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England’s dreaming

Penguin’s new series of travelogues is rooted in a semi-mythical vision of rural Britain, and overlo

In 1934, J B Priestley published a travel book called English Journey. In the next decade it was so widely read as to become one of those semi-mythical books that “won the ’45 election for Labour” – a sharp, populist, politely angry account of a deliberate attempt to look England in the face, from Southampton to Newcastle.

The bulk of Priestley’s account was urban – this being where the overwhelming majority of the English lived. At the end of this survey of a country torn between north and south, rich and poor, Priestley listed the three Englands that he had encountered.

The first, the countryside, was an area which had “long since ceased to make its own living”, pretty in its desuetude, if overpreserved. The second was that of the Industrial Revolution, of iron, brick, smokestacks and back-to-backs, more “real” than the first but ruthlessly inhumane towards its inhabitants; and a third, commercial world of arterial roads, Tudorbethan suburbia, shiny factories and cinemas, cheap and ersatz, but without the brutality of the second.

Since Priestley’s book, we could add a fourth and fifth England – the country of the postwar settlement, of council estates, Arndales and campus universities; and the post-1979 England of business parks, Barratt homes, out-of-town shopping and distribution centres.

It is this fifth England that was documented in a strange sequel to Priestley’s English Journey, the artist Andrew Cross’s 2004 project An English Journey.

Like Priestley, Cross started in Southampton, but at the container port. The film traces the journey of a shipping container to Manchester, along motorways, running along a landscape of monotonous green and grey, only stopping to visit DIRFT, the vast distribution centre near Rugby that is roughly equidistant from all major urban centres in Britain.

The lorry travels through a world of gigantic, practically formless structures: white, windowless, rectilinear, a biz­arre dream-nightmare of modernist architecture reduced to its purest elements.

For Cross, the journey is blank where Priestley was loquacious, silent where he was critical. It is a quietly chilling work.

Both travelogues are markedly absent from Penguin’s collection of short, pocket-sized books English Journeys. Despite the title, surely at least subliminally inspired by Priestley, these are all about a very specific England: “England One”, the countryside.

The press release claims that “this series is a chance to rediscover the English countryside and all that accompanies it” – but in the process, it effaces the England in which most people live.

The thing about this country is that, in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, it “broke most radically with all previous ages of human history”. This was, by the mid-19th century, the only country in the world with more urban than rural inhabitants.

Even now, after a century of sentimentalism about the countryside, about 90 per cent of us live in urban areas, and though roughly 70 per cent of the land mass is still agricultural land, only 300,000 people actually work it.

Remarkably, the English Journeys series, with the exception of Celia Fiennes’s 17th-century journals, is made up entirely of 19th- and 20th-century works, the very period when the countryside “ceased to earn its own living”.

They do offer some clues as to why this is so. There is only one of these slim books that has any obvious political axe to grind – From Dover to the Wen, a despatch from William Cobbett’s Rural Rides.

Cobbett is a remarkable and odd writer, a sort of proto-blogger, whose notes veer suddenly from descriptions of landscape to cranky proofs of the existence of God, to satirical dialogues, to ferocious class war calls-to-arms. Published in 1830, these are documents of a dying world, and Cobbett seems to know it.

Although he is firmly in favour of agricultural England and the old verities, and loathes London (the “wen”, or wart, on the country’s face), he is also a strange kind of revolutionary. In one passage, he mocks the fortifications along the coast thrown up during the Napoleonic Wars as a means of scaring the English out of revolution; and, throughout, he favourably contrasts insurgent France to the England of capital and crown.

And where others would find an untouched paradise (see the Wordsworths’ Life at Grasmere, a celebration of a barren, unproductive landscape that would have mortified the workerist Cobbett), he finds a brutalised world of half-starved labourers. Rural workers revolted for the last time in the year Rural Rides was published, in the Swing Riots that convulsed southern England.

The country houses of the period, sets for interminable BBC costume dramas of today, are the object of Cobbett’s great scorn: pretentious painted façades, displaying to the outside world that the inhabitants do not have to work, and have only minimal connection with the land.

So, it is instructive to follow Cobbett in the series with another journal, James Lees-Milne’s Some Country Houses and their Owners, extracts from the voluminous diaries of the man charged by the National Trust with the job of convincing the stately home proprietors to sign away their piles.

This is an arch and often hilarious document, the entries written mostly under the postwar Attlee government, nemesis of aristos and industrialists.

If Cobbett’s journals record the death of the rural working class, Lees-Milne’s show at least the terminal decline of the upper class. Many of those he interviews fulminate against high taxes or rationing, while one even shamelessly admits to Nazi sympathies; Lees-Milne himself believes that a Labour government signals rule by “the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, enemies of all things beautiful. How I detest democracy.” Here, the book’s editor, Michael Bloch, interjects on the “class-war vindictiveness” of the Attlee years, and its unforgivable favouring of people over property.

Although it is ritual to lament the “concreting over of the countryside”, the National Trust and English Heritage now protect a huge inventory of land and buildings. The current head of the trust, Simon Jenkins, has his own entry in English Journeys as gazetteer of Country Churches.

While Lees-Milne allows himself a level of discrimination, mocking some of the houses that he visits and loving others, Jenkins’s lack of aesthetic nous is remarkable. Everything is always “excellent”, altarpieces invariably “masterpieces”. His architectural writing is so indebted to Nikolaus Pevsner, the German author of The Buildings of England, that he sometimes writes in tortuous Teutonic English, using Pevsnerian formulations such as “perpendicular also are the windows”.

But where Pevsner also loved modernist villas and council estates, Jenkins can barely discuss a church without bemoaning any modern building in its vicinity.

Thus, we have a series of “journeys”, focused on a semi-mythical England, with no Pylon poet, no Ian Nairn or Iain Sinclair allowed to sully the view.

The England we live in is largely uncharted.

As a now mainly rural Conservative Party is likely to win the next election by default, the myths of rural England urgently need debunking, but these English journeys are more about escape from an urban country in deep crisis.

Lie back and think of England.

The Penguin English Journeys series is available now in 20 volumes, priced £4.99 each