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.
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).
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.