As it's summer, my thoughts turn to travel, and having enjoyed a couple of travel magazines recently, I seem to have ended up reading a number of travel books. I love travel books about England, both reading interpretations of places that I have been to and know well, and also reading descriptions of places that I know only from books and the newspapers. It makes me think of holidays too. I love both new travel books and old travel books, and today I'm going to mention four that have crossed my reading path in the last week or so.
First up, English Journey by J.B. Priestley. I've just got my hands on a new, 75th anniversary edition of a book that I first discovered as part of my history degree. This is a lovely re-issue, much nicer than the tatty library copy I read first, and includes a number of "extras" - forewords and introductions and scene setting by a number of notable people including Roy Hattersley, Margaret Drabble, Nina Bawden, Beryl Bainbridge, among others, so it is well worth having this edition. The book is the story of Priestley's journey around England in 1934, which really captures the essence of inter-war England. The trip covers Southampton to Norwich via Swindon and the Cotswolds, Birmingham and Leicester, Yorkshire and the Potteries, Lancashire and Teesside, and ending up in Lincoln and East Anglia.
This final famous passage really sums up the book and his travels:
"Southampton to Newcastle, Newcastle to Norwich: memories rose like milk coming to the boil. I had seen England. I had seen a lot of Englands. How many? At once, three disengaged themselves from the shifting mass. There was first, Old England, the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of parson and Squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways England…
"Then, I decided, there is the nineteenth-century England, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways; of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined watering-places, Pier Pavilions, Family and Commercial Hotels, Literary and Philosophical Societies, back-to-back houses, detached villas with monkey-trees, Grill Rooms, railway stations, slag-heaps and ‘tips’, dock roads, Refreshment Rooms, doss-houses, Unionist or Liberal Clubs, cindery waste ground, mill chimneys, slums, fried-fish shops, public-houses with red blinds, bethels in corrugated iron, good-class draper’s and confectioners’ shops, a cynically devastated countryside, sooty dismal little towns, and still sootier grim fortress-like cities. This England makes up the larger part of the Midlands and the North and exists everywhere; but it is not been added to and has no new life poured into it…
"The third England, I concluded, was the new post-war England, belonging far more to the age itself than to this particular island. America, I supposed, was its real birthplace. This is the England of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons.’
My second book is another historical travel book, H.V. Morton's In search of England. This has been sitting with my other books for a while, despite being a TBR, and after last week's exercise in beginning to examine my TBRs I decided to read it rather than move it! This was published in 1927, after Morton made a journey around England by car in 1926, and is an absolutely fascinating insight into the England of the time. Morton had been away from England for some years, and highlights the differences between 1926, and the England he knew as a boy, which makes for another interesting contrast alongside the England described in the book and the England we know today. This lovely recent edition has a new introduction by Jan Morris.
I then read Mustn't grumble, a recent book which traces H.V. Morton's steps - actually, finding this in the library was another prompt to get out the Morton book. Joe Bennett had been living in New Zealand for 15 years when he came back to make this trip. However, I found this book somewhat disappointing, as he didn't stick very much to Morton's route or agenda, and I was left wondering really whether the book was more about his attempt to come to terms with the changes in England whilst he had been absent.
A much better modern book about England was the final port of call on my travelogue-a-thon: Stuart Maconie's Adventures on the High teas. I read his first book about a year ago, Pies and Prejudice, which was a study of the North of England trying to find out what is cliche and what is fact. This book was a study of England with regard to the middle classes and what constitutes middle England, so it is as much a book about class and English society as it is about travel (although, I think it would be fair to say that about any of these four books). I liked the way Maconie looked at various hallmarks of middle-class-ness, such as music, and films and poetry. We visit Jane Austen's Bath, David Brent's Slough, and a whole host of other places in England to illustrate his themes. An engaging comforting read.
Do any of the rest of you read travel books? Do you prefer to read books about places that you've been to or places that you would like to go? One of my very favourite travel books is the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Devon and Cornwall because it reminds me of many of the places that I know and love. More on another couple of Cornish books in the next week or so.
Gold of the Great Steppe at the Fitzwilliam Museum
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