Postscript Sunday 6 October 1940

This Postscript has a distinctly autumnal feel.   JB and an engineer from “a well-known public corporation” (presumably the BBC, though I haven’t confirmed this) were on a long drive to the west of England one “chilly, damp” evening.

Warned by the engineer’s past experiences, they stopped early for the night to try to find a bed.   But the hotels were full of resident guests who had no particular work and had moved out of London away from the Blitz. The evening ended happily, as Priestley and his companion managed to persuade a landlord to let them have a room.  But the incident made Priestley realise that something was wrong.

The people most in need of “nice, quiet rooms in pretty places” were women and children bombed out or others suffering from shock and trauma, but there was no room for them.  Instead, the spaces were taken by “pleasant, able-bodied persons who, because of some system of private incomes or pensions and all kinds of snobbish nonsense, are condemned to yawn away their lives, forever wondering what to do between meals”.

Priestley concluded that this unfortunate situation showed that “we are at present floundering between two stools”: everyone for himself, or sharing and fairness, everyone for each other.

This Postscript is the most politically inflammatory one yet.  He is very critical of the idle rich, although fair in saying the situation is not their fault.   Priestley did not use any -ism for his suggested society, but he did use a very particular phrase when he explained that the second stool “has some lettering around it that hints that free men could combine, without losing what’s essential to their free development, to see that each gives according to his ability and receives according to his need”.

The phrase at the end is almost exactly Karl Marx’s famous “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” which appeared in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.  Of course the concept is much older: the 5th edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cites 18th century French thinkers, and Priestley sets it in the Christian tradition, suggesting that it could have come from any sermon.  His family and in particular his father Jonathan came from a West Riding tradition of nonconformist, public-spirited, practical socialism, and this appears to some extent throughout Priestley’s life and works.

Cover of Voices on the Green

Cover of Voices on the Green

Priestley’s politics and religious ideas require far more room to discuss in detail.  But I would like to share a piece that I think complements this Postscript: The Swan Sings Tirralayo,  originally written for an American compilation called London Calling (New York, Harper & Bros, 1942).  I have read it only in its later publication, slightly abridged and moved into the past tense, in Voices on the Green (Michael Joseph, 1945), a collection of writing about childhood whose profits went to Saint Mary’s Hospitals for Women and Children.

In Swan, as so often in the Postscripts, Priestley started from a small experience of his own and used it to make radical conclusions palatable and familiar.  During the War, his wife Jane ran hostels in Herefordshire for bombed out women and children.  One night, when Priestley was staying at one of the hostels, three professional musicians working as “music travellers” for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, forerunner of the Arts Council, gave a concert.  They taught the women how to sing rounds, including one with the refrain “The Swan Sings Tirralayo”. “In a minute or two the hall was filled with singing swans … You could see a vista of birds floating on dream rivers.  One curve of women’s voices followed another.”

Priestley, who loved music, was deeply moved: “Nothing I had seen, heard, read, imagined, those many months, stirred me more deeply.  I tell you it was magic.”

The magic came out of what was actually “an experiment in communal living”, a rich man’s home requisitioned to house some of the poorest people, musicians paid by the government to entertain the people …  The moment would have been impossible pre-war, when the house would have contained a few rich people playing bridge, and their servants bored in the kitchen.  Priestley argued that the moment showed that socialism was already happening, not a fantasy, but a response to the needs of the war, and that a fairer society would not have to be drab, dull-eyed conformism.

(Incidentally, Priestley writes about the song the women sang as if it was well-known, but I have been unable to trace it.  I will add details if I find out more!  Perhaps that doesn’t matter, the mystery adds to the magic?)

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