Thursday, February 12, 2009

A non-book report/English Journey by J.B. Priestley

Is it fair to offer a book report on an unfinished book? I suppose so, as I am not labeling it as such. A book I began in great expectation and with great joy has slowly, but very surely turned into a reading drudgery. I can't stand it anymore. I cry 'uncle!' And then I cry 'hooray I'm done!' I've written many times that I don't stay with a book I don't like; that life and especially one's reading life is too short for anything but books I love. So why did I persevere? Because there is so much good in this book.

J.B. Priestley undertook to travel around England in the autumn of 1933, and thank goodness he did. He captured a time and place between the two wars. This is not an impassive look at the people and places, but an opinionated, philosophical, quite personal view. He presents the facts, and then goes on to offer his own thoughts on the subject. The reader may agree or not. I so wish he had included a map in the front of the book. I suppose most people reading it in the 1930s knew where all the places were, but I don't, living in the next century and in another country.

Early on in my reading I wrote this:

If I ruled the world, or at least the educational world in England, this book would be required reading in the upper grades of every high school - public and private. Or at the very least, teenagers would read about their own area to see what life was like in Birmingham, Leicester, Southampton in those years. This is the history of their town, and not a dry, boring history, but the town come alive with its people, workplaces, and entertainments. There could be terrific discussions in the classrooms about how things have changed or not changed, and how life is better or worse or a little of both.

And I still believe it. I think if one is reading a history of the country or of a certain area, English Journey would be a welcome companion to a book full of facts. Priestley makes the people and places real.

It is so interesting to me that whenever I read travel literature, the writer's own personality and feelings come through. Travel writing is never, "I saw the Taj Mahal. There was a pool." It is always more along the lines of exasperation with the heat or the crowds. It may recall a past visit when one was happier or sadder. This is what makes these books really fun. They are not guide books, rather they are personal journeys, visits, experiences. I've often felt in Bill Bryson's books that he starts off with much energetic enthusiasm which dwindles half way through the trip (and the book) and diminishes completely by the end. He gets cranky, and I always feel like he wants to get home; as do, I, the reader. I get tired. I want the book to be done. There are more details than I want or need, but I plow on. In English Journey, that plowing was through way too many factories. They became a blur to me, as did the cities where they were located. I would forget where I was were it not for the chapter titles at the top of the page. The Potteries were particularly unthrilling to me. I love pottery. I like hearing how it is made, but he went on and on and on, and I had to accompany him on the tours. I did follow along, tired and bored, but it made my particular English Journey a long, slow one. I wanted more nature, more descriptions, less dismal towns, less depressing lives. He was sometimes too fanciful for me; imagining how the people lived and what they thought. And finally, on page 236 (out of 390) I just had to part ways with J.B. Priestley. After long stretches of boredom without that respite of 'good' I mentioned before, the last straw was when he reached Liverpool, and wrote of 'half-caste' children, and so very critically about the Irish. I couldn't stand anymore. My mood was lowering, my interest was gone, and my mind was annoyed. To paraphrase Mr. Wordsworth, the book was 'too much with me.'

I had planned to read Beryl Bainbridge's English Journey, an account of the same trip fifty years later, but I honestly can't face it. I'm done with traveling for a while.


  1. When I reached your sentence about giving up at Liverpool - the capital of the known world - I was horrified until I saw your reason. I too would have given up that stage. Actually I think I gave up much earlier. I tried reading this when in my twenties and I didn't get very far at all. It's a shame because Pristley has a wondeful style. I recall reading The Good Companions about the same time and much as I enjoyed it I was glad when it finished. I've been ambivalent about Priestley ever since.

  2. I hope you have the illustrated edition of the book, Nan. This was issued in 1984 with photographs taken in the 1930s and showing cities as they were before German bombs destroyed many of the places he described in the book. There is no map in it though. I'm working on one for you but I don't think I can enclose it in a comment so I will email it to you.

    As you say, the book has great merit as a study of social history of the period and in fact it did have a great impact in England and was one of the influences for the Mass Observation Unit which was set up a few years later.

  3. I knew it would be my British friends who would respond to this post, and I'm so grateful Scriptor S. and Monix that you did. I enjoyed what both of you had to say. Honestly, Scriptor S. I don't think you would feel a lot different about it if you read it today. He does have a good style, but I felt it was only at first. After a while he just wore me down. :<) I would have quit even if he hadn't said those things. I was dreading sitting down to read it and I wasn't even aware of it.

    Monix, you are so, so nice to take the time to do this. I kept thinking as I was reading - if he only knew what was going to happen to his whole country in just a few years, but then that's what makes it such an important book. It isn't a modern person looking back, it is real impressions by a citizen of the time. But those real impressions tired me out. :<) What is the Mass Observation Unit?

    And have either of you read the 50th anniversary trip that Beryl B. took?? I could be convinced to read it. :<) Thanks again for your notes.

  4. Oh, I meant to say I don't have the illustrated version. It's a Penguin 1977 edition with the nicest cover - it is part of a painting called Garsington Roofs by Gilbert Spencer.

  5. What a great post, Nan, and I love your header picture. I've long been a fan of travel writing, and much of what you say is true; it becomes more about the writer than the place. I have enjoyed many of Bill Bryson's book, and I think you're right about him becoming cranky partway through, I've often felt that and yet not put my finger on it.

  6. Thank you, Tara! Yeah, BB drives me crazy most of the time, but I continue to read every travel book he writes, including his latest (?) about traveling into the land of childhood, which I really did enjoy.

  7. One of my favorite books on travel was John Steinbeck's, Travels With Charley.

    I agree that travel books become the author's story with the travel being a back story rather than "the story".

    I have found it more enjoyable to read the short story travel books.

    Gardeners/Cooks seem to do best with topic/story writing.

    I have given up on books that I've struggled through. We need to enjoy what we read when we read leisurely.

  8. Thanks for writing, Linda. I read TwC a lot of years ago, but I want to read it again. I expect I will see it differently being closer to his age when he wrote it. Interesting comment about cooks and gardeners - you are so right! I think Priestley had an idea what he wanted to write about and it wasn't the same areas I wanted to read about - like Cornwall and Devon.

  9. Nan, the Mass Observation Unit was set up in 1937 by three young men, influenced, as I understand, by Priestley's English Journey. They recruited volunteers among ordinary working people around Britain to record their everyday lives. They also recruited volunteer writers to edit and archive what was collected. The gathering of these diaries went on until about 1950 and the archives are a great resource for students of British social history.

    By sheer coincidence, I have just been reading Nella Last's War, which is the diary kept by a woman in Barrow (in north west England) for the MO unit.

    I think English Journey is a book to dip into rather than read through. The illustrated edition is easier on the concentration, too! I'm just plotting the places mentioned on my map and will email it to you later.

  10. love, love, love your blog....
    Thanks for all you share!

  11. Is this my 'joejet' Joanne friend? Thank you so much for your really nice note.

    Maureen, I saw the televised version of Nella's journal. Thanks for making the connection. I'd love to see this sort of thing happening everywhere. I love the 'domestic' common touch with the details of regular daily life rather than political or entertainment headlines being our only 'history.'

  12. You bet!
    Love all your similar to mine!
    Love your blog header too!
    Joanne who sent the note:)

  13. I agree that a reading life is too short to stick to a book you cannot enjoy. I am finally getting that! I only in the last few months stop at the 2nd or 3rd chapter and just say pass it on to another, it is not for me.

    I wanted to stop by and wish you a very Happy Valentine's Day dear Nan!

    Hugs ~

  14. Thank you, my dear friend, Heidi! Of course, I'm interested in the titles of the books you quit. :<)

  15. Sounds as if you managed to persevere for much longer than I'd have done. I can't read books that bore me nowadays though when I was young I would plough through anything.
    I still admire Priestly for the play An Inspector Calls.

  16. Susie, I haven't read An Inspector Calls or any of his non-travel writing. I may someday. Even as a kid I didn't read stuff I didn't love unless it was for a college class.


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