This Is Not A Dismal Place! J.B. Priestley’s North East Journey

Mr Priestley goes to the Tyne (and Tees)

In Autumn 1933, a famous young(ish) novelist visited the North East of England, full of cold and cold medicine and missing his home.  J.B. Priestley was travelling around England’s regions, making the observations that would become one of his most significant publications: English Journey.

PRI21_5_7LowResThe sections of English Journey on Newcastle, Middlesborough and the North East of England are among the most powerful parts of the book.  Priestley pointed unforgettably to the devastating impacts on landscape and people of “greedy, careless, cynical, barbaric” industry.  He also said bluntly what he thought of the locals (“I had never seen a crowd of men whose looks pleased me less”) and their accent, a “most barbarous, monotonous and irritating twang”.

A scrapbook of press cuttings (now part of the J.B. Priestley Archive)  shows how passionately people felt about Mr Priestley’s take on their region, which whatever its faults was theirs, not his, a prosperous, wellconnected man briefly visiting and criticising what he saw: “This is not a dismal place!” cried one Middlesborough newspaper.

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Eighty Years On

In 2014, academics and journalists and other readers, like ourselves, are revisiting the book, seeing it in context, examining its impact, see for instance J.B. Priestley Society’s recent conference.  In my talk at this conference I used the scrapbook to explore the marketing of English Journey and how it was received by its original readers.

The response to the 80th anniversary by local media in the North East has much in common with the reaction in the 1930s, picking out his strong criticisms of individuals as well as his social commentary.  Witness this article on the local BBC website and a piece on the local Look North (available online till 7pm on Friday 28 November 2014), both featuring the scrapbook and other contributions from Special Collections.

Chris Phipps, a local historian interviewed for these pieces, will go beyond the headlines about Priestley and English Journey in a talk at the Newcastle Lit and Phil on Saturday 29 November 2014.

Reflecting on English Journey and the North East

It’s possible to make too much of Priestley’s cold and bad mood and general prejudice against the Geordie accent etc.  He was a writer who tended to bring himself into his journalism and he often chose to play the grumpy Yorkshireman card.  What matters more is what he saw and the conclusions he drew about it, his call for a fairer society.  Not just in the North East but all over industrial and post-industrial England.   He knew himself that what he saw on his visit transcended his own discomforts and irritations:

“… remembering that I had a job to do, I climbed out of this morass of silliness and set about exploring the Tyneside.  I did explore the Tyneside and have not been genuinely sorry for myself since; though at times I have caught myself at the old drooping tricks and been ashamed.  There is, you see, something bracing about the Tyne.  After you have seen it, you realise it is not for the likes of us to be sorry for ourselves.”

Priestley was not the first or the last to write about poverty and social exclusion in the North East, but his contribution was certainly memorable and influential, his style at its absolute best, fuelled by his righteous anger.   For instance, this on Shotton,  a coal mining village, where he saw the “tip”, a huge “volcano” of coal dust and slag, breathing out ash and dangerous fumes:

“I stared at the monster, my head tilted back, and thought of all the fine things that had been conjured out of it in its time, the country houses and town houses, the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, the carriages and pairs; the trips to Paris, the silks and the jewels, the peaches and iced puddings, the cigars and old brandies; I thought I saw them all tumbling and streaming out, hurrying away from Shotton – oh, a long way from Shotton – as fast as they could go”.

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