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J.B. Priestley, visionary of England The Bradford-born writer's work catches the tenor of its time, and often speaks directly to ours

JB Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" has lasted. Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images

JB Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" has lasted. Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images

September 21, 2020   5 mins

In Britain, literature seldom changes minds or steers events as much as critics — let alone authors — wish it would. But in the summer of 1945, just as the Second World War ended, three works surfaced in quick succession that did leave a lasting stamp on their nation’s wider culture. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited set in golden stone an idyll — however ironically imagined — of aesthetic, and patrician, faith and grace. George Orwell’s Animal Farm told fairy-tale truths about the corruption of revolutionary idealism and presaged the full-spectrum critique of totalitarianism in his Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The third leg of this post-war triptych has, arguably, cast the longest shadow, but made the faintest mark. J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls, both a sturdy warhorse of the GCSE syllabus and a renewed theatre favourite since director Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production rescued it from the sneers of posterity, premiered in Leningrad and Moscow in September 1945.

Why in the Soviet Union? On a practical level, Priestley had dashed it off quickly and no West End house had room in its schedule. More profoundly, the Soviet hero’s welcome extended to drama and dramatist alike proved that, a few months after Hitler’s downfall, the mutual warmth of the wartime alliance had outlasted Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech. On both sides: after his lap of honour, Priestley published glowing reports of his Russian journey in Lord Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express.

For sure, Priestley’s mysterious Inspector Goole — who surges out of the night in 1912 to unmask the complicity of every member of a smug industrialist’s clan in the suicide of a despairing woman — does belong to the Popular Front era of high-minded, fuzzy-edged reformism. The Inspector’s warning to the guilty plutocrats, that “We do not live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other”, mandates no specific form of remedy beyond a change of heart. Feelgood vagueness often aids longevity. Besides, the them-and-us, capital-and-labour dualism of the pre-1914 Birling family business already felt antique in 1945 — as Priestley above all knew.

The play survives not for its message but its myth, of the ghostly avenger who makes conscience squirm and brings demons to the light.

Despite his robust presence in education, film and stage, the writer who could imbue bread-and-butter realism with this aura of strangeness and grandeur lacks the high-status devotees who surround the other literary weather-makers of summer 1945. Orwell commands near-universal reverence; Waugh the wary respect even of ideological foes (such as the late Christopher Hitchens). Priestley, the self-proclaimed “classless sort of man” who sought to unite the string quartet, the variety act and the football crowd into a single democratic culture, has suffered the fate of the “middlebrow” conciliator (he preferred “broadbrow”) in a polarised age.

A proud all-purpose hack, he wrote voluminously (for over half a century, from the early 1920s to the late 1970s), earned much, and enjoyed his fame. Virginia Woolf, with whom he predictably sparred, sniped at him as a “tradesman of letters”. The lad from the Bradford wool office gloried in such snubs. As well he might: a decade later, his morale-boosting wartime radio talks could reach audiences of 15 million.

The West Riding artisan had become a media-age superstar. A foursquare memorial statue in his native city — greatcoat billowing out, pipe clutched in hand — looks out over the Venetian-Florentine splendour of Bradford’s 1870s town hall, with the sleeker modern lines of the National Media Museum looming behind. Its model lived through the 20th century with those two worlds close at hand, and in his head: Victorian industry, civic democracy and culture on one side, technology-driven mass communication on the other. Therein lies much of his strength.

As a witness, if not a visionary, he trounces both Orwell and Waugh. To no or little avail, fair-minded critics repeatedly point out that his 1934 book English Journey boasts a scope, zest and sheer curiosity far above its many offshoots, such as Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. From Southampton to South Shields, Blackpool to Swindon, Newcastle to Norwich, his tour broke fresh ground in its close-up attention to the middling “new England” of suburbia, leisure and mass consumption as well as to the “luxury country” of heritage cities or quaint villages, and the “wilderness of dirty brick” in slump-stricken industrial wastelands.

Even his much-patronised novels, such as the genial concert-party picaresque of The Good Companions, that gave the Great War veteran turned Fleet Street all-rounder his first bestseller in 1929, glitter with striking nuggets of social observation. They not only catch the tenor of their times but, often, speak directly to ours. The barrel-scraping paper that briefly lionises the protagonist of Wonder Hero (1933) has dumped hard news to become “a circus in print, a vaudeville show, a Fun City, a daily comic”.

Late in his career, The Image Men (1968) features an “Institute of Social Imagistics” where nerdish whizz-kids plot (a quarter-century before the internet) to shape and shift opinion. It was Priestley himself who, in 1954, had coined the term “Admass” to invoke the dark, manipulative and tranquillising, side of the consumer culture he first saw spreading in post-Depression England.

In the Britain of 2020, it can feel as if the Institute of Social Imagistics — in both its political and commercial guises — runs the show. Its adepts crunch data to devise stereotypes then offered up to customers, or voters, as a portrait of their souls rather than a cynical, mercenary cartoon. In contrast, Priestley’s radical populism (for want of a less tainted word) imagines a people not as rival flocks, but congenially made up of knobbly, ornery mavericks and “characters” – Kant’s crooked timber of humanity. (He grew up in no insular town, but steeped in Bradford’s German, and German Jewish, culture.) He’s careful, too, to note that the tripartite division of English Journey applies within regions as much as between them, and views his three nations — picture-postcard, semi-detached and old smokestack — as “most fascinatingly intermingled” everywhere.

What he fears about the motorised, movie-going, home-improving middling folk is that they will be “swept into one dusty arterial road of cheap mass production and standardised living”. Not snobbery, but a dread of uniformity imposed by corporate trend-makers and behaviour-fixers, leads him to lament the decline of provincial diversity, the tightening grip of London, the flattening of local oddities.

In pre-Luftwaffe Bristol, which he loves (“both old and alive… not one of your museum pieces”) even though it once flourished on the “evil proceeds” of the slave trade, he reports that a media combine has bought up and closed down the city’s papers. So citizens funded a new title, because “gossip and chatter from Fleet Street” is no substitute for local information and debate. Time and again, what pleased, or alarmed, Priestley in 1933 should do the same for visitors now.

Most of today’s state-of-the-nation bloviators marshal their imaginary tribes like toy soldiers. They neither observe nor research, but swing the clickbait rattle for their team. Priestley, however, rolls up his sleeves — English Journey, for instance, is full of factory-floor accounts, from the Daimler plant in Coventry, Imperial Typewriters in Leicester, or an excavator works in Lincoln where engineers (those “happy children of the machine age”) design a monster that can replace 800 labourers.

Typhoons of change in trade and technology, which he saw leave the ruined North-East a “fantastic wilderness” of squalor and misery, would later blow through the streamlined Art Deco factories of this “new England” too. And Priestley’s quest for a pluralistic, inclusive “English spirit” that fosters solidarity without conformity raises more questions than it can resolve. His questions, though, still matter, still await answers — and he poses them with evergreen skill. Those job-devouring technocrats, he notes, are “miles ahead of us” already. “Either they must stop inventing, or, what is more sensible, the rest of us must begin thinking very hard.” As we must again.

Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.


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