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Newcastle event marks 80th anniversary of J B Priestley's book which slated the North East

Chris Phipps recalls infamous comments of late playwright in his English Journey

Novelist JB Priestley and his wife Jacquetta
Novelist JB Priestley and his wife Jacquetta

It's nearly eight decades since JB Priestley famously raised the hackles of the North East when the region came in for a thorough slating in his book English Journey.

His disparaging comments about everything from the local accent to the industrial landscape, still stir the wrath of proud Geordies whenever we’re reminded of them.

So it’ll no doubt build to a frenzy again at a special event in Newcastle to mark next month’s 80 year anniversary of the book published after his 1933 visit which sparked all the trouble.

The November 29 event at the Lit & Phil, part of the Books on Tyne festival, is a talk retracing Priestley’s trip north from his starting point in Southampton and it’s “a labour of love” for Chris Phipps who’s better known locally as a pop and film historian.

“I also like a challenge,” adds Phipps of his extensive research into the author of An Inspector Calls who first piqued his interest in childhood.

When he uncovered a copy of English Journey, with a 1936 photograph of a train leaving Newcastle on the cover, in a bookshop in Haworth, his renewed interest tied in nicely with its coming anniversary.

It was socialist publisher Victor Gollancz who commissioned Priestley to make his Depression-era journey and write down his observations and his first non-fiction book did not hold back about what he found.

The writer had first seen the North East first-hand as a young soldier convalescing here during the First World War where he indulged his “great passion for the theatre and music hall”, says Phipps, but hated the accent, writing “to my ears it is a most barbarous, monotonous and irritating twang”.

Ahead of his return, he recalled the “hinnying” of the women as “objectionable”.

“And that’s before he gets here!” adds Phipps. “Then he came here in November for a couple of rainy, windswept days and had a terrible cold.”

He’s not sure of where the writer stayed but his “dingy back bedroom” could have been the Turk’s Head Hotel.

His two days were spent in the company of a local book dealer called Steadman and a militant communist from Gateshead referred to only as Bob.

He was taken to watch a boxing match as well as The People’s Theatre rehearsals in the upstairs room of The Bridge pub.

But he noted much around him was ugly and uncouth.

Novelist JB Priestley his wife Jacquetta
Novelist JB Priestley his wife Jacquetta
 

The region was in the depths of the Great Slump, with lost industry and lost jobs, and he saw “monuments of mean ugliness” in Durham, the “hideous muddle” of North Shields, and likened Shotton to a “smoking tip of a volcano” and Hebburn to Doomsday.

Bob invited him to the Bensham Grove Settlement - still in existence - which was a community project founded by Quakers with the worthy aim of helping the unemployed with skills such as gardening.

Priestley was not impressed. And he called Gateshead “a workshop with no work”.

He wrote: “The whole town appeared to have been carefully planned by an enemy of the human race. Insects can do better than this.”

So did he like anything?

Phipps says he thought Newcastle had a “sombre dignity”; quite liked the local jazz bands and regional newspapers and thought the People’s Theatre good value for money.

And he had the grace, while mixing with hungry-looking hordes in Seaton, to note “he felt like a fat rich man in front of them” says Phipps.

He’ll be reconstructing Priestley’s route with the help of photographs and audio and focusing on the era as a whole, featuring other figures of the day from HG Wells to Gracie Fields.

Phipps adds: “The public reaction to this book caused a lot of trouble but at the end of the day he wrote about what he saw and what he saw was a gutted landscape.”

Many people blamed the book for establishing the familiar grimy image of the North East and the backlash served to create a north-south division.

But it also sparked interest for the first time from documentary-makers.

“They suddenly realised it might be grim up north but it was worth photographing,” says Phipps.

Priestley was drawing people’s attention to the region at a time of social injustice.

“It’s not just a travelogue; it’s a political book.

“Priestley said ‘if middle class women in London say they need a change, try being a miner’s wife in Durham’. He was so appalled and moved by what he saw.

“But obviously his opinion on accents is a personal thing!”

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