English Journey by JB Priestley

Helen Gordon's book of a lifetime

I first picked up a copy of JB Priestley's 'English Journey' in the offices of 'Granta', the literary magazine where I went to work after university. Later, when I began my novel, 'Landfall', with a woman sitting on a plane reading Priestley's travelogue, it was this specific copy I had in mind: a battered, dark blue hardcover marked with ghostly rings from a previous reader's cup of coffee or glass of water.

Published in 1934, 'English Journey' is a rambling and often very funny account of Priestley's travels through rural and urban England in the autumn of 1933. He visits sleepy villages and sooty industrial towns, surveys decaying shipyards and modern factories. He describes a country in the grip of an economic slump, struggling with high levels of unemployment but also home to a landscape rich in what he calls "these vague associations" of history and art - a "shamelessly romantic" Lincolnshire sky reminds him of Turner, a Hampshire field of Hazlitt.

Alternately charmed and angered by what he sees (and when angered he was always charmingly blunt), he returns regularly to the problem of maintaining a vital provincial life – newspapers, theatres, local politics - in an increasingly London-centric island.

At the time of publication 'English Journey' was hugely influential, anticipating such projects as the Mass Observation Archive and George Orwell's 'The Road to Wigan Pier'. Today part of its charm is that of a glorious period piece thick with typewriters, tea-rooms and men smoking pipes, but many of Priestley's observations still feel fresh and important - and in our current economic climate it's impossible to pick up a copy without marking a gloomy relevance. Priestley's demands for a better solution to the problem of long-term unemployment, a fairer distribution of national resources, continue to challenge us. "What," he asks, writing about poverty and industrial decline, "had the City [of London] done for its old ally the industrial North? It seemed to have done what the black-moustached glossy gentleman in the old melodrama always did to the innocent village maiden". The author would have been angered and saddened to read a recent study in the 'British Medical Journal' reporting that the North-South mortality difference is now at its widest for 40 years.

Priestley identifies three Englands: Old England, a tourist's paradise of minsters and manors; Nineteenth Century England, a blackened industrial landscape; and New England, a country just coming into being, a place of increasing standardisation, mass motor travel, swimming pools, bungalows and American celebrities. Here, in the depiction of that last England, was a fascinating snapshot of the beginnings of the country I saw around me, the suburban landscape I had grown up in. Though a very different sort of book, 'Landfall' grew partly out of a desire to record something of what Priestley's New England had become (in the South at least), and to trace the echoes of those older Englands that make up "the lovely thickness of life".



Helen Gordon's novel 'Landfall' is published by Fig Tree

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas