Tag Archives: 1940s

75. “Let us also have fountains – more and more fountains …”: J.B. Priestley’s One Hundred and Fourteen Delights

J.B. Priestley’s Delight (1949) is one of his best-loved and best known books.  A quirky selection box of 114 mini essays, each offering a glimpse of an everyday moment which delighted him.  Altogether they also give a sense of Priestley’s personality, family life, his boyhood in Bradford, and life in the late 1940s.

Front cover of Delight by J.B. Priestley, 1973 Heinemann re-issue

Front cover of Delight by J.B. Priestley, 1973 Heinemann re-issue

The joy of this book is that there are Delights to appeal to everyone.  My own favourites are A walking tour, about the joy of a spring morning in the Dales just after Priestley left the army, Gin and tonic, 1940, which gives a lovely sense of a moment of peace in the pub during the madness of the Blitz, Lawn tennis, and The sound of a football.

Some are famous, such as Fountains, in which Priestley calls for towns and cities to be filled with “fountains – more and more fountains – higher and higher fountains – like wine, like blue and green fire” instead of the “many idiotic things we are given and do not want”.

Some are funny, such as Quietly malicious chairmanship.  Priestley must have sat through many excruciatingly dull meetings to give this insight into how a chairman can ruin an event by pre-empting the speaker’s main point in his introduction, whispering, passing notes, doodling, and taking a cigarette lighter to pieces.

J.B. Priestley addressing an audience, late 1940s, occasion & photographer unknown. Ref: PRI 21/9/24

Accustomed as he was to public speaking … J.B. Priestley addressing an audience, late 1940s, occasion & photographer unknown. Ref: PRI 21/9/24

Some show Priestley’s delight in things one might expect him to like, such as tobacco (Trying new blends, Smoking in hot bath).  Others give new insights into unexpected experiences,  such as the refreshment of Mineral water in bedrooms of foreign hotels, after traipsing round cathedrals etc and drinking too much wine.

The essays often explore the compensations of adulthood: being allowed to wear Long trousers, and No school report, and of age, such as Not going to social events if you don’t want to – he came to realise he wasn’t missing much, and not to care if he did.

 Spine of copy of US edition of Delight (Harper & Brothers, 1949). Book was specially bound for JB and later inscribed by him to Jacquetta Hawkes in 1978 describing it as the most attractive book in his collection

Spine of copy of US edition of Delight (Harper & Brothers, 1949). Book was specially bound for JB and later inscribed by him to Jacquetta Hawkes in 1978 describing it as the most attractive book in his collection

The book has added resonance because it goes against Priestley’s own apparent nature and public image.   As he said in his Preface, or “Grumbler’s Apology”, “I have always been a grumbler”, stemming in part from his Yorkshire background where “to a good West Riding type there is something shameful about praise, that soft Southern trick.  But faultfinding and blame are constant and hearty”.

Naturally, as  a journalist, Priestley often felt compelled to highlight negative things in his essays and broadcasts, speaking for those who could not.  Which might lead readers to complain, as he suggested, “Does this chap never enjoy anything?”.  But of course he did – and Delight beautifully illustrates his talent for evoking positive emotions, especially little bits of happiness, wonder and cosiness in everyday life.

Want to experience Delight for yourself?  It’s in print (60th anniversary edition), plentiful and cheap on the second-hand market, and widely available in public libraries.  If you read it, do let us know your favourite Delight, and if there are modern works (blogs perhaps) which do something similar.

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58. A New and Vital Democracy: J.B. Priestley’s Out of the People

In Out of the People (Collins, 1941), J.B. Priestley set out his views on British society and post-war reconstruction.   It is one of his most eloquent and powerful books.

Front of Out of the People by J.B. Priestley (Collins, 1941)

Priestley called for a “new and vital democracy”, an end to the waste and unfairness of social inequalities, which he had pointed out in English Journey.  He argued that society was already changing for the better: the upheaval of war was shattering old systems and bringing people together to work for a common goal.  The war offered an opportunity to build on these changes rather than going back to old, failed systems as had happened after the First World War.

Priestley had already spoken about these issues in his Postscript broadcasts, but Out of the People gave him the opportunity to explain his ideas, unconstrained by time or the restrictions of wartime broadcasting.

Out of the People was intended to be the first in a series, Vigilant Books, in which eminent writers would explore the issues of post-war reconstruction.  However, paper shortages meant the series was not continued.  Copies of the book offer a physical sense of the privations and atmosphere of the period: the classic 1940s style of the dustjacket and the thin wartime paper with its characteristic grainy quality and poor take-up of ink.

The book also illustrates how Priestley was becoming active in political groups.  Early in 1941 he became chairman of the 1941 Committee, a group of writers who called for a declaration of national objectives after the war.   The Committee suggested the Vigilant Books series to Collins, who keenly took up the idea and commissioned Priestley to write the first.

J.B. Priestley reading, circa 1941, photographer unknown (archive ref PRI 21/8/2)

J.B. Priestley reading, circa 1941, photographer unknown (archive ref PRI 21/8/2)

Later the Committee merged with Forward March, led by Richard Acland, to form Common Wealth.  Common Wealth stood for “common ownership, vital democracy, equal opportunity, colonial freedom and world unity” and was willing to field candidates in by-elections, breaking the Labour-Conservative wartime truce: three were eventually elected.  Priestley briefly chaired Common Wealth, but withdrew because of political disagreements with Acland.

Common Wealth performed poorly in the 1945 election: most members defected to Labour although the group remained active until 1993.  Priestley himself stood in that momentous election, as an Independent candidate in Cambridge, where he came third to a Conservative candidate.

While Priestley’s political activities with Common Wealth and as a parliamentary candidate were unsuccessful, Out of the People and his other writings and broadcasts helped create an atmosphere favourable to the 1945 Labour victory and the creation of the welfare state (although this was much more state-led and top-down than Priestley’s vision).

P.S. Common Wealth’s Archive is held by University of Sussex Special Collections.  I am indebted to their site and to Vincent Brome’s biography of Priestley for much of the above.

53. An Astonishing Burden of Memories: J.B. Priestley’s Bright Day

J.B. Priestley’s writing is at its best when he reflects on the Bradford of his youth, as in this week’s Object, the 1946 novel Bright Day, considered by many to be his masterpiece.

Detail of dustjacket of Bright Day by J.B. Priestley, Heinemann, 1946.

Detail of dustjacket of Bright Day by J.B. Priestley, Heinemann, 1946.

For Priestley this lost Bradford past was a Golden Age: hospitality, conviviality, generosity, music and art, solid comfort, strong community. For example, at Christmas-time,

“Brass bands played and choirs sang in the streets; you went not to one friend’s house but to a dozen; acres of rich pound cake and mince-pies were washed down by cataracts of old beer and port, whisky and rum; the air was fragrant and thick with cigar smoke, as if the very mill chimneys had taken to puffing them; whole warehouses of presents were exchanged; every interior looked like a vast Flemish still-life of turkeys, geese, hams, puddings, candied fruit, dark purple bottles, figs, dates, chocolates, holly, and coloured or gilded paper hats.”

Priestley regretted the loss of these values, eloquently criticising consumer society “admass”, bureaucracy, and growing social isolation (witness his dislike of 1950s Texas, for example).

However, his feelings about his past and Bradford were not simple nostalgia.  After the Great War, his boyhood Bradford was lost to him: all his  friends had been killed when the Bradford Pals were destroyed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.   He never lived in the city again.  It was too full of ghosts.  He had had to leave to build his literary career: Priestley’s success did not always make for an easy relationship with his hometown (to be explored in a later Object).

Detail of cover of Bright Day by J.B. Priestley, Popular Library, no date

Detail of cover of Bright Day by J.B. Priestley, Popular Library, no date. One of many reprints of this very popular work in the Priestley book collection, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

In the grey austerity of 1946, Priestley drew on all these feelings and experiences to create Bright Day.

Gregory Dawson is a “stale and dissatisfied” middle-aged Hollywood scriptwriter.  In a rush to finish a shooting script, to escape distraction, he hides away at a dreary hotel on the Cornish coast.  Two experiences evoke memories of his youth in Bruddersford (Bradford): a chance meeting and the playing by the hotel’s trio of musicians of a special piece of music:

“It was the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat major trio, as I knew at once when the cello began its exquisite quiet tone, slowly and gravely rocking in its immeasurable tenderness.  A few moments later, when the cello went wandering to murmur its regret and the violin with its piercing sweetness curved and rocked the same little tune, I was far away, deep in a lost world and a lost time”.

The vivid memories called forth by the music use Priestley’s own life: work in a wool office, enjoying walks on the moors, becoming an author.  Above all, however, Gregory remembers the magical Alington family, how as a lonely youngster he had been bewitched by their charm, but then came disillusion and tragedy, prefigured in the title quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder”.

As he explores these powerful memories, Gregory begins to find ways forward for his professional and personal problems in the  present.  Priestley’s skill in describing pre-War Bradford and Gregory’s feelings about his past are often rightly praised.  I also find that Priestley’s own experiences in the film world make Gregory’s present more detailed, interesting and believable.  Bright Day is in print, from Great Northern, or plentiful in several editions second-hand.

4. An Excursion to Hell: J.B. Priestley’s 1940 Postscripts

In June 1940, Britain was in danger of invasion after the fall of France.  The British army had to be evacuated from Dunkirk.  However this humiliating defeat took on the qualities of a mythic victory as small ships sailed to rescue the troops.  On the 5th, J.B. Priestley, Bradford-born novelist and playwright, helped create this narrative in the first of his Postscript BBC radio broadcasts, paying tribute to the way the frivolous little steamers had risen to the occasion.  Listen to the BBC Archive recording.

Home from Dunkirk

Home from Dunkirk, which includes the 5 June Postscript

Throughout that momentous summer and early autumn, Priestley continued these weekly broadcasts, reflecting on the Battle of the Britain, the Blitz, the role of women, the Home Guard and much more through personal (often funny) events.  He used his experiences of the poor treatment of soldiers returning from the Great War and the shocking poverty many British people faced in the 1930s to call for a better, fairer society after this War.

J.B. Priestley

J.B. Priestley at his typewriter

The Postscripts are the first (but not the last!) Priestley object in this exhibition because of their immense popularity.  They made him into a media celebrity.  He was already a household name, thanks to his best-selling 1929 novel The Good Companions, his time plays, his prolific journalism, his 1934 English Journey.  But the Postscripts brought Priestley’s reassuring Yorkshire voice into millions of homes, bringing encouragement and inspiration at an incredibly dangerous, difficult and heightened time.  (Though not everyone liked his work, particularly those in the Establishment who disagreed with his politics …).  As he wrote in Margin Released, his 1962 memoir, “To this day middle-aged or elderly men shake my hand and tell me what a ten-minute talk about ducks on a pond or a pie in a shop window meant to them, as if I had given them King Lear or the Eroica”.  It could certainly be argued that his broadcasts helped inspire Britain’s resistance in 1940 and  the election of the 1945 Labour government which founded the welfare state.

You can find out much more about the Postscripts (and the ducks and the pie) in Priestley’s Finest Hour: a series of 70th anniversary articles by the curator of 100 Objects, Alison Cullingford.