J.B. Priestley made his first Postscript broadcast on Wednesday 5 June 1940, the day after the end of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk by British destroyers and assorted small craft.
In this broadcast, Priestley took the raw stuff of news, and played a part in turning it into history, or legend. “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”.
From the outset, he assumed he and his listeners were in the same situation: “I wonder how many of you feel as I do about this great Battle and evacuation of Dunkirk?”.
Priestley emphasised how typically English that “a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes and miscalculations, ended as an epic of gallantry”. He contrasted this with the German approach, which would never make such mistakes, but would never rise to such heights of courage.
He did not dwell on the blunder, or try to apportion blame. Instead, he sought to inspire his listeners by paying tribute to the little ships, especially the pleasure steamers. He evoked a shared world, of an English sea-side, “pierrots and piers, sand castles, ham-and-egg teas, palmists, automatic machines, and crowded sweating promenades”. The steamers had left this to go into “the inferno”. Some would not come back but would be remembered forever, like “Gracie Fields”, a ship Priestley had taken many times to his Isle of Wight home.
Priestley does not explicitly make this point in the broadcast, but I always think that his use of the little ships is also a way of praising the people of Britain, who can bravely leave behind their everyday comic lives and go into unimaginably dangerous situations for the greater good – and be remembered forever.
The image shows the rather chipped front of the dustjacket of Home from Dunkirk, a collection of 46 photographs from the evacuation of Dunkirk sold in aid of the British Red Cross and St John. This Postscript, Excursion to Hell, was reprinted as the introduction.
To find out more about the Postscripts and this blog series, see our page Priestley’s finest hour.