J. B. Priestley: My Kind of Pinko
LONDON, ONTARIO – In May of 1994 I enjoyed one of the more unlikely flukes in my so-called journalism career when a last-minute, all-expenses-paid junket fell into my lap to report on a human rights conference halfway around the world in Taiwan. Indeed, if you were to ram a particularly long knitting needle straight through a globe at London, Ontario, its pointy tip might well emerge in the suburbs of Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei. The trip involved passing over the international dateline, and according to my flight itinerary, the journey out was going to take two days and the return trek no time at all. It so happened that I flew back on what turned out to be a most magically elastic 42nd birthday; wishing myself many happy returns of the day in my Taipei hotel while packing up a suitcase full of souvenirs and making it home in time to blow out the candles on a fudge-frosted cake and enjoy a celebratory spin of one of my gifts; Pink Floyd’s last stab at greatness, the just-released Division Bell.
I’d previously travelled across Canada, the northeastern corner of the States and made three forays to Britain . . . but . . . Taiwan had never particularly beckoned. I wasn’t even certain where it was until I consulted that globe. My plane was scheduled to take off 36 hours after receiving the assignment, so some serious scrambling was in order. I quickly acquired three guidebooks, some maps of Taiwan and Taipei (gosh, Novack’s used to be a great shop) and a few articles and magazines which would give me at least a superficial understanding of the history, politics and culture of this profoundly foreign land. Venturing so far outside of my comfort zone, I thought I’d also better take along a book by an author so personally congenial that just immersing myself in its pages could ward off the psychological terrors if I suddenly came to in an Oriental hotel room at three a.m. and needed to remember who I was. It’s an interesting challenge even if you aren’t travelling to the other side of the planet. Who would you choose as the literary equivalent of a Mickey Mouse night light?
As you’ve probably guessed, I took along a book by J.B. Priestley (1894–1984); his very first novel from 1927, Adam in Moonshine. I’ve been reading Priestly since my teens and have always found this reliably good-hearted author a steadying voice. Priestley was born an only child in the Yorkshire mill town of Bradford. His father was a secondary school teacher and his mother died before Priestley was two. “I do not remember my mother at all,” he explained once in an interview. “But I was told she was very lively and witty and was once turned out of the theatre for laughing in the wrong place – bless her heart.” From his father Priestley inherited his lifelong curiosity and love of books, his religious scepticism and a generous regard for his fellow man; that last quality often being mistaken for socialist sympathies. I believe we have his mother to thank for his playful and questing spirit and the incredible sensitivity of his antennae which were ever extended in the direction of the wondrous, the mystical and the feminine.
I don’t know of any writer who better or more frequently conveys the ecstasy of music. Somewhere Priestley referred to music as the one art we don’t really deserve. Here he writes in defense of light commercial music: “Because, unlike serious work, it lacks musical content, it acts as a series of vials, often charmingly shaped and coloured, for the distillations of memory. The first few bars of it remove the stopper; we find ourselves re-living, not remembering but magically recapturing, some exact moments of our past. At least that is how it is with me; a tune from a forgotten operetta, an old music hall ditty, is my equivalent of Proust’s madeleine.”
Priestley never put on airs. Even when he interpolated J.W. Dunne’s abstruse theories of time and the fourth dimension into his novels and plays, he found a way to translate them into the vernacular; never losing touch with his audience by wheeling out any sort of specialist’s vocabulary. He always made sure those theories were put in the service of a human story and thus a handful of those ‘time plays’ remain among his most popular and frequently produced works – Dangerous Corner (his first original play), Eden End, Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls (filmed multiple times and also enormously popular in Russian translation and productions; once again feeding the suspicion that the author was some kind of commie).
For my money, Time and the Conways is the most naturalistic and the best of a very good lot. In Act One we visit a middle class family, eavesdrop on their dreams, are shown a few latent threats to their happiness and then head out for the first interval hoping that they’ll find a way through the woods in the next act. Act Two picks up 18 years later and almost without exception, the earlier dreams of the Conways have been blighted and everything about their lives has grown shabby and a little desperate. Act Three then resumes – and this is the masterstroke so ingenious that it elevates the play to a whole new level – precisely where Act One left off.
Maybe you think it’s going to be boring, watching the cast act out an earlier chapter of a story when you already know the conclusion. But instead the proceedings are charged with sorrow and portent to an almost unbearable degree. You want to call out and warn these fresh-faced dreamers to lay on a little muscle and urgency and to please dispense with their self-pity . . . because these dreams won’t keep forever. You may not experience five-star, gory-eyed catharsis but it’s something awfully close to it; a bone-deep lesson in the dangers to the human soul when a dream is deferred for too long.
In addition to some 35 plays, a couple dozen screenplays (mostly originals and a few adaptations), 50 volumes of essays, biographies, memoirs, social history and arts commentary and criticism, Priestley also turned out more than 30 novels. He hit unexpected pay-dirt right at the beginning of the Depression with his fourth novel, 1929’s The Good Companions; a rollicking and picaresque tale of the rise and fall of an itinerant, musical comedy troupe. So astonishingly huge was its success that this one book more or less set Priestley up financially for life and, simultaneously, caused the literati to back away en masse. Even though he was still tremendously prolific a full half century later and had done a commendable job throughout his career of juggling his genres, his odious status in many envious editors’ eyes as the perpetrator of that gross behemoth of a bestseller, meant that he rarely received the sort of serious attention which his best work merits.
I tip the hat to John Baxendale in his Priestley's England: J.B. Priestley and English Culture (2007), for alerting me to the one-sided and never-openly declared war waged against Priestley by that abstemious toffee-nose, Virginia Woolf. It is a fervently radioactive example of the sort of craven resentment that Priestley's mere presence on the scene could arouse in the hearts of his literary ‘betters’. Woolf’s friend, Hugh Walpole, had collaborated with Priestley on an early epistolary novel, Farthing Hall, and Priestley had actually dedicated The Good Companions to him in gratitude for that kindness which helped a young writer get noticed at the beginning of his career. So Woolf wrote to Walpole in a lather of insecurity when The Good Companions went burning up the bestseller lists: “Ought I to read Mr. Priestley’s book? . . . From the reviews, chiefly by Jack Squire, I am sure that I should hate it – but I suspect that I may be wrong.” One year later, she still hadn’t read any Priestley but nonetheless the impertinent pup was living rent-free inside her head, as is made clear in this shameless diary entry from 1930: “At the age of 50 Priestley will be saying ‘why don’t the highbrows admire me? It isn’t that I write only for money.’ He will be enormously rich; but there will be that thorn in his shoe – or so I hope . . . Yet I have not read, & I daresay shall never read, a book by Priestley . . . I invent this phrase for [Arnold] Bennett [a one-time friend she dropped for the crime of selling too many books] & Priestley ‘the tradesmen of letters’.”
And what had Priestley ever done to tick her off except exist and thrive as a very different kind of writer from her; a not-so-introspective writer with an uncanny gift for expressing the interests and concerns of a broad cross-section of his countrymen? Well, he did write a review of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in his widely-read book column for The Evening Standard, praising it as, “one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of fiction of our time.” Why, the guileless cad didn’t even have the good sense to reciprocate her contempt for a writer who dared to entertain differing political and aesthetic views from her own.
Certainly not everything Priestley wrote deserves to endure. He always wrote quickly and sometimes that worked out splendidly. But when inspiration flagged, he was not above employing stock characters in his novels and plays or overworking thoughtlessly reiterated themes. He would probably enjoy a higher standing today if he’d written a half or even a third as much as he did. He had the humility to recognize this about himself. Commenting late in his life on his 600-page novel Festival at Farbridge (1951) which didn’t sell very well and inspired mostly exasperated reviews, he frankly admitted, “It was longer than it need have been. I did go on and on a bit.” Now that his mass popularity has passed and no influential critic (do they even exist anymore?) has taken the time to sort out the classics from the chaff, his sheer prodigiousness works against him. I fear that a lot of people who might enjoy him, don’t take him up because – shivering in the shadow of that mile-high stack of books he produced in his day – they just don’t know where to start.
Well, as one who has stalwartly read just about everything the man ever published (though I have never found a copy of his travelogue of New Zealand), let me assemble for my not-so-vast readership a Priestley portmanteau of the really good stuff that deserves another look. For essays, try his wartime BBC Radio talks, Postscripts (1940). They’re among the most vivid documents we have for evoking the atmosphere of Britain from the evacuation of Dunkirk (when “the little holiday steamers made an excursion to Hell and came back glorious”) to the Blitz. Their warm and (by some lights) socialist flavour became so dangerously popular with listeners that the authorities (perhaps even Winston Churchill himself, though the smallness of the act seems out of character for him) pulled the plug on the talks after their first year. Also notable is 1949’s Delight, subtitled The Grumbler’s Apology, in which, regretting that so much of his non-fictional writing was focussed on things he bemoaned, he decided to gather up a collection of very short, miscellaneous essays in which he celebrated things he loved like “smoking in a hot bath”, “suddenly doing nothing”, “hearing the orchestra tuning up” and “reading detective stories in bed”.
The plays I’ve already mentioned are well worth seeing or reading. Let me also point out two comedies which gurgle and brim over with some beautifully dry Yorkshire humour. Laburnum Grove (1933) is about the apparently stodgy George Radfern, sponged on by all his relatives and dismissed as hopelessly middle class until it is suggested that the dull and obscure office which he operates downtown might actually be a blind for an elaborate criminal racket. When We Are Married (1938) tells the tale of three middle-aged couples who learn that the minister who presided at their triple nuptials was a fraud and therefore their marriages are actually invalid and they’ve been living in unintentional sin. On the one hand they face social ruination if they can’t find a way to cover things up. On the other hand, there is an opportunity here for spouses who aren’t so thrilled with how things have played out (but ordinarily would never have dared walk away) to reconsider their options. I also hold a soft spot for 1947’s The Linden Tree. In this gentle play about an old-fashioned history professor who believes his work upholds a standard that his red-brick university in the Midlands has otherwise fecklessly abandoned and therefore resists the nudging of his wife and the dean to retire, I suspect Priestley was paying homage to his schoolmaster father.
In addition to The Good Companions, there are at least three other novels that I think hold up admirably. Angel Pavement, written the very next year (1930) as a sort of antidote to his big hit’s celebrated cheerfulness, is a remarkably dark and prescient exploration of corporate greed and predation. A multinational company has snapped up a longstanding family firm supplying inlays and veneers, only to decimate and demoralize its work force, skim off everything they can and then unload the hollowed-out shell of the once-proud business at the first opportunity. Lost Empires (1965), a coming-of-age novel set just before World War I, is Priestley’s valediction to the beguilingly seedy world of the British variety and music hall theatres already in their decline. Grease paint, flop sweat and liquid courage are the lubricants that keep this sometimes tragic tale rattling along. In 1986 Granada TV adapted this into a worthwhile series starring Colin Firth in one of his first roles and Laurence Olivier in one of his last.
But the finest of all his novels, I believe, is Bright Day from 1946. The story is built around a badly frazzled, middle-aged writer working to deadline on a stalled screenplay while holed up in a hotel on the Cornish coast “with gulls mewing at the dining room windows and the Atlantic grumbling and shuddering far below”. A chance meeting there opens up an unresolved trauma from the writer’s late adolescence, and, in the words of critic David Hughes (quoted in J.B. Priestley: The Last of the Sages by John Atkins) shows the way that “in a man’s life reference to the past can cure the present and provide the future with energy, simply because only the present can give a lucid and dispassionate view of the past.” It’s all Jungian as hell. As is the Shakespearean quote which prefaces the novel: “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder.” Priestley was an early English acolyte of Jung’s and even talked and corresponded with the great one. John Atkins refers the novel back to the time plays, suggesting that Bright Day teaches a valuable lesson about psychic integration over time which the Conway family was never able to learn.
Priestley’s massive literary survey, Literature and Western Man (1960), is an intelligent, non-academic (the word ‘phallocentric’ doesn’t appear once) study of writers from Machiavelli, Montaigne and Cervantes to James Joyce, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. There are other broad literary surveys of this kind written by such worthies as Will Durant and John Cowper Powys but what impresses me so much about Priestley’s opus is the humility and forthrightness of his approach. Published when he was 66 years old and dedicated to Tolstoy’s dictum that any truly great work of art should be assimilable by the average person, this book collects the gleanings of more than five decades of omnivorous and wide-ranging reading. Priestley may not pronounce the last word on any of his subjects but he does a wonderful job of displaying the full array of what’s out there and giving you a sense of its flavour. I first read this book in my teens and consider it an ideal road map to pass along to any young person with an affinity for reading.
Though he produced four volumes of memoirs, none of them were what you could call personally revealing but 1962’s Margin Released does give rewarding accounts of his childhood and beginnings as a writer and his only extended account of his military service as a Lance Corporal and Second Lieutenant in the First World War. The only other book in which his tour of duty is recounted at all is the Priestley title I return to most frequently; his one-of-a-kind travelogue cum documentary of a nation in the dispiriting grip of economic slump, 1934’s English Journey. As social history with a conscience and a heart, this account of Priestley’s trek to every corner of England in the autumn of 1933 is right up there with anything George Orwell ever wrote. Indeed, Orwell’s publisher was inspired by Priestley’s book to commission Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. At about the book’s halfway point, Priestley is back in his hometown and movingly describes a reunion dinner he attends for his 10th Duke of Wellington Battalion:
“I had arranged to meet, in a little ante-room, the survivors of my original platoon, and as soon as I decently could I escaped from the press of warriors in the big room, to revisit my own past. There were about eight of us present, and we ordered in some drinks and settled down to remember aloud. I had not seen any of these fellows for seventeen years. I knew them all, of course, and they seemed little older. The difference was that before they had all been soldiers, whereas now their respective status in civilian life set its mark upon them, and now one was a clerk, another a tram-conductor, another a mill hand, and so forth. Nearly all of them remembered more than I did, although I have an exceptionally good memory. Details that had vanished for ever from my mind were easily present to theirs. Why? Was it because a defensive mechanism in my mind had obliterated as much as it could from my memory; or was it because much more had happened to me since the war than had happened to them, and unlike them, I had not gone back over and over again to those war years? (A third explanation, of course, is that, living in the same district and often running across one another, they had talked over those years far more than I had.) As figure after figure, comic and tragic, came looming up through the fog of years, as place after place we had been in caught the light again, our talk became more and more eager and louder, until we shouted and laughed in triumph, as one always does when Time seems to be suffering a temporary defeat. Frensham, Aldershot, Folkestone, Maidstone, Bully Grenay, Neuve Chapelle, Souchez – how they returned to us! Once again the water was rising around our gum boots. We remembered the fantastic places: that trench which ran in front of a graveyard, where the machine-gun bullets used to ricochet off the tombstones; that first sight of Vimy Ridge in the snow, like a mountain of despair.”
The quasi-socialist sentiments which got Priestley yanked off the radio in 1940 grew out of his determination that when the men returned from that Second World War, they must not be cold-shouldered as were his comrades from the First. When you’ve commanded somebody to save your bacon at risk of their very life, you don’t thank them for their service when the peril has passed by shoving them back into their usual place at the bottom of the social scrapheap. The conclusion of his account of that battalion reunion shimmers with pity and rage:
“Several of us had arranged with the secretary to see that original members of the battalion to whom the price of the dinner was prohibitive were provided with free tickets. But this, he told me, had not worked very well; and my old platoon comrades confirmed this, too, when I asked about one or two men. They were so poor, these fellows, that they said they could not attend the dinner even if provided with free tickets because they felt that their clothes were not good enough. They ought to have known that they would have been welcome in the sorriest rags; but their pride would not allow them to come. (It was not a question of evening clothes; this dinner was largely for ordinary working men.) I did not like to think then how bad their clothes, their whole circumstances, were: it is not, indeed, a pleasant subject. They were with us, swinging along when the women and old men cheered, in that early battalion of Kitchener’s New Army, were with us when kings, statesmen, general officers, all reviewed us, when the crowds threw flowers, blessed us, cried over us; and then they stood in the mud and water, scrambled through the broken strands of barbed wire, saw the sky darken and the earth open with red-hot steel, and came back as official heroes and also as young-old workmen wanting to pick up their jobs and their ordinary life again; and now, in 1933, they could not even join us in a tavern because they had not decent coats to their backs. We could drink to the tragedy of the dead; but we could only stare at one another, in pitiful embarrassment, over this tragicomedy of the living, who had fought for a world that did not want them, who had come back to exchange their uniforms for rags. And who shall restore to them the years that the locust hath eaten?”
What J.B. Priestley stood for throughout his long career wasn’t so much socialism as a demand for simple decency in our social organization. I don’t see him as a communist Red so much as a pink-hued Tory radical, aglow with corpuscular love for his country and its culture and its finest traditions and an open-hearted concern for the well-being of his fellow man. Let me give the last word to his son Tom who is the primary keeper of the Priestley flame today. In 2008 he wrote about the kind of socialism his father advocated:
“The answer was not communism, which he held responsible for the rise of fascism, but the kind of socialism he had grown up with in Bradford, where everyone has an equal chance for a decent life and contributes to the community without the bugbears of privilege, elitism and the negative class system.”
13/3/2019 08:10:01 am
You’ve done it again. No sooner do I set sail on the ocean of books by Chesterton, but I have a new author to wade into. I thought Priestly was safe to leave alone, “nothing to see here, keep on walking “. Now it looks like I have to work him into my schedule.
31/3/2019 06:15:41 am
Yo, Herman, I've just read your article on J.B Priestley. You served him well as an author, but not so well in his deep felt politics. Like everyone else I've read The Good Companions and watched the various versions of An Inspector Calls and read his political vision in Out of the People. I know him more for his politics than his authorship. Surely you realise that the play was an allegory on social responsibility and the lack of it in the upper classes. But did you know, he could not find a theatre for it so a friend translated it into Russian and it was first put on in 1945 at Leningrad in the Soviet Union where he was very popular, and was only staged at the Old Vic in 1946 after it had successfully travelled through Europe.
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