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The curse of Northern stereotypes J.B. Priestley's 'English Journey'

Scenes from Wigan town centre. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Scenes from Wigan town centre. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


December 15, 2022   6 mins

Here are some snapshots of modern Britain, taken by a well-known broadcaster, playwright and social commentator. The railways are dying; car traffic is thriving. To the drivers, who interact with their fellow human beings mainly by injuring and killing them, the country is just a “roar and muddle outside the windows”. The wealth gap between North and South is wider than ever. Workers have been forced to move out of cities to cheerless suburbs a long ride from their place of work.

Regions are losing their identity. Professional football teams no longer field any local players, and local newspapers are disappearing, replaced by “some mass publication thrown at [the public] like a bone to a dog”. These organs of hatred publish indignant lies about workers bingeing on champagne and immigrants taking advantage of our great traditions of hospitality. The “miserable meanness” of the press faithfully reflects “this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic”.

The year was 1933. J.B. Priestley, born in Bradford in 1894, had been commissioned by the Left-wing publisher, Victor Gollancz, to spend two months travelling through rural and industrial England, from the honeyed manor houses of the Cotswolds to the stinking slums and slippery cobblestones of the Black Country, Lancashire and Tyneside. The vaguely defined “North” was a foreign country even to some members of the London establishment who were supposed to represent it. This geographical blindness appears to be a chronic condition. Several visitors from the South who have stayed at my home on the Anglo-Scottish frontier were surprised to discover that Carlisle is not a Scottish city, and that Hadrian’s Wall is not the national border.

Along with Daniel Defoe’s Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain and William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, Priestley’s English Journey is one of the great travelogues of English literature. He talked to actual people and stayed in each place long enough to suffer the effects of its architecture, food and air. He listened rather than interviewed, jotting down the chatter of factory workers, bus passengers, commercial travellers, tramps in a hostel, women at a whist drive, slum children at a multi-ethnic primary school. The result is a work of bracing televisual intensity. There is none of the metropolitan prissiness that makes so many English travelogues, historically speaking, a waste of time.

Priestley wrote like an opinionated anthropologist with an ear for a good joke and a rare ability to communicate in different forms of English: “As a rule I like local accents, and have kept one myself. They make for variety in speech and they give men’s talk a flavour of the particular countryside to which at heart they belong. Standard English is like standard anything else — poor tasteless stuff.” Reading Priestley today, it strikes me that the “local accents” he relished were micro-dialects, peculiar to certain towns, small districts or even occupations. Received pronunciation may still be dominant, as Amol Rajan complained this year, but the remedy is not necessarily within easy reach. We also now have standard Yorkshire, standard West Country and standard Cockney, which can be just as flavourless.

Just over two years after Priestley returned to London (in a smog so thick that all he saw of England through the windscreen was “a large wobbling green rectangle” on the back of a removal van), George Orwell set off on his own voyage of grim discovery. He, too, had been commissioned by Victor Gollancz. The fruit of two ghastly months in Lancashire and Yorkshire, The Road to Wigan Pier, was published by the Left Book Club in 1937.

Seeking out the worst “the North” had to offer, Orwell was expiating the guilt he felt as an old Etonian and as a former officer in the Imperial Police Force in Burma, where duty had compelled him to bully and punch the natives. (“Orientals can be very provoking.”) His journey was an exercise in figurative and literal blacking-up — crawling along mine-shafts, sleeping in hostels and boarding houses infested with human “black beetles”, as he called them with pince-nez distaste. “Is it ever possible to be really intimate with the working class?” he wondered. He generalised and supposed, identified this and that “sort of person”, and came to his own and to no one else’s conclusions.

The Road to Wigan Pier begins with the weariest clichĂ© of life “oop North”: “The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street.” Curiously, Priestley had recently observed that “clogs have disappeared, for though they were really very sensible footwear for work, being healthy, comfortable and cheap, they carried a bad social stigma on them, even when I was young”. “Clumsy clogs”, Orwell speculatively calls them when trying to catch the eye of a young woman seen from his seat on the train. He supposes that she must have been poking a stick up a blocked kitchen waste-pipe: her face wore “the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen”.

This kind of moral means-testing and stereotyping is still quite common in metropolitan and even local writing about the North of England. Why assume that the woman was desolate and hopeless? I hate to think what my face looks like when I’m doing it, but in the long and varied list of necessary household jobs there can be few more engrossing and ultimately rewarding than rodding out a drain.

Priestley had his own forms of bigotry. He loathed the “violent racial prejudices” which blighted the lives of mixed-race children in Liverpool, but in the same decaying city, he yearned for the day when all Irish labourers would be cleared out of every western port from Cardiff to the Clyde: “what a fine exit of ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease!” At a public meeting in Bristol, he found the black-shirted Fascists as pathetically insignificant as the Communists with their “rising of the masses”: “Who cares about masses? 
 Men, women and children — but not masses.” Yet when he celebrated “the West Indian flavour” of Bristol, he was referring not to people, but to the tobacco and chocolate industries.

It is a shame that, while Orwell’s northern odyssey is still a common point of political reference, Priestley’s more wide-ranging, less dictatorial survey rarely gets a mention. English Journey is said to have helped Labour win the 1945 general election by giving a friendly face to the frighteningly faceless victims of capitalism. Priestley himself stood as an independent socialist candidate (he came third in Cambridge behind Labour and the Conservatives). He believed that centralised government and national party politics were stifling democracy and that England should be divided into four, five or six partially self-governing “provinces”: “politics should be local, so that you can keep an eye on them”. Today’s Labour Party, with its plans for devolution, could usefully employ him as a posthumous consultant.

At Westminster, Priestley’s omnivorous intellect would have been a liability. He was quite happy to publish findings which might have supported the arguments of his opponents. There must be some politicians today who would do this for the sake of an honest discussion, but I don’t know who they are. Both Priestley and Orwell condemned the blithe assumption that one shouldn’t feel sorry for people who work in deadening and dangerous occupations because “they’re used to it”. Unlike Orwell, however, Priestley noticed that many people enjoyed working in a factory. At an electrical components plant in the Potteries, the workers were “brisk and contented” despite the production-line monotony. The women who did nothing but attach labels to pairs of socks at a textile factory in Leicester were astonishingly cheerful. They preferred a job of pure routine because “they could then work all day and think about something else while they were working”.

So much of Priestley’s post-First World War England is familiar that a few months ago I began to wonder whether most of the big changes in British society since 1933 were simply adjustments or variations in very long-term trends. Living in the far north of Cumbria, I find some of the picturesque period details quite up-to-date. I know people who are happy to work in factories, who find coach travel “voluptuous” and who drink the “brown speckled mess” that, hereabouts, could still claim to be “the national drink”: “We are all floating somewhere on a full tide of tea.”

There is, however, one glaring difference which reassured me that our age of post-Brexit opportunities has brought something new to British history.

Neither Priestley nor Orwell say very much about politicians, except in a general sense. They chide governments for being oblivious or indifferent to poverty and squalor, and for sitting in a haze of self-congratulation in Westminster while the City plays games with the riches that the industrial North has manufactured and dug out of the ground. But they say nothing of elected and unelected parliamentarians lobbying for their own interests, promoting the cowardly, the idle and the vicious, and causing death and unhappiness for the benefit of their political careers.

Missing from Priestley’s English Journey and Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier are Prime Ministers plotting coups, gambling away the nation’s wealth, lying in the face of evidence and shame, and installing the “miserable meanness” of the popular press in the heart of government. The fact that these are after all, despite the similarities, chronicles of a bygone age should give hope that the current virulent outbreak of Westminster parochialism is a passing phase. Priestley’s book would be just the thing for a north-bound fact-finding minister to read while waiting for the next uncancelled train to Outer England.

***

Order your copy of UnHerd’s first print edition here. 


Graham Robb writes about French literature and history. His latest book is France: An Adventure History.


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Phyddeaux .
Phyddeaux .
1 year ago

Popular History and Literary History has forgotten that “The Road to Wigan Pier” was, to coin a phrase, a book of two halves.
The 2nd half of that book absolutely skewers socialists of both the 1930s and of today. It eviscerates them – the “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist”
The modern Left love Part One, as do I, but pretend Part Two does not exist. As it is now out of copyright (author’s death + 70 years), everyone should spend a day or two with Eric Blair in Lancashire, but do read to the end.
https://www.orwell.ru/library/novels/The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier/english/e_rtwp

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Phyddeaux .

Yes to all the above. Thanks for making the same points I wanted to raise


Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Phyddeaux .

Indeed. I’ve been reading it and the similarities between the Hampstead socialists of the 1930s and today are quite astonishing. Orwell may have been a socialist, but he seemed to dislike most other socialists. But a writer who’s lasted well and is still worth reading. Most of his judgements from the 1930s and 1940s have aged quite well.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Orwell, being Old Etonian (from a faded aristocratic line in part), was exactly the classic ‘leftist’ because leftism is actually a species of revolt by one resentful section of the ruling class against another (in Orwells phrase, ‘a family with the wrong members in control‘). The old tripartite scheme for sons (army service, church and ‘diplomacy’) had broken down after WW1).
If I were pushed I’d say that the root of the problem was the nature of aristocratic inheritance (of both wealth (which nevertheless was occasionally self-despising if earned) and status), which by-passed certain younger (or female) members of families in the ruling elite (Virginia Woolf was particularly scathing and vitriolic about this). Prince Harry is, in my view, a good modern example.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Orwell, being Old Etonian (from a faded aristocratic line in part), was exactly the classic ‘leftist’ because leftism is actually a species of revolt by one resentful section of the ruling class against another (in Orwells phrase, ‘a family with the wrong members in control‘). The old tripartite scheme for sons (army service, church and ‘diplomacy’) had broken down after WW1).
If I were pushed I’d say that the root of the problem was the nature of aristocratic inheritance (of both wealth (which nevertheless was occasionally self-despising if earned) and status), which by-passed certain younger (or female) members of families in the ruling elite (Virginia Woolf was particularly scathing and vitriolic about this). Prince Harry is, in my view, a good modern example.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Phyddeaux .

Yes to all the above. Thanks for making the same points I wanted to raise


Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Phyddeaux .

Indeed. I’ve been reading it and the similarities between the Hampstead socialists of the 1930s and today are quite astonishing. Orwell may have been a socialist, but he seemed to dislike most other socialists. But a writer who’s lasted well and is still worth reading. Most of his judgements from the 1930s and 1940s have aged quite well.

Phyddeaux .
Phyddeaux .
1 year ago

Popular History and Literary History has forgotten that “The Road to Wigan Pier” was, to coin a phrase, a book of two halves.
The 2nd half of that book absolutely skewers socialists of both the 1930s and of today. It eviscerates them – the “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist”
The modern Left love Part One, as do I, but pretend Part Two does not exist. As it is now out of copyright (author’s death + 70 years), everyone should spend a day or two with Eric Blair in Lancashire, but do read to the end.
https://www.orwell.ru/library/novels/The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier/english/e_rtwp

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

At least Orwell bothered to leave London, which is more than you can say for the Guardian writers of today.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

At least Orwell bothered to leave London, which is more than you can say for the Guardian writers of today.

A Willis
A Willis
1 year ago

Perhaps more importantly, Orwell and Priestley both highlighted the hypocrisy of the comfortable middle-classes believing that they knew best what was in the interests of the working class.

Andy White
Andy White
1 year ago
Reply to  A Willis

Absolutely. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Graham Robb that this was a campaigning book directed at a very specific readership from the comfortable, mostly Southern, middle class. Orwell’s agenda was to open their eyes to places and ways of life they knew nothing about.

He also wanted to take aim at the illusions of the Socialist Left, which he did not yet fully identify with. That identification started shortly afterwards with his participation in the Spanish Civil War. Wigan Pier got a lot of Northern, working class and Leftist readers’ backs up and obviously still does. But if you read Orwell’s 1940s As I Please columns the main attitude that comes across is inverted class snobbery. Far from sneering at working class people, the fully-formed Orwell thought their outlook on life was superior to that of the middle classes!

Andy White
Andy White
1 year ago
Reply to  A Willis

Absolutely. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Graham Robb that this was a campaigning book directed at a very specific readership from the comfortable, mostly Southern, middle class. Orwell’s agenda was to open their eyes to places and ways of life they knew nothing about.

He also wanted to take aim at the illusions of the Socialist Left, which he did not yet fully identify with. That identification started shortly afterwards with his participation in the Spanish Civil War. Wigan Pier got a lot of Northern, working class and Leftist readers’ backs up and obviously still does. But if you read Orwell’s 1940s As I Please columns the main attitude that comes across is inverted class snobbery. Far from sneering at working class people, the fully-formed Orwell thought their outlook on life was superior to that of the middle classes!

A Willis
A Willis
1 year ago

Perhaps more importantly, Orwell and Priestley both highlighted the hypocrisy of the comfortable middle-classes believing that they knew best what was in the interests of the working class.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

“I know people who are happy to work in factories”
I hate the contempt that some people frequently voice for certain job roles as a marker for limited ambitions – “shelf stacker in a supermarket”, “flipping burger in Macdonalds”. It just shows they are snobs and/or socialists.

opop anax
opop anax
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I know someone who accidentally stumbled into Turiya whilst working in a factory. She was astonished to become “enlightened” without knowingly trying for this and afterwards found the ancient texts explaining the experience and the difficult but simple path to higher consciousness. A radiant person.
It is observable that doing a job well – with attention and care – is both satisfying and replenishing. The opposite is also true.
I do appreciate that this sounds pretentious but am neither making it up nor proselytising. We live in a world where the superficial is prized too highly, where humble occupations are despised because they do not incur the empty reward that is excess money and status and where the clamouring illusion of worldly success has drowned out the hidden value of the interior life, the invisible and unhailed value of simple goodness.
Hence the epidemic of “mental health” problems and negative emotion with which our society has become awash.
I don’t believe that there is anything that can remove, or impede, human capacity except, perhaps, authoritarian regimes that would stifle and police freedom of thought.

Last edited 1 year ago by opop anax
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  opop anax

Wow you put it much better than I did!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  opop anax

Wow you put it much better than I did!

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

There’s often great camaraderie – lots of chat and banter during factory work – but sadly automation is making people more sparse on factory floors, losing the opportunities for the socialisation aspect.

opop anax
opop anax
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I know someone who accidentally stumbled into Turiya whilst working in a factory. She was astonished to become “enlightened” without knowingly trying for this and afterwards found the ancient texts explaining the experience and the difficult but simple path to higher consciousness. A radiant person.
It is observable that doing a job well – with attention and care – is both satisfying and replenishing. The opposite is also true.
I do appreciate that this sounds pretentious but am neither making it up nor proselytising. We live in a world where the superficial is prized too highly, where humble occupations are despised because they do not incur the empty reward that is excess money and status and where the clamouring illusion of worldly success has drowned out the hidden value of the interior life, the invisible and unhailed value of simple goodness.
Hence the epidemic of “mental health” problems and negative emotion with which our society has become awash.
I don’t believe that there is anything that can remove, or impede, human capacity except, perhaps, authoritarian regimes that would stifle and police freedom of thought.

Last edited 1 year ago by opop anax
Deb Grant
Deb Grant
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

There’s often great camaraderie – lots of chat and banter during factory work – but sadly automation is making people more sparse on factory floors, losing the opportunities for the socialisation aspect.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

“I know people who are happy to work in factories”
I hate the contempt that some people frequently voice for certain job roles as a marker for limited ambitions – “shelf stacker in a supermarket”, “flipping burger in Macdonalds”. It just shows they are snobs and/or socialists.

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

Orwell’s development did not stop at ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. There is a danger in removing the context from which he was writing and applying to today. What he did with Down & Out, Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia was radical and had been little done before in literature. He actually went and sought the experiences. He forced himself. He knew how much he was conditioned by his background and upbringing and it is to his credit how hard he worked at correcting and rebalancing that.
His concerns about the intelligentsia’s disconnection and the potential for working class to be pulled by populism were both valid, and arguably still are.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  j watson

I’m forced to read your posts and will feel obliged to object if we differ substantially. Nothing to complain about here.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  j watson

I’m forced to read your posts and will feel obliged to object if we differ substantially. Nothing to complain about here.

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

Orwell’s development did not stop at ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. There is a danger in removing the context from which he was writing and applying to today. What he did with Down & Out, Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia was radical and had been little done before in literature. He actually went and sought the experiences. He forced himself. He knew how much he was conditioned by his background and upbringing and it is to his credit how hard he worked at correcting and rebalancing that.
His concerns about the intelligentsia’s disconnection and the potential for working class to be pulled by populism were both valid, and arguably still are.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago

What on earth is the point of this article? And who wrote the headline?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

Indeed. The author “writes about French history and literature”. Perhaps he’s seeking to escape his own clichĂ©.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Richard 0
Richard 0
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Would strongly recommend the author’s book, ‘The Discovery of France’ Superb piece of writing.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard 0

I’d like to second the recommendation for The Discovery of France. It’s a brilliant book, one of my favourites, and well worth reading.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard 0

I’d like to second the recommendation for The Discovery of France. It’s a brilliant book, one of my favourites, and well worth reading.

Richard 0
Richard 0
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Would strongly recommend the author’s book, ‘The Discovery of France’ Superb piece of writing.

John 0
John 0
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

If one is trying to turn London into a global centre of finance shenanigans, one must attack and discredit the out-of-town critics. Maybe that is the motivation behind the sources described in this interesting history.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

Indeed. The author “writes about French history and literature”. Perhaps he’s seeking to escape his own clichĂ©.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
John 0
John 0
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

If one is trying to turn London into a global centre of finance shenanigans, one must attack and discredit the out-of-town critics. Maybe that is the motivation behind the sources described in this interesting history.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago

What on earth is the point of this article? And who wrote the headline?

John Williams
John Williams
1 year ago

In the road to Wigan Pier Orwell observed that if only the working class smelled less unpleasantly  class differences would disappear.
I first read this in 1976 and even back then I couldn’t help thinking that my local chemist and some retailers were selling various fragrances of deodorant and that the smell shaming adverts for Lifebuoy soap which targeted working class body odour, (the ads were mainly of people in work, such as the one of a strap hanger on the tube having his/her armpits sniffed at in disgust by a fellow traveller) had already bitten deeply into our consciousness. Yet the class system still prevailed. 
I can only think that now many people have bathrooms that not only have showers but are bursting at the seams with myriad toiletries, that would have had Cleopatra drooling with envy as she bathed in smelly old asses milk, that the class war is over.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  John Williams

Coincidentally enough, from Anthony & Cleopatra (Act 1, Scene 4) comes the line:

“knaves that smell of sweat”

John Williams
John Williams
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes indeed.
Cleopatra
Now, Iras, what think’st thou? 
Thou an Egyptian puppet shalt be shown 
In Rome, as well as I. Mechanic slaves 
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall 
Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths, 
255
Rank of gross diet, shall be enclouded, 
And forced to drink their vapor.

John Williams
John Williams
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yes indeed.
Cleopatra
Now, Iras, what think’st thou? 
Thou an Egyptian puppet shalt be shown 
In Rome, as well as I. Mechanic slaves 
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall 
Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths, 
255
Rank of gross diet, shall be enclouded, 
And forced to drink their vapor.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago
Reply to  John Williams

Does make me think about Gordon Comstock’s advertising campaign for foot deodorant in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This was still going on up to the 1980s/1990s with Hands up if you use Right Guard – Hands down if you don’t!

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  John Williams

No, the class war is still on, but not between ‘bodies’ but ‘minds’ these days, though still a favourite leftist insult is ‘little man’ which refers to the allegedly ‘stunted’ nature of working-class growth (the Frost Report sketch about the heights of the different classes resulting from differences in their diets was then spot on). These days obesity (as well as ‘smoking’) is the commonest noticeable prejudice-attracting marker, though usually masquerading as a concern about ‘health outcomes’ – the working classes are supposedly ‘greedy’ and ‘incontinent’).

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  John Williams

Coincidentally enough, from Anthony & Cleopatra (Act 1, Scene 4) comes the line:

“knaves that smell of sweat”

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago
Reply to  John Williams

Does make me think about Gordon Comstock’s advertising campaign for foot deodorant in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This was still going on up to the 1980s/1990s with Hands up if you use Right Guard – Hands down if you don’t!

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  John Williams

No, the class war is still on, but not between ‘bodies’ but ‘minds’ these days, though still a favourite leftist insult is ‘little man’ which refers to the allegedly ‘stunted’ nature of working-class growth (the Frost Report sketch about the heights of the different classes resulting from differences in their diets was then spot on). These days obesity (as well as ‘smoking’) is the commonest noticeable prejudice-attracting marker, though usually masquerading as a concern about ‘health outcomes’ – the working classes are supposedly ‘greedy’ and ‘incontinent’).

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
John Williams
John Williams
1 year ago

In the road to Wigan Pier Orwell observed that if only the working class smelled less unpleasantly  class differences would disappear.
I first read this in 1976 and even back then I couldn’t help thinking that my local chemist and some retailers were selling various fragrances of deodorant and that the smell shaming adverts for Lifebuoy soap which targeted working class body odour, (the ads were mainly of people in work, such as the one of a strap hanger on the tube having his/her armpits sniffed at in disgust by a fellow traveller) had already bitten deeply into our consciousness. Yet the class system still prevailed. 
I can only think that now many people have bathrooms that not only have showers but are bursting at the seams with myriad toiletries, that would have had Cleopatra drooling with envy as she bathed in smelly old asses milk, that the class war is over.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

Yet again I will point out that there is no ‘national’ border between England and Scotland (the UK is a Union of Monarchies, hence the name: United Kingdom, not a Union of States). It is possible to cross the ‘Scottish border’ without even being aware of it (ditto the ‘Welsh border’). No tolls, no differing ‘customs’ regulations for each side, no guards, no weapons no fences or barbed wire. The only place the actual lines of the border can be discerned is on a map.
What the Borders are is ‘delimiters of political institutions which vary locally between the two ‘parts’ of geographical Great Britain’ (councils, police forces, NHS regions etc. – in fact the NHS isn’t really ‘national’ either – it should really be called the ‘State Health Service’, which is much more accurate).

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

Yet again I will point out that there is no ‘national’ border between England and Scotland (the UK is a Union of Monarchies, hence the name: United Kingdom, not a Union of States). It is possible to cross the ‘Scottish border’ without even being aware of it (ditto the ‘Welsh border’). No tolls, no differing ‘customs’ regulations for each side, no guards, no weapons no fences or barbed wire. The only place the actual lines of the border can be discerned is on a map.
What the Borders are is ‘delimiters of political institutions which vary locally between the two ‘parts’ of geographical Great Britain’ (councils, police forces, NHS regions etc. – in fact the NHS isn’t really ‘national’ either – it should really be called the ‘State Health Service’, which is much more accurate).

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
1 year ago

Fabulous article and I’m ordering the book now.
Agree fully about the venality of current politicians, surely Bojo is an outlier (or is that outliar?( we can’t get worse, can we?

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
1 year ago

Fabulous article and I’m ordering the book now.
Agree fully about the venality of current politicians, surely Bojo is an outlier (or is that outliar?( we can’t get worse, can we?

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 year ago

Wigan is of course an inland town, but its council put up a pier on the canal, because people kept expecting to see one. Anyway, a quarter of a century ago, I suddenly realised quite what it was to be from the North or the Midlands in the South, or at a Southern outpost even as far north as Durham. Bless him, and it was not his fault, but I remember how an exact contemporary of mine, from exactly the same background including a comprehensive school, was treated as stratospherically posher because he was from the South

Now, I am not knocking God’s Own University. I held a staff card and email address there until 2018, 21 years after my matriculation. And I am still very much around the place. One of its most senior figures recently described me as “family”, and introduced me to a very distinguished visitor as, “Once of the last links to the gentler old Durham.” It was a good thing that it gave my 20-year-old self a class consciousness that I had never previously had, but which I have never lost. That would be downright preposterous to most people who met me in ordinary life. It would have been then, and it would be now, but here we are.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Lindsay
David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 year ago

Wigan is of course an inland town, but its council put up a pier on the canal, because people kept expecting to see one. Anyway, a quarter of a century ago, I suddenly realised quite what it was to be from the North or the Midlands in the South, or at a Southern outpost even as far north as Durham. Bless him, and it was not his fault, but I remember how an exact contemporary of mine, from exactly the same background including a comprehensive school, was treated as stratospherically posher because he was from the South

Now, I am not knocking God’s Own University. I held a staff card and email address there until 2018, 21 years after my matriculation. And I am still very much around the place. One of its most senior figures recently described me as “family”, and introduced me to a very distinguished visitor as, “Once of the last links to the gentler old Durham.” It was a good thing that it gave my 20-year-old self a class consciousness that I had never previously had, but which I have never lost. That would be downright preposterous to most people who met me in ordinary life. It would have been then, and it would be now, but here we are.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Lindsay
Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

Orwell saw clearly and wrote what he saw. You might not like it – many readers didn’t – but that’s because the truth is sometimes disagreeable. He didn’t invent the clogs any more than he invented the dirty fingerprint on the sandwich his landlord gave him.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

Orwell saw clearly and wrote what he saw. You might not like it – many readers didn’t – but that’s because the truth is sometimes disagreeable. He didn’t invent the clogs any more than he invented the dirty fingerprint on the sandwich his landlord gave him.

Jonathan Sidaway
Jonathan Sidaway
1 year ago

Maurice Cowling said more snappily that GO was slumming it. Orwell good on the commies, but otherwise overrated.

Jonathan Sidaway
Jonathan Sidaway
1 year ago

Maurice Cowling said more snappily that GO was slumming it. Orwell good on the commies, but otherwise overrated.

John Baxendale
John Baxendale
1 year ago

This is a excellent article about Priestley’s English Journey. I have also written about EJ in books and articles (look them up) and I’m delighted to find Graham Robb, whose books about France I much admire, joining in. But the headline, and most of the comments, are about Orwell, which simply compounds the Orwell-obsession that bedevils English culture. English Journey is a far better book than Wigan Pier, for the reasons that Graham sets out. Its final chapter also offers a historical/economic analysis of where we’ve gone wrong – over centralisation, the dominance of City and Empire – which still rings true today. Which is more than Orwell does. Wigan Pier contains little real analysis, mainly description and rhetoric. But most of the commenters seem baffled that Robb is putting Priestley in the way of their Orwell-worship. We need to get over Orwell before we can move on.

John Baxendale
John Baxendale
1 year ago

This is a excellent article about Priestley’s English Journey. I have also written about EJ in books and articles (look them up) and I’m delighted to find Graham Robb, whose books about France I much admire, joining in. But the headline, and most of the comments, are about Orwell, which simply compounds the Orwell-obsession that bedevils English culture. English Journey is a far better book than Wigan Pier, for the reasons that Graham sets out. Its final chapter also offers a historical/economic analysis of where we’ve gone wrong – over centralisation, the dominance of City and Empire – which still rings true today. Which is more than Orwell does. Wigan Pier contains little real analysis, mainly description and rhetoric. But most of the commenters seem baffled that Robb is putting Priestley in the way of their Orwell-worship. We need to get over Orwell before we can move on.

Mr Bellisarius
Mr Bellisarius
1 year ago

[J.B. Priestly] believed that centralised government and national party politics were stifling democracy and that England should be divided into four, five or six partially self-governing “provinces”: “politics should be local, so that you can keep an eye on them”. 
Heaven knows what Priestly would have made of the UE. But one thing is for sure, if he had written that today in the Guardian’s comments section he would be identified as an ignorant, rascist, nationalist little Englander who is in desperate need of re-education.

Mr Bellisarius
Mr Bellisarius
1 year ago

[J.B. Priestly] believed that centralised government and national party politics were stifling democracy and that England should be divided into four, five or six partially self-governing “provinces”: “politics should be local, so that you can keep an eye on them”. 
Heaven knows what Priestly would have made of the UE. But one thing is for sure, if he had written that today in the Guardian’s comments section he would be identified as an ignorant, rascist, nationalist little Englander who is in desperate need of re-education.

Bob MacLean
Bob MacLean
1 year ago

“The Road to Wigan Pier” was presumably written, if perhaps not published, before Orwell went off the fight in the Spanish Civil War. When reading “Homage to Catalonia” I didn’t detect the snobbishness mentioned in this article and I wonder if his attitude changed when he was living and fighting with them on a day-to-day basis.

Bob MacLean
Bob MacLean
1 year ago

“The Road to Wigan Pier” was presumably written, if perhaps not published, before Orwell went off the fight in the Spanish Civil War. When reading “Homage to Catalonia” I didn’t detect the snobbishness mentioned in this article and I wonder if his attitude changed when he was living and fighting with them on a day-to-day basis.

Heidi Mahon
Heidi Mahon
1 year ago

I would say that the Northern working class stereotype themselves perfectly well without any help from anyone else and seem happy to do so,no where have I seen this more than in West Yorkshire where I have been working and living for the last 4 plus years and it is painful to observe

Heidi Mahon
Heidi Mahon
1 year ago

I would say that the Northern working class stereotype themselves perfectly well without any help from anyone else and seem happy to do so,no where have I seen this more than in West Yorkshire where I have been working and living for the last 4 plus years and it is painful to observe

Harry Bo
Harry Bo
1 year ago

Good article.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Ay.. jist cuz’ arz a pigeon fancier nt’ run mi whippets ont’ yon hares…

Indra Fms
Indra Fms
1 year ago

Wonderful information
Thanks

Indra Fms
Indra Fms
1 year ago

Wonderful information
Thanks