Tag Archives: Novels

85. Quill the Hedgehog and the Keighley Detectives: John Waddington-Feather’s Yorkshire writings

Meet Quill the Hedgehog!  In a series of books by Yorkshire author John Waddington-Feather, Quill and his animal friends have many adventures fighting the wicked plans of alleycat Mungo Brown and his Wastelander rats.

Front cover of Quill's Adventures in Kangarooland by John Waddington-Feather

John first created Quill during the 1960s to express concern about the environment: Mungo and co destroy and pollute the lands they take from the woodland creatures.  In Quill’s Adventures in Grozzieland, Mungo takes over the fungus folk and plans to blot out the sun!  This volume was nominated for the Carnegie Medal in 1989.

The Quill stories are partly inspired by the fate of Yorkshire’s West Riding countryside during the rapid urbanisation of the 19th century, the downside of the wool industry boom.  In a recent email, John observed that a chapter in Quill’s Adventures in the Great Beyond was inspired by an oil painting of Keighley in Cliffe Castle Museum (itself once a mill-owner’s mansion).   The painting shows the first industrial chimneys appearing in a rural scene; within a few decades Keighley was a “dirty, smoke-ridden mill and engineering town of over 40,000 people. Slums appeared overnight and the rivers and streams around the town polluted”.  This image from the cover of Great Beyond shows Quill and Horatio the cat confronted by the changed landscape of their home.


Quill is just part of the story.  John Waddington-Feather is a prolific author, a schoolteacher (now retired) and an Anglican priest.  Born in Keighley in 1933, he attended Keighley Boys’ Grammar School and graduated in English at Leeds University in 1954.  John has been based in Shrewsbury for many years, where he has been a visitor and assistant chaplain at the prison. He retains strong connections with Yorkshire: former Chair of the J.B. Priestley Society and now one of its Vice-Presidents, John has a scholarly interest in Yorkshire dialect (e.g. John Hartley) and literature.

Front cover of Ira and the Cycling Club Lion by John Waddington-Feather, showing image of Keighley Cycling Club

Front cover of Ira and the Cycling Club Lion by John Waddington-Feather, showing image of Keighley Cycling Club

John’s Yorkshire heritage can be seen throughout his writings.  Witness the Blake Hartley series, which features detectives Blake Hartley and Ibrahim Khan investigating crimes around Keighworth (i.e. Keighley) and the Dales while dealing with their difficult boss.  Bodies found in the graveyard or on the allotment lead the pair into deadly webs of international crime, money-laundering and terrorism …

John also writes for the stage, including two light-hearted plays in verse, Garlic Lane and Easy Street.  These are based on his childhood memories, as many of  his short stories and essays (some collected in the above book).  Yorkshire features again in two historical romances set around the Second World War: Illingworth House and Chance-Child.

Many of John’s writings also reflect his Christian faith and his experiences as a priest: he has written many hymns, songs and poems and edits the Poetry Church series on Christian poetry.  His play The Lollipop Man was based on his experiences of working with homeless people.

Special Collections staff are working with John to develop an archive of his work and interests, including typescripts, correspondence and of course the books.   Much of the archive is born-digital, reflecting John’s early adoption of new technology such as selling his books online via his website.  Now he’s finding new audiences via the Kindle e-reader!   The Blake Hartley mysteries  are proving particularly popular; the Quill titles are now being added.

80. The Fumes of Latakia: J.B. Priestley’s Pipes

This week, some very special objects from the J.B. Priestley Archive: Priestley’s tobacco pipes!   We have over seventy pipes, plus the paraphenalia needed for using them: tobacco tins and pouches, matchbooks, and a bowl for pipes Priestley was currently using.

A couple of J.B. Priestley's pipes, plus a hollowed-out book used to hold them, on show at the Picturing Priestley exhibition, Ilkley, 2006

A couple of J.B. Priestley’s pipes, plus a hollowed-out book used to hold them, on show at the Picturing Priestley exhibition, Ilkley, 2006

The pipes and paraphenalia are important because pipe smoking is crucial to understanding Priestley: as an individual, throughout his writing, and as part of his public image.

Smoking was one of Priestley’s greatest pleasures in life: “I don’t know anything in this lower world of taste and smell that has given me so much pleasure as tobacco” (Rain upon Godshill, 1939).

J.B. Priestley with pipe on seashore, circa 1928 (PRI 22/1/1)

J.B. Priestley with pipe on seashore, circa 1928 (PRI 22/1/1)

More than that, though, he argued that, “Man, the creature who knows he must die, who has dreams larger than his destiny … needs an ally.  (Woman I include here in Man).  Mine has been tobacco.  Even without it I have too often been impatient and intolerant.  Without it I should have been insufferable.  You may retort that I am insufferable anyhow, but, with a pipe nicely going, I do not believe you” (The Moments, 1966).

Naturally, pipes, tobacco and tobacconists crop up all the time in Priestley’s writings.  In Delight, for instance, he wrote about the delight of trying new blends of tobacco and of “lying in a hot bath, smoking a pipe … lost in steam, the fumes of Latakia and the vaguest dreams …”.  He often used pipesmoking in his fiction as an indicator of dreamy, good-humoured characters, think of Jess Oakroyd, Adam Stewart or Mr Smeeth

However, managing a pipe is a complicated business, a hobby which requires care, thought and the aforesaid paraphenalia.  Priestley often advised on these matters in his writings.

His pipes became an iconic part of Priestley the celebrity. Chosen Pipe Smoker of the Year 1979, Priestley is often seen with his pipes in portraits and other images.  Here we see him with another famous pipesmoker and Yorkshireman, prime minister Harold Wilson.

Harold Wilson and J.B. Priestley, with their pipes, at the Opening of the J.B. Priestley Library, 1975 (UNI University of Bradford Archive).

Harold Wilson and J.B. Priestley, with their pipes, at the Opening of the J.B. Priestley Library, 1975 (UNI University of Bradford Archive).

Historian Mark Mason of the J.B. Priestley Society is working with us to clean and identify the pipes.  Eventually we hope to have a full catalogue (there are, apparently, many interesting kinds in Priestley’s large collection) and to match them up with those appearing in photographs and in Priestley’s writings.

Sources: I am indebted to Mark Mason for much of the above, which originally appeared as a post on the Special Collections blog.

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 …

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.

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.

34. “A Long Happy Daydream”: J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions

This week, a look at J.B. Priestley’s first great success, The Good Companions.  Published by Heinemann in 1929, the novel tells the story of three travellers cast adrift from their usual lives who fall in with a concert party, the Dinky Doos. Renamed The Good Companions, the troupe have many adventures, odd encounters, successes and failures and happy endings at last.

Cover of The Good Companions Heinemann 1929

Cover of The Good Companions Heinemann 1929

The tale grew out of Priestley’s love for the picaresque: “ample tales in which the characters go wandering”.  For several years, he had wanted to write such a tale but set in contemporary England: “I saw no reason why the picaresque novel should vanish with the stage-coach”.  However, his financial situation was precarious, his writing driven by immediate needs, so he produced journalism, essays, reviews, novellas, rather than working on this great idea. Co-writing Farthing Hall with well-established author Hugh Walpole at last bought him funds and therefore time to write his 275,000 word epic.

J.B. Priestley with pipe, reading, circa 1930 (PRI 21/4/22)

J.B. Priestley with pipe, reading, circa 1930

In creating The Good Companions, Priestley gave himself “a holiday from anxiety and strain and tragic circumstances, shaping and colouring a long happy daydream”, a much-needed break after the War and the years of his wife Pat’s long illness and death.  Readers of 1929 obviously also felt the need to escape into the huge happy world of the novel.  Their enthusiastic response made the book a best-seller and Priestley a household name.  Its afterlife included a 1931 stage adaptation by Priestley with Edward Knoblock, two films,  a 1974 musical, and a 1980 television series; the novel itself is now back in print.

Priestley was ambivalent about the success of the novel, believing readers demanded more of the same while critics automatically condemned him as a cynical writer of best-sellers.  It can definitely be said that The Good Companions transformed his life and literary career, in particular freeing him financially to explore the new challenge of writing for the theatre, of which more later.