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.