It's the kind of episodic book that lends itself to returning to bit by bit. Priestley was a somewhat prickly character (I rather doubt that I'd have liked to join him on his travels) and a few of his opinions are pretty offensive (especially with regard to the Irish; I might get round to discussing that at some point).
However, the book is worth reading if only for the glimpses it gives of a 1930s England in the process of transformation; or, to put it more precisely (since all modern societies are always changing to one extent or another) in a particularly interesting historical moment of transformation.
In Priestley's personal perspective, one finds a mixture of ambiguity about the emergent, 'modern', 'Americanised' England (a combination of curiosity, wonder and fear) and a somewhat nostalgic look backward at an England in the process of disappearing.
There's an interesting passage that combines these perspectives, starting with a reflection on Priestley's own youth in Bradford and then using changes in that city to comment on the wider world situation in the 1930s. (I noted a citation of a sentence or two from this passage a few years ago, but it's more interesting in its complete form.)
It's rather long, but I think worth reading.
Bradford was, as Priestley puts it, 'always a city of travellers' affiliated with the worsted industries:
Some of its citizens went regularly to the other side of the globe to buy wool. Others went abroad, from Belgium to China, selling yarn and pieces. They returned to Market Street, the same sturdy Bradfordians, from the ends of the earth. You used to meet men who did not look as if they had ever been further than York or Morecambe, but who actually knew every continental express. They would go away from months, keeping to the most complicated time-tables. When they returned they did not give themselves cosmopolitan airs; it was very dangerous in Bradford to give yourself any airs, except those by tradition associated with solid wool men.
And then there was this curious leaven of intelligent aliens, chiefly German-Jews and mostly affluent. They were so much a part of the place when I was a boy that it never occurred to me to ask why they were there. I saw their outlandish names on office doors, knew that they lived in certain pleasant suburbs, and obscurely felt that they had always been with us and would always remain. That small colony of foreign or mixed Bradfordians produced some men of great distinction, including a famous composer, two renowned painters and a well-known poet. [...]
I can remember when one of the best-known clubs in Bradford was the Schillerverein. And in those days a Londoner was a stranger sight than a German. There was, then, this odd mixture in pre-war Bradford. A dash of the Rhine and the Oder found its way into our grim runnel—"t'mucky beck." Bradford was determinedly Yorkshire and provincial, yet some of its suburbs reached as far as Frankfort and Leipzig. It was odd enough. But it worked.
But the war changed all that. There is hardly a trace now in the city of that German-Jewish invasion. Some of the merchanting houses changed their names and personnel; others went out of business. I liked the city better as it was before, and most of my fellow Bradfordians agree with me. It seems smaller and duller now. I am not suggesting that these German-Jews were better men than we are. The point is that they were different, and brought more to the city than bank drafts and lists of customers. They acted as a leaven, just as a colony of typical West Riding folk would act as a leaven in Munich or Moscow.
These exchanges are good for everybody. Just lately, when we offered hospitality to some distinguished German-Jews who had been exiled by the Nazis, the leader-writers in the cheap Press began yelping again about Keeping the Foreigner Out. Apart from the miserable meanness of the attitude itself—for the great England, the England admired throughout the world, is the England that keeps open house, the refuge of Mazzini, Marx, Lenin—history shows us that the countries that have opened their doors have gained, just as the countries that have driven out large numbers of its citizens, for racial, religious or political reasons, have always paid dearly for their [in]tolerance.
It is one of the innumerable disadvantages of this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic, this age of passports and visas and quotas, when every country is as difficult to enter or leave as were the Czar's Russia or the Sultan's Turkey before the war, that it is no longer possible for this admirable leavening process to continue.
Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago. But so, I suspect, is the whole world. It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism. Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.
J.B. Priestley, English Journey (London: William Heinemann in association with Victor Gollancz, 1937 ), pp. 160-61.
You find a few nice turns of phrase in this passage that suggest why, apart from the social observations, Priestley is still worth reading.