Monday 28 June 2021

They walk in the city, by J.B. Priestley

In Greater London, a stone and brick forest nearly thirty miles long, thirty miles broad, eight million people eat and drink and sleep, wander among seven thousand miles of streets, pay their insurance money, send for the doctor, and die. 

 J.B. Priestley is expansive, leisured, omniscient; he measures 1930s London from the end of his pipe, the pipe of a Yorkshireman who likes to think of himself as lusty. They Walk in the City is a long, simple tale of Rose and Edward from Haliford (Halifax) who make their way to London out of love, missed rendezvous and lack of cell phones. He enacts their passage towards each other, he beds in, he conducts from his den. 

Edward finds his way in Willesden around backroad retail and letters home; Rose walks in the city, along the Strand, looking for London to detach itself from Haliford.

But when she reached Trafalgar Square, with its flutter of pigeons, its stone lions, its loiterers, London began to look more important, more itself and far less like Haliford. The huge grey pillars of the buildings did the trick. After waiting for a break in the traffic, which ran unreasonably to buses, she slipped across and made for Whitehall. A lot of importance, in weathered grey stone, all down there. Prime ministers and all that.  Rose did not care about them much. She might have known the names of two cabinet ministers, but beyond that could not have told you anything about the government, not even to which party it belonged. Politics were still to her something that men argued about with unnecessary noise and violence; one of their masculine fusses. She had no idea yet (but we must give her time) that anything that was said and done by political gentlemen behind those official-looking windows could possibly affect her own life.

They Walk in the City is 500 pages (soft, furry, almost wearable, paper). Reassuring to take a story this slow. We watched Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire last night. The same slow overview. Without judgement. With long moments of looking. J.B. in his den is looking into his head at his creatures, his figments, 'hand in hand, these children of our day'. The story pulls out of the magma of 1930s England, as Wings of Desire pulls out of, or hovers over and among, 1980s Berlin, looking at the city as it moves, rests, stalls, moves into colour.

What happens between Rose Salter, salt of Halifax and a beauty, and Edward Fielding, of Halifax also (far less detail about his physical charms), when they go down to London to seek and find and lose each other, is the scaffold for the times as understood by J.B. Priestley.

Rose and Edward finally meet up in London on page 361, after many unlikely twists and turns, and then have an afternoon and evening together, in which they are entertained by a couple of music hall magicians, go round the Egyptian rooms of the British Museum, and then, being children of their age, to the pictures.

There are another 150 pages of delayed closure, a couple of unlikely sidesteps involving corruption over the oil business in South America, and a wealthy woman of doubtful virtue in St John's Wood, all of which keeps Rose from Edward, until, reunited once more, just a few pages from the end, they are back on the next train to Halifax.

I enjoyed my stay. 1930s unease fits mine.

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