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Thursday, 5 February 2015

JB PRIESTLEY Wonder Hero (1933)



William Heinemann & Company, fifth UK printing, 1933


  


Half an hour later, Kinney was talking to Shuckleworth on the telephone: 'Well, my idea is for us to make a figure out of him Yes, that's itOh, all kinds of uses Yes, something like that And political And, of course, for advertisingNo, I don't suppose we can keep it up for very long, but what does that matter? Yes, the minute it's cold, we can drop the whole thing Why should it?  Think of the advertising and publicity value.  And we get up a fund for him Well, you'll see what the Chief says.  But I'm certain he'll like the idea.  Anyhow, I shall bring Habble up with me tomorrow Oh, he seems a decent docile little fellow No, no trouble at allWhat.  Oh –– to the News – yes.  Good night.  Hello, is that News?  Oh –– is that you, Tom? Can you? Good! Yes, splash Ready? right––Wonder Hero––'




The Novel:  JB Priestley's seventh published novel tells the ironic and, considering its age, still oddly relevant tale of Charlie Habble, a young single man employed as a chemical engineer in the fictional English Midlands town of Utterton.  Charlie, who is described as 'a decent boy who is still not sure of himself and a bit sulky,' is feeling slightly out of sorts after being jilted by his girlfriend but isn't too upset about it because their relationship, in his view, 'had been cooling off for some months past.'  He lives contentedly enough with his landlady Mrs Fawset and takes pleasure in all the things –– boxing, football, films, smoking, drinking his nightly pint of beer at his local pub The Blue Bell and reading the Daily Tribune –– that a man of his age, class and temperament is expected, indeed actively encouraged, to take pleasure in.

Charlie's humdrum life undergoes a change, however, when he meets an inventor named Otley while drinking at The Blue Bell one night.  Otley has come to town to sell some of his energy and fuel saving patents to Associated Chemical Products, the same company that Charlie himself happens to be employed by –– a fact not lost on their other drinking companion, a Communist named Kibworth who's considered a 'good sort' by Otley despite his radical affiliations and the unproven belief that men like him possess a 'direct line' to Moscow.  (Wonder Hero appeared at the height of the Depression, when to be a Communist was to belong to a small but growing minority of unemployed and otherwise disenfranchised working people for whom its ideology represented their only chance of creating a brighter future for themselves.)  Kibworth, it turns out, is on the run from the authorities, who consider him a dangerous subversive and want him and his kind kept securely under wraps.  The three men leave the pub together and return to Otley's lodgings, where their mostly technical-based conversation continues over several glasses of whisky that leave Charlie –– soon due at the factory to work the nightshift –– feeling tired, confused and considerably drunker than he wants to feel.  

When Kibworth, needing a safe place to spend the night where the police won't think to search for him, turns up at the ACP factory a few hours later and asks if he can lie down quietly in a corner somewhere, Charlie reluctantly but good-naturedly agrees to let him do just that.  The next thing Charlie knows he's waking from a deep, alcohol-fuelled sleep to find himself putting out a fire that could literally be moments away from blowing not only the factory but the entire town of Utterton completely off the map.

News of Charlie's heroism soon reaches the ear of Hal Kinney, star journalist of the Daily Tribune who's come north in search of a 'love gone wrong' suicide story which, much to his chagrin, has not panned out.  Unwillingly stuck in Utterton for the night, he hears the fire engines roaring past his hotel window and becomes curious to find out where they're going.  Is this a story he can take back to his editor Shuttleworth in London, something that could make his trip north worth the cost of his railway ticket after all?  Happily, it is.  He meets Charlie and decides he's the perfect candidate for instant, circulation-boosting stardom, a young man who selflessly saved an entire town and in doing so earned the right to be known – for as long as it's convenient to the editor and proprietor of the Daily Tribune to have him described as that, of course –– as Britain's new 'Wonder Hero.'

Charlie, stout sensible fellow that he is, wants only to be left alone by Kinney and his kind.  He's not even sure what really happened at the factory that night and, for a time, honourably resists the journalist's offer to whisk him off to London, where his 'heroic act' can be celebrated in the sensationalist style demanded by Kinney's unscrupulous employers.  But Kinney soon makes it clear to his latest 'phenomenon' that he's having none of this.  The editor and owner of the Daily Tribune have already agreed to pay Charlie ₤500 cash (a colossal sum in 1933) for the exclusive rights to his story and to set him up with a room in a posh new hotel, The New Cecil, located in the bustling heart of the metropolis.  With Charlie's consent finally if grudgingly gained, Kinney sets about arranging a publicity tour for Britain's latest man of the hour, culminating in his Charlie's appearance in the box of a West End theatre with Miss Ida Chatwick, winner of the Morning Pictorial Silver Rose Beauty Prize, seated photogenically beside him.  

Like the new 'Wonder Hero,' Ida is overwhelmed by the city and her exciting if sometimes disconcerting new life as a celebrity.  She also turns out to be a native of Pondersley, a town not too far removed from Charlie's own Midlands birthplace of Bendworth.  Charlie naturally finds himself becoming smitten with the charming Ms Chatwick, whose 'prize' included ₤150 and a screen test which he's positive will make an international film star of her in no time at all.  In the meantime he's kept to a strict schedule of his own by his minder Hughson, an amiable young chap well aware of what Sir Gregory Hatchland, the string-pulling owner of the Daily Tribune, is up to in seeking to 'push' his story.  Unbeknownst to Charlie, Hatchland wants him to appear at a rally promoting the formation of a League of Imperial Yeomen, a quasi-Fascist organization formed for the purpose of reminding all true Englishmen, via Hatchland's newspapers and his other populist publications, of their proud Anglo-Saxon heritage and the threat being posed to it by all those nasty foreigners over there in Europe.  

Charlie, his future seemingly assured as long as he continues to do exactly what he's told to do when he's told to do it, is ushered from gentleman's outfitters to radio studio to fancy society cocktail party, Kinney's 'handling' of him making his one of the best-known faces in Britain and even an object of desire for a celebrity-obsessed peeress of the realm named Lady Catterbird.  Charlie's new admirer even attempts to seduce him at one of her ultra-fashionable parties, only to have her slightly cracked husband march him off to his study in the nick of time for a glass of beer and a cheering man-to-man conversation about money and the impact the heedless pursuit of it can have on those who were once contented and otherwise rational human beings.

The whirlwind continues –– with Charlie becoming every day more smitten with the lovely Ida, despite their busy schedules and the role these play in keeping them apart –– until he receives a letter from his uncle, still doing it tough in the depressed northern mining town of Slakeby.  Uncle Tom's letter also informs him that his beloved Aunt Nellie is in poor health and would very much like to see him again before her condition deteriorates to the point where she'll be beyond all hope of recovery.  Although Hatchland expects him to speak at an Imperial Yeoman rally that evening, Charlie drops everything and takes the first train north, throwing away fame and everything that accompanies it in one heedless if admirably selfless stroke.

Evergreen Books UK, 1940
The one thing that Charlie doesn't throw away is the money the newspaper gave him – money he puts to good use by improving the lives of his sick impoverished aunt, her proud but unemployed husband and his understandably fed up, increasingly radicalized cousin Johnny.  (Another cousin, a flighty girl who works in a toffee shop, soon runs off to try her luck in what she believes, rightly or wrongly, will be more conducive surroundings.)  Charlie remains in Slakeby until he can arrange for his aunt to be sent to a seaside nursing home, unsure of what his next move should be until Johnny happens to mention that a man named Kibworth, who recently spoke at the Workingman's Club he happens to belongs to, has just been arrested in a nearby town.  

The mention of Kibworth's name is enough to prompt Charlie to tell the full if still confusing story of what happened on the night the fire broke out to his Uncle Tom, who immediately advises him to do whatever needs doing in order to set the record straight.  It's Kibworth, Charlie soon realizes, who should have been praised as the real 'Wonder Hero' by the press.  The extent of his own heroism, it appears, was only to have finished putting out a fire that Kibworth began to put out soon after settling in to his 'corner' for the night – a fire caused by the same faulty wiring he'd pointed out to Charlie shortly after his arrival.  After pausing briefly to ask for and receive his uncle's blessing, Charlie leaves for London, determined to right the dreadful wrong that's been done to Kibworth and, if possible, spare him the injustice and indignity of returning to prison.  Nor is he averse to the idea of paying a call on Ida Chatwick –– and perhaps even telling her how a 'nobody' like himself really feels about her –– should the opportunity to do so present itself again while he's in town.

This time, London does not greet Charlie Habble like the selflessly brave hero he never actually was.  Time has moved on and the editor of the Daily Tribune, worried as always about boosting circulation, has moved on with it.  Charlie's name and face no longer mean anything to the newspaper's loyal unquestioning readership and his attempts to see Shuckleworth are no more successful than his efforts to tell the truth about what really happened in Utterton to the police, the courts and an openly contemptuous Sir Gregory Hatchland.  After arranging with a nonplussed Kibworth that he'll pay the latter's common-law wife ₤2 a week for as long as he's locked up, Charlie then turns his attention to the personally distressing problem of finding Ida Chatwick, who, according to the redhaired chambermaid they befriended during their brief but eventful stay at the New Cecil Hotel, appears to have vanished from the face of the earth.  

After taking a room in a cheap and smelly boarding house, where he's regularly accosted by the mad if harmless old woman who occupies the room next door, Charlie begins to make the rounds of the film studios and theatrical agencies, only to discover that Ida – her own prize money nearly all spent and afraid to return to Pondersley for fear of being ridiculed for having 'gotten above herself' – is living in what can only be described as straitened circumstances in an even shabbier boarding house in an even grimier part of London.  Naturally the lad declares his undying love for her, which turns out to be reciprocated, and gathers the scared weeping girl into his arms, aware, even as he does, that theirs will not be the perfect fairytale ending the movies have taught them to expect from life.  'As he held her there the light of certain knowledge broke in upon his bewildered mind: he knew that he would beg her to marry him and that he had only to persist and she would agree; he knew that she was weak and rather vain and would always be quickly dissatisfied, and was not at all the solid sensible girl that would make a good wife for a man like himself; he knew it all, and did not care: he was content with her there, heavy on his heart.  The way they would take now together would not lead to easy content, might bring trouble down on them like rain; but it was his road and hers, and they had to take it or refuse to live.  In this moment, he was not the blind happy lover, but a wise man, one for whom, for a tick or two of time, there is a pattern in the shifting muddle.'  This, it seems, is what Charlie's brief brush with fame has taught him –– that happiness is a dearly bought commodity that must be clung to and enjoyed for as long as it lasts because the moment, wonderful though it may be, is bound to end sooner rather than later.

While Wonder Hero is generally not considered to be one of JB Priestley's 'great' novels – he once described it as a 'deliberately polemical, journalistic, social-moral fable' and it's certainly not the equivalent of The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930) or his later masterpieces Bright Day (1946) and Lost Empires (1965) –– it nevertheless remains a rivetting, expertly-crafted work of fiction which manages to cleverly and entertainingly combine biting contemporary satire, Dickensian humour and poignant social commentary in a way that's not in any sense dour, heavy-handed or difficult to read.  Priestley counted, among his many considerable gifts as a novelist, an infallible eye that enabled him to create and maintain an atmosphere as memorably and vividly as he was able to delineate a character's personality in just one or two short, superbly crafted sentences.  This often makes the experience of reading Wonder Hero feel closer to that of watching a film to that of reading a novel.  (It's not difficult, in fact, to imagine the book serving as the basis for some superior British comedy of the 1930s starring a young John Mills as Charlie, René Ray as a particularly wide-eyed Ida and perhaps the great Charles Laughton as the ever-stoic Uncle Tom.)  The holes in its plot –– the most gaping one being Charlie's largely unexplained decision to allow Kibworth, a known political agitator or what might nowadays be called a terrorist, to spend the night sleeping in his workplace which also happens to be crammed to the rafters with explosives –– are somehow mitigated by the sheer inventiveness, verve and unrelenting pace of the narrative, which never once flags for more than two hundred and fifty incident-packed pages.  

But it's ultimately Priestley's understanding of his characters and the shamelessly venal world of what was then (and still is) Fleet Street that makes Wonder Hero so compelling and, unfortunately, so relevant to our own day and its enduring obsession with glorifying the crass, the shameless and the absurdly untalented.  Like ours, Charlie Habble's is a world of glaring social and economic inequality where the rich have all the power and media mogul spin-doctors continually get away with passing off their latest piece of uninformed rumour-mongering as 'investigative journalism.'  It's in the book's smallest, most incidental details – Kinney's self-destructive relationship with his much younger wife, the no-nonsense attitude of the New Cecil's outspoken chambermaid to the whole foolish notion of fame and how little it matters in the larger scheme of things, the descriptions of fashionable Londoners whose lust for glamour and money is matched only by their emotional and spiritual emptiness –– that Priestley reveals his true stature as a novelist, one whose ability to show life as it really was without sacrificing his ability to amuse, provoke and enlighten makes him, in my view, the great unsung genius of twentieth century British literature. 



JB PRIESTLEY, 1926
The Writer:  'Contrary to some reports,' JB Priestley wrote of himself in the opening chapter of his 1962 memoir Margin Released, 'I have never been at any age a systematic hard slogger.  I have seemed to myself at all times to be lacking in determination and self-discipline.  If I have never been called indolent and irresolute, that is because hardly anybody knows anything.  I have a reputation for energy and fertility, but chiefly among fellow writers who are neither energetic nor fertile, do not want to be, and probably dislike me anyhow.  If I have written a great deal, this is largely because I have always had ideas for work to lure me on and on.  Not all these ideas were good; many were indifferent, some terrible.  But I have never been without them.' 

While these may seem strange words to come from the pen of a writer as industrious as Priestley –– he was the author of more than twenty-five novels and close to thirty plays, not to mention well over a dozen works of non-fiction which included criticism, autobiographies and essays during a career which spanned more than six decades – they're indicative of both his innate common sense and his stubborn refusal to toe any line but his own.  He wrote, first and foremost, what he wanted to write, making no effort to court the favour of the critics or to follow what were the prevailing social, literary or theatrical trends.  He was arguably the last of the truly 'great' English writers, as crucial to the future's perception of the first half of twentieth century as Shakespeare and Dickens are and will remain to future human perceptions of their respective eras.  Love his work or loathe it –– which many did because his fourth novel The Good Companions (1929) had the misfortune to become a runaway bestseller that helped to cheer up millions of unhappy people at the beginning of what proved to be a long, hard and bitterly cruel Depression –– his power to entertain, provoke and ask difficult but essential questions of himself and his readers cannot be denied.

John Priestley, affectionately known as 'Jack' to his family, was born in the Yorkshire mill town of Bradford on 13 September 1894.  (The 'B' in his name stood for 'Boynton,' which he added to it as a young man to help differentiate himself from his schoolmaster father, Jonathan Priestley.)  His mother Emma, who had worked in one of the city's wool mills before meeting and marrying his comparatively well-to-do father, died when he was very young, leaving him to be raised largely by his stepmother, a generous and much loved woman named Amy.  He was, as he noted in his memoir, 'happy at home I had a stepmother who defied tradition by always being kind, gentle, loving.'  Priestley was also close to his father, from whom he inherited his lively sense of humour, his strong social conscience and the desire to improve the lot of his fellow men by attacking and, if necessary, dismantling the prevailing status quo.  These socialistic tendencies did not prevent young Jack from enjoying the company of others or indulging what proved to be his lifelong passion for music, access to which was easily gained by visiting Bradford's many concert rooms, theatres and music halls.  Indeed, it was as a musician and actor that he first hoped to make his mark in the world, with much of his early writing being confined to the composition of comical skits intended for the stage.

Priestley attended local schools in Bradford until the age of sixteen, getting his first job –– as a clerk with the city wool firm Helm and Company – in 1910.  He did this, he later admitted, to stop his father worrying that he might go through life without a profession and because he had no plan of his own beyond the knowledge that somehow, some way, he was destined to be a writer.  Having read compulsively as a boy, he now began writing in the same compulsive manner with one of his unperformed skits, Secrets of the Ragtime King, eventually being accepted, at the impressive fee of one guinea, for publication by the magazine London Opinion.  This was followed by a series of columns titled Round The Hearth which appeared in The Bradford Pioneer, a local Labour Party publication.  He also wrote a book of poetry which he had printed and bound at his own expense in 1914 prior to volunteering for service in The Duke of Wellington's West Riding Regiment, thinking it would serve as some sort of memorial to him should he be killed in action.  (He later destroyed all but a few copies of this book.)
  
JB PRIESTLEY, c. 1915
By 1915 he was in Flanders, serving in the trenches and receiving the first of several wounds, one of which proved serious enough to see him invalided back to England the following year.  He underwent officer training following his convalescence and returned to the trenches in 1917, where he was gassed and once again sent home to England, where he served out the rest of the war in an administrative position while fully expecting to be 'sent back' to the front again at any moment.  Although he never wrote a full-length work about his war experiences, what happened to him and his friends in Flanders would, in a sense, underpin everything he would later write, do, say or stand for as both an author and as a human being.  'Unlike most of my contemporaries who wrote so well about the war,' he once stated, 'I was deeply divided between the tragedy and comedy of itI felt, as indeed I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation's fate, the best sorted out and then slaughtered, not by hard necessity but mainly by huge murderous public folly.  On the other hand, military life itself, the whole Army "carry-on," as we used to say, observed closely, seemed to me essentially comic, the most expensive farce ever contrived.'  His war experiences prompted him to investigate the nature of time and related subjects such as predestination and precognitive dreaming –– subjects that would later inspire many of his finest works for the stage including Dangerous Corner (1932), Time and the Conways (1937) and his dramatic masterpiece An Inspector Calls (1946).

Priestley's status as an officer entitled him to receive a small, government-provided study grant after the war, money he used to help pay his way through Cambridge University, where he read English Literature, History and Political Science and would remain, feeling very much the unwanted outsider, until 1921.  Although he excelled academically and even toyed with the idea of accepting several teaching posts at foreign universities after obtaining his degree, he remained committed to the belief that he must and should become a writer – a belief nurtured by the invitation to become a regular contributor of articles to newspapers published in his native Yorkshire and, in time, to others based in London.  It was to the latter city that he relocated in 1922, taking along his new bride – a former Bradford librarian named Pat Tempest whom he'd known since boyhood and had maintained a regular correspondence with throughout the war years –– and the essays that would be collectively published, in 1922, as Brief Diversions. 

The early 1920s saw Priestley juggling his new responsibilities as husband and father with his need to earn a living –– a challenge which saw him combine the writing of dozens of essays and book reviews with a job as a reader for the UK publishing house of Heinemann.  (One of the many young authors whose work he evaluated and praised during this period was Graham Greene, an author he would ironically threaten to sue after Greene unflatteringly satirized him as 'Quin Savory, author of The Great Gay Round' in his 1932 novel Stamboul Train.  The case was settled privately, with Greene agreeing to alter the character to make him less Priestley-like in exchange for having the case against him dropped.)  He contributed to a variety of publications, including Liliput and The New Statesman, and began to move in the same circles as HG Wells, GK Chesterton, Arnold Bennett and other literary giants of the day.  His most important literary friendship was with the novelist Hugh Walpole, with whom he would later collaborate on the novel Farthing Hall (1929).  His own first novel, Adam in Moonshine, appeared in 1927 and was followed a year later by the macabre tale Benighted, adapted for the cinema as The Old Dark House in 1932.


JB PRIESTLEY and PAT TEMPEST, c. 1923
The joy that should have accompanied the birth of Priestley's second daughter was blighted by the news that his wife Pat, who was only twenty-eight at the time, was suffering from inoperable bladder cancer.  While he did everything possible to help ease his wife's suffering, Priestley could ultimately do nothing to delay her protracted and very painful death –– a horror he strove to avoid by throwing himself ever more diligently into his work.  Pat died in 1925 and in September 1926 he married Jane Wyndham Lewis, ex-wife of English journalist and critic DB Wyndham Lewis, with whom he would go on to have three more children before they eventually divorced in 1953.

It was the tragedy of his first wife's death, and the untimely demise of his beloved father soon afterwards, which inspired Priestley to write The Good Companions – a long, lighthearted (which is not the same thing as being 'light' or disposable), delightfully picaresque novel about a group of social misfits who combine their various talents to form and run a concert party.  Although his publisher and several of his friends advised him not to write such a lengthy and potentially unpopular book, he characteristically ignored their advice, creating a work – which he described as 'a long happy daydream' –– that went on to establish him, virtually overnight, as a major English novelist.  Its success was repeated with the darker, more socially damning Angel Pavement (1930) and from that point on he never looked back, writing and publishing novels and stories that are as diverse in their themes and settings as they are inventive, stylistically adventurous and astute in their dissections of British society in all its hypocritical, class-conscious pretentiousness.  He would combine the writing of fiction with the writing of non-fiction works like English Journey (1934) –– an evocative, thought-provoking and sometimes highly critical 'travel book' that's now considered, along with George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), to be a classic of the genre.   

Although he collaborated on a theatrical adaptation of The Good Companions, it was not until 1932 that Priestley produced his first original drama for the stage.  Dangerous Corner, the first of his 'time plays,' was written, he said, 'in a week, chiefly to prove that a man might produce long novels and yet be able to write effectively, using the strictest economy, for the stage.'  It was, at first, loathed by the London critics, but luckily the producer refused to be pressured into cancelling its pre-booked run.  Eventually it went on to have a respectable run in the West End and to become Priestley's most performed work in his own lifetime (a record since shattered, many times over, by An Inspector Calls).  Its success, modest though it was in theatrical terms, encouraged him to write nearly thirty other plays and to form his own production company –– an endeavour he was warned, by no less a personage than George Bernard Shaw himself, that was bound to bring about his permanent financial ruin.  But Shaw, as he was about so many things, was wrong about that.  Until his best-known novels began to be reprinted by small publishers like Great Northern Books and the Valancourt Press in the early years of the new millennium, it was chiefly as a dramatist that most people knew Priestley if, in fact, they knew of him or his work at all.  A 1992 revival of An Inspector Calls broke all box office records in London and everywhere else it played, perhaps confirming its author's long-held belief that he was a far better playwright than he ever was a novelist (an opinion that I, for one, would strongly dispute).

JB PRIESTLEY, c. 1940
The war years saw Priestley conquer yet another new medium –– radio.  Beginning in 1940, he offered a series of nightly broadcasts under the title of Postscripts in which he strove to remind people of all that was good and noble about the British way of life and why fighting Hitler and the Nazis was so vital to the continuation of human civilization.  These broadcasts, which aired directly after the BBC Nine O'Clock News, proved so popular that the cabinet of Winston Churchill –– a group already suspicious of Priestley's avowedly leftist views and his calls for post-war social and political reform – gave negative reports about them to the Prime Minister, resulting in the writer being banished from the airwaves despite enjoying what was a large, enthusiastic and extremely loyal following.  

Priestley's removal from the airwaves did not prevent him from accepting the Chairmanship of what came to be known as 'the 1941 Committee' – a group of politicians, writers and other persons of influence who, in 1942, published a Nine Point Plan which called for major post-war reform in the areas of education, employment, health and public housing.  Priestley, who had an instinctive distrust of organisations and despised any form of political dogma, soon stepped down from the Committee (which went on to transform itself into the Common Wealth Party under the leadership of ex-Liberal MP Richard Acland).  The immense popularity of his wartime broadcasts was viewed by many as being a decisive factor in the Labour Party's 1945 landslide election victory a victory which promised to change the nation for the better but led instead, and much to Priestley's publicly expressed disgust, to the wholesale Americanization of British life and the irresponsible destruction of much of the nation's irreplaceable social, cultural and architectural heritage.  The post-war period also saw him become a cranky and very vocal critic of the Cold War and the escalating arms race –– criticism which led to him becoming a founding member, along with his third wife the writer and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s Priestley increasingly saw himself cast in the unwanted and unpopular role of 'The Voice of the Establishment' – a kind of irascible Northern grandfather figure who, with his ever-present pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth, seemed to represent everything the younger generation felt it necessary to criticize if not vociferously condemn.  Although he never stopped writing –– his final novel Found, Lost, Found appeared in 1976 – his work was increasingly seen as belonging to a bygone era that had little, if anything, to do with the 'modern' England of a younger generation of 'Angry Young Men' like John Osbourne, John Braine and Stan Barstow.  (Braine and Barstow were, ironically, keen admirers of his work, with the former, a fellow son of Bradford, going on to publish a critical biography of him in 1981.)  Priestley's became a frequently seen face on television, discussing the CND, the future of the theatre or sharing his memories of the war years, but his work fell increasingly out of favour as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s – despite his collaboration with Iris Murdoch on the well-received 1964 play A Severed Head –– with much of it being out of print by the time he died on 14 August 1984, far from his native soil in the Warwickshire town of Stratford-on-Avon.

JACQUETTA HAWKES and JB PRIESTLEY, 1980
Priestley's position in the canon of English literature, for so long undefined, now seems secure thanks to his recent 're-discovery' courtesy of the many record-breaking revivals of An Inspector Calls.  But the feeling that he might not be as impressed by his 're-discovery' as he perhaps should be, were he still alive to enjoy it, remains, for me, inescapable.  'I am too conventional for the avant-garde; too experimental for Aunt Edna; too extroverted for the introverts, too introverted for the out-and-out extroverts; a lowbrow to highbrows, a highbrow to lowbrows The most lasting reputation I have,' he went on to say of himself in the final chapter of Margin Released, 'is for an almost ferocious aggressiveness, when in fact I am amiable, indulgent, affectionate, shy and rather timid at heart.  Thou has no enemy but thyself.  I know; and I have quoted it first.'  Whatever else he may have been, JB Priestley was first and foremost a gifted and courageous writer, unafraid to wear his heart and his genuine concern for humanity and its imperilled future on his sleeve in a way that was abhorrent to those who lacked his commitment and, as time has shown, his talent for showing us the collective as well as the individual errors of our ways.


To learn more about the life and work of JB PRIESTLEY,  visit www.jbpriestley.co.uk.  You can also click HERE to visit the website of the UK-based JB PRIESTLEY SOCIETY, an organisation dedicated to preserving his work and ensuring it receives at least some of the overdue critical and academic attention it has thus far been denied.

The Yorkshire-based UK publisher Great Northern Books has reissued much of JB PRIESTLEY's best-known work, including the novels The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930), Bright Day (1946) and Lost Empires (1965) and selected examples of his equally fine non-fiction including English Journey (1934) and Delight (1949).  The US publisher Valancourt Press is doing the same with several of his lesser-known but no less interesting works of fiction, a list which so far includes Benighted (1927), The Doomsday Men (1938), The Other Place and Other Stories (1953), The Magicians (1954), Saturn Over the Water (1961), The Shapes of Sleep (1962) and his only detective novel Salt is Leaving (1966).  (Hopefully Wonder Hero will soon be added to the list.  In the meantime, ABE Books has many copies available on its website, starting from approximately $1US. **Be aware, however, that the shipping fees charged by the Amazon-owned ABE Books are often outrageously high!)  

Classical Comics UK, 2012
A graphic novel adaptation of An Inspector Calls, written by JASON COBLEY and illustrated by WILL VOLLEY, was published by UK publisher Classical Comics in March 2012.  This title, along with those published by Great Northern Books, Valancourt Press and the UK drama publisher Oberon Books –– the company responsible for publishing JB PRIESTLEY's collected plays in four volumes –– can all be purchased via your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.

You can also visit the excellent Wordpress blog Leaves & Pages to read thought-provoking reviews of several other books by JB PRIESTLEY, including The Good Companions (1929) and Lost Empires (1965), by clicking HERE. 


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2 comments:

  1. Marvelous as always BR - what a great post this is. I'm slowly building a Priestley collection, but I have not yet come across Wonder Hero - must remedy that, I think, by clicking over to ABE and seeing what I can find.

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  2. I'm glad you got something out of this, L&P. As always, your positive feedback is greatly appreciated. As you know, Priestley is one of my favourite writers & I worked hard to do justice to him & his too often overlooked literary legacy.

    There are quite a few copies of "Wonder Hero" kicking around on ABE & other used book sites so you shouldn't strike too many problems finding one. (But beware of the shipping costs!) That said, the book would be a worthy addition to any Priestley collection. It makes a good contrast with "English Journey" - the non-fiction work which followed it.

    Thanks again for the feedback & for taking the time to post a comment.

    ReplyDelete