The English Provinces, 1760–1960. Donald Read. Arnold, 42s.
In 1855 Mrs Gaskell drew a comparison between the dynamic and thriving society of the North and the stagnant, feudal South. One hundred years later the Economist was to draw the opposite contrast: ‘What has the south of Britain got that the North really wants? Short answer: the economic and social stimulus of a London.’ Read attempts to explain the extraordinary flowering of provincial life in the 19th century and the long process of decay that has beset the ‘provinces’ ever since. The simplest answer to Read’s question lies in the changing location of industry resulting from the industrial
But many of the faults of the early part of the book are compensated by his examination of the decline of provincial vitality in the last sixty years. He is particularly interesting on the effect of the exodus of the upper middle class elites from the centre of industrial cities and the consequences of their withdrawal from local politics; and he has some telling criticism of the contemporary treatment of the ‘provinces’ by the national press and the bbc. Read’s book is in no sense a definitive historical study on provincial life, so badly needed, but it is an interesting interim report and deserves attention.