AN almighty good book, and no foolishness involved, is J. B. Priestley’s English Journey (Harpers, $3.00). I see in it, broader and clearer, the philosophy and certain humbler distinctions of his essays, of which I have read many. This is very much Mr. Priestley’s best book. For any lover of England, for any amateur or professional student of her life and land, — indeed, for any confused or despairing Anglo-Saxon in our own United States who looks in vain for some earlier-century strength down the wrong end of his twentieth-century telescope, —one has to commend and recommend this book. It is full of sense, understanding, and sharp opinion.
Mr. Priestley set out in the autumn of 1933 to make a journey through the heart of England: Southampton, Bristol, the Cotswolds, — ‘the most English and the least spoiled of all our countryside,’— Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham, his own Bradford and the West Riding, the Potteries and the Five Towns country of Arnold Bennett, Lancashire, Newcastle, East Durham and the Tees, and down to Lincoln, Boston, Norwich, and London. And there are many places in between. He took with him a notebook, a portable typewriter, a sense of discomfort over the bedrooms of the average English inn, — he was pleased with only one, I think, and that was in Hull, — a poor appetite for the average English dinner (and for all his digs at America I uphold him there), a prodigious power of observation, and an artist in the difficult business of assimilation. Anti-Priestleys accuse him of a certain arrogance. You will not find that in him here. Not facing a handful of fiction, he is decently humble in the presence of bewildering fact — ‘being a vain, idle, and weak mortal,’he says, with nothing but a fine book to refute it (‘and if I had n’t been, I should not have been the man for this job ). ‘I reminded myself firmly that I was no economist, that I had not that sort of mind [as indeed he has not], moving easily among abstractions.’
But he was the man for the job. He could see the two extremes, the Black Country and ‘the Pisgah sight,’and write equally well of both. He passed through industrial centres — Coketown, the ‘damned horrible hole’; stood enchanted, in Birmingham’s museum, by the English water-colorists that he left abruptly to take a personal part in a public whist drive; considered the dole, the Cotswolds, Staffordshire and Wedgwood, filth and beauty, poverty and the fabulous blaze or ruin of the art of man. He gazed, properly awful, in Cadbury’s chocolate factory, at the life cycle of an almond whirl; and, properly fearful, at machinery of all sorts, at the great excavators manufactured in Lincoln, which he feared might suddenly go mad and ‘tear up the lower town in an hour or two.’ He saw the survival of old England, ‘the gigantic dirty trick’ which is the lees of the period of England’s industrial supremacy; the cheapness of the present day, from Woolworth standards to ye olde fake and faintly merrie England of the tourist. He never saw a starving farmer.
I doubt if anything more fervid or first-hand has been written of the England of our time. Before you give me the solution, you may state the problems better by having read this book. Mr. Priestley is hopeful — not alone in summary, but in posse. He saw three Englands, separate and merged. ‘Ours is a country,’he concludes, ‘that has given the world something more than millions of yards of calico and thousands of steam engines.’ One does not have to make an English journey to know that, but travel with Mr. Priestley and you may be reastonished.