Re-narrating the Thirties: English Journey Revisited

John Baxendale

In 1996, Chris Pawling and I wrote a book called Narrating the Thirties: A Decade in the Making.  In it, we discussed the ways in which novelists, film-makers, social investigators, historians, journalists and politicians had constructed and mobilised accounts of Britain in the 1930s, beginning in the decade itself, well-known for its penchant for self-scrutiny, and continuing through the war, the post-war years, and concluding in the era of Thatcherism.  Through these years, we argued, ideas about the decade changed, not because more and better evidence came to light, but in response to the changing times in which they were constructed.  'The Thirties' had become more than period of history: it was a cultural construct with a history of its own, whose importance lay not in the accuracy (or otherwise) with which the events of those particular years were reflected, but in the ways it was used in constructing and contesting the meanings of later times. 

In this article, I intend to examine some of the ways in which constructions of the 1930s have changed since we wrote.  Its focus will be on the historical narratives, explicit or implicit, which run through changing interpretations of the Thirties.  Such narratives give meaning to past periods and events by giving them a role in the stories we concoct to give meaning to our own time.  One such narrative became pivotal to our book, as it was central to Britain's post-war self-image.  This story begins with the 1930s as a period of failure and betrayal, Slump and Appeasement.  It moves on to the nation's redemption through its collective heroism in the war, out of which is born a determination to put things right.   It concludes, after the shining moment of 1945, in the Welfare State, full employment, and eventually mass prosperity.  We might label this narrative '1945 and all that'.  Its appeal is twofold: it satisfies the requirements of a good story; and it legitimates the period in which it was constructed.  The negative meaning which this story gave to the Thirties was an essential component of its legitimation of post-war Britain: it was very much the story which that Britain told itself about itself, and it was a story with the two authors of Narrating the Thirties had ourselves grown up.  We showed how this narrative took shape and flourished through the ‘People’s War’ via Attlee's 'Never Again!', to Macmillan's 'You’ve Never Had It So Good', finding its nemesis in Norman Tebbitt's 'On Your Bike'.  As this last example suggests, there were dissenting versions of the '1945' story, in which those less enchanted with the post-war world portrayed the Thirties more positively: from the left, as a lost age of political commitment betrayed by the reformism of 1945 and the corruptions of consumerism;  or from the right, like Tebbitt, as a lost age of traditional values and individual responsibility.  Either way, the Thirties were the post-war world's Other: the two periods were both defined, for good or ill, by the differences between them.

Changing times, changing narratives

Since then, as everyone says, times have changed, and they were changing as we wrote.  The post-war boom ended, and so did the Cold War.  The post-war narrative of '1945 and all that' came under fire, and not just from the far right or far left.  Its critics complained that it was too 'top-down', over-optimistic about the impact of changes in elite opinion; that it exaggerated the extent of consensus in the post-war era; that it overlooked the roots of Britain's post-war economic failure; that it failed to engage with issues of culture and gender which were really transforming people’s lives; that it exaggerated the achievements of the Welfare State.  It was stigmatised as a 'Whiggish' narrative, in which the whole of previous history was interpreted as 'the forward march of Labour', leading up to 1945 and the Welfare State.  As we noted in our book, with the break-up of the post-war settlement in the late 1970s, revisionist challenges to the dominant historiography of the 1930s had started to emerge.  The so-called 'Apathy School' of historians had begun to challenge the idea of a radical wartime consensus, while political and diplomatic historians were busy rehabilitating 1930s 'appeasement' as a defensible foreign policy (see, for example, Tiratsoo et al; Kennedy).  Thatcherites inverted the whole story, regarding everything that had happened since 1945 (in some cases, even 1940) as a historic mistake.  We ourselves expressed the hope that Labour’s impending return to power (which occurred the following year) would generate new narratives of social democracy to replace the old ones which had drawn so heavily on the Thirties.  We are still waiting for these (it's what Gramsci called "optimism of the will"), but it is clear that New Labour is the first political formation in six decades to have in its repertoire no narrative of the War and no narrative of the Thirties.  Times have changed, and so have the stories we tell.  Perhaps we do not need 'the Thirties' any more.

Historical writing has changed too, and was changing as we wrote, revitalised by the new methodologies of cultural history.  New methodologies construct new themes and objects of enquiry, and new timescales over which to pursue them.  Fields once thought indispensable lie fallow, while others formerly considered infertile are assiduously cultivated.  History has moved from debating the impact of the Slump on working-class living standards, to probing (to take one example) the history of cigarette advertising as an entry-point into questions of modernity, gender and the self (Hilton).  Indeed, Narrating the Thirties, which has been described (though not by us) as having 'postmodernist' leanings, may itself be seen as a modest exemplar of this 'cultural turn' in historical study (Anon, Socialist History).  We have come a long way from the old Thirties, whether 'hungry' or 'healthy'. 


At the moment of writing, two themes in particular look set to displace the big post-war questions of class, politics, slump and appeasement from historical writing about the 1930s: consumption, and the nation, both seen in the context of an overall concern with modernity.  Set within a longer time-scale, these themes do not depend on the hypostatisation of 'The Thirties' as a separate and distinct historical object, but they represent a significant re-reading of what was going on in the period.   

A debate on English identity and its relationship to English culture and English history was already going strong at the time when we wrote Narrating the Thirties.  Parallel debates arising in the 1980s about Britain's (supposed) economic decline, and the re-presentation of history by the 'heritage industry', had focussed attention on a new object of historical study: 'Englishness'.  The peculiarities of  English/British history and its difference from some assumed 'normal' path of development had been a focus of discussion since at least the 1960s, particularly on the left, and largely within a historical materialist (i.e. Marxist) framework (Anderson, Thompson).  Martin J. Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981), however, put ideology and culture in the driving-seat.  For Wiener, it was English culture, and England’s self-image – ruralist, backward-looking, anti-industrial -  that was the fundamental cause of national economic decline after the early promise of the industrial revolution.  For other 1980s critics such as Robert Hewison, the conversion of industrial infrastructure into 'heritage' attractions, and the marketing to tourists of an archaic image of the nation, were likewise symptoms, if not causes, of a 'climate of decline' (Hewison).  These critiques, widely publicised, sparked a wider debate about 'Englishness', inside and outside academia, stimulated also by newly perceived threats to national identity, ranging from Europe to satellite TV to multiculturalism (See, in a voluminous literature, the critique in Mandler).  These arguments did not at the time have much to say about the 1930s, so they did not appear prominently in our book, although we did touch on them in discussing Kazuo Ishiguro's novel and the Merchant/Ivory film Remains of the Day (Baxendale and Pawling, chapter 8).  Since then, however, a narrative has begun to appear which sees the 1930s as a pivotal moment, during which there emerged what Alison Light has described as a post-imperial English identity, "more inward-looking, more domestic and more private", in place of the strident patriotism of high imperialism and the Great War (Light 8).  This has opened up the possibility of new readings of 1930s texts, not as responses to the slump, unemployment or the rise of Fascism, but as expressions of a new version of 'Englishness' specific to the period.

Light links this new English identity with changes in domestic consumption, particularly associated with women.  There is nothing new about seeing the 1930s as a period in which significant developments in mass consumption took place: contemporaries were aware of it, and historians habitually tacked the 'new England' of the suburbs on to their dominant picture of hunger marches and street battles (e.g. Taylor, chapter 9).  However, while 1960s historians such as A. J. P. Taylor were perceptive enough to recognise that consumption was important, they didn't really know what to do with it: they were a lot more at home with class and politics.  In the hands of the new cultural history it becomes a new and altogether more interesting historical theme, reinforced by a new theoretical interest in both identity and consumer society (Lee, Featherstone).  Consumption is no longer seen merely in terms of economic history or the standard of living, but as the laboratory of identities, the crucible in which new selves are forged, the conduit through which modernity enters everyday life, central to the construction and reconstruction of gender, and even class.  For those with jobs, security and middling incomes, the 1930s boom in suburban housing, electrification, consumer goods, motor cars and the new mass media, were not just elements in a better standard of life, but the take-off point for a series of cultural transformations which, interrupted by the war, were to be resumed in the 1950s and 1960s (see the essays in Daunton and Conekin).  We can see here a different narrative taking shape: one which leads not to 1945 and the Welfare State, but to the consumer society and globalised mass culture of the present; which is concerned less with economics or politics or policy than with identity and the self – in short, a narrative which reflects the preoccupations of our own fin de siècle to the same extent that the old narrative reflected those of the post-1945 era.


Both 'Englishness' and consumption are concerned with identity, tied into it by a third overarching theme: 'modernity'.  The reappearance of the 'modern' as a category and 'modernity' as a narrative is one of the more interesting outcomes of the current renewal of cultural history.  Having been embedded in teleological narratives of 'modernisation', through which 1950s and 1960s American sociologists were wont to explain that currently 'developing' societies were destined to end up just like the United States (provided they behaved themselves), the concept of 'modernity' might have been thought discredited by these Cold War associations.  Today’s idea of modernity, however, lays claim to no 'modernising' grand narrative, and, in the spirit of postmodernism, is a more exploratory, less teleological and arguably weaker concept: more an area of debate than a tool of analysis.  Indeed, its users acknowledge that there is only limited agreement about its meaning.  There is, we are told, no single 'modernity', but many 'modernities'; their history is not a linear progression, but continually compromised and contested (Daunton and Rieger, 1-15; Conekin et al.,1-21). 

An important justification for historians' use of the term is that contemporaries found it useful, in reacting to historical change, to consider themselves as, to a greater or lesser degree, 'modern'.  If they did not have had a very clear idea of what they meant by 'modern', so much the better: it is invariably more informative to investigate vague and ill-defined concepts than precise and clearly-theorised ones.  Sometimes 'modern' just refers to technological change: sometimes there are more complex ideas of social organisation or structure of feeling in play.  Occasionally we can detect a lingering mutant version of the Victorian idea of 'progress': a dynamic of change which is heady, scary, perhaps destructive, but ultimately benevolent, and in any case inevitable. We may not agree on what 'modernity' is either, but we might agree with them about what kind of things it refers to.  At the risk of slipping back into 'grand narrative' we can see it as a working-through of changes which, on a longer time-scale, we associate with the Enlightenment, the emergence of the nation-state, bureaucracy, industrialisation and democratisation; also, less precisely, a structure of feeling and a mode of perception, a way of organising experience.  And in 'late modernity' all these trends are intensified, by massively enhanced communication, the globalisation of culture and social relations, the rise of mass consumption in the West, and changed forms of governance, leading, some say, to accelerated self-reflexivity,  a re-ordering of the self, and a move into something which is no longer 'modern' (Giddens).

Inter-war observers, still under the spell of the Enlightenment, and not yet experiencing the febrile excitements of late modernity, had a different, but still recognisable idea of the 'modern'.  They expressed their hopes and anxieties about modernity in redefinitions of 'Englishness'; in denunciations of the suburban house, which with its cosy retro styling, all stained glass and fake half-timbering, its little garden reflecting a pastoral dream, seemed to stand as an irrational bulwark against the modern; or in anxious criticism of the new forms of consumption that were taking place inside and around it - motor-cars, electrical appliances, the mass media.  Aesthetically, modernity can mean 'modernist' art or writing, or its enemy, the new commercial mass culture.  Indeed, it can be argued that people in the 1930s were actually far more perplexed about modernity, and far less concerned to pave the way to 1945, than their post-war interpreters thought.   Discourses which have been interpreted in the light of the post-war narrative as being about social problems and social policy, and therefore as precursors to the Beveridge Report, the 1945 election and the Welfare State, can be read instead as early responses – welcoming or hostile – to the changes which Giddens and others identify as late modernity.

Be that as it may, the meanings we find in 1930s texts are a product of our own history as much as theirs, and as this history has moved on, so we are finding new meanings there.  Post-war writers, historians and politicians constructed the Thirties as an element in their own narrative about themselves and their times: now those times have changed, we are reading them in the context of different narratives, which give them different meanings.  Our current preoccupations with national identity and modernity suggest new readings of 1930s writers: but they spell the end of 'the Thirties' as we once knew them.

English Journey revisited

How does this process of re-reading affect our understanding of a key text of the 1930s: J. B. Priestley's English Journey?  Since its publication in 1934, English Journey has played a significant part in people's understanding of the period.  As the work of a well-known and best-selling writer, it was widely reviewed when first published, sold well, and has been in print most of the time since, a standard source for social historians of the 1930s, featuring in numerous footnotes, bibliographies and student reading lists.  This esteem, however, does not mean that there is any universal agreement as to how the book should be read.  Contemporary reviews quoted on the dust-jacket hailed it variously as a searing indictment of Britain on the dole, a collection of racy anecdotes about unforgettable characters, and an evocation of cosy Englishness.  Later commentators, though happy to plunder the book for pithy observations, seem just as confused.  I would suggest that there are two ways in which recent readers have made their way through English Journey.  One is to consider it as part of the 'road to 1945' narrative; the other, to read it as being about Englishness and the English character.  Neither reading, I would suggest, is entirely convincing. 

We are not helped by the way English Journey presents itself.  It is a useful feature of travel narrative that the writer can turn it to a whole range of different purposes, all the while protesting that he is doing no more than simply describing a journey.  So it is with English Journey.  The book has no introductory declaration of the journey's aims.  Nor is there a giveaway title: Priestley is not on the road to anywhere (e.g. Wigan Pier), nor is he going in search of anything (e.g. England): he's just journeying.  The book's extended and somewhat arch subtitle almost warns us off having any preconceived ideas as to what it may be about:

Being a rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England during the Autumn of the year 1933.

This deliberate archaism implicitly (and disingenuously) tells us not to expect too much in the way of structure and purpose: this is not a sociological survey, simply a truthful account of a journey.  Priestley himself we are invited to regard as an honest Everyman, just accurately recording and honestly responding to what he sees.  The self-deprecating 'rambling' leads us to expect the artlessness which guarantees authenticity but demurs at drawing challenging conclusions.  We may be in for an amusing time, but we mustn't expect to learn too much. 

Priestley seems to confirm this when he begins the book merely by telling us where he is going first and what he takes with him.  Having no destination but 'England', where he already is, he boards a motor coach for Southampton, on no stronger grounds than that that is where many visitors arrive in England.  This opening section which describes his journey there seems composed of chance encounters and rambling reflections (English Journey, 3-11).  He is astonished at the coach's comfort, which he compares to that of the new picture-palaces: in travel as in pleasure, provided you have just a little money, the distinction between rich and poor has been annihilated.  He looks out of the window at West London, and the new Great West Road – looking more Californian than English – and at the line of new factories on either side, not 'real' factories, built of brick with a chimney at the corner, but pretty glass and concrete facades with painted signs and coloured lights, housing little luxury trades, the new industries that have moved south.  But how pleasant it would be if we could all work there.  And then he starts a conversation with a fellow-passenger: a down-at-heel but ever-optimistic small businessman, looking for an 'opening': tea-rooms (no good, on account of the slump), hairdressing, electric light, wireless (all booming now).  Depressed Newcastle isn’t doing the business it once did.  All over, big companies are cutting out the small man.  The coach stops at Winchester, where the businessman gets off: these small cathedral cities, how attractive they are, but who could spend a whole day there without getting bored?  And then off into the Hampshire countryside, so redolent of England, so lovely to look at, yet so incapable of earning its living.

Inconsequential and artless these first few pages may appear, but how many of the themes of English Journey are foreshadowed in them?  North and south, the shifting economic geography of England, the rise of consumer goods and services, the slump and the decline of heavy industry, the rise of corporate capitalism and the decline of the small business, the cultural impact of new technologies, Americanisation, the democratisation of culture, English identity, 'old England', its landscapes and towns and its irrelevance to the modern world: Priestley’s England summarised.  All these themes crop up again and again through the book, and are drawn together in its conclusion.  If Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier makes his agenda clear by thrusting the squalor of poverty straight into our faces at the start of chapter one, Priestley sets his out in a few random glances through a motor-coach window and a desultory conversation with a stranger (Orwell 1937: 5).

English Journey, like any other travelogue, presents us with two narratives: a story about a journey, and a story about the place the journey passes through.   The first story is carefully constructed by the route that Priestley, apparently randomly, decides to follow.  He begins in the soft south, and proceeds through the relatively prosperous industrial midlands, before hitting the Slump in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North East.  This route ensures that by the time he arrives there, his musings and responses have already laid down a set of themes and ideas which he will mobilise in analysing and explaining their situation: themes such as industrialism and anti-industrialism, beauty and ugliness, the nature of work, popular culture, civic culture, social inequality.  By the end of the book, in the remarkable concluding chapter, he is ready to declare his second, larger narrative, a historical one.  This is a narrative about north and south, about industry and finance, about the productive and the unproductive, about the drawing of wealth away from those who produce it, and about the concealment of all this beneath a carapace of traditions and institutions that are identified with the nation. 

The documentary impulse and the road to 1945

Whatever the appearances, this is clearly a serious book with a serious political and social purpose.  It describes in vivid terms the condition of the industrial north at the low point of the Slump, placing it in a contemporary and historical context, contrasting the dereliction of industrial England with the prosperity of the suburbs, and the wealth of City with the poverty of those whose labour had laid the foundations of that wealth.  It asks the central indignant question about England in 1933: 'Was Jarrow still in England or not?'– and if it was, why was nothing being done about its plight?  And the book was commissioned, significantly enough, by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, who went on to commission Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and to underwrite Mass Observation's work.  For all these reasons, English Journey can be seen to fit into the '1945' narrative, as an example of the 'documentary impulse' of the 1930s, all 'serious purpose', political commitment and social realism, which, as Orwell later suggested, was displacing the 1920s cocktail of frivolity, disillusionment and modernist experimentation, and arguably prefigured the reforming impulse of wartime (Orwell, 1940).  As the title of one of Priestley's numerous press articles of 1934 rather cautiously declared: "Fact Is Now The Fashion, But It Must Be Disguised As Fiction".

Indeed, Priestley identified himself with social writers such as Arnold Bennett and the nineteenth-century realists – a tradition of writing which (much to the annoyance of modernists and highbrow critics) still appealed to the despised 'middlebrow' taste of the inter-war years – writers who dealt with "men [sic] in a particular society, and . . . the character of that society", engaged with current social issues and sought to grasp the texture of contemporary life (Priestley, Literature, 425-6).  Since the massive success of his picaresque theatrical road-novel The Good Companions in 1929, Priestley had turned his fictional pen to more weighty social issues.  Angel Pavement (1930) and Wonder Hero (1933) both explored the impact of economic disruption on the lives of ordinary people.  Later in the decade he was to encounter the documentary film-makers, admiring "their contempt for easy big prizes and soft living, their taut social conscience, their rather Marxist sense of the contemporary scene", and worked briefly with Grierson and Cavalcanti.  At the same time, characteristically, he kept a toe-hold in the commercial cinema based in Hollywood and the Savoy Grill (Priestley, Rain, 78-84).  A merging of these two currents, entertainment and documentary, might produce, he felt, a "strengthening and thickening" of the "social texture"of English cinema: which is no more than what he was attempting to achieve in literary terms in his own social novels – and, we might say, in English Journey.

So does English Journey pave the way to '1945 and all that'?  There seems ample support for such a reading.  However, there are other forces at work too, which hindsight might conceal from view.  In 1934, we should remember, the documentary impulse was only just getting going.  Key developments such as Mass Observation (founded in 1937) and the photojournalism of Picture Post (1938) – for which Priestley himself was to write – were still in the future.  Moreover, there were other, less political, impulses in the wind, which were also feeding the appetite for domestic travelogues, the 'fashion for fact', as I am sure Priestley and his publisher were aware.  The new domesticity which Alison Light identifies expressed itself in an unprecedented demand for books about England, ranging from the rather cosy travelogues of H V Morton and others, to guide books such as those published by Ward, Lock, whose stiff red covers announced the arrival on the scene of the motoring public.  Books like Morton's – to be joined by innumerable other investigations of English landscape and character as the 1930s wore on – were conservative rather than radical in their depiction of the nation, reaffirming its pre-industrial heritage rather than challenging its current condition.  What this suggests is that in the early 1930s, the impulse to document and describe the nation was politically ambivalent, just as likely to come up with a conservative and backward-looking redefinition of England as with demands for political and social reform.  Priestley's book, as an early response to the slump, can be seen as a stage in the politicisation of this impulse, but we must not forget what it also owes to this 'fashion for fact' amongst a middle-class, suburban reading public – precisely the kind of people who were probably already reading Priestley's novels.  This would account for some of the blander reviews the book received, and for the ambivalence which some readers still find in it.  It would also account for Priestley’s bluff, 'Everyman' style, and his reticence about the purpose of the journey and the book.

If we compare English Journey with the most celebrated documentary reportage of the Thirties, George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), we can see other differences from the documentary movement as it was to develop.  Documentary film, Mass Observation, and Wigan Pier all have in common a particular construction of the relationship between the implied readers, the subjects of the investigation, and the writer/film-maker.  English Journey begins with a departure and ends with a return home, its narrative space completely occupied by the journey.  In chapter 1 of The Road to Wigan Pier, however, Orwell is already at his destination, waking up in a grim Northern lodging-house: he is 'there', having got there, we take it, from somewhere else.  Wigan Pier is structured around this dichotomy between origin and destination, as its title indeed announces.  Normality is the familiar middle-class London life which lies at the beginning of the road; but at the other end, "when you go to the industrial north you are conscious, quite apart from the unfamiliar scenery, of entering a strange country" (141).  This "you", the book's hypothetical reader, is, we therefore assume, not an inhabitant of this "strange country".  In emphasising his own social and cultural distance from what he was observing, Orwell was, of course, being honest.  The sympathy he felt for the northern working class was not based on any populist pretence of common experience on the part of a south-eastern, Old Etonian, 'lower-upper-middle-class' writer.  But everyone comes from somewhere; and in constructing his narrative as a journey from a familiar place into the unknown, Orwell excludes the possibility that where he came from and where he arrived at are really (or ought to be) both the same place: their people, though different and unequal, members of the same community, who all owe each other the same duty of fellowship.  A similar problem of social distance has been identified in the documentary film movement and Mass Observation, and, to be fair, Orwell does not fail to address it.  In the tortured discussion of class and socialism which makes up the second half of the book, we can see him striving, and failing, to construct and believe in this sense of common fellowship.  However, for all its vividness of description and human sympathy, Wigan Pier is as lacking in explanations and solutions for the problems it describes as any middle-class Victorian expedition into 'darkest England'.  Priestley's destination, on the other hand, is 'England', which means that he is already there.  He knows and likes some bits of it better than others, but there is no sense that he is alienated from whole chunks of it, or that he is coming into it from somewhere else.  Nor does he make Orwell's semi-conscious assumption that the people the book is about are distinct from the people who are reading it.  With Priestley, though he does not shirk, and indeed emphasises, social division and inequality, we are all 'us', all members of England: which makes social exclusion particularly unacceptable.  In this respect, Priestley succeeds where Orwell fails: partly because he actually comes from 'out there', the industrial North; but also, and more significantly, because of the kind of book he is writing: aimed at a broad market – more Book Society than Left Book Club – and therefore necessarily more inclusive in tone.  Such are the consequences of the 'fashion for fact' and the reconciliation of entertainment and documentary.

Englishness and English Journey

The second way of reading English Journey is for its 'Englishness'.  If it lacks the overt political purpose of its successor, Wigan Pier, perhaps it has some affinities with a predecessor, H. V. Morton's In Search of England (1927).  In formal terms, Morton’s book has much in common with Priestley's.  They are both stories of a round trip, in which people met and sights seen evoke pithy and sometimes weighty observations from the narrator.  Both treat their readers and the people they meet as fellows, not as an alien species.  One can see why some might read them in the same way.  However, its idea of what England is makes In Search of England a very different kind of book, as we can see from the very start.  The frontispiece depicts not miners'cottages or slag-heaps or even city streets, but shire-horses making their way down a country lane past a thatched, half-timbered cottage.  Chapter 1 opens with a brief prologue: ill and homesick in inhospitable Palestine, Morton summons up the image of an English village at dusk, and resolves to return home, and go in search of England:  that is, "the lanes of England, the little thatched villages of England . . . English bridges . . . English grass".  England is to be found not in the towns and cities where most English people (including Morton) live, but the countryside, and "the village that symbolizes England [and] sleeps in the subconscious of many a townsman".  And not just any countryside, either, but as the thatched cottages signal, a southern, lowland one (vii-xi, 1-3).  This is not a book about rural England - although the Introduction dwells upon the present-day plight of agriculture, these issues are not taken up in the rest of the book – so much as a book about the essential rurality of England. 

Some people have contrived to read English Journey in the same way.  For Angus Calder, it establishes Priestley's credentials as a sturdy patriot, and establishes him as one of the 'Georgians', like Morton, for whom the real England was the countryside of the South and Midlands; while according to Chris Waters, English Journey’s message is that "essential Englishness" is "rooted in the nation's natural heritage" (Calder 196-204; Waters).  Unfortunately, however, such judgements are not justified by the textual evidence. It is quite clear that Priestley held no such views, and they are certainly not expressed in English Journey, which pays only a short and equivocal visit to the Cotswolds, praises Priestley's native, rugged, Pennine landscape, and laments the decline of urban civic values as people flee to the countryside and pretend to be country gentlemen (see Baxendale, 2001).  Certainly, the book is interested in England and English identity and character, and in this respect it parallels Morton and differs from Orwell, who shows no particular interest in national identity until his wartime writings such as "England, Your England".  However, as Priestley's concluding chapter shows, unlike Morton he does not believe in a single "essential Englishness", but finds on his travels at least three 'Englands', none of which is deemed to be more 'essential' than the others.  Nor does he make the assumption of national unity around a shared conception of Englishness which suffuses Morton’s book, to the exclusion of those who do not share it.   To identify Priestley as a nostalgic ruralist is to try to force him into a preconceived mould into which he does not fit.  Moreover, in the heat of the 'Englishness' debate, it can be forgotten that not every book about England is, ipso facto, a book about Englishness.  So, while English Journey undoubtedly has a place in the 'Englishness' debate, this is only part of the story. 

Interrogating modernity

And so we turn to a third way of reading English Journey: to treat it as a commentary on modernity, that forgotten source of Thirties anxiety.  To discover this, we need to return to the text. We left Priestley in a motor-coach on the way to Southampton: let us take up the thread of his narrative.  When he arrives there, Southampton turns out to be more than just a gateway to England: it is the place to behold one of the most potent symbols and examples of early twentieth-century modernity: the ocean liner.  Priestley notes the apparent prosperity and happiness of the town's inhabitants, and rhapsodises about the big ships which have brought this good fortune:

things not only of formidable size and power, but also of real beauty, genuine creations of man the artist.  What have we built since the medieval cathedrals that compares with them?  Their purpose may be to make profits, not to glorify God or the commonwealth, but even so, having arrived at a time when men have a passion – perhaps the purest of their passions – for machines, these ships are creations of power and beauty.  I am glad to have lived in their age, to have seen them grow in strength and comeliness, these strange towns of painted steel that glide up to and away from this other town of motionless brick. (14)

And so Priestley begins a dialogue with himself about modernity and its consequences which runs through much of English Journey.  Much later, on Tyneside, Priestley will encounter the ruin of the industry and the men who built ships like these, the waste of their skill and creative powers.  But even here in Southampton, the promise of modernity is undercut.  He runs into an acquaintance, a steward from one of his transatlantic voyages, who from his below-decks standpoint does not share his enthusiasm for the liners: "Bad quarters.  Working all hours.  And no proper food and nowhere to eat it" (15).  Priestley is troubled: perhaps, he muses, the first-class passengers should give up some of their comforts to allow those waiting on them to lead a more civilised life.  In this modest little allegory we might glimpse the opening of the road to 1945; but back in 1933, after this encounter, Southampton suddenly doesn' t look quite so bright and prosperous.  Priestley starts to notice squalid side-streets, junk-yards and fly-blown corner shops: "one large clean shed" would be preferable, he suggests, prefiguring the post-war supermarket and reaffirming the promise of modernity.  Maybe one day Southampton – the town and its life – will live up to the majesty of its great ships. "What a Southampton that would be" – and what an England, we might reflect.  But it is not the rejection, but the wholehearted embrace of modernity which will deliver this new Jerusalem.

In Bristol, in the Wills cigarette factory, Priestley first encounters another aspect of modernity: factory work, transformed from its nineteenth-century beginnings by machine tools, mass production and new forms of organisation (33-4).  This theme will fascinate him for much of the journey.  His view in Bristol is a little rosy: yes, the work is monotonous, but the machines are ingenious, and there is a humanity in the way the factory is run which dispels the soulnessness of mass production.  Later, in the Daimler car factory at Coventry, his views have sharpened, and some themes start to emerge more clearly.  Here, and later at a Leicester typewriter factory, he is impressed by the science and technology, the astonishing ingenuity that goes into these modern products, and the expertise of those who devise and control the production processes (71-4; 122-6).  Himself the child of an industrial town, he wants to get as close to these processes as he can, where possible trying his own hand at them.  But above all, in all these places, and particularly at a clothing factory in Leicester where the technology is not particularly advanced, it is the organisation which strikes him most: "the strange absence of any obvious supervision" in a system so intricately well-planned that each worker knew what they were meant to be doing without needing to have any overview of the whole process (130-1).  Observing in the Potteries the modern version of an old craft, he reflects on the central role played by electricity.  Exactly like some elderly cyberphobe of  our own time, he professes not to understand that which children effortlessly master: nevertheless he is fascinated by it: "we are definitely in for an electrified world".  The factory power-house would make an excellent set for a futuristic movie: while "essentially of the present [it] looks like a glimpse of the future" (213-7).

And above all, this is the age of the expert.  In his native Bradford, the laid-back, easy living wool man of the past has been replaced by a new breed, hard-working "good citizens", well qualified, and with a grasp not just of the technicalities of the wool trade but of languages, finance, transport (163-4).  Like those who plan and coordinate the factories, they are "men essentially of the present . . . electrical engineers, motor-car designers, aviators, wireless technicians and the like.  This is their age and they are completely at home in it" (214-7).  These are the ones who get the job satisfaction.  "They had that look, that happy absorption in their work, that passion for explaining and demonstrating" (216), though they own no capital and are only employees themselves.  In the Potteries, where a modern industry is rooted in a traditional craft, individual skill at handling clay still plays a part on the shop-floor.  But elsewhere, the job-satisfaction of the technocrats, "happy children of our mechanical age", is undercut by the monotony of the ordinary workers’ day.  Knowing nothing of the overall process in which their labour is just one small element, they are alienated from production in a way never experienced by their grandparents.

Before he sees any of these factories, Priestley tests out his ideas about work and modernity on a radically different case: the stonemasons of the Cotswolds, traditional craftsmen who over the centuries have built an environment of incomparable beauty by the skill of their own hands.  These people, surely, knew "the dignity and sweetness of real work" (53-4).  But a sharp argument with his host in the Cotswolds reminds him of the pitfalls of romanticism.  Machines are not the problem, he declares: recalling perhaps that the ocean liners, just as much as the Cotswolds, were beautiful products of human skill, and that their modernity, far from causing the crew’s poor working conditions, offered the promise of improving them.  The problem is the system, its greed and shoddiness: machines, properly used, provide relief from miserable toil which was formerly the lot of most people; and in any case they are just elaborate tools, no different in principle from the old stonemason’s chisel.  The argument that is going on here about machines and craftsmanship, nature and civilisation, tradition and modernity, acknowledges the Cotswolds' association with the Arts and Crafts movement, and also owes more than a little to William Morris.  But, in the end, Priestley concludes, our job is not to renounce the modern world, but to make 'a civilised job' of it (63-5)Just as Southampton is unworthy of the liners, so the Potteries, in the shape of ugly and undignified Stoke, are unworthy of the potters: one day modernity will arrive and "a real city, spacious and gay . . . [will] rise high and white" (234).  Likewise in Coventry, Priestley concludes that our problems are caused less by modernity than by its absence from important areas of life: "If we were one half so clever in the matters that lie far outside machinery as we are about machinery itself, what people we should be, and what a world we should leave our children!" (72) And after visiting slump-ravaged Lancashire he calls for rational planning, to banish the squalor and 'muddle' left by nineteenth-century industry.  "Lancashire needed a plan, a big plan. . . . there is a terrible lack of direction and leadership in our affairs. . . . somebody somewhere will have to do some hard thinking soon" (285-6).  

This is a fairly familiar 1930s theme: competitive capitalism has failed: only some form of socialist planning – some people (though not Priestley) would point to the Soviet Five Year Plans – could deliver on the promise of modernity.  But while some critics of capitalism saw no further than the decay left by the industrial revolution, Priestley identified in the 'new England' of suburbs and clean factories, elements of a welcome modernity:

It is a cleaner, tidier, healthier, saner world than that of nineteenth-century industrialism.  The difference between the two Englands is well expressed by the difference between a typical nineteenth-century factory, a huge dark brick box, and a modern factory, all glass and white tiles and chromium plate. (404)

It is also a more democratic world, one in which social deference had been banished, and everyone had equal access to cheap, popular pleasures.  And in it there are serious young people with a social conscience, who "know that we are interdependent", who are good citizens, but "as yet we have no city worthy of them.  Perhaps they are building it themselves now": perhaps it is the 'new Jerusalem' of 1945 (405-6).

Rationality, planning, cleanliness, collectivism, technology: the elements of a modernist dream, which is about escaping into the sunlight from the "dark bog of greedy industrialism" which nineteenth century capitalism had created.  But back in Bristol, Priestley had encountered the good side of nineteenth-century capitalism: the civic culture which its leaders had created, and which, in Bristol, still persisted in the shape of public benefactors like the Wills family, and a middle class which identified with and cared about the city (31-3).  Sadly, he found, Bristol was the exception.  Too many businessmen were sneaking out of the towns where they made their money, and disguising themselves as country gentlemen.  In Bradford and Manchester, cultural life and civic pride were not what they had been.  In Gateshead there was no sign that it had ever existed.  In Hull too, local theatre and music and social life in general had gone downhill as the middle classes scattered into the countryside (358-9).  Was it modernity which had done this?  Up to a point, yes, since the motor-car, and the social scattering of suburbia must bear some of the blame.  But so must a refusal to be modern, a preference for rural life and the disguise of a country gentleman.  True moderns would live in the city, seeking to make a success of it, instead of fleeing into a version of the past. 

But at another level, there were historical changes afoot which were undermining the localism which Priestley favoured.  Repeatedly throughout English Journey we catch glimpses of a wider history: globalisation, and the disruptions and opportunities created by an increasingly interdependent world.  No one planned the growth of the global market, but it is there and we cannot escape its consequences, which are both good and bad.  Western imperialism first exploited the east, and then taught it to compete: hence the collapse of Lancashire cotton (275-7). 

We live, you see, in an interdependent world.  We insisted on proving that fact to the dreamy and exclusive Orientals last century, and now in this century they are only adding further proofs.  There is no escape now on this planet. (276)

Priestley dismisses imperialists as  'Big Englanders' bossing everyone about (416), but rejoices in "the England that keeps open house": the cosmopolitanism of his boyhood Bradford (160-1), and the multiculturalism and racial mixing which he finds in Liverpool (242-3).  But then again, if earlier stages of modernity created this liberal cosmopolitanism, it is now under threat from "this present age", with its "idiotic nationalism, political and economic . . . passports and visas and quotas" (161).  And anyway, how cosmopolitan do we want to be, when, as in Blackpool, we find an Americanised global culture, "machine-made and not really English", squeezing out the "old hearty vulgarity" of the old English popular culture (267).

Nothing conveys the ambivalence of modernity more strongly than Priestley's attitude towards popular culture.  Priestley is a democrat and a populist: he also believes in people having a good time.  What could be better, then, than a world which is "rapidly Blackpooling itself", in which "the very modern things, like the films and wireless and sixpenny stores, are absolutely democratic, making no distinction whatever between their patrons" (402)Anyone with sixpence in their pocket can have the same mass-produced luxuries.  This is almost a classless society.  But hold on – are they really having a good time – or are they just liking what the publicity machine tells them to like?  And aren’t these modern amusements just a bit too modern – mechanical, routinised, like Blackpool, or Nottingham Goose Fair, has become?  And American where they used to be English?

In the concluding chapter we are left with the ambivalence, but ambivalence goes with the territory.  England is depicted as a nation formed by successive and disruptive historical experiences: rural capitalism, the industrial revolution, the modern consumer age, whose influences mingle to create the complexities and contradictions of the present day: no one of them is the 'real', essential England.  Modernity may be a project which has gone astray, once into a greedy industrialism which preferred machines and money to men (a clear echo, here, of the nineteenth-century cultural critique of capitalism); then later into the shabbiness of cheapjack consumerism.  But its promise is essentially benign.  The thing is, as Priestley said on leaving the Cotswolds, to make a success of it: not to go backwards, staggering under the weight of our cultural inheritance, but to go forward, "into the sunlight"– even to "turn every cathedral and college into an engineering shop"if that is what it takes to keep moving forward, and not to "grow cold and petrify".  The "inner glowing tradition of the English spirit" is not just about colleges and cathedrals and Shakespeare: it is about how we treat exiled foreigners, deal with social injustice, conduct our business, defend our freedom: how we live (417)It can lead the world forward into a better life.  From our standpoint today, this optimistic peroration can only appear overblown, even conceited;  but it is far more interesting to see in it the germ of a national self-image which became important, if only rhetorically, in 1940-5 and thereafter, even if eventually it was to become more a liability than an inspiration.  For our present purposes, it is perhaps enough to note that Priestley at the end of his book brings together his view of the nation, his urge to social improvement, and his ambivalent engagement with modernity, justifying to some extent all three of the readings of English Journey which I have suggested.

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