In 1933, amid the depths of a worldwide depression, the English writer J.B. Priestley set out to explore the condition of his native land, from the unspoiled serenity of the Cotswolds to the grimy coal pits of East Durham. ''English Journey,'' published the following year and reissued now, half a century later, provides a richly observant, fascinating record of the way things were, along with the steady undertone of Priestley's ruminations on what was then ''modern England.'' The University of Chicago Press's Jubilee Edition of this readable book contains the bonus of 80 period photographs, the work of such gifted photographers as Bill Brandt, Edwin Smith, Humphrey Spender, and Reece Winstone, as well as unattributed pictures that are quite as impressive.
The British Broadcasting Company chose to commemorate Priestley's journey by asking the writer Beryl Bainbridge to follow (more or less) in his footsteps and record her journey for television. (As times change, so too the medium of first resort.) Bainbridge found that: The very things that Mr. Priestley deplored and which in part have been swept away, ''the huddle of undignified little towns, the drift of smoke, the narrow streets that led from one dreariness to another,'' were the very things I lamented. Show me another motorway, I thought, another shopping precinct, another acre of improved environment and I shall pack up and go home.
Anyone who has seen that clumsy mixture of muddy gray cement and garishly colored, unidentifiable building materials which makes up a large portion of contemporary British architecture will sympathize with Bainbridge's reaction. The road to Milton Keynes, the most famous of the so-called planned cities built in the '60s, may have been paved with good intentions, but the result is lifeless and sterile - a symbol, Bainbridge feels, of the way things are. Her briskly written, sharply sardonic account of her England is as compelling as Priestley's chronicle of his. But there are some important differences between the two.
Both know the temptations of nostalgia. Priestley admires the old ways: craftsmanship, individualism, and a sense of tradition, yet he is no William Morris romantic. Merrie Old England, he hastens to remind us, seems a lot merrier in retrospect. The England of his day supported a larger, better-educated, healthier population, which was safer from civil war and political and religious persecution than in the past. If the old Arcadia was as wonderful as traditionalists have claimed, he asks, why did so many peasants and small-town people flock to the factories? Yet Priestley is disturbed by the dark specter of industrial pollution spreading like a blight over England's green and pleasant land, and is still more distressed by the poverty and social injustice he has witnessed. He concludes his ''English Journey'' with a rousingly patriotic peroration filled with righteous indignation and the good old fighting spirit:
Let us be too proud ... to refuse shelter to exiled foreigners, too proud to do dirty little tricks because other people can stoop to them, too proud to lose an inch of our freedom, too proud, even if it beggars us, to tolerate social injustice here, too proud to suffer anywhere in this country an ugly mean way of living....
Bainbridge's narrative is permeated by a tone that sounds, alas, far more familiar to our ears: petulance and complaint. In her travels, she does encounter much that is worthy of complaint: industrial pollution, commericalism, unemployment, dying industries, rampant racism, and the proliferation of nuclear waste materials. But she seems almost as dismayed by a woman asking her to put out her cigarette in a train.
Following Priestley on his travels, the reader is struck by his energy and gusto, whether he is relishing the kingly comforts of a modern long-distance bus (''voluptuous, sybaritic ... motor coach''!), wondering at the skill of Wedgwood potters, or assailing the unfairness of a society in which the decent, hardworking men and women of Lancashire are reduced to abject poverty.
Following Bainbridge and her television crew on their frantic peregrinations, the reader is overcome by a feeling of exhaustion. While Priestley has long talks with miners, shipbuilders, and mill workers, Bainbridge's coverage of each stop is rushed and skimpy. Everything seems like too much trouble; nothing is worth the effort. Even the magic of the potteries holds no charm for her. Where Priestley had begged to try the wheel, Bainbridge shrinks from the idea:
The young man sat on a stool gripping the wheel between his thighs, splattering everyone with clay. There had been some talk of my attempting the same thing but I ran. The whole thing, the position, the action of shaping the pot was too suggestive for my liking.
Is this the spirit that made England great? What, if anything, might we make of the contrast between Priestley's lumbering grandeur and Bainbridge's fussy pettishness? The poor woman is even cynical about the simple, unalloyed pleasures offered at the Station Hotel.
Not only does Bainbridge seem peevish in comparison with the hearty Priestley; she even comes off as petulant in comparison with Paul Theroux, whose recent account of his English journey, ''Kingdom by the Sea,'' has been criticized as hypercritical and carping. But Theroux's attitude seems more a reflection of what he sees than a projection of his personality: He is appalled in direct proportion to what is actually appalling.
One suspects that the malaise Bainbridge perceives on her English journey is connected with the frame of mind she shares with many of her fellow Britons. Are Bainbridge and her countrymen despondent because England is in a rut, or is England in a rut because its people feel so despondent? It says a lot about the current state of affairs that Bainbridge expresses nostalgia not for Merrie England, nor for the Englands of Fielding, Austen, or Dickens, nor for the Edwardian England beloved of Angus Wilson, but, irony of ironies, for Priestley's depressed, smoke-darkened England of the 1930s.