In 1954, J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes, who had married the previous year, took a kind of literary honeymoon: the result, this book, Journey down a Rainbow (1955).
The couple wanted to explore the impact of technology on society. A visit to the South-West United States would allow them to contrast the people of the pueblos in New Mexico, who still preserved “much of their ancient culture … living more or less as they always did” , with Texans, “the latest men”, living in the most technologically advanced society which represented “a pattern to which all our urban Western civilisation is beginning to conform”.
The Priestleys travelled together to Kansas City, then went their separate ways, he to Dallas, she to Alberquerque. Jacquetta explored the remaining pueblo society of New Mexico, Priestley to the booming Texas of Cold War, oil, and mass markets. The book reproduces their letters, with chapters alternating between their experiences.
Jacquetta had the better time: her strong visual sense delighted in pottery and weaving, her love of the deep past responded to the power of the cave sites and ritual dancing. J.B. did not find his trip as congenial. However, it did draw out some of his most significant writing of the 1950s, as he described what he called Admass i.e. consumer society: materialism driven by mass communications, advertising and salesmanship, at its most obvious in the places he visited. Jacquetta too contrasted the frenzy of unnecessary shopping in New York with the moving experience in a museum of seeing beautiful woven patterns created from dog hairs by a prehistoric woman, “living as humbly as a badger”.
The couple were joyfully reunited in Santa Fe, where they shared their adventures: “We talked and talked, had a drink or two and talked, prepared dinner and talked, ate the dinner and talked. Afterwards we went out to feel the icy breath of night on our cheeks, to see the huge glitter of stars …” Journey remains one of their most interesting works, full of thought-provoking ideas even more relevant to 21st century societies, and is a perfect introduction to each of them as writers.