For Christmas, my mother gave me a recent and rather magnificent copy of JB Priestley's
(rarely, for an Englishman, he actually just means England too). Originally published in 1934, it's a fair rival to Orwell's
. Most famous for his play
, Priestley's friendly, socialist, sometimes slightly tetchy style, his love of ordinary people and his fury at the lives to which they are consigned by industrial capitalism makes for very enjoyable reading. I spent quite a lot of the Christmas break tweeting his pithy
about the Black Country, Stoke, the Irish, hunting and so on.
Here are some of my favourite bits. On the Black Country and its inhabitants:
A typical visit is his trip to Stoke. It's foul and barbaric, but he thinks the people are wonderful, and they have been betrayed by the state and the ruling classes.
He doesn't think much of hunting either, particularly those who claim it's an agricultural duty or whatever:
the man who … declares…"It may be…cruel and anti-social, but I don't give a damn".
Rather wonderfully and topically, Priestley proclaims his love of state healthcare, immigrants (his home town of Bradford declined after the German Jewish population was victimised after WW1, he says) and the poor, no matter what fat politicians say about them. He hates talk of rationalisation:
You may do a good stroke of work by declaring the Stockton shipyards "redundant", but you cannot pretend that all the men who used to work in those yards are merely "redundant" too… Their labour, wages, full nutrition, self-respect, have been declared redundant. All their prospects on this earth have been carefully rationalised away. They have been left in the lurch. We have done the dirty on them. We can plan quite neatly to close the doors of their workshops on them, but cannot plan to open anything.
Priestley's particularly incensed by the plight of the miners. He declines the offer of a trip down a pit because he was buried for a while in the trenches and clearly suffered considerably. He knows what a foul, dangerous life mining is, and is infuriated by bourgeois accusations and the complaints of 'red-faced gentlemen lounging before club fires' that miners are lazy Communist subversives.
Every man or boy who goes underground knows only too well that he risks one of several peculiarly horrible deaths, from being roasted to being imprisoned in the rock and slowly suffocated.
He's not a 'dignity of labour' type in general, but he has some curious blind spots: though he sees the miners' wives as cleverer and more determined than their sons and husbands (they have 'gumption'), he thinks that women are more suited to repetitive factory work because they find it easier to escape into a fantasy world, and he also thinks the Irish are troglodytic peasants beyond redemption. However, he has a cunning solution to the divide between the productive classes and the parasites:
Suppose we had a government that began announcing: "Coal is a national necessity…We will now have conscription again, this time for the coal-mines, where every able-bodied man shall take his turn, at the usual rates of pay. All men in the Mayfair, Belgravia, Bayswater and Kensington areas…will report themselves…for colliery duty" What a glorious shindy there would be then! And if you could buy yourself out by subsidising a professional miner, how the wages in East Durham would rise.
To him, the state of the mining areas is the fault of
greedy, careless, cynical, barbaric industrialism
The Daily Mail
style bigotry of the urban middle classes infuriate him. He loves to see the workers having fun, whether on a trip to the seaside, having sex or getting pissed in the pub:
Those persistent legends about miners who buy two pianos at once and insist upon drinking champagne… A man who has been working for seven hours at a coal face, crouching in a horribly cramped space about half a mile underground, has a right, if anyone has, to choose his own tipple; and I for one would be delighted if I knew that miners could afford to drink champagne and were drinking it.
He's not keen on bankers either:
Until they are openly proved to be crooks, our own financial jugglers are regarded as distinguished…benevolent wizards…a sphere of action in which all depends on your being able to "get away with" certain things.
I know all this looks like he's the world's grumpiest man, but he's on a mission - to puncture the chocolate-box-Chipping Norton definition of England peddled by politicians and his fellow writers:
Most of my fellow-authors do not go blundering in like that; they never go near these uncomfortable places; they continue writing their charming stories about love affairs that begin in nice country houses and then flare up into purple passages in large hotels in Cannes…
As it happens, 1930s 'proletarian' novels are my specialist subject: for an antidote to the Purple Prose of Cairo, I'd recommend Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons
, Lewis Jones's Cwmardy
and We Live
, Hanley's Grey Children
and Bert Coombes's These Poor Hands
By the end, Priestley identifies three Englands: Old England of honeyed manor houses and meadows (the tourist and aristocrat version), which depends on the Nineteenth-Century England of 'sootier grim-like fortresses' like Birmingham and Stoke, where money (for some) and misery (for most) went hand-in-hand, and post-1918 England. Priestley isn't nostalgic: he knows the pretty countryside was a place in which peasants starved and died, or were glad to escape to the cities, but he's determined to end our illusions. Industrialism
found a green and pleasant land and had left a wilderness of dirty bricks. It had blackened fields, poisoned rivers, ravaged the earth, and sown filth and ugliness with a lavish hand…What you see looks like a debauchery of cynical greed… Wolverhampton and St. Helens and Bolton and Gateshead and Jarrow and Shotton. … I felt like calling back a few of these sturdy industrialists simply to rub their noses in the nasty mess hey had made. Who gave the leave to turn this island into their ashpit? … and the people who were choked by the reek of the sties did not get the bacon. The more I thought about it, the more this period of England's industrial supremacy began to look like a gigantic dirty trick. At one end of this commercial greatness were a lot of half-starved, bleary-eyed children crawling about among machinery and at the other end were the traders getting natives boozed up with bad gin.
Not that post-industrial England holds much charm for Priestley either: a land of strip malls, escapist cinema, advertising and filling stations. Like the Frankfurt School, he fears that we're all being bought off by cheap tricks and shiny toys (from Woolworths, he reckons). It looks like being a classless society in which people admire sportsmen more than royalty, so not all bad, but
too much of it is simply a trumpery imitation of something not very good even in the original. There is about it a rather too depressing monotony…leisure is being handed over to standardisation too… I cannot help feeling that this new England is lacking in character, in zest, gusto, flavour, bite, drive, originality, and that this is a serious weakness.
What he fears is that a complacent, lazy, satisfied England is ripe for authoritarian politics: to him, the contrary, pushy, touchy, loud, drunk, proud working classes are what keeps us safe from the dictators of either doctrine.
By the end, JB is a sad and angry man. He has met working and workless people all over the country. Some of them are depressed, some broken, some slovenly, some angry, some phlegmatic. None of them, he feels, deserves the 'dole' and the attitudes which come with it.
…the England of the dole did not seem to me to be a pleasant place. It is a poor, shuffling job, and one of our worst compromises… The young men, who have grown up in the shadow of the Labour Exchange, are not so much personal tragedies, I decided, as collectively a national tragedy.
It cannot be every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. [my italics]
Priestley remembers the drawn, grey faces of starving German POWs in 1918:
I did not expect to see that kind of face again for a long time; but I was wrong. I had seen a lot of those faces on this journey. They belonged to unemployed men.
…this blackened North toiled and moiled so that England should be rich and the City of London be a great power in the world. But now this North is half derelict, and its people, living on in the queer ugly places, are shabby, bewildered and unhappy. And I told myself that I would prefer…to see the people in the City all shabby, bewildered and unhappy…because I like people who make things better than I like people who only deal in money…What had the City done for its old ally, the industrial North? It seems to have done what the black-moustached glossy gentleman in the old melodramas always did to the innocent village maiden.
What's the inevitable consequence of a country in which the workers are raped by the rich?
People are beginning to believe that government is a mysterious process with which they have no real concern. This is the soil in which autocracies flourish and liberty dies. Alongside that apathetic majority there will soon be a minority that is tired of seeing nothing vital happen and that will adopt any cause that promises decisive action.
And yet Priestley sees hope. Underneath the swaggering
'red-faced, staring, loud-voiced fellows, wanting to boss everybody about all over the world and being surprised and pained…if some blighters refused to fag for them'
he detects an England of natural beauty, technical genius, literary glory and generosity:
Let us be too proud, my mind shouted, to refuse shelter to exiled foreigners, too proud to do dirty little tricks because other people can stoop to them, too proud to lose an inch of our freedom, too proud, even if it beggars us, to tolerate social injustice here, too proud to suffer anywhere in this country an ugly mean way of living… We headed the procession when it took what we see now to be the wrong turning, down into the dark bog of greedy industrialism, where money and machines are of more importance than men and women. It is for us to find the way out again.
Now, I know I've gone on far too long, and you probably feel that I've typed out the whole of English Journey
, but there's a good reason. We're governed once more by a group of Southern English multimillionaires with no real experience of work, hunger or want. They inherited their cash or made it on the money markets. They're experienced tax-evaders and system players. They move between Notting Hill and the Cotswolds. They encourage us to blame the poor, the weak and the foreign rather than their friends in the City, and tell us that the solution to our ills is to close the borders, sell the Mail and the NHS, and to hate the workless.
Like Priestley, we have a population eager to work but no government is interested in finding anything for them to do. What should happen to them? They won't just dwindle away. They can't all
be 'sleeping off a life on benefits' as the Chancellor put it, and they can't all serve us coffee on the minimum wage. Priestley's minority is UKIP and the Tory voters encouraged by their leaders and their friends on the Mail
and the Express
to see every foreigner as a terrorist benefits thief, every welfare claimant as a fraudulent scrounger rather than as a fellow citizen. This is the country in which a millionaire investment banker made Minister for Welfare Reform can stand up in the House of Lords and claim – on behalf of the government of this country – that food banks are busy because everybody wants a free lunch
Have we heard any politician come anywhere close to the pride, or despair, of Joseph Priestley? I could imagine Atlee nodding along in his quiet way, perhaps Wilson even. But this shower: they see us as so many millstones round their moneyed, tanned necks. When they venture North of their hunting grounds, they sneak from limo to photo-op without a care. My own MP made his millions in property speculation: he hasn't a word to say about his constituency's decline from being the workshop of the world to a grey, sullen sinkhole of ambition.
Happy New Year.