In his BBC Postscript broadcast of 21 July 1940, J.B. Priestley began, as usual, with an incident listeners could relate to: an encounter with a Government official. It did not go well. They spoke different languages, had different priorities. Priestley presented himself as the warm, imaginative, slapdash creator, the other as a cold, rational, administrative “stuffed shirt”.
Priestley used this clash of views to lead in to an explanation of his ideas about post-War society. Unlike many in government, he did not believe a return to pre-War ways was desirable: that world had hardly been peaceful or equal. Society was changing quickly in response to the war situation, which demanded communal sacrifice and action: would these changes be temporary, to be discarded once the war was won, or, as Priestley hoped, an opportunity to improve society? “We must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation”. Take for example a house with a garden whose owner had gone to America for the duration of the war. Should it be left unused because it was private property, or should it be put to use for growing food and providing shelter, desperately needed for the war effort?
I will discuss in future posts how Priestley returned to these ideas throughout the Postscripts series, and how listeners and the Establishment responded.
Throughout the War, Priestley broadcast and wrote about these issues, particularly in Out of the People, shown here (my favourite Priestley dustjacket – classic 1940s style). He called for an end to the class system, and for a “new and vital democracy”, an outpouring of creative energy and fellowship, neither the pre-war plutocracy or a totalitarian regime.
To return to the “stuffed shirt” encounter. In Out of the People, Priestley explicitly refused to list the precise reforms or structures that would be needed for the society he dreamed of: he believed that the new values, fellowship, imagination, must come first and the structures would follow naturally. Starting with the structures felt wrong to him. Presumably the official he spoke to would disagree with him (or would he?).