Published in 1934, English Journey details JB Priestley’s 1933 tour of England, a trip commissioned by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz (who would later commission Orwell’s copycat travelogue, The Road to Wigan Pier), who was eager to expose the grim realities of working-class post-war Britain. Perhaps to Gollancz’s alarm, English Journey begins optimistically: it is with childish awe and excitement that Priestley observes the Ocean Liners at Southampton, comparing them to Medieval Cathedrals in the way that they are testament to the ambition and accomplishments of mankind.
But, as the days and miles pass, and as Priestley heads further North, away from the private clubs and champagne dinners of London, towards the industrial communities of the North, what begins as a seemingly sentimental jaunt around the country, quickly descends into a record of decimated neighbourhoods, impoverished individuals, and futures devoid of hope and comfort.
Thirteen years later, An Inspector Calls is performed on the London stage for the first time. English Journey, the experiences related in it, and the biographical insight it provides into the thoughts, motives, and political beliefs of its writer, bolster any contextual interrogation of An Inspector Calls and for those studying it at GCSE, I outline the following essential takeaways.
1.Priestley’s experience of the First World War informs his contempt for Mr Birling
In EJ, Priestley visits his hometown of Bradford for a reunion battalion dinner. The occasion prompts Priestley to remark that
The men who were boys when I was a boy are dead. Indeed, they never even grew to be men. They were slaughtered in their youth; and the parents of them have gone lonely, the girls they would have married have grown grey in spinsterhood, and the work they would have done has remained undone.
Priestley goes on to say that his childhood friends, victims of the war that killed so many, were ‘killed by greed…by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs.’ It’s tempting to think that Priestley’s relentless efforts to present Birling as an arsehole stem purely from a contempt for the ruling classes on an economic and political basis, but this suggests that Priestley’s contempt goes far beyond that. One gets the sense that for Priestley, men like Birling are not only responsible for the poverty and deprivation endured by the working classes in post-war Britain, but are also responsible for the slaughter of so many working class men in the first world war.
Priestley’s musings also invite us to look at the younger Birling male in a different light. Will Eric’s ‘public-school-and-Varsity-life’ protect him from the fate suffered by Priestley’s childhood pals? Or is the deplorable behaviour he exhibits in the play, a desperate attempt by Priestley to justify the inevitable fate that Eric will inevitably suffer, as a young man of Britain, in the ‘Great War’ that will begin two years after the play’s action ends.
2. Priestley knew the Midlands and he knew factories
Priestley’s decision to set the play in an ‘Industrial City in the North Midlands’ was based on an in-depth knowledge of the area and the processes of the factories within it. In EJ he describes how the landscape of the Midlands ‘unrolled before you like a smouldering carpet. You looked into an immense hollow of smoke and blurred buildings and factory chimneys. There seemed to be no end to it.’ Interestingly, considering the way they are presented in AIC, the factories that intruded upon the landscape of the Midlands and beyond impressed Priestley. He dedicates substantial amounts of ink to marvelling over the way factories produce typewriters, hosiery, and even chocolate. And yet, for all this, he is distinctly aware of the differing impacts of mechanisation on the lives of those who ran factories, like Birling, and factory workers, like Eva:
[there is] a great distinction between the fortunate few who are outside the machine and are capable of making changes in it, and the great mass of ordinary workpeople, mostly women, who are inside the machine, simply part of it. This distinction is so great that you feel that there two sets of people ought to belong to two different races.
Mr Birling (and the class for which he is a metonym) are outside the machine: he can raise prices and drop wages. He can forgive disruption and punish it. Eva, however, is someone inside the machine: a vital, but easily replaceable-and dispensable-cog. His observation that factory workers and factory owners are like people from ‘two different races’ explains the motivation behind Mrs Birling’s attempts to distance herself from Eva when she talks about ‘girls of that class.’
3. Priestley is an obsessive dramatist
AIC abounds in Stage Directions. In fact, Priestley’s fastidiousness in outlining exactly how he wants the play to look, the characters to talk, and the lines to be delivered may explain why productions of An Inspector Calls are so uniform in appearance and delivery. In the past, I have always theorised that Priestley’s meticulous approach is an indicator of his absolute determination to convey his message. But actually, EJ suggests that political motive isn’t the only thing driving force behind Priestley’s pedantic insistence on exactly how each line of the play should be delivered:
The theatre gets you. The play binds you, body and soul. There seems to be nothing else worth talking about…The whole life of the city, except so far as it touches your theatre, is nothing. You and your colleagues might be members of a secret society, working feverishly to strike a sudden blow at authority…The real questions are: “Will Bert manage that five seconds fade out all right?” and “Is Miss So-and-so going to get that move right at the end of Act Two?”
Priestley’s maddening technical attention to detail isn’t just about striking a blow against authority; it’s also inextricably linked to that ‘tide of excitement, sometimes roaming into hysteria, which inevitably rises when a play is being produced.” Priestley just wants to be perfect at something he loves. What’s clear in EJ is just how dependent he is on theatre as a means of escape. With every visit to a new town he discusses with verve and enthusiasm, the state of theatre in that particular location. It’s worth baring in mind this enthusiasm, when discussing AIC’s stage directions. They are the product of a political man, but also a political man with a hobby.
Priestley, JB (2018) English Journey, Great Northern: Bradford