English Journey: Beryl Bainbridge

Place explored through a personal selection of the lives, novels, art, architecture, poetry and history inspired by England's industrial era.​

In the Autumn of 1983 Beryl Bainbridge undertook an English Journey in commemoration of JB Priestley’s celebrated 1933 tour of depression era England. Bainbridge’s whirlwind tour occupies a brief 158 pages, compared to Priestley’s 422-page audit. But then, Bainbridge was not to know that she was witnessing more profound change than Priestley. He was simply witnessing a pause in industrialization, while she was recording the early days of transition to a post-industrial society. A profound change few understood at the time, and few understand 40 years on from the publication of Bainbridge’s book. Many saw the discarding of old industries as careless at best, and brutal at worst. ‘New technologies’ had only just begun their onward march through capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’. 

Beryl Bainbridge started her journey in Southampton, then on through the south west to the midlands, the north west, Bradford, and the north east, returning through York, Lincoln and Norwich to her final destination of Milton Keynes.

She encounters bewilderment, good cheer, and resentment. At one point she cries out in anguish, ‘Someone’s murdered Liverpool and got away with it.’ (104). But, bitterness is not Bainbridge’s chosen lens; rather it is humour and tolerance. She understood that society in 1983 was different from Priestley’s time, but saw these differences as a result of ‘substitution not alteration’. (8) Who could then foresee the destruction of unity of purpose that followed in the wake of the mantra: ‘no such thing as society’?  Over lunch in Bradford, Pat Wall, the Labour Party militant, briefly touched upon this idea before the BBC recording schedule dragged Bainbridge on to Newcastle.

Beryl Bainbridge listens to people caught in the maelstrom of change; and she gives them voice. This is an account of people caught between worlds. 

Caesar from Planet of the Apes?

One of the beauties of her writing is her determination to speak her mind. When she visits the industrial model village of Saltaire Bradford, she comes across a revered statue of Titus Salt. ‘There’sa statue of Titus at the top of the main street. It’s not a very good one; he looks like Caesar in Planet of the Apes.’ (117)

She is not constricted by political affiliation, or ideology. In Birmingham, she visits Bourneville, the Cadbury model village, and then, the council built and run high-rise development at Castle Vale. She writes, ‘I wouldn’t fancy living in one of those top-floor flats. Not without wings. If I had to choose between private patronage and State Welfare, Bourneville versus Castle Vale, I know what it would be, even if it meant dropping a curtsey and signing the pledge.’ (65)

Hugh Marsh (2020) said Bainbridge was brought up in a ‘Down on their luck middle class family’, an actress in 1960’s, who was good at writing characters whose world view was formed in a previous era.  Marsh asserts she was ‘out of step with feminism and was a writer of historical fiction, which at the time was not seen as being fashionable.’

Her honesty is refreshing and also troubling, but maybe that’s the point. In Bristol she shared tea and cigarettes with Desmond, a reggae lyricist. Afterwards she wrote, ‘I did feel he was different to me because of his colour. The feeling I had came from way back. Something to do with childhood or reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I wasn’t ashamed of it. Just cowardly about mentioning it on television when the words might have come out wrong. Suddenly felt a million miles away from him because he was born in Jamaica and I in Liverpool’…And I wondered if he thought I was superior, or hateful – after all he had been conditioned just as I had.’ (44-45)

She does not censor her own failings and is forgiving of the foibles of others, the shop workers, miners, and factory workers she meets. In the Wills tobacco factory in Bristol ‘Everyone(s) out for the convalescence home’ (36-7), welcoming redundancy. Workers at Rolls Royce aircraft engine factory look forward to the introduction of ‘robots’ while others wonder when the robots take over ‘who will pay for the tickets’? (39) She sometimes returns to her hotel room, full of self-doubt, occasionally disorientated.

In Liverpool she passes the Playhouse Theatre where, in her youth, she trained to be an actress, recalling her dreams, mistakes, and missed opportunities. Above all, she recalls character and humour. ‘The stage manager (of the Playhouse) complained there was a fearful draught coming from the front of the house. ‘There’s nowt wrong,’ Maud said. It’s just the wind from the Gents.’ (91)

She is less forgiving of the rotting towns and cities. ‘No self-respecting dockside ever grew trees,’ (40) and she does not hold back from allocating blame ‘I could blame the Conservatives for greed, the Liberals for lack of confidence, the socialists for naivety and jumping on the bandwagon of progress. But it hardly matters now. It’s too late.’ (104) 

According to Sara Collins [2020] Bainbridge’s writing is ‘complex, swift, funny, biting.’ Collins talks of the ‘compression of her style – the reader needs to work things out.’

Is ‘English Journey’ itself caught between two narratives? Bainbridge refers to notes made as she filmed her journey for the BBC series – It can be read as a story board, or as a metaphor for these changing times of de-industrialisation, where it is enough for the ‘medium to be the message’. I prefer to think her gift was to allow people to speak, and for places to show themselves, encouraging us to look and to listen, and to think for ourselves.

Beryl Bainbridge (1984) English Journey. Duckworth/BBC

Sara Collins  (2020) Radio 4, ‘Open Book’ July 26th 

Hugh Marsh (2020) Radio 4, ‘Open Book’ July 26th 

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