In his 1962 memoir, Margin Released, J.B. Priestley looked back to his teens in Bradford, when he worked as a junior clerk with Helm and Company in the Swan Arcade (now sadly demolished). In his spare time, he was “a lad bent on writing”, “scribbling and scribbling away” in what Priestley calls his scribbling books, notebooks he made at work in the copying press when no-one was looking. Some of his works were typed up for him, by a “soft-hearted” girl who had her own typing agency near his office.
In 1913 he began to find his way into print. For most of the year he wrote a cultural column, “Round the Hearth”, for Labour weekly newspaper The Bradford Pioneer. This work was unpaid. But later that year an imaginary interview, “Secrets of the Ragtime King”, was accepted by a weekly magazine, London Opinion: payment, one guinea. A version of the piece shown above, “The Modern Juggernaut”, appeared in The Labour Leader.
Priestley did not hoard paperwork, but somehow a box file containing scribbling books and typescripts survived to inspire him when writing Margin Released. Two scribbling books and the typescripts are now in the J.B. Priestley Archive, along with issues of The Bradford Pioneer.
This image shows how fragile the surviving volumes are. The hand-writing is “dark with closely-pencilled lines” and often smudged. Transcripts of some of these early works, with critical commentary by John F. Bennett, appear in recent issues of the J.B. Priestley Society Journal.
In the memoir, Priestley was scathing about his early writing. “Even as teenage efforts they seem to me to have hardly any merit”, he wrote of three short stories. I think he was rather hard on himself. The young Priestley was a beginner, experimenting with forms and styles, and was persistent enough to finish works and get them published. It is exciting to see him finding the topics that were to interest him later: the value of the arts, popular culture, especially the music-hall, the impact of mechanisation and the mass media on people’s lives.