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Wallowing in Priestley

Updated on November 13, 2009
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Priestley at the BBC
Priestley at the BBC

Don't criticise yourself for having never heard of J B Priestley. No, honestly, it's not your fault. Why should you have? He's long dead and long out of fashion.

These days, it seems writers are trying too hard to impress, to shock, to show off their vocabulary and knowledge. The words are too often about the writer, not the subject. But Priestley could write like nobody else before or since.

In the 1990s, I had heard bits and pieces about Priestley, not enough to generate much interest and unconsciously filed him away with Dickens or Walpole, old dead people. But after watching the black-and-white film of his play, An Inspector Calls, on TV one afternoon, I decided to find out a bit more.

There was a biography in the library. Although the book was satisfactory in telling his story, the unrepentantly Northern working-class author, John Braine, was irritating in its repetition of Priestley's Northern working-class roots: I decided to try the real thing.

I asked at the library about what seemed his most appealing work, English Journey. The poor librarian spent almost half an hour searching in the 'stacks', where the unasked-for books were kept out of sight, before returning with a green, cloth-bound hardback.

Once I started reading, it was difficult to stop. Partly because of the long distance between paragraph breaks, but largely because each sentence was so well-crafted that many deserved to be re-read. This wasn't just reading. It was wallowing, blanketed in this thoughtful, insightful, authoritative voice. I was hooked, then later had the most extraordinary feeling of his prescience. I was reading this in 1993, 60 years since Priestley had written his account of England between the wars, and realised that nothing had changed.

His description of unemployed miners and shipbuilders in the north-east, skilled men with no jobs to use these skills, could have been written about the England in which I was reading. Shipyards were closing, miners were unemployed, there was the same air of bleakness around the country now as there was then.

A great example is when he visits the Nottingham Forest versus Notts County football derby.

"Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game," he observes. "The heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player-selling system; the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds ... whenever any decision against their side has been given; but the fact remains that is not yet spoilt, and it has gone out and conquered the world."

It was astonishing that, 60 years later, these same complaints were voiced at football matches and in pubs across the country. And continue to do so.

And here, he visits Southampton, and is unimpressed with the "dirty little shops."

"They are slovenly, dirty and inefficient. They only spoil the goods they offer for sale ... One large clean shed, a decent warehouse, would be better than these pitiful establishments."

He's invented out-of-town retail parks!

All this foresight fitted with Priestley's pre-occupation with time, notably in his so-called Time plays, where the action moves from the present to the past, then to the future and so on. But more than anything, it was the concise and fluid writing which impressed so much. It was like sitting in the company of a wise old man and feeling immensely privileged. 

I borrowed as much of his work as I could from the library, read him and about him, couldn't walk past a charity shop without going in to search through the old books. One day, I found a cloth-bound 1940 edition of the Good Companions which cost 50p. It opens with a vivid description of the Pennines, as though the reader is swooping down until the multitude of men marching to the football match are visible, then into the thoughts of one of them. This fantastic painting with words is all through his works, and either inspires one to write better, or give up altogether, because it's already been done.

English Journey has been reprinted many times, but is now only available in paperback, or a marvellous Folio Society edition packed with contemporary photographs, which a friend gave me. But this was not enough: I dearly wanted, more than any other possession, an old copy of this outstanding collection of outstanding sentences, like the one I had first read.

There was only one thing to do. In June, 2003, after countless fruitless charity shop visits, I drove 200 miles to Hay-on-Wye, home to 30 or 40 second-hand bookshops. As it was the English summer, there was a constant light drizzle throughout the morning as I went from bookshop to bookshop, from the smallest one-roomed cottage to the vast warehouse that was once the local cinema, asking the same question: "English Journey by J B Priestley?"

Surely in this little town, devoted to books, there had to be one copy.

"Addyman," said an old chap in one tiny antique shop. "If anyone's got it, it'll be Addyman." Off I went. Hay-on-Wye's bookshops are more like little departments of a big store, working in co-operation rather than competition.

"J B Priestley?" I asked at Addyman. I wasn't too sure now if it was travel or literature.

"That'll be upstairs," said the lady, so upstairs I went. Angel Pavement, Margin Released, English ... it can't be. I took my Holy Grail from the shelf, then put it straight back again and took this picture.

The end of the journey
The end of the journey

Then I took it back downstairs.

"Four pounds," said the lady. It was just beginning to sink in. After ten years, after 200 miles, I had a 1937 copy of English Journey in my hand, in my possession.

"I would have given you £30," I said. I found it hard to speak, even to breathe.

When I got home, hardly anybody understood what this journey meant to me. But I knew. I've re-read it since, re-wallowed. It's great to know it's on my bookshelf, just in case I need it.


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