BOOK REVIEW / A tourist in his own country grass of home: 'England, This England: In the Steps of J B Priestley' - J G Ramsay: Sinclair-Stevenson, 16.99 pounds

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IT IS rumoured that John Major likes to imagine himself as a poor man's Stanley Baldwin - and you can't, incidentally, get much poorer than that. As such, he believes the 'essential England' to be about village cricket, invincible green suburbs, warm beer, dog- lovers, and old ladies bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist. Much of this was bucolic fantasy in the 1920s and 1930s: today it is merely further evidence of our Prime Minister's lack of grip on anything approximating to reality.

Those who prefer a less self-deceived and more robust version of contemporary Englishness might wish to turn to J G Ramsay's opinionated odyssey, undertaken in 1991, almost 60 years after J B Priestley made his English Journey. This later chronicle is not for the squeamish or the sentimental: it presents a compelling picture of a nation ill at ease with itself, and often hints apocalyptically at a future even less bearable than the present.

Most of the book is devoted to an evocation of what would once have been called the country's industrial heartland: Manchester and Merseyside, East Lancashire, Tyneside, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and the Potteries. But de-industrialisation has left most of these regions economically derelict, and Ramsay is at his outraged and polemical best in describing the desolation that has been visited on these once-thriving areas, and the hopeless, brutalised lives of the permanently unemployed.

The rest of the book lacks the force and conviction of earlier chapters. The author goes dog racing in Birmingham, talks to a window-frame manufacturer in Norwich, meets an apple farmer in Kent, stays in a cheap boarding-house in Brighton, thinks deeply in Basingstoke, views the spire of Salisbury Cathedral shrouded in scaffolding and spends a sleepless night in Bristol.

Despite his fondness for elaborate sentences crammed into over- extended paragraphs, Ramsay generally succeeds in carrying the reader with him. But whether he achieves his stated aim of offering 'a broadly realistic social picture of contemporary England' is less clear. The balance between the North and the South, the towns and the countryside, the workers (or unemployed) and the middle classes is not well struck, and London is effectively ignored.

Inevitably, as a tourist in his own country, Ramsay is often superficial in his treatment. He never goes inside a school or a university, a church or a television studio. There are very few women in these pages. And the idea that the 'essence of Englishness' can somehow be found by going round the country like a latter-day Daniel Defoe, pen and notebook in hand, seems nave in the extreme. Moreover, such ideas as the author possesses are confused and ill thought-out. He rightly dislikes heritage hysteria, but drools over the Suffolk village of Lavenham, which is the archetype of picture-postcard cuteness. He laments the decline of manufacturing industry, but has nothing constructive to put in its place. He thinks the majority of the population is poorly educated, but has little respect for academics or intellectuals (or, it seems, for Marxists or homosexuals).

Nor does he have much time for Labour or Tory voters, or for the leaders of either party. He preaches the politics of 'common sense', which sounds very commonsensical, but which is in fact completely meaningless. Without intellectual weight or a beguilingly forceful personality, books such as this rarely come off. Were he not beyond rescue, this one might help Mr Major. But it would have been better entitled What Do They Know of England Who Only England Know?