Death By Snobbery: The Strange Story of JBP
When I asked if my mother wanted something to read, she instantly requested JB Priestley.
‘The plays?’ I suggested. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘the novels.’
If John Boynton Priestley has undergone something of a rediscovery lately it’s because of his theatre work, but Priestley was known to the older generation for some 26 novels that contained an astonishingly rich amount of social realism. He first found fame as a master of the short essay, working in a wool firm by day and writing at night. He had grown up in a respectable suburb of Bradford, a graceful Victorian town whose destruction at the hands of property developers he later decried.
The First World War broke out when Priestley was twenty, so he joined the Duke of Wellington’s regiment and was invalided by mortar fire, an event that inspired fierce criticism of the officer class in his autobiography ‘Margin Released’. Initially developing a reputation as a humorous writer, his novel ‘Benighted’ was transformed by James Whale into the bizarre Gothic satire ‘The Old Dark House’.
This was followed by the vast picaresque novel that turned him into a national celebrity, ‘The Good Companions’, about a trio of malcontents who join the Dinky Doos, a failing pierrot concert troupe that tours around the rundown towns of Middle England. Beloved by the reading public, it received only lukewarm critical reviews, seemingly because it was written from a middle-class viewpoint at a time when the Great Depression proved so devastating to working class families.
Even so, ‘The Good Companions’ proved remarkably durable, surviving two film adaptations, a TV series and its inevitable transformation into a musical. Its subject matter mitigated the book’s longevity, as the genteel pierrots became part of a vanished world at seaside resorts, to be replaced by pinball machines, Mods and Rockers.
Granada TV made superb versions of both this and ‘Lost Empires’, about a dark romance in the dying days of music hall. They’re available now on DVD.
Priestley’s next novel, ‘Angel Pavement’, was even better; a dense, sweeping portrait of London during times of economic hardship. His pungent descriptions of poverty, unemployment and the fundamental unfairness of English society pointed the way toward a more critical and idealistic left-wing viewpoint, later disdained by Margaret Thatcher.
Priestley reached huge audiences on radio during WWII and continued to develop his playwriting career, delivering his best-known play ‘An Inspector Calls’ in 1946. This difficult, generous, grand lover of life and a great many women simply dropped off of bookshelves – but I discovered there’s yet another reason why good writing can vanish.
Andrew Marr said that Priestley was ‘once too much everywhere. Now he’s not anywhere enough.’ With hindsight it appears that the writer was bullied out of print by the arrogance of the intelligentsia.
The critical darlings of academia, FR Leavis, Orwell, Greene, Woolf, Waugh and co., conspired to disdain and destroy Priestley’s reputation.
He was blanked by them in analyses of great 20th century works for writing about the human condition from the ground, instead of tackling ideas at a more cerebral level. Priestley thought that novels should look to Dickens, Cervantes and Shakespeare (his social detail is extremely Dickensian) and he paid the price for commercial success. He was hated by authors who never had to worry about finding work; Woolf considered him ‘a tradesman of letters’ just as the Bloomsbury Set mocked anyone who sold well.
Priestley’s victimization was mean-spirited and wrong. Here was a theatrical giant who helped found the National Council for Civil Liberties, a radical wartime broadcaster and founding member of CND who helped set up the Albany Trust during homosexual law reform. He was a popular and familiar figure, then too familiar not to be dismantled.
All of which would merely merit a historical footnote were it not for the fact that Priestley’s writing has proven durable and prescient.
‘Angel Pavement’ (1930) is the story of a genteel company upended by a brash new employee. The articles Mr Smeeth reads from his paper could be in today’s tabloids. He is concerned that his children’s growing independence and indifference to his values will damage them. His staff are fearful and exhilarated at the thought of sudden, irrevocable change.
Presenting recognisable behaviour in characters is hardly a talent to be despised, but it would be dull if that were all; it’s not, because Priestley is presenting a forensic, humane indictment of the working English under pressure from all sides. Ultimately his decency and humanity was considered to have undermined his work, a ludicrous idea that with his victorious re-emergence is now mercifully heading for history’s dustbin, returning ‘Angel Pavement’ to its rightful status as one of the greatest London novels.