It was 75 years ago that a leading writer’s views on the North East caused uproar. Tony Henderson reports on the continuing reverberations
WHEN the novelist and playwright J B Priestley described the North East in his 1934 best-selling book English Journey, it must have sounded to his southern readers as not so much like another country as a different planet.
Priestley arrived in the region in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, the depth of which makes the current recession feel like a minor inconvenience.
Of Gateshead, Priestley wrote: “The whole town appeared to have been carefully planned by an enemy of the human race. Insects can do better than this.”
Of the stretch between Wallsend and North Shields, he commented: “If T S Eliot ever wants to write a poem about a real wasteland he should come here.”
And of Hebburn: “You felt there was nothing in the whole place worth a five pound note.”
The writer had started his journey in Southampton and worked his way to Newcastle before turning back.
Tomorrow, the 75th anniversary of the publication of English Journey will be marked by a free public event at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.
J B Priestley’s son, Tom, will retrace his father’s footsteps to be part of the night, which will also include a talk by John Tomaney, Professor of Regional Development at Newcastle University.
He will contrast J B Priestley’s observations with those of 17th, 18th and 19th Century writers who visited the North East.
The event will also mark the publication at £25 by Great Northern Books of a new anniversary edition of English Journey, restored to its original length.
Priestley’s verdict on the North East caused a stir at the time and he has been accused of adopting a disparaging attitude.
But the Discovery event will explore whether he has been misjudged.
In fact, during a short time in the First World War, Priestley had been stationed at Tynemouth.
Tom Priestley, who lives in London, says: “It was something of a downer about the North East, but it was not about the place itself but what my father found there.
“The economy had collapsed. The Great Depression had kicked in and he pointed out the conditions people were expected to live in.”
Tom maintains that English Journey highlighted three separate Englands – the heritage charm of places like the Cotswolds, an emerging “modern” England, and industrial England.
“There was an appalling ignorance of the North. People just didn’t know or care, and my father was saying ‘this is what is going on in your country.’
“Now in my turn I am looking forward to visiting Newcastle enormously.”
Prof Tomaney, who comes from Durham, will examine the visits and writings in the 17th Century of travellers like William Camden and Celia Fiennes.
“They described the emergence of an industrial superpower on Tyneside,” he says.
In the 19th Century Samuel Smiles and Karl Marx commented on the importance of Tyneside and its workers as an industrial force but pointed out that there was a price being paid in the poor social conditions.
Prof Tomaney says: “When J B Priestley arrives in 1933 there was mass unemployment and poverty.
“The social needs identified in the 19th Century had not really been addressed and now people had lost their jobs.”
Of course, much in the North East has changed massively since 1933 but, says Prof Tomaney, some things have not.
“A lot of what Priestley says still rings true today, despite the changes.
“It is still an area with a very strong working class culture.
“There has been a history of large, dominant employers and the current low level of entrepreneurship in the region can be attributed to this.
“What Priestley said was not very palatable to civic leaders at the time and the region still doesn’t like outsiders who criticise, even if it has merit,” says Prof Tomaney. “But Priestley is making a case for improving social conditions. The miners are fuelling the country with their coal but the south knows nothing of miners’ lives, dangers and conditions.”
Prof Tomaney believes that Priestley played his part in starting the national debate which would lead to the Welfare State.
“His was one of the voices which created the environment so that this could happen.”
The event at Discovery Museum in Blandford Square will run from 6pm to 7.30pm. Admission is free but book on 0191 277 2307 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Page 3 - Yes, the 1930s were grim - but were they really this grim? >>
Yes, the 1930s were grim - but were they really this grim?
WHILE we are greeted by a clean and restored Grainger Town in Newcastle, J B Priestley encountered a different city.
"Newcastle is blacker than Manchester and might have been carved out of coal," he wrote.
But he is appalled by what he finds in Gateshead: "If there is any town of like size in Europe that can show a similar lack of civic dignity and all the evidences of an urban civilization, I should like to know its name.
"No true civilization could have produced such a town.
"It is a frontier camp of bricks and mortar but no Golden West has been opened up by its activities.
"If anybody ever made money in Gateshead, they must have taken great care not to spend any of it in the town.
"It is a dormitory for the working class."
On the way to Wallsend, he writes: "These were all mean streets. Slatternly women shout at the doors of wretched little houses, gossiping with other slatterns or screeching for their small children playing in the filth of the roadside.
"There were glimpses of the great cranes of the yards, reminding you that these Geordies, stocky toothless fellows in caps and mufflers, cursing in their uncouth accent, could do a grand job of work whenever they were given a chance."
Crossing the Tyne by ferry, he visits Jarrow: "A mean, little conglomeration of narrow, monotonous streets of stunted and ugly houses, a barracks cynically put together so that shipbuilding workers could get some food and sleep between shifts.
"There is no escape anywhere in Jarrow from its prevailing misery."
Moving on to Hebburn: " I had an odd feeling that I was looking at a camp just behind the front line in some strange, new war."
In East Durham: "Nobody goes to East Durham. The mining communities are hidden away. If there had been working collieries in London, modern English history would have been quite different.
"I am always hearing middle class women in London saying that they could do with a change. They should try being a miner’s wife in East Durham."
Priestley visits the mining village of Shotton: "Imagine a village of a few shops, a public house, and a clutter of dirty little houses all at the base of what looked like an active volcano.
"The volcano was Shotton tip, literally a man-made smoking hill, a Gibraltar made of coal dust and slag.
"The atmosphere was thickened with ashes and sulphuric fumes like that of Pompeii on the eve of its destruction.
"It is hard to believe that Shotton and, let us say, the Cotswolds were not more than a good day’s motor journey from one another, both under the same government."
Page 4 - North East blamed a head cold for criticism >>
North East blamed a head cold for criticism
A SCRAPBOOK of original reviews of English Journey is held in the J.B. Priestley Archive at the University of Bradford, in the city where the writer was born.
It contains The Journal’s reaction, with headlines of "Tyneside Denounced by J B Priestley" and "Hebburn Awaits Doomsday."
The paper reports protest speeches in Jarrow Town Council.
It goes on: "Mr Priestley is a big man and has trod very heavily on the Tynesider’s toes.
"He might have indicated whether Northern industrialists and municipal authorities have sat complacently dozing while the shipyards fell to ruin.
"He might have ascertained if any moves have been made towards slum clearance. Destructive criticism is not enough.
"The chapters based on Tyneside and Durham are the blackest in the book.
"He was accompanied by vile weather and a severe cold in his head. No doubt he sneezed away much of his tolerance and good humour.
"At any rate, Tyneside’s name would not have been bedraggled as it has been in the eyes of the world had that cold kept Mr Priestley confined to his hotel."
The life of Priestley
BORN in Bradford in 1894, John Boynton Priestley was one of the foremost English playwrights and dramatists of the 20th Century.
Priestley served and was wounded in the First World War. His university education at Cambridge took place after the war, by which time he was well in his 20s. After early success as a novelist he turned to writing plays.
Time and the Conways, written in 1937, remains enduringly popular, but his best-known work is probably An Inspector Calls, written in 1946. It is still a staple of GCSE English Literature syllabuses, has been made into films for both cinema and television, and is periodically revived at both professionals and amateur theatres.
Three times married, Priestley was a left-winger who was occasionally viewed with suspicion by the establishment.
He declined a number of honours in his later years, but did accept membership of the Order of Merit in 1977. He died in 1984, aged 89.