious tourists, who stood in knots on the cracked and scaly mud, looking out on the ruined main street, the crumbled pub, the little river bridge whose arch had fallen in. The ruins were unrecognizable. The tourists might as well have been staring at those dull, fenced-off bumps in the ground that are posted as neolithic settlements and Saxon forts. The village belongs to the rainbow trout now. It is an obscure piece of sub aquatic archaeology.

The television picture was overladen with meaning. How inaccessible the past has become—even the recent past of the 1950s. The drowned village really is a world and a half away from 1984; its version of society is as irretrievable as something out of folklore. Meanwhile the pound slides magnetically downward, drawn to parity with the dollar. Unemployment goes on rising. Mrs. Thatcher makes more and more ebullient speeches about how the government has set Britain right on target, as if the country were a missile and our destination a big bang in some far sky. To my English eye, accustomed to more hazy, ambiguous, water-color tones, it all seems thoroughly un-English. Where are we at?

When one feels as if one is living in a foreign country, the situation calls for a journey of reconnaissance and rediscovery. The famous books about England are—not surprisingly—the products of periods of catastrophic change in British society. The Domesday Book of 1086 was a necessary reckoning with the country during its traumatic passage from Saxon to Norman rule; Celia Fiennes’s journeys of 1685–1703 and Daniel Defoe’s A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–1727) registered the crucial shift of power from the court to the provincial, commercial bourgeoisie. In 1933, the effects of the Depression stung J.B. Priestley into making his English Journey, republished just before Priestley’s death this August at eighty-nine. It is a fair measure of our present disquiet that the last couple of years or so have seen English journeys cropping up in publishers’ catalogs as if they were a genre, like gothics or romances. Paul West…Paul Theroux…now Beryl Bainbridge; and more journeys…

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