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 wait in the wings. England in the 1980s is running short of all sorts of resources; not least of which is the stock of English men and women who remain as yet uninterviewed by traveling authors and television journalists on the subject of their position on the condition of England.

For England is hardly big enough to make a proper journey around it at all. Half the size of Italy, a quarter that of France, it has almost exactly the same number of square miles to its name as North Carolina. (Even in a Raleigh bookstore, I suspect, the title “North Carolina Journey” would have a comically pretentious ring to it.) Yet, like all small islands, England has got into the insular habit of thinking itself enormous, continental. Nor is this simply to do with its late political importance in the world. Even now the English take their cardinal points very solemnly indeed. North and South are worlds apart, buffered by the Midlands, grandly pluralized. The West Country (hardly more than an hour’s train ride from London) is regarded as florid, rural, quaintly backward; as remote as Provence or the Dordogne. British television, far from homogenizing these images, exaggerates them. Advertisements depict beer drinkers from the North, honest farmers from the West, go-ahead housewives from the balmy South; in doing so, they exploit every trifling difference they can find of accent, architecture, fashion, class. When geography fails us, we can always fall back on that multitude of social barriers and distinctions with which the English have cunningly enlarged their little acreage. Or vice versa.

When Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, his journey to Wigan was hardly necessary, since he could have found almost exactly the same social conditions prevailing just around the corner in, say, Whitechapel or East Ham; but the 180 miles that separate Wigan from London conveniently ratified and explained the gulf between the English middle and working classes. To an English audience, a certain louche exoticism inevitably attaches itself to the idea of poverty in Wigan. Like Samarkand and Calcutta, Wigan is a place that most of us visit only in books, and we’d be pleasurably credulous to learn that in Wigan it was common practice to go in for black magic, snake-charming, or the eating of children. A fundamental ignorance about the fringes of our own neighborhood is one of the prerequisites of being English. Without it, we might actually wake up to the intolerable fact that we have nine times North Carolina’s population crammed into North Carolina’s space.


So the English journey is by nature an epical affair. The terrain to be surveyed is conceived of as vast. The route is arduous. The traveler is always unworthy of the great task before him. Defoe, prefacing his description of “the most flourishing and opulent country in the world,” sets the tone nicely:

In travelling through England, a luxuriance of objects presents itself to our view. Wherever we come, and which way so ever we look, we see something new, something significant, something well worth the traveller’s stay, and the writer’s care; nor is any check to our design, or obstruction to its acceptance in the world, to say the like has been done already, or to panegyric upon the labours and value of those authors who have gone before, in this work. A complete account of Great Britain will be the work of many years, I might say ages, and may employ many hands. Whoever has travelled Great Britain before us, and whatever they have written, though they may have had a harvest, yet they have always, either by necessity, ignorance or negligence passed over so much, that others may come and glean after them by large handfuls.

If one adds to Defoe the closing remarks of J.B. Priestley, writing two hundred years later, the join is seamless, the style and manner perfectly at one:

Ours is a country that has given the world something more than millions of yards of calico and thousands of steam engines. If we are a nation of shopkeepers, then what a shop! There is Shakespeare in the window, to begin with; and the whole establishment is blazing with geniuses. Why, these little countries of ours have known so many great men and great ideas that one’s mind is dazzled by their riches. We stagger beneath our inheritance.

No wonder that most English travel books deal with the wastes and deserts of the world. England—at least the English idea of England—is so bulgy, so intractable, so multitudinous that it transcends the capacity of one man ever to put it in perspective. It was on Malta, another, even smaller, island, that Evelyn Waugh was defeated by a hotelier who kept on saying, “‘Ullo, ‘ullo. And ‘ow’s that book getting along? You don’t seem to be seeing much of the island. You couldn’t see a ‘alf of it, not if you was to spend a lifetime ‘ere, you couldn’t.” It is the proudest complaint of the English journeyer that he is unable to see the half of it even though he has spent a lifetime there.

In 1933, when Priestley made his English journey, the number of people registered as being out of work was 2,498,100. That is the dominant fact of Priestley’s book. It sets him traveling and it colors almost every perception that he has of England. One sentence echoes through the book like a ground bass: “Never were more men doing nothing and there never was before so much to be done.” This forth-right apprehension of what was wrong with the country gives the journey point and clarity, turns it into a serious quest for a solution, and leads Priestley to the passionate flights of description of the decaying industrial landscape that make the book at least as vivid as anything else that Priestley ever wrote.

To begin with, it is true, he dallies for a while in the South; hobnobbing with on-the-make traveling salesmen on the new arterial roads, sipping ale in rosy Cotswold villages, making the acquaintance of an eccentric aristocrat in a great country house. But the book and the journey catch fire as he moves north to Birmingham, the Black Country, and beyond. Riding on the top deck of a Birmingham tram, he achieves the characteristic tone of warm indignation that will last him through the book:

if I was tired and perhaps a little low-spirited when I began, I was still more tired and far lower-spirited before I had done. For there was nothing, I repeat, to light up a man’s mind for one single instant. I loathed the whole long array of shops, with their nasty bits of meat, their cough mixtures, their Racing Specials, their sticky cheap furniture, their shoddy clothes, their fly-blown pastry, their coupons and sales and lies and dreariness and ugliness. I asked myself if this really represented the level reached by all those people down there on the pavements. I am too near them myself, not being one of the sensitive plants of contemporary authorship, to believe that it does represent their level. They have passed it. They have gone on and it is not catching up.

If this sounds like Orwell (though The Road to Wigan Pier was not published until 1937), it is Orwell with a common sense and a common humanity that Orwell himself conspicuously lacked. With Orwell, one can always see through to the old Etonian for whom class disdain has been subtly metamorphosed into political anger. It is as much a matter of rebellious principle as one of personal feeling. With Priestley, though, one is with a man directly implicated in what he sees. The schoolmaster’s son from Bradford, Yorkshire, is (by courtesy of the luck of a Cambridge education) only a whisker away from the people on the pavements. Priestley—and this can’t be said of Orwell—is never a tourist in his own country.


In West Bromwich, Priestley is taken to see a warehouse in which a businessman stores sheets of steel. Children are throwing rocks on the roof, and Priestley goes off to meet them, but the small boys have fled.

Where they could run to, I cannot imagine. They need not have run away from me, because I could not blame them if they threw stones and stones and smashed every pane of glass for miles. Nobody can blame them if they grow up to smash everything that can be smashed. There ought to be no more of those lunches and dinners, at which political and financial and industrial gentlemen congratulate one another, until something is done about Rusty Lane and West Bromwich. While they still exist in their present foul shape, it is idle to congratulate ourselves about anything. They make the whole pomp of government here a miserable farce. The Crown, Lords and Commons are the Crown, Lords and Commons of Rusty Lane, West Bromwich. In the heart of the great empire on which the sun never sets, in the land of hope and glory, Mother of the Free, is Rusty Lane, West Bromwich. What do they know of England who only England know? The answer must be Rusty Lane, West Bromwich. And if there is another economic conference, let it meet there, in one of the warehouses, and be fed with bread and margarine and slabs of brawn. The delegates have seen one England, Mayfair in the season. Let them see another England next time, West Bromwich out of the season. Out of all seasons except the winter of discontent.

Out of context, perhaps the prose sounds rather too ripe to be true. In context it doesn’t because it is justified, first by the vigor of Priestley’s description, secondly by the fact that it is couched in the language of urgent and immediate action. This is not empty rhetoric. For Priestley, the problem of West Bromwich is a soluble one: “this is not good enough,” as he says of Leicester a little later; something can and must be done.

Half the trouble, as Priestley saw it, was a simple failure of comprehension. The southern middle classes didn’t care about the plight of the northern working classes because they’d never made the short but epic journey up the length of England and never been shamed by what they saw as Priestley himself was shamed. (“They made me feel like a fat rich man. And I object to feeling like a fat rich man. That is yet another reason why we must clean up this horrible dingy muddle of life.”) After all, the Jarrow marchers made the trip to London; it was London’s duty to make the return journey. Again and again, Priestley challenges his readers with his travels: “I am always hearing middle-class women in London saying that they could do with a change. They should try being a miner’s wife in East Durham.”

None of this, of course, was new. It is the theme of Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South, of Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations, of Dickens’s Hard Times. Priestley’s great strength lies in the way he manages to harness a whole tradition of writing about the industrial city and apply it to the immediately contemporary scene. Coketown, he showed, was not a fiction of the Victorian past, it was a grossly important constituent of the here-and-now.

What now seems strange and dated is the extraordinary confidence that Priestley was able to bring to his missionary expedition up England. The thirty-nine-year-old writer, the author of novels and successful West End plays, traveled like a visiting prince in a chauffeured Daimler when he was not riding on trams, trains, and buses; and throughout the book his tone makes it clear that a writer is the equal of any politician or industrial baron in the land. He can trespass across social barriers as no other dignitary could—can meet bosses, workers, aristos, and the out-of-work on candid terms. Yet his status as a lord of the language is as real, as unquestionable as any more orthodox peerage. When Priestley addresses the nation, he expects to be taken seriously.

And the book was taken seriously. It was not simply a literary success when it was first published; it pricked England’s conscience. Priestley was seen to have taken the southern middle classes by the scruffs of their necks and dragged them off on a journey for the good of their souls and for the good of their country. No mere writer could ever do that now.

In 1983, when Beryl Bainbridge made her English journey, the number of people registered as being out of work was 3,104,700. (In the last year, that number has swollen by nearly a quarter of a million.) The figure is not to be found in Bainbridge’s book, nor is it by any means the book’s dominant fact. She has borrowed Priestley’s title and Priestley’s itinerary, but there the resemblance stops.

Bainbridge is not on a mission; she is on commission.

Last year, in celebration of Mr Priestley’s classic book, English Journey, BBC Bristol sent a team of eight, which included me, to follow in his footsteps, recording on film the route he had taken and making a documentary series of what we saw and heard in the towns and villages of England during the summer of 1983.

Alas, how are the traveling writers fallen, from the proud and solitary iconoclasm of Priestley in his Daimler to “a team of eight, which included me.” Tied to a shooting script, wired for sound, continually watched by the gleaming mauve eye of an Arriflex, Beryl Bainbridge traveled in tune with her time, as a component, like a coil or a resistor, in a hightech electronic system. She was not so much a person as a part of “the media”—a singular noun for which at least half the British population now harbors a well-founded dislike and mistrust. Any striking miner would identify the television industry as a fat rich man intent on exploiting and misrepresenting him.

Bainbridge is, of course, far too good a writer not to spot such ironies for herself. Her book, or notebook, has a fugitive quality. Written up in the odd moments when she could escape from the other seven people in her crew, it often reads like a prison diary as it annotates the cigarettes gone up in smoke, the drinks knocked back, the conversations forgotten, the expensive, repetitive tedium of filming. Whereas Priestley confidently booms, Beryl Bainbridge squeaks from inside the cage like an ailing budgerigar on tour in a circus.

Yet—because she is an accomplished novelist and because she is, thank God, one of the world’s least likely television performers—her book manages to catch (often in an oblique and inadvertent way) a lot of the atmosphere of contemporary England. The “England” of her fiction is an infinitely unreliable place, chiefly inhabited by strays and fugitives, and Beryl Bainbridge’s authorial manner has always been a touch elfin. So it is in her English Journey. She catches the spirit of 1983 best in the uncertainty of her own tone. The crispest enunciation of her attitude is set down in her preface:

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.

Some of the time I didn’t know where home was….

To account for “England in the 1980s” it would be hard to improve on these sentences. For what Beryl Bainbridge is looking for, in the company of Mrs. Thatcher, a large section of the British electorate, and the tourists who foregather round ruined villages in dried-up reservoirs, is an England she can recognize and put a name to as home. The England, in short, of Priestley’s English Journey—the England of nasty bits of meat, fly-blown pastry, Racing Specials, and Rusty Lane, West Bromwich.

Whatever else was wrong with Priestley’s England, it was recognizable. People had been taught to see it through the eyes of Dickens and Gustave Doré. The slums looked like authentic slums. The poor were dressed in what were obviously rags. The unemployed stood in the street, their pathos visible and affecting. The period photographs in the new edition of Priestley’s journey bear this out brilliantly: for photographers like Bill Brandt, Humphrey Spender, and Edwin Smith, the Depression was eminently picturesque. The camera dwells on each familiar scene as if it were a famous beauty: the lines of washing, hung up to dry in a blackened street; the queues of men patiently waiting for work at dawn on a dockside; the back-to-back tenements, overhung with smoke; the slag heaps, outdoor privies, grubby children, dank canals. In the north of England at least, the Depression produced scene after scene that looked as if it had come out of a painting or a book. It was legible, symbolic; the unhappy present evoked the gloomy romantic past. It would have been hard to walk through this England of 1933 without wanting to recite Blake’s “And was Jerusalem builded here, / Among these dark Satanic mills?”

It is not surprising that Priestley was able to write so well about it. Nor is it surprising that Beryl Bainbridge finds herself at a loss when she follows Priestley’s route. For although the statistics have increased, the images have disappeared. She goes hopefully to Newcastle in search of the unemployed, and finds only a shopping precinct full of people spending money. Nothing to write about, or make a television film of, there. She goes to an “Action Centre” for the unemployed in Hanley:

I talked to the dedicated young woman who runs the centre and asked her about the problems she deals with. She said the unemployment round here was higher than the national average and that the youth job employment scheme was a fiddle. It was exploitation, and besides, it could only deal with about one percent of the population. Things weren’t just bad, they were hopeless. People came in on Wednesday asking for money to buy tea and bread for the rest of the week. “But I expect they smoke,” I said severely. “And I bet they’ve all got televisions and even videos.”

With that culpably silly line, Bainbridge misses the most important fact around her. They have all got televisions, and even (rented by the week) videos. Therein lies the single most important distinction between Priestley’s and Bainbridge’s Englands.

For in 1933, most of English life took place out of doors. You even left your house to go to the lavatory. Out of a job, you stood in full view on the street. Because the slums were usually two stories high at the most, their streets and backyards became communal living spaces, open to the gaze of visiting writers and photographers. It would have been possible for Priestley to see unemployment at first hand without stepping from his Daimler.

It is not so now. Since the 1950s we have moved, or been moved, indoors and upstairs. Unemployment, like so many other features of our social life, has gone private. It happens on the twentieth floor, in a room full of plastic furniture, where a man in an ill-fitting but not ragged polyester shirt and jeans watches an old episode from Dallas on the video and (if Ms. Bainbridge’s prim sense of how the working class should spend their money can take the strain) listens simultaneously to a cassette on his Sony Walkman. As an image, it’s not a patch on the lines of washing (now dried in a machine, probably in a public launderette) or the men in scarves and flat caps loitering under the rusty girders of a railroad bridge filmed contre jour. It is an image that would make any television cameraman yawn. Considered not as an image but as a plight, it is surely just as shocking, pitiable, and arousing as anything described by Priestley. To convey it requires the right of access not just to the outside of the man’s house, to his squalid and depressing plot of civic green space, but to the inside of his head.

This, one might have thought, was a classic job for a writer, to go into regions prohibited to the television camera and make the condition of unemployment legible—as it was legible in 1933. But Bainbridge is not that writer. She is the eighth member of her TV crew, looking for recognizable pictures that turn out to be in bafflingly short supply. Her best insights are fleetingly sad pictorial ones. On the top of a block of flats in Castlevale, outside Birmingham, she remarks, “I wouldn’t fancy living in one of those top-floor flats. Not without wings.” For a moment, as one is afforded a glimpse of angels dwelling at the tops of urban housing projects and drifting from high windows on their wings, one is reminded of just how good and odd a writer Bainbridge can be—and of how adrift she is in this England that she doesn’t understand. It’s true that she is attached to the Liverpool of her childhood, to bits and pieces of England remembered from her life as a young actress on tour during the 1960s, even to the England of her current London literary conventions—but these ties only serve to undermine Beryl Bainbridge’s homelessness in the country at large.

Indeed, Bainbridge’s incomprehension is her ticket of entry to the world she describes. Even by English standards, she comes across as curiously ill-traveled. Half the places she visits appear to be brand-new to her, and even now she seems to be under the innocent illusion that Skegness is in Scotland. Unlike Priestley, she is shy of advancing causes for what she sees, and even shyer of hazarding solutions to our unenviable problems. She is closer in spirit than she realizes to the manager of a crankshaft factory whom she meets in Lincoln:

I asked him what he thought about the bomb. I kept thinking that here I was, almost at the end of my journey, and not once had we mentioned it. Ken looked taken aback for a moment, and then, looking sideways at the camera, he said, “It’s not for the likes of me to say.”

It’s not for the likes of us to say. There is a line that deserves to go on England’s tombstone.

Priestley in 1933 answered the optimistic national need for a sage; Bainbridge in 1984 caters to a peculiarly recent British taste for helpless irony. She claims no power over the world she charts. She finds it on the whole pretty alien. It would be nice if it were otherwise but it isn’t, so she tries to make the best of it by taking a mild and mournful pleasure in its oddities. I very much fear that in this glancing, quirky, breathless little book, Beryl Bainbridge really does speak authentically for England.

This Issue

October 25, 1984