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J.B. Priestley and George Orwell: Two English Journeys in the 1930s

September 7, 2012

There were three Englands in the 1930s, so thought J.B. Priestley: Old England; Nineteenth-Century England; and the New. Priestley’s English Journey, ‘Southampton to Newcastle, Newcastle to Norwich’, had revealed to him ‘the country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways England’. This was quite apparent, not so much a myth, but ‘a country to lounge about in; for a tourist’.  That was the Old country. Then there was the New – post-war England – and more American than Shakespearian in its shade of social/cultural hue: ‘of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses.’ Primarily, but not exclusively, located in the south, particularly in London, it was democratic, cheap and accessible, with Woolworth’s being Priestley’s allegorical but also quite corporeal emblem of this ‘rather depressing monotony… a bit too cheap’. Then, looming large in-between, in limbus, with a foot in Hades, was the world of the Dickensian horror show, still very much incarnate in 1933, up north in the townscapes of Lancashire. This was industrial England, or what was left of it, made up of ‘coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, of thousands of rows of little houses all alike… cindery waste ground, mill chimneys, slums, fried-fish shops… a cynically devastated countryside, sooty dismal little towns, and still sootier grim fortress-like towns’.

A premise put forward to Priestley by the left-wing writer and publisher Victor Gollancz, the book English Journey, as its socialist publisher expected, was intended to be something far-deeper and far-reaching than the mere tourist’s travelogue of pleasant sights. Indeed, following this order, Priestley certainly made incisive comment, many in fact, and not just upon the twelfth-century, medieval delights of Lincoln Cathedral. In consequence of this comprehensive foundation, and vitally, Priestley sought out the whole thing, every piece of England, and not just the pretty. Indeed, upon reaching Lancashire, he stumbled upon the unsightly and injurious corollary of the Industrial Revolution, the lasting effect being that ‘it had found a green and pleasant land and had left a wilderness of dirty bricks’. As Priestley, with all the angry gusto of William Blake, though perhaps less eloquently, riled: ‘you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs… but there are far too many eggshells and too few omelettes about this nineteenth-century England.’ Later, another great writer was to cross Priestley’s path, here in this dark realm, and indeed tread some of the same steps: George Orwell, as we shall later see. 

J.B. Priestley during the First World War (1914-1918)

Priestley, then, was the first to set out on his personal expedition; and what he perceived up north, and as it subtly appears in the text, in To Lancashire, was a great battle. ‘There’s a war on in Lancashire’, he proclaimed, almost as if those outsiders, even he, had failed to realise it. Indeed, this chapter, and also To The End are pot-marked by Priestley’s shrapnel-like prose, implying conflict, as are the people and places he encounters during this chapter. Having spent his twenty-first birthday in the trenches of World War One, Priestley had been inflicted not just by the mortar wound he had suffered in 1916, but also with the capacity for reflective contrast. Thus it was, with a painful clarity, that the faces of the unemployed in Lancashire appeared to be the very same visages of the ‘strained, greyish, faintly decomposed look’ he had remembered from a group of German prisoners of war. To be employed was to be incarcerated for an unspecified amount of time. It was wartime, a siege of attrition, then. On one occasion, inspecting a street infested with poverty, Priestley was left feeling like a ‘newspaper proprietor who has just inspected [a] front-line trench (in [the] safe sector) and is now leaving the brave boys to it, thank God!’ Indeed, the secret of Lancashire folk and their endurance, so he thought, was that they acted as if ‘on active service, and so, like the front-line troops, they make a lot of silly jokes and sing comic songs’. Again, in epilogue, the war came back to him, Priestley concluding that some towns up north ‘looked much worse to me than some of the French towns I saw at the end of the war, towns that had been occupied by the enemy for four years’.

Lancashire was a casualty, then, betrayed, as it appeared to Priestley, by the very mistress that had made its fortune in the first place: the simple but deadly edicts of world economy. Cotton, which had expanded briefly after 1918, during the post-war boom, had been caught out by a sudden and prolonged world fall in demand. Cotton representing 30 per cent of Britain’s exports in 1920, by 1929 it had fallen to 20 per cent. And as eminent historian Peter Clarke notes: ‘markets for coal in eastern Europe, for textiles in Asia, were inexorably slipping to competitors with lower costs than Britain in producing these fairly unsophisticated products.’  This was the economic context to Priestley’s, and later Orwell’s, narrative. Indeed, Priestley recognised this, realising how vulnerable any commercial enterprise could be in an ‘interdependent world’ from which ‘there is no escape’.  Lancashire, for more than one reason – competitive markets overseas, world economic slump – had suffered as a result.

Now many of the dark, satanic mills of Lancashire were vacant, the workers damned to fight it out as best they could. The signs of disaster were there, and in differing forms, often surprising in their mode of expression – such as the muck, the muck of industry…  it was disappearing, worryingly so; as one distraught woman, who had recently returned to her local Lancastrian district, related to Priestley: ‘it’s awful… it’s all becoming clean.’ She hardly recognised the place; ‘the brick and stone are beginning to show through,’ she riled, the result of too few mills operating in the district. Priestley thought some of the towns in Lancashire ‘ruined’. Upon reaching Blackburn he noted that ‘the whole district had been tied to prosperity, to its very existence, with threads of cotton; and you could hear them snapping all the time… whichever way you looked there was the same tragic situation’.  Worse, any attempt to rectify the crisis was either non-existent or wholly inadequate.   

When in Blackburn, Priestley was shown to a community house, it being a voluntary effort to put unemployed men to some use, woodwork being the staple activity among the men. Viewing the club room, Priestley reflected upon playing spectator to two men enjoying a game of table tennis, playing with homemade bats. In fact, that was all the men seemed to do, ever, a depressed Priestley wrote. It terms of rejuvenating economic reality, this effort hardly constituted a fight back, however well-intentioned, yet Priestley adding in derelict reprise: ‘Probably by the time the North of England is an industrial ruin, we shall be able to beat the world at table tennis.’  Yet it was the absence of any apparent broader effort that most irked Priestley: ‘Since when did Lancashire cease to be a part of England?’ It had been seemingly cut adrift, there being ‘a terrible lack of direction and leadership in our affairs’. Priestley, in the concluding chapter, To The End, marvelled at the tragedy of it all, of a broken, affluently disjointed Britannia of church minsters, cinemas and slums, seemingly unable to bind its own seeping wounds, to its shame:    

We were brilliant, I decided, only in patches. Our civilisation was rather like the stock comic figure of the professor who knows all about electrons but does not know how to boil an egg or tie his bootlaces.

It wasn’t too late for action, Priestley made sure to declare, but ‘somebody somewhere will have to do some hard thinking soon’.

A few years later, George Orwell came to a similarly uncomfortable conclusion, albeit via a more tortuous road, The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937: that, in the industrial areas, something akin to an open sore was festering. Unlike Priestley’s journey into his various indentified England’s – the Old, New, and the distinctly dirty – Orwell’s pilgrimage was, instead, a voyage solely towards the dirt, down into the workers grim underworld, which inevitably would lead to a study of the unemployed, the chief Golgotha being the industrial areas of the Midlands and the North.  ‘To study unemployment and its effects you have got to go to the industrial areas. In the South unemployment exists, but it is scattered and queerly unobtrusive.’ Commissioned by Gollancz too, Orwell’s book, as Richard Hoggart states, was intended to be a revelatory piece, in the tradition of ‘Cobbett and Carlyle,’ indeed as was Priestley’s account, purposely designed to reflect the ‘condition of England’. Yet, with only one England in mind, sighted in the crosshairs, Orwell set out in early 1936 to gather his research in Lancashire and Yorkshire; his findings reflected in Part I. In contrast to Priestley’s work, therefore, The Road to Wigan Pier was a geographically and socially pinpointed investigation.

A peripatetic Gyrovague, though only for the purpose of these particular explorations, as in his previous work Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell did his utmost to experience the pains of the worker and, in particular, the coal miner. Priestley, though not shying away from such experiences, hadn’t the same morbid commitment in his efforts and whereas his own investigations were carried out with relative ease, Orwell, in self-flagellating opposite, believed that he could only truly experience the labours of the workers if the effort half-killed him. And indeed, it almost did, when, in a scene from Dante, he descended into the hell of a coal mine; there Orwell finding many of its common, hellish attributes: ‘heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.’ Actually getting to the coal face was an epic journey in itself – for Orwell’s weedy, brittle physiology at least… bent double, almost broken in two, with a crick in the neck, his knees and thighs in constant pain: ‘after half a mile it becomes (I am not exaggerating) an unbearable agony. You begin to wonder whether you will ever get to the end – still more, how on earth you are going to get back. That a miner ‘may have to creep through passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus’ was a line that Orwell wielded with particularly morbid satisfaction, coupled with a knowing horror in the knowledge that a miner was not paid for the journey from the pit head to the seam, or the passage back.  After just one trip down a mine, Orwell concluded that, if he were a miner: ‘the work would kill me in a few weeks.’

‘No other trade approaches this in dangerousness,’ Orwell concluded. Such were the perilous realities of the task. Yet it was the vital lifeblood: ‘OUR CIVILISATION… is founded on coal… In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.’  Though they were not unemployed, they were worth the tangent. Orwell thought miners unrecognised and neglected heroes of Britannia, the men with ‘belly muscles of steel,’ to which the nation owed its ‘comparative decency’ of living. Indeed, as Orwell admitted, it was a humiliating experience to watch such epic efforts, enough to challenge the worth of his intellectual self, and of being ‘a superior person generally’. It was enough to make him feel ashamed of being middle-class, though perhaps also causing a slight sentimentality towards those workers; the miners, that he clearly thought his betters, not just in work ethic and physicality, but perhaps also on a human level of morality. 

Orwell, of course, denied having such saccharinely tailored notions: ‘I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealising them.’  In defence of this, Orwell, though not expelling such emotions completely, certainly sought to override them. Indeed, he believed that a great deal could be learnt by experiencing the working-class habitat, as if he were the anthropologist: ‘the essential point is that your middle-class ideals and prejudices are tested by contact with others. Priestley, in comparison, though not shying away from human contact, never lingered long among the labourers or unemployed; in one instance, taking time out to oversee his play in Manchester. Yet, despite being at heart a novelist and playwright, Priestley generally managed to avoid sentimental thoughts of caricature too, except in the case of ‘Lancastrian femininity’ and ‘the patter of Miss Gracie Fields’. ‘The men are tough, and the women are tougher still,’ he wrote, though lacking any evidence, and simply offloading the cliché; thinking that, without its women, Lancashire would be finished as a county.

Orwell’s observations, above all, exposed the ‘gauntness of poverty’. Whereas Priestley took the tour of the battlefield of penury, and travelled far and wide, Orwell conscripted himself and lived the life of dirty drudgery, in among the ‘labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like black beetles’. ‘In Sheffield you have the feeling of walking among a population of troglodytes,’ Orwell noted, thinking it a different world, an entirely separate universe to elsewhere. In this sense, in conjunction with Priestley, this really was a separate England, and an isolated one. Indeed, Orwell stated so: ‘when you go to the industrial North you are conscious, quite apart from the unfamiliar scenery, of entering a strange country.’

Like Priestley, Orwell was exasperated by the apparent inaction in dealing with the problem. Unemployment was the chief evil, both writers believed that. So too was the sense of hopelessness. ‘We may as well face the fact that several million men in England will – unless another war breaks out – never have a real job this side of the grave,’ a despondent Orwell bemoaned. Until something changed, the malevolent dole would, for the foreseeable future, have to be endured by many. Orwell worked out that the average unemployed family subsisted on an income of thirty shillings a week; difficult but not impossible. Priestley was generally of the same attitude, and, as Orwell too related, thought the long term effects of poor diet, a result of rationing, sometimes unwisely prioritised, was creating generations of malnourished citizens.  However, Orwell believed it was the Means Test that caused the real harm. ‘The most cruel and evil effect of the Mean Test is the way in which it breaks up families.’ A widower, for example, if living with one or more of his children, would cause the family dole to be ‘docked,’ being counted as a lodger, and would be obliged to leave. As well as this, there was also the sense that the dole was an admission of defeat, rather than an effective solution. Orwell noted that many young men were doomed to wander though townscapes, attempting to find suitably warm interiors in which to spend the day. In terms of the dole, Priestley thought it to have two meanings, the latter of which was quite devastating: ‘It means a charitable distribution, especially a rather niggardly one. It also means, or did mean in its archaic use, a man’s lot or destiny… it is a poor shuffling job, and one of our worst compromises.’ Indeed, it was ‘a mere declaration of intellectual bankruptcy’.

In his experience, Orwell found that the majority of the men on the dole were not ‘cynical parasites,’ as some thought, but ‘decent young miners and cotton-workers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them’. In a way, it was psychologically damaging. As a relief, many would turn to a stimulant, finding that ‘a cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread’. Only by his closeness to such people could Orwell make such observations. More so than Priestley, Orwell had an eye for the smaller details, these being his particular talent, in part a result of his being more embedded in the lives of his subjects, for a greater length of time.

George Orwell

A deep empathy for working class characters is prevalent in Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, as it is in many of his other works. Such an approach, compassionate, but also detached in terms of class and literary necessity, was, in this way, and also in subject, thoroughly Dickensian in manner. Orwell – an avid fan of Dickens, indeed one may argue they were kindred spirits in terms of tales of morality and railing against inept institutions – in an essay upon the Victorian author, made sure to clarify the definition of a moralist, something which he indentified deeply with Dickens, but also himself: ‘he has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong.’ Indeed, as Orwell wrote, and unashamedly, Dickens was a writer ‘well worth stealing’. Furthermore, Gordon B. Beadle, in his brilliant study George Orwell’s Literary Studies of Poverty in England, concludes that ‘Orwell’s criticism of society is moral criticism, an appeal to the conscience and better nature of the nation’.  And something was deeply wrong – Hard Times had replaced Hard Times. So Orwell sought to communicate with the same urgency which Dickens had moralised within his serials, reflecting the human face of destitution itself, the real thing, if not, admittedly, supplying the remedy. Ultimately, as Orwell half-prophesised, it would take war to rid England of the mass unemployed and, indeed, to reshape English society.    

Despite the difference in national topography covered, when both Orwell and Priestley entered the same environment of dirt-ridden slums, derelict mills, mountainous slag-heaps, and numerous unemployed, both recognised the hideousness of the landscape, the inaction of the higher authorities, the general hopelessness of the situation. Above all, it made them angry. Orwell’s book, notably Part I, was illustrative of the depressed areas in industrial England that were, undeniably, in existence at the time.  Priestley’s chapters To Lancashire and To The End confirms this view, but also provide the reader with a number of dissimilar vistas that were present in England at the time too, testifying to the dramatic regional differences in affluence, economy and social conditions in the 1930s. They are conflicting, but not a fallacy; simply matter-of-fact. Of course, some of these facts were, quite obviously, a poor reflection upon the conditions of the labourers, especially those unemployed.

Both writers discovered the same harrowing truth, then, though to what extent it had been anticipated is hard to fathom. In the case of Orwell, the direct focus of the book clearly suggests that a certain amount of disgust was intended, and indeed sought out, the précis being an angry exclamation mark at the conditions of the working class. It certainly possessed a bellowing voice of articulation. To be sure, though finding Part II far more controversial in its outlook, Victor Gollancz stated, of Part I and its worth to socialism, that ‘these chapters really are the kind of thing that makes converts’. In the case of Priestley, the original intention of discovering three Englands, and importantly, the rotten core, is less clear. Martin Pugh argues that books such as Priestley’s English Journey were a symptom of ‘political turmoil and prolonged economic uncertainty,’ and sought ‘to retreat to a timeless and more secure world.’ If this is indeed the case, then the discoveries in To Lancashire must have been a sobering reality check, not at all a comfort, and yet quite genuine. Pugh’s comment might also be applied to The Road to Wigan Pier, in terms of the prefix, except that Orwell never had any intention of seeking comfort. He confronted the awfulness. Yet it might also be said that Priestley was well aware of what he was letting himself in for, and that Pugh may be incorrect in his assertion of a literary ‘retreat’.

Of course, Gollancz and the authors, as evident in the commissioning and the writing of these socialist tracts, ostensibly had a hope for some enduring legacy: a reaction and suitable outcome for the problems that had been ruminated upon in their works. Yet they had no definitive answer themselves. Evidently, apart from implying the need for some form of Welfare state, the most certain bequest bestowed latterly is their respective positions within the historical bibliography of 1930s Britain, to the extent that to discount them in a narrative upon such times would appear to be the most perverse snub. Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, especially, has become the defining account of depression-era Britain – the danger being that, in some instances, it may be employed as the only evidence. As Priestley’s work shows, particularly in To The End, England was a country of varying degrees, and not every view was as disturbing as Orwell’s. In this respect, when analysing such prominent works, indeed any work, we should be mindful of the particular place, time and intention, and also be willing to seek out other examples to further expand our knowledge. Such is the worth of multiple and reasoned comparison.

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