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 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 …