DCSIMG

Going write back to 1933

IF you do not like industrial democracy, you will not like Blackpool. I know people who would have to go into a nursing home after three hours of it. (In the season, of course.) I am not one of those people.

These words of John Boynton Priestley still resonate today, 75 years since first published in a book which changed the social, political and literary landscape and was hailed for its unflinching description of a land, particularly the north, gripped by depression.

The Blackpool of 1933 is featured in his book, English Journey, which is being reissued on Monday to commemorate the anniversary of what became an instant best seller.

The town wasn't so very different to Blackpool today, a resort giving the region what it craved the most, escape from workaday (and unemployment) woes.

Into this realm, where poverty of spirit walked hand in glove with economic despair, strolled one of the greatest playwrights of any age.

JB Priestley died 25 years ago. His novels include The Good Companions. His plays are still performed today – When We Are Married, An Inspector Calls, the titles cherished by strolling players of today's world, modern repertory companies and amateur dramatic companies.

You can see them at the Grand Theatre or at the local church hall. And on telly. Alistair Sim's Inspector in 1954 was as memorable as his Scrooge.

Similar writers, Priestley and Charles Dickens. Social commentators. Neither much cared for Blackpool yet both revelled in it.

Back in 1933 JB put his fiction aside and embarked on a quest. To discover the English, where they lived, what made them tick, part pilgrimage, part self-discovery.

His son Tom lives with that legacy today. He's just revisited the region to spread the word of his famous father's work to a new readership.

"The similarities are quite startling," he adds.

His father's trip to Blackpool came when the cotton industry was in decline, the resort providing a the great escape for Lancastrians.

JB wrote: "It is entitled to some respect because it has amply and triumphantly succeeded in doing what it set out to do.

"Nature presented it with very bracing air and a quantity of flat firm sand; and nothing else. There is no less charmingly situated resort anywhere. Its citizens must have realised at once that charm and exclusiveness were not for them and their town.

"They decided immediately to make a move in the opposite direction. They would turn it into a pleasure resort for the crowd, and especially the Lancashire crowd from the cotton mills. Blackpool should give them what they wanted, and make no bones about it, Blackpool did."

Even in today's saturated travel market, English Journey remains the definitive travel book, expressed with a beauty of which Bill Bryson, who loathed the resort, can only dream.

It's launched on Friday, prior to publication by Great Northern Books, with some of our finest writers arguing for its continued relevance.

Priestley's pitstop here found Blackpool out of season and the great man out of sorts nursing what could have been a hangover from Manchester, which had the "best newspaper and best orchestra" in the land.

The journey did little to raise his spirits. "Between Manchester and Bolton the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there."

Lancastrian working folk had accepted that challenge. "They are on active service, and like the frontline troops, they make a lot of little jokes and sing comic songs."

He wrote of the Fylde's "flat and characterless countryside".

"All the roads suddenly become very straight and wide and display vulgar advertisements because they, like you, are going to Blackpool.

"Even if you did not intend to go to Blackpool, once you had got beyond Preston you would have to go there. These roads would suck you into Blackpool. That is what they are there for. There is no

escape."

The bracing sea air lifted his headache, and blasted recycled city air from his lungs, giving him his first decent night's sleep, 11 hours, for weeks.

"Blackpool the resort was dead," he wrote. "Even the residential town, of a considerable size, was moribund. Only the weather was awake, and that was tremendously alive.

"The sea roared in the deep dusk and sent sheets of spray over the glistening wet railings and seats. And this was, for the time being, all the Blackpool I wanted."

Republishing his father's work has proved a labour of love for his son.

Tom admits he never knew how close they were, in social awareness terms, until he re-read English Journey from the distance of many years, long after his father's death.

Priestley's First World War letters and several of his Second World War BBC Postscripts broadcasts were published for the first time in a new biographical work, Priestley's Wars, last year.

"I never traded on my father's name," says Tom, who made his own way as a film editor, even if he has reinstated the cuts made from the first edition of English Journey.

"My father, a self-avowed middle brow, wrote with amazing clarity and conscience," he adds. "He was a man who had been defined, but not ruined, by his terrible experiences in the First World War.

"He was totally independent, left of centre, and although he spoke up for socialism, he distrusted politics. He travelled through a land where social deprivation had escalated beyond belief. He had a intuitive gift of understanding how people felt and expressed it for them.

"I think his non-fiction is his strongest writing, for all the power of his plays.

"So much of what he writes is amazingly applicable today. So many of my views correspond with his. But he expressed them beautifully."

Priestley's respect for Lancastrians shone through: "Life for the common folk has never been easy. The men are tough, the women are tougher still. (I suspect that it is really the women who keep Lancashire going.)

"But what is surprising about them, where they chiefly differ from working folk elsewhere in the North, is that with their grimly realistic outlook and brutal speech they combine a gaiety of their own, a zest for pleasure, sheer gusto."

A scrapbook, kept by the publishers, of the original marketing campaign came to light recently, including a response from the Blackpool Gazette and Herald.

The reviewer praised Priestley's honesty in depicting the lives of people, and noted he

"always had a heart to sympathise in their troubles and to rejoice in their achievements."

The book would be of "great historical value," he concluded.

* English Journey by JB Priestley (Great

Northern Books, 25). ISBN: 9781905080472) .

jacqui.morley@blackpoolgazette.co.uk

 
 
 

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