Tag Archives: 1930s

88. Midnight on the Arizona Desert: J.B. Priestley’s Writing Hut (and the Grand Canyon)

Yorkshire inspired J.B. Priestley’s best writing, but he also loved Arizona.  This week we visit his writing hut at the Remuda Ranch in Wickenburg.  The hut was less than 12 feet by 10, made of unpainted boards, and contained very little: a table with his typewriter, some books and tobacco things on shelves, and a small tin stove.

Detail from front cover of J.B. Priestley, Midnight on the Desert, Heinemann, 1937.

J.B. Priestley’s writing hut in Arizona, amongst cacti, hills and stars. Detail from front of dustjacket Midnight on the Desert, Heinemann, 1937.

Priestley first saw Arizona in 1934, when he was sent by Ealing Studios to investigate the possibilities of a film for Gracie Fields.  He fell in love with the landscape, “the clear bright winter mornings and the blaze of stars at midnight, the glittering desert floor with its promise of precious stones, the hillside of giant saguaros, the amethyst peaks and the red-gold fortresses of rock, and, not least, the air so pure, it seems magical”.

J.B. Priestley in a rocking chair, Wickenburg, Arizona, about 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/7.

J.B. Priestley in a rocking chair, Wickenburg, Arizona, about 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/7.

Priestley, his wife Jane and their children spent two winters at the Ranch during the late 1930s, the dry climate being better for Jane’s health.   The family remembered these as times of fun and freedom, though Priestley himself continued to write, to work on US productions of his plays, and to give lectures.

The Priestley family dressed as cowboys, Arizona, 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/5.

The Priestley family dressed as cowboys, Arizona, 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/5.

Priestley wrote most memorably about Arizona in Midnight on the Desert (1937).  In this, and its 1939 companion Rain upon Godshill, Priestley created a kind of descriptive autobiography, “packing reminiscence and discourse into a long reverie”.   This format suited his ability to write engagingly about his own experiences, whether being comically grumpy about the inconveniences of travel, sharing profound emotions, or exploring ideas.

He gave the two narratives shape by beginning and ending “at a certain time in a definite place” and concentrating on the “events, opinions, thoughts” of the previous year or so. In Midnight Priestley is writing in London on a dark, wet Monday, but his mind is back in Arizona, one late night in the hut towards the end of his stay.  He was having a clear-out, burning in the little stove an “accumulated litter of letters and odd papers” and chapters of writing that he felt had failed.

J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom, Coronado, California, Spring 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/10

J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom, Coronado, California, Spring 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/10

He reflects on this visit to the United States, and, with frequent returns to his sorting in the hut, tells us about his travels and his thoughts, sharing his views on the state of publishing, his experience of journalists in the USA, memories of his father Jonathan, Hollywood, giving lectures, American railways and much more.  Above all, he ponders the great mysteries of human consciousness and of time.  As we have already seen, he had just discovered and been thrilled by the possibilities of the writings of Dunne and Ouspensky and they were much on his mind that year.

The climax of the book is Priestley’s famous description of a visit to the Grand Canyon, a sight which astounded him no matter how many times he saw it.  Priestley walks out of his overheated hotel in a snowstorm; the Canyon is hidden by mist.  Then, suddenly the fog clears …

Priestley shares his sense of wonder and revelation as he looks at the Canyon – the changing weathers, the sheer scale, the colours.  Above all he feels it gave a view of deep time, a fourth dimension to the landscape.   Priestley realises that he dreamed of the Canyon long ago: maybe that dreaming self had made some Ouspenskian connection with the self now seeing the Canyon.

Midnight ends with Priestley finishing his work in the hut to go out into the cold starlit winter night.  He is sorry to leave Arizona but he knows he can always recapture a place through his imagination, be in London in Arizona or Arizona in London: “I must try to put some of this in a book …”.  Which he did!

Note on sources.  The long quotation in the second paragraph is from an article, “Arizona Revisited” (archive ref PRI 5/7/7: we think it was published in Travel & Leisure Magazine 1974).  Other quotations are from Midnight itself, Margin Released, and Instead of the Trees.   The latter, published in 1977, was a very belated finale to the trilogy of descriptive autobiographies.   The Priestley Companion includes several key pieces from Midnight, including the first part of The Grand Canyon, and is probably easier to get hold of through libraries.


77. The Living Story of Bradford’s Glory: The Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

“My aim is to weave for you a story that shall be like a beautiful fabric, rich and varied … the Living Story of Bradford’s Glory”.  This week, meet The Book of Words of the Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931.

Cover of Book of Words, Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

Cover of Book of Words, Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

This huge and ambitious event took place in Peel Park, from 13-18 July.   It was intended to complement the Imperial Wool Industries Fair at Olympia Hall, showcasing Bradford’s wool trade to the world.  Wool was the source of the city’s growth and prosperity, but by this time, the trade was in decline, the worldwide markets badly affected by the Depression.

Detail with drawing of trumpeters from title page of Book of Words, Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

Detail from title page of Book of Words, Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

The story followed the conventional outline of “Briton, Roman, Saxon, Norman, Plantagenet, Stuart and the industrial Bradford of later times”.  Each episode was written by a well-known author or dramatist, notably Phyllis Bentley, who contributed the Norman section.  Alongside plenty of references to wool, audiences learned about vikings before their conversion to Christianity, Robin Hood and his merry men, the Bolling Hall ghost (“Pity poor Bradford!”), the cruel conditions of child labour during the 19th century, and of course the story which gave the city its coat of arms: the Bradford boar.

The Pageant must have been a wonderful sight: 7,500 performers, a chorus of 500, orchestra of 150 and a choir of 300 children, creating a “lavish spectacle” in their “gorgeous costumes”.

Advertisement for Novello, Bradford's fashion house, featuring stylish lady in red gown with elaborate hairstyle and cigarette, back cover of Book of Words, Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

Advertisement for Novello, Bradford’s fashion house, back cover of Book of Words, Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

The Book of Words contains not only the scripts for the Pageant, but historical notes and masses of illustrations and photographs.   The marvellous advertisements for shops and businesses in Bradford are particularly appealing: from dolly tubs for washing to luncheons for two shillings, Ballito ankle-clinging stockings to “Wil-be-fort” wet weather wear.

Front cover of Programme for the Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931, showing knight with banner

Front cover of Programme for the Historical Pageant of Bradford, 1931

Special Collections also has other Pageant publications: the Programme and the Souvenir Book.  The former gives us more detail about the Pageant, including a map of the site.  The latter is full of wonderful photographs plus stories and articles by well-known local authors, such as Halliwell Sutcliffe on the aforementioned Bolling Hall ghost.   Windyridge author Willie Riley contributed “The Message of the Moors” to the Souvenir and “The Volcanic Peep-show” to the Programme: his Archive includes his own copies of these documents.

Another local author also joined in: J.B. Priestley contributed a piece to the Souvenir in which his famous Bradford character Jess Oakroyd from the Good Companions talks about the Pageant: “a champion idea” which will show that although the city may seem have to grown out of nothing during the 19th century, its roots are very deep.  Both Priestley and Riley emphasise the value of the event in brightening up people’s drab lives and making them feel part of something important (it’s estimated in this useful article by Jim Greenhalf in the Telegraph and Argus that 30,000 Bradford people got involved in some way!).

Want to explore further?  The records held by the West Yorkshire Archives Service can tell us more about the creation of the Pageant.

70. “City offices, crowded buses, tubes, cheap tea-shops, little pubs in decaying old City streets”: J.B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement.

Angel Pavement (1930) was J.B. Priestley’s follow-up to the huge success of The Good Companions.   His improved finances freed him to write another large, broad novel.  However, while the latter is picaresque, light-hearted, escapist, Angel Pavement shows Priestley using his characteristic humour, sympathy, vivid characters and strong set-pieces to create a novel much darker in tone and which fixes (traps!) his characters in one place: London.

Bookshop window display for Angel Pavement, D. Wilson, Kirkgate, Bradford (archive ref PRI21_4_37)

Bookshop window display for Angel Pavement, D. Wilson, Kirkgate, Bradford (archive ref PRI 21/4/37)

J.B. Priestley is often thought of as a novelist of Bradford.  As we’ve seen, he wrote incredibly well about his home city.  But London was also Priestley’s home for many years and he wrote just as well about its scenes and people.  He moved there during the early 1920s to make his career as a writer; his most famous home was no. 3 The Grove, Highgate, where Coleridge lived; even after he no longer lived in London, he kept his Albany flat there.  Priestley wrote about the City of London  in Angel Pavement, because it had haunted him for years, although naturally the novel follows its characters across the whole of London.

Angel Pavement also illustrates Priestley’s understanding of and skill in depicting the world of work and people in groups.   He was drawing on experience: he had worked in a wool office as a teenager, spent five years in the Army during the war, and, even when he took up the solitary work of a writer, was active in theatrical productions and all kinds of committees and campaigns.   Many of his novels in particular focus on a workplace or collaborative project: Bright Day (film-making), Lost Empires (music hall), Festival at Farbridge (the Festival of Britain), The Image Men (universities and advertising), Let the People Sing (saving a Market Hall) …  Angel Pavement also reflects his growing concern about society, as he shows how difficult life was becoming for poorer people and small firms in the Slump.  Unlike those in The Good Companions, for his Angel Pavement people, there was “no easy fairy-tale escape.  They are the victims of circumstance – and the cruel financial chaos of our time is part of that circumstance”.

Angel Pavement popular edition cover

Angel Pavement popular edition cover

Priestley brought all these ingredients together to tell the story of a struggling small firm who make “inlays and veneers for the furniture trade”: Twigg and Dersingham, on the first floor of no. 8 Angel Pavement.   A mysterious rather piratical stranger, Mr Golspie, virtually takes over the firm, bringing it to ruin and leading its staff into personal disasters.   Despite this grim plot, there are many delights along the way.  The novel is both a wonderful picture of everyday life in London in the 1930s and a very strong story with resonance today.  For many readers it ranks with Bright Day as Priestley’s greatest novel.   The Priestley Special Collection of books  includes fifteen different editions, evidence of the title’s continuing popularity, and it has just been re-printed by Great Northern.

Sources: quotations from Angel Pavement or Priestley’s introduction to the 1937 Everyman edition.  I am also indebted to the works of Michael Nelson and Holger Klein.

67. From the Shadows of Exile: the autobiography of Nellie Driver

From the Shadows of Exile is the unpublished autobiography of Nellie Driver (1914-1981), from Nelson, Lancashire.  She was active in the British Union of Fascists and was imprisoned as a result during the Second World War under Defence Regulation 18b.   The autobiography has been a key source for researchers, offering a detailed, first-hand perspective on the BUF in the North-West and its place in the life of a working-class woman.

Nellie Driver (marked with X) at BUF Speaker School with Raven Thomson.  Source unknown.

Nellie Driver (marked with X) at BUF Speakers’ School, reproduced in From the Shadows of Exile.

Shadows covers Nellie’s difficult childhood and youth, blighted by illness, business failure, unemployment and extreme poverty (at one stage she and her mother relied on driftwood for fires and neighbours for food).   Both women joined the BUF in 1935, when the movement was seeking to increase its membership among unemployed textile workers in the North West.   Nellie was personally drawn to fascism because of the apparent solutions it offered to the Depression, because of its romantic appeal, and above all because it gave her a direction in life.  She had previously sought this in religion but had become disillusioned.  Nellie came to play a vital role: she was organiser for her district, attended meetings, wrote to newspapers, sold party publications such as Action, put leaflets through doors …  The autobiography is most detailed on her time in prison, first at Holloway and then on the Isle of Man, covering routines, the people she met and the evolution of her ideas: she was drawn again to religion, and eventually became a Roman Catholic.

Card from Nellie Driver's cell door during her imprisonment, reproduced in From the Shadows of Exile.

Card from Nellie Driver’s cell door during her imprisonment, reproduced in From the Shadows of Exile. Note the deletion of “No religion” and replacement with “R.C.” i.e. Roman Catholic.

The autobiography is part of a collection of material about fascism in Northern England gathered by Stuart Rawnsley while researching his PhD at the University of Bradford, Fascism and Fascists in Britain in the 1930’s (1981).  It also includes The Mill, an unpublished novel by Driver based on her experiences, and interviews with her and other BUF supporters.  It links with many of our other collections from the 1930s and 1940s: e.g. Object 64, the experiences of another (non-fascist) internee, and Object 38 , J.B. Priestley on the terrible poverty experienced in the North during the 1930s.

PS Our copies of Shadows are reproductions: originals are held by Local Studies at Nelson Library.  In addition to Dr Rawnsley’s thesis, I found this article by David Mayall extremely useful in writing the above:  “Rescued from the Shadows of Exile: Nellie Driver, autobiography, and the British Union of Fascists”, in The Politics of Marginality, Cass, 1990 (a preview which omits some pages can be seen via Google Books).

51. “The Story of My Trip to Russia”: Notebook from an Independent Labour Party Visit to the Soviet Union, 1932

This week’s Object tells the story of a trip to the Soviet Union in 1932.  The visit was organised by the Independent Labour Party and included “doctors, economists, technicians.  French professor – a Bolton mill girl – an army officer and his wife and an MP”.  They travelled out on the Cooperitza, “one of the six ships of the Five Year Plan”: their packed itinerary covered Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow and incorporated visits to museums, a prison, a workers’ club, a pioneer camp and factories.

The trip is brought to life for us thanks to a notebook put together by one of the party.  It contains  jottings, photographs, press cuttings and postcards.  Here we see the ship and life on board.

Cooperitza at Hay's Wharf, book stall, talks on board  (ref RUS p.2)

Cooperitza at Hay’s Wharf, book stall, talks on board (ref RUS p.2)

The writer is fascinated both by the communist regime and by the region’s history, experiencing for example Catherine the Great’s palace, where they see the famous Amber Room, “One room was all amber – priceless walls, floors, ornaments – casecaskets – all amber – like a huge jewelled casket turned inside out … I have never seen such wealth”.

Tsarskoe Seloe (Catherine the Great's palace) (RUS p.15)

Tsarskoe Seloe (Catherine the Great’s palace) (RUS p.15)

The writer frequently compares old and new uses of buildings, as here with the Smolny, boarding school turned government building.

The Smolny and Lenin statue (RUS p. 17 detail)

The Smolny and Lenin statue (RUS p. 17 detail)

Much of the notebook is concerned with the practicalities of travel (“Bugs!”) and food e.g. on the train to Kiev, “Our supplies of food went with us.  We were told to drink no water on the way & were given 28 bottles of soda water, 14 long loaves of black bread, 14 tins fish, 14 tins meat – no butter”.   The author carefully records details of the new Soviet systems e.g. the prison regime, or how marriages and divorces worked. They also note problems such as poverty, their guide’s fear of photography and the danger of bandits on the Kiev train.

Wayside station, Moscow travel, station Leningrad (RUS p.18)

Wayside station, Moscow travel, station Leningrad (RUS p.18)

The notebook’s creator acknowledges that “One cannot presume to tell the truth about Russia after seeing 3 of its great cities and from long train journeys across its flat surfaces”.  However, “I can record certain things which I saw and tell the story of my trip to Russia”: the notebook with its rich detail and visual appeal certainly does that very effectively.

Tantalisingly, we do not know the identity of the writer.  The notebook was given to the University long ago by Bradford Libraries (who had it from someone who had it from someone who was a friend of the author, but the letter we have does not include that crucial detail).   Parts of the text read formally as if intended for public consumption and there is evidence of editing; others are purely notes.  It would be a fascinating task for a researcher to try to work out the writer’s identity and to find out more about the journey.  Please contact Special Collections if you already have ideas about the writer’s identity or are interested in exploring this further.

40. Citizens of a New Age: Dimitrije Mitrinovic and his followers


This week’s Object is a photograph of an intriguing individual: Dimitrije Mitrinović, a utopian philosopher who made his home in England and gathered a group of followers  who wished to learn how to become citizens of a new society.  Mitrinović held that there was a need for a new stage in human development, transcending individualism to form a collective consciousness.  To support such change, he believed it was essential to draw on the wisdom of the past by researching the history of religion, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the arts.

These researches and the many connections he and his followers had with others active in politics and culture can be explored via their library and archive.  We already encountered the library in Object 17.  It is rich in rare books and pamphlets on politics, philosophy, religions, the occult, and social thought, gathered to help the groups draw on past wisdom.  We are exploring ways to fund the proper cataloguing of the archive, which will offer a fantastic resource for research on the interwar period.

Mitrinović was born in 1887 in Herzegovina.  As a young man he was active in the Young Bosnia movement opposing the Austro-Hungarian empire  and, while at Munich University, was linked with Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter group.  He moved to London in 1914 to avoid conscription (he was also at risk because of his politics).  There he formed links with other exiled Yugoslavs and gave classes in philosophy and other subjects.  In 1920 he began a famous series of articles about his ideas in the New Age (edited by A.R. Orage): World Affairs by “M.M. Cosmoi”.

Mitrinovic with members of the New Europe Group, 1930s

Mitrinović’s charisma, new ideas and deeply “idiosyncratic and eccentric” prose attracted followers including H.C. Rutherford, Violet MacDermot, Valerie Cooper, Ellen Mayne, Philip Mairet, David Shillan, Nobel prize-winner Frederick Soddy, and (a link to later counter-cultures) Alan Watts.  He and his followers formed or were active in various groups notably the Chandos Group, New Europe Group and the New Britain Movement.

After his death in 1953, Mitrinović’s followers formed the New Atlantis Foundation (recently renamed the Mitrinović Foundation) to continue and promote his ideas.  The Foundation is still active and continues to support our work at Bradford.

(Credits: Quotations are from Andrew Rigby’s biography “Dimitrije Mitrinović” (Sessions, 2006), to which, along with his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, I am indebted for help with understanding Mitrinović’s often obscure writings).

Objects in Retrospect

No new Object this week: curator Alison Cullingford is away.  We’re back on the 7th, with more delights to discover.

Have you seen all 39 Objects so far?  If not, here’s a few recent highlights:

Glimpses of 1880s Bradford

1882 saw a a big day for Bradford when the new Technical School was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales.   The students commemorated the day by creating a beautiful silk panel.  Too fragile to show, but everyone can see it online.  In 1889, Bradford entrepeneur Joseph Riley made an exciting and difficult journey across Europe, which he later wrote up to share with his family.

1930s in the news

Peace campaigner and artist Peggy Smith sketched politicians, writers, artists and musicians for the newspapers.  Bradford author J.B. Priestley made an English Journey: find out what the regional newspapers made of his candid remarks about their towns.