Tag Archives: First World War

73. My Life on the Variety Stage: J.B. Priestley’s Lost Empires

The novel Lost Empires (1965) is J.B. Priestley’s late masterpiece.  Like so many of his finest works, it is set in the long-lost Bradford of his teens, a vivid world of larger-than-life characters, proud provincial cultures – and music-hall.

Priestley loved music-hall.  It was part of what he called his “broad-brow” appreciation of any cultural experience that was life-affirming, from classical music to football.  However, as with his other explorations of pre-war Bradford, he could see the dark side of what might otherwise be cosy nostalgia.

Priestley’s naive young hero, aspiring artist Richard Herncastle, joins his uncle Nick Ollanton’s astonishing Indian Magician illusionist act.  Richard finds romance and glamour, but also betrayal and unhappiness, though, in keeping with the picaresque comic English tradition which strongly influenced Priestley’s novels, he eventually gains wisdom and love with the right woman.

Lost Empires front cover, Popular Library 1965.

Lost Empires front cover, Popular Library 1965.  The “major motion picture” did not happen though readers may remember the 1986 Granada TV series, starring Colin Firth as Richard.

Lost Empires shares with The Good Companions Priestley’s relish for describing the day to day experiences of travelling artists.  It is a less sunny reading experience however, partly because 1960s freedoms enabled Priestley to write more candidly about relationships, but above all because of the reader’s sense of the shadow of the Great War.

Priestley had recently, almost fifty years on, written directly for the first time about his painful Great War experiences, in Margin Released.   He now addressed and re-used this in fiction.  When the War breaks out, Nick decides to take the magic act to the United States; Richard tells Uncle Nick that he won’t come along:  like Priestley himself, he has joined the Army.  Uncle Nick’s bitter response feels like the older, wiser Priestley directly addressing his younger self, who could not possibly know what he was blithely walking into.  Nick has visited Germany, has seen their military might, and he understands that,

“The war isn’t going to last months, it’s going to last years and years – and every year it’ll get worse.  You’re asking to be put into a bloody mincing machine … We’re in for the biggest bloody massacre of all time.  And you can’t even wait for them to fetch you”.

But just so we aren’t too tempted to see Richard and young Jack Priestley as one, Priestley used a literary device to distance himself from this character who shared so much of his own story: framing the book with a prologue and epilogue in which he as JBP the well-known writer prepares Herncastle’s recorded stories for publication as this book …

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41. Two 22nd Decembers: Merry Christmasses at Bradford Technical College

Two seasonal favourites, among the rare surviving materials about student life in the Bradford Technical College Archive: programmes for events organised by the Students’ Union, thirteen years apart, both on the 22nd December.

The first happened in 1903: an annual social evening, featuring musical selections, dancing and sleight of hand tricks plus, tantalisingly, “&c &c”.  This single sheet has survived because it was bound with the student magazine The Collegian.

The other is  an Entertainment of Convalescent Soldiers in 1916.  We have the complete programme, so we can reconstruct the day: see the middle pages and the back cover on our flickr stream.

The Entertainment combined promotion of the cutting edge technological facilities at the College and jolly treats.  There were visits to the newish departments we saw earlier on and demonstrations of the production and properties of “liquid air” i.e. air which has been cooled until it is liquid.  The demos showed the “effect of great cold on common objects: flowers, beefsteak, rubber, whisky, grapes, egg, mercury and metals”.  There was also a humourist, a ventriloquist, a cinematograph, and plenty of music.

We’ll be looking at more recent student activities in several of next year’s Objects, so please do come back and see us then.  We would like to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a fantastic 2012!

28. Priestley and the Great War: Chapman of Rhymes, Margin Released

This week: two works by J.B. Priestley which tell the story of his experiences in the First World War in very different ways.

Priestley in uniform, as a lance-corporal

Priestley in uniform, as a lance-corporal

The first, The Chapman of Rhymes, is a little book of verse published in 1918.  At the time, Jack Priestley had been serving in the British Army since volunteering in 1914 for the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding regiment; he later became an officer in the Devonshires.  Priestley had endured the full horror of the Great War, and had been seriously wounded twice, in a dug-out collapsed by a trench-mortar, and later in a gas attack.

The poems in Chapman do not reflect Priestley’s war experiences. They were written earlier, part of his juvenilia (Object 12).  Unlike his later works, there is no sense of his personality or background.  The verses resemble the works of late 19th century poets such as Alfred Austin and Austin Dobson, with mock medieval subject matter and choice of language  (e.g. “shoon” for shoes).  There are also echoes of Swinburne, Kipling, William Morris and de la Mare.

Chapman, despite its pre-War content, brings home the reality of Priestley’s war experience.  He did not expect to survive and become a successful author, represented by many published works.  He thought that, like all his Bradford boyhood friends and Company comrades, he would be killed.  So he had the verses published, “entirely at my own expense, during that war when I felt, foolishly, I ought to leave something behind”.

Later, Priestley regretted the publication: as he put it: “still alive and coming to my senses, I destroyed every copy I could lay hands on, now well aware of my folly”.  He realised that his literary talents were better suited to essays, novels, journalism and above all drama.  To respect his wishes, I decided not to seek to quote from Chapman here.

Image from cover of Lost Generation, an anti-war pamphlet by Priestley

Image from cover of Lost Generation, a pamphlet by Priestley

Priestley seldom wrote directly about the Great War until, almost fifty years later, he created “Carry on!  Carry on!”, the dream-like and incredibly powerful middle section of his memoir Margin Released.   In the honed and vivid prose of this remarkable piece, he evokes the horror, humour and strangeness of his experiences.  His writing blazes with anger at the waste of the lives of his friends:

“The British command specialised in throwing men away for nothing. The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come out of the chateaux with polo mallets and beaten their brains out.  Call this class prejudice if you like, so long as you remember … that I went into that war without any such prejudice,  free of any class feeling. No doubt I came out of it with a chip on my shoulder; a big, heavy chip, probably some friend’s thigh-bone”.

(Thank you to John Brooker for a useful discussion about the style of Chapman.  Priestley quotations from Instead of the Trees and Margin Released.  More about JBP’s WW1 experiences in “J.B. Priestley’s Service in World War 1”, my chapter published in Bradford in the Great War, and Priestley’s Wars, published by Great Northern.