This week I discovered Vincent Lam, a thirty-three-year-old emergency physician in Toronto who somehow found the time to write a very fine debut short-story collection. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which was published in the UK in March and in Canada in 2006, is a set of loosely interlinked stories that follow a group of young doctors from the trials and ideals of med school to the drama and disillusionment of the emergency room. Along the way Lam covers the 2003 SARS crisis, the ethics of police brutality and alcohol abuse in the medical profession. One of Lam’s first fans was Margaret Atwood, whom he met while serving as a doctor on an Arctic cruise ship, and who advised him on early drafts. Lam is now completing a novel based on his family’s experiences as part of Vietnam’s expatriate Chinese community. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Next year Great Northern Books publishes a seventy-fifth anniversary edition of J. B. Priestley’s An English Journey. I’ve just finished reading a slightly mildewed Heinemann/Gollancz edition and am thoroughly charmed. The year that George Orwell published Down and Out in Paris and London, Priestley set off by car and motor coach in a similar spirit of social investigation. A lively writer with a sharp eye for detail, Priestley finds an England of factories, potteries, provincial theatres and dole queues. There are endless cups of tea. There’s engaging banter about faintly sinister new crazes such as ‘hiking’, and faintly sinister old ones such as the hunting of foxes. But behind the humour lies the constant spectre of social inequality: rich bankers and decaying industrial towns; spruce City men and impoverished mining villages. ‘What,’ Priestley asks, ‘had the City done for its old ally, the industrial North? It seemed to have done what the black-moustached glossy gentlemen in the old melodramas always did to the innocent village maiden.’ Sadly, this is as true today as it was in 1934.
An English Journey provides a fascinating snapshot of the regional distinctions and variations that made up England in the 1930s. The book also witnesses the start of the sprawling homogeneousness that defines much of the country today. Complaining of growing political apathy or the deadening rise of consumerism, Priestley sounds as much like a twenty-first century pundit as a man who fought in the First World War. However, his delighted description of a ‘voluptuous’ public motor-coach reminds one that Priestley lived in an era before the National Express became a fact of English life.
Photograph by Sal Greenhalgh