J. B. Priestley — Novelist, Playwright, Broadcaster, Historian & Essayist
Priestley was Something of a Celebrity in Stratford…
In the summer of 1963 I used to cycle to Stratford and back everyday. It was a good bike, a Jack Taylor lightweight racer in sky blue, with drop handle bars, a cotterless chain set (very trendy back then), very thin tyres, and a very thin, hard saddle. I loved it. Out of necessity it had a small saddle bag into which I crammed a rain cape, sandwiches and whatever book I was reading at the time which, back then, was anything by J. B. Priestley, most notably, that summer, The Thirty-First of June. It was a very funny book (still is), and I was making it last.
At that time Priestley was living at Kissing Tree House, a splendid Georgian pile on the edge of Alveston, a small village a couple of miles out of town. The house, painted white, still stands at the far side of what was then a paddock, shielded by a tall, thin hedge. It was, and still is, a lovely house. I think Priestley first saw the place from the top of a double-decker bus when he was travelling around England in the 1930s, researching for his book English Journey.
Priestley was something of a celebrity in Stratford in those days, always giving a speech on Shakespeare’s Birthday: not at the posh lunch for the invited dignitaries, but on a platform outside what is today Marks & Spencer in Bridge Street. The Speech was always funny, often poking fun at Shakespeare, and invariably ending with a plug for the Labour Party.
And it was one evening, riding home that I saw J.B. Priestley walking toward me along a narrow footpath between his thin high hedge and the main road.
I knew it was him because he looked like the photograph on the back of my book, with his jowly face, and his pipe and trilby hat, and the ubiquitous three piece suit; and a walking stick with which he kept poking the grass verge. When we passed each other he raised his hat…
“ Good evening.”
“ Good evening,” I replied.
The same thing happened each evening after that for a couple of weeks, until one evening he made a sign with his stick for me to stop.
I clambered off my bike.
“ A Jack Taylor I see, a good County Durham maker. My name is…”
“ J. B. Priestley, I know. I’ve read a lot of your books, really enjoyed The Thirty First of June…”
“ Let me show you something.”
He then moved closer to the hedge and pointed with his walking stick.
“ There, can you see?”
I craned my neck…
“ Look a bit a closer…”
“ A birds nest?”
“ Yes, a blackbird. I think there must be some young.”
“ I need your help.”
“ I’m going away and I need someone to keep an eye on them. They’re sort of my tenants you see,” he smiled, “ will you keep an eye?”
“ Yes, yes, of course.”
I was just about to add that perhaps he might like to sign my copy of The Thirty-First of June, but he was gone.
“ Good man,” he shouted as he strode away, “ so glad you enjoyed the book.”
And I did keep an eye on the blackbirds.
In 1949 Heinemann published a new book by Priestley called Delight, which is a collection of magazine and newspaper pieces written by the novelist and playwright over the preceding twenty-five years or more, plus some BBC radio stuff, with some newer pieces written especially for the book.
My copy is a 1951 Readers Union imprint, with a dire warning that it is only for sale “…to its members…” either in the City of Westminster, or Letchworth Garden City. Their purpose was to give a worthy book a second chance to reach a reading public who may have missed it, or couldn’t afford it first time round.
Priestley’s Delight is a very worthy book indeed, and it would seem one that Heinemann neglected to promote well enough, as did the Readers Union.
There are over one-hundred short articles in the book, ranging in subject from Lawn Tennis, Bragging, Shakespeare, to the Marx Brothers and Bass Voices, plus ninety-five other subjects spanning 238 pages. The paper is still war time quality, but does the job.
Priestley’s preface is an excellent piece too, it has the feel of one of his fireside chats from World War Two about it.
“ I have always been a grumbler. All the records, going back to earliest childhood, establish this fact. Probably I arrived here a malcontent, convinced that I had been sent to the wrong planet. (And I feel even now there is something in this.) I was designed for the part, for I have a sagging face, a weighty underlip, what I am told is a ‘saurian eye,’ [lizard like] and a rumbling but resonant voice from which it is difficult to escape. Money could not buy a better grumbling outfit.”
He goes on:
“ In the West Riding of Yorkshire, where I spent my first nineteen years, all local customs and prejudices favour the grumbler. To a good West Riding type there is something shameful about praise, that soft southern trick. But fault-finding and blame are constant and hearty… So the twilight of Victoria and the brief but golden afternoon of Edward the Seventh discovered Jackie Priestley grumbling away, a novice of course but learning fast…Then came the First World War, in which I served with some of the dourest unwearying grumblers that even the British Army has ever known, and [I] was considered to hold my own with the best of them. After that, a rapidly ripening specimen, I grumbled my way through Cambridge, Fleet Street, and various fields of literary and dramatic enterprise. I have grumbled all over the world, across seas, on mountains, in deserts. I have grumbled as much at home as abroad, and so I have been the despair of my womenfolk.”
You don’t get writing like that these days, more’s the pity, where a small part of a long lifetime can be told in 150 words.
On page 32 there is a piece called ‘And the Marx Brothers’:
“One afternoon, nearly twenty years ago, some long-forgotten business took me to Golders Green, and when I had finished and was walking towards the tube station there came a sudden drenching downpour. I had no raincoat, so I hurried into a cinema, more for shelter than amusement. It was a large solemn cinema, almost empty, and I felt as quiet and remote in there as if I were sitting at the bottom of the sea. The news reel came and went. There was the usual fancy tricks with the lights. The feature film noisily arrived. I stared idly at the reception desk of an hotel in Florida. A fantastic character entered, and without speaking a word, took the letters from the rack and casually tore them up, drank the ink, and began to eat the telephone. I sat up, lost in wonder and joy. The film was The Cocoanuts, and with it the Marx Brothers had entered my life.”
In post-Second World War Britain it would be the plays of Priestley and, to a lesser extent, George Bernard Shaw, that filled the regional repertory theatres night after night, with London’s West End audiences now preferring the newer and cooler swagger of our aforementioned friend Terence Rattigan.
People knew where they were with Priestley: hadn’t he seen them through the early part of the war, especially during the Battle of Britain, with the wireless talks, talks that attracted more listeners (some 16m) than Churchill’s stirring oratory. When Churchill’s aides heard about this discrepancy in listening numbers they persuaded the Prime Minister that Priestley’s programme must be axed, suggesting he was far too left wing, perhaps even a communist. The BBC did as they were told.
Born in Yorkshire in 1894 (same year as Morgan) Priestley used his birthplace heritage to great effect in his novels, and perhaps, to even better effect, in his plays, either way he could write the hind-legs off several donkeys at the same time. He loved the idea of time shifts, which is as good a way as any of telling a ghost story. His play, An Inspector Calls, will remain a moral classic.
In 2018 Rosalie Batten’s excellent memoir of her time spent as Priestley’s Personal Secretary (while he was living at Kissing Tree House) was published. It is an extraordinary account of the man — in all his moods — during his later years, and how both their lives were changed by each other.
J. B. Priestley: 1894–1984