J B Priestley, man of letters.

Part one: two world wars.

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A teacher once advised that life isnt long enough to read all of Priestley. Having almost fully committed that folly, this review is offered as an indulgence to myself -- but with two cautions. Priestley's real talent is for the theatre. I have seen some of his plays, years ago. They have to be seen to be appreciated. They were impressive yet I dont remember much.

I would like to see the BBC or someone put on all Priestley's time plays, either as repeats or new productions, if not already on film.
His main novels are dominated by his enthusiasm for theatre. This review does not properly value Priestley on his strongest suite.

Moreover, it is decades since I read his out-put. So, I cannot give detailed criticism. I can only say what has left a lasting impression, amongst the books I have pored thru, before and since.

Priestley is given the old-fashioned term 'man of letters' as harking back to an age when fluent literacy was still considered rather exclusive. Writers were the few who made a living by it. Now, a fair few make a living by it. But anyone can be a writer. The term has lost its professional significance.

Before Priestley could hope to make it, he was confronted by the Great War. As a volunteer ( inspected by Kitchener ) he was astonishingly lucky to survive, narrowly missing death, and having to convalesce.
Priestley doesnt say much of his war experiences in his writings. One of the best sources ( also of interest to aspiring writers ) is his writing biography, Margin Released. ( This rather duff title has to do with a type-writer function. ) It is as if he felt that the most appropriate treatment of World War One was as a part of his literary apprenticeship.

He has a few interesting observations to make on human nature, at least the male half of it, from acquiantance with such large masses of folk. He reckoned that there was about one tenth of the population, who were so life-denying or recalcitrant, that only a great religious teacher could have turned them round. ( Priestley doesnt comment on the fact that, in the trenches, they were the only people who were 'socially adjusted'. )
Once, he heard, thru a partition, some men from the upper class, officer class or whatever, saying that they didnt think much of him.
When Priestley wrote mock-seriously of 'The Enemy', he wasnt thinking of German shells that nearly buried him alive, but various monsters of the English class system, he caricatured in his novels.

As a surviving soldier, he would get an Oxbridge scholarship -- so did C S Lewis. He says even less about that. It gets a mention in Margin Released.

Onto The Good Companions.

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Priestley managed to earn a literary living by unremitting hard work. For Priestley, the amateur writes when he likes to. The professional writes because he has to.
When his first wife was dying and he was struggling with the bills, the last thing he felt like doing was writing. Yet his work was none the worse for how he privately felt. His first accepted publications were literary criticisms of established names. They contained some of his sharpest work. The critique of the character of Falstaff, in The Comic English Characters, was admired by a famous actor.
Priestley's dramatic bent showed itself before he entered theatres by the stage door.

This happened thru the runaway success of his first major novel, The Good Companions, which was turned into a play and a film. The inter-war story emerges from an austere Yorkshire back-ground. Unlike several later novels, the length, with clarity of style, gives the story a space and refreshing sweep, comparable to the Yorkshire moors themselves as a great out-doors. A diverse little group meet to become touring players and an unlikely success. One, of their number, writes a catchy tune. It gets accepted by the music industry, 'which hardly ever happens' ( as the author says of outsiders ).

At first, the group give themselves the twee twenties name of the Dinky Doos. They re-name themselves The Good Companions, which would seem a bit ponderous by later standards. Think of all those sixties bands, like The Kinks, The Who, and so forth.

All the same, when you think of it, Priestley was a prophet here. To Priestley's credit, his was a romance within the bounds of credibility. So much so, that by the affluent sixties, the idea became a mass reality, and has been ever since. The Companions' fame could scarcely happen in the Great Depression. The story's huge popularity must have owed to the feeling, that this show business jaunt was an escape that almost anyone might take part in.
A joiner might become a back-stage props man. And he, like most readers, has an unrealised talent. With his Broad Yorkshire forthrightness, he is a natural comedian. 'Wouldnt he make a good one?' The stars of the story agree.

After the war, thousands of young people would get together to go into the music business. They tended to be inspired not by the old music halls, as Priestley and his fictional characters were, but by the music especially of the American negroes. Many would return their inspiration in triumph to the States and the world over.

Priestley deliberately wrote in the tradition of the comic adventure novel of Henry Fielding and Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. Like Dickens, he became a national celebrity, as a result. In my youth, Ive seen old pictures of pairs of puppies or kittens, captioned 'The good companions'. I didnt know it but this was the sentimental debris from the Dickensian sensation caused by Priestley's novel back in 1929.

The mood of the author in that work is more subdued than in later novels. Comparing the novelist with theatre director, I would describe the difference as follows. The author as 'director', in The Good Companions, takes a more laid-back approach. Priestley seems to patiently watch his show from one of the audience seats, only removing his pipe to make a few quiet interruptions.

Later novels give more sense of the 'director' striding about the stage, growling comments. Priestley was once reprimanded for this preachy trait. The same person asked him why didnt he write more like -- Dickens.

J B was suitably flabberghasted: Dickens! Dickens, of all people, who Bernard Shaw said had turned him into a revolutionary.
Evidently, Priestley's critic had but a cosy fire-side family image of Dickens' writings.
Priestley is one of many distinguished novelists, who have written a study of 'the master'.

Further inter-war novels, travel, social comment.

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After his 'block-buster', Priestley's career takes two branches. This review follows the fork thru the subsequent novels, rather than the experimental plays dealing with the nature of time and why we are here in this mysterious universe.

Fellow Bradford writer, John Braine, in his biography, quotes one of Priestley's actors asking: why are our lives long enough to make mistakes but not long enough to remedy them?

This fact of not getting many chances in life, if we get one at all, comes up in the author's verdict on his characters in Angel Pavement, his next big novel.
The hero, as junior office clerk, or some such lower middle class nobody, futilely searches the metropolis for a mate. He sees plenty of women in cinema queues -- all nicely paired. Eventually, he becomes infatuated with a young lady, passing thru. He over-looks the adoring girl at the office.

The anti-heroine is a spoilt young woman who plays with the clerk and then thinks no more about him, while he becomes obsessed with her. The author gives a shrewd and balanced assessment of this rather common predicament.

Priestley recognises how close is the dividing line between common clueless youth and gruesome stalker ( to use the current name ). A nasty tale is narrowly averted.
The stalked girl's father doles out some rough justice to the clerk.

The father is one of Priestley's dubious characters without the usual amiable side. He is not so much an alter ego as a 'shadow' personality of the author, in the Jungian sense.
Priestley would take considerable interest in the metaphysical psychologist's work.

The clerk learns from the office girl that glamor may be cosmetic. They get together. The author comments this was the best day's work in their lives -- or the worst.

Angel Pavement is commendable social realism, conceding no fairy tale endings for the common youth. But, with luck, he may find 'his sufficient happiness', as Wells said of Mr Polly. Unlike Mr Polly or the good companions, the clerk knows no escape from the grey urban environment and his daily round of dull employment. This lack of high spirits detracts from the enjoyment of the novel.

A subsequent long novel was They Walk In The City. This title conjured black and white line drawings of visionary figures, in high perspective against tower blocs. But the reading left only a feeling of disappointment. My remaining surface memory is of the ending with an unexplained but sinister cult being exposed. I suspected this tag as a cue for a possible sequel. Far from being moved to demand more, I nearly didnt persist with this author's works.

Another of the long novels of this period, Faraway, is also a falling off -- practically at the end of the world, a mid-pacific nowhere, for the denouement. Apparently, the author, having come into the money, has gone on a world tour. He is combining business with pleasure by making it the setting of his next novel. Fair enough. But the writing, as well as its writer, seems to loosen its braces in the deck chair, and cruise as loosely as the ocean liner.

Priestley was also writing non-fiction travel books, before and after the second world war, particularly about the Western Americas. In this, he resembled Aldous Huxley, who actually settled in California. Both writers were seeking earnings from the Hollywood film industry. One of Priestley's first fictions, Benighted, was one of the early talkies, creakily filmed as the melodrama, The Old Dark House.

Priestley wasnt just enjoying a hard-working holiday life in wonderful climates with grand views, to sell in print-form to the industrial masses. He also set out on an English Journey. On the train to Birmingham, he tells us the Chamberlain family had furnished no heroes for him. For a city of its size, he regarded it as remarkably lacking in civic architecture. He professed to discern any at all, only by glimpsing one of its streets at an odd angle.
Two Tyneside working class habitations, he summed-up as 'dormitory towns'.

In one of his discursive journals, Rain Upon Godshill, he is back at home, in the English rain, bemoaning the fact that but for the German armada of bombers, Chamberlain wouldnt have to travel to Munich to keep away the monsters.

Sight-seeing tours are bound to be esthetic exercises. Bill Bryson's 1995 Notes from a small island sound like John Betjeman's unending protests against ruthless property developers. Artists impressions of modern British cities show streets full of fine old buildings that are no longer there.
Bryson reminds us that Glasgow transported its slum population to new high rise buildings out of the city, forgetting to give them an infrastructure: Priestley's 'dormitory town' with a vengeance, and a blow from which Glasgow's housing conditions have never recovered.

In an editor's essay, to a 1939 anthology Our national heritage, called 'Britain is in danger', Priestley wasnt discussing the Luftwaffe, that Prince Charles was to say did less damage than the developers. Priestley concluded:

Unless all of us, young and old, make up our minds to banish messiness and ugliness, agree that all future building must be carefully planned and that the countryside must not be ruined by anybody's foolishness and greed and take care that nothing we do ourselves, even if it is only throwing orange peel about at a picnic, shall contribute to the general vandalism, the beautiful isle of Britain that has been praised by so many great men will be nothing but a fading memory.

Also written on the eve of war, Let the People Sing is a typical theatrical novel. I caught a glimpse of its film version: stock characterisations of the German refugee and the vaudeville comic, a chorus of young female excitement verging on the hysteria, their daughters would show in the era of Beatle-mania. It all contributed to an unbearable period atmosphere.

The book doesnt have these faults. There is in Priestley's novels of the time a good-natured indulgence of lads and lasses.
His late essays would favorably compare young women with the troublesome creatures in the time-consuming courtships of Edwardian times. In contrast, he deplored, nowadays, the harmful effect of male aggression on women.

Watchable as a film was a war-time play, The Foreman went to France. I didnt realise this down-to-earth treatment was by Priestley, till the closing credits.
An ephemeral war-time novel, with a memorably gritty north-town title was Blackout in Gretley. Billed as a novel about war time for war time, I suppose it was meant as a warning against spies.

Priestley set the brilliantly titled Daylight On Saturday entirely in a factory confines -- using his ability as a playwright for a novel. This was apparently a forbidden zone for middle class novelists. He is positive about the freeing of women from service, with factory work and wages. As in the first world conflict, women gained in status from war production. The characterisations of the work force are lively. And who better than Priestley to draw management of both a good and a bad character for industrial relations?
A casualty in the machine shop was one of the author's selections from his works in The Priestley Companion. The incident was told with a moving solemnity.

Priestley's war broadcasts.

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Priestley's writing career soon moved him to London. Just as his Yorkshire accent remained with him, all his life Priestley was under the spell of the thriving artistic society he came from. He may not have had a scientific side but he had a broad grounding in the arts. He played the piano. Even in old age, he would go on a rural painting holiday, complete with Bohemian artist's beret, and staying with the two authors of The Wonders of Yorkshire, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby.

The gentle West Riding burr seems a part of the author's greatness. I heard this accent from a war-time commentary and guessed it must be Priestley. Why?
Because, British documentaries were dominated by southern accents. Well into the nineteen sixties, up till ITV's new television branches, it was an amusing novelty to hear regional accents on television.

Not that there was anything comical about Priestley's speech. It was serious and quietly thoughtful, very much like the proverbial favorite uncle. His war-time radio talks were massively popular. He achieved a kind of simple poetry in his talk of the little sailing ships that rescued much of the British army and the Free French Forces from Dunkirk.

He was to be much exasperated thru-out his later life from strangers who remembered these little talks but knew nothing else of his out-put. In old age, he could still be sour about the fact that the prime minister Winston Churchill stopped his broadcasts. Priestley didnt know why. He certainly deserved an explanation of why the field was left to the likes of 'Lord Haw-Haw'. Just because there was a war on, that didnt mean to say people need not be treated civilly.
I dont believe there was a good reason to give. Priestley, with Yorkshire grumpiness, thought it may have been because he was promising too much. ( That is hard to believe from the talks. ) It was probably just a case of political rivalry and clash of style.
There was Churchill roaring his speeches of epic defiance from the House of Commons -- most of them were not heard publically till after the war, by popular request. As Churchill said, he was not the lion. He was only the lion's roar. But that was more than a match for the menace and rants of dictators.

Such unaccountable censorship is not acceptable, tho it may have been the least of war-time sins from a great and good man, during the desperate conflict, when he allowed such crimes as bombing of civilian targets like Dresden.
There was a retrospective cartoon of a war-time meeting between Stalin and Churchill. Stalin is covered monstrously in gore. A few flecks of blood have splashed onto Churchill sitting by him.

Churchill was also moved to test germ warfare as a contingency plan against the rocket bombs, so low can war degrade the best of people.
Maybe the worst of people are jealously tempted to force war on others, to drag them down to their own level.

One of Priestley's war broadcasts was about 'a dig in the ribs'. He got round to explaining he had noticed this from Churchill to his war-coalition Labour deputy, Ernest Bevin, in the House of Commons. The gesture afforded Priestley a homily on a country whose rulers indulge such chumminess with a humble stalwart like Bevin -- a less than adulatory Sam Gamgee to Frodo Baggins, in Tolkien's 'Fellowship'.
Who knows? Churchill may not have appreciated such observations.
It must have been galling for Priestley to be so ill-used under cover of a war emergency.

Priestley's war-time manifesto.

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In 1940, H G Wells started a national debate on war aims, which became the Sankey declaration on Human Rights, a forerunner of the post-war United Nations declaration. 'The Wells debate' spread under-ground thru-out the war-torn continent of Europe. Wells was a particular influence on Priestley. And Priestley produced his own political manifesto, in 1941. The very fact of a dictators' war, to 'seek to bar the progress of mankind', as Churchill eloquently put it, made Priestley publish his only such plan, Out Of The People.
Churchill would hardly take to its formidable radical rhetoric. After grumbling about Wells' 'political platitudes' Churchill got in on the act, too, as a signatory of the Atlantic Charter.
Priestley's title comes from Walt Whitman:

Everything comes out of the people, everyday people, the people as you find them and leave them; people, just people!

Priestley's manifesto reads like a combination of policies from the Labour Left and the Liberals. This made political sense at the time, because there seemed no chance that a divided opposition could ever defeat the Conservatives. But there is no doubt that Priestley was a particularly English 'social liberal' -- his own phrase -- much in the tradition of John Stuart Mill or H G Wells.
At the same time, a thought-out scheme is curiously 'un-English' and untypical of that literary rambler, Priestley himself.

Priestley's program for Britain has been largely rejected by history. It involved more state control than even the post-war Attlee government contemplated. And as yet, its compensating political liberalism, notably the liberal form of proportional representation, has been little implemented, tho authoritarian forms have been.
Priestley lent his name to the ( formerly named ) Proportional Representation Society, to promote the original democratic form of PR, before the parties made 'PR' partisan, for their own oligarchic ends. He was long one of its vice-presidents.

He mentions Regional Councils. His English Journey has an early word about Home Rule for East Anglia! But the spiel is pitched more as a fancy than a realistic prospect.
In 2002, the deputy Labour leader John Prescott introduced proposals for English regional assemblies. A poll showed an average 62% support for them -- East Anglia least wanted one.
They will be poor representations of democracy, if they use the Scottish and Welsh assemblies' party list oligarchies of additional members to the ( equally unsatisfactory ) monopolistic single member system.

Priestley attacked the new plutocracy hiding behind the old feudalism. He wanted the English class system to be scrapped. But it took the Thatcher governments to bring closer Churchill's and Eden's wish for 'a property-owning democracy'. The Tories sold off houses in the council estates, that Attlee's post-war Labour government had forced most new housing into. ( Note the feudalistic sounding 'estates'. ) This sell-off was in the teeth of Labour opposition.

The unforgivable failure of socialism in the twentieth century was the illiberal notion that private enterprise could be replaced by bureaucracy, instead of its humanisation by economic democracy. We are left with the growing environmental catastrophe of plutocracy.
Priestley's socialism might have been more readily humanised, because his policies, if implemented, would have made liberal democracy much stronger than either Labour or Conservative parties have ever wished, in more than half a century since.

Theatre Outlook

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Priestley was not one for details, except in his own profession. He wrote a promotion, called Theatre Outlook for post-war Britain. He made the point, oft repeated, of its ( relative ) cheapness compared to the spending on drinks and cigarettes etc. He objected to the commercial pressures on the drama. Star-struck audiences came to see movie actors in the flesh, raising box-office receipts by a thousand pounds a week -- a small fortune, then. Priestley characterised these 'playgoers as enemies', because the film stars got all the parts regardless of whether they were most suited to them.
You can see this ill-effect of 'the star system' within the movie industry, itself, to this day.

Priestley might have taken the good with the bad. Instead, he wanted to free the theatre from commercial pressures altogether, by dispossessing the rich people who happened to own them and putting all the theatre people in control. He mentioned how packed the Russian theatres were. This commendation passed muster in 1946, when even Churchill called Stalin his old comrade in arms.

One neednt believe in any system whereby the public has to get what they are given and like it. Even if the profession owns its theatre, it still should have the financial incentive to be sensible of popular demand, rather than regard public opinion with contempt. Shows may fail because they are bad, as well as because they are avant garde.

Theatre Outlook is a collector's item for those interested in a period account of all aspects of dramatic art. Its many illustrations show at a glance the class system in dress -- all the more so, in the time of Labour government, with a Labour supporter like Priestley, who would put the ordinary folk in the picture.

Color fotos show the cast in middle class evening dress taking a bow to post-war austerity audiences, fotoed in black and white. Even the side-stage prompt wears a cleaning lady's head-scarf. She seems symbolic of the coming fifties assault on the stage with Arnold Wesker's kitchen sink dramas.


About 1960, Priestley supported the growing movement in the Labour party opposition for unilateral nuclear disarmament. In an article about 'Ambience or Agenda', he suggested this gesture was needed to further international relations. Notice the impatience with practical details.

I much prefer Gorbachev's and Reagan's eventual formula of Trust and Inspection, in mutual nuclear disarmament. ( Admittedly, the dangers from all kinds of war preparations, thru-out the world, remain daunting. )

During the Cold War, Priestley visited and gave lectures in the Soviet Union. He was once asked by students why he wrote The Thirty First Of June. And replied that he just wrote it for the fun of it, causing a ripple of laughter in his audience.
This frivolity was no doubt as alien to soviet youth, as it was to Priestley himself.

Like H G Wells, before him, and Arthur C Clarke somewhat after, J B Priestley was taking part in an international fellowship of writers. In effect, this made him an ambassador of friendly relations between hostile blocs.

After all, Jerry shared Christmas 1914 with Tommy across the trenches. And who knows? If the top brass hadnt started the shelling off again, peace might have broken out!

Perhaps for the same reason he was good in personal relations, he could be bad as a critic of international politics. It is one thing being diplomatic about the failure of one's friend's political system, it is another thing being diplomatic as a political critic. It led him to one of those inane 'even-handed' remarks, like: the soviet system was better than the capitalist one, in that it didnt have all the advertising -- as if they didnt have their own form of indoctrination, by the state.

Of course, if you dont have the consumer goods, there is no need to advertise them. It is thought the feeling of this lack was one of the main sources of discontent with the soviet system. This source of change included the soviet leaders and more particularly their wives.

The new 'order' of unregulated capitalism in the East is not reassuring: wealth beyond the dreams of avarice for a few, bitterly resented hardship for many, crime, corruption, the stampede to despoil the wildernesses of the old Soviet Union, adding to the dire ecological plight of the planet, the precarious state of hard-won freedom of speech...

The soviet authorities had simply published Priestley's works that were favorable to them and censored those that were not. He was being implicated in the half truth that is worse than a lie.

Richard Lung

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J B Priestley, man of letters: part two.

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